Critique of the Perl 6 RFC Process

Table of Contents
Problems with Proposals of Major Changes

Problems with Proposals of Minor Changes

Miscellaneous Problems

Overall Problems

Bottom Line

A Very Brief Summary

Discussion of major changes is pointless in the absence of a familiarity with internals and implementations.

Discussion of minor changes leads to a whole bunch of minor changes which don't end up signifying a whole lot.

Discussion was frequently disregarded by proposal authors.

Problems with Proposals of Major Changes

Somewhere in the middle of the RFC process, I posted a satirical RFC proposing that cars should get 200 miles per gallon of gasoline. I earnestly enumerated all the reasons why this would be a good idea. Then I finished by saying

I confess that I'm not an expert in how cars work. Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb and assert that this will be relatively easy to implement, with relatively few entangling side-issues.

This characterizes a common problem with many of the RFCs. Alan Perlis, a famous wizard, once said:

When someone says ``I want a programming language in which I need only say what I wish done,'' give him a lollipop.

Although it may sometimes seem that when we program a computer we are playing with the purest and most perfectly malleable idea-stuff, bending it into whatever shape we desire, it isn't really so. Code is a very forgiving medium, much easier to work than metal or stone. But it still has its limitations. When someone says that they want hashes to carry a sorting order, and to always produce items in sorted order, they have failed to understand those limitations. Yes, it would be fabulous to have a hash which preserves order and has fast lookup and fast insert and delete and which will also fry eggs for you, but we don't know how to do that. We have to settle for the things that we do know how to do. Many proposals were totally out of line with reality. It didn't matter how pretty such a proposal sounds, or even if Larry accepts it. If nobody knows how to do it, it is not going to go in.

Back in August I read the IMPLEMENTATION section of the 166s RFC that were then extant.

15/166 had no implementation section at all. 14/166 had an extensive implementation section that neglected to discuss the implementation at all, and instead discussed the programming language interface. 16/166 contained a very brief remark to the effect that the implementation would be simple, which might or might not have been true.

34 of 166 RFCs had a very brief section with no substantive discussion or a protestation of ignorance:

``Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not an engineer!''

``I'll leave that to the internals guys. :-) ''

``I've no real concrete ideas on this, sorry.''

RFC 128 proposed a major extension of subroutine prototypes, and then, in the implementation section, said only ``Definitely S.E.P.''. (``Someone Else's Problem'')

I think this flippant attitude to implementation was a big problem in the RFC process for several reasons.

It leads to a who-will-bell-the-cat syndrome, in which people propose all sorts of impossible features and then have extensive discussions about the minutiae of these things that will never be implemented in any form. You can waste an awful lot of time discussing whether you want your skyhooks painted blue or red, and in the RFC mailing lists, people did exactly this.

It distracts attention from concrete implementation discussion about the real possible tradeoffs. In my opinion, it was not very smart to start a perl6-internals list so soon, because that suggested that the other lists were not for discussion of internals. As a result, a lot of the discussion that went on on the perl6-language-* lists bore no apparent relation to any known universe. One way to fix this might have been to require every language list to have at least one liaison with the internals list, someone who had actually done some implementation work and had at least a vague sense of what was possible.

Finally, on a personal note, I found this flippancy annoying. There are a lot of people around who do have some understanding of the Perl internals. An RFC author who knows that he does not understand the internals should not have a lot of trouble finding someone to consult with, to ask basic questions like ``Do you think this could be made to work?'' As regex group chair, I offered more than once to hook up RFC authors with experienced Perl developers. RFC authors did not bother to do this themselves, preferring to write ``S.E.P.'' and ``I have no idea how difficult this would be to implement'' and ``Dunno''. We could have done better here, but we were too lazy to bother.

Problems with Proposals of Minor Changes

Translation Issues Ignored or Disregarded

Translation issues were frequently ignored. Larry has promised that 80% of Perl 5 programs would be translatable to Perl 6 with 100% compatibility, and 95% with 95% compatibility. Several proposals were advanced which would have changed Perl so as to render many programs essentially untranslatable. If the authors considered such programs to be in the missing 5%, they never said so.

