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Memories of 20 Years of Perl

Proving Them Wrong

Around 1991 I wrote a very useful program, in C, which took a bunch of files and then sorted them into groups according to which files had identical contents. A lot of sysadmins at the time wrote to thank me for it. But when I boasted about it at Usenix that year, people told me "oh, you should have written then in Perl."

That was pretty annoying, so I got the Camel Book (pink in those days) so that I could learn Perl and prove that they were wrong. But it turned out that they were right.

Mark Dominus is the author of Higher-Order Perl

My First CGI Program

It was the year 2000, and I was working at a software startup in San Francisco. I was tasked with writing a simple form handler with an auto thank you email. I had been a C programmer for several years, a Fortran programmer for a few, and this was essentially my first Perl program. It was your standard CGI gateway which presented a form to the user, did some error checking, and sent a thank you email to the user.

After a few hours of learning Perl and putting my form handler together, it was put live on our website. I was delighted that I was able to pick up this language so quickly and produce results in a short period of time. I never like programming C that much (although that has changed), due the fact that it got in my way. Perl just worked.

I came into work the next day and reviewed how my program was doing. It turns out that my first bug had surfaced; the thank you email function managed to get caught in a loop. One poor soul who filled out my form had received 800 thank you emails! I was able to quickly fix the bug.

In honor of my first Perl program, I would like to extend a hearty 800 thank yous to the Perl community! I have been using Perl ever since and love it.

Fred Moyer is just another mod_perl hacker

Perl and the University Student

One cannot imagine how useful Perl proves sometimes to a university student. I can recall several occasions in which I used Perl to facilitate a task or check my homework. Of them, there is one that I still remember very clearly.

It was the course "Introduction to Computer Networks" and we learned about the various variations of networking protocols (Stop-and-wait, Go-back-N, and Selective-Repeat). We were given a simulation of these protocols written in C and compiled to run on Windows. The simulation could be ran with several parameters and would output a verbose file with the parameters of the simulation, the simulation itself and then some statistics of the simulation.

We ran the program several times and got several files in return. Now we had to somehow insert the statistics into Excel so we can analyze them, process them, and create charts out of them. But the statistics were scattered over several different files, all with the same format, but nothing that Excel can understand (at least not without a massive amount of Visual Basic for Applications code).

Without thinking for a moment, I started writing a Perl script that will process the files, extract the corresponding data and output a tab-delimited file that can be inputted into Excel. It took some time to write the script, and meanwhile my partner decided it may be faster to do it by hand. Thus, he occupied the nearby station, and started extracting the data himself. I finished a few minutes after that, though, (while he was just beginning in his manual labour) and we were able to input the data into Excel and continue the assignment. It took about 15 minutes or less, all in all.

Later on I talked to a few fellow students about the assignment. One of them claimed it took him 3 hours to input everything into Excel. (!) Another said it took him one hour, which is still much worse than 15 minutes. Needless to say, none of them knew Perl.

Enough said.

(Originally published at Perl Success Story,

Shlomi Fish has worked with Perl since 1996 and considers himself a happy user, developer and advocate of Perl and other open-source technologies.

How To Become a Guru

In early 1999 I started a new job as a system administrator. In my previous position I'd taught myself Unix and GNU/Linux, and ended up writing a small tracking application for a customer service group in Java.

As a new SA, I took over a pile of work from my predecessor, including some small Perl programs he'd downloaded, installed, and modified to add his name to the comments. Over the next couple of months, I picked up the Camel and the Perl Cookbook, and taught myself enough Perl that I could skim comp.lang.perl.moderated and answer some of the questions in my head.

About that time, I started to do a little work on the Everything Engine -- not much, but a little bit -- and so I was the second external person to register on PerlMonks when it started. In those days there was no voting, no XP, and there were just a few people racing to reach the milestone of a hundred posts.

In between troubleshooting problems at work, I'd play with little programs, read whatever tutorials or books I could get, and answer any question I could on the site, and so I learned Perl that way.

I remember the rush to find an idea -- any idea -- worthy of putting on the CPAN, and thinking in 2000 that every problem that anyone could solve, someone had already solved. I remember my first patch to Perl 5, then realizing that I hadn't actually run the tests, and resolving to improve the tests because they didn't actually do what they said they should.

I remember getting job offers from my postings, and meeting some of the top Perl programmers in the world for the first time, and being accepted because I did (some of the) things I said I would, just because no one else was doing them.

That, I think, is the secret to become a contributing member of any community. Look for something that needs someone to do it and do it. You don't have to have permission, just a little bit of determination and stubbornness and some time.

I'm a little sad that I missed the first eleven years of Perl's life, but I'm glad to have caught up in the past nine years.

chromatic does a lot of things, some of them even sometimes productive.

How an English Major Saved Christmas

Right before Christmas of 1998 I was a fairly new employee at Not a CS grad hacker with 30,000 shares, but an English grad customer service rep with 250. I knew about the 29,750 share disparity from picking up a fax for a star employee in the apps group. Instead of letting it get to me, I started to look into why it was so. I bought Learning Perl and spent two of the most painful weeks of self-edification in my life discovering how the lack of chmod +x was preventing me from getting through Chapter 2.

Free at last I wrote, in two days, a badly needed and overlooked tax + shipping costs calculator for customer service for the new product tab launching that week. It was the kind of script that would take any decent Perl hacker 30 minutes. A former art critic saved hundreds of reps and tens of thousands of customers a lot of time and aggravation. I got the company�s �Just Do It� Award. If it had been C or Java or anything but Perl I wouldn�t have been able to do it.

If I�d come to anything but Perl, I would not have returned to coding--I dabbled in BASIC and Assembly as a kid--and I wouldn�t be a software developer today.

Ashley Pond V is a New Mexican writer turned Seattlite software developer, currently working with Catalyst applications, who credits Perl with saving his soul as he�d probably have gone into marketing otherwise.

Smells Like Wet Camel

Standing out in my memory is the day in college (either in late 1993 or early 1994) when my grandmother had emergency eye surgery. Originally, she only had a regularly scheduled checkup, and my mother could take her to the appointment before work began, but not pick her up. The doctor was one street over from the college (more or less) and I was conscripted to go over and take her home after her appointment and my first class. The day was rainy, increasing in intensity as the day grew older.

Everything changed when I arrived at the doctor's office, because the doctor had found something that required immediate attention. She had to be taken to a specialist immediately, and I began improvising. Each eye appointment took a long time, and they would only get longer as my grandmother was worked in to the specialist's schedule as an emergency patient. So I had time to take her to the next appointment, leave her to wait for what might be hours, go to my next class, eat lunch, and come back and get her.

