C, The Beautiful Language

They call soccer the beautiful game, and when we watch Ronaldo doing things on the pitch that no earthly being should be allowed to, we understand why.

And yet, to me, it’s not so much the ungodly talent of the superstars that makes the sport such a pleasure to watch, but more the beating heart of the match itself. The slow, ordinary rhythms that come between the highlight plays. The tidal, life-like forces that propel a team toward its goal and the equally strong counter-forces that prevail from the opposite direction.

Watching a good match, I get the sense that the gameplay exists unto itself — that the players are merely agents to it. Soccer is a simple sport. One ball, forty-four feet, two goals, and grass. There’s nothing preventing the living soul of the game from speaking to us directly. We see this and feel this, and we (or at least I) say soccer is the beautiful sport.

When I look at good C code, I feel the same way.

On slow days, I’ll poke around the kernel, sched.c, page_alloc.c, etc., and it very much feels like I’m peering in on a living thing. I can see the code steering the execution, the logic funneling the energy of the program, and even though I’m not a kernel hacker, I can almost get the gist of what I’m looking at simply by watching the way the code “moves”.

In other languages, the abstractions and sweet (if helpful) syntactic sugar that attend the code conceal the heartbeat. But in C, as in soccer, the quickening happens on the ground. A simple syntax, a smattering of keywords, an almost perfect description of a general Von Neumann machine. In C, the spirit of the program speaks to us directly. We see this and feel this, and we say —

C, the beautiful language.