Vincent Gable’s Blog

December 10, 2009

Being a Lisp is a Handicap

Filed under: Accessibility,Programming | , , , ,
― Vincent Gable on December 10, 2009

Being a Lisp Is a Handicap

There are a large number of people who find Lisp code hard to read. I’m one of them. I’m fully prepared to admit that this is a shortcoming in myself not Lisp, but I think the shortcoming is widely shared.

Perhaps if I’d learned Lisp before plunging into the procedural mainstream, I wouldn’t have this problem — but it’s not clear the results of MIT’s decades-long experiment in doing so would support that hypothesis.

I think it’s worse than that. In school, we all learn
3 + 4 = 7 and then
sin(?/2) = 1
and then many of us speak languages with infix verbs. So Lisp is fighting uphill.

It also may be the case that there’s something about some human minds that has trouble with thinking about data list-at-a-time rather than item-at-a-time

I think I really totally understand the value of being homoiconic, and the awesome power of macros, and the notion of the reader. I want to like Lisp; but I think readability is an insanely important characteristic in programming systems.

Practically speaking, this means that it’d be hard for me to go out there on Sun’s (or Oracle’s) behalf and tell them that the way to take the best advantage of modern many-core hardware is to start with S-Expressions before breakfast.

Tim Bray (emphasis mine)

I’m afraid he’s on to something. We have an amazing ability to parse language. But people aren’t terribly good at building the kinds of stacks needed to parse LISP with their short term memory.

This is the cheese that the rat that the cat that the dog that the neighbor owned bothered chased ate.

Say what?!

(This is the cheese (that the rat (that the cat (that the dog (that the neighbor owned) bothered) chased) ate)).

See the LISP connection?

All functional languages are fighting an uphill battle to be understood. The world we evolved in is stateful (modal) and imperative. We navigate it in a me-at-a-time way. Unfortunately, LISP’s prefix syntax is another, unnecessary, barrier.

The bottom line is that every word of code spends more time being read than written — so writing in a syntax that most people have a hard time reading is one of the worst programming choices imaginable. I believe functional programming languages are well worth learning; but I don’t believe it’s worth suffering a poor syntax.

September 11, 2009

Never Start An Integer With 0

When programming, never start an integer with 0. Most programming languages treat a decimal number that starts with 0 as octal (base-8). So x = 013; does not set x to 13. Instead x is 11, because 013 is interpreted as 138 not 1310.

Languages with this quirk include: C, C++, Objective-C, Java, JavaScript, Perl, Python 3.0, and Ruby. If you add up the “market share” of these languages, it comes out to above 50%, which is why I say most languages.

“But I use {Smalltalk, Haskell, Lisp, etc.}”

I’m jealous that you get to use such a nice language. However, it’s bad programming hygiene to pick up habits that are dangerous in common languages.

Now, I assume you wouldn’t write 7 as 007, unless the leading zero(s) carried some extra meaning. There are cases where this clarity outweighs “cleanliness” (unless the code meant to be ported to a C-like language).

But you should at least be aware of this inter-lingual gotcha.

February 1, 2009

“I Deployed More Scheme Runtimes Than Anybody Else on the Planet”

Filed under: Programming,Quotes | , , ,
― Vincent Gable on February 1, 2009

From an Interview with an Adware Author,

Sherri Davidoff
You wrote adware. You bastard.

Matt Knox: [sheepishly] Yes, I did. I got to write half of it in Scheme, which probably means that I deployed more Scheme runtimes than anybody else on the planet.

So are most scheme programs in the wild used for evil? That’s a depressing thought.

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