I was trying to keep up with my college work, and brought my O'Reilly Perl book along so I could work on my computer science project, figuring I might as well do something useful while I was sitting around. My project involved writing an e-mail processing system in Perl, so I had bought what was for me at the time an almost impossibly expensive book to help me learn the language. On the way to the car, in the hardest and coldest rain I can ever remember, I was trying to help my grandmother and juggle the umbrella, car keys, car door, and everything else. The book slipped out from under my arm and landed in a puddle. Somehow, it landed on its edge, and had about an inch of muddy water soak into it. My new book! Ruined! Nothing to do but keep going, to the next appointment, and back to my class. I knew that to leave the college after eight a.m. was a guarantee of not being able to park anywhere near the building for the rest of the day, because the only parking spaces left were in the lower area of an overflow lot far from any building I needed to go to. Without even a sidewalk near this lot, I had plenty of time to think about my ruined book and what was happening to my grandmother as I trudged through the mud, in the pouring rain, to get to my next class.

I also, in these days before mobile phones, had to find a pay phone to tell my mother about the abrupt change of plans. My grandmother eventually got settled in the hospital, where it was at least dry, and she pulled through the eye surgery fine. My waterlogged book with a brown bottom and hastily scribbled notes on the blank pages in the back was a good enough starting point; I graduated.

Scott McMahan has been writing Perl code since 1991.

"I Couldn't Believe That Perl Even Worked"

My first exposure to Perl was a web server with -- I think -- Perl 4.036 installed. This would be 1995 or so. I wanted to write CGI scripts so I started reading everything I could find about Perl. I nearly lost heart when I read that the parser was, effectively, heuristic. Coming from a background in Pascal and C I couldn't believe that Perl even worked.

Fortunately Perl was the only option for my script. I persevered and discovered that -- not only did Perl work -- I rather enjoyed it. Within two weeks I had a CGI script that implemented a kind of ad-hoc PHP: chunks of Perl embedded in HTML. It was ugly -- but Perl had made it possible.

At some time between then and now -- after digressions into Java and even LotusScript -- Perl became my main language. At the end of 2006 I decided to concentrate on Perl, release some modules, proactively seek out things I didn't know about the language and learn them.

As a result 2007 has been the happiest year of my professional career. I've written loads of code, most of which works. I attended my first YAPC in Vienna and came home with a bunch of new friends and a renewed enthusiasm for cranking out code.

I've still got plenty to learn. Perl may be easy to pick up but mastery takes years. And if you love programming that's part of the fun. However good you think you are there's always a way to improve.

I dabble with other languages -- because if you take programming seriously you must. What do they know of Perl that only Perl know? There are things about Perl that grate. It's not perfect but it's, well, loveable I suppose.

Thank you Perl community. Thank you Larry. Thank you for a lovely language.

Andy Armstrong is a compulsive Perl abuser based in Cumbria, UK.

From awk to perl

In early 1990, I was working with a large set of data that needed to be massaged and formatted so that it could be statistically analyzed.

I started the task in awk, but quickly ran into trouble because awk could only open one file at a time. A quick search through the Usenet comp.lang group found Perl 3.0, which had just recently been released.

I had to get the source code and build it on my machine, but it compiled cleanly and I was able to try some simple stuff. Worked real good too. As I had already a large awk program, that I didn't want to re-edit for Perl, I ran it through a2p and the perl version produced the same results. I was hooked. When I got stuck, asking questions on comp.lang.perl almost always got instant answers. There has been an active perl community for a long time, and they were fabulous! (Just like now). I subsequently re-factored my code for perl and produced vast quantities of data to be analyzed. I have been using Perl ever since.

Roe McBurnett is a systems engineer for a telecommunications company and has been working on telephony related projects as a developer, systems engineer, and software tester since 1985.

The State of the Onion 10

Welcome to the tenth State of the Perl Onion. For those of you who are unfamiliar with my methods, this is the annual speech wherein I ramble on about various things that are only marginally related to the state of Perl. I've gotten pretty good at rambling in my old age.

In the Scientific American that just came out, there's an article on chess experts, written by an expert, on what makes experts so expert. This expert claims that you can become an expert in just about anything if you study it persistently for ten years or so. So, since this is my tenth State of the Onion, maybe I'm about to become an expert in giving strange talks. One can only hope (not).

Speaking of chess, how many of you recognize this?

Does this help?

This is, of course, the mnemonic for the old Linnean taxonomy of biological classification.

Those of you who understand computers better than critters can think of these as nested namespaces.

This is all about describing nature, so naturally, different languages care about different levels.

For instance, PHP isn't much into taxonomy, so everything in PHP is just its own species in a flat namespace. Congratulations, this is your new species name:

Ruby, of course, is interested primarily in Classes.

Python, as the "anti-Perl," is heavily invested in maintaining Order.

Now, you might be smart enough to program in Haskell if you've received a MacArthur Genus award.

... used to be I couldn't spell "genus," and now I are one ...

Moving right along toward the other end of the spectrum, we have JavaScript that kind of believes in Phyla without believing in Classes.

And at the top of the heap, playing king of the mountain, we have languages like C# and Java. The kingdom of Java only has one species.

The kingdom of C# has many species, but they all look like C#.

Well, that leaves us with families.

I expect I have a pretty good excuse for thinking a lot about families lately, and here is my excuse:

This is Julian, my grandson. Julian, meet the open source hackers. Open source hackers, meet Julian.

Many of you will remember my daughter Heidi from previous OSCONs. A couple years ago she married Andy, and Julian is the result. I think he's a keeper. Julian, I mean.

Well, and Andy too.

Andy obviously has his priorities straight. I would certainly recommend him as a son-in-law to anyone. (Wait, that doesn't quite work ...)

There are many definitions of family, of course. Here's a mommy and a daddy truck. They live on a truck farm, and raise little trucks.

Out in California, the word "family" keeps leaping out at me from various signs. People use the word "family" in some really weird ways.

There was a Family Fun Center, with a miniature golf course. I believe that sign. At least for the golf. As a parent, I'm not sure the game arcade is for the whole family. I'm an expert in staying out of loud places.

But the sign that said "Farmers Feed America--Family Water Alliance" ... I suspect the word "family" is in there more for its PR value than anything else.

And, of course, "family planning" is for when you plan not to have a family. Go figure.

All of my kids were unplanned, but that doesn't mean they were unwanted.

Many of you know that I have four kids, but in a strange way, I really have five, if you count Perl.

Geneva thinks of Perl as more or less her twin sister, since they were both born in 1987. But then, Geneva is strange.

