The Boston Diaries

The ongoing saga of a programmer who doesn't live in Boston, nor does he even like Boston, but yet named his weblog/journal “The Boston Diaries.”

Go figure.

Friday, January 04, 2008

One more time into the breech with a speech impediment

I think I finally figured out why I don't like Lisp.

It has nothing to do with its (non-)syntax and the proliferation of parentheses. Sure, it can be annoying to the non-initiate, but one can get used to it. The first language I learned was Microsoft BASIC for the Tandy Color Computer, and if I can learn to not only program, but like something that looks like this:

0 'CODE TAKEN FROM THE RAINBOW M
AGAZINE, VOL. IV, NO. 1 (AUGUST
1984), PAGE 78-'SOPWITH COCO' FL
IES AGAIN!
1700 X=30+SIN(JB)*28:Y=160-COS(J
B)*28:CIRCLE(FA,FB),1,0:CIRCLE(X
,Y),1,1:FA=X:FB=Y:RETURN
1710 IF D7=10 AND N(S)=0 THEN RE
TURN ELSE LINE(30,160)-(SX,SY),P
RESET:DRAW"C0;BM83,170;XA$(D7);B
M-10,0;XA$(D6);BM-7,0;XA$(D5);C1
;XA$(10);BM+7,0;XA$(10);BM+10,0;
XA$(10);":LINE(128,40)-(IX,IY),P
RESET:CIRCLE(162,92+GX),1,0,.1:D
7=10:D6=10:D5=10
1712 IF AZ<AL THEN AZ=0
1730 SCREEN1,0:RETURN
1740 F=INT(RB(S)*.5729):G=INT(RB
(S)*5.729)-(10*F):I=INT(RB(S)*57
.29)-(100*F)-(10*G):DRAW"C0;BM66
,151;XA$(FS);BM+7,0;XA$(GS);BM+7
,0;XA$(IS);C1;XA$(I);BM-7,0;XA$(
G);BM-7,0;XA$(F);":FS=F:GS=G:IS=
I:JB=RB(S):GOTO 1700

After that, I think can deal with a few parentheses here and there.

My dislike of Lisp also has nothing to do with its seemingly archaic, or even downright bizarre, function names like CAR and CDR (which stand for “Contents of Address Register” and “Contents of Decrement Register” respectively—no, seriously, they do!) which to modern people have no relationship to what they actually do (return the first element of a list, and a list minus the first element, respectively). Non-English programmers have had to deal with programming using seemingly arbitrary letter combinations for years.

Don't get me wrong—I'm fully thankful that I don't have to program in, say, a Swedish programming language:

(* 
    Thanks to wlofie for translating the code
    from Pascal
    into Håstad 
*)

medan not_done
börja
  för x:= 1 till 5 gör
  börja
    om person^.age = 120 så
      too_old(person);
    om person^.age > 130 så
      gåtill person_should_be_dead;
  slut;
slut;

But that doesn't mean I couldn't if I had to. I would just have to learn that code blocks appear between the tokens BÖRJA and SLUT and that we don't have IF THEN statements, but OM SÅ statements.

So it's not that Lisp contains nonsensical function names like CAR, CDR and TERPRI (like C doesn't have weirdly-named functions like strspn() and sbrk()) that make me dislike the language.

This, and the syntax, are shallow problems, easy to deal with in various ways. No, the reasons I hate Lisp are deeper than that.

I'm the compiler when using Lisp.

Sure, I can let SETF Do The Right Thing™ in updating a variable instead of using SET, SETQ or RPLACA (for instance), yet there are still areas of Lisp (okay, Common Lisp if you want to be pedantic) where I get to micromanage the code.

Arrays, for instance, can have up to seven dimensions (or more, depending upon the implementation), but arrays of a single dimension are considered “vectors” and have different functions to access elements, but there are also two special cases of vectors, bit vectors and strings, and each of those have special access functions. That's at least four different methods of accessing arrays.

You also have a slew of functions that manipulate and modify lists in place, like NCONC, NREVERSE, NUNION and DELETE, but there are an equal (EQ? EQL? EQUALP?) number that generate a new list: APPEND, REVERSE, UNION and REMOVE (ah, if only there were some consistency in the function names). It'd be nice if I didn't have to deal with such details and let the compiler figure it out for me (much like manual memory allocation, which Lisp does away with because it's garbage collected, but then, if that's so, why does Paul Graham include a section about avoiding garbage collection in his book ANSI Common Lisp?).

Oh, and then there's LET and LET*. Both let you declare a bunch of variables sorry, bind a bunch of variables (there's apparently a subtle distinction between setting a variable, and binding a variable, but from where I'm at, I can't tell the difference), but one does it “sequentially” and the other does it “in parallel” (which has implications about using previous bindings to bind later bindings—hey, I didn't design this language) and why the Lisp system can't figure out which one to use is beyond my ken.

And reading up on the subtle differences between PROG, PROG* PROGN, PROG1, PROG2 and PROGV is like reading Medieval monastic tomes on the differences between the care and feeding of Seraphim, Cherubim, Ophanim and Erelim.

Gee, if I wanted to micromanage code at that level, I'd be writing in Assembly. And I wouldn't have to deal with all the parentheses around each statment either.

I still like the idea of Lisp, and I think as a target language, it makes sense. But when I write a program, I want to solve a particular problem, not play compiler, unless, of course, I'm writing a compiler. Lisp proponents say that's a feature, because you are supposed to write a DSL in Lisp that succinctly solves the problem you're trying to solve with a program, but we already have a bazillion different computers langauges; do we really need a bazillion more one-off computer languages? (my frightening minor epiphany is also related to this, as computer languages are primarily communication between programmers and may help to explain why a language like Java is so popular in large companies, and Lisp isn't)

Update later today

Oh, one more thing I forgot

Obligatory Picture

[It's the most wonderful time of the year!]

Obligatory Links

Obligatory Miscellaneous

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