[erlang-questions] The Beauty of Erlang Syntax

Michael Richter <>
Wed Feb 25 04:27:40 CET 2009

I would like to ask a multi-part, but rhetorical, question of the list:

Why do you think people stay away from functional programming languages in

   1. Is it because they're too stupid to understand them?
   2. Is it because of an evil cabal of IT Illuminati who are trying to
   squelch the true freedom of the programming masses?
   3. Is it because the functional languages available do not seem to meet
   their needs, whatever those may be?
   4. Is it because the fans of functional languages often come across as
   religious fanatics preaching the One True Way <tm> of programming?
   5. Is it some combination of the above?

My own answer to the question is a #5 with a strong skew toward the higher

#1 (the one that's becoming uncomfortably common in this thread, albeit with
muted wording) is a little too arrogant for my tastes.  There are an awful
lot of awfully smart people who not only use but *make* imperative languages
out there.  I'm not willing to casually dismiss them as too stupid to
understand the One True Way of the Lambda.  There is something they see in
the various stateful, imperative models that seems useful to them.  Are you
really so smart as to be able to casually dismiss them?  If so, may I please
read your Ph.D. thesis for the stunning insights into computing and humanity
that it undoubtedly contains?

#2 I'm less willing to stray from (with less gonzo wording), although I
think the threat is largely overblown.  There *are* indeed vendors of IT
products that make a killing from selling methods of complexity management
that would not like it if functional languages came on the scene in a big
way.  (I mean UML--and the multi-billion dollar consulting industry that
feeds off it--would be dead overnight.)  I'm sure that they do apply some
pressures in the form of subtle FUD that keep people hooked on their drug.
I don't think, however, that they're as big a force as some people seem to
be thinking here.

#3 is the biggest one, I think.  Others' needs are not necessarily what you
think they are.  Business needs, for example, are things like "this software
has to hit market in X amount of time".  For all the talk of how productive
functional programming languages are you are forgetting one important item:
the company has trained IT staff familiar with its problem domain and
*not*familiar with functional programming on hand
*now*.  They have a choice: retrain their IT staff to do functional
programming for dubious (to them) benefits while not making any progress in
their products *and* facing risks of the benefits not materializing; or go
with the Devil they know where the risks are (in their minds) known to
them.  (Another option, of course, is to just dismiss their entire IT staff
and replace them with functional programmers who don't know the problem
domain.  Functional programmers who don't exist in any sufficiently large
number to actually do this.)

#4, sadly, comes a disconcertingly close second.  Want to see an overblown
version of how functional programmers come across at times?  Read some of
these gems from one of the more outspoken members of the lisp community:

   - http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.lisp/msg/e5af8ef3f88dd39c
   - http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.lisp/msg/7060ad1dc1defc9c
   - http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.lisp/msg/e65326618bbca892

Keep in mind, too, that this man is *lionized* by a lot of the people in
comp.lang.lisp.  Is it really Microsoft and Sun's marketing that makes C#
and Java popular?  Or is it the behaviour of the other communities that
drives away potential converts?
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