Post Mortem: robotfindskitten.com

It's Been a While

I realize it has been a while since I last posted. Mostly that is because of my little one, work, and working on personal projects as opposed to writing articles for the blog. Today I will share with you my experiences with developing one of those personal projects: robotfindskitten.com.


If you're not familiar with robotfindskitten (which 99% of you probably are not), then as a brief introduction robotfindskitten is the name of a terminal-based (i.e. text) game (nee, "zen simulation"). The object is to move the "robot" character on the screen and touch other unidentified items until you find the one that represents "kitten." The game has been ported to nearly every platform known to man. For more history on the subject, consult the official website.

The Desire

I originally stumbled upon robotfindskitten when I was in college over half a decade ago. Back then I added creating a port of the game to my bucket list. I even registered the robotfindskitten.com domain name with the intention of posting a Java applet version of the game on the web. Sadly, life got in the way, and even though I started that version it was never completed.

Fast forward to sometime in the middle of last year. There were a variety of new technologies that I have been eager to learn, but I needed a project that would allow me to try them out. Here is a short list of the technologies I wanted to learn:
  • JavaScript
  • HTML5 Canvas
  • jQuery
  • Git
  • node.js
Finally it dawned on me that there was no port of robotfindskitten using HTML5 canvas (there are, however, JavaScript and jQuery ports). This was my opportunity to learn those technologies and contribute my personal port of robotfindskitten to the world.

The Goals

On top of learning those technologies, I set a few additional goals for myself for developing my JavaScript/Canvas robotfindskitten port:
  • The implementation would be completely open source and hosted on GitHub.
  • The implementation would be created using only free tools.
  • The implementation would be created using only online development environments. See my article on Cloud IDEs for more information.
  • The implementation would be deployed to a free hosting service.
  • The main code for the robotfindskitten game itself would be pure JavaScript without any dependencies.
  • The main JavaScript code would use a module approach.
  • The game would be playable with touch controls on tablet devices.
Learning the Technologies

As I mentioned in my article on language bigotry, JavaScript was a language I have looked down on in the past. With all of the buzz on HTML5 and server technologies such as node.js, I have quickly changed my stance on that and determined that JavaScript is something I REALLY need to learn. To further that goal, I read Douglas Crockford's wonderful JavaScript: The Good Parts and Stoyan Stephanof's JavaScript Patterns. I highly recommend both books for anyone looking to quickly get up to speed with JavaScript.

For HTML5 Canvas, Git, and node.js I read a variety of tutorials on the web; sadly I do not remember which ones otherwise I would link to them.

Choosing the Right IDE

In my article on Cloud IDEs I played with a lot of different options. My needs for this project was an online IDE that could interface with Git and had good support for HTML and JavaScript. In the end, I settled on using both Cloud9 IDE and eXo Cloud IDE. Most of the work was done in Cloud9 IDE, since I preferred the command line interface to Git, the GitHub integration, its text editors and testing environment, and its simple integration with Heroku. All of the code was written in one of those two editors, and never once have the files on the robotfindskitten.com website been on my local machine.

Choosing the Right Hosting Service

The hosting needs for the website are very simple. It is pretty much a single HTML page with some JavaScript dependencies. I wanted to deploy to a cloud hosting provider in case I wanted more services and I looked mostly into Heroku. Ruby and Rails would be massive overkill for a single page application, but I had been looking into node.js and it was perfectly lightweight enough to meet my needs and give me a new tool to play with. In the end I chose to use node for my application and deploy to Heroku (which recently started hosting node.js applications).

What I Learned

I learned a lot about JavaScript. The main source code file for the application went though a number of iterations. I had the game working pretty quickly, but there were no real objects and the code was a spaghetti mess. I had decided I wanted to use the module system described in JavaScript: The Good Parts and JavaScript Patterns, so I refactored out classes using the module approach until the game was very modular. I used jQuery on the HTML page itself, but I excluded it from the robotfindskitten code because I didn't want a dependency. In fact, to create a new game all you need is rfk.js and an HTML page with a canvas and a div for displaying messages.
var canvas = document.getElementById("yourcanvasid");
var messageDiv = document.getElementById("yourmessagediv");

var rfkGame = new com.robotfindskitten.Game(canvas, messageDiv);

jQuery was pretty easy to pick up from a few examples, at least as much as I needed to use jQuery (basic references to existing tags on the page). I learned quite a bit about how to manage code with Git, and even how to do a merge.

What Went Right

Mostly everything. I was able to pick up JavaScript quite easily. Both web based IDEs worked quite well. GitHub was easy to use, as was deploying to Heroku. node.js is very simple to start up a quick application using the "Express" plugin. I learned to really like Git, except for at one point, when I really did not like Git (see below).

