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7 programming languages we love to hate -- but can’t live without

Peter Wayner | May 24, 2016
Tools masquerading as languages, maddening syntax, dusty code that won’t die -- here's what has us shaking our fists.

The well-meaning advice to not carry a grudge certainly didn’t come from anyone who’s wrestled with a computer for a living. Toil for anytime with the infernal logic of a programming language and you’ll know the horrors of the inky void where the worst bugs dwell.

Sure, everyone loves a computer language when they first encounter it. And why wouldn’t we, with all those “hello world” examples that show how powerful the language can be in three lines of code. Programming languages are defined to be implicitly logical, but that doesn’t mean they spread logic everywhere they go. A pleasant barkeep may make the lives of everyone at the bar happier. A brave firefighter radiates bravery. But the logical mechanisms of programming languages often breed illogic, confusion, and doubt.

It’s not, well, logical to say that languages are -- Spock pause -- illogical, but we say it anyway because we know that logic has its limits. From Gödel and Turing, we’ve learned that logical mechanisms have edges where scary things occur. Sure, maybe it’s our own fault, we humans, for misusing or misprogramming. But if the programming languages force our brains into weird yoga poses, it’s hard not to blame them for our ills.

And we often can’t do anything about it. The installed base may be too large for us to jettison the language that irks us. The boss may love a stack so much he can’t hear the screams coming from the cubicle farms. The cruel truth is that there may be no better options. We’re already using the best tools that humans can build.

Following are seven programming languages we love to hate but can’t live without.

Language we love to hate: C

There are so many issues with a language that might better be called “portable assembler” than a full computer language. Does anyone like writing separate header files? Has anyone used the preprocessor for something elaborate without going slightly mad?

In theory, we’re supposed to be able to use the power of the pointer arithmetic to do superclever feats, but does anyone risk doing more than allocating data structures? Is it even a good idea to be too clever with pointers? That’s how code starts to break. If you’re able to be clever, it often requires writing a very long comment to document it, pretty much sucking up all the time you saved being clever. Can anyone remember all the rules for writing C code to avoid adding all the possible security holes, like buffer overruns?

But we have no choice. Unix is written in C, and it runs most cellphones and most of the cloud. Not everyone who writes code for these platforms needs to use C, but someone has to stay current with the asterisks and curly brackets, or else everything will fall apart. Then there are the device drivers and other embedded programs. Someone has to shoulder the load of keeping the Linux/Unix code base moving forward.

 

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