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I've been a Microsoft developer for decades now. I weaned myself on various flavors of home computer Microsoft Basic, and I got my first paid programming gigs in Microsoft FoxPro, Microsoft Access, and Microsoft Visual Basic. I have seen the future of programming, my friends, and it is terrible CRUD apps running on Wintel boxes!

Of course, we went on to build Stack Overflow in Microsoft .NET. That's a big reason it's still as fast as it is. So one of the most frequently asked questions after we announced Discourse was:

Why didn't you build Discourse in .NET, too?

Let me be clear about something: I love .NET. One of the greatest thrills of my professional career was getting the opportunity to place a Coding Horror sticker in the hand of Anders Hejlsberg. Pardon my inner fanboy for a moment, but oh man I still get chills. There are maybe fifty world class computer language designers on the planet. Anders is the only one of them who built Turbo Pascal and Delphi. It is thanks to Anders' expert guidance that .NET started out such a remarkably well designed language – literally what Java should have been on every conceivable level – and has continued to evolve in remarkably practical ways over the last 10 years, leveraging the strengths of other influential dynamically typed languages.

Turbo-pascal

All that said, it's true that I intentionally chose not to use .NET for my next project. So you might expect to find an angry, righteous screed here about how much happier I am leaving the oppressive shackles of my Microsoft masters behind. Free at last, free at least, thank God almighty I'm free at last!

Sorry. I already wrote that post five years ago.

Like any pragmatic programmer, I pick the appropriate tool for the job at hand. And as much as I may love .NET, it would be an extraordinarily poor choice for an 100% open source project like Discourse. Why? Three reasons, mainly:

  1. The licensing. My God, the licensing. It's not so much the money, as the infernal, mind-bending tax code level complexity involved in making sure all your software is properly licensed: determining what 'level' and 'edition' you are licensed at, who is licensed to use what, which servers are licensed... wait, what? Sorry, I passed out there for a minute when I was attacked by rabid licensing weasels.

    I'm not inclined to make grand pronouncements about the future of software, but if anything kills off commercial software, let me tell you, it won't be open source software. They needn't bother. Commercial software will gleefully strangle itself to death on its own licensing terms.

  2. The friction. If you want to build truly viable open source software, you need people to contribute to your project, so that it is a living, breathing, growing thing. And unless you can download all the software you need to hack on your project freely from all over the Internet, no strings attached, there's just … too much friction.

    If Stack Overflow taught me anything, it is that we now live in a world where the next brilliant software engineer can come from anywhere on the planet. I'm talking places this ugly American programmer has never heard of, where they speak crazy nonsense moon languages I can't understand. But get this. Stand back while I blow your mind, people: these brilliant programmers still code in the same keywords we do! I know, crazy, right?

Getting up and running with a Microsoft stack is just plain too hard for a developer in, say, Argentina, or Nepal, or Bulgaria. Open source operating systems, languages, and tool chains are the great equalizer, the basis for the next great generation of programmers all over the world who are going to help us change the world.

  • The ecosystem. When I was at Stack Exchange we strove mightily to make as much of our infrastructure open source as we could. It was something that we made explicit in the compensation guidelines, this idea that we would all be (partially) judged by how much we could do in public, and try to leave behind as many useful, public artifacts of our work as we could. Because wasn't all of Stack Exchange itself, from the very first day, built on your Creative Commons contributions that we all share ownership of?

    You can certainly build open source software in .NET. And many do. But it never feels natural. It never feels right. Nobody accepts your patch to a core .NET class library no matter how hard you try. It always feels like you're swimming upstream, in a world of small and large businesses using .NET that really aren't interested in sharing their code with the world – probably because they know it would suck if they did, anyway. It is just not a native part of the Microsoft .NET culture to make things open source, especially not the things that suck. If you are afraid the things you share will suck, that fear will render you incapable of truly and deeply giving back. The most, uh, delightful… bit of open source communities is how they aren't afraid to let it "all hang out", so to speak.

    So as a result, for any given task in .NET you might have – if you're lucky – a choice of maybe two decent-ish libraries. Whereas in any popular open source language, you'll easily have a dozen choices for the same task. Yeah, maybe six of them will be broken, obsolete, useless, or downright crazy. But hey, even factoring in some natural open source spoilage, you're still ahead by a factor of three! A winner is you!

  • As I wrote five years ago:

    I'm a pragmatist. For now, I choose to live in the Microsoft universe. But that doesn't mean I'm ignorant of how the other half lives. There's always more than one way to do it, and just because I chose one particular way doesn't make it the right way – or even a particularly good way. Choosing to be provincial and insular is a sure-fire path to ignorance. Learn how the other half lives. Get to know some developers who don't live in the exact same world you do. Find out what tools they're using, and why. If, after getting your feet wet on both sides of the fence, you decide the other half is living better and you want to join them, then I bid you a fond farewell.

    I no longer live in the Microsoft universe any more. Right, wrong, good, evil, that's just how it turned out for the project we wanted to build.