Even when the translation issues were not entirely ignored, they were almost invariably incomplete. For example, RFC 74 proposed a simple change: Rename import and unimport to be IMPORT and UNIMPORT, to make them consistent with the other all-capitals subroutine names that are reserved to Perl. It's not clear what the benefit of this is, since as far as I know nobody has ever reported that they tried to write an import subroutine and then were bitten by the special meaning that Perl attaches to this name, but let's ignore this and suppose that the change is actually useful.

The MIGRATION section of this RFC says, in full:

The Perl5 -> Perl6 translator should provide a import alias for the IMPORT routine to ease migration. Likewise for unimport.

It's not really clear what that means, unless you suppose that the author got it backwards. A Perl 5 module being translated already has an import routine, so it does not need an import alias. Instead, it needs an IMPORT alias that points at import, which it already has. Then when it is run under perl6, Perl will try to call the IMPORT routine, and, because of the alias, it will get the import routine that is actually there.

Now, what if this perl5 module already has an IMPORT subroutine also? Then you can't make IMPORT an alias for import because you must clobber the real IMPORT to do so. Maybe you can rename the original IMPORT and call it _perl5_IMPORT. Now you have broken the following code:

        $x = 'IMPORT';
        &$x(...);

because now the code calls import instead of the thing you now call _perl5_IMPORT. It's easy to construct many cases that are similarly untranslatable.

None of these cases are likely to be common. That is not the point. The point is that the author apparently didn't give any thought to whether they were common or not; it seems that he didn't get that far. Lest anyone think that I'm picking on this author in particular (and I'm really not, because the problem was nearly universal) I'll just point out that a well-known Perl expert had the same problem in RFC 271. As I said in email to this person, the rule of thumb for the MIGRATION ISSUES section is that 'None' is always the wrong answer.

An Anecdote About Translation Issues

Here's a related issue, which is somewhat involved, but which I think perfectly demonstrates the unrealistic attitudes and poor understanding of translation issues and Larry's compatibility promises.

Perl 5 has an eval function which takes a string argument, compiles the string as Perl code, and executes it. I pointed out that if you want a Perl 5 program to have the same behavior after it is translated, eval'ed code will have to be executed with Perl 5 semantics, not Perl 6 semantics. Presumably the Perl 6 eval will interpret its argument as a Perl 6 program, not a Perl 5 program.

For example, the Memoize module constructs an anonymous subroutine like this:

    my $wrapper = eval "sub $proto { unshift \@_, qq{$cref}; 
                                     goto &_memoizer; }";

Suppose hypothetically that the unshift function has been eliminated from Perl 6, and that Perl 5 programs that use unshift are translated so that

        unshift @array, LIST

becomes

        splice @array, 0, 0, LIST

instead. Suppose that Memoize.pm has been translated similarly, but the unshift in the statement above cannot be translated because it is part of a string. If Memoize.pm is going to continue working, the unshift in the string above will need to be interpreted as a Perl 5 unshift (which modifies an array) instead of as a Perl 6 unshift (which generates a compile-time error.)

The easy solution to this is that when the translator sees eval in a Perl 5 program, it should not translate it to eval, but instead to perl5_eval. perl5_eval would be a subroutine that would call the Perl5-to-Perl6 translator on the argument string, and then the built-in (Perl 6) eval function on the result.

A number of people objected to this, and see if you can guess why: Performance!

I found this incredible. Apparently these people all come from the planet where it is more important for the program to finish as quickly as possible than for it to do what it was intended to do.

Tunnel Vision

Probably the largest and most general problem with the proposals themselves was a lack of overall focus in the ideas put forward. Here is a summary of a typical RFC:

Feature XYZ of Perl has always bothered me. I do task xyzpdq all the time and XYZ is not quite right for it; I have to use two lines of code instead of only one. So I propose that XYZ change to XY'Z instead.

RFCs 148 and 272 are a really excellent example of this. They propose two versions of the same thing, each author having apparently solved his little piece of the problem without considering that the Right Thing is to aim for a little more generality. RFC 262 is also a good example, and there are many, many others.

Now, fixing minor problems with feature XYZ, whatever it is, is not necessarily a bad idea. The problem is that so many of the solutions for these problems were so out of proportion to the size of the problem that they were trying to solve. Usually the solution was abetted by some syntactic enormity.

