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February 3, 2010

What pythonistas think of ruby


The very things I find ugly in Ruby are what make amazing Ruby software like RSpec possible, and that Python could never have (given the current implementation).

Gary Bernhardt

I think Ruby’s syntax is ugly until they do something glorious and beautiful with it like Rake, then I think “damn it!”

Unidentified Attendee

Q: Does Ruby have a better inheritance system than Python?

A: I find inheritance distasteful. That’s like asking me whether I would rather eat grasshoppers or tree bark.

Gary Bernhardt

My perspective on Ruby was rocked last weekend at Northwest Python Day in Seattle.

Compared to other programming languages, Python and Ruby are so similar that hearing arguments between them is like trying to figure out which identical twin is more handsome.

But there are differences, and not only in the languages! The Seattle Python community represented there was almost painfully polite. People sat silently for 3-5 minutes between talks while the speaker plugged in to the projector. I rudely whispered to my neighbor, eager to discuss the ideas presented.

During the talks, people mostly sat and listened to the speaker. Many Ruby conferences in the USA are half full of hackers with laptops open, coding away at a project and jeering the speaker over IRC. Not here.

I later learned that this may be an attribute unique to Seattle Python developers. After all, we’re the city that gave the world the Uptight Seattleite and where drivers with the right-of-way stop to let cyclists turn left in front of them.

Python vs. Ruby, A Battle to the Death

The main attraction (and last presentation) was from my friend Gary Bernhardt1. Gary spent a few months contracting on a Rails project for four hours in the morning and a Django project for four hours in the afternoon. So when he speaks of either, it’s not in ignorance.

At the end, I couldn’t find a single criticism of Ruby that I disagreed with. I did pick up a new appreciation for unique features of the Ruby language that I previously took for granted.

Matz Idolizes Larry Wall!

There was an audible gasp from the audience when Gary posted a slide with this quote from Matz:

Ruby inherited the Perl philosophy of having more
than one way to do the same thing. I inherited that philosophy
from Larry Wall, who is my hero actually.2

I’m not sure if the shock was from hearing someone embrace TIMTOWTDI or from learning that someone considers Larry Wall to be a hero.

If you open a python prompt and type

>>> import this

you’ll see the Zen of Python, 19 guidelines that Python programmers live by. One is “There should be one—and preferably only one—obvious way to do it.”

I do appreciate that Ruby is flexible enough to be used in many ways. That’s what makes the creativity and richness of Ruby libraries like Hpricot and Rake possible.

Parentheses Are Optional!

Gary pointed out that in most languages, appending parentheses to a variable that references a function, calls the function.

my_method = { ... }

# ERROR: You can't do this in Ruby

In Ruby, parentheses are a vestigial appendage. You could write an entire Ruby application without parentheses (and some do!). To Python developers, this is shameful.3

# In Ruby, you must use the call method

I’m on the line here. I always use parentheses when defining methods, but use them infrequently when calling methods.

One’s aesthetic reaction to the following code snippets distinguishes the Rubyist from the Pythonista:

attr_accessor(:title, :slug, :body)

get("/articles") do

And yet our repulsion at too many parentheses contrasts with Lisp’s influence on Ruby (which will be mentioned later).

They Monkey-Patch Object!

It’s well known that Pythonistas abhor monkey patching, a.k.a. duck punching,4 i.e. adding methods to existing classes.

They have a point. You can do a lot of damage in a few lines. Previous versions of ActiveRecord monkey-patched Logger, making it almost unusable for other applications that expected it to work in the standard way (it now behaves more civilly).

But without monkey patching, you can’t insert should and should_not into Object:

describe MySum do
  it "performs a sum" do
    sum = MyClass.add(1, 1)
    sum.should == 2

So Python can’t implement the smooth syntax of RSpec.

Namespaces Run Amok!

The last line of the Zen of Python is

Namespaces are one honking great idea — let’s do more of those!

Python’s import statement gives you a high level of control over what code you’re bringing in to your application.

from django.db import models

In contrast, a Ruby require often slurps in other classes that seem entirely unrelated to the code you requested.

require 'active_record'
# => ActiveSupport is now in the global namespace

Having more control over the global namespace would be useful, but it seems to me that it would require a re-architecting of nearly the entire Ruby language.

Can I Have A Chainsaw Without So Much Lisp In It

My favorite quote of the whole presentation:

Ruby takes full advantage of the Lisp chainsaw.

Can I have that on a t-shirt?5

Python has no comparable equivalent to Ruby’s do end block. Python lambdas are limited to one line and can’t contain statements (for, if, def, etc.). Which leaves me wondering, what’s the point?

Without powerful blocks and lambdas, you can’t have Rake. You can’t have RSpec. You can’t have Sinatra’s clear REST syntax.

Without yield, you can’t have RailsCamp.

So the very features that make Ruby complicated to parse and potentially Perlish are the same features that can make it incredibly descriptive and flexible.

Not to mention the free Lisp chainsaw without all the parentheses!6

A Hacker News discussion about this article has over 200 comments here.

1 Gary blogs at and recently posted the audio and slides of the talk.

2 From an interview at Artima

3 You can also call a Ruby proc with square brackets, but the crowd found that even more revolting.

4 Wikipedia on duck punching

5 Or just Lisp Chainsaw Massacre. Apparently this is a reference to Perl as a “Swiss army chainsaw.”

6 Personally, I don’t mind the parentheses. They can be rather comforting like a pillow.

About the Author

is VP of Open Source at Pluralsight. He previously founded PeepCode and is an all around entrepreneur, developer, designer, teacher and athlete. Follow him on Twitter at @topfunky.