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The EuroLisp Symposium and the Future of Common Lisp
by Michele Simionato
June 3, 2009
Observations about the organization of the conference and about the talks discussing the future of Common Lisp.


The EuroLisp Symposium inspired me a lot of observations, so that a second post on the conference is in order.

The organization

The first bunch of observations is about the organization of the conference. This aspect is interesting to me as an organizer of the PyConTre conference. For a very reasonable free - 100 Euros for early subscribers, compared to the 90 Euros of PyConTre - we got two full days of conference in a really nice room, an excellent lunch and a spectacular dinner - the conference dinner was not included at PyConTre. In addition we got two tickets for breakfast and this is the first conference I ever attended offering me the breakfast: kudos for the idea! We also got a nice T-shirt and bag, and even printed proceedings with the papers presented at the conference. All in all, we could not have asked for more.

I would be curious to know how much of the funding came from the sponsors and how much came from the University. At the Python conference we could keep the admission ticket low because we had a lot of sponsors, both Italian and international (amongst the international sponsors Qt, Google, Riverbank, the Python Software Foundation and others); at the Lisp Symposium there were less sponsors but also much less participants (say ~40 against ~400 at PyConTre) so I am sure the conference was much less expensive.

I actually prefer smaller conferences with a single track, so that I can attend all the talks; the problem with the Python conference with three parallel tracks is that I was forced to miss a lot of very interested talks. Also, at PyConTre I was not completely free because I had to serve as a talk manager, being an organizer, whereas at the Symposium I was just a speaker.

PyConTre had a couple of things more than the Symposium: a translation service and a video service. The translation service does not make sense in the context of the Symposium, where the official language is English, but the video service would be useful. In particular, I cannot give an URL to the video of any of the talks, so if you could not attend, that talk is lost and there is no memory of it. The organizers actually collected the slides, but it is not the same thing as a video. Another advantage of PyConTre were the dates: the event happened during the weekend and not during working days so that it was much easier to attend for people working in the enterprise.

There was only one minor glitch in the organization, i.e. getting the wireless connection to work was hard. The problem was mainly bureaucratic, since because the University connection was crypted, we needed certificates and some nontrivial settings of the wireless. After spending some time with the help of the local organizers to configure my wireless to use the digital certificate, I still could not connect since my system did not support Enterprise level authentication, but only Home WPA connection. It would have been simpler to use another provider instead of the University network, or simply not to offer the service, since at the end only few people could use it. At PyConTre we just used the Hotel Internet connection, which was expensive and slow, but did not give so much trouble, since we simply got a card with a login and password.

The past of Common Lisp

The first day opened with Scott McKay talk about what he learned in the last 25 years or so, working with Lisp and Dylan. Scott started his career at Symbolics, the creators of the legendary Lisp Machines, was involved with the creation of the Dylan programming language (a.k.a. Lisp without parenthesis) and he is now working at ITA Software (they produce software for buying and reserving Airline tickets), spending his time on a ORM layer between Common Lisp and traditional databases. The first half of his talk was about the mistakes they did in the early days, which were the usual ones (excessive cleverness, building on shaky foundations, underestimating the difficulties of problems which turned out to be intractable). It is interesting to notice how such mistakes are performed now and again, and it seem that no matter how many times people are warned against them, they still persist in repeating them.

Consider for instance the Python community, which has always had a strong bias against cleverness, and a very pragmatic no non-sense attitude. Still, we see all the usual mistakes of overcomplexity to be performed in the major Python projects, like Zope, or SQLAlchemy, or most Web frameworks. There must be something that brings clever people to abuse their cleverness. Fortunately, the Python core is mostly free from such abuses, since the core developers have learned their lesson, but lots of Pythonistas out there are still wanting.

I remember a specific advice from Scott: don't use caches; if your application is slow, no amount of cache will ever speed it up. He repeated that at least four or five times and I remember that because at my own company I have seen my collegues fighting with caches for months, wasting an enormous amount of time and effort for nothing, since at the end they were forced to turn off the cache. I wish they had attended Scott's seminar before even considering using software caches.

The other catch phrase from Scott's talk was any bozo can write code. He told us the story of how David Moon uttered this sentence to him in a public conference and how it realized at the end that Moon was right. The point was that a good specification is more important than code, and that defending a poor specification with working code is a lost cause. The story was interesting, but unfortunaly there are no shortcuts; I do not believe any programmer can write a good specification without having written any code first. Good specs always emerge at the end: this is unfortunate, but there is no other way.

Of course, some general rules apply and if you assume that your initial specification will be wrong anyway, you can work in such a way to be prepared to the inevitable change. The trick is in being able to find out the mistakes in the original design before it is too late to change it, and this is not easy, especially in large projects with multiple programmers. I have no pearls of wisdom to offer, except the famous quote by Brian Kernighan, about keeping the code (but I would say it applies to the design too) simple:

Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.