What Went Wrong

Most of my difficulties fell into three categories: not understanding Git, working with fonts on a Canvas, iOS quirks for touch controls.


Don't get me wrong, Git is a great tool, but at one point I was switching between the two cloud based editors and had changes from both, forcing a merge. Manually merging source files with just a text editor is a painful process. I'm sure it would have been easier if I had a merge tool, but there were none available in the online IDEs, so the manual merging process was very difficult.  

Fonts on a Canvas

Since the "graphics" in robotfindskitten are just characters drawn to the Canvas, I had to learn a lot about how text is rendered. One of the biggest difficulties I had was that Canvas only supports font metrics in pixels, and I wanted to use "em" as my units. The conversion was tricky in order to calculate the actual width and height of a character drawn on the canvas. Canvas natively supports the width of a character (using context.measureText(character).width), but provides no means to measure the height. In the end, the following code was used to calculate the height of the area the characters would be drawn in:

function calculateHeight() {
  var heightElement = document.createElement("span");
  heightElement.style.fontFamily = "Courier, Monospace";
  heightElement.style.fontSize = "1em";
  heightElement.style.position = "absolute";
  heightElement.style.visibility = "hidden";


  var body = document.getElementsByTagName("body")[0];


  var height = heightElement.offsetHeight;


  return height;

The capital letter "M" was used to calculate both the width and height because based on my research it is typically the widest and tallest character.

iOS Quirks

Late in development, after I already had the keyboard controls working, I started work on the touch controls. I used the Apple developer docs as well as several other sources to learn how 'touchstart', 'touchmove', and 'touchend' events work. My approach to determining which direction to move the robot involved three steps.
  1. When 'touchstart' was fired, I saved off a reference to the touch event so that I would know where the user initially touched the screen.
  2. When 'touchmove' was fired, I saved off a reference to that touch event so that I would know the last location where the user was touching the screen.
  3. When 'touchend' was fired, I would compare the coordinates from the start and move events to determine which direction the robot should move.
The actual code looked something like this:

  function handleTouchStart(event) {
    if (event.touches.length === 1)
      this.firstTouch = event.touches[0];

  function handleTouchMove(event) {
    if (event.changedTouches.length === 1)
      this.lastTouch = event.changedTouches[0];

  function handleTouchEnd(event) {

    var diffX = this.lastTouch.pageX - this.firstTouch.pageX;
    var diffY = this.lastTouch.pageY - this.firstTouch.pageY;

    // Code to move robot 

I coded up my implementation for controlling the robot and tested it in my local browser using Phantom Limb to simulate the touch events. All was well, and the touch controls were working.

Later that night I tested my implementation on my iPad, and things were not as good as I had originally hoped. The robot would not move. I found out that if I moved my finger and released it, then tapped again without moving, then the robot would move. Weird. Based on that behavior I concluded that 'touchend' was not being fired after 'touchmove' was called. I tested the game on an Android tablet and confirmed it worked there, so the issue had to be related to iOS. I spent a couple of days searching on and off for 'touchend' not firing, but came up blank.

Finally, I got smart. I realized that you can turn on the developer console on Safari on the iPad. I turned that on and started adding debugging statements. Turns out, 'touchend' was firing. After adding a few more debugging statements, I realized that the robot wasn't moving because the difference in where the user initially touched and where they moved their finger to was always 0. More debugging statements. At last I realize that the reason the robot is not moving is because "firstTouch" and "lastTouch" are the exact same event. It turns out, iOS (presumably to save space in a mobile environment) does not create an new even object for each touch event, but instead reuses references to a single event. Thus, "firstTouch" and "lastTouch" both pointed to the same event in memory, only its values had changed when the 'touchmove' event was fired. The solution was to explicitly save off the coordinates of the events and not the events themselves.

The final code looked like this to work around the events being the same event:

  function handleTouchStart(event) {
    if (event.touches.length === 1)
      this.firstX = event.touches[0].pageX;
      this.firstY = event.touches[0].pageY;

  function handleTouchMove(event) {
    if (event.changedTouches.length === 1)
      this.lastX = event.changedTouches[0].pageX;
      this.lastY = event.changedTouches[0].pageY;

  function handleTouchEnd(event) {

    var diffX = this.lastX - this.firstX;
    var diffY = this.lastY - this.firstY;

    // Code to move robot 


Crafting robotfindskitten.com was a wonderful experience. I learned a lot about JavaScript, Git, developing in the cloud, touch controls, and HTML5 canvas. I also scratched off an item from my bucket list. I hope you enjoy it and maybe have learned a bit from my experiences.


