Friday, September 2, 2011

Persistent misconceptions about Lisp

I am in the process of implementing (yet another) graphing library Common Lisp, one that would conform to my requirements better (I will blog about it later on). In order to understand some issues better, I decided to read The Grammar of Graphics by Leland Wilkinson. The book is very well written and clearly organized, and I think it will turn out to be very useful for what I am doing. However, I encountered a couple of misconceptions about Lisp in the Introduction. On page 4, the author claims that

Some languages, like Simula, Smalltalk, and Java, make it easy to implement objects and difficult to implement procedures. Others, like C++, enable development of both objects and procedures. And others, like C, Pascal, Ada, BASIC, Algol, Lisp, APL, and FORTRAN, make it difficult (but not impossible) to develop objects.

O RLY? Most users of CLOS find both objects and "procedures" very easy to use, and at least on par with other OO languages. Moreover, I don't understand how Lisp ended up in the company of C, which doesn't have any OO whatsoever.

On page 5, we are told that

Lisp is ideal for manipulating lists of words and symbols because it is a list processing language.

Strictly speaking, this is true, but Lisp is much more than a list processing language: it is also used to tackle numerical problems and usually does a very good job. Compiled code can be very fast, especially with implementations like SBCL, and Lisp has a very nice foreign function interface library.

That said, from what I have read so far, the book appears to be excellent, and the author is clearly an expert on the topic. Statements about programming languages are tangential to the book in any case, so I don't understand why the author found it necessary to talk about a language that he is not so familiar with.

1 comment:

  1. You probably know this, but Hadley Wickham has done extensive work developing an R graphing package, ggplot2, which is based on Wikinson's grammar of graphics.

    It might be useful to see some of the choices he made. I've started reading his book on the package, and the interface seems very well-thought out.

    Of course, the only problem is that it's in R!