What the Llama taught me? Part – 1

Yesterday I finished reading the Llama book. I need to go through the book again since I didn’t get a thorough understanding of all the contents especially the last chapters. Any how I got a glimpse of what Perl could do and I’m so amazed by most of what it could do, that I ordered 4 books of the Internet, the Llama, Alpace, Vicuna and Camel (The Llama I hold now is a friend’s copy).

Here are some of the new constructs I learned in Perl and some others which are there in other languages but treated differently in Perl. (NB: I have only recently started learning Perl and my experience is litle. So these are what I understood, may be some are not perfectly right. But If some one points out so, I’m willing to correct my entry.)

I believe a newbie can read this and get a bird’s eye view of Perl before getting hold of a Llama.

1) There are no integers. All numerals are treated like floating point by Perl. So 10/3 yields 3.3333… always. However in the case of ‘%’ floats are converted to integers (I’m not sure how Perl makes this possible as there isn’t an integer in Perl, or so I’m said, Some one may give an explanation in comments.).

2) Underscores can be used to add clarity to integer literals.
eg : 12_345_678 is equal to 12345678

3) Principle of “no built-in limits“. eg: You string length can range from 0 to infinity(meaning how much your memory can hold).

4) String repetition operator ‘x’.
eg: "Chris" x 3 is ChrisChrisChris.
Once again here too, if the right operator is a float it is truncated to corresponding integer value.

5) The block curly braces are ALWAYS needed around the conditional code. This is some kind of an inconvenience compared to C rule of no need for the braces if condition is followed by a single line. I believe this is made compulsory to aid readability.

6) The use of an uninitialized variable doesn’t yield a fatal error. Uninitialized variables are pre initialized with a special value ‘undef’, which acts like ‘0’ in numeric context and as empty string in string context. Using the ‘warnings’ pragma will sometimes arise a warning about the use of ‘undef’ values’. There is a defined() function to check whether a variable is defined.

7) There is no need to declare the aray size. It can grow up to whatever size it like. If you declare $fred[999] = 'somevalue' for an array @fred which earlier had only 2 members, the above code would extend the array to 1000 elements with all the elements from $fred[2] to $fred[998] as ‘undef’.
Also you can index the array with a float number(It isn’t an error, but will be truncated) so $fred[2.324] means $fred[2]. You can even use the above said technique of ‘underscores’ to denote an array inex. eg $fred[123_456]
The last array index can be found out by $#fred. Also you can use negative array index to access the array from end. eg $fred[-1] is equal to $fred[$#fred].

8 ) The list literals are  great innovation. The range operator (..) and qw shortcut are great way to ease the coding. [NB: The range operator only counts uphill , there is a reverse function for the opposite.]
The list assignments is an easy way to assign values.

9) The list construct makes it easy to swap two variables easily, that too without a third variable.
eg: ($fred, $barney) = ($barney, $fred) # This swaps the contents of the two variables.
Wow! What an idea!. That’s why I said list is indeed an innovation. There are more techniques like these in lists. When working with lists you will feel that Perl has got artificial intelligence of some sort. It knows to discard values when the two sides of the equal signs aren’t balanced.(Actually as a matter of fact, there are a lot of places where we feel Perl has got AI built in. May be it’s the reason why people complain Perl is hard. Here we are dealing with a beast which has got brains of it’s own. So it’s quite natural to need brains to tame it)

10) push, pop, shift, unshift etc are some array operators which makes life easy while working with arrays.

11) Once again a portion, where Perl shows intelligence. It knows whether you are talking in scalar or list context. So we also need to be intelligent enough to know the context while talking with Perl.
eg : reverse in list context gives the list from the last member whereas n string context reverses the string. You can force a list to scalar context by explicitly using the scalar keyword.

12) Sub routines in Perl is a section where there is a lot of astonishments in store for a newbie. The usual method of calling a subroutine is &<sub routine name>, but it is not always so. If Perl can understand it is a function call somehow then you can use a simple <sub routine name>. This means if the sub routine definition is provided in the code before the call or if there are parameters in the function call(If there are parameters, it ought to be a function, cool logic. isn’t it.?). Now even the skeptics among you can believe my claim ‘Perl is intelligent’.

