Python doesn’t treat me like I’m stupid

I don’t know how it works worldwide, but here in Argentina, most programmers not only use Java, but are also convinced that Java is the best language available if you can do without C/C++ efficiency, and therefore don’t bother to learn other languages. There’s no such concept as the “programmer toolbox”. And this is not enforced only by the Software Industry (where non technical issues, like programmer availability come to play[1]), but sadly by a noticeable part of the academic community.

There’s a fact that I think makes this situation worse, and is that Java is a pretty dated language. What I mean is there are too different problems;  The first one is that programmers don’t bother to study other languages, so they use one tool to solve all problems. This is indeed a big issue, but more related to engineering and science than to programming. The second one is that there clearly are better languages to do what Java is supposed to do best: general purpose object oriented programming, and if you may, web applications back-end programming (which is what most programmers end up doing here). And those better languages are not obscure novelties as some like to suggest, but languages that have been around as long as Java has. Ruby and Python are the examples I’m most familiar with, but there are others, notably lisp.

I don’t know about any Java programmer that having tried a higher level language such as Python, wanted to go back to using Java. Bruce Eckel who wrote the books that are used for reference on Java and C++ in the programming courses that teach object-oriented programming at my college  noticed almost 10 years ago that sticking to Java was a huge waste of programmer’s time. A lot has been written about the advantages of Python over Java; a specially concise example are Eckel’s slides Why I love Python[2]. I also like a couple of screencasts by Sean Kelly, that focus more on web development (where Java is specially useless)[3].

I’m not interested in repeating all those points; most of them are related to language features like dynamic typing or native types. Some of them can be overcome by enhancing the language with new features, and this is what Java designers have been doing: they have been patching bad language design decisions ever since it first came out.

But there’s one particular aspect that I think defines on principle why Python is a better language than Java, and it won’t change no matter what features are added or removed. And it is the philosophy behind the language, the way they think about the programmer. Quoting Eckel: Java treats programmers like they are stupid, Python doesn’t.

Java design and libraries consistently make a huge effort making it difficult for a programmer to do bad things. If a feature was a potential means for a dumb programmer to make bad code, they would take away the feature altogether. And what’s worse, at times they even used it in the language implementation but prohibited the programmer to do so[4]. Paul Graham remarkably pointed this[5] as a potential flaw of Java before actually trying the language:

Like the creators of sitcoms or junk food or package tours, Java’s designers were consciously designing a product for people not as smart as them.

But this approach is an illusion; no matter how hard you try, you can’t always keep  bad programmers from writing bad programs. Java is a lousy replacement to the learning of algorithms and good programming practices.

The implications of this way of thinking are not limited to language features. The design decisions of the underlying language have a great effect on the programmer’s idiosyncrasy. It’s common to see Java designs and patterns that make an unnecessary effort in prohibiting potential bad uses of the resulting code, again not trusting the programmer’s judgment, wasting time and putting together very rigid structures.

The bottom line is that by making it hard for stupid programmers to do bad stuff, Java really gets in the way of smart programmers trying to make good programs. Python on the other hand, is focused on making it extremely easy to program well[6]. It gives you the choice; If you want to do crappy code is your responsibility.

[1] Paul Graham, Revenge of the Nerds.
[2] Bruce Eckel, Why I love Python. The points are extended in these interviews.
[3] Sean Kelly, Recovery from addiction, Better web app development.
[4] Bruce Eckel, The Zen of Python.
[5] Paul Graham, Java’s Cover.
[6] Tim Peters, The Zen of Python.