The quest to learn a new programming language

Some time ago I realised I wasn’t all that excited about any programming language. All the languages I knew were, for some reason or another, annoying and I didn’t really feel like having any pet projects. That, combined with the idea that learning new stuff is good, pushed me to try and learn some new programming language.

Choosing one was actually kind of a problem: it had to be “mainstream” enough that it wouldn’t just be a theoretical exercise (I wanted to use it to write actual code, not just to learn it) and yet different enough to what I was used to. It also had to be “stable” enough that I didn’t have to install it from sources or follow the development of the compiler/interpreter. That didn’t really leave me a lot of options, I thought. The only ones I could think of, really, were Haskell, Go, Lisp and Scala.

Haskell I had tried to learn, and I more or less failed. I did learn the basics and I tried to start writing a Sudoku solver with it, but I got demoralised quite quickly. I felt it was a bit too exotic for actual work, and it was a bit of a downer that it took me so long to write some simple unit tests for some basic code I started to write (I couldn’t get my head around the type system and I was fighting with something really silly for many hours). Go, well, I didn’t even start learning because the Go installation instructions totally freaked me out. Not that I didn’t understand them, but the idea of fetching the sources of the compiler just to learn a programming language turned me off. And don’t get me started with the name of the compiler (dependent on the architecture, no less!), the separate linking step or the 90s-style “.out” file name for the binaries. So that left me with Lisp and Scala.

Lisp, I did know a bit. I had learned some basic Lisp at the university, and liked it quite a bit back then. I had also read part of the excellent “On Lisp” and I thought it was really cool. I still had my doubts I could use for actual work, but I was willing to give it a try. So I borrowed the (also excellent) book “Land of Lisp” from a friend and started reading, trying to learn a bit. The process wasn’t too bad, but I had the increasing feeling that in the end it would be too exotic for me, and I found the syntax too annoying. I was learning some practical Lisp, but it was taking really long to learn interesting things. And when those interesting things came, I felt they were too obscure for me, and I needed a lot of thinking to even understand the examples. But I decided to give it a try anyway, and I went ahead and tried to write some simple code to use some web service (the final goal was to write some example code for the Link API). In this case, the deal breaker was that the OAuth library I found depended on an obscene number of Lisp packages, many of which were recommended to be downloaded directly from GitHub (srsly? fuck this shit).

That left me with Scala. I had mixed feelings about it. At a first glance it looked interesting, but it was compiled, related to Java and more or less centred on concurrency. I tried to learn Scala by reading “Programming Scala”, which turned out to be more fun and productive than I had anticipated. I’m considering buying the “dead tree” version, but I have so many books to read that I don’t know when I’ll do that. So, what did I like about Scala so much? It made me feel like when I learned Ruby: it had fairly powerful features (pattern matching, traits, type inference, others I forget about) but with a readable, easy to understand syntax. It’s like the Robin Hood of programming languages, stealing features only available in impossible-to-understand languages, and bringing them to the masses. It also felt good liking a statically typed language, I didn’t think that was possible for me anymore :-)

But enough for now. Some other day I’ll write some more details about Scala and about my pet project FlickrMemories.