Some people think Perl is strange too. That's okay--all my kids are a little strange. They come by it naturally.

Here's a self-portrait of the other end of Geneva.

Here's what you usually see of Lewis.

Here's some of Aron, pulling the door that says "push."

And here's Heidi.

She always was a pale child.

Actually, here's the real picture.

You can see she's actually quite sane. Compared to the rest of us.

Here's a picture of my wife Gloria.

Here's another picture of my wife. Well, her arms. The feet are my mom's. Actually, this is really a picture of my granddog, Milo. He's the one on the right.

I've talked before about how the stages in Perl's life are very much like that of a kid. To review:

This extended metaphor can be extended even further as necessary and prudent. Actually, it's probably unnecessary and imprudent, but I'll extend it anyway, because I find the metaphor useful. Perl, my fifth child, is showing various signs that she is about to grow up, and as a pseudo-parent, that makes me pseudo-proud of her. But there are other ways the metaphor makes me happy. For instance, it gives me another argument about the name of Perl 6.

From time to time, people have suggested that Perl 6 is sufficiently different from Perl 5 that she should be given a new name. But we don't usually rename our kids when they grow up. They may choose to rename themselves, of course. For the moment I think Perl would like her name to stay Perl.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: in anthropomorphizing Perl this way, Larry has gone completely off the deep end. That's not possible--I started out by jumping off the deep end, and I haven't noticed the water getting any shallower lately.

But in justification of my metaphor, let me just say that when I say "Perl" here, I'm not just talking about the language, but the entire culture. There are a lot of people who worked hard to raise Perl up to where she is today, and a bunch more people working hard to send her off to college. It's the collective aspirations of those people that is the real personality of Perl.

When we first announced the Perl 6 effort back in 2000, we said it would be the community redesign of Perl. That continues to be the case today. It may look like I'm making all these arbitrary decisions as the language designer, but as with a teenager, you somehow end up making most of your decisions consistent with what they want. With what the Perl community wants, in this case.

If a teenager doesn't want to listen to you, you can't make 'em.

The fact is, Perl would be nothing without the people around her. Here's a new acronym:

or if you like:

It really helps to have an extended family to raise a kid well. American culture has been somewhat reductionist in this respect, but a lot of other cultures around the world understand the importance of extended family. Maybe it's just because Americans move around so much. But it's a healthy trend that young people these days are manufacturing their own extended families. At the church I go to, we call it "Doing Life Together." Here in the extended Perl family, we're doing life together too.

We have people in our family like Uncle Chip and Aunt Audrey. There's Cousin Allison, and Cousin Ingy, and Cousin Uri, and our very own Evil Brother Damian. I think Randal occasionally enjoys being the honorary black sheep of the family, as it were.

It all kind of reminds me of the Addams family. Hmm.

I watched The Addams Family a lot when I was young. Maybe you should call me Gomez, and call Gloria, Morticia. I must confess that I do love it when my wife speaks French. It gives me déjà vu all up and down my spine.

It's okay for me to tell you that because I live in a fishbowl.

I'm not sure who gets to be Lurch. Or Thing. Anybody wanna volunteer? We're always looking for volunteers in the Perl community. Don't be scared. The Addams family can be a little scary, and so can the Perl family, but you'll notice we're also affectionate and accepting. In a ghoulish sort of way.

We could take this TV family metaphor a lot further, but fortunately for you I never watched the Partridge Family or The Brady Bunch or All in the Family or Father Knows Best. Those of you who were here before know I mostly watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

I also watched Combat, a World War II show. But I was kind of a gruesome little kid that way.

I like gruesome shows. Maybe that explains why I liked the Addams family. Hmm. I once sat on the lap of the Santa Claus at Sears and asked for all five toy machine guns listed in the Sears catalog that year. For some reason I didn't get any of them. But I suppose my family loved me in spite of my faults. My role models in parenting obviously didn't come from TV. Or maybe they did. You know, that would explain a lot about how my family turned out. In actual fact, the picture above is another self-portrait done by my daughter Geneva.

Anyway, I love my own family, even if they're kind of peculiar at times. Last month we were staying at a Motel 6 in Medford, Oregon. Gloria kindly went off to fetch me a cup of coffee from the motel lobby, and then she came to this door and stood there for a while wondering how to pull the door open with her hands full. Then she realized that the door must have been designed by someone who thinks there should be only one obvious way to do it. Because, the fact is, you can either pull or push this door, despite what it says. I suggested we should start marking such pushmepullyu doors with a P*. We obviously need more globs in real life.

Anyway, back to my weird family--this summer as we were driving around, we had a great literary discussion about how Tolstoy debunks the Great Man theory of history in War and Peace. After discussing the far-too-heavily overloaded namespace in Russian novels and the almost complete absence of names in the Tale of Genji, we tried to decide if the Tale of Genji was the first novel or not, and decided that it was really the first soap opera. Of course, then there had to be a long discussion of what really was the first novel--Tale of Genji, Madame Bovary, or Sense and Sensibility. Then there's the first romance, first mystery, first fantasy, first science fiction, first modern novel, etc. One interesting fact we noted was that the first in a genre almost always has to officially be some other genre too. For example, the Tale of Genji was written in the existing form of explication of some haiku. Transitional forms are important in biological evolution as well, as one species learns to become another species. That's why we explicitly allow people to program babytalk in Perl. The only way to become smart is to be stupid first. Puts a new spin on the Great Man theory of history.

So then, as we were driving we saw a cloud formation resembling Thomas Jefferson, which led us to speculate on the Great Documents theory of history. "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" brought up the Great Slogans theory of history.

Back to Tolstoy: "Moscow didn't burn because Napoleon decided to burn it. Moscow burned because it was made of wood." Those of you who attended YAPC Chicago may recognize that as the Great Cow theory of history. Or maybe the lantern was really kicked over by a camel, and there was a coverup.

Anyway, back to the family again, presuming the house hasn't burned down. They say that "A family is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Arguably, regardless of your viewpoint, many people have been, um, taken in by Perl culture.

Sorry. I have a low taste for taking people in with puns.

But hey, taking people in is good. And stray kitties.

Some families just naturally accumulate strays. My wife and I were both fortunate enough to grow up in families that took in strays as a matter of course. We have a number of honorary members of our own family. I think a good family tends to Borg people who need to be taken in. It's a lot like the way Audrey hands out commit bits to Pugs left and right. It all one big happy hivemind. Er, I mean family.

Now, it's all well and good to get people in the door, but that's only the beginning of accessibility. Whenever you get someone new in the family, either by birth or by adoption, where do you go from there? You have to raise your kids somehow, and they're all different. Raising different kids requires different approaches, just like computer problems do.

