The Wacky World of Ruby

Ruby is a fairly interesting programming language, from the “expressive” syntax to some of the absolutely bizarre documentation. For a Python programmer, the lack of predictability and almost excessively concise syntax (when just one more line would really make things a lot clearer) can be a bit of a downer. Overall though, I’m rather enjoying my experiences with Ruby but not enough that I’d want to use it exclusively.

The “Wacky” bit I cite, comes from some of the strange directions the language seems to go and wacky documentation and books available. Now, the creator of Ruby is completely aware about some of the ways in which Ruby sucks as he put it, and 3 of those are of particular importance to Python programmers since we enjoy a concise (and not complex), predictable, and consistent language. Ruby is working to address these issues in the upcoming 2.0 release which I’m hoping will make it more pleasant to work with.

It is also somewhat wacky the way the Ruby community has compared themselves to other programming language communities to which this blogger has a fairly friendly reply. Sometimes these little jabs run into the printed documentation regarding Ruby as well, which is a big turn-off for me, especially since I really disagree with the reasons that are cited for insulting other languages.

Beyond Java?

Take the Beyond Java book for example. About half-way in it becomes very clear that the author’s view of what is Beyond Java…. is Ruby, and for web programming, Ruby on Rails. The author then goes on to smash Perl, Python, and PHP (ok, I agree with him on PHP :). He puts Ruby in the mix as well, but the only bad thing he says about it is that its lacking commercial backing (except for later on where a new reason emerges).

His comments regarding Python are truly wacky though, as he jumps back to the very old “white-space reliance sucks” argument that hardly ever comes up in the real world. I’ve been using Python for over a year now, and have worked on quite a few collaborative projects, and have yet to see a single error related to mismatched white-space. This is probably because coding standards are well known and Python programmers actually follow them for the most part. It’s hard to express how wonderful this has made it when I’ve jumped into code written by other people, and have been able to easily scan it and add functionality after just a few minutes of looking it over.

When I’ve jumped into other people’s Ruby code looking to make a quick-fix, the syntax quickly became a massive chore to decipher as Perl’s motto of TMTOWTDI holds very true in Ruby as well.

The Beyond Java book also cites Python’s lack of a “killer app” when it comes to web programming and specifically references Ian Bicking’s article on web programming frameworks. Of course, since that article Ian has put out Python Paste which solves a host of problems he mentioned there, and the Python web community’s move to WSGI is helping to standardize methods of running Python web applications.

Even more wacky, later in the Beyond Java book, in yet another comparison of whats for and against the languages, a different reason pops up for Ruby not doing so good. What is it this time?

The biggest strike against Ruby right now is the lack of a strong project that lets Ruby run on the JVM. – Page 163

He goes on to cite how much support Ruby would get if Microsoft was able to woo the Ruby founders over to .NET’s CLR. On the very next page (165) another for and against argument comes out for Python. Since the author just mentioned the JVM and .Net CLR as major drawbacks to Ruby, I was actually expecting him to mention Jython, or even IronPython which is actually being developed by a programmer now at Microsoft. Amazingly enough, neither of these projects is mentioned here, though Jython was mentioned back near the beginning as being too slow (which IronPython apparently solves).

It gets even more wacky a few more pages in, as his reasons against Perl come out.

Perl does have a downside. When you look at overall productivity of a language, you’ve also got to take things like maintenance and readability into account. Perl tends to rate very poorly among experts on a readability scale. – Page 174

Who these experts are is never mentioned, and I’ve seen “experts” for and against the Perl syntax. While Ruby is easier to read than Perl in my personal opinion, its nowhere near as easy to read as Python.

Programming Ruby, The Pragmatic Programmers Guide

I’ve been reading this book for awhile now, and the author’s decision to do something different is admirable but has really been a bane to reading the book. I’ve also read the Agile Web Development with Rails book, which I think was done in a most excellent manner (written by Dave Thomas, the author of Programming Ruby). So this isn’t an attack on Dave, as I really enjoy his writing, I just believe this approach didn’t work so well.

The approach taken in Programming Ruby is to breeze over high-level uses of the language without actually explaining much about why things acted as they do. This quickly drove me nuts, and I stopped reading the entire intro as seeing syntax for no reason wasn’t helping me learn anything. If you want to learn Ruby in the way most programming books teach a language, by carefully and completely going over all the parts then doing more advanced things; skip to page 317 in the Ruby Crystallized Part.

Once I started reading here, everything fell into place very nicely and the language really started to make sense. If the sections were reversed as most programming books have it, I’d consider this book pretty much perfect for a programming book. The thing I think Dave might have missed here, is that most programming books follow this convention because it works. Being different, just to be different, isn’t very good unless there’s a real and practical reason for doing it.

The wackiness doesn’t end though, and I have yet to complete the entire book so I can’t say how many more examples of this are there. Here’s the latest gem though, which actually prompted this entry (though I’ve been thinking these thoughts for awhile).

On Page 330, going over the details of Variables and Constants, I came across this:

Ruby, unlike less flexible languages, lets you alter the value of a constant, although this will generate a warning message.

HUH? Errr, then why the heck do they call it a Constant?? Seriously, maybe its because I’m picky on language terms used but I think they should’ve called it a semi-Constant, or a mostly-Constant Constant. For me, this goes against the entire notion of what a Constant is. Then, on top of that, it insults other “less flexible languages” that (_gasp_) don’t let you change constants.

It’s a Wacky World

There’s many more examples of the wackiness present in the Ruby world. Perhaps its because the language is from Japan, home to so many wacky things by Western standards. Though the writers I mentioned are all non-Japanese, so this explanation doesn’t really cut it. To be fair, the Beyond Java book is well written and the reasons cited in many of the comparisons are valid to an extent.

Ruby in Rails also has its share of wackiness, though it seems so abundant I’ll have to save that for another post entirely. If you’re wondering after all this, why I’m still using Ruby… well, it’s a wacky world, and I do kind of like wacky (I think I’ve used up all allowed uses of the word ‘wacky’ by now). Ruby 2.0 looks to be quite appealing and it’ll be interesting to see how Rails adapts to so many breakage’s that 2.0 appears to introduce over 1.8.

Python isn’t perfect either, and I’m not going to claim it is. There’s plenty of people in both the Python world and the Ruby world who are very forthcoming about failures and successes of the language, so the views expressed by the authors in these books should not be taken to represent the whole. They are some of the most visible speakers though, so I hope that they can someday be as forthcoming as Matz has been.