No Magic

PHP used to have a cool little feature where it would automatically detect single quotes in text strings and escape them for you whenever they needed to be. It was called Magic_quotes_runtime. Maybe you've heard of it. It was a disaster.

Countless developer hours were spent trying to chase down mysterious runtime errors where single quotes were either introduced, doubled up, or removed, causing disastrous crashes, data corruption and so much untold havoc that the feature was deprecated and eventually removed from PHP entirely.

You would think that people would have learned their lesson.

People are, by and large, dumb. We make the same dumb mistakes over and over again because we didn't bother to do any research or read about the last time that somebody tried whatever stupid idea we just re-invented. As a result, we have development frameworks and tools like Hibernate, ASP.NET's SmartNav, and Rails' ActiveRecord, all trying to magically solve problems that weren't very hard in the first place, and silently making a lot of people's lives a lot harder without them even realizing it.

The big problem with Magic tools is that they work fine the first time you try them. "Wow!", you say, " It posted the page back and scrolled my browser back down to the Submit button!" So you turn that feature on for all your pages and start to trust it. You get used to it. You take it for granted. You forget you're even using it. Then suddenly something weird starts happening with one of your pages and you can't figure out why.

Examples of this sort of side effect abound, but nobody yet has taken a stand and done something about it. How many developer hours have been lost trying to figure out what magical SQL statement was running behind the scenes and only “Hibernating” half of an object? How many CPU cycles have been squandered (and slanderous blog entries written) because some poor developer didn’t realize that ActiveRecord was hitting the database three times for every single row in that recordset? Are we really so scared of Outer Joins that we allow ourselves to be subject to this torment?

I’ll leave you with an axiom that I’ve been telling developers for years without much success. Call it Kester’s Caution:

Never use any language feature that describes itself as "Smart" or "Magic." Such features will invariably be trying to abstract out some behavior that is not that hard to deal with anyway, and will make any number of incorrect assumptions about your application that will result in strange behavior cropping up that could possibly be described as "Magic", but certainly would never be labeled "Smart".

Jason Kester

I run a little company called Expat Software. Right now, the most interesting things we're doing are related to Cloud Storage Analytics, Online Classrooms, and Customer Lifecycle Metrics for SaaS Businesses. I'll leave it to you to figure out how those things tie together.

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