    Im-ok-with-this

    However, I'd also be lying if I didn't mention that I truly believe the sort of project we are building in Discourse does represent most future software. If you squint your eyes a little, I think you can see a future not too far in the distance where .NET is a specialized niche outside the mainstream.

    But why Ruby? Well, the short and not very glamorous answer is that I had narrowed it down to either Python or Ruby, and my original co-founder Robin Ward has been building major Rails apps since 2006. So that clinched it.

    I've always been a little intrigued by Ruby, mostly because of the absolutely gushing praise Steve Yegge had for the language way back in 2006. I've never forgotten this.

    For the most part, Ruby took Perl's string processing and Unix integration as-is, meaning the syntax is identical, and so right there, before anything else happens, you already have the Best of Perl. And that's a great start, especially if you don't take the Rest of Perl.

    But then Matz took the best of list processing from Lisp, and the best of OO from Smalltalk and other languages, and the best of iterators from CLU, and pretty much the best of everything from everyone.

    And he somehow made it all work together so well that you don't even notice that it has all that stuff. I learned Ruby faster than any other language, out of maybe 30 or 40 total; it took me about 3 days before I was more comfortable using Ruby than I was in Perl, after eight years of Perl hacking. It's so consistent that you start being able to guess how things will work, and you're right most of the time. It's beautiful. And fun. And practical.

    Steve is one of those polyglot programmers I respect so much that I basically just take whatever his opinion is, provided it's not about something wacky like gun control or feminism or T'Pau, and accept it as fact.

    I apologize, Steve. I'm sorry it took me 7 years to get around to Ruby. But maybe I was better off waiting a while anyway:

    • Ruby is a decent performer, but you really need to throw fast hardware at it for good performance. Yeah, I know, interpreted languages are what they are, and caching, database, network, blah blah blah. Still, we obtained the absolute fastest CPUs you could buy for the Discourse servers, 4.0 Ghz Ivy Bridge Xeons, and performance is just … good on today's fastest hardware. Not great. Good.

      Yes, I'll admit that I am utterly spoiled by the JIT compiled performance of .NET. That's what I am used to. I do sometimes pine away for the bad old days of .NET when we could build pages that serve in well under 50 milliseconds without thinking about it too hard. Interpreted languages aren't going to be able to reach those performance levels. But I can only imagine how rough Ruby performance had to be back in the dark ages of 2006 when CPUs and servers were five times slower than they are today! I'm so very glad that I am hitting Ruby now, with the strong wind of many solid years of Moore's law at our backs.

  • Ruby is maturing up nicely in the 2.0 language release, which happened not more than a month after Discourse was announced. So, yes, the downside is that Ruby is slow. But the upside is there is a lot of low hanging performance fruit in Ruby-land. Like.. a lot a lot. On Discourse we got an across the board 20% performance improvement just upgrading to Ruby 2.0, and we nearly doubled our performance by increasing the default Ruby garbage collection limit. From a future performance perspective, Ruby is nothing but upside.

  • Ruby isn't cool any more. Yeah, you heard me. It's not cool to write Ruby code any more. All the cool people moved on to slinging Scala and Node.js years ago. Our project isn't cool, it's just a bunch of boring old Ruby code. Personally, I'm thrilled that Ruby is now mature enough that the community no longer needs to bother with the pretense of being the coolest kid on the block. That means the rest of us who just like to Get Shit Done can roll up our sleeves and focus on the mission of building stuff with our peers rather than frantically running around trying to suss out the next shiny thing.

    And of course the Ruby community is, and always has been, amazing. We never want for great open source gems and great open source contributors. Now is a fantastic time to get into Ruby, in my opinion, whatever your background is.

    (However, It's also worth mentioning that Discourse is, if anything, even more of a JavaScript project than a Ruby on Rails project. Don't believe me? Just go to try.discourse.org and view source. A Discourse forum is not so much a website as it is a full-blown JavaScript application that happens to run in your browser.)

    Even if done in good will and for the best interests of the project, it's still a little scary to totally change your programming stripes overnight after two decades. I've always believed that great programmers learn to love more than one language and programming environment – and I hope the Discourse project is an opportunity for everyone to learn and grow, not just me. So go fork us on GitHub already!

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    Look at this incredible thing Ian Baker created. Look at it!

    The PHP hammer

    What you're seeing is not Photoshopped. This is an actual photo of a real world, honest to God double-clawed hammer. Such a thing exists. Isn't that amazing? And also, perhaps, a little disturbing?

    That wondrous hammer is a delightful real-world acknowledgement of the epic blog entry PHP: A Fractal of Bad Design.

    I can’t even say what’s wrong with PHP, because – okay. Imagine you have uh, a toolbox. A set of tools. Looks okay, standard stuff in there.

    You pull out a screwdriver, and you see it’s one of those weird tri-headed things. Okay, well, that’s not very useful to you, but you guess it comes in handy sometimes.

    You pull out the hammer, but to your dismay, it has the claw part on both sides. Still serviceable though, I mean, you can hit nails with the middle of the head holding it sideways.