You're (Probably) Documenting That Wrong

Programmers Don't Like to Document Code

Code documentation is one of those tasks that software developers like to slack on. It's not the documentation that's important, it is the code that is important! Lots of developers either don't add documentation blocks or fill them in with only the basic amount of information. This post will look to address bad software documentation habits and how they can be improved.

Why Should We Document Code?

I've heard lots of arguments as to why writing code documentation is a waste of time. It takes too much time to write! The code is self-documenting! It will just be out of date by the next release, so why bother! Sure, documentation is time consuming. Agreed, well written code can be partially self documenting. Yes, if you don't have good habits in place the documentation will be out of date.

A lot of the arguments are perfectly valid if you are documenting the wrong things. Good code documentation provides a clear understanding of the contract that code will adhere to. Good code documentation will alert consumers of the code of the "gotchas" that can crop up from using it. Good code documentation will serve as a reminder for why something was done or not done.

What Should You Be Documenting Internally?

By internally I mean inside functions. This refers to code that is not part of an interface, but in the lowest level blocks of code that only developers on the same project will ever be able to see.

Internal Code that Is Hard to Understand

First, you don't need to be documenting each and every line of code in a function with what it does. If the code is not clear enough, it should be rewritten. One of the "code smells" from Martin Fowler's book Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code is too much inline documentation. If you think you need to write a lengthy treatise, first consider renaming some variables for clarity or extracting the block into a well-named method with its own documentation. That's not to say that there aren't cases where you need internal developer documentation. If the code is difficult to understand because it is a complex formula or a particularly tricky regular expression, then by all means throw some comments above it. Just don't do this:

// Adds one and one together and saves the result in a variable
int two = 1 + 1;

The "Why" and not the "How"

So we've covered not documenting how something is done unless absolutely necessary, but sometimes comments are still needed to explain why something is being done. Often far more important than how you did something is why you did it, especially if it is not immediately clear to someone unfamiliar with the code. Sometimes comments are needed because the code looks funny, or relies on a side effect elsewhere that most readers of the code wouldn't know about. Comments like the following can be extremely useful for other team members (or yourself weeks later when you forget why you wrote the code that way):

// Subtraction must be performed first to prevent an 
// off-by-one error

// The list is guaranteed to be pre-sorted as a side 
// effect of validation. We do not need to sort the 
// list again here.

// We are adding the initial database entry here 
// because we need the unique ID for <reason> before 
// we will have status. The actual database entry will
// be updated after processing with the actual status.

What Should You Be Documenting Externally?

Far more important than what you document internally is what you document externally. By externally, I mean an interface exposed to consumers (either internal through private methods, or external through public methods). While the code's interface provides a contract between the code and its consumer, the external documentation provides the finer details of that contract.

What You Should Definitely NOT Document

Before we dive in to what you should document, I think it is very important to call out exactly what you should not document. Never expose implementation details in your external documentation. Doing so can lead to a lot of the issues that developers complain about. Internal details are far more likely to change and there's a good chance someone will forget to update the documentation. Even worse, a consumer of the code might make assumptions based on the details, so if the implementation does change the user's code might be broken. Consider the following:

 * Returns an iterable object that can be used to access the 
 * individual line items in the order that have been sorted 
 * using a bubble sort.
 * @return a LinkedHashSet object that provides access to 
 *         the sorted line items in the order as an iterator.
public Iterable<LineItem> getSortedLineItems();

Not the best interface, but it serves a point. The only method you can call on Iterable is iterator(), so that is all that is really exposed to the consumer. Except, the documentation explicitly calls out which Iterable will be returned. Since the documentation is a contract, if you change the implementation of the Iterable from LinkedHashSet you will be breaking that contract. The sorting method mentioned is purely fluff; all the consumer really needs to know is that the items in the iterator are sorted. Now consider what a consumer can do with this:

LinkedHashSet<LineItem> sortedLineItems = 
  (LinkedHashSet<LineItem>) obj.getSortedLineItems();
sortedLineItems.add(new LineItem(...));

Most likely we don't want users adding new line items to the collection of sorted ones, but by documenting the actual type we allow users who want to be a little risky to try to anyway. I say risky because a few months down the road you may realize that line items don't have to be unique and so a set is not appropriate, so you switch to a LinkedList instead. You may also realize that the bubble sort is not as efficient as a quick sort and change that too. In both cases the documentation would have to be updated, and in the first case you may have just broken a consumer relying on the original documentation.

In general, make sure your code documentation is a black box that is only exposing information that its consumers really need. Avoid mentioning specific classes used for interfaces (I see ArrayList called out a lot for the List return type). Also avoid describing the algorithms used, since you might want to change them later.

