Chapter 1 - Why Bother? Or: Objections Answered

Everyone knows Lisp, right? Many of us took a course that introduced us to Lisp along with three or four or more other languages. This is how I was introduced to Lisp around 1975, and I thought it was a pretty useless language. It didn't do anything in the usual way, it was slow, and those parentheses were enough to drive anyone crazy!

If your own Lisp experience predates 1985 or so, you probably share this view. But in 1984, the year Big Brother never really became a reality (did it?), the year that the first bleeding-edge (but pathetic by today's standards) Macintosh started volume shipments, the Lisp world started changing. Unfortunately, most programmers never noticed; Lisp's fortune was tied to AI, which was undergoing a precipitous decline -- The AI Winter -- just as Lisp was coming of age. Some say this was bad luck for Lisp. I look at the resurgence of interest in other dynamic languages and the problems wrestled with by practicioners and vendors alike, and wonder whether Lisp wasn't too far ahead of its time.

I changed my opinion of Lisp over the years, to the point where it's not only my favorite progamming language, but also a way of structuring much of my thinking about programming. I hope that this book will convey my enthusiasm, and perhaps change your opinion of Lisp.

Below I've listed most of the common objections to Lisp. These come from coworkers, acquaintances, managers, and my own past experience. For each point, I'll describe how much is actually true, how much is a matter of viewpoint, and how much is a holdover from the dark days of early Lisp implementations. As much as possible, I'll avoid drawing comparisons to other languages. Lisp has its own way, and you'll be able to make your own comparisons once you understand Lisp as well as your usual language. If you eventually understand Lisp enough to know when its use is appropriate, or find a place for Lisp in your personal toolkit, then I've done my job.

Without further introduction, here are a baker's dozen reasons why you might be avoiding Lisp:

I looked at Lisp before, and didn't understand it.

This is a really tough one. Most programming languages are more similar to each other than they are to Lisp. If you look at a family tree of computer languages, you'll see that the most common languages in use today are descendants of the Algol family. Features common to languages in the Algol family include algebraic notation for expressions, a block structure to control visibility of variables, and a way to call subroutines for value or effect. Once you understand these concepts, you can get started with another language in the family by studying the surface differences: the names of keywords and the style of punctuation.

Lisp really is different. If you've only read code in Algol family languages, you'll find no familiar punctuation or block structure to aid your understanding of Lisp code -- just unfamiliar names appearing in seemingly pointless nests of parentheses. In Lisp, the parenthesis is the punctuation. Fortunately, its use is quite simple; simpler than, for example, remembering the operator precedence rules of C or Pascal. Lisp development environments even provide editors that help with matching opening and closing parentheses.

Once you understand how Lisp expressions are put together, you still have to learn what they mean. This is harder because Lisp provides a lot of facilities that aren't found elsewhere, or gives unfamiliar names to familiar concepts. To really understand Lisp, you need to know how it works inside. Like most good programmers, you probably have a mental model of how a computer works, and how your favorite compiler translates statements from your favorite language into machine code. You'll drive yourself crazy if you try this with Lisp, which seems to go to great lengths to isolate you from the details of machine organization. Yes, you sacrifice some control. Perhaps not surprisingly, you gain quite a lot in program correctness once you give up worrying about how your program is mapped by the compiler onto bits in the machine. Is the tradeoff worthwhile? We'll explore that issue in a later chapter.

This book will teach you how to read and write Lisp, how to recognize and understand new words like DEFUN, CONS, and FLET, and -- ultimately -- how to think in Lisp as well as you think in your favorite programming language.

I can't see the program for the parentheses.

Part of this problem is a matter of dealing with the unfamiliar. I talked about that in the previous section. Another part of this problem is real: you have to deal with a lot of parentheses. Fortunately, Lisp programming environments have editors that mechanize the process of counting parentheses by flashing or highlighting matching pairs or by manipulating entire balanced expressions. Finally, there's a matter of style. Judicious indentation improves the readability of Lisp programs, as it does in other languages. But vertical whitespace often hinders readability in Lisp.

I'll cover both the mechanical and stylistic aspects of Lisp code in this book. By the time you're done, you'll have an opinion on what constitues readable code, and you'll be able to defend your position. When you reach that level of confidence, you'll be able to write aesthetic Lisp code, and to read anyone else's code. Parentheses won't be a concern any longer.

