<?xml version='1.0' encoding='utf-8'?>
<article xmlns="http://docbook.org/ns/docbook" version="5.0" xml:id="index"
<title>“Usability” of the Perl Online World for Newcomers</title>
<uri type="homepage" xlink:href="http://www.shlomifish.org/">Shlomi Fish’s Homepage</uri>
This document is copyrighted by Shlomi Fish under the terms
of the Open Publication License version 2.0 or greater, or
alternatively under the
<link xlink:href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/">Creative Commons Attribution Unported License version 3.0</link> (or at your option any greater version of it).
Removed a paragraph that is less than accurate, added
a link to ESR’s CatB, and refactored a few things.
Made the criticism against the inavailability of the
O’Reilly core Perl documentation less blunt, and added
a suggestion for the www.perl.com site. Fixed some
First Advogato Version.
<info><title>Me as a Perl Newbie</title></info>
“Shlomi, it takes 10 years to learn UNIX. I want you to learn it
in a month”. My future supervisor in a web publishing house I
switched jobs to, told me that and It’ll be a cold day in hell
before I forget this quote. He also showed me Perl, telling me I
can write a TCP/IP client in 5 lines and a TCP server in 10, which
sounded very impressive and intriguing. So I set out to learn
UNIX and Perl.
When I got to work I did not know UNIX as much as he could hope for,
but with some help from the people around there I managed to get by.
The year was 1996, it was the start of the Internet Boom and
everybody and his mother wanted a web-site. Perl 5 was there, and
it was practically the only thing you could use on UNIX to write
CGI scripts, without completely losing your mind.
I only had a Windows 3.11 at home, and so started learning Perl
from all the POD documents cramped into one Acrobat Reader file.
“On dry”, as they say in Israel, without actually running it. I
understood some of it as it reminded me of C and BASIC which I knew
quite well. But still there were all these references to sed, awk,
UNIX shells, and other things I did not know. Generally, they
assumed you knew what they were talking about.
I started working there, and was able to get by with my little
knowledge of Perl and UNIX which accumulated quite quickly. I
remember asking my supervisor what regular expressions where all
about and he told me: “they are a mechanism to find patterns in
text”. That was the enlightenment that made me able to use them
on a regular basis.
I fell in love with both UNIX and Perl. I was not much of a UNIX
guru and wrote what I now write in shell in Perl, and simply kept
asking my supervisor (who was then a true UNIX guru even in today’s
standards), questions about how to do things. But I got by.
Since then, with some breaks, I extended my knowledge of both Perl
and UNIX. (I was thrilled to find ActivePerl and use Perl
effectively on Win32 as well). Gradually, I learned about Modules
and Objects in Perl and then a lot of tips and shortcuts, and now
use it very often. Even in the Technion, where I now study
Electrical Engineering, Perl proved to be a life saver. It is my
favourite language by far, and would not replace it with anything
That’s my story. Now let’s move to the story of Mel Jones (short
for Melissa but might as well be Melvin), a Perl newbie who wishes
to get hold of Perl. When thinking about the usability of computer
systems, it is helpful to think about a few imaginary figures,
which one is almost certain there are many similar that exist in
real-life. Mel is one of them, but as you’ll see later she won’t be
the only one.
Before I start let me say that I am indebted to Larry Wall, Tom
Christiansen and all the other people who contributed to Perl
and brought Perl so far. I did not come to bury Perl or the Perl
world in this article. I simply came to pass some constructive
criticism and suggestions to further aid its public acceptance.
Perl is the nicest language I’ve seen so far, and I would highly
recommend anyone to learn it.
(I am also grateful to the Python, Ruby, Tcl, PHP, etc. crew for
working on languages which can provide a viable alternative to
Perl in some cases and by some people. By all means, Perl is not
suitable for anyone and for any purpose and I always appreciate a
<info><title>The Story of Mel</title></info>
Who is Mel? She may be an experienced C programmer, or has some
case, she does not know Python, Ruby, Lisp, Tcl or PHP. (such
people will usually have little problem learning Perl). Mel got a
new job: be it as a system administrator, CGI programmer,
Bio-informatics engineer, hardware designer, QA engineer or
whatever. She wishes to do something that seems awfully hard with
what she already knows, asks around and receive a simple answer
“Perl would be perfect for it. And it is spelled P.E.R.L”
So Mel goes on looking for this strange and perfect language
called “perl” (without the ‘a’). Where does she go first?
<link xlink:href="http://www.google.com/">Google</link>? Most probably.
What does she discover? www.perl.com is the first hit. An
overcrowded site with a lot of O’Reillyisms with several articles
that are way over her head. Perl Mongers is the second hit. She
reads on - groups of Perl users - goodie. Now if she knows how to
use E-mail (she may or may not have such a good net-wisdom), she
may have hit the jackpot, because most Perl monger groups are very
friendly to newbies. Then she discovers CPAN (Mel
says: “What is it and why do I need it?”). ActiveState (a
commercial site which may or may not scare her) and Use Perl, which
is a nice site for Perl News, but she is naturally interested in
the Perl’s status quo.
She refines her query: “learn perl”, “begin perl”, “perl newbie”
or “perl beginners”. The concentrated site for perl beginners is
<link xlink:href="http://learn.perl.org/">learn.perl.org</link>. It
contains some reviews of books (which Mel may not have time to
read), a free online book (again, same issue) and no links to
tutorials whatsoever. IMHO, the site’s visual side is also very
lacking and she may come to believe it is a sub-standard site as
OK. Maybe Mel was given the Llama book on the first day of her job
as a gesture from her employer. Maybe this employer has these books
online on his intranet for everybody to see. (there are also
illegal or unfirewalled mirrors of these books, but let’s suppose
Mel is a lawful citizen who respects copyrights.) The question
still stands: why do you need a book to learn Perl? Why can’t you
learn it from the Internet alone? Why kill trees, when you can
simply transfer electrons from place to place to study it?
<info><title>The Situation Today</title></info>
When Larry Wall and others started hacking on Perl 5 (which was a
complete rewrite and complete re-design of the defunct perl4), they
expected it to be used for system administration tasks, for text
processing and maybe to automate a few network tasks. The Internet
Boom wanted otherwise, and several other technological explosions
saw in Perl a suitable language for its tasks. Nowadays, Perl (and
similar languages such as Python, PHP, Ruby or Tcl) are used for
tasks as diverse as the computer world itself. Server-side-
scripting, Bio-informatics, System Administration, Text Processing,
System Tools, Graphical User-Interface, Computational Programming,
Quality Assurance, automating Internet services (for good or worse)
and even real-world applications and Games, are all written in
Perl, Python and everything else. Some Killer apps of this kind
include: Slash (the back-end of Slashdot), SourceForge/GForge,
Bugzilla, Zope, PySol, The Mandrake Linux System Tools and
Installer, <link xlink:href="http://www.frozen-bubble.org/">Frozen Bubble</link> (;-)), SpamAssassin, and many other things
I don’t recall or forgot about momentarily. Furthermore, a lot of
code of such languages is used internally and not exposed to the
world, and plays a large role behind the scenes.
<!-- To do: hyperlink -->
They are still often referred to as “scripting languages”, but this
term can no longer accurately describe them. While a Java-obsessed
friend of mine asked me to give him an example for a proprietary
application of a large codebase that is written in Perl, and I
could only think of open-source ones, it is definitely enterprise
ready, and not a toy language for hackers anymore.
Now, let’s go back to Mel. She needs to learn Perl. But she might
as well have been told to learn PHP, Python, Visual Basic or
whatever. My problem is I think she would have a much harder time
with Perl than with the others. No, it’s not because Perl is a
harder <emphasis>language</emphasis> than the others. I don’t think
it is. It’s because the resources available online are inadequate
or may scare her. And as <link xlink:href="http://www.perl.com/pub/a/2001/05/29/tides.html">Casey
West noted in a previous attempt at correcting the
situation</link>, the Perl community is relatively hostile to
newbies and does not put up with them as much as those that are
friendly would hope.
Here is what I think are the problems with it:
<info><title>Concentration of Effort and Elitism</title></info>
I did my best to help newbies welcome in Perl. I actually like
beginners, and have a lot of patience to them, because I know
no one is born with an innate knowledge of Perl, UNIX or
whatever. I often work in the Technion farms and whenever
I overhear that someone has a problem my ears become pointed,
and I cry “do you need help?” And then show him how to do
something that for me may be perfectly obvious. Seriously. I
simply enjoy doing that.
I also took some proactive effort in the direction. I wrote the
for Perl Newbies</link> lecture series for the Haifa Linux
Club. I wrote them
with absolute beginners in mind, and decided to teach a very
small subset of Perl step by step, with assumption that people
will read the man pages afterwards. (and be able to understand
them better then).
Lately, out of frustration with the learn.perl.org site, I started
working on <link xlink:href="http://perl-begin.org/">my
own version of a Perl beginners site</link>. Now here is where
things went a bit wrong in my opinion. However, I don’t want
to defame anyone so I’ll summarize. Both the
<link xlink:href="http://use.perl.org/">use.perl.org</link>’s editor
and a very prominent Perl figure that stumbled upon the site,
believed that I should merge my work with learn.perl.org. At
first, I thought it was a good idea, but then discover I
am unable to contact the learn.perl.org workers and that
their mailing lists was closed for subcription.
Regardless, what’s wrong with two Perl beginners site on the
Internet? If I feel that learn.perl.org is inadequate, why
should my effort be frowned upon? If we take PHP or Visual
Basic for example, than everyone and his mother have a PHP
portal where users can post questions (sometimes without
subscribring), receive answers, read tutorials and see code
snippets. Same for Visual Basic, despite the fact that it is
proprietary. I want the same for Perl! I don’t want a couple of
concentrated perl.org and perl.com and oreillynet.com sites. I
want a real network of independant sites!
It also demonstrates the Perl community’s elitism. I don’t know
how it came into being. For example, when I log into EF-Net,
the channel #perl displays a long title that reads something
like: “Not a Helpdesk! No CGI/WWW/Net::IRC/FAQ.”. OK, there’s
also #perlhelp where such questions are accepted. But here are
two facts from a user interface designer point of view:
<orderedlist inheritnum="ignore" continuation="restarts">
People are not going to read the title. In a user
interface, you are lucky if people read anything at
all. (including: “Delete and Expunge ‘My most
Newbies by nature will try #perl if they log into a
random IRC server. And they don’t want to get flamed
for being off-topic there.
In short, this is a bad UI design. If the Perl gurus so desire
not to be disturbed by newbie questions, they should move to
#perlgurus or #perlelite or #perlcafe or whatever. But they
should not make claim for #perl.
In another IRC network, I (not a newbie by far) was kicked
because I pasted a URL and said the word CGI. (there’s a nasty
pattern bot there). Some other time, I was kicked out of
#perlhelp, because I said the built-in function hex() converts
numbers from hexadecimal to decimal, while a moderator believed
it converts them <emphasis>to</emphasis> hexadecimal.
Naturally I was right (Run
perldoc -f hex), but still instead of arguing with me, he
kicked me out. Why should a bit of disinformation hurt if there
are enough good people to correct it on the IRC as well? And
Newbies can learn a lot from such discussions.
<info><title>Lack of Adequate Online Resources</title></info>
Let’s face it: at the moment, there aren’t too many good Perl
tutorials online. Many people who ask trivial questions are
being conveyed something like “Read the Llama Book, the Camel
Book, the Black Panther book, the Perl Cookbook, and then
you’ll know how to convert a file to lowercase.” Maybe I’m
exagerrating a little, but it seems people are so content with
the books that they don’t seem to think people who don’t want
them, cannot afford to buy them, or don’t have time for them,
are worthy of learning Perl.
I don’t have anything against people trying to make money off
Perl by selling books. But these people are the same people
who are the Perl project leaders, and so are responsible to
make sure Perl is well-documented. If people get frustrated
learning Perl, and become unhappy with it, they will criticize
“Perl”. Not the Perl documentation. Not the Perl community.
Not even the Perl leaders. <emphasis>“Perl”</emphasis>.
If Larry Wall et al. care enough about Perl, they should make
sure it has good online documentation. They don’t have to do
it themselves, as a simple call for action by a very prominent
Perl figure will do. (in accordance to Eric Raymond’s
<link xlink:href="http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/">“The Cathedral and the Bazaar”</link>)
If we take a look at Python or PHP for instance, then they
have excellent online documentation, which is very useful for
most if not all newbies. No need to read a book or take a
course. Just surf the Internet on your ADSL connection, install
a few things on your Windows machine, and presto! You know PHP
or Python or Ruby. I seriously doubt if it can be done with
Perl with the same ease.
I am grateful for Simon Cozens for making his
book online for free. I did not take a thorough look at the
book, but it is more encompassing than anything I’ve seen. But
even one book is not enough. People still want step by step
tutorials and things they can cut and paste code out of and
tinker it to do something.
When are books that cover a Technology something that I find
legitimate? When they are not absolutely needed. I learned
the Perl DBI by reading the man page and the online site and
asking a few questions. Some people do not like man pages too
much and would rather buy a book that covers Perl DBI. That’s
OK, and there may be a few fine points of working with DBI that
I missed with what I call my “bottom-up learning”.
Such books need not be available online if their authors so
much don’t desire. However, Perl is very hard to learn from
public electronic resources alone. I believe there may even
be a clash of interests because the core Perl people also
write them and so may not have enough motivation to improve
the online documentation. Making them public will resolve that.
That aside, I also believe that making it available online will
not dent their sales much. I still would like to buy the Camel
Book (which I borrowed from the local Perl Mongers library),
and loved regardless if it’s online so I can read it at bed
time and stuff. And I generally have no problems using a
computer book or tutorial.
<info><title>Lack of Adequate Mailing Lists</title></info>
Then there are the mailing lists. I think (but am not sure)
that most Perl Mongers mailing lists will gladly accept
questions from newbies and answer them kindly. I know this is
the case for <link xlink:href="http://www.perl.org.il/">Israel.PM</link>.
As a general rule
Perl Mongers should make sure that the newbies mailing list
would be the first list they see on the site, or try to
subscribe to. Again, good user-interface design.
The Perl Beginners list In my opinion is a bit useless. It is
very high volume, and usually whenever one considers
replying to a question, it receives three replies by the time
he finished composing it. I was also subscribed and it was
too high volume to be effective for me as a “guru”. I believe
newbies will not be able to handle such volumes either. Unless
they can configure their mail readers to filter only their own
threads, which I’m not sure they can. Perl can do that, but
they need to know it first.
Like I said earlier, I think distributism is the key to our
success here. Just like there are many scientific journals with
very similar names and themes, (sometimes, “Physics A”,
“Physics B”, “Physics C” etc), so there should be several
international Perl beginners sites, each with his own mailing
list for beginners. Gurus will subscribe to one or more sites
and answer questions there, and newbies won’t have to
excessively use their delete button. Gradually, each such
community will have a different atmosphere, and we will get a
more diversified Perl world. (we all agree that diversity is
good, right? If you don’t you should program in Python)
<info><title>Substandard Standard Documentation</title></info>
Let’s face it, the man pages (or perl*.pod), which are the
definitive resource on the exact behaviour of Perl are very
bad. Maybe they were OK for expert Perl 4 or Tcl hackers, or
those that knew UNIX shells, sed and awk well. But nowadays
we can expect people to come even without knowledge of the
DOS or Windows command line, much less UNIX wizardry.
Perl is not and cannot be a “point-and-click-no-think”
language. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to make
it so. Even the lamest GUI kiddie eventually learns to
invoke a text editor and write some glue code for whatever he
needs to get a web-site or whatever working. Perl is much too
powerful, to be something like ASP, where you can write wizards
to perform most common tasks. In Perl, you can in one script,
write a full application. This is something that while perhaps
possible in ASP, it was not intended to do.
Still, the fear of writing code and thinking in terms of
variables, functions, objects, modules and other abstractions
is not something that for people above a certain age is easy
to overcome. Visual Basic for Applications is one of the things
I like most in Excel, but most people don’t know it, and most
books don’t teach it. Why? Because it involves actual coding
and people don’t like that. Ironically, it’s very useful, too.
Now, a documentation should guide a newbie step by step
and explains: what is a variable? what is a scalar? what is a
number? what is a string? how they convert into each other?
What is an array and what it is good for? Same for hash,
object, etc. All these things may have different semantics
in Perl than in most other languages. And all these things
need to be explained clearly and reasonably, without depending
on an analogy to tools that are way over Mel’s head at her
I don’t want this knowledge to be hidden from the world in some
proprietary O’Reilly books. I did my best to remedy it, and
Simon Cozens did even more. I think the reason people think
Perl is such a poor language to learn or even for complete
beginners, is not because of the syntax and semantics
themselves, but because of its poor documentation. That put
aside, I think publishers making their books available online,
will only help them sell more books (assuming these books are
good, of course). Otherwise it’s similar to buying an
apartment without seeing it first.
<info><title>Too Much Hubris</title></info>
Hubris is one of the three great virtues of the programmer
according to Larry Wall. But he <link xlink:href="http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/opensources/book/larry.html">also noted in
that humility was a good quality as well. Don’t get me wrong
some projects have much more hubris than Perl: Python and Linux
come to mind. I’m not saying all Pythoneers or Linuxers are
hubris-ful. But a small minority is too loud, and there’s
a similar case in Perl to a lesser extent.
What do I mean by hubris? “Perl is the greatest language since
sliced bread. It has unparalleled text processing and data
strucutres support. It is object-oriented, supports functional
programming and any other programming paradigm very well. It’s
perfect for almost any task, from powering web-sites to writing
GUI to writing games. It’s practically LISP with in-fix
notation, and runs on almost any platform imaginable...”
You get the drift? Why I think it’s bad? Because most
people don’t like communities with this sales pitch. When
recommending Perl to someone, you should discuss one advantage
at a time, not overload him with a lot of information. When
people see a lot of information they think there’s something
fishy about this.
Let’s take a look at a language with just the right amount of
hubris: Visual Basic. Right, a language that Microsoft has
released several versions of, each adding major things, but
is still inferior to perl 5.000. A language whose code can
only be deployed on Windows. A language that is many times
useless without a whole slew of OCX or OLE components that
are freely available at best. Still, Microsoft and the other
VB community do not claim it’s the greatest language on earth.
“I take your word that Perl/Python/Ruby/LISP/whatever is much
superior. VB is stupid, but cute and it gets the job done.”
That’s the attitude we should have: Perl gets the job done.
Granted, many different jobs. But as far as Mel is concerned
it only gets her job done and not the entire world’s ones.
<info><title>What’s the threat?</title></info>
You can often hear opinions or wonderings in the vein of: will PHP
kill Perl? Will Python kill Perl? Will Java kill Perl? Will FooLang
kill Perl? I don’t think anyone of them can hope to. I don’t think
Perl will completely eliminate any of them either, but I think
Perl’s status is secured.
Perl is too syntactically and semantically rich a language to be
abandoned by all its loving users in such a haste. CPAN is also
a big plus for Perl, which while being a purely technical mechanism
makes Perl more suitable for some tasks than most of its other
competitors. I hope to see equivalents in other languages, but it
will take some time and a lot of work from some very determined
individuals to get it up.
The Perl Culture has extended way beyond its use. From perl poetry
to Perl golf, to the talks by Larry Wall and other of the very
interesting Perl personalities. The Perl community is alive and
kicking and proud of being such. While some people abandon it for
Python, Ruby or whatever, most of them still think Perl is a nice
language, and don’t abandon it or completely or completely
antagonize it. The beauty of the Perl culture is that it’s about
using the right tool for the job whether in Perl or not.
We all know 80% of the users use 20% of the features of a given
program. However, as <link xlink:href="http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000020.html">Joel
Spolsky identified</link> they often use a differnet set of
features. Perl’s feature-set is huge, but you can survive with
knowing maybe 10% or even less of it. Moreover, you can gradually
learn more and more features and keep learning new ones. Perhaps
only the three authors of Programming Perl know the entire feature
set, and I believe even they are actively unaware of some obscure
details of it. However, one always feels he’s getting closer to
The problem is that Mel is not concerned with any of it. She just
wants to write a program. This program may just as effectively be
written with Python or Ruby or PHP. And we should be concerned with
her writing it in Perl, because otherwise, it will take her more
time to get to learn Perl. As much as I care about the quality of
Perl programmers (which is actually quite good) I also think we
should evangelize it to many people who’ll find it useful.
Moreover, I don’t like Mel becoming one of those characters who say:
“Perl? This horrible language? I’m using PHP/Python/Ruby/Java. It’s
much better than Perl.” I don’t think there’s a way to exactly
measure which language is “better”. Some languages are better in
some regards and for some purposes than others. But Perl is much
more than a language. It’s a culture and a philosophy.
Perl has a lot of potential for Mel. Alternatively, it has such for
Joanna Simpson, a CEO of a Fortune 500 firm who is trying to
ship her automobile-company’s new car model. I think we should
even try to teach Joanna Perl, because not only will she learn how
great a language it is, but it may actually be useful for her in
her day for day work. Otherwise, she would tell Robert, her
secretary, to sort all the files into several directories a week
from now, which can otherwise be done with a 10-liner Perl script.
This will leave Robert enough time to answer phone calls and play
<link xlink:href="http://www.frozen-bubble.org/">Frozen Bubble</link>
(which is written in Perl) in between: things that Perl or any
other software cannot do for him.
Perl should be everywhere. Let’s not ruin the day for Mel, Joanna
or Robert by a bad attitude. Remember that at a time, we were not
much more educated than them. Not even old time UNIX gurus like
Ken Thompson or Larry Wall can claim that, because UNIX and Perl
developed based on input by many people and everyone was always
surprised by new developments. While the effort was concentrated,
the ideas flowed from everywhere.
Furthermore helping newbies is <emphasis>fun</emphasis> and makes
you feel good. You don’t have a moral obligation to do so, but I
believe you’ll find helping someone even with a trivial question
even more enjoyable then getting help for something that bothered
you. That’s how the open-source world works.
You may eventually find yourself in a similar situation in
something else entirely, and may need help by people who are more
expert than you are. During my Electrical Engineering studies I
studied things that were much less straightforward to me than
either Perl or UNIX (which I don’t consider easy either), and
sometimes the help of the lecturers, the T.A.’s or fellow students
proved crucial to understanding them. Moreover, explaining
something to someone who grasps it much less than you, is the
best way of learning (even better than actually experiencing with
something yourself). That’s because when teaching someone, you
have to think how to convey it using more basic knowledge in a
strucutured way, and so understand it much better.
<info><title>What we should do about it?</title></info>
Until now it has been a long rant with some sprinkled advice in
between. Now let’s get to the real action. Here is what I think
should be done, in no particular order.
Establish your own Perl beginners site/portal/mailing
list/web forum/etc. learn.perl.org is not enough and
neither is what I’m going to do. We need more and as
many as possible.
Note that if you feel that there isn’t enough traffic
or that you should merge with some other site - it’s
OK and you can do so. As always reason and experience
are your best guidelines as there isn’t a precise rulebook
for surviving in real life.
<info><title>Become your biggest Perl Guru</title></info>
Remember that the biggest Perl guru is
<emphasis>you</emphasis>. Not Larry Wall or Tom
Christiansen or Damian Conway or whoever. That’s
because none of them can dictate to you how to work
with Perl, solve problems with it or with something
else, etc. As much as I appreciate their efforts at
making Perl better and more usable, I don’t think
they have or should have a monopoly on where Perl is
going to. The world is your oyster.
<info><title>Treat Beginners Nicely and Help Them</title></info>
Be kind to newbies, answer them accurately, don’t
confuse them and try to use Perl that is as simple
and non-idiomatic as possible (e.g: for the file’s
lowercasing example, don’t use Tie::File, and prefer
lc() over tr///).
If you don’t have the time to write the entire code
for the beginner - politely tell him you can’t
help him at this point or whenever. Else, try to
actually write some code which would be as clear
and commented as possible. Don’t expect beginners
to like Perl Golf snippets. They may mistake them
for line noise. ;-)
<info><title>Think about Usability Issues</title></info>
Think about the User-Interface Design of the System.
What will the user assume? What would be the first
thing he’ll do? What is he going to notice? What
is he going to ignore? What is he going to do
mechanically? These are all questions that
are as pertinent to IRC networks, programming
languages or web-sites as they are to Microsoft Word.
I gave the IRC channels examples of bad UI design. OK,
gurus, once upon a time there weren’t too many newbies
around. But if you don’t want to completely reject them,
it is a better idea to move to a different channel.
I believe the Perl Monks site also suffers from such a
lacking design. First of all - its name. Do you
honestly expect someone to be a Perl “monk” and live
in a Perl “monastry”? (I’m Jewish, an Atheist, and
very sexually liberated for God’s sake!) Secondly,
the site’s design is unattrative, overcrowded and
confusing. I remember I was reluctant from
participating there, and had troubles understaning
what it was all about.
Web forums should involve no registration whatsoever
(just fill in the name and E-mail), and not use too
fancy a markup syntax, at least not by default. I
actually saw a forum (not particularily Perl-related)
where markups were placed in brackets, and I wanted to
paste some Haskell code... I could not understand how
to do it, no matter what I tried .
<info><title>Create Archives of Perl Code and Documentation</title></info>
Publish some of your Perl code online. Establish a
Wiki. Don’t ask anybody for permission - just do it.
There will be chaos first, but order will emerge out
of it eventually. And if not, Google and friends will
like us better. ;-)
Rik van Riel of the Linux Kernel fame, told me and some
IRC folks about a system which was written for internal
use by Connectiva (his former workplace), that uses a
category tree, where Slashdot-like comments are added.
This sound like a nice integration of a few ideas. The
Connectiva code is written in PHP and is not ready for
release. Nevertheless, I think tweaking <link xlink:href="http://www.slashcode.com/">Slash</link> to do
just that should not be too hard, and may prove as a
useful alternative or a complement to Wikis.
<info><title>Don’t be afraid to charge money or say no</title></info>
Let’s suppose that despite all the positive changes and
having a book nearby, Mel feels she needs a face to face
guidance. She asks around her workplace, and discovers
a fellow worker, by the name of Rachel Southern (
actually a character in a story I’m writing who fits
perfectly here) is a first-class perl guru. Rachel has
been programming since she was 14, knows UNIX, Perl
and many other languages well, and is a very nice,
sociable person. So Mel asks Rachel if she can tutor
her in Perl.
Rachel, however, being the expert that she is, is busy
with work, and prefers to spend her weekends relaxing,
socializing (online and in real life), and hacking on
open-source projects. Moreover, she lives very far
from Mel’s apartment. So she tells Mel that if she
wishes to go to Mel’s apartment on a Saturday or a
Sunday, and tutor her with Perl (or UNIX in general),
Mel would have to pay her a substantial amount of money
per hour. Mel accepts, as she realizes the help she’ll
get out of Rachel, will help her in her work, which in
turn will be very well worth the money.
Was Rachel “greedy” or “unfriendly” in asking for
money? No. I was told a technician in Israel
charges $50 an hour. Many lawyers and other
professionals will charge much
more. The time of compotent persons is
the most precious resource on our planet (except
perhaps for human rationality), and Rachel has no
selfish interest to spend so much time helping Melissa.
I was criticizing the fact that books costed money and
were not available online only because the reproduction
of books in Electronic form is zero. But a time a
person spends helping another one is priceless. Now,
if Mel lived in the same block as Rachel, or otherwise
they were very good friends, then Rachel could have
chosen to reject the payment. (My friend and I lost
track of how even we are regarding the pizzas we ate
and we could not care less about this fact).
It is true that Richard Stallman (RMS) travels around
the world visiting various free software user groups,
at the cost of the travelling expenses alone. He have
also consistently answered the E-mails of me and
everyone else I know, and is available by phone most
of the time.
However, Stallman’s purpose in life is propagating free
software and he is the spiritual father of the free
software and open source movement. As such, he accepts
the fact that he has become a saint and does not charge
money for that. As he once told me and some other
“Advocacy is everything I do”.
Most of us, however, are trying to make the best use
of our time, including getting the bills paid or
contributing to free software. As such, our time is
precious enough so a substantial amount of it that is
used to help a less capable peer will cost money. It
does not mean that spending some time for writing a
straightforward ten-liner for someone should, though.
(in that case, there’s usually no way to acquire the
money in the first place)
There’s a limit to anything. I remember that once
I hanged on the IRC, and someone there showed me a
bot he or his clique wrote in mIRC-script and wanted
to convert to Perl. The bot was a bit complex, so
I told him I did not want to convert it, as I had
no selfish interest in getting it ported. I suggested
him to learn Perl and do the porting himself. He
understood. I’m not sure the bot was ever ported, but
the Gods help only those that help themselves.
<info><title>Revamp of the existing resources</title></info>
Like I noted earlier, I believe many of the existing
resources, while being perfectly fine for veterans
may scare away newbies. www.perl.com is crowded with
too many links, too much content, and too much
oreillynetism. Since it is the first hit on Google, it
should be a decent page where newbies can easily find
their way in. Something like
<link xlink:href="http://www.python.org/">the Python
<link xlink:href="http://www.php.net/">PHP’s</link>. Plain,
simple and effective. (note that I don’t have a problem
with the O’Reilly Net format as a general rule, it’s
just not suitable for newbies who may have never heard
of O’Reilly or do not have the time to put up with it.)
The Python.org site, for instance, contains just the
right links for a newbies and nothing more. It has
a rather cheesy site, but it is much more usable than
www.perl.com. The latter has links to a host of
other O’Reilly sites (what for), some articles that are
way over Melissa’s head, no explanation of what Perl is
all about, links to many O’Reilly books (again: why?),
and is generally overcrowded with information. This is
not a community site. It is practically a blunt
promotion of everything O’Reilly!
www.perl.com as it is can be renamed as
perl.oreilly.com or whatever. But otherwise, O’Reilly
should not make a claim for the homesite of the Perl
language and Perl community as they are not the only
player in the game.
Also, I kindly ask the authors and publishers of the
core Perl books to place them online. If a
book teaches you advanced things that you can learn on
your own, that do not absolutely require a book (like
Damian Conway’s “Object Oriented Perl”), then putting
it online would not be necessary, but still a nice
gesture. However, it cannot be said on <emphasis>Programming
Perl </emphasis>(the Camel Book),
<emphasis>Learning Perl</emphasis> (the
Llama Book), the <emphasis>Perl Cookbook</emphasis>,
or <emphasis>Advanced Perl.</emphasis>
I could not care less however, for <emphasis>Perl for
Oracle DBAs</emphasis>, because it’s highly
specialized and of no
interest to Melissa or Robert. Rachel can easily learn
it on her own should the need arise, and Joanna’s
knowledge of Perl should not extend to this
There are other popular sites or resources, that
may seem quite hostile to newbies. Perl Monks is one.
use.perl.org should actually be quite good. Its
standard Slashdot-like seemingly-underground look can
actually appeal to newbies who wish to keep up to date
with Perl news. What the editors should do is answer
newbie submissions themselves should there be such,
and <emphasis>only then</emphasis> tell them that it’s
the wrong place to ask. Remember, people don’t read
Submission Guidelines or whatever, and even I act
mechanically on many web-sites. (don’t you?)
Generally, if one of the new resources would be better
than the existing ones, then it would eventually
supersede it. Yahoo and AltaVista were superceded to
most extents by the much superior and more
user and community friendly Google and Mozilla
Directory, and we should not fear a healthy
competition either. We should not concentrate our
efforts, because we will also reduce the number of
people doing them in the first place. And as Eric
Raymond noted in <emphasis>The Cathedral and the Bazaar</emphasis>, in a
distributed Bazaar model, the output grows linearly
to the number of people involved.
While the Perl’s source code was maintained in a very
much Bazaar-like way, the Perl Community has been
relatively Cathedral like looking for a selected small
number of shrines. Let’s change that.
Perl is going strong and will continue to grow in the
nearby future. However, many beginners are deterred from
becoming part of the Perl world, or understanding it,
out of several defects in the online Perl community and
Perl proves to be a gateway to UNIX for many people. Many
people who start to use a UNIX-compatible system (like
Linux or Solaris) write their shell-scripts in Perl, and
later on actually learn shell programming. Many Windows
people who used Perl for Win32, find the UNIX concept much
more desirable afterwards. Perl is a reflection of UNIX in
all so many ways, and I’d hate for someone to get scared
of UNIX as a result of getting scared of Perl too.
You often hear people complaining at Perl’s briefness,
TIMTOWDIness, difficulty to learn, “inconsistency”,
“ugly syntax”, complexity, in-fix notation, size, dollar
insuitability for large codebases, etc. All these “issues”
are very much marginal if not completely false in getting
it into public acceptance. In fact it is a sign that it
has a culture that not all people can accept, which is
good, because not all people are the same in such ammoral
issues as choice of programming language.
However, what can deter someone from learning Perl is
a lack of good support and aid from an online community,
which may be the only connection he has to this virtual
world called “Perl”. Let’s change it. Let’s make sure
Melissa will be practically sucked into the Perl world,
as any community happy to receive a shining, new,