Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Monkeys vs. Shakespeare

Google's golang was designed for mediocre programmers that aren't “capable of understanding a brilliant language”. It omits features that are hard to understand or hard to use, like conditional expressions, macros, exceptions, and object systems.

Lisp, on the other hand, was originally designed for smart programmers in order to research artificial intelligence. It contains language constructs like conditional expressions, a powerful macro system, a highly customizable error handling system, and a sophisticated object system.

A million monkeys typing on a million keyboards will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Lisp is a language for Shakespeares, while golang is a language for monkeys.

What is the fundamental problem we are solving? If the problem is simply an insufficient amount of software, then we need to write as much software as possible as rapidly as possible. Hire more monkeys. If the problem is gainfully employing all the monkeys quickly, give them crude tools that are easy to use. But if the problem is lack of quality software, then we need the tools to write the best software possible. Hire more Shakespeares and give them powerful tools.

Hiring monkeys is easier and cheaper than hiring Shakespeares. So why not just keep hiring monkeys until you have a Shakespeare equivalent? Experience shows how well this works. Just think of all the projects that were brought in on time and under budget when they doubled the number of monkeys. Just think of any project that was brought in on time and under budget when they doubled the number of monkeys. Surely there must be one?

Thursday, July 4, 2024

A YouTuber's First Look at Lisp

There is a guy who is making a series of videos where he takes a “first look” at various programming languages. I watched his “first look” at Lisp. Now he wasn’t going into it completely cold — he had looked at Scheme previously and had seen some Lisp — but it was still an early experience for him.

He gave it a good go. He didn’t have a pathological hatred for parenthesis and seemed willing to give it a fair shake. He downloaded SBCL and started playing with it.

Since he only had allocated an hour to it, he didn't cover much. But he encountered a few pitfalls that Lisp newbies often fall into. I found myself wanting to talk back at the screen and point out where he was going wrong when simple typos were causing errors.

For example, he was trying to format some output, but he forgot the closing double quote on the format string. The reader kept waiting for him to finish the string and simply gobbled up the format args and closing parens as part of the string. He was confused as to why nothing was happening. When he finally typed Control-C, he was faced with a spew of stack trace and a debugger prompt that was of no help to him.

A second problem he encountered was when he typed (print (first (*mylist*))). Any experienced Lisp hacker will obviously see the problem right away: *mylist* is not a function. But the error message was buried in a 30 level deep stack trace that wound back through the reader and REPL and completely obscured the problem.

The Lisp debugger is amazing, but it can be a bit overwhelming to a newbie. When I was TAing Lisp classes, I would often find that students were intimidated by the debugger. They felt that while they were in the debugger there was some sort of impending doom hanging over them and that they had to exit and get back to the normal REPL as quickly as possible. I think if I were teaching a Lisp course now, I would start off by deliberately causing errors and then showing students how to use the debugger to find the problem and recover from it.

PLT Scheme has an interesting “beginner” mode that disables some of the more advanced features of Lisp. Many typos in Lisp cause errors not because they are invalid, but because they mean something advanced, but unintended. For example, the beginner mode disables first-class functions, so accidentally putting in extra parenthesis becomes a syntax error instead of an attempt to funcall something inappropriate. Perhaps a “training wheels” approach would work with Lisp beginners.

But SBCL generates pretty good error messages. It was a case of TLDR. The reviewer just didn't take the time to read and understand what the error message said. He was too busy trying to figure out how to get back to the REPL.

All in all, the reviewer gave it a good go and came away with a positive impression of Lisp. He also took he time to research the language and provided some examples of where Lisp is used today. The video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVhzHu2zSEQ if you are interested.