Ranters gonna rant, time and time again

I used to know someone who would append utterly incongruous smileys to their most offensive opinions. This week I stumbled across yet another anti-PHP rant: as with others you might find on the web, it's a hotch-potch of valid if slightly over-inflated criticism, aesthetically opinionated ramblings, and "things that would make sense if it were 2008 and we were still using PHP4." But the post reminded me of that someone I used to know, by dint of being both topped and tailed with a thumping disclaimer about the contents being a rant:

"...What follows is not one of those times – less “constructive exploration”, more “bitchy rant”. I disclaim that here because, hey, why ruin a good rant by riddling it with qualifiers...."

"... I'd like to reiterate that the above is a total rant, obviously, and that you shouldn't take it as, you know, a real article with nuance and rationality...."

The latter disclaimer is part of an edit, apparently prompted by the sheer number of people somehow unconvinced by the original one. The only redeeming feature of not one but two passive-aggressive attempts to defuse (if not entirely deflect) valid criticism is that it's refreshingly honest: it's the rhetorical equivalent of saying "I am racist, and...." Yet it's a pretty cheap trick, and in an ideal world the finished article ought to attract twice as much invective as the ramble would have done on its own, pour encourager les autres not to attach disclaimers to everything inflammatory they write. My one slim hope, based on the wording of that later edit, is that les autres were indeed encouragés; in spades.

Apart from anything else, anti-PHP rants are just boring nowadays. They were boring, I don't know, the last time there was a vogue for them, several years ago. But they're even more boring this time round, if such a thing were possible, not least because they all seem to make the same pointless points: "isn't error handling (ignoring exceptions, which I'll handwave about later) awful?" "namespace character/error silencing character: aren't they ridiculous?" "the variable-prefixing dollar; isn't it so much worse than e.g. ending a function name with a question mark?" "performance, maybe, depending on your metric - isn't it poor?" "Oh, by the way, for heaven's sake don't judge my comments based on recent versions!"

It's hard to know how I'm meant to read such articles with the straightest face. Should I read it after coming home from a Saturday spent excitedly hacking together a PHP application using a new (to me) MVC framework? Or would it read better after a workday spent programming at least tolerably well in PHP, and feeling like such aspects of the language itself aren't impeding me particularly, when compared to the imperatives of circumstance or the obstacles of my own ignorance?

Workday or weekend, I'd be much happier to read such articles if they ever discussed the genuinely interesting phenomena: why is PHP (still) so popular? what adaptations for survival have arisen from, say, its pragmatism, its sloppiness or its decade-plus iterative design? why are the aspects of a language that opinion-formers focus on not the ones that contribute to its longevity? But these ideas are only ever discussed in an offhand and usually derogatory manner, in order to rapidly move onto the fact that, did you know, it used to be a templating language once. Really? Gosh.

Of course, anyone's free to revisit these tired tropes if they want to. And in such idioms as blogging, there's occasionally merit in ranting: people can and should rant, if they feel justified in doing so. But surely one shouldn't expect people to see much merit in this kind of "rant by numbers": the same as so many before it; yet wearing a pretence of boldness or edginess; yet covered with desperate disclaimers, in order to divert any intelligent dissection of details. Both form and content of such writing inhabits culturally entrenched positions, and is actually incredibly safe writing, not in spite of but because it appears to dress itself in dangerousness and transgression.

When a writer (in truth, lots of writers over the years) indulges in behaviour as odd and as, well, fascinating as this sisyphean, self-disclaiming endeavour, then they should be aware that, one day, far more exciting articles will be written about them, than could ever be written by them. In both the future and the present, this comes about because of the restrictions that their own cultural positioning imposes upon what they will and won't write about.

In other words, yesterday's pseudo-transgressor becomes the topic of tomorrow's historical discussions. And if that topic ends up being you, then don't imagine the conclusions are going to be any less complimentary or charitable than the ones you're making yourself.

End of rant. ;)