Here’s a question … why is Erlang so ugly?

I don’t mean that in a pejorative way (not much, anyway). I mean, I really love what it does. I’m totally impressed with Erlang’s power and simplicity. I’m writing simulations which are about a quarter of the size of the Python equivalent. So this is not to be taken as a criticism of Erlang which I’m definitely committing myself to, this year. Rather this is some random speculation about programming language aesthetics.

Erlang is wonderfully concise. And yet, somehow, unlike Python, unlike Haskell, it just doesn’t come across as beautiful. It’s confusing. It looks cluttered.

A couple of lines look fabulous. But the simplicity doesn’t scale.

At first guess, there seem to be three issues.

a) As people have noted, the record type is ugly. It is. And counter-intuitive to use in patterns (although I may just be stupid).

b) In general I think it’s good and brave thing to take a stance *against* objects. But I haven’t figured out how to do encapsulation (data-hiding, abstract types)

Sure, I can define polymorphic functions (one clause at a time per input type) which is a lot shorter and more powerful than overloaded methods in Java. But it has the effect of jumbling all my data-types together. Which just feels *wrong* to me. (Of course, maybe that’s some residual OOness in my thinking.)

But I think that may be part of the bigger issue :

c) erlang doesn’t seem to have resources for “programming in the large”. And, ironically, because erlang is so powerful, that problem becomes visible at a smaller scale – precisely because in erlang “large” programs are actually “small”.

Or rather, the only resource is “modules” (which means breaking up into multiple files – always an extra overhead.)

But if you avoid breaking things up into files, the opposite problem becomes apparent. I can do the equivalent of a small Java class (let’s say something around 50-80 lines) in about 6 to 10 lines of Erlang. But 10 lines of erlang is too small for a separate file. So I’ll add the next 10 line packet of functionality to the same file. By the time I’m up to 4 or 5 packets that would be handled as different classes in Java or Python I may have written only about 50 lines of code … but it’s all running together!

There’s no higher level of organization to distinguish and separate the code. In Python I often put 5 or 6 small-medium classes in a single file or around 300-500 lines. But the indentation and editor make these reasonably distinct and identifiable. In contrast, my equivalent 200 lines of Erlang have no visual cues to break them up. I can’t use functions as a visual element because pretty much every line is a new function (except when I’m doing I/O, which has its own “issues”).

I’m left with using comments but my editor (Komodo), excellent in many ways, doesn’t actually know Erlang and so doesn’t colour them differently. And, in general, because functions are powerful, they *are* short : one or two lines. But those lines are typically much denser than Python. Even if a dedicated editor would colourize them, I’m not convinced that’s such a big win at this density. On the other hand, I don’t want to artificially scatter them out into multiple lines. I’m not trying to recreate Python with a slightly less appropriate syntax. I want to take advantage of Erlang’s power and conciseness.

But I wonder what the right aesthetics for a language as high level, dense and abstract as Erlang is. Haskell looks cleaner to me – maybe because it does abstract data-types right. But can it solve the problem of organizing your larger-scale things? Lisp is no role-model. ML and its offspring have always repelled me visually. (Nothing can be more ugly, dispiriting and patronizing in a programming language than an explicit “begin” statement.)

Suggestions, anyone?

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  1. Thanks Sean.

    Interesting links. The first, initially, reminded me of the Language Oriented Programming that’s coming from the IntelliJ crowd. But then I realized you were actually suggesting far more than that.

    I’m definitely driven by a lot of the same frustrations. The longer term project I’m working on (think GeekWeaver meets SdiDesk) is meant to address some of them (within my horizon of do-ability).

    As for colour, I’d say the real question is how you *input* it. Using the keyboard is it going to be easier to write in colour than to add some some other syntactic convention?

    Very intriguing ideas though. I hope you’ll start developing them. I’ll follow with much interest.

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