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Real Programmers Don't Use Pascal
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humour Back in the good old days - the "Golden Era" of
computers, it was easy to separate the men from the boys
(sometimes called "Real Men" and "Quiche Eaters" in the
literature). During this period, the Real Men were the ones
that understood computer programming, and the Quiche Eaters
were the ones that didn't. A real computer programmer said
things like "DO 10 I=1,10" and "ABEND" (they actually talked
in capital letters, you understand), and the rest of the world
said things like "computers are too complicated for me" and "I
can't relate to computers - they're so impersonal". (A
previous work [1] points out that Real Men don't "relate" to
anything, and aren't afraid of being impersonal.)
But, as usual, times change. We are faced today with a world
in which little old ladies can get computers in their
microwave ovens, 12-year-old kids can blow Real Men out of the
water playing Asteroids and Pac-Man, and anyone can buy and
even understand their very own Personal Computer. The Real
Programmer is in danger of becoming extinct, of being replaced
by high-school students with TRASH-80s.
There is a clear need to point out the differences between the
typical high-school junior Pac-Man player and a Real
Programmer. If this difference is made clear, it will give
these kids something to aspire to -- a role model, a Father
Figure. It will also help explain to the employers of Real
Programmers why it would be a mistake to replace the Real
Programmers on their staff with 12-year-old Pac-Man players
(at a considerable salary savings).
The easiest way to tell a Real Programmer from the crowd is by
the programming language he (or she) uses. Real Programmers
use Fortran. Quiche Eaters use Pascal. Nicklaus Wirth,
the designer of Pascal, gave a talk once at which he was asked
how to pronounce his name. He replied, "You can either call
me by name, pronouncing it 'Veert', or call me by value,
'Worth'." One can tell immediately from this comment that
Nicklaus Wirth is a Quiche Eater. The only parameter passing
mechanism endorsed by Real Programmers is
call-by-value-return, as implemented in the IBM 370
Fortran-G and H compilers. Real programmers don't need all
these abstract concepts to get their jobs done - they are
perfectly happy with a keypunch, a Fortran IV compiler,
and a beer.
Real Programmers do List Processing in Fortran.
Real Programmers do String Manipulation in Fortran.
Real Programmers do Accounting (if they do it at all) in
Real Programmers do Artificial Intelligence programs in
If you can't do it in Fortran, do it in assembly language.
If you can't do it in assembly language, it isn't worth doing.
The academics in computer science have gotten into the
"structured programming" rut over the past several years.
They claim that programs are more easily understood if the
programmer uses some special language constructs and
techniques. They don't all agree on exactly which constructs,
of course, and the examples they use to show their particular
point of view invariably fit on a single page of some obscure
journal or another - clearly not enough of an example to
convince anyone. When I got out of school, I thought I was
the best programmer in the world. I could write an unbeatable
tic-tac-toe program, use five different computer languages,
and create 1000-line programs that WORKED. (Really!) Then I
got out into the Real World. My first task in the Real World
was to read and understand a 200,000-line Fortran program,
then speed it up by a factor of two. Any Real Programmer will
tell you that all the Structured Coding in the world won't
help you solve a problem like that - it takes actual talent.
Some quick observations on Real Programmers and Structured
Real Programmers aren't afraid to use GOTOs.
Real Programmers can write five-page-long DO loops without
getting confused.
Real Programmers like Arithmetic IF statements - they make the
code more interesting.
Real Programmers write self-modifying code, especially if they
can save 20 nanoseconds in the middle of a tight loop.
Real Programmers don't need comments - the code is obvious.
Since Fortran doesn't have a structured IF, REPEAT ... UNTIL,
or CASE statement, Real Programmers don't have to worry about
not using them. Besides, they can be simulated when necessary
Data Structures have also gotten a lot of press lately.
Abstract Data Types, Structures, Pointers, Lists, and Strings
have become popular in certain circles. Wirth (the
above-mentioned Quiche Eater) actually wrote an entire book
[2] contending that you could write a program based on data
structures, instead of the other way around. As all Real
Programmers know, the only useful data structure is the Array.
Strings, lists, structures, sets - these are all special cases
of arrays and can be treated that way just as easily without
messing up your programing language with all sorts of
complications. The worst thing about fancy data types is that
you have to declare them, and Real Programming Languages, as
we all know, have implicit typing based on the first letter of
the (six character) variable name.
What kind of operating system is used by a Real Programmer?
CP/M? God forbid - CP/M, after all, is basically a toy
operating system. Even little old ladies and grade school
students can understand and use CP/M.
