[OT] Lisp's "and more", was Re: Who modified my local variable?

Levi Pearson levi at cold.org
Tue Jun 13 16:22:02 MDT 2006


On Jun 13, 2006, at 3:10 PM, Shane Hathaway wrote:

> Michael L Torrie wrote:
>> Well given that "modern" languages are really just a return to the
>> theories worked out in the 60s (LISP really has everything that  
>> modern
>> languages have and more)
>
> I guess you threw in that flamebait for fun. :-)
>
> But I'm not looking for flamebait.  In all honesty, I'd like to know
> more about the "and more" part of your LISP statement.  What am I
> missing by not using LISP?  I don't mean some random feature like
> pretty-printing numbers.  What deep philosophy is in LISP that other
> languages have yet to discover?

Lisp (no one calls it LISP anymore; the capitalization was an  
artifact of old terminals, not of an acronym or anything that would  
suggest that it should continue to be in all caps) has been pretty  
well mined through the years, and almost all of its features have,  
individually, been incorporated into other languages.  However, it  
does have some properties that continue to differentiate it from  
mainstream languages.

1. S-expressions:  These are the nested parentheses that so many  
people love to hate.  An s-expression is basically a structured way  
to write data.  This is not unusual in itself; the interesting part  
comes from the fact that code is formatted within s-expressions  
rather than in a more conventional syntax.  This was initially meant  
to be only an internal representation of programs, but due to  
historical accident and the unexpected power that programming in s- 
expressions brought, lisp programmers never really adopted a more  
complex external representation for their programs.

What do s-expressions buy you?  Easy code transformation.  Because a  
lisp program is essentially a textual representation of its abstract  
syntax tree, it is very simple to programmatically analyze and  
transform the program.  This brings us to...

2. Macros:  Lisp macros are very different from the preprocessor  
macros in languages like C and C++.  The C preprocessor works on text  
without knowledge of the C language itself, so it is fairly easy to  
write macros that result in syntax errors.  The C preprocessor  
language is also very different from the C language, and far more  
limited.

Lisp macros, on the other hand, are implemented in lisp and work on s- 
expressions that have already been read and parsed into lisp lists  
and trees.  A macro receives as its arguments data that represent the  
abstract syntax trees of the code it is meant to expand.  The full  
lisp language is then available to perform those transformations at  
compile time.

The macro facility is one of the primary reasons that lisp is so  
flexible and has adopted so many different programming paradigms.   
Macros have been used to create object systems, aspect oriented  
programming systems, advanced flow control mechanisms, and all sorts  
of other experimental stuff, some of which was later added to the  
language itself.

3. Image-based development:  This one is not unique, as Smalltalk  
does it even better.  What this means, though, is that running Lisp  
systems are very dynamic, and updates/recompilation can be done  
without stopping the running programs.  The compiler and the read- 
eval-print loop are built into the runtime system, and any aspect of  
the runtime system can be updated on-the-fly.  This is wonderful for  
two different kinds of things, exploratory programming and patching  
high-availability systems with no downtime.


Of course, there are downsides to all of these, and reasons why they  
aren't more common.  Lisp is worth learning for many reasons, but one  
of them is so you can learn these ideas and understand when they are  
worthwhile and when they are not.  Personally, I find lisp a lot of  
fun to program in, and I've learned a lot about programming from it.   
It's not the best language at everything, but it is a pretty good  
general-purpose language, and probably the most flexible computer  
language in existence.  It's not *easy* but it's fairly  
straightforward, and with enough study and effort, it molds itself  
into exactly what you want.  It's a great hacker's language.

		--Levi



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