Interesting Quote (anthropology and language)

Levi Pearson levi at
Fri Aug 12 22:08:59 MDT 2005

On Aug 12, 2005, at 8:36 PM, Michael Halcrow wrote:

> Ladies and Gentlemen, may I invoke... The Wisdom of Crowds:

Crowds are sometimes wise, but they are also sometimes unwise.   
Witness stock market bubbles, riots, etc.  The dumb crowd behaviors  
arise when people make their decisions based on what everyone else is  
doing.  Smart crowd behaviors arise when everyone makes their own  

I don't think Sourceforge is a very good indicator of crowd wisdom,  
because of these reasons:

1) It's primarily full of open source/free software projects.
2) Open Source projects rise largely from a community who consciously  
set themselves apart from the mainstream and into a peer group by  
using particular open source tools.
3) Open Source followers typically subscribe to one of a few closely  
related philosophies that are given by community authority figures
4) There is a large amount of peer pressure to use particular tools  
in the open source community

Thus, I don't think the individual decisions represented on  
sourceforge are representative of a diverse enough community to make  
a 'group wisdom' judgement.  You can still disagree with me, of  
course, but that's my reasoning.

> In my compiler theory course last semester, my professor really had a
> thing for Lisp. He just couldn't stop extolling its virtues. So I
> pulled up this list and called him on it right in the middle of one of
> his Lisp diatribes. ``If Lisp is so great, why is it that Lisp only
> has 300-some-odd projects on SourceForge, whilst C, C++, and Java,
> respectively, have 15,000-some-odd projects?''
> He stammered a little, and then gave an answer along the lines of,
> ``Uh... well... it has to do with momentum. These other languages are
> just so popular that other, clearly more superior languages, like
> Lisp, just don't stand a chance! And then schools fail to teach this
> great language, and the cycle continues...'' The skeptic in me
> stirs... Lisp has been around much longer than Java. If Lisp is so
> much better, why did Java trump it so decidedly in the marketplace,
> being such a relatively new player on the field?

Let's think about this a little bit.  Sourceforge is the open source  
community project list.  The whole open source movement centers  
around Unix.  Unix is heavily biased towards C.  C, C++, and Java are  
all in the same family of languages.   Perl is also a very unix- 
oriented language.

Now consider the history of Lisp.  It was once the hacker language of  
choice.  Read stories about the early history of computing, and  
they'll be filled with stories of the MIT AI lab, the ITS operating  
system, etc.  This was a strong Lisp community.  But Lisp Machines  
(which rose from the MIT AI Lab) went commercial and proprietary, and  
thus the hacker community was forced away from them.  Lisp was  
dominated by commercial entities for a long while, and enjoyed great  
commercial success in the 80s.

So, with cheap unix workstations on the rise, and a new hacker  
community arising from unix, C, etc., the market naturally shifted  
that way.  Most accounts of that transition I've read about are  
filled with grumbling from lisp machine programmers who had to  
transfer to the far less elegant and far less productive, but way way  
less expensive unix workstations.  With the hardware limitations of  
general purpose computers and the commercial nature of most Lisps  
that ran on general purpose hardware, Lisp just wasn't available for  
the rising generation of hackers to play with.

So, basically, your perspective on this is wrong.  Lisp never had a  
chance to compete with Java.  It was thoroughly marginalized by C and  
C++ on cheap unix workstations and DOS PCs by the time Open Source  
and Java came around.  The majority of the workforce and hobbyists  
had missed Lisp's heyday.  I would guess that a large percentage of  
sourceforge projects are from people who've been programming for less  
than 5 years, and who haven't looked much back into computing history  
beyond when they began.

> So thus any language that merges most intuitively with the human
> experience is the best. Any language that requires radical departure
> from human thought patterns or -- if you will -- templates, while
> theoretically more efficient for implementing certain algorithms, are
> simply incompatible with our natural way of thinking. Thus, less
> capable languages may be better fit for use by mere mortals.

Ironically, Lisp was the first computer language that attempted to  
program the computer from the human's point of view rather than the  
computer's.  The languages around when it was developed were assembly  
and early Fortran, which was rather primitive.  I believe 'spaghetti  
code' first described Fortran with lots of gotos, and Fortran code of  
that period also prompted the infamous 'Goto Considered Harmful' paper.

For that reason, Lisp was the language of choice for tackling hard  
problems.  It says a lot that people chose to use Lisp over Fortran  
back in the early days of computing when Lisp was interpreted and  
horribly slow.


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