Kenneth Ballenegger

Angel Investor, Engineer, Startup Founder

A fractal of bad design

Alex Munroe:

I can’t even say what’s wrong with PHP, because— okay. Imagine you have uh, a toolbox. A set of tools. Looks okay, standard stuff in there.

You pull out a screwdriver, and you see it’s one of those weird tri-headed things. Okay, well, that’s not very useful to you, but you guess it comes in handy sometimes.

You pull out the hammer, but to your dismay, it has the claw part on both sides. Still serviceable though, I mean, you can hit nails with the middle of the head holding it sideways.

You pull out the pliers, but they don’t have those serrated surfaces; it’s flat and smooth. That’s less useful, but it still turns bolts well enough, so whatever.

And on you go. Everything in the box is kind of weird and quirky, but maybe not enough to make it completely worthless. And there’s no clear problem with the set as a whole; it still has all the tools.

Now imagine you meet millions of carpenters using this toolbox who tell you “well hey what’s the problem with these tools? They’re all I’ve ever used and they work fine!” And the carpenters show you the houses they’ve built, where every room is a pentagon and the roof is upside-down. And you knock on the front door and it just collapses inwards and they all yell at you for breaking their door.

That’s what’s wrong with PHP.

PHP can be used to build some awesome stuff (Facebook is living proof!), but it’s important to realize that it’s also a fundamentally awful language. It’s like crack. It’s useful enough that it keeps us using it over and over again, while systematically destroying our productivity with its quirks.

When I complain about PHP at work, some like to remind me that I’m a hypocrite, since I wrote a blog post praising PHP. Or, rather, claiming that it’s possible to code PHP smartly and avoid its pitfalls. I’m not sure if I still agree with it today, but I sure do feel my brain turning to Jell-O whenever PHP fucks me over with one of its silly, silly idiosyncrasies.