So, then, how do we raise a family according to the various computing paradigms?

Imperative programming is the Father Knows Best approach. It only works at all when Father does know best, which is not all that often. Often Mother knows "bester" than Father. Hi, Gloria. And a surprising amount of the time, it's the kids who know "bestest."

For some reason the Von Trapp family comes to mind. I guess you have to structure your family to make the Sound of Music together.

"Look, if you hit your sister, she will hit you back. Duh."

Obviously anyone who doesn't program their family functionally has a dysfunctional family. But what does it mean to have a functional family? "Being hit back is a function of whether you hit your sister." On the surface, everything appears to be free of side effects. Certainly when I tell my kids to mind their manners it often seems to have no lasting effect. Really, though, it does, but in the typical family, there's a lot of hidden state change wound in the call stack. We first learn lazy evaluation in the family.

"Don't take the last piece of candy unless you really want it."
"Please define whether you really care, and exactly how much you care."
"I'm sure I care more than you do."

That's almost a direct quote from Heidi when she was young: "But I want it more than you do."

Functional programming tends to merge into declarative programming in general. I married into a family where you have to declare whether you want the last piece of cheesecake, or you're unlikely to get it.

Unfortunately, I grew up in more of a culture where it was everyone's responsibility to let someone else have the cheesecake. This algorithm did not always terminate. After several rounds of, "No, you go ahead and take it, no you take it, no you take it ..."

In the end, nobody was really sure who wanted the cheesecake. I guess you say it was a form of starvation. But when I married into my wife's family I found out that I definitely wouldn't get the cheesecake until I learned to predeclare.

Let's see, inheritance is obviously important, or you wouldn't have a family in the first place. On the other hand, the family is where culture is handed down in the form of design patterns. A good model of composition is important--a lot of the work of being a family consists of just trying to stay in one spot together. As a form of composition, we learn how to combine our traits constructively by playing various roles in the family. Sometimes those are fixed roles built at family composition time, and sometimes those are temporary roles that are mixed in at run time. Delegation is also important. I frequently delegate to my sons: "Lewis, take the trash out."

That's Design By Contract. "Keep your promises, young man!"

Metaprogramming. "Takes one to know one!"

Aspected-oriented programming comes up when we teach our kids to evaluate their methods in the broader context of society:

"Okay kid, now that you've passed your driver's test, you still have to believe the stop signs, but when the speed limit sign says 65, what it really means is that you should try to keep it under 70. Or when you're in Los Angeles, under 80."

But I think the basic Perl paradigm is "Whatever-oriented programming."

Your kid comes to you and says, "Can I borrow the car?"

You say: "May I borrow the car?"

They say: "Whatever ..."

Should I push the door or pull it?

Actually, "whatever" is such an important concept that we built it into Perl 6. This is read, "from one to whatever."

You might ask why we can't just say "from one to infinity":

The problem is that not all operators operate on numbers:

Not all operators are ranges. Here's the sibling argument operator, which repeats the same words an arbitrary number of times:

Perl has always been about letting you care about the things you want to care about, while not caring about the things you don't want to care about, or that maybe you're not quite ready to care about yet. That's how Perl achieves both its accessibility and its power. We've just baked more of that "who cares?" philosophy into Perl 6.

A couple of years ago, Tim O'Reilly asked me what great problem Perl 6 was being designed to solve. This question always just sat in my brain sideways because, apart from Perl 0, I have never thought of Perl as the solution to any one particular problem. If there's a particular problem that Perl is trying to solve, it's the basic fact that all programming languages suck. Sort of the concept of original sin, applied to programming languages.

As parents, to the extent that we can influence the design of our kids, we design our kids to be creative, not to solve a particular problem. About as close as we get to that is to hope the kid takes over the family business, and we all know how often that sort of coercion works.

No, instead, we design our kids to be ready to solve problems, by helping them learn to be creative, to be socially aware, to know how to use tools, and maybe even how to manufacture the tools for living when they're missing. They should be prepared to do ... whatever.

Trouble is, it takes a long time to make an adult, on the order of 20 years. Most insects don't take 20 years to mature.

Apparently it takes you ten years to become an expert in being a kid, and then another ten years to become an expert in not being a kid. Some people never manage the second part at all, or have a strange idea of adulthood. Some people think that adulthood is when you just bake all your learning into hardware and don't learn anything new ever again, except maybe a few baseball scores. That's an oversimplified view of reality, much like building a hardwired Lisp machine. Neoteny is good in moderation. We have to be lifelong learners to really be adults, I think.

No, adulthood is really more about mature judgment. I think an adult is basically someone who knows when to care, and how to figure out when they should care when they don't know offhand. A teenager is forever caring about things the parents think are unimportant, and not caring about things the parents think are important. Well, hopefully not forever. That's the point. But it's certainly a long process, with both kids and programming languages.

In computer science, it is said that premature optimization is the root of all evil. The same is true in the family. In parenting terms, you pick your battlefields, and learn not to care so much about secondary objectives. If you can't modulate what you care about, you're not really ready to parent a teenager. Teenagers have a way of finding your hot buttons and pushing them just to distract you from the important issues. So, don't get distracted.

There are elements of the Perl community that like to push our collective hot buttons. Most of them go by the first name of Anonymous, because they don't really want to stand up for their own opinions. The naysayers could even be right: we may certainly fail in what we're trying to do with Perl 6, but I'd just like to point out that only those people who put their name behind their opinions are allowed to say "I told you so." Anonymous cowards like the "told you so" part as long as it doesn't include the "I." Anonymous cowards don't have an "I," by definition.

Anyway, don't let the teenage trolls distract you from the real issues.

As parents we're setting up some minimum expectations for civilized behavior. Perl should have good manners by default.

Perl should be wary of strangers.

But Perl should be helpful to strangers.

While we're working on their weaknesses, we also have to encourage our kids to develop where they have strengths, even if that makes them not like everyone else. It's okay to be a little weird.

Every kid is different. At least, all my kids are really different. From each other, I mean. Well, and the other way too.

I guess my kids are all alike in one way. None of them is biddable. They're all arguers and will happily debate the merits of any idea presented to them whether it needs further discussion or not. They're certainly unlikely to simply wander off to the slaughter with any stranger that suggests it.

This is the natural result of letting them fight as siblings, with supervision. It's inevitable that siblings will squabble. Your job as parent is to make sure they fight fair. It helps a lot if the parents have already learned how to fight fair. What I mean by fight fair is that you fight about what you're fighting about--you don't fight the other person. If you find yourself dragging all sorts of old baggage into an argument, then you're fighting the person, you're not fighting about something anymore. Nothing makes me happier as a parent than to hear one of my kids make a logical argument at the same time as they're completely pissed off.

