The code formatting fallacy

Time to stir my category cloud on the right a bit, and publish a post under a category I’ve so far only used once. Hopefully it will become clear what Language Oriented Programming (LOP) has got to do with code formatting after this post.

There are several holy wars on code formatting:

… and  many more.

All these wars are about how text should be formatted. The very notion of code being text is so ingrained in programmers, that they often can’t think outside the box. What if the actual problem is code being text?

The problem is that text editors are stupid and don’t know how to work with the underlying graph structure of programs. But with the right tools, the editor could work directly with the graph structure, and give us freedom to use any visual representation we like in the editor. – Sergey Dmitriev, cofounder and CEO of JetBrains Inc.

This is just one of many interesting statements in the must-read article by Sergey introducing LOP. Once you consider the possibility of separating code and it’s representation, most of the code formatting discussions become obsolete.

  • Identifiers can contain spaces, or can be represented differently based on preferences. Heck, they could be icons in a diagram.
  • Visually separating a piece of code for readability would be possible without having to split into smaller functions.
  • Multiple exit points of a function can be visualized in a diagram.

… and you can think of many more.

Modern IDEs like Visual Studio are slowly adopting alternate visualizations for code made possible by using extensions. As useful as some of these extensions are, they inherit the limitations of having to work on top of text.

If the progress on JetBrain’s Meta Programming System (MPS) is any indication of how feasible LOP will be in the future, my guess is we will be hearing a lot more from this paradigm in the years to come. A new actionscript editor, Realaxy, seems to be more than capable of competing with existing editors, and is built entirely on top of MPS.

UPDATE: Markus Voelter announced mbeddr on his blog, the C language made extensible thanks to MPS.

UPDATE: It seems the Realaxy website no longer exists (I don’t know why), thus I linked to the wikipedia article instead.

Like me you might not have time to try out MPS properly, but I can highly recommend subscribing to their blog. New screencasts are appearing at a regular basis, showcasing features ranging from implementing new language keywords to creating a visual editor for a state machine.

Language Oriented Programming

Yesterday I spent several hours thinking about a concept I have been toying with for several days. Every programming language I have ever used, has its own limitations. The past few months I have been reaching those a lot, which is part of the reason why I started this blog. It made me wonder whether a programming language could be created, which can adjust itself at any given time. One important result is that this would allow you to create new keywords for a set of operations that are used regularly, solving the problem for which now only exist workaround solutions. Another cool aspect I realized, is when you start this process from byte level, the programming language itself could be its own compiler at runtime.

As a thought experiment I tried to come up with a basic set of rules, allowing for this required flexibility. If I didn’t make any logic errors, the rules I came up with can be implemented with a surprisingly small implementation, which for now, I’ll attempt to do in C#. When this turns out fruitful, the next step would be to do the same in assembly. The C# implementation, and the assembly implementation, would be able to run the same code.

While thinking of a name for the programming paradigm I had in mind (Read as: I needed to give the newly created solution in Visual Studio a name.), I checked Wikipedia for existing ones, but didn’t find any similar ones at first. Only by a subsequent google search with some keywords I found appropriate I stumbled upon Language Oriented Programming, and I’m really excited about it! The article reflects a lot (and more) of what I was thinking about and does a really good job of explaining it. As a nice ending brainfuck quotation:

Language Oriented Programming will not just be writing programs, but also creating the languages in which to write our programs. – Sergey Dmitriev, cofounder and CEO of JetBrains Inc.