Lisp is very slow compared to my favorite language.

Possibly... But the difference may not be as large as you'd expect. First, let's clear the table of an old misconception: that Lisp is an interpreted language. As a rule, most modern Lisp systems compile to machine code. A few compile to byte code that typically runs five times slower than machine code. And one or two freeware Lisp systems only run interpreted code, but they're the exception. So there's part one of the answer: if you're not running a Lisp compiler, you should get one.

Your Lisp coding style affects execution speed. Unfortunately, you won't recognize inefficient Lisp code until you've had some experience with the language. You'll need to think about how Lisp works in order to understand what makes Lisp code run slowly. This is not hard to do, but the issues are different from those for languages which expose more of the underlying machine to you.

Lisp gives you incremental compilation. This means that you can compile one function at a time and be ready to run your program instantly -- there is no linkage step. This means that you can make lots of changes quickly and evaluate them for their effect on the program. Lisp also has built-in instrumentation to help you tune the performance of your program.

You'll experience all of these things as you work your way through this book. By the time you're done, you'll know how to avoid writing inefficient code in the first place, and how to use all of the available tools to identify and fine tune the really critical code in your programs.

No one else writes programs in Lisp.

What? I'm the only one left? I don't think so...

Seriously, though, there are quite a few people who write Lisp code every day. They write programs that solve tough problems, and give their employers a strategic advantage. It's hard to find good Lisp programmers who are willing to move to a new employer; those companies who are using Lisp guard their strategic advantage, and their Lisp programmers, quite jealously.

Now, it's mostly true that you won't find Lisp in consumer products like spreadsheets, databases, word processors, and games. But then, that's not the kind of work that Lisp does best. You will find Lisp in products that must reason about and control complex systems and processes, where the ability to reliably arrive at useful conclusions based upon complex relationships among multiple sources and kinds of data is more important than lightning-fast numerical calculations or spiffy graphics (although modern Lisp systems come pretty close to the leaders even in the latter two categories).

Lisp is also used as an extension language because of its simple, consistent syntax and the ability for system designers to add new functions to Lisp without writing an entire new language. The Emacs editor and the AutoCAD drafting program are two of the best examples of this use of Lisp.

And of course Lisp is still the language most often used for research in artificial intelligence and advanced computer language design, but we won't touch on either of those subjects in this book. When you've finished this book, you'll have the knowledge needed to recognize what problems you should solve using Lisp, and how to approach the solution's design.

Oh, and one more thing: It's not quite true that no mass market product uses Lisp. Microsoft's "Bob" environment for naive computer users was developed (and delivered) in Lisp.

Lisp doesn't let me use graphical interfaces.

This is ironic. Some of the first graphical user interfaces appeared on Lisp machines in the early 1970s. In fact, in 1995 you can still buy a DOS adaptation of one of these early Lisp environments -- with the same GUI it had twenty years ago.

The leading Lisp development environments for Windows and Macintosh support only a subset of their host platform's GUI. It's possible to add support for the missing features, but easier to do it using Microsoft's and Apple's preferred language: C++.

If you want to have the same graphical user interface on your Lisp program when it runs on Windows or Macintosh hosts, you can find at least two Lisp windowing environments that let you do this. The problem is that the Lisp GUI will be familiar to neither Macintosh nor Windows users.

If all you want is a quick, platform-specific graphical interface for your Lisp program, any of the commercial Lisp environments will deliver what you need. They all have graphical interface builders that let you build windows and dialogs with point and click or drag and drop techniques. Just don't expect much in the way of bells and whistles.

I can't call other people's code from Lisp.

This is mostly untrue. Most Lisp environments give you a way to call external routines using either C or Pascal calling conventions. You can also call back into Lisp from the external program. But if you want to call C++ from Lisp, you'll probably have to write a C wrapper around the C++ code.

Lisp's garbage collector causes unpredictable pauses when my program runs.

