Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Pushing Smalltalk

The next meeting of the Toronto Smalltalk User Group is May 9 with Don MacQueen talking about JWARS.
See the web site for details.

I've been involved with the Toronto Smalltalk User Group for 20 years now, the past dozen or so as the primary organizer. Lately we've had a few people show up that were new to Smalltalk and wanted to learn more. We talk to them about the simple syntax, show them Pharo and Seaside, tell them about the other dialects, and try whatever we can to get them enthused.

But there is one core strength that I value which I cannot easily demo: the lack of brick walls.

When working with tools like MS's Visual Studio, I'm constantly frustrated by the lack of universal object inspection and 'down to primitive' code tracking. Coding something new and with unfamiliar APIs gets a bit messy. You don't always know what you need until you trip over its absence. I find myself adding diagnostic code to show me stuff, which in Smalltalk I'd just debug and inspect. And sometimes in VS you just can't get what you want; you hit a brick wall. If it were not for Google and people posting esoteric workarounds, I don't know how I'd get anything done. And I love the examples that say "don't forget the comma, or else it won't work"... no error message, no warning, just no output.

Thing is, that's not the kind of thing you appreciate until you try something complex, which does not happen to a new user. I wonder if we would benefit from having code examples with pre-defined bugs, written in various languages, and then using them to show how you'd debug the problem. Show just how few barriers we have in Smalltalk to understanding what is going on in our code (and, more importantly, in other people's code).

I used to tell people that I saw a lot of similarity between programming in MVS 360 assembler and Smalltalk. For me, transparency was the big stick that I could use to whack the problem. From what I've seen of other IDEs (an admittedly short list), Smalltalk still does that the best.

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