On Thu, 10 Sep 1998 03:40:42 GMT, Kent M Pitman <pit...@world.std.com>
claimed or asked:
% trash...@david-steuber.com (David Steuber "The Interloper") writes:
% > I am trying to figure out why Lisp has a cult like following without
% > making it into the "mainstream" as a computer language.
% For the purposes of this message, I'll accept your branding of Lisp
% as cult even though I don't agree 100%.
I hope I didn't bring offense with the word cult. I meant it in the
sense of a small, enthusiastic following, not the religious sense.
Minority opinions are not always wrong. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised
if the minority views on most any issue were better thought out.
% Cult is about serving a need that is not served by the mainstream.
% Exactly because of the prevalance of C/C++, etc. people are driven to
% Lisp all the more strongly. Not all, but those who are cling
% strongly. And not to the language, I think, but to the ideas. The
% greater Lisp community sometimes uses other languages, but I think
% never really forgets its roots. Lisp was born of the AI research
% culture supporting specific features it needed particularly.
The AI connection is what attracts me to the language. Also the
simplicity of the syntax for parsing and evaluating purposes. My
interest is to implement an interpreter of Lisp in Java, leveraging
Java's garbage collection. I would hate to write my own garbage
collector with my meager talents. Also, Lisp appears to be a language
that would be exceptionally good for describing complex data
structures. That is, I could leverage the Lisp interpreter by making
Lisp my file format. Additional possibilities are also in my mind.
It may be useful to attach Lisp functions (or objects, I haven't seen
CLOS yet) to my data objects as properties. I haven't got a fully
formed design in my mind yet, but Lisp should be able to completely
describe a model and its behavior. This I may be able to do in Java
(it's like a third language to me), but I have an inkling that Lisp
may do the job better and in a more portable fashion.
% And then some fortuitous accidents of chance that are often, I think,
% misunderstood, but are no less powerful for the doing: The famous
% "program is data" thing is an example. Many languages can represent
% themselves. BASIC could represent itself with an array of strings.
I've done this in Perl. Well, sort of. I used Perl's eval function
to evaluate dynamically loaded code. I also have dynamically created
regular expressions in Perl. But Perl is not a language I wish to use
for my project.
% But what Lisp does that is critically important in power is to choose
% a representation--maybe not even the best representation--but one that
% is standard. The willingness to decide not to fight over program
% representation and simply to define it simply and understandably means
% a whole army of automatic programming and program manipulation tools
% (not the least of which is Lisp's rich macro packages and its long
% tradition of research in compiler design) have grown up simply because
% everyone understands and shares a common interchange format for
% programs in a structured form that requires no special and parsing and
% no weird ad-hoc quotation rules. It's not enough for another language
% to tell you you CAN define a program representation; before they match
% Lisp, they must do it and do it once and for all. Most other
This is one of the features that attracts me to Lisp.
% languages, trying to be "small", insist on optional add-on libraries
% and then have endless disputes over whose add-on library is the one
% and only official standard one. This is pain for programmers because
% they have to know whose C they are using. C claims to be portable
% because it is ubiquitous, but Lisp (by which I mean Common Lisp
% particularly) was designed to be and I think truly is way more
Me too (Common Lisp).
% portable than C will ever dream of being. In the modern world where
% the PC dominates, one may think portable is less and less important,
% but portable is REALLY about not making dependencies on the environment,
% or about capturing those dependencies in an abstract way. So CL code
% speaks to the future not just to other machines. If I have an integer
% of a certain range, I can declare it (INTEGER 37 416) meaning
% "integer in the range 37-416, inclusive". How that is optimized
% may depend on the machine. But I do not have to say "the size of
% a machine word" and just hope to win. That's only one tiny example.
% Pathnames, too, are structured objects that have been designed so
% that the same portable conception can work on Unix, PC, MAC, VMS,
% Linux, CDC 7600, Lisp Machines, ISO 9000 file system, etc.
I don't get the need for an integer type in a certain range. But that
is my inexperience. However, portability is important for me. I want
people to have sufficient reason to move away from Microsoft OS.
Therefor, I don't want to target Windows specifically. At the same
time, I only want to do one build. For now, Java offers me that
capability. However, I am not certain of the success of Java. If I
can incorporate portions of my application in Lisp, there is less to
port if Java fails. The c.l.j.a group would hate me for saying that.
That brings up another point. I must say that this is about the
friendliest news group I've read. I haven't read more than about four
dozen postings. In that small sample, all the talk has been at a high
level of politeness. I'm not sure how else to put it. In any of the
other news groups I've been in, I would have read several flames.
If I was in comp.lang.java.advocacy asking the same questions about
Java's following and lack of real market success, I would have had to
wear an asbestos suit! This to me speaks very highly of the Lispers.
% Lisp has on and off been more popular than it is now. I don't see
% popularity as its only measure of success. Some amount of market is
% needed to keep Lisp alive and growing, and we're always happy for more
% than the baseline minimum but the practical fact is that just about
% any language can suffice for the low-end, and what Lisp excels at is
% the harder problems. As you yourself note, VB is very popular but no
But if Lisp was a mainstream language, it would be much easier to
distribute software written with it. Even more so if there was a
standard p-code form that it could be compiled to (like Java) so that
it could be distributed in binary form.
