Powerful HLL Features


When I was at MusicRebellion I tried to automate a lot of things in code to make my life easier. At the time, the work was mostly done in Java, which has pretty good support for reflection, or introspection, or so I thought. Introspection is necessary to do a lot of automation. If you want to auto assign variables from configuration files without having to rewrite code in multiple places each time a new variable is added, you need introspection. Although my code mostly worked, I did have problems. Some of it had to do with permissions on variables. Some of the trouble was just because using introspection in Java was a lot of work. After I left that project, I decided that too much power was bad. I later changed my mind.

The trouble with Java's reflection is it gives you enough power to get 80% of the way there, but you can't quite finish the job, at least not painfully. It's like having a saw that cuts half way through a piece of wood. You get stuck and try to back out, but you can't so you try to go forward. Pretty soon your nice neat cut has turned into an awful mess. So you throw it all away and go for round two. But you cut yourself the second time. Finally, you give up, cursing all the while.

Then I met Python. Python's introspection is built right into the language. You don't need any special packages. Even if you choose not to explicitly use it, it's there hiding in the special functions every object has. It's just so much easier and more natural. Although I don't know Ruby very well yet, sometimes when I look at examples, I'm not even sure what's code and what's data. There may not be an enormous difference. Lisp is the ultimate conclusion of introspecting a language, even though it's been around for a bit longer. There is no difference at all between code and data. That's where much of its power comes from.

So I said I changed my mind. What it comes down to is this: if you're going to use reflection, you have to go all the way. It has to be an innate part of the language. You can't just add it in as module or a wimpy feature. Partial reflection is worse than none at all.


Another powerful feature of high level languages are the many levels of indirection. Have you ever thought about what happens when you invoke a function in C versus what happens when you invoke a function in Python? Not much happens in C. The compiler may push a few registers on the stack and set up a stack frame. That's about it. Sure it's great if you're worried about speed.

In a language like Python, there's much more going on underneath. The interpreter needs to make sure it has a definition for the symbol. Then it has to figure out what you're trying to do with the symbol. Are you assigning it or invoking it. Since functions are objects too, you might even be accessing a member variable. You have more power in the types of data that can be passed to and returned from Python functions. I haven't looked at the implementation, but there may be issues with how exceptions are handled at the entrance and exit of functions. Before any symbol is used, Python has special functions you can write which execute just before any action is taken. Inheritance and polymorphism allow further indirection.

Each of these features will increase code and slow things down, but it gives the developer all kinds of power. In C, many functions often have hooks. This allows you and me and your sister to have control over library functions we didn't write. But if the library developer didn't put in a hook, you're out of luck. Python and many modern languages essentially has these hooks built into every function and variable. You might write 10000 lines of code and suddenly realize you have to change one thing in 75 different places. Often, in a high level language you can get around the problem by simply making the change in one place. This magical place is that code between where the interpreter first sees your symbol and where the function is actually invoked. That magical place doesn't exist in C. There is only a jump to a memory address and a new stack frame. That's all. You can't sneak any special code in there, which means you'll need to change all 75 lines. I hope you have mastered EMACS macros.