Unix is a lot more complicated of course - the typical Unix
hacker never can remember what the PRINT command is called
this week - but when it gets right down to it, Unix is a
glorified video game. People don't do Serious Work on Unix
systems: they send jokes around the world on UUCP-net and
write adventure games and research papers.
No, your Real Programmer uses OS 370. A good programmer can
find and understand the description of the IJK305I error he
just got in his JCL manual. A great programmer can write JCL
without referring to the manual at all. A truly outstanding
programmer can find bugs buried in a 6 megabyte core dump
without using a hex calculator. (I have actually seen this
OS is a truly remarkable operating system. It's possible to
destroy days of work with a single misplaced space, so
alertness in the programming staff is encouraged. The best
way to approach the system is through a keypunch. Some people
claim there is a Time Sharing system that runs on OS 370, but
after careful study I have come to the conclusion that they
were mistaken.
What kind of tools does a Real Programmer use? In theory, a
Real Programmer could run his programs by keying them into the
front panel of the computer. Back in the days when computers
had front panels, this was actually done occasionally. Your
typical Real Programmer knew the entire bootstrap loader by
memory in hex, and toggled it in whenever it got destroyed by
his program. (Back then, memory was memory - it didn't go
away when the power went off. Today, memory either forgets
things when you don't want it to, or remembers things long
after they're better forgotten.) Legend has it that SeymoreCray, inventor of the Cray I supercomputer and most of
Control Data's computers, actually toggled the first operating
system for the CDC7600 in on the front panel from memory when
it was first powered on. Seymore, needless to say, is a Real
One of my favorite Real Programmers was a systems programmer
for Texas Instruments. One day he got a long distance call
from a user whose system had crashed in the middle of saving
some important work. Jim was able to repair the damage over
the phone, getting the user to toggle in disk I/O instructions
at the front panel, repairing system tables in hex, reading
register contents back over the phone. The moral of this
story: while a Real Programmer usually includes a keypunch and
lineprinter in his toolkit, he can get along with just a front
panel and a telephone in emergencies.
In some companies, text editing no longer consists of ten
engineers standing in line to use an 029 keypunch. In fact,
the building I work in doesn't contain a single keypunch. The
Real Programmer in this situation has to do his work with a
"text editor" program. Most systems supply several text
editors to select from, and the Real Programmer must be
careful to pick one that reflects his personal style. Many
people believe that the best text editors in the world were
written at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center for use on their
Alto and Dorado computers [3]. Unfortunately, no Real
Programmer would ever use a computer whose operating system is
called SmallTalk, and would certainly not talk to the computer
with a mouse.
Some of the concepts in these Xerox editors have been
incorporated into editors running on more reasonably named
operating systems - Emacs and VI being two. The problem
with these editors is that Real Programmers consider "what you
see is what you get" to be just as bad a concept in Text
Editors as it is in women. No the Real Programmer wants a
"you asked for it, you got it" text editor - complicated,
cryptic, powerful, unforgiving, dangerous. TECO, to be
It has been observed that a TECO command sequence more closely
resembles transmission line noise than readable text [4]. One
of the more entertaining games to play with TECO is to type
your name in as a command line and try to guess what it does.
Just about any possible typing error while talking with TECO
will probably destroy your program, or even worse - introduce
subtle and mysterious bugs in a once working subroutine.
For this reason, Real Programmers are reluctant to actually
edit a program that is close to working. They find it much
easier to just patch the binary object code directly, using
a wonderful program called SUPERZAP (or its equivalent on
non-IBM machines). This works so well that many working
programs on IBM systems bear no relation to the original
Fortran code. In many cases, the original source code is no
longer available. When it comes time to fix a program like
this, no manager would even think of sending anything less
than a Real Programmer to do the job - no Quiche Eating
structured programmer would even know where to start. This is
called "job security".
Some programming tools NOT used by Real Programmers:
Fortran preprocessors like MORTRAN and RATFOR. The
Cuisinarts of programming - great for making Quiche. See
comments above on structured programming.
Source language debuggers. Real Programmers can read core
Compilers with array bounds checking. They stifle creativity,
destroy most of the interesting uses for EQUIVALENCE, and make
it impossible to modify the operating system code with
negative subscripts. Worst of all, bounds checking is
Source code maintenance systems. A Real Programmer keeps his
code locked up in a card file, because it implies that its
owner cannot leave his important programs unguarded [5].
