Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
The joy of Perl (salon.com)
71 points by kamaal 1802 days ago | hide | past | web | 41 comments | favorite

This article is from 1998. A lot has changed since then: Ruby, alternate JVM languages like Clojure and Scala, C#, Perl 6... If I were to make a sweeping historical characterization, I would say that Perl was exactly what people needed in the 1990s when everything was new and nothing worked with anything else and everyone needed lots of duct tape and Perl's wonderful concise syntax made excellent duct tape. I used it during that period, but I just don't use it much anymore.

Perl 5 also changed a lot since then. And it is definitely not just duct tape anymore (if it ever been)

I wonder how many others caught Wall quoting Lewis Carrol....

I suppose Carrol and Tolstoy are to be quoted when asking a natural language guy about computer languages.... ;-)

Honestly, for the last 6 years I have been doing mostly Perl programming (and managing an open source project largely written in Perl) and if I can't easily read a contribution easily I push back.... Perl doesn't have to be hard to read. I would say, however, that keeping things minimalistic is a real virtue in the language.

Well why does Perl win:

Ready for this?

The way I see, Any other way of doing regular expressions sucks more badly. In fact if you are look to replace your regular expressions with something else you are likely to inherit a thick verbose pile of junk. Now why do regular expressions work.

Look at this thing below:

    $line =~ m/<some regex>/;
This can also be written as,

    $line =~ m'<some regex>';

    $line =~ /<some regex>/;
This matches the line with <some regex>, Why is this special? Because it just allowed to you match a line without first compiling the regex, and then matching it. Not just that it saved you from writing several tens of lines of code before using a regex which you generally have to do in other languages. So you can do something like:

    if ($line =~ /regex/)

    do_something() if $line =~ /regex/;
This is a bit of natural language way..

In case of file operations:

        #Do your stuff
There are some amazing things that Perl does like

    my @file_content = `cat somefile`;
Suddenly all contents are in an array in your program.

Worried about removing new lines from that array? Just do

Want to go over that file now? Just do

    foreach my $line(@file_content)
        #Do your stuff here
Want to deal with that line? You have,

    my @fields = split( /<some regex>/, $line );
Want to do more matching/extracting from lines?

    my @processing = map { do_something($_) } @fields;
Want to find something in that array?

    my @results = grep { /some regex/ } @fields;
Want to handle exceptions?

        #Some operation
    if $@
        #Handle exception

    open( FILEHANDLE , '<' , $file ) or die "Cannot open file";
Just felt the need to create a small database?

    use strict;
    use warnings;
    use DB_File;
    use Fcntl;

    my %some_hash
    tie (%some_hash, "DB_File", $dbm_file, O_RDONLY or die "Unable to open dbm file $dbm_file: $!";
    #change your hash
You just got a key-value database.

Want to execute a shell command?


Need to create a function?

    sub function_name
        my ($var1,$var2..) = @_;

Need to create a Class or a Package?

    package Name;

    #do stuff here

You can also create anonymous functions

    my $function = sub {};
This also means you can create a closure:

    sub function1
        my $function = sub {#does something};
        return \$function;
In latest versions of Perl, there are some cool features like:

    given($some_data_structure) #what ever that is array, reference etc
        when ( #some match operation ) { #do something }
this serves both as a smart matching loop/switch statment.

All the above gives you quick scripting tools.

You also have your usual set of ternary operator,if..else, you can also quote regular expressions.

Now why did I write this, I wrote this to tell that. Perl's motto is to get stuff done. In a no BS way. It adapts to your style, its Object oriented, its functional etc. You decide the style the language bends to you.

You get Best of the OO features from Moose(http://search.cpan.org/~doy/Moose-2.0402/lib/Moose.pm), You get modules like Devel::Declare and DBIx::Class, You also get a framework like catalyst. At the same time you can write in funtional programming techniques. You can do cool stuff like Memoization and higher order parsing. For more information read Mark Jason Dominus's Higher order Perl - (free ebook) http://hop.perl.plover.com/

At the same time you as a novice can begin with programming with what you understand Read Chromatic's Modern Perl Book - (free ebook) - http://onyxneon.com/books/modern_perl/

You can do Object oriented programming, Functional programming, Declarative programming all without shoe horning things using frameworks. You can build big to medium sized apps. Its difficult to demonstrate all that in a post, Hence read MJD's book.

