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Book Review: Masterminds of Programming

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While browsing through my local bookstore's shelves, I came across Masterminds of Programming by Federico Biancuzzi and Shane Warden. Being interested in a variety of programming languages, a book about interviews of various language creators, caught my eye. There are 17 interviews with eminent programming masters like Adin Falkoff, Larry Wall, James Gosling and Thomas Kurtz.

Pros
The 17 languages the authors have chosen span a wide array of paradigms and domains. There is something in it for everyone, from purely functional languages like ML and Haskell to the more easy going Basic to the downright awe-inspiring APL. What is more amazing is that the authors seem to know quite a bit about these languages and ask good, deep questions related to them. The questions are not the usual "Why this, why that" but are actually insightful and bring out the true richness of the thought process of these masters. The historical tidbits are interesting and there are quite a few old-time anecdotes thrown in for good measure. Needless to say its quite a fun read, if a little tough going because of the variety.

Cons
The book may not be completely useful to anyone who is not a true programming polyglot. And its tough knowing all of these languages. Since the questions are not cursory in nature (and rightfully so), I begin to wonder if anyone except probably Guy Steele Jr, can make sense of the entire book and its conversations. Quite of a few of the interviewees come across as arrogant or defensive about their language. There is some petty complaining here and there but thankfully not too much.

The Interviews
The best interview surprisingly came from Adin Falkoff about APL. Now I know this may be a personal choice, but Adin comes across as extremely knowledgeable and humble at the same time. His good nature left quite an impact on me though I am not really into APL or its descendants. Thomas Kurtz (Basic) similarly comes across as humble and polite. The interview about ML with (the late) Rob Milner is awe-inspiring, as it is with the creators of Haskell (SPJ, Hudak), SQL (Don Chamberlin) and the AWK guys. The least enjoyable interview by far was with Bjarne Stroustrup about C++, who seemed to go on and on about how Java did everything wrong while copying C++. Bertrand Meyer from Eiffel seems very practical and thoughtful in his approach to OOP. I just wish they had managed to get an interview with John McCarthy and/or Wirth.

Conclusion
Get it if you're a language creator or a deep enthusiast. If you're just interested in knowing about the thoughts of programming geniuses, I'd suggest go read up Programmer's at Work by Susan Lammers (some interviews are free online) or Coders at Work by Peter Seibel.

Rating
6.5/10

3 Comments On This Entry

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eker676 Icon

18 August 2010 - 11:15 AM
What kind of a book is this?

Is it easy to read, like a novel or more like a 1000 page technical manual?
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rahulbatra Icon

18 August 2010 - 11:14 PM
Its actually midway between the two both in terms of the pages (about 500-600) and its technical depth. While quite a few interviews or parts of them are paddle around interesting history, some discussions go very deep technically and the reader should be very familiar to the subject for it. The interview with Robin Milner from ML is particularly difficult if the reader doesn't have a great background in type systems.
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athlon32 Icon

19 August 2010 - 01:17 PM
I own and have read this book (I was thinking about writing a review on here too :P), so I know what the reviewer is talking about. Like he said, the diversity makes this book kinda weird. I practically fell asleep during the SQL, ML and Perl chapters.

That said, I still give the book 8.5/10 rating because of the good stuff it brings. I really enjoyed the Lua chapter, as well as the Java chapter. They both gave me a new perspective on programming. The C++ chapter was good, and while it does bash Java quite a bit, the bashing is honest and truthful; almost kind of funny. Lastly, the AWK chapter is golden for anyone interested in compiler design. It features Al Aho (author of the famous Dragon Book), and goes into some theory (which may not make the most sense unless you have some background in compilers).

Anyways, great review and great book. Highly recommended!
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