Document At Minimum What the Documentation Tool Supports

So what do you want to document? Most programming languages have a documentation system that can be used to generate detailed developer documentation. Java has Javadoc, there is XML documentation for .NET, and C++ and C code can use Doxygen. In most of those cases the documentation will include a description of the class or method, any parameters it takes, the return value, and any exceptions it might throw. Make sure that you document all of these things at a very minimum.

Document Units of Measure

Here's something I see developers trip up on all the time. Consider that you're going to sell your software and I come up and hand you a contract offering to buy it for one million! Would you accept that offer? You shouldn't! One million dollars? One million pesos? One million bottle caps? There's a very vital piece of information missing from that contract: the units. At least one ~$200M space craft was lost due to using the wrong units of measure. Now considering the following piece of code:

 * Calculates the amount of time it takes to travel the 
 * distance at the speed provided.
 * @param distance the distance that will be travelled.
 * @param speed the speed at which is being travelled.
 * @return the amount of time it will take to travel the
 *        distance at the provided speed.
public static double calculateTravelTime(double distance, 
                                         double speed);

Does that look fairly standard to you. I've seen code like it at least a half of a dozen times. Since the person who wrote that was probably also the consumer it made perfect sense to him at the time. That is not a good specification though. What is the distance measured in? What is the speed measured in? What unit of time is being returned? Now consider the following:

 * Calculates the amount of of time it takes to travel the 
 * number of kilometers at the speed provided.
 * @param distanceKm the distance (in kilometers) that will 
 *        be travelled.
 * @param speedKph the speed (in kilometers per hour) at which 
 *        the distance is being travelled.
 * @return the amount of time (in minutes) it will take to 
 *         travel the distance at the provided speed.
public static double calculateTravelTime(double distanceKm, 
                                         double speedKph);

That looks a lot better and provides the missing information that consumers will need to call the method. Common places to look for missing units of measure include times, distances, sizes, amounts, weights, temperatures, and screen measurements (em vs. pixel).

Assumptions About Parameters

When we write new functions we automatically make a lot of unconscious assumptions about the parameters, especially if we are also writing the code that will be consuming that function. A lot of common assumptions we make are about the format or expected values of parameters. We expect that certain parameters will never be null. We expect that the string provided representing a phone number will be in the form "XXX-XXX-XXXX" and not "(XXX) XXX-XXXX". We expect that the number of items the user wants to add to their cart is a positive number. We expect the user's GPS latitude value to be between the range of -90 and 90. Many times we test for these assumptions, and some times we don't. The import thing is to document those assumptions though, so that consumers can know why something went wrong when they pass in bad values.

I've found it is a good practice to always document any restrictions on parameters next to the parameters themselves. I usually do it in parenthesis following the parameter description. Here is an example:

 * Records the GPS location of a phone at a specific time.
 * @param trackingTime a timestamp indicating when the phone's 
 *        GPS data was recorded (must not be null, must be in 
 *        the format "MM/dd/yyyy hh:mm:ss" with hours in 
 *        24-hour (0-23) military time).
 * @param phoneNumber the number of the phone being tracked 
 *        (must not be null, must be in the format
 *        "XXX-XXX-XXXX").
 * @param gpsLatitude the latitude of the phone at the time it 
 *        was recorded (must be in the valid range of -90 to 
 *        90 degrees).
 * @param gpsLongitude the longitude of the phone at the time 
 *        it was recorded (must be in the valid range of -180 
 *        to 180 degrees).
 * @throws NullPointerException if any parameter is null.
 * @throws IllegalArgumentException if trackingTime 
 *         or phoneNumber are not formatted 
 *         properly, or if gpsLatitude or 
 *         gpsLongitude is not in the valid range 
 *         of degrees.
public static void trackPhoneLocation(String trackingTime,
                                      String phoneNumber,
                                      double gpsLatitude,
                                      double gpsLongitude);

The Reason for Thrown Exceptions

I see this one quite a lot. Take a look at this example:

 * Updates the note about a customer in the database.
 * @param customerId the ID of the customer for which 
 *        the note will be updated (must be a valid
 *        customer ID).
 * @param note the new note for the customer (must 
 *        not be null, must not exceed 255 characters).
 * @throws NullPointerException
 * @throws IllegalArgumentException
 * @throws NamingException
 * @throws SQLException
public void updateCustomerNote(int customerId, 
                               String note);

It is nice that at least you know what checked and unchecked exceptions can be thrown from the method. Unfortunately, that's all you know. If a consumer does catch a NullPointerException thrown from this method, will they know why (especially if the message is the wonderful default "null")? Just as important as listing the exceptions is to list why they are thrown so consumers can troubleshoot their code. Consider the following revised version instead:

