LISP Lover

I'm a LISP lover: for decades now the classic programming language LISP has thoroughly enchanted me. It's so simple, so pure, so powerful, that it has to be a source of deep magic. Why isn't it more popular? Why hasn't it taken over the world?

Paul Graham is a LISP lover who asks the same questions, and writes articulately in his 2001 article "Being Popular" about how LISP could still become a winner. (Richard Gabriel perhaps anticipated and answered him in "Worse Is Better", in 1989—but no matter.) Graham is a charming essayist, and "Being Popular" sparkles with wit, e.g.:

A really good language should be both clean and dirty: cleanly designed, with a small core of well understood and highly orthogonal operators, but dirty in the sense that it lets hackers have their way with it. C is like this. So were the early Lisps. A real hacker's language will always have a slightly raffish character.

Graham talks about general social issues of innovation, as in:

Inventors of wonderful new things are often surprised to discover this, but you need time to get any message through to people. A friend of mine rarely does anything the first time someone asks him. He knows that people sometimes ask for things that they turn out not to want. To avoid wasting his time, he waits till the third or fourth time he's asked to do something; by then, whoever's asking him may be fairly annoyed, but at least they probably really do want whatever they're asking for.

Most people have learned to do a similar sort of filtering on new things they hear about. They don't even start paying attention until they've heard about something ten times. They're perfectly justified: the majority of hot new whatevers do turn out to be a waste of time, and eventually go away. ...

and concerning creative tension:

... You have to be optimistic about the possibility of solving the problem, but skeptical about the value of whatever solution you've got so far.

People who do good work often think that whatever they're working on is no good. Others see what they've done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good.

If you can keep hope and worry balanced, they will drive a project forward the same way your two legs drive a bicycle forward. ...


It's tricky to keep the two forces balanced. In young hackers, optimism predominates. They produce something, are convinced it's great, and never improve it. In old hackers, skepticism predominates, and they won't even dare to take on ambitious projects.

On the topic of LISP itself, Graham quotes:

In "How to Become a Hacker," Eric Raymond describes Lisp as something like Latin or Greek—a language you should learn as an intellectual exercise, even though you won't actually use it: "Lisp is worth learning for the profound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get it; that experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of your days, even if you never actually use Lisp itself a lot."

So will LISP ever "catch fire"? Maybe not, and maybe that's OK.

(cf. CrystalsMudAndLife (1999-04-19), MudAndCrystals (1999-11-13), PersonalComputerHistory (2002-02-25), PersonalProgrammingHistory (2002-04-02), DreamSongs (2004-02-12), ...) - ^z - 2009-10-26