Michael Herrick's blog

Programming? There's nothing to it.

Heidegger said that the fundamental philosophical question every thinker must eventually confront is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Those of a practical turn of mind will dismiss the challenge as excessively theoretical, but in the practical world of computer programming, the question assumes an aspect even more academical and hair-splitting: Why is there false rather than null?

Theoretical it may be, but the nuance of nothingness—including null, false, zero and empty—has great practical import in programming, and I don’t consider a programmer to be an expert until he’s tackled it. Different programming languages deal with the issue in different ways, and if you don’t understand the question, you’re not going to understand the answers, especially programming for the Web, where you need fluency in as many as five different languages or pseudo-languages. The problem really came home to me working with two of the most popular languages in the Web industry, SQL, specifically MySQL, and PHP. And it crystallized around a task so simple and mundane that it hardly seems worth contemplating: grabbing the value of a checkbox from a Web form and saving it in a database. You’d think, after ten solid years of making Web sites with tools like MySQL and PHP, that we’d know by now how to deal with a checkbox. Incredibly, it’s still a challenge, all because of the different meanings of nothing.

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