Python, Growth, and Sandboxes

Well, I sure did step in it. Consider: up until last week, I was simply using this space every now and then for some relatively bland navel-gazing related to selected goings-on at Snowtide. Then, a friend of mine decided to put my most recent post (probably the only potentially inflammatory post I’ve ever written) on reddit, and a variety of people weren’t very happy (both in comments to the post itself, on reddit’s comment page, and to a lesser extent on a Joel On Software thread). For someone who can lay only a tenuous claim to being a blogger (never mind the title of A-, B-, C-, or D-list blogger!), it’s been an interesting experience to say the least. I tried to participate in the discussions that were swirling around, but eventually the comments became too numerous for me to follow in a timely way given the amount of bandwidth I’ve allocated to such things. So, I’m taking the easy/cheap way out with a response post. I know this is frowned upon by many, but c’est la vie.  Here, I will respond in two parts:
  1. Python and the Growth “Problem”
  2. Sandbox Etiquette

Python and the Growth “Problem”

In reading over all of the commentary, there seem to be three types of responses:

Response Type A: Any lack of growth/”innovation” or a slowing of such growth in Python is good — stability makes it easier to concentrate on customer solutions, and encourages robust library development.

Regardless of your language or platform, if stability and operational continuity is an overriding interest of yours, then lock yourself into a particular build, and stay there as long as you want. This is a significant part of the job of IT organizations in large organizations – to standardize on environments and tools so as to shield the organization from unwanted change and cost. (As an aside, Ruby’s Matz provides a positive spin on the “Python is stable, and that’s good” attitude, which may or may not be cheeky [it's hard to tell through the translation]: “Perhaps Python has a sense of responsibility.”)

Response Type B: The “significant improvements” I’d like to see in Python are (take your pick): of academic use only; are overhyped genius toys that only make it easier to build overly complex solutions; distractions from other improvements that would be immediately useful to the majority of the Python userbase.

This attitude pops up frequently in any discussion of programming paradigms that are off the beaten track, any technique that is unfamiliar to the commenter, or any anything that the commenter has had problems with in the past. Meek typified this kind of response with:
Python is not growing because you want programmable syntax and “esoteric” features? Features that 99% of software developers shouldnever use. Let me guess, you have never maintained a project written in a language that supports programmable syntax where geniuses abuse meta-programming where simpler alternatives achieve the same goal.
This is a particularly disturbing line of thought, and one that I had always considered to be antithetical to a central principle of Python (at least in my eyes), that the programmer should always be trusted. I’ve always associated this with a variety of Python features, including duck typing, the lack of access controls around class members (modulo the slightly perverse double-underscore notation and associated name mangling of “private” attributes), the composability of namespaces, etc. Lots of programming features are “esoteric”, depending on who you ask. Pointer access is esoteric to a web app developer and should never be used in such a context, but it’s critical to a C-language device driver programmer. Any number of language features can simultaneously be considered esoteric by some and necessary by others. Not recognizing this, and then implying that “simpler alternatives” could readily take the place of those “genius” toys is evidence of a lack of perspective. 28/w in the JOS thread makes my point better than I ever could:
It’s precisely because I want my projects to be on time that I don’t use assembly language for everything. That’s the same reason I don’t use C++ either. I’m about 5x as productive in Ocaml as I am in C++ i.e., at least 80% of my time spent coding C++ is spent dealing with language issues; it’s the equivalent of spending time making all my function calls out of gotos. Most likely, 80% of my time coding Ocaml is wasted too, and I just don’t know it.
Bottom line: just because you don’t see a use for a particular language feature doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t find it absolutely, positively necessary.

Response Type C: Python is growing, and if you were to pay attention, you’d notice. We’re just not working on what you want.

This point has been made by a variety of people, but I should give special attribution to Phillip J. Eby, since he’s a significant Python contributor:
Um, so you don’t think the “with” statement and coroutines were new features? What about the new metaclass hook that’ll be in Python 3.0 (and maybe 2.6)? It’s actually a pretty significant step forward for implementing Ruby-like DSL’s in Python.
I suppose this is the nut of the problem, at least as far as this discussion has related specifically to the technical aspects of Python: I’m not bowled over by the improvements Phillip cites.  They’re very useful and handy to the vast majority of Python programmers, but they’re not game-changers (which I suppose is what I meant by “significant growth”). I think the description of the metaclass hook as “a pretty significant step forward for implementing Ruby-like DSL’s in Python” is very telling. The facilities for building DSLs in Ruby are good in so far as they make it possible to get the job done, but they’re by no means conceptually complete nor functionally clean (as pointed out by jerf in the reddit comments), so taking a “significant step” towards implementing such facilities isn’t the whole ballgame. Regardless of that detail, the point is that progress is being made in Python — just not in the vector I need. And, that’s OK. Which brings me to…

Sandbox Etiquette

After all has been said and done, my original post was a mistake, in that I exhibited a similar type and degree of technological selfishness as those who replied with Type A responses.  As some of my friends will attest, I’ve personally been unhappy with Python and its direction for a variety of reasons for months now, especially as I’ve sunk further and further into a class of problems for which Python isn’t particularly well-suited at the moment.  While I had settled on that conclusion some time ago, I’ve obviously been suffering from a mental block that caused me to do drive-bys against Python.  This came to a head with my blog post. The more mature (and zen) thing to do would have been to simply go looking for a different sandbox, and leave well enough alone with regard to Python.  (It is, after all, a fantastic language and will likely remain my favorite for most common tasks [especially web programming] for a some time hence).  This is especially true given the fact that I am essentially a nobody in the Python community – I’ve contributed in my own small ways, but it’s not like I’m a core hacker or important library author.  Instead, I adopted the Response Type A attitude, but flipped it on its head, claiming that my favorite language should advance itself to suit my requirements, and to hell with the priorities of others. So, let’s make a deal: I’ll stop sniping on Python, and maybe everyone else can stop making clever comments about “esoteric” language features.  Then we can all spend more time building bigger and better sandcastles.