If you teach your kids to argue effectively, they'll be resistant to peer pressure. You can't be too careful here. There are a lotta computer languages out there doing drugs. As a parent, you don't get into a barricade situation and isolate your kids from the outside world forever. Moving out and building other relationships is a natural process, but it needs some supervision.

Perl is learning to care deeply about things like:

This final point is crucial, if you want to understand the state of Perl today. Perl 6 is all about reconciling the supposedly irreconcilable.

Reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable is part of why Perl 6 taking so long. We want to understand the various tensions that have surfaced as people have tried to use and extend Perl 5. In fact, just as Perl 1 was an attempt to digest Unix Culture down into something more coherent, you can view Perl 6 as an attempt to digest CPAN down into something more coherent. Here are some of the irreconcilables we run into when we do that:

OO brings us a world of choices:

Do we even have classes at all?

And if we do, how do they inherit and dispatch?

Is our type system more general than our class system?

Plus a grab bag of other issues:

And finally, the biggie:

Reconciling these known conflicts is all well and good, but our goal as a parent must be a bit larger than that.

Just as a child that leaves the house today will face unpredictable challenges tomorrow, the programming languages of the future will have to reconcile not only the conflicting ideas we know about today, but also the conflicting ideas that we haven't even thought of yet.

We don't know how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that, because nobody is smart enough. Some people pretend to be smart enough. That's not something I care about.

Nevertheless, a lot of smart people are really excited about Perl 6 because, as we go about teaching Perl how to reconcile the current crop of irreconcilables, we're also hoping to teach Perl strategies for how to cope with future irreconcilables. It's our vision that Perl can learn to care about what future generations will care about, and not to care about what they don't care about.

That's pretty abstruse, I'll admit. Future-proofing your children is hard. Some of us get excited by the long-term potential of our kids. But it's also exciting when you see their day-to-day progress. And we've make a lot of progress recently.

In terms of Audrey's Perl 6 timeline, we're right at that spot where it says "hack, hack, hack." In a year or so we'll be up here saying, "What's the big deal?"

This is the year that Perl 6 will finally be bootstrapped in Perl 6, one way or another. Actually, make that one way and another. There are several approaches being pursued currently, in a kind of flooding algorithm. One or another of those approaches is bound to work eventually.

Now, anyone who has been following along at home knows that we never, ever promise a delivery date for Perl 6. Nevertheless, I can point out that many of us hope to have most of a Perl 6 parser written in Perl 6 by this Christmas. The only big question is which VM it will compile down to first. There's a bit of a friendly race between the different implementations, but that's healthy, since they're all aiming to support the same language.

So one of the exciting things that happened very recently is that the Pugs test suite was freed from its Haskell implementation and made available for all the other implementations to test against. There are already roughly 12,000 tests in the test suite, with more coming every day. The Haskell implementation is, of course, the furthest along in terms of passing tests, but the other approaches are already starting to pass the various basic sanity tests, and as many of you know, getting the first test to pass is already a large part of the work.

So the plan is for Perl 6 to run consistently on a number of platforms. We suspect that eventually the Parrot platform is likely to be the most efficient way to run Perl 6, and may well be the best way to achieve interoperability with other dynamic languages, especially if Parrot can be embedded whole in other platforms.

But the other virtual machines out there each have their own advantages. The Haskell implementation may well turn out to be the most acceptable to academia, and the best reference implementation for semantics, since Haskell is so picky. JavaScript is already ubiquitous in the browsers. There are various ideas for how to host Perl 6 on top of other VMs as well. Whatever.

But the VM that works the best for Perl right now is, in fact, Perl 5. We've already bootstrapped much of a Perl 5 compiler for Perl 6. Here's a picture of the approach of layering Perl 6 on Perl 5.

Here in the middle we have the Great Moose theory of history.

Other stuff that's going on:

In addition to lots of testing and documentation projects, I'm very happy that Sage La Torra is working on a P5-to-P6 translator for the Google Summer of Code. Soon we'll be able to take Perl 5 code, translate it to Perl 6, and then translate it back to Perl 5 to see how well we did.

Another bootstrapping approach is to take our current Haskell codebase and translate to Perl 6. That could be very important long term in keeping all the various implementations in sync.

There are many, many other exciting things going on all the time. Hang out on the mailing lists and on the IRC channels to find out more.

If you care.

Perl is growing up, but she's doing so in a healthy way, I think. Those of us who are parents tend to try to discourage our kids from getting married too young, because we know how much people change around their twentieth year. Around the age of 19 or 20 is when we start that last major rewiring of our brains to become adults. This year, Perl will be 19 going on 20. She's due for a brain rewiring.

In previous years, Perl was just trying to act grownup by ignoring her past. This year, I'm happy to report that instead of just trying to act grownup, Perl is going back and reintegrating her personality to include the positive aspects of childhood and adolescence. I don't know where Perl will go in the next ten or twenty years. It's my job to say, "I don't care anymore," and kick her out of the house. She's a big girl now, and she's becoming graceful and smart and wise, and she can just decide her future for herself.

Whatever. Thanks for listening, and for learning to care, and for learning to not care. Have a great conference! I don't care how!

The State of the Onion 9

figure 1

For the last couple of years, we've been homeschooling our two youngest kids. Gloria has been making sure they learn the easy subjects like history and mathematics. I've been making sure they also learn the hard subjects like, um, cinematography. So I've been making sure they view some of the great classics.

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James Bond materials copyright 1962 - 2005 United Artists Corporation and Danjac, LLC

Home schooling works best if the parents learn alongside the children, so I've been forced to watch the Bond corpus along with my kids.

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Or is that the Bond corpses? Seems like there are an awful lot of them.

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Anyway, it's a large body of work.

Though some of the bodies are larger than others. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Anyway, now that I've been wading through the Bond corpus again, I've noticed something I've never noticed before about the show. It's just not terribly realistic. I mean, come on, who would ever name an organization "SPECTRE?" Good names are important, especially for bad guys. A name like SPECTRE is just too obvious. SPECTRE. Boo! Whooo!! Run away.

You know, if I were going to name an evil programming language, I certainly wouldn't name it after a snake. Python! Run away, run away.

When I was young I actually preferred Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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Now "THRUSH," that's is a decent name for an evil organization.

Oh, and then there's Get Smart.

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Unlike James Bond, it's highly realistic. I can believe in an evil organization with a name like "KAOS." After we're done with the James Bond series, I plan to show my kids Get Smart. I want to make sure my kids score high on intelligence tests. Ba dump bump.

