On Perl and Poetry

I first learnt of Perl in the late 90’s. Sometime around ’98 or ’99. Fresh on the heels of BASIC, I was yearning to try out something new when I heard of Perl. I heard it’s what the Internet ran on and it had an almost mythical air to it that made me want to learn it. If you wanted to build dynamic web sites at that time, you had few options, and Perl, Apache and UNIX was the workhorse. I wanted to build dynamic web sites so what I had to do was pretty clear. There was a new fangled thing called Java, but no way was it ever going to catch up to the dominance that Perl had over the Internet. Or so people thought.

Perl was the undisputed king of Internet 1.0. The language, with it’s knack for text processing coupled with it’s highly expressive syntax was ideal for building dynamic web sites. I saw how entwined Perl was in the UNIX sub-culture and how naturally it fit in, and together with Apache/mod_perl how it was poised to reign over the Internet for years to come. I then drifted into the world of enterprise Java and progressed from the monstrosity that was J2EE to the present day JEE, which has since redeemed itself and paid for it’s early sins, and when I came back several years have passed and Perl has been relegated to the position that new kids considered old and dead. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the often misunderstood syntax of Perl by those new to the language, who claim it to be cryptic or arcane, there’s an elegance and a beauty that is not always present in other languages and I find that I enjoy hacking on a Perl script more than chipping away at the Java mega-structures. It’s expressiveness and how you can mold the code to fit your pattern of thought by the many variations and permutations the language syntax offers plays a large part in this sense of aesthetic. There’s something about the language that’s reminiscent of a Bach fugue and poetry. I certainly do not feel the same way about Python, although Ruby comes a little close.

I don’t think I will ever stop coding Perl, and Perl 6 has a number of interesting language elements that I hope someday I will get to see, possible running on a GNU/HURD. Now wouldn’t that be a sight to behold?

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A boy’s first computer

The week so far has been an eventful one. Being bed-ridden has made me pensive and nostalgic about my childhood, and long for the simpler days. I was specifically dwelling on the subject of interpreters and compilers which took me back to when I was nine, when I asked my uncle, who I considered as the pre-eminent guru in all things computers at the time, how to compile a .bat file.

At that time I was given an old 286 to play with. And when we moved around, so did my computer. Every week I flip open the large case case using a convenient latch on the two sides and peek in. I was enamored by the machine and eventually learnt what some of its parts were, and wondered how they worked. I sought books and the help of my uncle to learn about it. I once spent a weekend at my uncle’s where he showed me the difference between dir /p and dir /w, and told me to try it out for about twenty minutes while he went to speak to someone. He taught me the basics of DOS which I was usually very eager to try out on my own machine.

After I was done peeking, I usually close the box up and meticulously clean it. It was kept in perfect condition next to my work desk on a blue color custom built table for a computer which had a pull out keyboard and a place to keep a printer as well as some shelves below for various things. It was pretty big by today’s standards, but then everything was so. The computer case was about 2.5′ x 2.5′ x 10″. It was big, I couldn’t carry it by myself but I made sure I packed it safely during my vacation trips.

It also featured a 4 MB hard drive, 1 MB of RAM, a 14″ monochrome monitor and a 5.25″ floppy disk drive. There was a lot of trial and error to figure it out and spent many late nights trying to understand DOS, WordStar, WordPerfect, DBase III+, BASIC, Lotus 123. The command line baffled me, and piqued my interest, and I learnt to love the blinking cursor on the green screen waiting for the next command to be input.

It was a used machine at the time, so it came with some customizations and funky DOS shell like interface which was navigable through function keys, but also let you escape into the shell. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it worked and how to modify it. It also came with a couple of games which I still fondly remember: digger, pacman and paratrooper. I played very little games after that. I recently tracked this down to skill-envy (a pseudo psychology construct that I just coined), as playing games made me wonder too much how it was constructed, and not having the skills to build a similar game myself made me envious of the game author and the knowledge of the black art he possessed. Hence I preferred to stay away from games. I know, it’s childish, but in my defense I was a child.