The subsequent discussions would usually discover weird cases of tunnel vision. One might say to the author that the solution they proposed seemed too heavyweight to suit the problem, like squashing a mosquito with a sledgehammer. But often the proponent wouldn't be able to see that, because for them, this was an unusually annoying mosquito. People would point out that with a few changes, the proposal could also be extended to cover a slightly different task, xyz'pdq, also, and the proponent would sometimes reply that they doesn't consider that to be an important problem to solve.

It's all right to be so short-sighted when you're designing software for yourself, but when you design a language that will be used by thousands or millions of people, you have to have more economy. Every feature has a cost in implementation and maintenance and documentation and education, so the language designer has to make every feature count. If a feature isn't widely useful to many people for many different kinds of tasks, it has negative value. In the limit, to accomplish all the things that people want from a language, unless most of your features are powerful and flexible, you have to include so very many of them that the language becomes an impossible morass. (Of course, there is another theory which states that this has already happened.)

This came as no surprise to me. I maintain the Memoize module, which is fairly popular. People would frequently send me mail asking me to add a certain feature, such as timed expiration of cached data. I would reply that I didn't want to do that, because it would slow down the module for everyone, and it would not help the next time I got a similar but slightly different request, such as a request for data that expires when it has been used a fixed number of times. The response was invariably along the lines of ``But what would anyone want to do that for?'' And then the following week I would get mail from someone else asking for expiration of data after it had been used a fixed number of times, and I would say that I didn't want to put this in because it wouldn't help people with the problem of timed expiration and the response would be exactly the same. A module author must be good at foreseeing this sort of thing, and good at finding the best compromise solution for everyone's problems, not just the butt-pimple of the week. A language designer must be even better at doing this, because many, many people will be stuck with the language for years. Many of the people producing RFCs were really, really bad at it.

Miscellaneous Problems

Lack of Familiarity with Prior Art

Many of the people proposing features had apparently never worked in any language other than Perl. Many features were proposed that had been tried in other language and found deficient in one way or another. (For example, the Ruby language has a feature similar to that proposed in RFC 162.) Of course, not everyone knows a lot of other languages, and one has to expect that. It wouldn't have been so bad if the proponents had been more willing to revise their ideas in light of the evidence.

Worse, many of the people proposing new features appeared not to be familiar with Perl. RFC 105 proposed a change that had already been applied to Perl 5.6. RFC 158 proposed semantics for $& that had already been introduced in Perl 5.000.

Too Much Syntax

Too many of the proposals focused on trivial syntactic issues. This isn't to suggest that all the syntactic RFCs were trivial. I particularly appreciated RFC 9's heroic attempt to solve the reference syntax mess.

An outstanding example of this type of RFC: The author of RFC 274 apparently didn't like the /${foo}bar/ syntax for separating a variable interpolation from a literal string in a regex, because he proposed a new syntax, /$foo(?)bar/. Wonderful, because then when Perl 7 comes along we can have an RFC that complains that "${foo}bar" works in double-quoted strings but "$foo(?)bar" does not, points out that beginners are frequently confused by this exception, and proposes to fix it by making "(?)" special in double-quoted strings as well.

This also stands out as a particularly bad example of the problem of the previous section, in which the author is apparently unfamiliar with Perl. Why? Because the syntaxes /$foo(?:)bar/ and /$foo(?=)bar/ both work today and do what RFC 274 wanted to do, at the cost of one extra character. (This part of the proposal was later withdrawn.)

Working Group Chairs Useless

Maybe 'regex language working group chair' is a good thing to put on your résumé, but I don't think I'll be doing that soon, because when you put something like that on your résumé, you always run the risk that an interviewer will ask what it actually means, and if that happened to me I would have to say that I didn't know. I asked on the perl6-meta list what the working group chair's duties were, and it turned out that nobody else knew, either.

Working group chairs are an interesting idea. Some effort was made to chose experienced people to fill the positions. This effort was wasted because there was nothing for these people to do once they were appointed. They participated in the discussions, which was valuable, but calling them 'working group chairs' did not add anything.

