Books of Note

Practical Common
LispThe best intro to start your journey. Excellent coverage of CLOS.

ANSI Common
LispAnother great starting point with a different focus.

Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence
ProgrammingA superb set of Lisp examples. Not just for the AI crowd.

Monday, September 22, 2008

PHP vs. Lisp: Unfortunately, it's true... 

I just found this today while browsing Reddit: Practicality: PHP vs. Lisp?

This is exactly the psychology that goes through the head of everybody who hears about Lisp and decides to check it out. Summary: Lisp is awesome, except for the multitude of trivially annoying things that make it much less so, to the point that everybody just throws in the towel and uses PHP or Ruby or whatever.

I hate reading articles like this because I know that it's basically all true. I also know that within 24 hours, the comments section of that blog post will be filled by Lisp apologists who keep suggesting workarounds and fixes. These are the same people who went nuclear a couple of years ago when Reddit got rewritten in Python, and it's all the same old arguments.

If Brian Carper's blog post annoys you, stop apologizing and start innovating. Languages exist in a market place and right now Lisp marketing itself quite poorly. Yes, I know that "marketing" is rejected by techie types who think that it should never matter, but as a marketing guy who markets to techies, I'll tell you that it absolutely does. And those who reject marketing will flat-out lose to those who understand it.

As a "customer" of a particular language, nobody wants to hear how their particular issue is unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Nobody wants to hear that such and such a problem was "solved" 20 years ago with this particular hack or workaround that only Lisp gurus know about. Nobody wants to hear that it's a simple job to port that particular library over to that particular implementation. People have a ton of free language options these days, and if Lisp isn't going to compete in terms of ease of use and productivity, then people will choose languages that will.

Note that theoretical ease-of-use doesn't count. Everybody will probably admit that Lisp macros are all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips, and building DSLs is way more productive than writing boilerplate code, and nevermind CLOS and closures, etc. Those are GREAT things that Lisp brings to the party, but they are completely useless if a newbie can't crank out a web page in 30 minutes like he can with PHP.

If you step back for a second and really try to listen to the arguments against Lisp, you'll find that there are two classes of gripes: fundamental dislikes and competitive disadvantage. Things like griping about the parenthesis are a fundamental dislike. Some people don't like parenthesis. Fine. Lisp is not for you. Parenthesis and sexprs are pretty fundamental to Lisp. They're part of its DNA. If you don't like them, then you don't like Lisp itself. There's no issue with that. Just use something like Java. Most Lisp programmers hate Java syntax, too. If you're really enlightened, take a look at Dylan. In short, as a guy who likes Lisp, I'll defend Lisp's parenthesis until I die.

The other type of gripes are about competitive disadvantage. These are issues that are not fundamental to the language itself, it's just that the Lisp community hasn't done much to solve them. Things such as having a reasonable set of standard libraries to do programming in today's Internet-connected world have nothing to do with the fundamentals of Lisp. Library documentation and tutorials would help. Having a decent system for the installation of libraries that doesn't depend on little-known and sometimes unmaintained web servers would also help. Everything in this category is hard to defend, and Lispers should universally be ashamed of it. Imagine saying to a "customer" something like, "Yes, I know that everything is undocumented and the installation infrastructure is unreliable, but you know, that's a feature." Rubbish!

In short, while somebody, somewhere, will always be griping about Lisp, the Lisp community, all of us, could go a long way toward making all those gripes fall into the "I hate parenthesis" category rather than the "There aren't any libraries and what libraries do exist don't have any documentation." There is a lot of work to do. Let's get coding...

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