Yegge’s Code Bloat

This is another quick foray into blog criticism in response to a recent missive, Code’s Worst Enemy, by the inimitable Steve Yegge. Let me preface my criticism by saying that I’m sure Steve Yegge is a nice guy, and I realize that he hyperbolizes for effect in his blog. I am merely doing the same here. So, to the matter at hand…

Mr. Yegge’s post has a few main points:

1) That code bloat is a serious problem. He claims to be somehow in the minority opinion on this, but actually I think it’s kind of a noncontroversial point. No one likes code bloat. In fact, the very term “bloat” is deliberately negative. If anyone felt neutral about it, it would be called “code growth”.

2) That the Java programming language and Java programmers are the worst offenders when it comes to code bloat.

3) That dynamic languages (a la Javascript, Python, Ruby) are the answer.

I’d like to call bullshit on both his rhetorical style and point #2 (Java is evil). Let’s start with the rhetoric.

Mr. Yegge plays a few rhetorical tricks in his writing. The first thing he does is partition off his intended audience, saying that he’s only writing for the young (high school or college) programmer because, “unfortunately most so-called experienced programmers do not know how to detect bloat, and they’ll point at severely bloated code bases and claim they’re skinny as a rail.” This allows him to write off all criticism from anyone who might know what they’re talking about as the irrational whining of jaded professionals.

Fortunately for us, the wise and intrepid Mr. Yegge is one of the few people in the world (in his estimation) qualified to lead us through this exploration of code bloat, having written a half-million line codebase all on his very own. This is another rhetorical trick. All of us can shut up, he says, because we just don’t understand.

Yegge also warns that we might hear a lot of “hand-wavy” complaints about his writing. This in particular is amusing because I’d say that his essay is a pretty good example of a hand-wavy non-argument. This is ironic given the fact that his audience is putatively comprised of the young and inexperienced, who could not be expected to fill in the missing details of his arguments. How does he dodge the details? Here’s an example:

However, copy-and-paste is far more insidious than most scarred industry programmers ever suspect. The core problem is duplication, and unfortunately there are patterns of duplication that cannot be eradicated from Java code. These duplication patterns are everywhere in Java; they’re ubiquitous, but Java programmers quickly lose the ability to see them at all.

I guess at least one Java programmer (ahem, Mr. Yegge) must have lost the ability to list any of them, since he simply moves on from this rather incendiary accusation with no supporting arguments. The essay is full of these sorts of a priori assertions. Dependency injection makes your codebase bigger, design patterns intrinsically lead to duplication, Java itself means that your code will bloat. Everything is asserted and nothing is supported. If he’s right about the things he says, you wouldn’t know from reading his words.

Mr. Yegge’s basis for claiming expertise in the matter of code bloat is his sizeable and single-handedly maintained codebase supporting some variety of MUD game. Props to him for writing the game, I’m sure it’s nice to play and an impressive feat of solo-engineering. However, if he’s saying that there is NO level of compression he could do to his codebase while keeping it in Java, I think he’s exaggerating. I agree that one can probably cut down on the amount of code in a given codebase to a greater degree working in a more high-level language, but to say that there is nothing that could be done to improve upon his existing Java code is likely false.

I think the more accurate way to read what Mr. Yegge is saying would be as below (my words):

I wrote this game in Java. The code has somewhat of a bloat problem and I’d like to do a major rewrite of it. However, Java has become unfashionable over the last couple years, and dynamic languages are much more in vogue with the software cognoscenti. And anyway, I already know Java quite well. If I’m going to do a rewrite of this big piece of software all on my own, I might as well do it one of the more fashionable dynamic languages like Ruby or Javascript/ECMAScript so that I gain some deeper expertise in those out of the process. JavaScript seems like the one to use, especially since the company I work for is getting behind it in a big way. Hey kids, everybody follow me over to JavaScript — maybe in a couple of years I can write a book on the topic and you can all buy it!

That would not be a bad argument to make, actually. It would certainly be more honest than the one he does make.

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