Vladimir Sedach

Have Emacs - Will Hack

April 8, 2009

Book review: Warden and Biancuzzi's Masterminds of Programming

Today my copy of Masterminds of Programming arrived in the mail from O'Reilly; a small reward for giving a lightning talk at ILC.

Masterminds of Programming is a series of interviews with programming language designers. Along with some expected atrocities like Stroustrup on C++ and Gosling on Java, and bizarre ones such as a 50-page interview with Jacobson, Rumbaugh and Booch on UML, there are interviews with Adin Falkoff on APL, Moore on Forth, Wall on Perl, and a few others. The functional camp is well-represented with SPJ, Hudak, Wadler, and Hughes interviewed about Haskell, and Milner giving an interview about ML.

It is telling that right at the preface the book starts off with an urban legend: "children can learn foreign languages much more easily than adults."

Some of the interviews are very revealing. The discussions present an entertaining window on the cavalier attitudes and biases of many programming language designers, which helps explain some of the dysfunction of the software world today. I don't think this is what the editors intended, but it makes for hilarious reading material.

Some of the interviews can be frustrating to read (every third question posed by the authors in Falkoff's APL interview seems to boil down to "lolz funny syntax"); thankfully this is balanced out by absolutely delightful ones such as Moore on Forth (IMO, the highlight of the book), and the Objective-C interview with Brad Cox and Tom Love. Overall the quality of the interviews varies widely, but not surprisingly mostly seems to correspond to the quality of the language being discussed.

Ultimately Masterminds of Programming is worthwhile not for its insights into programming language design (most of which unsurprisingly boil down to "oops I made a bunch of mistakes because I did not start with a good model/think/know any better/know enough math"), but into programming and computing history in general.

To finish this review where it started off, here is another unintentionally amusing bit of insight from the preface:

Imagine that you are studying a foreign language and you don't know the name of an object. You can describe it with the words that you know, hoping someone will understand what you mean. Isn't this what we do every day with software?

It comes as no surprise that there is not a single entry for either "macro" or "metaprogramming" in the book's index (although Wadler does make a passing mention of Lisp macros in the Haskell interview).