Lispian Random meanderings on whatever catches my fancy

RIP John McCarthy

The creator of my favourite programming language passed away yesterday. Lisp is, in my view, the best language ever devised. Sadly, too few in the computer industry realize or comprehend this fact.

Lisp, and its descendants such as Scheme, are beautifully consistent programming languages wherein the programs and the data are defined identically and as such can be manipulated similarly. This allows one to generate code easily that can then be executed.

Most people stare at Lisp-like languages and can’t get past the parentheses. Ironically, most every language uses parentheses of one sort or another. If one does a quick comparison with C, for example, one will quickly realize that Lisp doesn’t have that many more parentheses than does C. And with C, you can’t work in a fully interactive environment wherein you develop your code and test it all in a fully integrated way. Instead, you’re still stuck with the stupid edit-compile-run-debug cycle that made sense when we used punch cards but doesn’t today. Even “modern” languages such as Java are really only prettied up C, though truth be told, I’d rather code in C because it’s powerful and puts the onus on the programmer to do things right instead of having the stupid language compiler argue with you.

So the month of October has been a sad one. Ritchie passed away, who gave us Unix and now McCarthy whose language is used in more places than most people realize. There’s an old quote that says that any sufficiently complex program has a Lisp interpreter embedded within it. And I can say that that’s probably pretty much the truth, though most are horribly defined.

As I look at my bookshelf and all the names of what to me are famous computer scientists I’m coming to a realization that they were all young men in the 1960s and thus are in their latter years now. That means more sad news will be forthcoming in the coming years and a true sea-change will occur since I’ve also noticed that the younger CS guys and gals aren’t as aware of where all the stuff they use came from nor do they appreciate the beauty of conciseness in computer science. One only needs look at the size of some programs — such as Android — to wonder if we haven’t all gone off the rails somewhere in the past decade or two. But that rant is something that will await me being in a better mood.

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October 2011
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