Where does the typical Real Programmer work? What kind of
programs are worthy of the efforts of so talented an
individual? You can be sure that no Real Programmer would be
caught dead writing accounts-receivable programs in COBOL,
or sorting mailing lists for People magazine. A Real
Programmer wants tasks of earth-shaking importance
Real Programmers work for Los Alamos National Laboratory,
writing atomic bomb simulations to run on Cray I
Real Programmers work for the National Security Agency,
decoding Russian transmissions.
It was largely due to the efforts of thousands of Real
Programmers working for NASA that our boys got to the moon and
back before the Russkies.
Real Programmers are at work for Boeing designing the
operating systems for cruise missiles.
Some of the most awesome Real Programmers of all work at the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Many of them know
the entire operating system of the Pioneer and Voyager
spacecraft by heart. With a combination of large ground-based
Fortran programs and small spacecraft-based assembly language
programs, they are able to do incredible feats of navigation
and improvisation - hitting ten-kilometer wide windows at
Saturn after six years in space, repairing or bypassing
damaged sensor platforms, radios, and batteries. Allegedly,
one Real Programmer managed to tuck a pattern-matching program
into a few hundred bytes of unused memory in a Voyager
spacecraft that searched for, located, and photographed a new
moon of Jupiter.
The current plan for the Galileo spacecraft is to use a
gravity assist trajectory past Mars on the way to Jupiter.
This trajectory passes within 80 +/-3 kilometers of the
surface of Mars. Nobody is going to trust a Pascal program
(or a Pascal programmer) for navigation to these tolerances.
As you can tell, many of the world's Real Programmers work for
the U.S. Government - mainly the Defense Department. This is
as it should be. Recently, however, a black cloud has formed
on the Real Programmer horizon. It seems that some highly
placed Quiche Eaters at the Defense Department decided that
all Defense programs should be written in some grand unified
language called "ADA" ((C), DoD). For a while, it seemed that
ADA was destined to become a language that went against all
the precepts of Real Programming - a language with structure,
a language with data types, strong typing, and semicolons.
In short, a language designed to cripple the creativity of the
typical Real Programmer. Fortunately, the language adopted by
DoD has enough interesting features to make it approachable --
it's incredibly complex, includes methods for messing with the
operating system and rearranging memory, and Edsgar Dijkstra
doesn't like it [6]. (Dijkstra, as I'm sure you know, was the
author of "GoTos Considered Harmful" - a landmark work in
programming methodology, applauded by Pascal programmers and
Quiche Eaters alike.) Besides, the determined Real Programmer
can write Fortran programs in any language.
The Real Programmer might compromise his principles and work
on something slightly more trivial than the destruction of
life as we know it, providing there's enough money in it.
There are several Real Programmers building video games at
Atari, for example. (But not playing them - a Real Programmer
knows how to beat the machine every time: no challenge in
that.) Everyone working at LucasFilm is a Real Programmer.
(It would be crazy to turn down the money of fifty million
Star Trek fans.) The proportion of Real Programmers in
Computer Graphics is somewhat lower than the norm, mostly
because nobody has found a use for computer graphics yet. On
the other hand, all computer graphics is done in Fortran, so
there are a fair number of people doing graphics in order to
avoid having to write COBOL programs.
Generally, the Real Programmer plays the same way he works -
with computers. He is constantly amazed that his employer
actually pays him to do what he would be doing for fun anyway
(although he is careful not to express this opinion out loud).
Occasionally, the Real Programmer does step out of the office
for a breath of fresh air and a beer or two. Some tips on
recognizing Real Programmers away from the computer room:
At a party, the Real Programmers are the ones in the corner
talking about operating system security and how to get around
At a football game, the Real Programmer is the one comparing
the plays against his simulations printed on 11 by 14 fanfold
At the beach, the Real Programmer is the one drawing
flowcharts in the sand.
At a funeral, the Real Programmer is the one saying "Poor
George, he almost had the sort routine working before the
In a grocery store, the Real Programmer is the one who insists
on running the cans past the laser checkout scanner himself,
because he never could trust keypunch operators to get it
right the first time.
What sort of environment does the Real Programmer function
best in? This is an important question for the managers of
Real Programmers. Considering the amount of money it costs to
keep one on the staff, it's best to put him (or her) in an
environment where he can get his work done.
The typical Real Programmer lives in front of a computer
terminal. Surrounding this terminal are:
Listings of all programs the Real Programmer has ever worked
on, piled in roughly chronological order on every flat surface
in the office.
Some half-dozen or so partly filled cups of cold coffee.
Occasionally, there will be cigarette butts floating in the
coffee. In some cases, the cups will contain Orange Crush.
Unless he is very good, there will be copies of the OS JCL
manual and the Principles of Operation open to some
particularly interesting pages.
