[TUHS] Follow-on to the Pascal/C/etc. discussion

Jon Steinhart jon at fourwinds.com
Sat Sep 2 09:29:22 AEST 2017

Hi everybody.  I'm new to this list as a side-effect of my question about
the provenance of strcmp and the convention of returning <0, 0, >0.

I had to learn Pascal as a freshman in college which was challenging coming
from BTL knowing C.  Kept wondering how Pascal could be used for anything
useful.  The answer that I later saw in industry was "by adding non-standard

Language discussions often turn to the issue of whether programming languages
should prevent programmers from making mistakes or whether that's the job of
the programmer.  This is, of course, independent of discussing the
expressiveness of languages.

I agree that a lot of "programming" today consists of trusting and bolting
together random library functions.  That's not me; I often work on safety
critical devices and I'm not going to rely on libraries of unknown provenance
when building a medical device that I make be hooked up to it someday.

Years ago I inherited a project written in hodgepodge of programming languages
including ruby.  My first reaction to ruby was "Wow, how do I get some of
what they're smoking because it's better than anything I have?"  I eventually
asked Ward Cunningham about it because he was working for ruby house AboutUs
at the time.  His answer went something like this:

 Jon, you're an engineer and you understand engineering.
 You know programming and programmers and understand programming.
 Then, there are the people with whom we entrust our confidential credit card data.
 That's what ruby is for.

This nicely summarized the current state of affairs in which the most critical
tasks are assigned to the least competent people.  I see this as a management,
business, and political problem which can't be solved by different languages.

I have often made the statement that "I would never hire someone who had to use
glibc in order to implement a singly-linked list."  I get push-back such as "Oh,
and people can create bugs rather than using the debugged library?" to which I
glibly respond "debugged library like OpenSSL?"

I am more than a little terrified by the "everybody must learn to code in high
school movement".  What they're learning is something at a level akin to the
ruby example above.  The goal is clearly to make "coding" a minimum wage job
and to many the distinction between "coding" and engineering is lost.  I've
spoken with many kids in the "future engineer" category who are frustrated at
the lack of depth in the curriculum.  I'd summarize it as teaching people to
program without teaching them anything about computers.

Anyway, I have been volunteering to teach technology to kids for years as
karmic payback to my BTL explorer scout advisors Carl Christensen, Heinz
Lycklama, and Hans Lie.  Not to mention all of the amazing people that I met
there when my dedication to hitchhiking up the the Labs after school and
talking people into signing me in turned into a series of summer jobs.
I'm in the process of turning my class notes into a book.  The goal of the
book is to teach kids enough about computers that they can understand what
their code is actually doing and why one can write better code with an
understanding of the hardware and environment.

The book is in the editing phase so it's beyond wholesale changes.  But I'm
curious as to what you all think should be in such a book as I'll find a way
to wedge in anything important that I missed.


More information about the TUHS mailing list