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Didier Verna's scientific blog: Lisp, Emacs, LaTeX and random stuff.

Wednesday, May 2 2018

Lisp, Jazz, Aikido, 10 years later

10 years ago, I published a short blog entitled "Lisp, Jazz, Aikido", barely scratching the surface of what I found to be commonalities between the 3 disciplines. At the time, I had the intuition that those ideas were the tip of a potentially big iceberg, and I ended the blog with the following sentence: "I'd like to write a proper essay about these things when I find the time... someday."

Well, 10 years later, I did. The essay, which is 50 pages long, has been published in the Art, Science, and Engineering of Programming Journal, and actually received the Reviewers'Choice Award 2018. I'm not the bragging type, far from it, but I had to mention this because this essay is so personal, and I invested so much in its preparation (more than 300 hours) that I am as deeply touched by the award as I would have been hurt, had it been negatively received...

The live presentation has unfortunately not been recorded, but I took the time to make a screencast afterwards, which is now available on YouTube. Just like the essay, this presentation is not in the typical setting that you'd expect at a scientific conference...

If you've got an artistic fiber, if you're sensitive to the aesthetic dimension in what you do, you may enjoy this work...

Thursday, July 12 2012

Language wars

Programming languages are tools. Just like hammers. There's nothing personal about them. They just help you build stuff. Yet, there are many religious wars about programming languages out there. Wars which despite being all about science, are much more related to emotions, beliefs and personal aggressions than about objective arguments.

This is funny because do you know of any religious wars about hammers? So what's the difference?

Here's a recent personal example. A guy explaining how the static typing of Common Lisp works (type declarations) and what kind of performance-oriented optimization can be achieved with it (C-like, static but weak typing in SBCL for instance). And then, there's inevitably the troll (whom I know knows better) in the audience who goes:

So, yeah, what you're doing is just C code, and you have to type manually, and it's ugly. So if it's just for writing C code, I don't see the point in using another language.

Hmmm. Let's see. So, yes indeed, static typing in Common Lisp is ugly. And yes, it's not even strong typing. And yes, it would be nicer to have run-time hotspot detection and automatic type-dependant optimization like what's found in some other languages or virtual machines, rather than having to do it by hand (BTW, that would make for a nice Ph.D. I think). But what does that really tell you? That no language is perfect? Wow, thank you very much, that's new. For as much as I think that Lisp The Idea™ is perfect, I don't think anyone ever pretended that Common Lisp (or any Lisp for that matter) was. But is that a reason for not using it at all and sticking to C? Any sane computer scientist knows that the choice of a language doesn't boil down to only one parameter. Any computer scientist who tells otherwise is a troll.

In spite of all its defects, I still have a gazillon reasons to prefer Common Lisp over C, C++, or any language that I know of currently (and this may very well change in the future). The flexibility of lambda lists, the macros, the MOP or more generally its structural and behavioral reflexivity. Its run-time compilation, debugging, introspection and intersession capabilities. These are just a few examples. Still, I don't deny anyone the right to prefer another language for whatever purpose and whatever reasons they may feel legitimate.

So, I normally just ignore those purposedly trollesque and completely idiotic remarks. Yet, sometimes like yesterday, I snap. It gets on my nerves and I become all upset and angry. Why? I never get angry when someone tells me that my hammer is a piece of crap (it's not). I do enough Aikido to know how to control my temper, but for some reason, it doesn't always work when it comes to programming languages. So what is it about them that in spite of all your efforts, you can't help from getting personally and emotionally involved once in a while?

I think the answer becomes apparent when you consider the artistic aspect in programming. When an artist creates a piece (music, theater, dance, painting, architecture, whatever you like), (s)he exposes a very intimate part of himself through his creation. The art "is" the artist, and the artist "is" his art. In doing so, he puts himself in danger. It's like yelling out to the whole world Hey, look, I'm vulnerable right here!!. It's a well know fact that many artists are very fragile, in the sense that they suffer from their creation not being liked. Because a piece of art is intrinsically a piece of the artist himself, when you say I don't like this piece of art, you're actually saying I don't like the artist. Then, it's up to artist to handle the fact of not being liked.

And that's the whole problem, which, as a musician, I know all too well. Where does the artistic fiber come from? It's an urge to express yourself. To express something that you can't express in any other way. A very deep and perpetual wound of some sort, a feeling of not really belonging. More importantly, it's a calling. Sometimes, the simple fact of creating is enough to heal you a bit, but more often, you create in order for your creation to be seen or heard. So yes, it's a calling to the Others. You expect them to answer your call by telling you that they like you (your art, but that is the same). Artists often have this urge to be liked by the Others. So when you dislike some artwork, you're also not liking the artist himself (the part of him that lives in his creation) and you're actually giving him the exact opposite of what he was looking for. And that hurts.

Back to programming languages. Why do we get all emotional about them, and not about hammers? The answer is in fact quite simple. Look at an architectural masterpiece. Do you see the hammer that was used to build it? Now look at a software masterpiece. Do you see the language that was used to write it? That's the crucial difference. You cannot decouple the language from the software, even once it has been written (the art is not in the executable; it's in the source code). The language itself will always be here for you to contemplate.

All in all, I think that's why there will always be language wars. Languages are not just tools, actually. They're not just like hammers. As soon as you care about the code you write, your software becomes artwork, you become an artist, and you start to be personally and emotionally involved. Your software becomes part of you. And contrary to the hammer, your sticky programming language, being intrinsically bound to the artwork, also becomes part of you. That's when the battle for objectivity is lost. By criticizing the language, the troll also criticizes your artwork, and in doing so, he tells you that he doesn't like you. That may hurt.

It's good to consider programming as art. Unfortunately, this also means that there will always be language wars.

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Copyright (C) 2008 -- 2013 Didier Verna didier@lrde.epita.fr