Sun, 13 Mar 2022

The Programming Curse

— SjG @ 10:28 am

Programming is fun. You can be off doing some chore and get this idea … “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I could just have the computer help me with this …”

So, you come up with an idea, and you think through the first few steps, and throw together a script. Then you play with it, and you get excited. It works, sort of, but you can see ways to make it better. You make changes and discover a better approach to the problem — so you implement that, and before you know it, you’ve spent an evening or an afternoon. It’s exciting to watch your ideas turn into something.

But computers get ever more complex, and the power and complexity of interfacing also gets ever more complex. Keeping pace with that increased complexity are more and more powerful development tools. This is a double-edged sword: you can easily do amazing things that would have once been very difficult, but getting set up can be more challenging and when things go wrong, it’s harder to figure out why.

For some ideas, getting to the point of coding is still easy as entering php -a or python and starting to type. For other ideas, though, there is the dreaded setup problem. I call this phenomenon “The Programming Curse.”

For example, I had an idea for a phone app that I wanted to prototype. In the old days, I’d have had to break out XCode and learn Swift and all of the iOS libraries. Today, however, I can use more familiar (to me) web technologies, and build an app using the Ionic Framework. Now I have a toolchain that includes at least nodejs, the Ionic framework, Ruby Gems, and XCode. I know very little about any of these things’ internals, and I really don’t want to know a lot about them. I just want to explore my code idea!

Sadly, I have to learn something about the internals. My first attempt to install the toolchain failed deep inside a nodejs package setup. After extensive googling, I find that it’s because one of the components is not the latest version (but there’s a reason for that1).

Maybe I’ve just gotten old, or maybe I’m just lazy. I’m certainly not the first to gripe about this phenomenon2. It just dampens the fun when during that excited “wouldn’t it be cool” phase I have to spend hours getting a functional development environment together instead of actually getting to write code.

1 The problem is that I support a phone app that was written in an earlier version of the Ionic framework, and it depends on a Cordova plug-in that’s no longer supported. The plug-in still works, but I can’t update my development environment for my new project because the dependencies would clobber my ability to update new builds of my old project. Could that be resolved by selectively holding back some packages to previous versions? Maybe. Three or four hour’s worth of effort in that direction didn’t get me anywhere, other than dependency hell.
For my web-only projects, I use products like Docker to keep a fully isolated development environment per project. Since Ionic depends on nodejs which installs globally (and since I need XCode to perform the final build), I haven’t found a way to do that. I guess if I made some Mac OS virtual machines, I could, but it seems like a lot of overhead.

2Fifteen years ago, David Brin wrote an article on Why Johnny Can’t Code extolling the virtues of BASIC. I find myself grudgingly agreeing — not about his specific language objections (I don’t know why he felt Perl or Python are any further from the metal than BASIC), but about how and why it should be easier to write small programs.

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