I'm a child of the Cold War. We didn't go quite as far as to build a bomb shelter, but we actually thought about it before deciding our house would probably burn up anyway. Back then people thought you could win a nuclear war, or at least try real hard not to lose one. Eventually we all figured out that imperfect knowledge was a feature, and so we settled on a national policy of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, though they couldn't bring themselves to call it the FUD doctrine, so they called it MAD instead. Probably because they read too much MAD magazine. Hmm, that puts a whole new twist on the "Spy vs. Spy" comics.

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Anyway, as a child of the Cold War, I know that seeing a mushroom cloud is a good thing, since it means you haven't been vaporized just yet. Sort of the same principle that you should never be scared of thunder, since the shocking part is already over with. Or more subtly, if you live under the flight path of several airports, like me, you're always wondering if the Blue Angels going 100 feet overhead are going to run into your house. But as soon as you hear the Doppler shift dropping in pitch, you know that they're probably going to miss your house, because if they were on a collision course with your house, the pitch would stay the same until impact. As I said, that's one's subtle.

Of course, you should also plan ahead. Where there's one plane, there's likely to be another one coming along after it. And lightning does strike twice in the same place. And, if you see a mushroom cloud, I would suggest that you start replanning your short-term future. And your new future plans should probably take into account not only your future but the future plans of about a million other people who just saw the same mushroom cloud and are suddenly replanning their futures.

Anyway, planning is good. Well, some planning.

Everyone my age and older knows that Five-Year Plans are bad for people, unless of course you're someone like Josef Stalin, in which case they're just bad for other people. All good Americans know that good plans come in four-year increments, because they mostly involve planning to get reelected.

I probably shouldn't point this out, but we've been planning Perl 6 for five years now.

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Comrades, here in the People's Republic, the last five years have seen great progress in the science of computer programming. In the next five years, we will not starve nearly so many programmers, except for those we are starving on purpose, and those who will starve accidentally. Comrades, our new five-year mission is to boldly go where no man has gone before! Oh wait, wrong TV show.

You might say that Perl grew out of the Cold War. I've often told the story about how Perl was invented at a secret lab that was working on a secret NSA project, so I won't repeat that here, since it's no secret. Some of you have heard the part about my looking for a good name for Perl, and scanning through /usr/dict/words for every three- and four-letter word with positive connotations. Though offhand, I can't explain how I missed seeing Ruby. So anyway, I ended up with "Pearl" instead.

But it's a little known fact that one of the three-letter names I considered for quite a while was the word "spy." Now, those of you who took in Damian's session on Presentation Aikido are now wondering whether I'm just making this up to make this speech more interesting. And in this particular case, I'm not. You can ask my brother-in-law, who was there. On the other hand, please don't ask him to vouch for anything else in this speech.

But wouldn't "Spy" be a great name to give to a language whose purpose was pattern matching and reporting? Hmm. And spies are also called "agents of change." "Practical extractions are one of our specialties."

Instead of a warn operator, it'd have to be the warn off operator. Instead of having a die operator, we might have had the let die operator. Then we'd get Perl poetry, I mean, Spy poetry, with phrases like live or let die.

How history might have been different! Those of you who are Perl programmers might instead be attending the 9th annual Spy conference. And maybe Ruby would not have been named Ruby, but instead have been named Spook, or Agent. And Python might not have been named after Monty Python, but after some other comedy troupe. It might be called Stooge, or Muppet, or something.

Even if you're not a child of the Cold War, you've been affected. My kids have been affected. Lately my son Aron and my daughter Geneva have been designing a game. No, not a computer game. It's a kind of a board game involving spies and cool gadgets. It's not done yet, so don't pester them over when it's going to be done. At least, don't pester them any more than you pester me about Perl 6. Heh, heh.

But as soon as I saw their cast of characters, I knew I had my theme for this year's talk. For some reason, any time I see a really diverse set of characters, I think of the open source community in general, and the Perl community in specific.

So if you're new to the department, I'd like to introduce you to a few of the other spooks working for the organization.

figure 9

The cards for this game list various stats for each character's strengths and weaknesses, as well as their favorite gadget. Now, as it happens, these spies all happen to be Perl programmers as well, so in this talk maybe we'll get to see what their favorite Perl gadgets are.

figure 10

Ace is the quintessential spy. All the fake spies like James Bond are based on him. And like Bond, Ace is such a good spy that he doesn't care if everyone knows he's a spy. Ace knows he's the hero of the story, and therefore invincible.

So Ace does spying simply because it's fun. That's also why he does Perl programming. He knows it's all just a big game, and it's fun to win with the hand you are dealt. On the other hand, it's also fun to win by changing the rules. It's especially fun if you can win using someone else's money.

You know, when you think about it, most open source software is written using someone else's money. Most Perl programmers are not paid directly to hack on Perl, or Pugs, or on CPAN modules. A lucky few are paid to have fun, but most of us have to make a living some other way, and our bosses kindly let us spend part of our time working on things that are mutually beneficial to the organization and to the world in general. And if we have fun doing that, they don't seem to mind.

But on the flip side, the Aces of the world all seem to know how to create fun wherever they go, or at least they know how to go places where people know how to have fun. For this reason, Ace is one of the most important people in the Perl community.

This last year, we were starting to lose our sense of fun in the Perl community. Though we tried to be careful about not making promises, everyone knew in their hearts that five years is an awfully long time to wait for anything. People were getting tired and discouraged and a little bit dreary.

Then Autrijus Tang showed up. Maybe we should call him "Ace" Tang. He basically said, "Look, we'll never get this done unless we optimize for fun." So fun is exactly what the Pugs project is optimized for. Mind you, Autrijus's idea of fun is to learn Haskell and then write a prototype of Perl 6 in it. Now, for those of you who don't know, Haskell is one of those pure functional languages that doesn't allow any side effects (except, of course, when it does). Really way-out-there stuff, compared to the thinking of the average Perl programmer.

Furthermore, Autrijus thinks it's fun to persuade other functional programmers that it would fun to bootstrap Perl 6 in Haskell. These folks proudly call themselves the "lambdacamels."

But when this happened, a few skeptical people in the Perl community thought they knew what was going to happen next. The cabal would say that this was just too crazy, and we already had Parrot, and why duplicate effort. You know, your basic turf-protection reaction.

But that's not what happened. Instead, the cabal said, "Yay. We can work this problem from both ends now. Let's give Autrijus all the help we can. Parrot will work bottom-up, and Pugs will work top-down."

