History

History of Lisp

History of Lisp (The history of LISP according to McCarthy's memory in 1978, presented at the ACM SIGPLAN History of Programming Languages Conference.)

This is such a fun paper which I couldn't find on LtU. It's about the very early history of programming (1950s and '60s), back when things we take for granted today didn't exist yet.

On taking apart complex data structures with functions like CAR and CDR:

It was immediately apparent that arbitrary subexpressions of symbolic expressions could be obtained by composing the functions that extract immediate subexpressions, and this seemed reason enough to go to an algebraic language.

On creating new data, i.e. CONS:

At some point a cons(a,d,p,t) was defined, but it was regarded as a subroutine and not as a function with a value. ... Gelernter and Gerberich noticed that cons should be a function, not just a subroutine, and that its value should be the location of the word that had been taken from the free storage list. This permitted new expressions to be constructed out of subsubexpressions by composing occurrences of cons

On inventing IF:

This led to the invention of the true conditional expression which evaluates only one of N1 and N2 according to whether M is true or false and to a desire for a programming language that would allow its use.

On how supreme laziness led to the invention of garbage collection:

Once we decided on garbage collection, its actual implementation could be postponed, because only toy examples were being done.

You might have heard this before:

S.R. Russell noticed that eval could serve as an interpreter for LISP, promptly hand coded it, and we now had a programming language with an interpreter.

And the rest is history...

"C Is Not a Low-level Language"

David Chisnall, "C Is Not a Low-level Language. Your computer is not a fast PDP-11.", ACM Queue, Volume 16, issue 2.

"For a language to be "close to the metal," it must provide an abstract machine that maps easily to the abstractions exposed by the target platform. It's easy to argue that C was a low-level language for the PDP-11.
...
it is possible to make C code run quickly but only by spending thousands of person-years building a sufficiently smart compiler—and even then, only if you violate some of the language rules. Compiler writers let C programmers pretend that they are writing code that is "close to the metal" but must then generate machine code that has very different behavior if they want C programmers to keep believing that they are using a fast language."

Includes a discussion of various ways in which modern processors break the C abstract machine, as well as some interesting speculation on what a "non-C processor" might look like. The latter leads to thinking about what a low-level language for such a processor should look like.

People of Programming Languages Interviews

There is a growing set of fascinating interviews with PL folks at People of Programming Languages.

The APL Idiom List

Via HN: The APL Idiom List – Alan Perlis, Spencer Rubager (1977)

Co-hygiene and quantum gravity

Co-hygiene and quantum gravity. Some light weekend reading by John Shutt.

The post starts with a dazzling proposition:

Gravity corresponds to pure function-application, and the other fundamental forces correspond to side-effects. ... quantum non-locality ("spooky action at a distance") is part of the analog to side-effects ...

I can't do it justice here, so if you're interested in John's fascinating take on the relationship between lambda calculus and quantum physics, hop on over!

Jean Sammet, Co-Designer of a Pioneering Computer Language, Dies at 89

Obituary from NY Times.

Jean Sammet, Co-Designer of a Pioneering Computer Language, Dies at 89
Jean E. Sammet, an early software engineer and a designer of COBOL, a programming language that brought computing into the business mainstream, died on May 20 in Maryland. She was 89.

....

Grace Hopper, a computer pioneer at Sperry Rand in the late 1950s, led the effort to bring computer makers together to collaborate on the new programming language. Ms. Hopper is often called the “mother of COBOL,” but she was not one of the six people, including Ms. Sammet, who designed the language — a fact Ms. Sammet rarely failed to point out. (Ms. Sammet worked for Sylvania Electric at the time.)

“I yield to no one in my admiration for Grace,” she said. “But she was not the mother, creator or developer of COBOL.”

Joe Armstrong Interviews Alan Kay

Youtube video (via HN)

By far not the best presentation of Kay's ideas but surely a must watch for fans. Otherwise, skip until the last third of the interview which might add to what most people here already know.

It is interesting that in this talk Kay rather explicitly talks about programming languages as abstraction layers. He also mentions some specifics that may not be as well known as others, yet played a role in his trajectory, such as META.

I fully sympathize with his irritation with the lack of attention to and appreciation of fundamental concepts and theoretical frameworks in CS. On the other hand, I find his allusions to biology unconvincing.
An oh, he is certainly right about Minsky's book (my first introduction to theoretical CS) and in his deep appreciation of John McCarthy.

C is Manly, Python is for “n00bs”: How False Stereotypes Turn Into Technical “Truths”

Jean Yang & Ari Rabkin C is Manly, Python is for “n00bs”: How False Stereotypes Turn Into Technical “Truths”, Model-View-Culture, January 2015.

This is a bit of a change of pace from the usual technically-focused content on LtU, but it seemed like something that might be of interest to LtUers nonetheless. Yang and Rabkin discuss the cultural baggage that comes along with a variety of languages, and the impact it has on how those languages are perceived and used.

"These preconceived biases arise because programming languages are as much social constructs as they are technical ones. A programming language, like a spoken language, is defined not just by syntax and semantics, but also by the people who use it and what they have written. Research shows that the community and libraries, rather than the technical features, are most important in determining the languages people choose. Scientists, for instance, use Python for the good libraries for scientific computing."

There are probably some interesting clues to how and why some languages are adopted while others fall into obscurity (a question that has come up here before). Also, the article includes references to a study conducted by Rabkin and LtU's own Leo Meyerovich.

BWK on "How to succeed in language design without really trying"

A talk by Brian Kernighan at The University of Nottingham.

Describes all the usual suspects: AWK, EQN, PIC. Even AMPL. I was wondering which languages he had in mind when he mentioned that some of his creations were total flops. I'd love to learn from those!

The talk is a fun way to spend an hour, and the audio would be good for commuters. For real aficionados I would recommend reading Jon Bentley's articles on the design of these languages (as well as CHEM and others) instead.

Ancient use of generators

Guido van Rossum reminisces a bit about early discussions of generators in the Python community (read the other messages in the thread as well). I think we talked about the articles he mentions way back when. Earlier still, and beyond the discussion by Guido here, was Icon, a clever little language that I have a soft spot for. i don't think we ever fully assessed its influence on Python and other languages.

XML feed