Thursday, September 20, 2007

Scala Alert: bootclasspath/a Considered Canadian

Author's Note: Please forgive what is, essentially and unfortunately, a very bad pun. It's late, and I've had a long week, what with my Automata exam coming up and all. And, for the record, I have nothing against Canadians. James Gosling is Canadian. So is William Shatner. I once lived in Vancouver. Please don't hate.

So I was looking at bin/scalac and bin/scala, the Scala toolset equivalents of javac and java, and I found myself learning some stuff. For instance, scala (which executes a Scala, um, executable) is simply a shell script that sets a bunch of shell/environment variables and finally runs this command:

${JAVACMD:=java} ${JAVA_OPTS:=-Xmx256M -Xms16M} -Xbootclasspath/a:"$BOOT_CLASSPATH" -cp "$EXTENSION_CLASSPATH" -Dscala.home="$SCALA_HOME" -Denv.classpath="$CLASSPATH" -Denv.emacs="$EMACS" "$@"

This points out some interesting interestingness. First off is: Scala executables are ultimately run! Or what passes for it on your system. Pretty neat, huh? Although it makes total sense if you think of java as the command that starts up a JVM on some arbitrary .class file, not the command that runs a Java(TM) language program.

(Author's Other Note: Scala code gets compiled to JVM-compliant bytecode. Which is proof that real closures are theoretically possible in Java(TM). Although they are not likely to happen in your lifetime. But I digress.)

Second off is: buried amongst the options to java is the non-standard -Xbootclasspath/a:"$BOOT_CLASSPATH". Unlike plain ol' -Xbootclasspath, this option lets you append some arbitrary jars to the regular bootclasspath (hence the /a). In this case, what it appends is $SCALA_HOME/lib/scala-library.jar if it exists, which gives the executable access to the Scala standard library. Which includes among other things the package that implements Scala Actors.

P.S.: It turns out there's also a -Xbootclasspath/p, which stands for "prepend", but is not as funny when applied to Canadians.

P.P.S.: I like the option to provide a default value for some environment variable that may not exist on a given system (e.g., ${JAVACMD:=java}).

P.P.P.S.: EMACS??? What the heck does that have to do with running a Scala executable? Time for some more research, eh?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Recommended Reading: The Linguist

Do yourself a favor: start reading The Linguist, by Steve Kauffman, who speaks 9 languages and founded as a resource for those who want to learn a new language. I particularly like the following quote, from the entry Why children learn languages better than adults:
Children have not yet been converted from naturally curious language explorers into teacher-dependent grammar learners.

I took Spanish for three years in high school (Hola, Srta. Chambless!), and I was very fortunate that my teacher taught the class in Spanish, and required us to participate by speaking Spanish. After the first six weeks of the first year, no English was allowed, and precious little during that time. It was brilliant. It forced us to learn Spanish the way kids in Spanish-speaking families learn it - by experiencing it and figuring things out, not by sitting at a desk with a vocab list and a dictionary.

I've often wondered why no one has developed a computer language training curriculum modelled after some of the more effective human language training methods. But that's beside the point of Kauffman's thesis above. Ultimately, we learn what we love. And we love what we find out for ourselves as the result of exploring the things we find interesting, not what is hammered into us by some random instructor.