Part of this black art was machine language. Printing the contents of .exe files showed a series of unintelligible characters and yet the only executable programs I could create at the time were plain text and readable .bat file. That was when I asked my uncle how I could convert a .bat file to the .exe file which I viewed as being inherently superior due to its mysterious nature. Knowing what I was trying to get at, he suggested I learn QuickBasic. I only had GWBasic installed on the computer. I came to realize that the syntax of QuickBasic was more or less the same, minus the explicit line numbers, so I taught myself GWBasic on my 286. Later I got a copy of QuickBasic and lo and behold, there was an option to compile programs into the mysterious .exe file format that I can directly execute from the command line. This revelation was a turning point for me and I was hooked on QB.

Having outgrown the 286 I pestered my father to purchase a newer computer, and this time a 66MHZ 486 DX2 with the “turbo” button. If turbo was turned off the computer ran slower, which baffled me. The computer also featured a 40 MB hard drive. That should last forever, I thought at the time.

Musings on Git

Having spent some quality time with Git over the holidays, my appreciation for the flexibility of this DVCS and the elegance with which it has been constructed has reached a state of awe. I remember following the BitKeeper debacle of 2005 on Kernel Traffic that spawned the project that would turn out to be git, and wondering why Linus would even think of going off on a tangent and building a VCS. I’m thankful that he did.

In a mail to the LKML, Linus mentions:

So I’m writing some scripts to try to track things a whole lot faster. Initial indications are that I should be able to do it almost as quickly as I can just apply the patch, but quite frankly, I’m at most half done, and if I hit a snag maybe that’s not true at all. Anyway, the reason I can do it quickly is that my scripts will not be an SCM, they’ll be a very specific “log Linus’ state” kind of thing. That will make the linear patch merge a lot more time-efficient, and thus possible.

What I find interesting is his statement that “my scripts will not be an SCM” sounds a lot like “won’t be big and professional like gnu” in an earlier mail to a different crowd. Pay attention when hackers sound humble and self deprecating. It’ll be easy to spot, since they’re not most of the time. I kid, of course.

Having hacked on Linux for a long time, I believe Linus really enjoyed taking a break and doing something different, and in this talk, it’s clear that he was quite proud of his creation. It’s also very clear that the entire system was thought up by a kernel hacker from the focus on making the system fast and efficient, not to mention being able to do a “fsck” on the git repository also shows which analogies were drawn in designing git.

Managing kernel contribution is a difficult process, and with over 1000 contributors to each kernel release makes it one of the most prolific open source projects in history. The benevolent dictator and the governance structure that he’s laid out for the kernel over the years seems to be able to manage this complexity and scale efficiently. Git has played a major part of this success and I expect will continue to do so in the coming years.

On OpenSolaris

In a recent article, Ted T’so makes some interesting points on Sun’s motives behind OpenSolaris, and how it fares today in the FOSS ecosystem as a result.

“Fundamentally, Open Solaris has been released under a Open Source license, but it is not an Open Source development community.”

It’s quite sad that this is the case simply considering the enormous potential that OpenSolaris had back in 2005, and the opportunities for cross pollination with Linux had the licenses been compatible. Given some of killer features of the operating system, it’s quite a shame that it has not been able to rally the developer community that it deserves.

At this point, I think the only hope for OpenSolaris is GPLv3 and a truly open development process. Then for once, Linus’ kernel will have a strong contender and a raised bar on licensing grounds.

Nexenta (a project unaffiliated with Sun), and essentially a Debian distribution with an OpenSolaris kernel, has been a strong attempt at attracting developers. Debian is by far is the most developer friendly GNU/Linux distribution out there, with a mature and proven development model, and to build an OpenSolaris distribution with user land tools of Debian makes the most sense.

I’ve been a Solaris user since version 6, which I attempted to run (quite foolishly) on a 333MHz Pentium. The user experience was anything but smooth, but still ended up gaining a lot of respect for the platform. Only time can say whether the tide changes for OpenSolaris or whether it ends up relegating to the Minix boat.

Updated: 03 May – Corrections on Nexenta

Drama

In an unsurprising turn, SCO stocks plummet as a judge rules that Novell owns the UNIX copyrights, and not SCO as McBride would have you believe. Not that I really care about SCO stocks, I really don’t, it’s just nice to see people finally catching on to the SCO bluff. Redmond played it beautifully, or thought they did by financing the smear campaign that was SCO AND striking a deal with Novell to distribute Linux “coupons”, but will they find themselves outwitted by GPLv3 when/if Novell starts shipping GPLv3 code as part of the coupon deal? Now that is going to be very interesting to watch.