Taped to the wall is a line-printer Snoopy calendar for the
year 1969.
Strewn about the floor are several wrappers for peanut butter
filled cheese bars - the type that are made pre-stale at the
bakery so they can't get any worse while waiting in the
vending machine.
Hiding in the top left-hand drawer of the desk is a stash of
double-stuff Oreos for special occasions.
Underneath the Oreos is a flowcharting template, left there by
the previous occupant of the office. (Real Programmers write
programs, not documentation. Leave that to the maintenance
The Real Programmer is capable of working 30, 40, even 50
hours at a stretch, under intense pressure. In fact, he
prefers it that way. Bad response time doesn't bother the
Real Programmer - it gives him a chance to catch a little
sleep between compiles. If there is not enough schedule
pressure on the Real Programmer, he tends to make things more
challenging by working on some small but interesting part of
the problem for the first nine weeks, then finishing the rest
in the last week, in two or three 50-hour marathons. This not
only impresses the hell out of his manager, who was despairing
of ever getting the project done on time, but creates a
convenient excuse for not doing the documentation. In
No Real Programmer works 9 to 5 (unless it's the ones at
Real Programmers don't wear neckties.
Real Programmers don't wear high-heeled shoes.
Real Programmers arrive at work in time for lunch [9].
A Real Programmer might or might not know his wife's name. He
does, however, know the entire ASCII (or EBCDIC) code table.
Real Programmers don't know how to cook. Grocery stores
aren't open at three in the morning. Real Programmers survive
on Twinkies and coffee.
What of the future? It is a matter of some concern to Real
Programmers that the latest generation of computer programmers
are not being brought up with the same outlook on life as
their elders. Many of them have never seen a computer with a
front panel. Hardly anyone graduating from school these days
can do hex arithmetic without a calculator. College graduates
these days are soft - protected from the realities of
programming by source level debuggers, text editors that count
parentheses, and "user friendly" operating systems. Worst of
all, some of these alleged "computer scientists" manage to get
degrees without ever learning Fortran! Are we destined to
become an industry of Unix hackers and Pascal programmers?
From my experience, I can only report that the future is
bright for Real Programmers everywhere. Neither OS 370 nor
Fortran show any signs of dying out, despite all the efforts
of Pascal programmers the world over. Even more subtle
tricks, like adding structured coding constructs to Fortran
have failed. Oh sure, some computer vendors have come out
with Fortran 77 compilers, but every one of them has a way of
converting itself back into a Fortran 66 compiler at the drop
of an option card - to compile DO loops like God meant them to
Even Unix might not be as bad on Real Programmers as it once
was. The latest release of Unix has the potential of an
operating system worthy of any Real Programmer - two different
and subtly incompatible user interfaces, an arcane and
complicated teletype driver, virtual memory. If you ignore
the fact that it's "structured", even 'C' programming can be
appreciated by the Real Programmer: after all, there's no type
checking, variable names are seven (ten? eight?) characters
long, and the added bonus of the Pointer data type is thrown
in - like having the best parts of Fortran and assembly
language in one place. (Not to mention some of the more
creative uses for #define.)
No, the future isn't all that bad. Why, in the past few
years, the popular press has even commented on the bright new
crop of computer nerds and hackers ([7] and [8]) leaving
places like Stanford and M.I.T. for the Real World. From all
evidence, the spirit of Real Programming lives on in these
young men and women. As long as there are ill-defined goals,
bizarre bugs, and unrealistic schedules, there will be Real
Programmers willing to jump in and Solve The Problem, saving
the documentation for later. Long live Fortran!
I would like to thank Jan E., Dave S., Rich G., Rich E., for
their help in characterizing the Real Programmer, Heather
B. for the illustration, Kathy E. for putting up with it, and
atd!avsdS:mark for the initial inspiration.
[1] Feirstein, B., "Real Men don't Eat Quiche", New York,
Pocket Books, 1982.
[2] Wirth, N., "Algorithms + Data Structures Programs",
Prentice Hall, 1976.
[3] Ilson, R., "Recent Research in Text Processing", IEEE
Trans. Prof. Commun., Vol. PC-23, No. 4, Dec. 4, 1980.
[4] Finseth, C., "Theory and Practice of Text Editors - or - a
Cookbook for an EMACS", B.S. Thesis, MIT/LCS/TM-165,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, May 1980.
[5] Weinberg, G., "The Psychology of Computer Programming",
New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971, p. 110.
[6] Dijkstra, E., "On the GREEN language submitted to the
DoD", Sigplan notices, Vol. 3 No. 10, Oct 1978.