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.

October 20, 2009

Knuth can be Out of Touch

Filed under: Accessibility,Programming,Quotes | , ,
― Vincent Gable on October 20, 2009

…Knuth has a terrible track record, bringing us TeX, which is a great typesetting language, but impossible to read, and a three-volume set of great algorithms written in some of the most impenetrable, quirky pseudocode you’re ever likely to see.


There, it’s been said. But let the posse note I wasn’t technically the one to do it!

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