I’m not currently using any functional languages like Haskell and Lisp, but I’m certainly comfortable with them. I’m certainly no Haskell guru, but I’m good enough to use higher-order functions, ADTs, monads, etc. While I have a good grasp of functional programming concepts now, I had to travel a long, hard road to get to this point.
Picture if you will a programmer with a C-family background discovering Haskell for the first time. He’s heard some smart people talk about how cool it is, and it says right there on haskell.org that it will substantially boost your productivity, so he momentarily puts down his Java Enterprise Web Framework With a Really Long Name and starts reading a Haskell tutorial.
At first, everything goes well. He’s impressed by the fact that you don’t have to constantly compile code to see the effects of your program. But after using the REPL as a calculator for a few minutes, he decides to check out how you write Hello World. This is where things start going downhill.
He notices that the chapter on I/O is tucked away in the Advanced section. Curiously, he flips to it and discovers, not an explanation of console and file I/O, but a disscussion of type classes, monads, and the like. He wonders if everything will make more sense if he just visits the appropriate chapters, but no luck; Haskell looks like one big incomprehensible mess. Our imperative programmer goes back to his Java Enterprise Framework, and that is the end of that.
It’s very difficult for a programmer used to imperative programming to find a good Haskell tutorial, or a good tutorial on any other functional language for that matter. It’s not that they explain Haskell badly; many of them explain it rather well. It’s just that they explain the wrong parts of Haskell. Procedural programmers are more often interested in how to do I/O and create GUIs rather than in how to use Parsec or write monads.
This is one of the major barriers to adoption of the more esoteric languages; lack of learning material for “normal people”. To rectify this, I thought about how I would write a Haskell tutorial.
I figured I would start off with a discussion about how to use the REPL to develop simple functions, and to test programs. From there, we would talk about how functions are side-effect free. We might take a detour into recursion, and then go on to topics such as monads and type classes. It would just be a Really Good Tutorial.
Then I realized something: in this great tutorial of mine, there were no sections on how to do I/O. There wasn’t even a Hello World program. Therein lies the problem.
The only people who can write a Haskell tutorial are the people who know Haskell. Ironically, someone who knows Haskell won’t be able to write a tutorial for the average programmer. They’ll focus too much on the features that make Haskell cool, rather than how to do practical things with it; which is just what the average programmer wants. Haskell gurus have spent so much time in their theoretical wonderlands, they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be an outsider.
We really need a Haskell, or Lisp, or ML tutorial aimed at the rest of the world, not just at functional gurus. Although I’m certainly not going to write it; I’ve got my own projects to worry about.