But at the very same time you can use it as a scripting language in which you can cook scripts are at a very quick pace, You can quickly prototype, solve data/text processing problems. You can make it behave like awk, sed and what not. You can create quick databases.

No wonder its still among the top programming languages in the world even after 25 years since its release.

Last but not the least, Its killer app : http://www.cpan.org/

I agree Perl is great for everything listed except:

    sub function_name
        my ($var1,$var2..) = @_;

I know why methods are like that, but it doesn't make me any less unhappy to have to read a function in order to figure out what types and what order I need to pass values to a function.

There's a few Perl programmers at work who end up using just a bunch of global variables instead of doing pass by reference or returning values from subs.

sub do_something { # modify %my_global_hash }

It's just strange working with Perl after working in more OO languages. But, like you said, Perl adapts to your style. I want it more like other languages I've written in, whereas the people I work with don't.

Getopts::Long is amazing for parsing command line, and I don't know how I would work without being able to do the inline if and unless statements.


There are other modules out there like this, including one that bakes it into Moose methods. This also highlights a cool Perl feature: hack able syntax.

I don't know what might have Larry thought while designing this. But I can imagine only of one thing.

While writing Perl one liners it might become difficult to fit in the parameters in the usual C based function implementation syntax, in such cases this might turn out useful.

Let us not forget sysadmins use Perl a lot on the command line.

I've yet to encounter a language that flows as nicely as Perl does, from thought to code. I haven't been a serious programmer for many years, and I can still sit down, after months or years of not writing any code, and hack out some Perl code almost as fast as I can type. One of these days when I have some time I'll need to get my Perl skills up to 2012 levels as the language has moved on so much from where I was when I sat down with "Perl for Dummies" in 2000 and became proficient enough in the language in a week to build some fairly major linguistics tools for the company I was working at at the time. (As a set of total side projects to my normal C++ production life).

Once you realize that the control structures flow like an English sentence, once you grok that, the language simply gets out of the way. It's not bound to an ivory tower of a certain paradigm. It's a human language. Sure you can write Perl that's almost unreadable, but you can do that in many programming languages, and you can do it in real human languages. Written well, reading Perl is like reading beautiful poetry.

Case in point, I once wrote a program in Perl, about 30,000 lines of code (which by Perl standards is relatively large, a Java port ended up about six times as large), then didn't see it for 2 years. I was asked to guide a team to port the code to Java, I sat down one afternoon, and just read the code like a book. After that I almost never had to refer to the code again, and guided the team through the rest of the porting process. I knew it like I had just read a novel. Cause and effect was obvious, the bundling of the chapters (modules) made dramatic sense, and when I had to refer to the code to show it to one of the Java devs, it took seconds to find the code segment in notepad of all things.

Very little boilerplate, the best integration of regexes in the industry, yet still powerful enough to write major sites and applications in.

Downside: it ruined me as a developer, all the BS you have to go through in other languages to just get something done seems like such busy work. I ended up writing a set of libraries in C++ to handle lots of things in a perlish sort of way, typeless primitives, perl style containers, etc. But at the time C++ didn't have the same kinds of sentence-like control structures and simple regex matches always became a dozen lines of compiling regexes and then matching, and then iterating some data structure to get at the results. Painful.

Java became intolerable. I remember the last time I sat down to write something in Java, spending hours hunting through the standard library documentation thinking "this is bullshit, I shouldn't have to create xyz minor feature from whole cloth, it's got to be in the standard library, for fuck's sake Java has 3 gui frameworks and I have to parse a csv file by hand!!!"

I agree with all your points.

According to Ohloh, LedgerSMB has 54k lines of Perl code. The quality of code ranges from abysmal (mostly inherited code from SQL-Ledger, things like some_func(\%config_has, \%$object)... \%$object? wtf?) to code that I am actually thinking is starting to look very elegant, even if it isn't a popular way of doing some things.

I find for me the boilerplate is all POD suff. Very little boilerplate in code.

I think a big downside though is that some developers are uncomfortable with the flexibility. They want to do Perl the Python way, or the Ruby way. This leads to code that's hard to follow very fast....

