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C*R and language design
- To: lisp-forum at MIT-MC
- Subject: C*R and language design
- From: Guy.Steele at CMU-10A
- Date: Sun ,6 Dec 81 20:08:00 EDT
JKF doesn't want to impose prejudices on me by not providing C*R in Franz
LISP. It seems to me that many other prejudices are inflicted in
many other forms: the absence of FORMAT and DEFSTRUCT, the incompatibility
of the reader, and others. These all cramp my style in one way or another,
the first-mentioned being the most annoying.
It seems to me that an implementor will always necessarily impose
constraints on a language, willy-nilly, if only because he doesn't have
time or other resources to implement them all at once. (Thus it is not
entirely reasonable to blame Franz LISP for the 1.0E99 problem. One
could argue that if the C libraries are badly designed or contain
errors, then they should have not been used, but instead reimplemented
or (better yet) fixed. This is not always economically feasible,
however, and presumably that was the case here.) The language will only
have, at any given point in time, that which the implementor has had
the resources (and taste) to install so far.
On the other hand, as JKF points out, once a feature is installed, it
can shaft a user badly to retract it, much more badly than never having
installed it in the first place.
It follows that implementors should choose their features carefully and
wisely, not only with respect to the order in which things are put in,
but also with respect to whether they should be put in at all.
Of course, hindsight is easier than foresight. Franz may be stuck with
the C*R thing, because of the retraction problem; but the painful
experience of many others seems to support the conclusion that it
should not be introduced. This experience occurs not immediately, but
after many years; it is a Trojan horse or time bomb. As KMP indicates,
there is no problem using it to write code; and indeed, it is
reasonable for the codewriter to expect consistency in the language.
However, the indiscriminate use of C*R eventually leads to chaotic and
unmaintainable code, with a severity on a par with the unrestrained and
indiscriminate use of GO. GO, like C*R, can be used wisely; but the
wise occasions are rarer than those where DO and friends (in the case
of GO) or DEFSTRUCT and friends (in the case of C*R) are far more
I think the very fact that JKF finds it necessary to describe CADDDAR
as "the fourth element of the first thing" -- a composite description --
rather than as some simple atomic notion indicates it is already too
large to appear in "polite" code. If that is how he thinks of it,
then that is how he should write it: (CADDDR (CAR X)). After all,
depending on the context there might be another, more meaningful parsing.
If I wanted the second element of the body of a lambda expression
from a form X = ((LAMBDA ...) ...), then (CADR (CDDR (CAR X))) would
be more suitable. Again I argue, the four-A/D instances approach the
upper limit of what can be recognized as a single chunk by the eye.
The more general question is whether consistency should be paramount
in language design, or occasionally subordinated to such other goals
as reliability, maintainability, detection of probable typographical errors,
and so on. Here is an example from the recent Common LISP deliberations.
The MacLISP mapping functions take a function and N lists, for N > 0,
where the function must accept N arguments. In my zeal for that kind of
consistency called "extending to boundary cases", I suggested that N
be allowed to be zero. This is perfectly well-defined. A mapping
function terminates when any of the lists runs out. With no lists, it
can never terminate. Therefore (MAPC #'(LAMBDA () ...)) would be an
idiom for (DO-FOREVER ...).
This is all perfectly elegant and consistent, and it was roundly voted down.
Why? Because (a) the case of MAP of zero lists is much more likely
to occur by typographical accident than by intention; (b) it is not
really consistent because with zero lists MAP does something which is
conceptually very *different* from a pragmatic standpoint, despite the
mathematical elegance; (c) because of (b), it is undesirable for
reasons of maintainability even to suggest to the programmer that MAP
could be abused in this way, and therefore in consideration of (a)
the entire feature is best omitted from the language.
A mild analogy arises here with the function CR. Why was the C...R hack
not extended to zero as well as to infinity? Perhaps it was merely
oversight, but I venture that CADADADADADDAR is somehow "like" or "in the
same spirit as" CAR, whereas CR somehow is less so, since it doesn't
select (although it is indeed the limiting case of selection, selecting
I do not consider consistency to be paramount. Others no doubt
will disagree. The mathematician in me sighed at the rejection
of MAP of zero lists. The programmer in me was relieved that such
an odd beast would likely not appear in future Common LISP code.