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1.2 Philosophy and Goals
To Moore, Forth was a personal response to his frustration with existing software tools, which he viewed as a sort of "tower of Babel" [Moore, 1970a]:
The software provided with large computers supplies a hierarchy of languages: the assembler defines the language for describing the compiler and supervisor; the supervisor the language for job control; the compiler the language for application programs; the application program the language for its input. The user may not know, or know of, all these languages: but they are there. They stand between him and his computer, imposing their restrictions on what he can do and what it will cost.
And cost it does, for this vast hierarchy of languages requires a huge investment of man and machine time to produce, and an equally large effort to maintain. The cost of documenting these programs and of reading the documentation is enormous. And after all this effort the programs are still full of bugs, awkward to use and satisfying to no one.
Moore conceived of Forth as replacing the entire "vast hierarchy" with a single layer, requiring only two elements: a programmer-to-Forth interface, consisting of minimal documentation (minimal because the interface should be simple and natural), and the Forth-machine interface, consisting of the program itself. His view was entirely personal, considering his own needs in the light of his own experience. The following excerpts from his unpublished book [Moore, 1970b], describe this view:
I've written many programs over the years. I've tried to write good programs, and I've observed the manner in which I write them rather critically. My goal has been to decrease the effort required and increase the quality produced.
In the course of these observations, I've found myself making the same mistakes repeatedly. Mistakes that are obvious in retrospect, but difficult to recognize in context. I thought that if I wrote a prescription for programming, I could at least remind myself of problems. And if the result is of value to me, it should be of value to others….
Above all, his guiding principle, which he called the "Basic Principle," was, "Keep it simple!" Throughout his career he has observed this principle with religious dedication.
As the number of capabilities you add to a program increases, the complexity of the program increases exponentially. The problem of maintaining compatibility among these capabilities, to say nothing of some sort of internal consistency in the program, can easily get out of hand. You can avoid this if you apply the Basic Principle. You may be acquainted with an operating system that ignored the Basic Principle.
It is very hard to apply. All the pressures, internal and external, conspire to add features to your program. After all, it only takes a half-dozen instructions, so why not? The only opposing pressure is the Basic Principle, and if you ignore it, there is no opposing pressure.
The main enemy of simplicity was, in his view, the siren call of generality that led programmers to attempt to speculate on future needs and provide for them. So he added a corollary to the Basic Principle: "Do not speculate!"
Do not put code in your program that might be used. Do not leave hooks on which you can hang extensions. The things you might want to do are infinite; that means that each has 0 probability of realization. If you need an extension later, you can code it later — and probably do a better job than if you did it now. And if someone else adds the extension, will he notice the hooks you left? Will you document this aspect of your program?
This approach flew in the face of accepted practice then as now. A second corollary was even more heretical: "Do it yourself!"
The conventional approach, enforced to a greater or lesser extent, is that you shall use a standard subroutine. I say that you should write your own subroutines.
Before you can write your own subroutines, you have to know how. This means, to be practical, that you have written it before; which makes it difficult to get started. But give it a try. After writing the same subroutine a dozen times on as many computers and languages, you'll be pretty good at it.
Moore followed this to an astounding extent. Throughout the 70's, as he implemented Forth on 18 different CPUs (Table 1), he invariably wrote for each his own assembler, his own disk and terminal drivers, even his own multiply and divide subroutines (on machines that required them, as many did). When there were manufacturer-supplied routines for these functions, he read them for ideas, but never used them verbatim. By knowing exactly how Forth would use these resources, by omitting hooks and generalities, and by sheer skill and experience (he speculated that most multiply/divide subroutines were written by someone who had never done one before and never would again), his versions were invariably smaller and faster, usually significantly so.
Moreover, he was never satisfied with his own solutions to problems. Revisiting a computer or an application after a few years, he often re-wrote key code routines. He never re-used his own code without re-examining it for possible improvements. This later became a source of frustration to Rather, who, as the marketing arm of FORTH, Inc. (see Section 2.2), often bid jobs on the assumption that since Moore had just done a similar project this one would be easy — only to watch helplessly as he tore up all his past code and started over.
Today, Moore is designing Forth-based microprocessors using his own Forth-based CAD system, which he has re-written (and sometimes rebuilt, with his own hardware) almost continuously since 1979.
Moore considered himself primarily an applications programmer, and regarded this as a high calling. He perceived that "systems programmers" who built tools for "applications programmers" to use had a patronizing attitude toward their constituents. He felt that he had spent a great fraction of his professional life trying to work around barriers erected by systems programmers to protect the system from programmers and programmers from themselves, and he resolved that Forth would be different. Forth was designed for a programmer who was intelligent, highly skilled and professional; it was intended to empower, not constrain.
The net result of Moore's philosophy was a system that was small, simple, clean — and extremely flexible: in order to put this philosophy into practice, flexible software is essential. The reason people leave hooks for future extensions is that it's generally too difficult and time-consuming to re-implement something when requirements change. Moore saw a clear distinction between being able to teach a computer to do "anything" (using simple, flexible tools) and attempting to enable it to do "everything" with a huge, general-purpose OS. Committing himself to the former, he provided himself with the ideal toolset to follow his vision.