This should probably be covered in the "Lisp is slow" discussion, but there are enough interesting digressions for this to warrant its own topic. Lisp programs create garbage by destroying all references to some object in memory. In a program written in some other language, the programmer must arrange to release the memory occupied by the object at the same time when the last reference is destroyed. If the program fails to do this reliably, the program has a memory leak -- eventually the program's memory space could fill up with these unreachable objects and not leave enough free memory for the program to continue. If you've ever written a complex program that allocates and manually recycles a lot of dynamic memory, you know how difficult a problem this can be.

Lisp finesses the memory leakage problem by never allowing the programmer to release unused memory. The idea here is that the computer can determine when a block of memory is unreachable with complete accuracy. This unreachable block is said to be garbage because it is no longer useful to any part of the program. The garbage collector runs automatically to gather all these unused blocks of memory and prepare them for reuse. The algorithms that do this are very tricky, but they come built into your Lisp system.

Historically, garbage collection has been slow. The earliest garbage collectors could literally lock up a system for hours. Performance was so poor that early Lisp programmers would run with garbage collection turned off until they completely ran out of memory, then start the garbage collection manually and go home for the rest of the day.

Over the past twenty years, a lot of good software engineering techniques have been applied to improving the performance of garbage collectors. Modern Lisp systems collect garbage almost continuously, a little bit at a time, rather than waiting and doing it all at once. The result is that even on a very slow desktop machine a pause for garbage collection will rarely exceed a second or two in duration.

Later in this book I'll discuss garbage collection in greater detail and show you techniques to avoid generating garbage; the less garbage your program creates, the less work the garbage collector will have to do.

Lisp is a huge language.

If you look at the book Common Lisp: The Language, weighing in at about a thousand pages, or the recent (and bulkier) ANSI Standard X3.226: Programming Language Common Lisp, it's easy to form that opinion. When you consider that the Lisp language has almost no syntax, and only a couple of dozen primitive language elements (called special forms), then Lisp starts to look like a very small language.

In fact, the manuals cited above are mostly concerned with descriptions of what most other languages would call library functions and, to a lesser degree, development tools. Take the language manual for your favorite language. Add the manuals for three or four third-party libraries -- development utilities, fancy data structures, generalized I/O, etc. Take all the manuals for your development tools -- browsers, inspectors, debuggers, etc. and toss them onto the growing pile. Now count the pages. Does a thousand pages still seem like a lot?

By the time you've finished this book, you'll know how to find what you need in Lisp, with or without a manual.

Lisp is only for artificial intelligence research.

Just not true. Lisp gets used for big projects that have to be tackled by one or a few programmers. Lisp is also good for tasks that are not well defined, or that require some experimentation to find the proper solution. As it turns out, artificial intelligence meets all of these criteria. So do a lot of other applications: shop job scheduling, transportation routing, military logistics, sonar and seismological echo feature extraction, currency trading, computer and computer network configuration, industrial process diagnosis, and more. These aren't mass market applications, but they still make lots of money (often by avoiding cost) for the organizations that develop them.

Lisp doesn't have any good programming tools.

I hope to convince you otherwise. Several chapters of this book are devoted to introducing you to the many useful tools provided by a Lisp development environment.

Lisp uses too much memory.

The Lisp development systems on both my Mac and my PC run comfortably in anywhere from 4 to 8 megabytes of RAM. Less in a pinch. The integrated C++ development environments take anywhere from 12 to 20 megabytes. Both have comparable tools and facilities.

Lisp uses too much disk space.

The Lisp development systems on both my Mac and my PC use considerably less disk space than the C++ environments. Lisp space on my hard disk runs from a low of about 5 megabytes for one system to a high of about 30 megabytes for another system that is a total programming environment, including a built in file manager, WYSIWYG word processor, graphics program, appointment calendar, and (almost forgot) Lisp development environment. The C++ systems run from a low of about 20 megabytes to a high of about 150 megabytes.

I can't find a good Lisp compiler.

Depending on what kind of computer you use, this was a problem as recently as a year or two ago. And it's true that there isn't a lot of competition for the Lisp marketplace -- you can count vendors on the fingers of one hand. The vendors who support the Lisp marketplace tend to have been around for a long time and have good reputations. As desktop computers increase in speed and storage capacity, Lisp vendors are increasingly turning their attention to these platforms.

Contents | Cover
Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

Copyright © 1995-2001, David B. Lamkins
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