Self Wright

Tag: structure

On syntax, in Haskell and Lisp

Yes, but not so much simplicity of syntax. I’m misled here by a superficial resemblance between the cultures of Haskell and Lisp. Both cultures are obsessed with mechanically processing code, and therefore want the language core to be as simple as possible. Since a minimal core is impractical to program in, both expect a larger, more useful language to be defined by translation to the core, so its complexity can be mechanically eliminated. And both consider the representation of code as text to be separate, at least in principle, from the core. So at first glance, it seems as if they should have the same attitude to syntactic complexity.

But they treat it quite differently. Lisp’s culture considers syntax unimportant, and therefore tries to make it as simple and transparent as possible, so it won’t prevent humans from seeing through it — because code is much more interesting than its textual representation. But Haskell’s culture considers syntax safely separate from the language core, and is therefore willing to tolerate complexity in it. Since it goes away without inflicting any complexity on the core, why shouldn’t it include whatever features are convenient?

But what about creative composition? In order to be creative one must first gain control of the medium. One can not even begin to think about organizing a great photograph without having the skills to make it happen.

In engineering, as in other creative arts, we must learn to do analysis to support our efforts in synthesis.

One cannot build a beautiful and functional bridge without a knowledge of steel and dirt and considerable mathematical technique for using this knowledge to compute the properties of structures.

Similarly, one cannot build a beautiful computer system without a deep understanding of how to “previsualize” the process generated by the procedures one writes.

Gerald Sussman, Foreword to “The Little Lisper”

Most programmers are still locked into the idea of making a program out of a large pile of tiny files containing pieces of programs.

They do not realize that this organization was forced by the fact that machines like the PDP 11 only had 8k of memory and a limit of 4k buffers in the editor.

Tim Daly

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