% one speaks kindly of it. I wouldn't trade Lisp's place for VB's--I'm
% proud of where Lisp is. Lisp tends to attract people with problems
% that they've given up ever solving in other languages. At Symbolics,
And VB, IMNSHO, is probably one of the biggest causes (if not the
biggest) of bad software. I'm all for languages that are easy to
learn. I hope Lisp falls into that category. There is just one
syntax. I just need to hear the song (Vorlon reference).
% the trade, I don't know. I think it's a fundamental fact about the
% universe that a single solution can't be good for every possible
% situation. But that Lisp is the thing that does the hard problems
% is enough. Consider that there are probably more ten dollar pocket
% cameras in the world than fancy theatrical movie cameras, but it's
% not a failure for the theatrical movie guys that they make what
% they do.
I wouldn't expect Lisp to perform well in an embedded system like the
Engine Control Unit in my car. But for general computing (even
serious number crunching), why shouldn't Lisp or some other language
be the best at everything? If you can say everything in the language,
and work with all the data types and representations, then all that is
left is to convert the human readable representation into the optimum
machine readable representation. Or am I missing something? I don't
have a CS degree, so it is entirely possible. Actually, I am a
fallible human. That is why I can't see everything.
% One reason Lisp solves the hard problems is that initial workout
% the AI community gave it. It required a lot of memory and disk
% in those days and it was expensive compared to other alternatives.
% So people turned to other things. But memory and disk get
% cheaper, other alternatives get bigger, and meanwhile Lisp has held
% the line on size so that it is becoming respectable again just by
% waiting for others to catch up in "apparent bloat"--only Lisp still
% has power packed into that size, and many other tools have grown
% without offering all the power that Lisp has, so don't be surprised
% if Lisp has more life in it in the future. I think the possibilities
% are really just opening up for Lisp, frankly. It's a bit of a chicken
% and egg problem because it needs market belief to do that, but
% I think it can and should be done.
Emacs is written in Lisp. Unfortunately, PC people don't get to play
with it except for the NT Emacs at Volker's site. I saw XEmacs on a
Sun box today. Very nice.
AutoCad has AutoLisp for doing things. I haven't messed with that
monstrosity in some years now.
It is as if Lisp is lurking around the corner, but just won't show
itself. I think you are probably right except for one thing. I have
a rule that I used to just apply to the stock market. But I have
found that it is almost universal. Never bet against stupidity. I
can't help but think how much smaller and simpler Microsoft Word would
be if it was written in Lisp with a built in interpreter so that a
user could write Lisp extensions to customize Word. I guess that
would be too much like a graphical version of Emacs! Anyway, who
would want CaptiveLisp?
% Sounds like a good start. Might wanna download a copy of the
% Common Lisp HyperSpec(TM). See
% for (free) download info and
% to browse it online at Harlequin.
% See also my articles
% where I discuss the benefits of Lisp in rapid prototyping and
% where I discuss the choice of language as a political rather than
% technical issue. (The remarks about status of certain standards are
% now somewhat dated, but the general thrust of the piece is still
% sound, I think.)
Thanks for the links. I'll check them out as soon as I can.
% I saw a talk by Gerry Susman in which he suggested that indeed the most key
% contribution of computer science to the 20th century is not computation but
% the terminology for describing process. That is, the ability to talk about
% algorithms. That it stretches the mind, he said, and gives us ways to talk
% about how that has happened rather than just repeating things over and over
% until other people can parrot our actions is truly important. So I agree
% with your goal and wish you luck.
I have found that verbal skills seem to be more important than math
skills in computing. Sure, math is important. But both math and
communication require abstract thinking. We think about a process in
the abstract and then try to communicate it in a way that the receiver
forms the same abstraction. A modern programming language is nothing
more than an interface between the human and the machine. It does
have to pull of a neat trick though. It has to be both machine
readable and human readable. Natural language is full of ambiguity
that just can't exist in a computer language. Also, it seems that the
computer language we think in shapes they way we approach a problem
much like the natural language we speak shapes the way we communicate
our ideas. I'm sure this could be stated better.
In the English language, the phrase "the answer, my friend, is blowing
in the wind" can be interpreted at least three different ways.
Thanks to everyone else who replied to my post, both in this news
group and by e-mail. You have bolstered my determinism to learn Lisp.
Some of you have recommended Scheme. I was considering Scheme until I
was able to find a source for the Common Lisp standard. It may be
myopic and parochial of me, but I want to deal with just one Lisp.
Even Emacs Lisp is an additional burden my finite mind doesn't wish to
cope with at this time. Then again, the Scheme spec is much smaller.
Laziness might make me reconsider.
What is it that makes an engineer? Laziness, impatience, and hubris?
Or is that why Unix and Perl are the way they are?
Well, I'll be squatting here for a while.
To reply by e-mail, replace trashcan with david.
When the long night comes, return to the end of the beginning.
--- Kosh (???? - 2261 AD) Babylon-5