It's Lisp Time


Porting academic code is fun, I swear

I’ve been chewing on a rather tough programming problem at work recently involving porting code from a collection of different languages to a C++11 production-ish-looking thing. Really, the project is just to get a cohesive version of the interesting (but entirely academic, not remotely production-ready) code from a published paper. Even with the previously mentioned niceties that C++11 has to offer, it’s still rough going. And I’ve realized that it’s not just because the code is, ahem, interesting. It’s that my tools are a bit limiting.

Everything else is too limit{ed,ing}

As it turns out, I’m finding more and more that the things people say singing the praises of Scheme and Common Lisp might be on to something. Take, for instance, Peter Seibel’s excellent book Practical Common Lisp. In Chapter 9, he puts together a very nice unit testing framework; it’s fully commented and documented, has great reporting that tells you exactly what went wrong, and offers a nice little domain specific language for writing tests. The really awesome part: with comments, indentation, and line breaks, all this happens in just 26 lines of code.

Now, I know there are other small unit testing frameworks out there,1 but this is just amazing. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

All hail the mighty parentheses

My motivation for wanting more Lisp & Scheme in my coding is twofold, I guess; first, my work programming, while fun and useful, is constraining in some senses. Pretty much any project I write will be either in C, C++, or Python. If it’s a very data-science-y project, I might get to2 use R. Those languages are great, and they all have their uses, but there’s other stuff out there, some of it wildly more powerful. So the first reason is because I want to use more interesting and powerful tools.3

The second reason is my own edification. Scheme and Lisp have a decently long history (as far as programming languages are concerned), and definitely have a library of great work for me to ingest. There’s the previously mentioned SICP for Scheme. I also hope to spend more time on Programming Praxis, though my attendance has been rather poor lately. For Lisp, I hope to read Paul Graham’s On Lisp and Peter Norvig’s PAIP. If I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I hope to read Doug Hoyte’s Let over Lambda. I’ve also been intrigued by Clojure recently,4 and have been paging through some of Fogus and Houser’s Joy of Clojure.


Does it look like I’ve missed anything, dear reader(s)? Please let me know if you have other recommendations, etc. for the road to Lisp enlightenment.

  1. I’ve actually used minunit before, and it’s great for C code. The point is, however, the framework from Seibel’s book is simultaneously more powerful, more expressive, and easier to write tests in (to strand a preposition). ↩︎

  2. Be forced to? ↩︎

  3. And on one work project I was forced (for reasons I’ll not go into, but not of my choosing) to use Perl. Kidding aside, it can be a useful tool for some things, but I assure you that what I was asked to build with it is not one of those things. ↩︎

  4. I’ll admit I’m a bit reticent about using the JVM, but Clojure has some nice features, so I’m trying to keep an open mind. I’m particularly interested in Incanter as a possible replacement for R and Python for data work. ↩︎