    You pull out the pliers, but they don’t have those serrated surfaces; it’s flat and smooth. That’s less useful, but it still turns bolts well enough, so whatever.

    And on you go. Everything in the box is kind of weird and quirky, but maybe not enough to make it completely worthless. And there’s no clear problem with the set as a whole; it still has all the tools.

    Now imagine you meet millions of carpenters using this toolbox who tell you “well hey what’s the problem with these tools? They’re all I’ve ever used and they work fine!” And the carpenters show you the houses they’ve built, where every room is a pentagon and the roof is upside-down. And you knock on the front door and it just collapses inwards and they all yell at you for breaking their door.

    That’s what’s wrong with PHP.

    Remember the immediate visceral reaction you had to the double-clawed hammer? That's exactly the reaction most sane programmers have to their first encounter with the web programming language PHP.

    This has been going on for years. I published my contribution to the genre in 2008 with PHP Sucks, But It Doesn't Matter.

    I'm no language elitist, but language design is hard. There's a reason that some of the most famous computer scientists in the world are also language designers. And it's a crying shame none of them ever had the opportunity to work on PHP. From what I've seen of it, PHP isn't so much a language as a random collection of arbitrary stuff, a virtual explosion at the keyword and function factory. Bear in mind this is coming from a guy who was weaned on BASIC, a language that gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. So I am not unfamiliar with the genre.

    Except now it's 2012, and fellow programmers are still writing long screeds bemoaning the awfulness of PHP!

    What's depressing is not that PHP is horribly designed. Does anyone even dispute that PHP is the worst designed mainstream "language" to blight our craft in decades? What's truly depressing is that so little has changed. Just one year ago, legendary hacker Jamie Zawinski had this to say about PHP:

    I used to think that PHP was the biggest, stinkiest dump that the computer industry had taken on my life in a decade. Then I started needing to do things that could only be accomplished in AppleScript.

    Is PHP so broken as to be unworkable? No. Clearly not. The great crime of PHP is its utter banality. Its continued propularity is living proof that quality is irrelevant; cheap and popular and everywhere always wins. PHP is the Nickelback of programming languages. And, yes, out of frustration with the status quo I may have recently referred to Rasmus Lerdorf, the father of PHP, as history's greatest monster. I've told myself a million times to stop exaggerating.

    The hammer metaphor is apt, because at its core, this is about proper tooling. As presciently noted by Alex Papadimoulis:

    A client has asked me to build and install a custom shelving system. I'm at the point where I need to nail it, but I'm not sure what to use to pound the nails in. Should I use an old shoe or a glass bottle?

    How would you answer the question?

    1. It depends. If you are looking to pound a small (20lb) nail in something like drywall, you'll find it much easier to use the bottle, especially if the shoe is dirty. However, if you are trying to drive a heavy nail into some wood, go with the shoe: the bottle will shatter in your hand.
    2. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way you are building; you need to use real tools. Yes, it may involve a trip to the toolbox (or even to the hardware store), but doing it the right way is going to save a lot of time, money, and aggravation through the lifecycle of your product. You need to stop building things for money until you understand the basics of construction.

    What we ought to be talking about is not how terrible PHP is – although its continued terribleness is a particularly damning indictment – but how we programmers can culturally displace a deeply flawed tool with a better one. How do we encourage new programmers to avoid picking up the double clawed hammer in favor of, well, a regular hammer?

    This is not an abstract, academic concern to me. I'm starting a new open source web project with the goal of making the code as freely and easily runnable to the world as possible. Despite the serious problems with PHP, I was forced to consider it. If you want to produce free-as-in-whatever code that runs on virtually every server in the world with zero friction or configuration hassles, PHP is damn near your only option. If that doesn't scare you, then check your pulse, because you might be dead.

    Everything goes with PHP sauce! Including crushing depression.

    Therefore, I'd like to submit a humble suggestion to my fellow programmers. The next time you feel the urge to write Yet Another Epic Critique of PHP, consider that:

    1. We get it already. PHP is horrible, but it's used everywhere. Guess what? It was just as horrible in 2008. And 2005. And 2002. There's a pattern here, but it's subtle. You have to look very closely to see it. On second thought, never mind. You're probably not smart enough to figure it out.
    2. The best way to combat something as pervasively and institutionally awful as PHP is not to point out all its (many, many, many) faults, but to build compelling alternatives and make sure these alternatives are equally pervasive, as easy to set up and use as possible.

    We've got a long way to go. One of the explicit goals of my next project is to do whatever we can to buff up a … particular … open source language ecosystem such that it can truly compete with PHP in ease of installation and deployment.

    From my perspective, the point of all these "PHP is broken" rants is not just to complain, but to help educate and potentially warn off new coders starting new codebases. Some fine, even historic work has been done in PHP despite the madness, unquestionably. But now we need to work together to fix what is broken. The best way to fix the PHP problem at this point is to make the alternatives so outstanding that the choice of the better hammer becomes obvious.

    That's the PHP Singularity I'm hoping for. I'm trying like hell to do my part to make it happen. How about you?

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