mastering perl: it's good

Mastering Perl is a toolbox full of very sharp tools. I can imagine myself presenting it to a junior co-worker, very somberly informing him, “It is time.”

More likely, actually, I’d present him a few chapters ripped out of the book and rebound. It’s not that there are chapters I object to, or that don’t matter. It’s that some of the chapters are about safety and responsibility, while others are about wielding deadly weapons. I want up-and-coming Perl programmers to know about taint mode, debugging, profiling, and good code formatting long before typeglobs, ties, or AutoSplit. I’d divide the chapters into “things you must learn to become a master of the language” and “things you had better know if you want to be considered a good professional.”

The chapters are not particularly cumulative, and can be read out of order. If you’re ready for the book in general – which basically only means understanding the basics of packages, references, regex, objects, and closures – you’re ready for any chapter at any time. I read the chapters in order, and I was glad to switch between technical and procedural topics. It let my brain rest a little between bouts of dense code.

My main concern is the lack of warning given on a number of tools discussed. brian begins, in the first chapter, by saying that coverage does not mean endorsement, but I don’t think that’s quite strong enough in some cases. The first chapter discusses some regular expression techniques, and casually mentions using $&, with no mention of the long-standing performance bug this introduces. Maybe I’m being silly, but it seems like such an easy and worthwhile thing to mention – especially since the section in which $& is discussed is actually about @-, which can be used to efficiently replace $&. (As a side note, while reading this chapter, on what was effectively the fourth page of the book’s real material, I saw $#- casually used in some code. That is when I realized that this book was not going to screw around.)

Another chapter is devoted to tied variables, which are fantastically fun, but can also be a major source of headaches. Maybe brian’s thinking is that any real master will be able to make his own judgement on the subject. Still, without an included warning about the danger of a few topics, I’ll definitely have to red ink a few margin notes on the office copy.

My worries about sharp tools, though, are far outweight by the excellent explanations of the features covered by the book. brian’s explanation of a few features of Perl really, really cleared a few things up for me. I feel fairly at home in Perl, but there are a number of features that I’ve always felt were never going to stick with me, and that I’d always need to refer to the docs on. Among these were the regex position bits (/g, /c, and \G), which I’ve used, but always with perldoc open; also, pack, which I’ve only ever used in its simplest form. After reading the explanations of both in Mastering Perl, I almost didn’t notice that I had quietly internalized the concepts. One of my notes actually reads, “p219: pack: I get it now!”

I think this is because of the extremely straight-forward presentation of the material. It doesn’t go to great lengths to create elaborate scenarios. It says, “Here is a feature. This is how it works. Here are a few examples. Now you understand.” brian’s paragraph on pack was far, far more useful as a learning tool than the four hundred lines of pack documentation in perldoc. What’s even better, though, is that now I can look at that perldoc and understand everything it says quite easily.

This kind of excellent, straightfoward explanation of fairly complex topics is present throughout the book, and is the best reason to pick it up.

Finally, I had a few typographical quibbles with the book. There are a number of footnotes throughout the book, and that’s fine, but rather than using numbers or sticking to a commonly-seen set of characters, the footnote markers are unusual. I think it progresses in each chapter: asterisk, dagger, double-dagger, funky || symbol, and possibly others. The asterisk looks lousy and the || is just weird, and not immediately obvious as a footnote marker. I don’t understand the thinking. Much worse, though, the monospace at sign (@) used in printing the book is from another planet. It hardly looks like an at sign at all. Given the quantity of @’s seen in Perl code, this is extremely distracting, and should really be fixed before O’Reilly prints more Perl books.

So, I had a few concerns about journeymen programmers picking up dangerous tools, and I didn’t like the at sign. These are pretty small concerns, in the end, when compared with the quality of the material. It’s very clear, and covers most of the topics I’d expect in a book like this, and covers most of them quite thoroughly. I’d want this on the shelf at any office that might hire non-masters, and I’d want those employees to have their hearts set on one day understanding everything in Mastering Perl.

Written on July 30, 2007
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