People of Perl 6: Carl Mäsak

Carl Mäsak is a developer of Rakudo Perl 6 and arguably the most dedicated bug wrangler. He's contributed to more bug reports than anyone else. If you find that Rakudo does not do as you expect, you'll likely talk to him on #perl6 for help triaging and categorizing your bug.

In his own words, here's how he's helped make Perl 6 real.

What's your background?

I spent my teens learning programming by writing hundreds of small graphical games in BASIC. A combination of university studies and employment has given me a more solid foundation in programming, but I'm still catching up on the theory in many places.

What's your primary interest in Perl 6?

Helping bring it from the world of ideas into the world of implementations. As part of that, helping build up all the things around the implementations: libraries, tooling, documentation, culture. Making Perl 6 practically usable.

When did you start contributing to Perl 6?

I got pulled in during the early Pugs days in 2005, but only staying on the outskirts of the community. I saw with regret how the Pugs development slowed and stopped during 2007, and with growing excitement how the Rakudo development got going in 2008. My real entrance as a contributor was that summer, when I secretly co-wrote a wiki engine on top of Rakudo.

What have you worked on?

A wiki engine (November), a 3-d connection game (Druid), a Perl 6 project installer (proto), a set of web development modules (Web.pm), a grammar engine (GGE), and a dozen smaller modules and projects.

I also occasionally contribute commits to Rakudo, to the Perl 6 specification, and I regularly blog about the progress and culture of Perl 6. My biggest single contribution is probably submitting hundreds of Rakudo bugs that I or others have found in the course of using Rakudo Perl 6.

What feature was your moment of epiphany with Perl 6?

I just remember being awed by the visionary tone and promise of the Apocalypses as they were rolled out. I no longer have any memory of like one particular feature more than the others. Since I program more in Perl 6 than in any other language nowadays, I tend to take them for granted. :)

What feature of Perl 6 will (and should) other languages steal?

I think the new regex/grammar features will be so attractive that other languages won't be able to keep their grubby hands off them. Of course, they also won't get the pervasiveness of regexes and grammars just by tacking them onto an existing language.

What has surprised you about the process of design?

Primarily the extremely low amounts of vandalism, considering that hundreds of people have write access to the documents which specify the language itself. Accidental damage is also often quickly corrected, and more subtle errors get discovered and corrected in a wiki-like manner in the long term.

I've also gained a new respect for what a "holistic" process the design of a language such as Perl 6 can be sometimes. Whether some feature turns out to be a good idea is determined by dozens of minute interactions in the spec, not all of them "local", and some of them outright emergent.

How did you learn the language?

The hard way. :-) By trying to express every new thought I have and seeing what fails: Perl 6, Rakudo, or my thought. I'm still learning.

Where does an interested novice start to learn the language?

Come to #perl6. Familiarize yourself with perl6.org. Get a pet project. Experiment. Have fun.

How do you make a language intended to last for 20 years?

I'm not qualified to fully answer that. The one piece of the puzzle I do have is that some pieces of software out there are stale and dead, whereas others are limber, extensible and moving. It's important to design for the eventuality that the user of the language knows best.

What makes a feature or a technique "Perlish"?

A number of small, sometimes contradictory criteria. It gets the job done. It's down-to-earth rather than abstraction-laden. It's practical rather than orthogonal. It's often consistent in strange and unexpected ways. It favours you rather than the compiler implementor. It goes an extra mile to be user friendly rather than cryptic. It doesn't oversimplify. It encapsulates some linguistic notion. It scales with your needs. It's as much about language culture as it is about language implementation.

What easy things are easier and which harder things are more possible now? Why?

Sub/method signatures, the type system, grammars, extending the language, the metamodel... all of these make things that were possible but tricky or ugly before downright easy or beautiful. Perl 5 can do a whole lot of the above things using modules, but with Perl 6 you get them out-of-the-box, and fully integrated.

What feature do you most await before you use Perl 6 for your own serious projects?