 * Updates the note about a customer in the database.
 * @param customerId the ID of the customer for which 
 *        the note will be updated (must be a valid
 *        customer ID).
 * @param note the new note for the customer (must 
 *        not be null, must not exceed 255 characters).
 * @throws NullPointerException if the note 
 *         parameter is null.
 * @throws IllegalArgumentException if the 
 *         note parameter exceeds its maximum
 *         length or if customerId is not a 
 *         valid customer ID.
 * @throws NamingException if there is an looking up the 
 *         database connection details from the naming 
 *         context.
 * @throws SQLException if there is an error connecting 
 *         to the database or updating the customer
 *         record.
public void updateCustomerNote(int customerId, String note);

That adds some clarity as to why an exception would be thrown and gives the user something to look for in their own code.

Null Return Values

I encountered this issue with a fairly well known API a few weeks ago. According to the documentation, I provide a URL to the function and I get an InputStream back with the contents of the file located at the URL. For the protection of the offender I offer this version:

 * Opens a connection to the provided URL and returns 
 * an InputStream that can be used to read the 
 * contents of the file located at the URL.
 * @param url the URL pointing to the file location 
 *        that the input stream will read (must not 
 *        be null).
 * @return an InputStream that can be used to read 
 *         the contents of the URL.
 * @throws NullPointerException if url 
 *         is null.
 * @throws IOException if there was an error 
 *         connecting to the file location specified 
 *         by the URL.
public static InputStream openUrl(URL url);

That seems pretty good. If the URL can't be reached, exceptions will be thrown. Ok, I can handle that. I write my code, wrap it in a try...catch block, and use the InputStream. During testing we get a NullPointerException and we trace it back to the InputStream returned from the method being null. What? Nothing in the documentation says that the InputStream returned can be null. It turns out that if the URL can be reached but the contents of the document are blank then null is returned instead of an empty InputStream. Well, instead of having to figure that out through trial and error, it would have been nice for the documentation to have read more like this:

 * Opens a connection to the provided URL and returns an 
 * InputStream that can be used to read the contents of 
 * the file located at the URL.
 * @param url the URL pointing to the file location that 
 *        the input stream will read (must not be null).
 * @return an InputStream that can be used to read the 
 *         contents of the URL, or null if the contents 
 *         of the InputStream would be empty.
 * @throws NullPointerException if url 
 *         is null.
 * @throws IOException if there was an error connecting 
 *         to the file location specified by the URL.
public static InputStream openUrl(URL url);

The general rule is that if your methods can return null, make sure that the user knows that so they can null check the response. A common offender is "search" methods that don't find a result.

All Values and Meanings of "Return Codes"

Return codes, which are integer values that represent the response from a function, have a way of slipping in at the last minute. Often a developer will realize after writing a method that the caller needs to know the result of the operation (especially if it fails), so they change "void" to "int" and return some magic number. The programmer then updates his code to make use of this number and moves on with his day, and the actual meaning of it is lost in time. Consider the following:

 * Scans a dropbox for new files and processes the files it 
 * locates.
 * @return a return code indicating the result of the dropbox 
 *         scan.
int scanDropbox();

I've seen code like that too many times before. I'm certain that the author knows what magic codes can be returned from that function, but I don't. Consider this revision:

 * Scans a dropbox for new files and processes the files it 
 * locates.
 * @return a return code indicating the result of the 
 *         dropbox scan. Possible return values include:
 *         0 -- Dropbox was empty
 *         1 -- Dropbox contained files that were processed
 *         2 -- Dropbox did not exist
 *         3 -- Dropbox could not be read
 *         4 -- An error occurred while processing a file
int scanDropbox();

That's a nice start. The next step is a bit more refactoring than it is documentation, but it really adds clarity. With a few constants declared for dropbox return values the comments and code will be much clearer:

 * Represents the return code indicating that the dropbox 
 * was empty and did not contain any files to process.
const int EMPTY = 0;

 * Represents the return code indicating that the dropbox 
 * contained files and that they were processed successfully.
const int SUCCESS = 1;

// Other return codes here

 * Scans a dropbox for new files and processes the files it 
 * locates.
 * @return a return code indicating the result of the 
 *         dropbox scan. Possible return values include:
 *         EMPTY            -- Dropbox was empty
 *         SUCCESS          -- Dropbox contained files that 
 *                             were processed
 *         ERR_NOT_FOUND    -- Dropbox did not exist
 *         ERR_CANNOT_READ  -- Dropbox could not be read
 *         ERR_FILE_PROCESS -- An error occurred while 
 *                             processing a file
int scanDropbox();

That makes the documentation and the code make more sense than the magic number return codes presented before.