I have similar experiences. Although I'm not an old timer like you :)

I came to the Perl party a pretty late. But Perl is so much like Emacs. Once you learn it well the productivity gains are exponential.

Once you are familiar with the language to a level. The program just flows out naturally even as your thinking. And yes to mention somethings in Perl make it so easy for that happen is really Larry's genius to build such a thing.

This is also what enables a person to write useful applications in very little time, while avoiding most of the cruft traditional languages have.

The surprising thing is, most people don't know about this. But when they first encounter it literally hits you like a lifelong addiction.

I do a lot of innovation at $dayjob and most of the times people think I'm a genius or super productive. But, its only that Perl enables me to do stuff so quickly it often looks like magic to people around.

You hit the nail on the head. I've been hacking perl for about 15 years now, and I stay with it because I can be so spectacularly productive with it! People sometimes think I'm some kind of super genius, but it's just perl enabling me to bang out new features in no time at all. :)

If you're coming back to perl, read Modern Perl. Then learn Moose and its ecosystem. That will get you about 90% of the way to writing good, maintainable perl. :)

I think Perl works very hard internally to match the user intent when the user writes something. This practically gels with Larry Wall's water bed theory of complexity(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterbed_theory).

some systems, such as human and computer languages, contain a minimum amount of complexity, and that attempting to "push down" the complexity of such a system in one place will invariably cause complexity to "pop up" elsewhere.

Take for example the given-when syntax in Perl - http://perldoc.perl.org/functions/given.html

It really works hard enough to work as a switch statement with smart matching - http://perldoc.perl.org/perlsyn.html#Switch-statements with the adapting to the user intention.

I have always wondered how the Perl will evolve in the future. I see it will look more and more like Perl 6 adding features to make the magic look spectacular and amazing. We are already seeing Moose and Moosex and various other modules developed using Devel::Declare and the amazing stuff that they can do.

By working to match the user intention, the programmer generally can build the program in his head even while he is imagining the features.

Overall the greatest power of Perl that I have seen is, You can start your text editor and really build things as you think. Unlike many languages where you need a IDE which 100's of MB's heavy or you have to continually bother dealing with piles and piles of verbose code which often requires hours and hours of effort figure out what's happening underneath the layers.

How can you change your tied hash if you opened it with O_RDONLY?

The code is not tested, I didn't give much thought while writing it.

I just wrote it as things were flowing out of my mind.

There are likely to be mistakes.

And after all, its a comment.

> “We sell the bestselling books on both Perl and Python,” adds O’Reilly, “and what we see is a continued healthy growth in the use of Perl, while Python use is flat. Perl is orders of magnitude more widely used than Python, and we see no signs of that changing, at least based on book sales.”

I wonder if the difference in book sales is at least partly an artifact of the relative difficulty to learn Perl compared to Python.

I suspect it's also partly an artifact of the article being from 1998. :)

I find perl substantially more approachable than Python, provided I don't have to read anyone else's code.

> provided I don't have to read anyone else's code.

That's a hell of a caveat. :) As I get older, I find I spend more time reading code than writing it (even though most of it's my own), and I find Python's sheer readability indispensable.

As I get older and use perl for longer, I find that it gets easier to read other people's perl code. I find it still hard to read some of the php code out there. I think messy php code outdoes the messes I've seen in perl, and a big part of this is because there was no standard for php includes/modules for a while.

Its not, basically because if you have bad programmers working for your then you have bigger problems than choosing a language.

And if you have good programmers, then readability isn't a problem. Not even a thing to think about.

>>And if you have good programmers, then readability isn't a problem

Hrm, I'd argue against that.

I know better programmers than me, whose code I hate to work with. Also for Python.

But you seem to define "good programmer" as someone who also comments and documents, so I guess you're by definition correct. :-)

Edit: Yeah, "itsnotme". The fault is rather the idiot bosses that let the smart idiots get away with it... But with non-idiot bosses, you won't have readability problems in Perl either.

Yeah, well bad commenters come in three kinds:

Those who write too few comments.

Those who write too many comments.

Those who write the wrong comments.

Of course, those are not mutually exclusive.......

