What's the most productive tool?
Last updated: Jun 10, 2020
XSLT, quite clearly. Followed by Common Lisp and Clojure— Hans Hübner (@HansHuebner) June 9, 2020
My reply deserves some elaboration, so here it goes:
What is XSLT?
XSLT is a document transformation language. It was conceived as part of the Extensible Stylesheet Language Family and was originally intended to prepare XML documents for printing. While the document formatting aspect of the family has not seen much development during the last decade, XSLT and its sibling XPath were continuously improved.
XSLT, in its latest version 3.0 from summer 2017, is now a general-purpose document transformation language. While it is still largely compatible with version 1.0, most of the things that made XSLT 1.0 rather hard to use in many aspects are fixed. Sure, XSLT still uses XML syntax and some people might find that alone to be a no-go. As a Lisp programmer, though, I find this argument as superficial as the never-ending objections raised about Lisp's ubiquitous use of parentheses.
Choosing the right tool for the job
The original tweet that I replied to asked for the “software or tool or language or framework” that I felt being most productive in. XSLT fits this space in the realm of programming languages, but I did not mean to say that XSLT is the right language for every job. Its strength is transforming documents, so whenever I need to convert a file from one format to another, I consider using XSLT.
Now, “format conversion” is a wide field and it can mean several things: It can mean simply turning an XML or JSON file into a CSV or Excel file. But in the process, data can be added, removed, reordered, and this is where the power of XSLT comes into play.
Whenever I need to convert some data, I consider using XSLT for the task and if I come to the conclusion that it would be the right tool, I also have an idea how to solve it in XSLT. Now here is what makes it special for me: Once I have devised a solution in XSLT, I usually write the transformation and am done. Done in the sense that the solution works as I had imagined it and I can move on to something else. Done also in the sense that there is nothing I need to refactor because the process of building the solution required me to try out different approaches, leaving things back untidy.
Now you could argue that this is because I written too much XSLT and that the same thing could be said about any language by someone who is an expert. For one, though, I have written more code in other languages. I am or have been an expert programmer in Clojure, Common Lisp, Perl, C++ and C, and I would still say that XSLT is most productive. For another, there are some specific properties in XSLT that make it as productive as it is.
Lisp programmers love their parentheses, and it is for a very good reason. They are the fundamental syntactic abstraction that is used both for representing code and data in text form. Because both code and data are denoted in their text form as lists, enclosed in parentheses, Lisp programs can manipulate themselves, and thus is said to be Homoiconic. Now, here's the catch: Lisp code and data is only homoiconic after it has been converted from its text form into the internal representation. Lisp source text, on the other hand, is just text and Lisp cannot handle text more easily than other languages.
XSLT, on the other hand, is a document transformation language, and XSLT source files are just XML documents. Thus, XSLT can easily be used transform XSLT source files into something else, or generate XSLT. XSLT thus is homoiconic in a very practical sense, and this is because it uses XML as its syntactic base.
I have used XSLT often to create file converters: From a table describing the fields of an input file, an XSLT transformation generated another XSLT transformation that would turn an input file conforming to the specification in the table to some other format. This is so straightforward and requires so little boilerplate code that I never felt the need to write a library or framework to do it. If I need to convert a file and have a table describing the input data, I write an XSLT that converts the table to XSLT which I then use to convert the actual files.
Likewise, I have used XSLT to refactor hand-written XSLT transformations. As it can read and write XML files preserving all white spaces and comments, this was really just a matter of thinking about a solution and writing it down.
In its basic operation mode, an XSLT transformation processes one input file into one output file. This is implicit and the program does not need to specify where the data comes from or where it goes to. It is possible to read or write multiple documents in one transformation, but in many applications this is not needed. This makes XSLT devoid of boilerplate for the most common use case, thus keeping programs compact.
Furthermore, as transformation of one document to another is the basic operation mode of XSLT, the program can implicitly assume the mechanics of file handling to be present. I have had several applications where I needed to convert a specific element down in input tree which consisted of a single template.
Do you need to learn XSLT?
I can't answer this for you, but if you're converting documents from one form to another, then I would recommend having a look at it. I'd certainly recommend it over using the excellent jq for tasks that are not one-liners in shell scripts. Ihe Onwuka wrote a blog post that might convince you.