Side Effects and Relationships

Code that has "side effects" (i.e. affects something other than it was intended to or that is not obvious) should definitely have the side effect documented. Side effects, in general, should be avoided. To reduce possible confusion about the side effects, always make sure that they are well documented and stand out (preferably in bold text). Additionally, if there is a relationship between two calls, such as one call cannot be made until another one is made, those relationships need to be listed. In those cases, always make sure to point out the required order of the calls and indicate exactly which method must be called first.

 * Scans the database for outstanding orders and notifies the 
 * shipping system. 
 * NOTE: This assumes that a connection to the database has 
 * already been established. Ensure that "init_db_connection()" 
 * is called prior to calling this function.
* Any error that occurs will be recording in the global * "error_code" variable and a textual description of the error * will be set in the global "error_msg_ptr" variable. */ void prepareOutstandingOrders();

Use Examples for Tricky Interfaces

Someone actually asked me the other day if it was appropriate to put code examples in the documentation. Yes! They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes a simple example code snippet can be be worth a few paragraphs. I have encountered many classes where I have read the class documentation and method documentation and still have had no idea how to use it. Usually, I end up searching Google for an example to use for clarification. For classes that are complex to use (for instance, have a lot of associations between calls, calls that have to be in specific orders, have specific "states", methods with lots of parameters, etc.) it is a good idea to show an example how of the class or is used in its own documentation. The same can be true for methods that require very specific sets of parameters. This is one of those areas where the documentation can easily become out of sync with the code, so make sure to always check for examples when you change an interface.


I hope that these tips help you to better document your code. Code documentation can take a lot of time, but really good code documentation can pay off big in providing clarity and understanding of how the code works and should be used. If you can think of anything I missed, please feel free to drop a comment.


Confessions of a Programming Language Bigot

Hi. My Name is Michael and I'm a Programming Language Bigot.

One of the things that I've come to realize is that I'm a one trick pony. It's a very good trick though, at least for the moment. I'm a Java developer. I've been doing Java development professionally for over five years, and semi-professionally for several more years than that. I have mostly worked on user interfaces, and in the past few years have migrated to Java EE and Google Web Toolkit. I taught myself Java in college while most of the formal training was in Pascal (yes, Pascal, it was a great learning language), C, and C++. I had a brief stint with a company where I did C# and ASP.NET work, but for the most part I'm a Java guy.

So where does my Java bias come from? Why Java and not Python or C#? Well, some of it comes from experience, some from politics, but most of it comes from stupidity and laziness. The following expresses my feelings about other languages over the years and why I've come to feel I was wrong. In the end, I'll summarize the root of my language bigotry and how I plan to overcome it.

Python: It Wasn't Java

Early on in my semi-professional career I encountered Python. My first paid programming job was a Java project and consisted of a desktop client and a back-end server. My job was going to be to add some features to the client and server. I would finally get to test those Java skills I honed in college! One problem: the individual whose code I inherited was a Python fan and wrote his client code using Jython (Python interpreted by Java) and the server using a Python server called Zope. None of that code was documented either. The result was a frankensteined monster of Java and Python code. I had no experience with scripting languages, so the concept of no semicolons and indentation based blocks was utterly foreign to me. So in my first "Java" job I started behind the curve and was forced to learn Python on my own time very rapidly. That left a bitter taste in my mouth for the language that still exists today.

I know several people who are very fond of the language, and a lot of great tools (like Mercurial) are built using it. I've since gone back and looked into it more and it doesn't seem that bad, but still I don't want to learn it.

C#: Java Ripped Off by the Devil

When C# first came out I loathed the language. Not that there is anything inherently anything wrong with it, but I was a serious Microsoft hater back in the day and the initial version of C# looked like a blatant Java clone that would only run on Windows. Basically, it was built by Microsoft so I wanted nothing to do with it.

Years after C#'s debut I would work for about half a year as a C# developer. I learned to kind of like C#, especially how property getters and setters are paired. C# was easy to learn coming from a Java background. I've read up a bit on LINQ and think that it is a pretty solid idea, and something I wish that would come to Java. C# also seems to evolve much faster than Java, which is a great thing. Last year I received some training in C# and was actually looking forward to starting work on a C# project, but just before my transfer I was placed on another team that needed a seasoned Java developer.

Objective-C: Square Brackets Go Where?