Did I say "work"? I meant "play." That's what Ace does best.

figure 11

But not everyone is an Ace. Some people are naturally sneaky. Every organization needs a second-story man, and people like The Cat prefer to have their fun in private. I strongly suspect certain Perl programmers of being retired jewel thieves. You watch the version tree, and things mysteriously disappear in one place and appear somewhere else. Like a real cat, Le Chat's ego is not involved in any kind of public way. That's not to say that cats don't have egos--just that they don't care whether you notice.

Cats know how to get into and out of places they're not supposed to be able to get into and out of. Cats seem to know how to levitate, and to pass through supposedly impermeable barriers. Even the stupidest cat knows how to make you think they're reading your mind, but it's all a trick.

In Perl culture, Cats also do sneaky things. Sneakiness is a good quality when you're playing Perl golf, for example. Sneaky Perl programmers like to do sneaky things with overloading and with source filters. In fact, Le Chat is looking forward with glee to the day he can change the Perl 6 grammar on the fly and write yet another set of ACME modules. Oh, hi Damian--didn't see you there.

figure 12

This is Miss Engles. She's a librarian. Like a jewel thief, she also moves things from place to place, but for very different reasons. A jewel thief moves things from where they belong, while a librarian moves things to where they belong. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Miss Engles likes those aspects of Perl 6 that support literate programming, and that let her index the documentation in various ways.

Miss Engles has never cracked a smile because, oddly enough, not cracking a smile is what makes her happy. She is a librarian all the way to the bone. Or that's what she'd like you to believe.

But in fact, as we all know from the movies, librarians take off their glasses and let down their hair when they get off work, and become completely different people. Librarians instinctively understand paradigm shifts, having perused most of the history section in their spare time, not to mention a great deal of the psychology section. So nothing ever surprises a librarian, least of all themselves. If a librarian ever says "I'm shocked," you know they're being completely sarcastic.

figure 13

Eric has a problem with dyslexia, so he's never going to be a librarian. But that's okay, since he's not terribly interested in the things librarians are interested in. Now, since Miss Engles is officially interested in almost everything, that makes it a little tough for people like Eric, since it forces him to be interested in almost nothing. But that's okay--give him a fishing pole and a tent, and he's happy. Oh, he wouldn't mind a suitcase nuke, either.

Perl culture is full of easy-going, straightforward people. Actually, now that I look at it, this looks like Eric O'Reilly, long-lost cousin to Tim O'Reilly. Just kidding. But Tim has always been a straight dealer, and so is Eric, in his own way. I think with Tim it's a matter of choice, but with Eric--well, that's just the way he is.

Eric is the sort of agent you send skiing over the mountain to count enemy soldiers. Pick your term: he's a trooper, or a SEAL, or a Marine. You know he'll almost certainly come back alive, eventually, but you don't quite know in advance whether he'll have to kill all the enemy soldiers in order to count them. What you do know is that if he does, he certainly won't hold it against any of them. Nothing personal. That's just the way it is.

And when he reports in, you'll just get the facts, without much interpretation. Eric doesn't put many comments in his code. He thinks that if you have to comment a piece of code, you haven't written it clearly enough. He is looking forward to working in Perl 6 because a lot of the magical cruft has been cleaned out of the language, or at least moved into places where he doesn't have to worry about it, such as function signatures.

But the thing he loves most about Perl 6 is the multimethod dispatch, precisely because those crufty signatures also allow him to say what he wants without extra words.

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Jezebel isn't really a bad girl. She's just drawn that way.

For all we know, this might be Miss Engles on her day off.

That being said, I wouldn't mind it if there more female programmers, especially female Perl programmers. And no, I don't mean it like that, or my wife wouldn't let me say it. But I think we need some spies to tell us what things in our culture appeal to women, and what don't. And it kinda goes without saying that these spies need to be women. Well, look, the guys all have a lot of great ideas, but you know, guys tend to be rather, well, idea-oriented. In theory, Perl culture is supposed to be more cooperative than competitive, but it's kind of hard to argue for that viewpoint when the vast majority of us are standing and pounding our chests like big gorillas. I include myself in that category. Er, the gorilla category, not the Jezebel category. Just thought I'd clear that up.

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I think Mama represents the older generation of Perl programmers. Mama is wise to all the stupid tricks of the young'uns, and not afraid to tell 'em off for it. Mama tends to be strict, but she has good reasons for it, because she takes the long view.

A lot of Mamas must hang out on PerlMonks--they're the ones who are always saying "use strict; use warnings;" or you'll grow up to be sorry you didn't. And wipe your feet when you come in.

Mama kinda likes the fact that Perl 6 is growing up to become a strict language by default, but she isn't quite sure what she's gonna do after the kids are all grown up. It makes her happy and sad at the same time.

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Natasha gets to represent the next wave of international programmers, particularly those from developing countries. Natasha's mother probably worked for a large eastern-bloc TLA, and I don't mean IBM. But Natasha is actually doing a bit of industrial work here. All in the interests of capitalism, of course. Though whose capital is perhaps a bit unclear at times.

A lot of people like Natasha are trying to figure out how to make a living in the new economic realities, and one of those economic realities is that the traditional western powers are trying to vacuum up all intellectual property rights on behalf of various corporate interests. And she wonders, rightfully so, if there will ever be any place in that economy for her, and for people like her.

So when our friend "Mad Dog" comes to town, and preaches the gospel that free and open source software is the only path to freedom, the only way for the rest of the world to push back--well, she can see the appeal of that notion.

And there are a lot of Natashas in the world, and potential Natashas. Over the long haul, she may well be the most important member of this list.

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Oliver represents the next generation of programmers, who don't even know it yet. Oliver is not ready to learn computer science. He is just starting to think about programming because he'd like to be a video game designer someday. He doesn't know that what he likes best about Perl is that it will let him learn what he needs to know one concept at a time, without forcing him to learn a bunch of abstract concepts all at once before he really needs them. When he drives on the freeway, he drives in the slow lane.

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On the other hand, Pixie drives in the fast lane. She is what you might call an extreme programmer.

As an extreme programmer, Pixie loves testing. Preferably testing to destruction. The best defense is a good offense. She'll get the job done, but she's determined to have a lot of fun doing it.

Pixie works well in small teams, especially with pair programming. A team of two is the perfect size for her because wherever she's aiming, her partner can always stand on the opposite side of her.

As part of a rapid response unit, Pixie is very much into rapid prototyping. So Pixie's favorite Perl 6 feature is the yadayadayada operator, which lets her stub out new functions and blow up their interfaces even before the function bodies are written.

