We were wizards — a foreword to Learning Perl

We were wizards — a foreword to Learning Perl

In the 1990s, computers were magic and we were wizards. Want proof? I offer below, Larry Wall’s foreword to Learning Perl from 1993. It greatly inspired a very young me who wandered into a book shop, picked up an odd book with llama on the cover and a seemingly misspelled title. The first few pages had me hooked and led me on a romp that would last decades. I hope it’ll inspire you, too. As Larry put it, “So be it! So do it!” — Wolf


Attention, class! Attention! Thank you.

Greetings, aspiring magicians. I hope your summer vacations were enjoyable, if too short. Allow me to be the first to welcome you to the College of Wizardry and, more particularly, to this introductory class in the Magic of Perl. I am not your regular instructor, but Professor Schwartz was unavoidably delayed, and has asked me, as the creator of Perl, to step in today and give a few introductory remarks.

Let’s see now. Where to begin? How many of you are taking this course as freshmen? I see. Hmmm, I’ve seen worse in my days. Occasionally. Very occasionally.

Eh? That was a joke. Really! Ah well. No sense of humor, these freshmen.

Well now, what shall I talk about? There are, of course, any number of things I could talk about. I could take the egotistical approach and talk about myself, elucidating all those quirks of genetics and upbringing that brought me to the place of creating Perl, as well as making a fool of myself in general. That might be entertaining, at least to me.

Or I could talk instead about Professor Schwartz, without whose ongoing efforts the world of Perl would be much impoverished, up to and including the fact that this course of instruction wouldn’t exist.

That might be enlightening, though I have the feeling you’ll know more of Professor Schwartz by the end of this course than I do.

Or, putting aside all this personal puffery, I could simply talk about Perl itself, which is, after all, the subject of this course.

Or is it? Hmmm…

When the curriculum committee discussed as this course, it reached the conclusion that this class isn’t so much about Perl as it is be you! This shouldn’t be too surprising, because Perl is itself also about you – at least in the abstract. Perl was created for someone like you, by someone like you, with the collaboration as many other someones like you. The Magic of Perl was sewn together, stitch by stich and swatch by swatch, around the rather peculiar shape of your psyche. If you think Perl is a bit odd, perhaps that’s why.

Some computer scientists (the reductionists, in particular) would like to deny it, but people have funny-shaped minds. Mental geography is not linear, and cannot be mapped onto a flat surface without severe distortion. But for the last score years or so, computer reductionists have been first bowing down at the Temple of Orthogonality, then rising up to preach their ideas of ascetic rectitude to any who would listen.

Their fervent but misguided desire was simply to squash your mind to fit their mindset, to smush your patterns of thought into some sort of hyperdimensional flatland. It’s a joyless existence, being smushed.

Nevertheless, your native common sense has shown through in spots. You and your conceptual ancestors have transcended the dreary landscape to compose many lovely computer incantations. (Some of which, at times, actually did what you wanted them to.) The most blessed of these incantations were canonized as Standards, because they managed to tap into something mystical and magical, performing the miracle of Doing What You Expect.

What nobody noticed in all the excitement was that the computer reductionists were still busily trying to smush your minds flat, albeit on a slightly higher plane of existence. The decree, therefore, went out (I’m sure you’ve heard of it) that computer incantations were only allowed to perform one miracle apiece. “Do one thing and do it well” was the rallying cry, and with one stroke, shell programmers were condemned to a life of muttering and counting beads on strings (which in these latter days have come to be known as pipelines).

This was when I made my small contribution to saving the world. I was rolling some of those very beads around in my fingers one day and pondering the hopelessness (and haplessness) of my existence, when it occurred to me that it might be interesting to melt down some of those mystical beads and see what would happen to their Magic if I made a single, slightly larger bead out of them. So l fired up the old Bunsen burner, picked out some of my favorite beads, and let them melt together however they would. And lo! the new Magic was more powerful than the sum of its parts and parcels.

That’s odd, thought I. Why should it be that the Sedulous Bead of Regular Expressions, when bonded together with the Shellacious Bead of Gnostic Interpolation, and the Awkward Bead of Simple Data Typology, should produce more Magic, pound for pound, than they do when strung out on strings? I said to myself, could it be that the beads can exchange power with each other because they no longer have to commune with each other through that skinny little string? Could the pipeline be holding back the flow of information, much as wine doth resist flowing through the neck of Doctor von Neumann’s famous bottle?

This demanded (of me) more scrutiny (of it).

So I melted that larger bead together with a few more of my favorite beads, and the same thing happened, only more so. It was practically a combinatorial explosion of potential incantations: the Basic Bead of Output Formats and the Lispery Bead of Dynamic Scoping bonded themselves with the C-rationalized Bead of Operators Galore, and together they put forth a brilliant pulse of power that spread to thousands of machines throughout the entire civilized world. That message cost the Net hundreds if not thousands of dollars to send everywhere.

Obviously I was either onto something, or on something.

I then gathered my courage about me and showed my new magical bead to some of you, and you then began to give me your favorite beads to add in as well. The Magic grew yet more powerful, as yet more synergy was imbued in the silly thing. It was as if the Computational Elementals summoned by each bead were cooperating on your behalf to solve your problems for you. Why the sudden peace on earth and good will toward mentality? Perhaps it was because the beads were your favorite beads? Perhaps it was because I’m just a good bead picker?

Perhaps I just got lucky.

Whatever, the magical bead eventually grew into this rather odd-looking Amulet you see before you today. See it glitter, almost like a pearl.

That was another joke. Really! I assure you! Ah well. I was a freshman once too… The Amulet isn’t exactly beautiful though; in fact, up close it still looks like a bunch of beads melted together. Well, all right, I admit it. It’s downright ugly. But never mind that. It’s the Magic that counts. Speaking of Magic, look who just walked in the door! My good buddy Merlyn, er, I should say, Professor Schwartz, is here just in the nick of time to begin telling you how to perform miracles with this little Amulet, if you’re willing to learn the proper mysterious incantations. And you’re in good hands; I must admit that there’s no one better at muttering mysterious incantations than Professor Schwartz. Eh, Merlyn?

Anyway, to sum up. What you’ll need most is courage. It is not an easy path that you’ve set your foot upon. You’re learning a new language: a language full of strange runes and ancient chants, some easy and some difficult, many of which sound familiar, and some of which don’t. You may be tempted to become discouraged and quit. But think you upon this: consider how long it took you to learn your own native tongue. Was it worth it? I think so. And have you finished learning it? I think not. Then do not expect to learn all the mysteries of Perl in a moment, as though you were consuming a mere peanut, or an olive. Rather, think of it as though you were consuming, say, a banana. Consider how this works.

You do not wait to enjoy the banana until after you have eaten the whole thing.

No, of course not. You enjoy each bite as you take it. And each bite motivates you to take the next bite, and the next.

So then, speaking now of the fruit of Merlyn’s labors, I would urge you to enjoy this, um, course. The fruit course, of course. Ahem, that was a joke too. Ah well.

Here then, Professor, I present to you your new class. They seem to have no sense of humor whatsoever, but I expect you’ll manage somehow. Class, I present to you Professor Randal L. Schwartz, Doctor of Syntax, Wizard at Large, and of course, Just Another Perl Hacker. He has my blessings, just as you have my blessings. May you Learn Perl. May you do Good Magic with Perl. And above all, may you have Lots of Fun with Perl. So be it!

So do it!

Larry Wall
September, 1993

Learning Perl (first edition). Copyright © 1993 O’Reilly & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with permission from Larry Wall and O’Reilly.

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