(Scott did not quote Kernighan, but he was basically saying the same thing). Notice that this quote applies as well to refactoring (s/debugging/refactoring/g).

The future of Common Lisp: the revolutionary side

The second half of the talk was about the future of Common Lisp, about what we should do now, having learned from our mistakes. This part was less convincing, since Scott basically advocated repeating one of his own past mistakes, i.e. dropping Common Lisp and starting again from scratch with a new language, which would basically be Dylan with parenthesis, good support for concurrency and with the ability to run on the Java and .NET platforms. When he was pointed out that Clojure is already doing what he wants, he said "Well, I don't like the square brackets" :-(

Frankly, that was quite disappointing. He went on explaining than in his opinion the name resolution mechanism in Clojure is too complex and a few technical aspects which did not convince him, so that he sees Clojure as a valid candidate for the future Common Lisp but not yet as the Real Thing. The impression I got is that he would only accept as new Common Lisp a language designed by himself, but then nobody else would use it, as nobody ever used Dylan.

Also, the hypothetical new language he was describing (Uncommon Lisp) was looking very much like Scheme (single namespace, with a module system instead of a package system, with simple core, easy to understand and to explain to newbies, more consistent): when he was asked why he was not considering Scheme he said "Yes, Scheme would be fine but I do not like the community". Honestly, I do not have big confidence about the future of Common Lisp if this is the attitude.

The other provocative speaker after Scott McKay was Mark Tarver. He is the author of a new language called Qi which to me looks more similar to ML than to Common Lisp. The relevance to Common Lisp is that Qi is implemented in Common Lisp and that Mark Tarver has a strong Common Lisp background. Apparently the position of Tarver is that Lisp is dead as a specific phenotype (i.e. Common Lisp) but it continues to live and it has a great future as a genotype. In his words Lisp should not be seen as a specific language, but as a set of genetic characteristics which have virally infected all modern dynamic languages. His main interested was to port Qi to all such Lisp-like languages, by writing code generators (Qi->Python, Qi->Ruby, etc). I don't know what more to say, since I have not checked Qi, but my gut feeling is against code generation, since debugging code automatically generated is always a big PITA. The main point of Tarver however, that the Common Lisp should look at the newer languages and find some way to inter-operate with them, is a sensible one.

The future of Common Lisp: the evolutionary side

Both McKay and Tarver basically said that it is time to move on from Common Lisp and that we should start writing a new language - from scratch, as McKay advocated, or on top of Common Lisp, as Tarver advocated.

Their position was very much isolated: everybody else was more conservative, very much against restarting from a new language (actually I do not see how restarting from a new language is different than killing Common Lisp) and favoring incremental refactoring and improvement of the current language and specification. The most extreme position was the one of Pascal Costanza: his proposal for improving Common Lisp was to start a Web site (called CDR) collecting documents and specifications to fill the gaps left in the Standard. I say that Pascal's position is extreme because in his view the CDR project should just collect the specifications but

  1. the specs do not need to be accompanied by a concrete implementation;
  2. there is no formal process to grant any particular status to a proposal, i.e. there are no "approved" or "recommended" or "rejected" proposals;
  3. any proposal just lies there and some specific Common Lisp implementation might decide to implement it or might not.

In short, one sends his proposal to the CDR site and nothing happens. That does not strike me as a very effective way to improve Common Lisp, not as a the best road for a bright future. Pascal said that the CDR process was inspired by the SRFI process of the Scheme community, but I see it as different since:

  1. the SRFIs are accompanied by portable implementations, so you may directly use them as libraries, even if your chosen implementation does not come with the SRFI you want;
  2. the idea is that the Scheme committee should look at the existing SRFI and extracts ideas from them to insert them in the standard of the language;
  3. that did not work at all in practice, since the R6RS editors disregarded existing good SRFIs to reinvent things from scratch in an inferior way :-(

In short, the Scheme community is not the right place to look when it comes to mechanisms to improve the standard, and in any case the CDR mechanism looks even worse than the SRFI mechanism.

There were people with sensible positions, like Nikodemus Siivola, which basically just proposed to focus the efforts on writing more portable libraries: this is what the Alexandria project is about. This is a start, but it looks very much insufficient to me.

All things considered, I came out from the conference with a pessimistic impression about the future of Common Lisp. I hope I am wrong. In this moment my advice to a young programmer wanting to start with a Lisp-like language would be "forget about Common Lisp, look at Clojure if you feel enterprise-oriented or at Scheme if you feel research-oriented".

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About the Blogger

Michele Simionato started his career as a Theoretical Physicist, working in Italy, France and the U.S. He turned to programming in 2003; since then he has been working professionally as a Python developer and now he lives in Milan, Italy. Michele is well known in the Python community for his posts in the newsgroup(s), his articles and his Open Source libraries and recipes. His interests include object oriented programming, functional programming, and in general programming metodologies that enable us to manage the complexity of modern software developement.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Michele Simionato. All rights reserved.

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