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As the quintessential English banker, Mr. Radcliffe is a firm believer in reliability, with a dash of style. For our talk today, he gets to represent the business interests surrounding open source software. Mr. Radcliffe knows that businesses have different set of goals than most open source programmers, but he also knows that there is a great deal of overlap in those goals, and that the clever businessman can exploit that overlap to the betterment of both business and programmer.

You see, Mr. Radcliffe understands that one thing can have multiple functions. His umbrella is almost certainly multifunctional. Mr. Radcliffe's favorite part of Perl 6 is that nearly every feature is multifunctional, though not completely orthogonal. That doesn't bother Mr. Radcliffe, because nobody who rides cabs around in London expects complete orthogonality. He just expects to get where he's going.

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What can I say? Perl is also used by script kiddies. We just hope Oliver doesn't grow up to be a script kiddie like r0u73r. Or if he does, we hope it's just a passing phase.

And in fact, r0u73r used to be a script kiddie, but now uses his 1337 skills for good. To some extent, most of us were cargo culters as we learned how to program. We were reusing code, which is good, but we just didn't always understand why we were reusing the code. But the Perl community has always had a soft spot for cargo culters, and seeks to educate them until they learn the real reasons for things being the way they are. Then they're ready to join the real cult. Er, I mean, the real culture.

Anyway, as a vestige of his former ways, r0u73r looks forward to using the introspection capabilities of Perl 6, particularly when he can introspect someone else's data structures.

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Tina seems like a girl who just wants to have fun, but she's really aspiring to be Mata Hari, except for the part about getting caught and executed. As a dancer, and perhaps an actress someday, Tina understands about playing roles. She knows that the role she's currently playing is not who she really is. In Perl 6 terms, she understands the difference between an "isa" relationship and a "does" relationship. So she's very much into the Perl 6 concepts of roles, traits, properties, and mixins.

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Wheelbarrow is a scavenger. That is to say, he's a sysadmin.

Wheelbarrow loves to sift through the trash, which in his case consists primarily of discarded HTTP logs. Wheelbarrow loves the strong pattern-matching skills of Perl, and wonders how much better he'll be at scavenging useful information with Perl 6 rules.

As a strong believer in ecology, Wheelbarrow also loves CPAN, and hopes that Perl 6's version of CPAN will be even better at helping him reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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Wraith has trained herself to be good at hiding. She's particularly good at information hiding and various forms of encapsulation.

Wraith also loves all the crazy new Perl 6 operators, especially the ones that will allow her to express parallel operations implicitly. She is willing to train herself in their skillful use because she values efficiency of expression. Why toss a single throwing star when you can throw eight at once?

figure 24

Wu-Li is the old guy who is interested in Unicode, and is looking forward to Perl 6's built-in support for efficient and ubiquitous Unicode processing. Wu-Li likes to think about the various positive and negative aspects of various strange philosophies, whether Eastern, Western, Northern, Southern, or somewhere in-between.

Wu-Li isn't actually Chinese. He only thinks he's Chinese because when he was young his parents told him that every third child born into the world was Chinese, and he was a third child.

As a foreteller of the future, Wu-Li is the only person who knows when Perl 6 is coming out, and I'm not telling. Er, he's not telling.

Wu-Li is also known for giving peculiar speeches from time to time.

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And finally we come to Mr. X. I don't know much about Mr. X, because nobody knows anything about Mr. X except Mr. X himself. We can only guess.

Mr. X seems to be highly placed in his organization, because all his information is of high quality, and of strategic value. Mr. X seems to believe in clean interfaces, with no extraneous information. He's a master of the deaddrop, and other forms of message passing. He seems to understand Perl 6's concept of delegation, so he's probably in management. Perhaps he's the CIO. Or maybe he's the CFO's assistant. Who knows?

In any event, he may be someone with some decision-making power, but he can't afford to compromise his position by being overtly in favor of open source. At least, not yet. Nevertheless, he may be the most important player in the eventual success of open source. Mr. X is future-oriented, and as enigmatic as the future itself. We sincerely hope he turns out to be a nice person.

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That's our organization in a nutshell. We sincerely hope you'll join up. Unfortunately, if you don't join, we'll have to liquidate you.

Well, enough of that. If this were an ordinary State of the Onion speech, I would now go into my standard spiel about how diverse the open source community is and how it's such a great thing that we can pool our various strengths and produce something greater than any of us can do alone. And if this conference were still in California, I might say it again anyway, since diversity in California is not just encouraged, it's actually required, culturally speaking. Californians have gotten to the point of being completely intolerant of non-diversity. But we're not in California, so let's just assume I said all that again and go on to something else.

I'd like to leave you with one thought, along with all these pretty pictures.

As I was thinking about the intelligence community and its recent obvious failures, it kinda put a new spin onto the phrase, "Information wants to be free," or my own version of it, which is that "Information wants to be useful."

We often think that intelligence failures are caused by having too little information. But often, in retrospect, we find that the problem is too much information, and that in fact, we had the data available to us, if only it had been analyzed correctly.

So I'm just wondering if we're getting ourselves into a similar situation with open source software. More software is not always better software. Google notwithstanding, I think it's actually getting harder and harder over time to find that nugget you're looking for. This process of re-inventing the wheel makes better wheels, but we're running the risk of getting buried under a lot of half-built wheels.

And there are two take-home lessons from that. The first is that, as an open source author, you should be quick to try to make someone else's half-built wheel better, and slow to try to make your own. We're making progress in this realm in the Perl community, but I don't think any open source community ever gets good enough at harmonizing the dissimilar interests that sometimes lead to project forks. We can always improve there.

The second take-home lesson is this. Pity your poor intelligence analyst back at headquarters. He's not all that intelligent, after all. The intelligence of the intelligence community is distributed, and it's often the Tinas and the Wheelbarrows of the world that know when they've got a piece of hot information. But somehow that meta-information gets lost on transmission back to headquarters.

So my plea to all you agents out there today is to use your own initiative in figuring out which things to bother us with, and which things to work out for yourself. You're smart, and the worst that can happen is that we tell you that you've wasted some effort. Just think of it as a kind of commit and rollback mechanism. Recent studies in multithreading show that hard locks do not scale as well as Software Transactional Memory, which is just such a commit/rollback mechanism.

Look around you. We are a multithreaded organization, so the same is true socially. It's easy to get offended or discouraged when a rollback happens, but just don't. The whole community will function more efficiently that way.

But if you get rolled back on something you know is important, just keep pushing. Those of us back at headquarters try to stay flexible and open-minded, but we don't always succeed. So keep that good intel coming in, because good analysts can change their minds occasionally, too. At least, that's what I think this week, and this year.

This talk will self-destruct in five seconds. Thank you all for listening.

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