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Andy Rooney, the Programmer

Date/Time Permalink: 04/11/08 09:15:56 pm
Category: General

Andy Rooney, God bless 'im, is the guy most people know from the "60 Minutes" news show. He has also produced books and columns, and I could recommend him for light-hearted reading. He has made a name for himself out of being funny while fussing about little things that are too small for anybody to notice. He connects with people in this really egalitarian way, because by talking about some really trivial subject he touches something that is in a lot of people's lives, but they were just too busy to notice.

The bad thing about programming bloggers is that too many of them fail to realize that they are not Andy Rooney. They're even too dull to see that they have one leg in Andy Rooney territory. They're doing all of the whining without being any of the funny.

I don't need to link to any examples. You've seen it all a hundred times:

  • "Lisp has too many parenthesis."
  • "Perl talks in punctuation marks."
  • "My hands wore out and fell off from typing all the public static virtual abstract objects in C++."
  • "PHP is all dollar signs and underscores."
  • "The white-space in Python makes me gag."
  • "Shell scripting isn't real programming."
  • "Anything but Ruby is too low-level."
  • "Egad, Tiffany! It's a GOTO! Quick, roll up the windows and I'll lock the car doors!"

Whenever you see somebody throwing a hissy fit over some tiny detail of a programming language, just block it out and play the following paragraph in your head, because this is the actual translation of what they are saying:

"I hate programming with an all-consuming passion, but I'm stuck in it because that's what my parents and/or counselors pushed me into in college. I would be happier to have a job as this guy's stunt double than have anything to do with computers. But, because I am scared of life, I will not take risks by switching career paths at this point. So you're all stuck listening to me whine while I throw my whole life away. Thirty-eight years, eight months, three weeks, and four days to retirement and counting!"

Hey, I'm sorry, but yeah, that's what they really mean. Sad, ugly to say so, but true. I've used dozens of languages, and they all have faults, and everybody can see the faults. Here's the one thing I do: I ask "Is this language good at solving the problem I'm trying to solve with it?" If it is, I'm happy. If it isn't, I may try to make it work anyway, I may voice my disapproval to the person I"m working for if that's the case, but really, I'll deal with it and get over it.

My sole point of discrimination is proprietary languages versus free languages. Proprietary tools suck, across the board. Or, as Paul Graham puts it, "languages designed for other people to use".

Now, let me paint you a picture. I used to see these other, possibly related, people when I lived in big cities. You're seen them too. They're the people who will go to a fast food restaurant or convenience store and stand at the counter for 30 minutes throwing a big temper tantrum because their burger isn't cooked right or their avocados had a soft spot. They're making a big scene, the manager's there, they're hurling abuse and making a big jerk of themselves in public. If you try to sidle up and push them a ten dollar bill - "Here, sir, the rest of us waiting in line behind you would like to refund your money so we can get on with our day." - they'll push it away and rant that it isn't the money, it's the principle of the matter.

In fast food, the staff offers to cook them up a new order on the house. Of course, when the bully gets this new order, they'll take the bag and go outside and get out of sight and chuck it into the nearest trash can and walk away laughing. I've seen them do it.

Well, just remember, these people have jobs and Internet accounts, too.

No, not everybody who fusses about programming syntax is like that. But on the web, how do you tell the difference? You also have the kind of people who just do some low-level grumbling because it's good for their blood pressure. And some people are actually trying to be Andy Rooney, because they have a blog deadline and they're all out of fake-Steve-Jobs rants this week.

What it all teaches me, is to keep an eye out for friction between technology and people. And in doing so learn to spot and separate what's a technology problem and what's a people problem.

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