Psychedelic Programming Languages
September 5, 2022 | 8 min
A bit of background
I started programming to make simple webpages and Flash games. To me it was about interacting with those systems, adding automation to them. Not long after that I started coding robots with Arduino and it was still just that, automating turning on a led, reading a value, writing something to a terminal, etc.
It started to change when I discovered The Coding Train, through that I started to see, actually see how complex and amazing could be the things you did with code. It was then that I started to get concerned with abstractions, my code grew bigger and everything was so messy! I needed some help. Processing is based on Java which means the tools that I used to handle that complexity were Functions, Classes and Methods, it was actually fun.
At the same time, I was part of a team making Arduino robots to compete. I quickly applied the tools that I learnt with Processing to Arduino, afterall they're similar. I had no notion of state machines and agents, so the code was a mess and it didn't work well. But, you know, all was good, I felt in control of the code, still very fun.
During that time I met with some people that blew my mind my showing me how "real programmign" was like with C# and machine learning. I felt like I needed to learn some real programming... and I wanted to code my own Dwarf Fortress. I searched online, Dwarf Fortress was made in C++, Arduino was based on C++ so it shouldn't be that hard, right? Right?? Well, I printed a C++ book, Jumping into C++ and ate it; it taught the basics of pointers, structs, methods, classes and templates, it's a nice book.
Armed with my fresh new C++ knowledge and the amazing LazyFoo's SDL tutorials, I was ready to tackle any 2D game that I could think of. What is the game called you ask? 2dGame of course, why not? If you know something about C++, you already know that it didn't work as I expected. Even though I grasped the language's syntax and basic abstractions, even though I KNEW pointers there was some giant beast that destroyed me, the RUNTIME.
There were segmentation faults all around, some predictable, some very unpredictable. The issue was that before my code interacted with a small domain (The flash engine, A small embedded system with Arduino helping me, the JVM with Processing helping me) and now it interacted directly with the whole computer system, "real programming", or in fact, Systems Programming (I wish I knew that back then). Classes and methods didn't help me if I dont't understand the stack or the heap.
Having fun with Gophers
I moved on to other things: Web programming in Go. When I discovered Go I felt the same thing that I did when I started coding Processing. It was novel, fun, and powerful. Some things struck me as essential to Go's joy:
- How simple it was.
- Easy parallelism.
- How easy it was to use other peoples' code together with mine.
Due to those things I was making games easily, and interacting with the web with joy. I learnt a lot of things and had a great time, thanks Go.
One of the things was semantic versioning of dependencies. I love immutable things, Go was creating some sort of global registry for all of those different versions and I got involved in some open source project related to it. It was very little but it still felt nice.
A lot of Systems Programming
I can't recall why or how, but I started going back to Systems Programming, I learnt the basics of Rust and understood why programming C++ was so hard back then. I was making steady progress learning about systems and programming in C. I'd say that was the most formative time for me in terms of how much effort I investest learning about programming and computers in general.
I don't know why but I started reading Land of Lisp and it really did fuck me up.
Psychedelic Programming Languages
My first trip
Common Lisp is a psychedelic programming language, and Land of Lisp really did show that.
It's an amazing book and it opened up my mind with Lisp. It presented itself in a very "Look how amazing, cool, and different Lisp is!!" it clicked for me. Now the walls seemed to breathe and I love parenthesis man! It also opened up my mind to functional programming, that for a long time seemed to be only reserved to academics obsessed with proofs, purity and elegance(?).
This experience changed how I programmed and thought about programming. But I still felt like the same Gabriel that breathed Systems Programming... but this time a lot more confident in my programming skills. I decided to code a minecraft clone from scratch using only C++, SDL, and OpenGL. This time, I want to show the old Gabriel how good of a programmer I am now, how much I can do. I still had some issues with the runtime, specially related to performance and allocations, but this time I was able to succeed somewhat.
My second trip
My second psychedelic programming experience was not given by a book or something made by nature, but by this fella named Dan Grossman. He has a three part course in Coursera named, you guessed it, Programming Languages. He's like a Programming Languages god and taught ML, Scheme, and Ruby in an amazing way.
ML is a psychedelic language. It opened my eyes to what a good type system is capable of. Fuck C's, C++'s fuck Java's and fuck Java. ML has a REAL type system. To me this really shows how powerful this experience was, when after it you are fuck this fuck that I know better, fuck you. And ML gave me that.
I guess I could've had that same experience from learning Haskell, but I never was able to get into it, I guess it was just too... uptight, too square, too self conscious.
That course also taught me a lot of vocabulary and mechanisms to compare programming languages fairly. It made me look Rust with new eyes, like dude, it has Sum Types, good Type Inference and all of those goodies. This time I fell in love for Rust, for real (that's funny because the course had nothing to do with it).
I felt blessed by the Programming Languages teaching, I was watching long theoretical Programming Languages youtube videos, reading papers, writing compilers, oh boy. That second trip really got me well, it changed me deeply. Heck I even went to a conference (By luck that was 2020 and many important conferences were being conducted remotely, even for free) and got to ask questions to important people related to Programming Languages history. I was in the same slack channel as Rich Hickey! isn't it crazy?
With some time my interests shifted a little from Systems Programming, those languages that by the time were already my old friends like C++ and Rust became too heavy, I'm not thinking about performance nor memory that much, so why are you getting in the way?
Finding your home
My third trip
This one wasn't as crazy as the other ones, it felt like searching and finding for my own home. I came across the book Data Oriented Programming by Yehonathan Sharvit, it talked about the style of programming that's commonly adopted by Clojure programmers, they tend to focus on the data and transformations to it.
Things should be simpler, data organized only as plain data. Arrays, maps,
tuples. Functions transform data (never mutate it) and worry about the
That's Clojure's way (it even has two differents runtimes) and I feel like that's also the Data Oriented Programming way. Elixir also fit in this niche pretty nicely. So this time it's not even a just Programming Language, it's a mix of a Programming Paradigm, a Language, and a Runtime.
I even feel somewhat disconnected from that old Systems Programmer Gabriel, we're not the same person. My head is so tuned to programming this way now. Clojure is a psychedelic programming language . Of course I still face some problems, but they're different and better now.
That's what I wanted to say with this blogpost, how some experiences with Programming feel so much Psyschedelic. They change the way you think permanently, that they may feel even religious, they're powerful.
Programming Languages, ideas about Programming in general can be crazy, very philosophical, and practical at the same time. I think most of them should be given a chance, they may change you.
Thanks for reading. Hope you had a good time.