13) There may or may not be return in a function. If there isn’t a return, the result of the last executed line of code is the return value (Please make sure you understand correctly what is returned since in the earlier days of Perl this can rise a lot of troubles)

14) There are multitude of default variables like $/, $_ etc which maybe confusing at first but once start to get going, these makes life more easy. for eg: $_ default variable makes it possible to write the foreach loop like
foreach (1..10) {

instead of
foreach $num (1..10) {

both of the print the numbers from 1 to 10, but the former one may be easier to write. You may decide which one you should use. If you find the second one more readable or say more in tandem with your foreach constructs in other languages go for the second.

15) I have been saying this for a while but even the motto for Perl is ‘There is more than one way to do it’. Do you know we can even write the for instead of the foreach in the above example.

There is more I can say, but I read somewhere the attention span of the average reader diminish by 70% after the first 15 points , so I’m reserving the rest of it for another post.

So here is what to emphasize before the small break.

So Perl is an intelligent beast which is wild(read as powerful) but yet domesticable(suits even the beginner) [Can you find a similarity with camel?]. If you are in any doubt, please try it, and be amazed.

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Why I love Perl already?

Since I have only started learning Perl I’m not yet qualified to talk about the programming aspects of the languages.I also don’t have much experience with lot of other languages so wouldn’t try even comparing them. Here I’m only trying to state a few traits of the general Perl community and programmers, which I already started loving.

1) Perl people are passionate.
Have you ever talked to a Perl programmer? The chances are that you will start programming in Perl too. Actually I too was brought in like that by a friend. Perl Programmers love Perl more than anything in the world and will do anything to popularize it. If you are in doubt check the community.

2) The gurus are there to help you
The irc channel contains knowledgeable guys and they are always ready to help a newbie. Whenever I had doubt I visited the #perl channel in freenode and my doubts were cleared within minutes. Yesterday I saw a senior member in irc stating “:) Ha I didn’t kill a newbie”, after explaining a seemingly easy doubt for a newbie and the newbie reporting to check into the matter further. The emotion embedded in the statement was how much the Perl community want new people to come in. I don’t know if this is normal with all the programing language channels, but in #perl you are sure to be in company of prominent and great guys. It is possible that the author of the book that you following explaining your doubts.

3) Great documentation
Good documentation is available online, for download and most of the time pre installed in linux.
Documentation is rather exhaustive and you get to learn every aspect of the language from this alone. However there are also lot of printed material to assist. The Llama, Camel and Alpaca are the premium source of education in the field of Perl. The documenation got a new and nice face lift recently and is rather god looking and easily navigable.

4) Highly expressive and less restrictive language
The language is really expressive and less restrictive. There are more than one way to do things, and actually it is the motto of the language. At first a newbie may find it hard to remember all of these different techniques and also some of the language constructs may seem confusing and unnecessary. But a few days in Perl and you will start enjoying all of these and it begins to seem second language to you. For a sample of what I was saying look into the last post. For another example you will get confused (I got) that a subroutine can be called with and without a ‘&’ and you doubt why? But a couple of pages more into the Llama would tell you the reasons. And once you know the reasons, you will appreciate it, and sometimes you even wonder how in the world Larry even visualized this feature. Another thing I found in my small experience so far are two new constructs, unless and until. I haven’t seen any of these in any of the languages I have used so far.You may argue by saying it is same is made possible by adding a ‘!’ in front of ‘if’ and ‘while’. Yeah, it is true, but it is great to have those and it makes you more expressive and I’m sure Perl have more of them in stock for me.

5) Nice and humble people.
There are more but I’m stopping with this one. This is by far the most important thing I have noticed. Perl people are humble. They love their language and are passionate about them but would never belittle another languages. Most of them are well versed in many languages. Actually all of them would tell you to learn other languages too and use one which suits you. I think the confidence is from the fact that once you start coding in Perl you are unlikely to move into others. Perl is pretty addictive.

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