Monday, February 13, 2012

Lisp: First Impressions

I learned the basics of Lisp 10 years ago when I was the TA for ICS313: Programming Language Theory. This semester, I returned to Lisp after a decade away, again in the context of TAing for ICS313. After so long away, I basically had to start over from scratch again. Though it certainly goes much faster the second time around, it's still a lot like learning it the first time. So these are my "first" impressions.

We are learning Common Lisp. So far, I'm not very impressed.

First of all, I find that Common Lisp is bloated. There are usually about 6 different ways to do something. For example, want to compare two items? Consider =, eq, eql, equal, equalp... and that's just getting started. Want to print something? Consider print, princ, prin1, pprint, format, etc. The reason that so many options exist is because each is subtly different. I'm sure that, once mastered, all these options increase your programming power, since you can pick exactly the right tool for the job. And, in many cases, some of the options seem to be now-unused holdovers that persist from earlier days in Lisp's development. So eventually you learn which ones you can ignore. But it all makes Common Lisp rather tedious to learn.

My next stumbling block is the formatting. As evidenced by both my students' code and my own inclinations, it seems natural as a programmer to try to format the parentheses to make matching them up much easier. The parentheses are subtle, and it's easy to get one out of place. This can produce code that compiles or loads but then fails at runtime because the meaning is subtly different to what you intended. This well-discussed blog posting sums it up fairly well. In general, I agree with the author there. Parentheses in Lisp mark the start and end of various expressions in the same way that braces mark the start and end of blocks in C-like languages. In C-like languages, we have proponents of such extremes as the Allman style of indenting. These Allman proponents feel that such formatting is so essential to readability that every brace deserves its own line! Yet the Lisp community advocates the exact opposite: that no parenthesis should be clearly placed. Instead, they should all just be tucked away at the start or end of a line of code. Supposedly some day you get to the point were you can "see past the parentheses". But this seems to me like a convention that makes code unnecessarily hard to read.

I find most of the arguments for this "parenthesis stacking" format are weak at best. One of them that irks me is that your editor will help you. First of all, you're not always reading code in an editor. Secondly, I should have to move my cursor around or press keys or require fancy color highlighting to make quick sense of the code on the screen. It's called "readability", not "navigability". A third argument is that you can ignore the parentheses because the indenting should show you the structure. But the indenting is not what actually determines the code structure--the parenthesis do! So I need to be able to quickly spot when the parentheses are wrong even though the indenting is correct.

This formatting thing bugs me because it seems the problem comes from an asinine coding convention choice. And that's the one reason that has me formatting this way rather than the way that makes sense to me: because "that's how it is done in Lisp." Like the choice to drive on the right side of the road, it's hard to buck the community on such a choice as a late-comer! Yet, because it makes the code harder to work with, but with no good reasons that I can see, it feels a little like hazing: "This is the way we all had to deal with it when we learned, so you do too."

That brings me to the Lisp community in general. First of all, I don't care to worship at the altar of Emacs. As I mentioned above, I shouldn't have to have a special editor to write code. Don't get me wrong: an IDE is great at increasing productivity and I definitely want one. But the code should be both readable and writable without one. Then I'm free to choose the IDE that meets my own requirements. (On that note, after trying Emacs and LispWorks, I settled on Cusp. It's a little tricky to get up and running, and a bit quirky at first, but it works pretty well. The highlighting of parentheses structure is very helpful.)

Secondly, there's just this "Lisp is so much better!" vibe in the community. Now, obviously you've got to wave the flag for your favorite language. I have no problems there. But, as others have pointed out, if Lisp is so wonderful, how come we're not all using it? Just about every computer science major has to learn a Lisp dialect at some point, so it's not just an issue of exposure. Is it because it lacks good libraries for modern tasks? Is it because, while powerfully writable, its dynamic re-writability makes it hard for someone else to read or maintain? Is it because, while a pioneer of so many cool ideas, most of those ideas have now been imported from Lisp by other languages? Is it because Lisp has built up over 50 years of cruft, but each new Lisp project to simply and overhaul it fractures the small but fanatical Lisp community, leading to inter-dialect derision and flamewars? Hard to tell. What I can tell is that the fanatical belief in Lisp's supremacy over all other programming languages is a little hard to swallow.

My general conclusion is that Lisp is still worth learning for the history of it. However, I don't think I'll be taking it up as my day-to-day language. I'll be looking elsewhere for more modern implementations of Lisp's contributions that are useful to me.

Still, the code-as-data idea is largely still unique to Lisp. That would be fun to explore more, so finding a Lisp dialect that fits me better might still be rewarding. I've considered Scheme a bit, but I think either Clojure or newLisp would be even better. (I found newLisp because I thought: "Why doesn't someone clean up and simplify Lisp back to it's glorious essence? If I did that, I'd call it 'new Lisp'." I searched... and behold! Already done 20 years ago by someone else.) Both seem to have newer, friendlier, more open communities. Clojure has the advantage of the JVM and the entire Java API behind it. newLisp is targeting what I think is a great niche for Lisp: scripting. This is where powerful writability at the expense of readability and maintainability is a viable tradeoff.

These are my current impressions of Lisp. Perhaps they'll change with time. If so, I'll let you know!