I'm looking forward to more speed and stability in the existing implementations, mostly in Rakudo. I think excellent database and web support will create great changes in the way Perl 6 is used and presented.

As for actual features, I'm excited that Synopsis 9 might be mostly implemented this year—it contains a lot of exciting syntactic sugar.

Also very much looking forward to playing with macros—I've been waiting five years for them now! :-)

What has surprised you about the process of development?

I'm delighted that what drives Rakudo development and makes it efficient is the fact that the group of people organized around it are able to communicate their needs and abilities, able to delegate as well as do large chunks of work in isolation as called for by the situation. I'm thinking of Patrick when I say that, but I see those traits in others as well.

It also doesn't hurt that those of us involved in development form an increasingly knit-together group of people who enjoy each other's company, not only on IRC but away from the keyboard as well.

What does Rakudo need for wider deployment?

In the time before it gets the obvious the-more-the-better features— stability and speed—what Rakudo needs most is people who are brave enough to deploy it in new and interesting situations. It is still the case that when we try new things with Rakudo, we discover new bugs and corner cases, and as a result the whole development process benefits. So we need people who want to break new ground.

What comes next after Rakudo Star?

If you mean the name, there's no consensus yet. Suggestions welcome. All we agree on is that Rakudo Nova might not fly, Rakudo Neutron Star sounds a bit heavy, and Rakudo Black Hole would kinda suck.

As for what features come next after Rakudo Star, I think an important part of the development after the Rakudo Star release will be to get feedback from people who use it, in order to know better what to focus on next. I know the core devs have some ideas, but there's also room for course corrections. Whether the next distribution release will be after half a year, a full year, or some other timespan, depends a lot on that too.

What feature do you most look forward to in a future version of Perl 6?

A future version of Perl 6 the specification? The mind boggles. I think I don't have any further demands on the specification than what we already have in there. I'm fully occupied trying to think up ways to abuse the features from the current spec as they come online.

Larry wanted the community to rewrite itself just as it redesigned and implemented the language. How have you seen that process work?

People seem to agree that the #perl6 channel on freenode is a generally friendly place. It's at least partly the result of conscious effort. On the perl6-* emailing lists you will at times see the most informative and friendly RTFM emails you've ever read.

What's still an open question for me is how these community features will scale, as the ratio of newbies to regulars skyrockets, as the frequently asked questions become more frequent, and as Perl 6 enters an "Eternal September" phase.

How do you keep up with spec changes?

I tend to get involved in the discussion about them. :-)

What one thing would you change about the implementation history so far?

It's clear in retrospect that we should have started both Rakudo and Pugs in 2001, not years later. Of course, we had neither the knowledge we do today, nor the people.

How can people help you?

By being curious about Perl 6, by writing their first little script, by finding a module (new or extant) to work on, by reporting bugs or proposing enchancements in Rakudo or the various projects, by bringing interesting discussions to the channel, by interacting with the community, and by being nice.

What misconceptions do people have about the project that need addressing?

Most misconceptions seem to me to be merely the result of a deplorable lack of correct information, mixed with blindly cargo-culted mockery.

Some people seem to think that working on a language design for ten years, adapting it both to new ideas and to the feedback from implementations, in itself qualifies as a failure of some sort. I see a language growing both more real and more realistic every day.

Some people haven't been reached by the news that we actually have runnable implementations of Perl 6, and have had so for the past five years. Those people usually become very happy to hear that we do.

Others consider the Perl 6 effort as "merely an academic effort", whose purpose will in the end only be to inform Perl 5 in certain ways, and whose ivory-tower denizens will never truly reconnect with reality. This is the only misconception that I, having written dozens of Perl 6 modules which actually run, and having as my focus making Perl 6 more practically usable, can sometimes feel saddened by.

What projects are missing in the world of Perl 6?

Nearly all of them.

Carl and other Perl 6 developers are hard at work on both the Perl 6 specification as well as the Rakudo Perl 6 implementation. Rakudo Star 2010.08 is now available, with better performance, fewer bugs, and more features.

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