Like everyone and their mother and their grandmother I wanted to learn how to make apps for my iPhone. There were two great hurdles to learning how to program for the iPhone: Objective-C and XCode. Even though Objective-C is considered a "C like" language and is compatible with both C and C++, its syntax, object system, and memory model differ greatly from those languages. When I first saw Objective-C code I couldn't make heads or tails of it. I quickly got over "message passing" using square brackets, strings with "@" signs, and the weird "release/retain" memory model. I never did get the handle of the way the named parameters worked though. XCode and Interface Builder also led to my confusion. The concept of doing work in one or the other and switching back and forth, and dragging and dropping visual elements to link objects was just a bit much to me. Needless to say, I gave up.

Since XCode 4 released things seem much simpler. At least it is all in one user interface. Someday I still want to write an app for the iPhone, but it's going to take some cramming on Objective-C to get there.

Ruby: A Language About Duck Enclosures on Tracks...Or Something

As Ruby, and especially Rails, started to gain traction I began to get interested in the language. I actually started a book club for Dave Thomas' Programming Ruby book. As we progressed through the book, however, the book club became more and more lost. We all had backgrounds in C, C++, and Java, so the concepts of a weakly typed language, duck typing, and closures confused us. It takes a large shift in thought to go from strongly typed and structured code to a more dynamic language, and due to a lack of time I lost interest in Ruby.

Later on I would lead another book club about Groovy, which is a scripting language similar to Ruby with Java as its foundation. I found that by relating Groovy's implementations of weak typing and closures to facets of Java I already understood that my understanding of those features in Ruby finally snapped into place. I actually respect Ruby a lot more now that I understand what is going on. The problem for me was the large leap from Java to Ruby, but with Groovy as a stepping stone Ruby makes a lot more sense now. I'm actually looking at learning Ruby and Rails to play with on side projects.

JavaScript: Only Useful for Annoying Popups and Browser Tricks

I do have to say that if there is one language I have truly looked down on it is JavaScript. Part of it stems from the name. When I was first learning Java I tried to learn JavaScript as well because, you know, it had "Java" in it. Within the first paragraph of the JavaScript book I was reading at the time I learned that the two languages were completely unrelated and the "Java" moniker was all for marketing. Back then, there was very little that JavaScript could do. It could pop up windows, move the browser window, scroll text in the status bar, and a few other "tricks" that didn't seem to have any use to me. On top of that, the weak typing and strange classless objects were too different from what I was used to.

Fast forward to today and HTML5. My belief is no longer that JavaScript is for silly scripts or pointless web tricks. JavaScript is the way forward for most applications. More and more applications are moving into the cloud and executing the browser: image editing, word processing, full-blown software IDEs. JavaScript now stands to be the most important of all of the programming languages, which is why I've been cramming my head with as much JavaScript know-how as I can.

Lisp and Clojure: I Can't Wrap My Head Around Reverse Reverse Polish Notation

I'm lumping these two into one category because they are both functional languages. The "functional" languages have just never made sense to me. I just don't think that way. I mean, in a sense I get it. In English we say "Add one, two, and three together.", but mathematically we're using to seeing "1 + 2 + 3" though. Writing "(+ 1 2 3)" to express that same concept just seems foreign.

I haven't worked on any code that would need to make use of the functional languages, so I'm sure I'm just missing the point. Personally, I just can't imagine trying to write a user interface or any other extensive amount of code in them.

Scala and Clojure: What Part of Java Virtual Machine Did They Not Understand

Clojure gets to show up twice, because it is both a functional language and one that runs on the JVM. My initial reaction to hearing about these languages was "why?" They are designed to run on the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). Isn't there already a language that runs fine on the Java Virtual Machine? Did they miss the "J" in JVM?

I admit, this is extremely shortsighted of me. Especially since I took an interest in Groovy, which also runs on the JVM. The difference was that Groovy code makes sense to me and for the most part looks like Java code. Once again, the functional languages are hard for me to read and understand, so I was biased against Scala and Clojure because they ran on the JVM and did not look like Java code.

To be honest, I still don't know much about Scala, other than it must be fairly good since it is running one of the most popular websites of our time (Twitter). It is supposedly more succinct than Java and is completely object oriented, and both of those aspects would be welcomed by any Java developers working today.

So Why be a Bigot?

I have to say, for the most part it is not intentional. There are a number of factors that have led to my bigotry.

First, Java became my preferred language because of my ideals. I was totally down for with "write once, run anywhere" slogan. I didn't want to write in a language that only ran on Windows/Macintosh/Linux.  Back when I was learning Java I hated Windows, revered Linux, and dreamed of being able to afford a Mac. I believed that code should be portable and run on whatever operating system I had available or was forced to use. Not being a fan of Microsoft, I had no interest in the .NET languages. I didn't agree with Microsoft's philosophies so I shunned their languages. Quite honestly, I'm starting to feel the same way about my beloved Java now that Oracle has the reins.

