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Posted April 15, 2005
a language of failed dreams
The very title bespeaks the defensive nature of the book. So too are the several chapters of case studies of Lisp implementations, where these have titles beginning with 'Practical'. The biggest flaw in the book is what it does not describe about Lisp. It provides a good explanation of Common Lisp. And, yes, this language is probably the most powerful language generally available to anyone today. In fact, in Lisp's almost 50 year history, this has generally been true. Most Lisp proponents will readily tell you this, as does the book. Many knowledgeable Lisp detractors will also agree. But there has been an enduring puzzle. If Lisp is so powerful, why then has it consistently failed to hit the big time? Newer, inferior languages can come from nowhere to overtake it, like C++, Java, C# and Perl. The book sidesteps this entire issue. It describes the 1980s as the era of Lisp Machines, when several companies made chips that could natively run Lisp code. Well, firstly, the book fails to mention that this was in part a response to the miserably slow performance of the Lisp interpreters or compilers of that time. Secondly, the book does not say that most if not all of those Lisp companies failed. Why? Could it possibly have been due in part to the very choice of Lisp? The book asserts that many people's experiences with Lisp are with outdated versions. Whereas Common Lisp has none of those disadvantages. Humbug! When languages compete, what is often important is comparative advantage. Yes, the CL is better than 1985 Lisp, say. But CL today competes against languages like Java, C# and VB that are far more powerful in terms of expressive ability than languages in 1985. By the way, I'm not talking of hardware differences. At any given time, all languages have access to comparable hardware. The book does not make a convincing case as to why CL should succeed now, against those formidable and entrenched opponents. Any more so than 1985 Lisp should have succeeded then against C or Fortran.
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