Overall Problems

Discussion was of Unnecessarily Low Quality

The biggest problem with the discussion process was that it was essentially pointless, except perhaps insofar as it may have amused a lot of people for a few weeks. What I mean by 'pointless' is that I think the same outcome would have been achieved more quickly and less wastefully by having everyone mail their proposals directly to Larry.

Much of the discussion that I saw was of poor quality because of lack of familiarity with other languages, with Perl, with basic data structures, and so forth.

But I should not complain too much about this because many ill-informed people were still trying in good faith to have a reasonable discussion of the issues involved. That is all we can really ask for. Much worse offenses were committed regularly.

I got really tired of seeing people's suggestions answered with 'Blecch'. Even the silliest proposal does not deserve to be answered with 'Blecch'. No matter how persuasive or pleasing to the ear, it's hard to see 'Blecch' as anything except a crutch for someone who's too lazy to think of a serious technical criticism.

The RFC author's counterpart of this tactic was to describe their own proposal as 'more intuitive' and 'elegant' and everything else as 'counter-intuitive' and 'ugly'. 'Elegant' appears to be RFCese for 'I don't have any concrete reason for believing that this would be better, but I like it anyway.'

Several times I saw people respond to technical criticism of their proposals by saying something like ``It is just a proposal'' or ``It is only a request for comments''. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but that sounds to me like an RFC author who is becoming defensive, and who is not going to listen to anyone else's advice.

One pleasant surprise is that the RFCs were mostly free of references to the 'beginners'; I only wish it had been as rare in the following discussion. One exasperated poster said:

``Beginners are confused by X'' is a decent bolstering argument as to why X should be changed, but it's a lousy primary argument.

A final bright point: I don't think Hitler was invoked at any point in the discussion.

Too Much Criticism and Discussion was Ignored by RFC Authors

Here's probably the most serious problem of the whole discussion process: Much of the criticism that wasn't low-quality was ignored anyway; it was not even incorporated into subsequent revisions of the RFCs. And why should it have been? No RFC proponent stood to derive any benefit from incorporating criticism, or even reading it.

Suppose you had a nifty idea for Perl 6, and you wrote an RFC. Then three people pointed out problems with your proposal. You might withdraw the RFC, or try to fix the problem, and a few people did actually do these things. But most people did not, or tried for a while and then stopped. Why bother? There was no point to withdrawing an RFC, because if you left it in, Larry might accept it anyway. Kill 'em all and Larry sort 'em out!

As a thought experiment, let's try to give the working group chairs some meaning by giving them the power to order the withdrawal of a proposal. Now the chair can tell a recalcitrant proposer that their precious RFC will be withdrawn if they don't update it, or if they don't answer the objections that were raised, or if they don't do some research into feasible implementations. Very good. The proposal is forcibly withdrawn? So what? It is still on the web site. Larry will probably look at it anyway, whether or not it is labeled 'withdrawn'.

So we ended up with 360 RFCs, some contradictory, some overlapping, just what you would expect to come out of a group of several hundred people who had their fingers stuck in their ears shouting LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU.

Bottom Line

I almost didn't write this article, for several reasons: I didn't have anything good to say about the process, and I didn't have much constructive advice to offer either. I was afraid that it wouldn't be useful without examples, but I didn't want to have to select examples because I didn't want people to feel like I was picking on them.

However, my discussions with other people who had been involved in the process revealed that many other people had been troubled by the same problems that I had. They seemed to harbor the same doubts that I did about whether anything useful was being accomplished, and sometimes asked me what I thought.

I always said (with considerable regret) that I did not think it was useful, but that Larry might yet prove me wrong and salvage something worthwhile from the whole mess. Larry's past track record at figuring out what Perl should be like has been fabulous, and I trust his judgment. If anyone is well-qualified to distill something of value from the 360 RFCs and ensuing discussion, it is Larry Wall.

That is the other reason to skip writing the article: My feelings about the usefulness of the process are ultimately unimportant. If Larry feels that the exercise was worthwhile and produced useful material for him to sort through, then it was a success, no matter how annoying it was to me or anyone else.

Nevertheless, we might one day do it all over again for Perl 7. I would like to think that if that day comes we would be able to serve Larry a little better than we did this time.

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