According to me good code is what makes the comment unnecessary. And writing such a thing requires understanding many things. And those things are language agnostic.

Like some one mentioned in this thread, languages tend to be judged by the quality of code produced by their worst user.

For once you can write unreadable code in any language. Even in C and Lisp. In fact there you can create bigger problems and more unreadable code.

You still needs comments that tell what the content of a code file is supposed to do, no matter how clear the code is.

(And in scripting languages which doesn't declare parameters, like Python and old style Perl, you need to document what the parameters are.)

Having good programmers who can't agree on a consistent style is problematic, but good programmers can follow a reasonable style guide, even if they have quibbles about it.

Oh please can I quote you on that?

What I used to say, which probably other people do too, is "Perl is a best language to write programs in so long as you can fit it in one line of code!"

I do have to admit that Perl had a fun, free-spirited feeling to it that I've not found in any other programing or scripting language. It was fun. Python is close, but a bit too rigid and takes itself too seriously.

Edit: I don't mean that as a criticism of Python. I use it daily and like it. It's just that Perl was more fun. That's all I mean to say.

Python does an admirable job of being pretty fun to hack in (you're right, not as much fun as Perl, but not bad), but the end result is that the code is far more readable for others and I think works a bit better in large scale production environments. Perl has come a long way as a response, but there's no doubt that Python ends up with cleaner code.

Perl is still an excellent glue language.

The way we are moving towards things in LedgerSMB is:

Web and file format (csv, latex, etc) templates in TemplateToolkit

Everything that can be done as set operations in the db in the process of storing/retrieving info is done in PL/PGSQL.

A brief framework written in Perl

And the rest of the Perl code essentially is written to be very light-weight automation glue between these layers.

FYI the article is from 1998. I did a double take when I saw this line.

"Wall has Caller ID hooked up to his computer, which he has instructed to emit unique sounds for each incoming call. What good is Caller ID, asks Wall, if you have to walk all the way over to the telephone to see who is calling?"

The readability point is key, will anyone ever write an article extolling "the joy of someone else's script whipped up Perl"? Red Hat and Ubuntu both use Python more than Perl when they want something over and above Bash.

I have had the joy of working with a few other's really clear Perl scripts, and some of it really was whipped up.

I have had others praise code I have just whipped up.

However, the trick here is to get used to documenting your code as you write it. That avoids most problems. It also forces you to clarify your thoughts as you write the code. Clear thought becomes readable code. Messy thoughts become a nightmare.

I've never had problems reading Perl anymore than I've had reading code in some other language.

You've been lucky, then. I love Perl, but there are so many ways to do it you're bound to run into someone who does something in an entirely different way than you. The worst experience I had with this was a colleague who knew the entire Camel book by heart and insisted on using every damn trick there was. He was fired very quickly as the code he produced was impossible for a more normal person to understand

Your anecdote implies that we judge the language by its worst user :)

You need to make certain your people follows the best practices a bit harder in Perl than for many other languages.

But, considering CPAN and Moose, you get much less code in Perl to read, for quite a lot of use cases. If that is not important to you, use C...

I'm a Ruby guy, with no experience with Perl - so no comments on that front. The part I really like about this story is David Filo's gesture of gratitude to Larry Wall. That's a great karma story that warms the heart.

You may also find this video of interest: Clay Shirky on Love, Internet Style http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe1TZaElTAs

Thanks, that was an inspiring video. I've already come to appreciate the power of community (love, according to Clay :), in communities like dd-wrt and cyanogenmod where the quality of collectively contributed firmware beats by miles that provided by the parent hardware vendors. And what's even better is that those enjoying these benefits are willing to give back - best example was when cyanogenmod called for contributions to buy new servers recently. The response was overwhelming and they received more than they needed in no time at all.

The other nice story carried on HN was how Linux Torvalds was remembered by the Red Hat folks with a nice payback in shares as a thank you for everything he did.

The internet really helps too, allowing a dollar here and a dollar there to really add up when genuinely appreciative people make voluntary donations. Bram Cohen is a good example here, who receives well deserved donations from all the folks who love bittorrent.

I believe this model of giving (and the return karma) augurs well for society. There is room for a lot of hope and optimism.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact