Thursday, February 03, 2005

More powerful than C++, too

There has been some notice of my comment that Java is now approaching the complexity of C++. I should note that there are things that I can do with Java that I wouldn't dream of doing in C++. For example, I'm now trying to finish the Annotations (new J2SE5 feature) chapter, and this topic has gotten me involved with bytecode engineering, which is rather astounding. Kind of a back-end macro facility (in the sense of Lisp macros, which I have only a vague sense of). I've been using Javassist, which, while not trivial, is way easier than the alternatives.

I would still want to use C++ for certain types of programming: things that have to be close to the hardware and/or fast, but not so big or complex that I would have to start worrying about memory management. For problems that involved C++ in this way I would probably start by writing the system in Python, then creating components in C++ that had to be close to the hardware or fast (although for fast, Pyrex seems to be the up-and-coming way to solve that problem).

But for all my carping about Java (most of it still well-founded, I think) I have to admit that J2SE5 has been a breath of fresh air over previous versions, mostly because it does feel like they've been trying to make it "friendlier to the programmer" with things like the foreach loop, autoboxing, and the new enumerated types. The possibilities of annotation and bytecode engineering are quite mind-bending (annotation support for Active Objects keeps bouncing around in my head). Now that I've finally gotten up most of the learning curve for generics and can at least push them through hoops (note that they don't jump by themselves), I've found them to be at least tolerable -- but I do have the same feeling with them that I did when I finally mastered operator overloading in C++ (and understood temporary objects): I get this kind of smug, aren't-I-clever-because-I-know-all-these-tricks feeling which we techies love but is usually a bad sign because it means you've mastered something that is just arcane, and that doesn't have anything fundamentally insightful involved (like, I think, design patterns do).

Java attempts to straddle the gap between statically-typed languages like C++ and dynamic languages like Python, Smalltalk, Ruby, etc. In fact, I think that Java's biggest contribution may be as a bridge to dynamic languages, just like C++'s contribution was a bridge from procedural to OO.

I've seen people get very uncomfortable about the dynamic aspects of the language; the possibility that an exception may be thrown seems to be the same as an error to these folks. But I think that the dynamic nature of Java is its greatest strength; some C++ projects break apart because they try to make the language do dynamic things when it wasn't designed for it, and in those cases Java can, fairly easily, make the transition.

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