Second, there is the matter of tooling. Java was easy to learn because there were some powerful IDEs with great tools such as code completion. IDEs and editors are another area where I have a bias (Eclipse for development, Vi for text editing). Having tools that are cheap, easy to obtain, and easy to work with made Java a better choice for me. Another black mark against the Microsoft's languages was that you needed Visual Studio, which is anything but free (I do realize there are free learning versions now). Tools for other languages also have different layouts, commands, and keyboard shortcuts.

Third, the other languages don't look like the ones I know. Learning something new can be hard, especially if it differs greatly from what you've been taught is normal. New languages come with all new syntax and semantic rules which can be completely foreign, like Python's indention based blocks, JavaScript's blocks not defining scope, Objective-C's message passing and unique memory model, or functional programming in general.

Fourth, I don't need the other languages to do my job. My company doesn't use Ruby or Python or Scala or Lisp or many of the other languages I mentioned. Having skills in those languages provides me with no immediate benefits.

Lastly, the other languages pose a threat to my preferred language. Every week I see another blog post with the headline "Java Is Dead: Long Live Scala/C#/Ruby/Etc." What if one of those languages does manage to surpass Java? Java is my favorite language and the one I use professionally to put food on the table. All the years of knowledge I've gained about Java could all be thrown out if one of these other languages does gain a significant foothold.

The Ultimate Root of My Bigotry

With the exception of the ideals, there is one root to all of my bigotry: time. I lack it. Learning a new language takes time, especially if that language is vastly different from the languages you already know. It takes time to learn new concepts. It is not that I'm too dumb to learn new languages and concepts, it is that I'm too dumb to take the time try to learn them. It is far easier to downplay a language than to take the time to learn it.

With the exception of perhaps the functional languages, the worst part of learning a new language isn't even the language itself (syntax is easy); the worst part about learning a new language is learning the huge set of libraries. I know a ton of different Java libraries, and it has taken a long time to gain that knowledge. Learning the equivalent libraries in a different language is a time consuming prospect, so its easier to just dismiss learning the language, especially if you have no immediate use for it.

Learning new IDEs and editors also suffers from the same time constraints. I know Eclipse's shortcuts by heart. Every time I use NetBeans I am completely lost and frustrated. That doesn't mean that NetBeans is a bad IDE, it just means that I don't want to take the time to relearn everything I already know how to do very well. The same is true for Vi vs. Emacs. I learned Vi first and I am decently adept at it, and every time I'm forced to use Emacs I can't figure anything out, including how to exit it (I looked this up after writing this and now know how). I know people who swear by Emacs, but I just haven't taken the time to learn it.

The Cost of Programming Language Bigotry

So what is the downside to all of my bigoted ways? This whole article was spurned by my renewed interest in JavaScript. Like I said, it looks like web applications are the way forward, so going forward means casting aside my old feelings about that language and taking a fresh look at it. My fear is that if I don't, I'll get left behind when software development moves in that direction.

In the beginning I mentioned that I've come to view myself as a one trick pony (that trick being Java development). Right now that is a solid position to be in, and I don't see Java going away any time soon. Some day that trick won't be as useful though, and if I don't learn any new ones then I'm afraid I'll be like the developers who stuck with COBOL or FORTRAN because those were the only languages they needed. Those people are most likely out of jobs and can't find new ones with their skill set (and with the recent layoffs in the space program, I actually know that some of them are in that position).

Who knows, if I stuck with Objective-C I might be making the big bucks as an app developer (I seriously doubt this).

Really good programmers are lifelong learners and keep their skills up to date. While I've definitely done this in regard to Java, I've spurned other languages in the process. It turns out, those other languages are quickly becoming more applicable. Java 8 is set to include closures. When I first encountered closures in Ruby they were foreign and made no sense, so I didn't care for them. After seeing them in Groovy I started to understand the power of closures, and now I'm excited about the fact they will be coming to Java. Without that exposure from other languages I probably would have a hard time understanding closures when they do come to the one language I'm most familiar with as it evolves.


So how I am going to overcome my past views? Well, part of it is just carving out time to learn new things and being more open to learning them. Using an e-reader and my phone I've already read a couple of great JavaScript books (Douglas Crockford's JavaScript: The Good Parts being a fantastic quick read). I've started experimenting with JavaScript to learn it better. I'm ramping up to start learning Ruby and Rails and challenged myself with a simple project. I'm even challenging myself to learn TextMate just to have a different editor under my belt. I just don't want my old views to affect my future value as a developer going forward.

Still, don't expect me to be writing Lisp or Python code in Emacs any time soon...I only have enough time for my open mindedness to go so far :)