quinta-feira, outubro 23, 2008

Lisp50

Copiado do blog lispy. Gostei em especial da comparação dos puritanos com os comunistas e do motivo dos judeus serem inteligentes.

Lisp50 Notes part I: JohnL Recalls How Sussman Revealed the Nature of Intelligence…

This was a totally different crowd than what I saw at the DSM workshop. There were lots more Americans here. You had a mix of bearded Lisp Hackers, a few not-yet-middle-aged guys who were running significant projects, and then some younger guys that were either still in college or were not out for very long.

To understand the conference, you’ve got to understand the backdrop. I’d just sat through a day of presentations that were mostly focused on Java, Eclipse, and UML diagrams. The “last word” of the day was from a Small Talk programmer who said that the competing tools in his area of work had not improved upon the solutions that he’d had 15 years ago or so. Educators attending the symposium were talking over lunch about how they couldn’t find good examples for applying some of the concepts they were teaching. Anybody I met, I would say to them: “I can’t believe I’m going to see John McCarthy and Alan Kay tomorrow!” This didn’t mean anything really to most people I tried to chat with. Collectively, the net effect of the preceding day was to produce a mild sensation of frustration, disappointment, and alienation.

I was nearly late for the opening session of Lisp50. I rushed in just barely in the nick of time… only to find that Lisp50 was starting ten minutes late or so. There was no posting of the schedule anywhere that I saw while the workshop I was in the previous day had a copy of the schedule at every seat and even a booklet of all the papers to be presented. Add to this the fact that many of the Lisp speakers had some sort of trouble with their Power Point slide and that there was no slot on the schedule for a break for an evening meal… and it just appeared that collectively the Lisp community was doing everything it could to meet its own stereotypical expectations!

So the first “talk” was Guy Steel and Richard Gabriel re-enacting a talk they gave back in 1993. This was amusing in places– the audience laughed in most of the same places as the 1993 audience did– but it was a little frustrating. I mean, we have Steel and Gabriel on stage… and they’re reading. I want to know what they have to say about right now. I want them to preach to the choir. I want them explain how to finally win the “language wars” and why it matters. Something. Anything! Instead we get a play by play of how Lisp communities evolved and coagulated in the seventies and eighties. The net effect of this was to leave the impression that we’re reduced to the significance level of, say, a confederate civil-war reenactor. The battle is over. We lost. There’s nothing left but pin down the final details of the history of our side so we can bury it all. Yes, that’s it… that’s is exactly. I felt like I was at a funeral! This “talk” set a tone that our proceedings were going to be more about nostalgia than anything else. (I’m not saying this wasn’t interesting… I’m just talking about the tone here given the context. Maybe I was the only one the felt this way, but I think the general pulse of the crowd was mildly uncomfortable because of these sorts of unspoken memes floating around in our collective unconsciousness.)

JohnL White was the next speaker. I simply cannot do justice to what he said and what he represents. Suffice it to say, if all you know about Lisp is some stuff you read in a Paul Graham essay and a few textbooks here and there… then you really don’t know anything. This man has a tremendous intellect… and has had a hand in nearly everything as far as Lisp is concerned. (Did I see that right on the slide of specific language contributions that he was responsible for defun? I wish I had that slide….) Fifty years from now, I’m going to be telling people, “I saw JohnL at the Lisp50 conference.” I cannot do justice to this guy’s presentation, so here’s just a few tidbits:

* He used several Alan Perlis quotes to set the tone. These were all great quotes; the same ones from SICP that inspire me so much. JohnL really misses Perlis.

* He mentioned something about dealing with the archetypal “bipolar Lisp programmer” types on the job and exclaimed, “how can you supervise a Lisp guy?! You just take what he does…!”

* JohnL was responsible for hiring Stallman at the MIT AI Lab. Stallman has contested this and claimed that some random administrator was responsible. JohnL explained that the administrator’s don’t decide anything– the way you get in is by making friends with someone in the lab.

* JohnL encouraged us all to go to the International Lisp conference. “Lisp is the back forty for a lot of people,” he said. (That is, you do whatever you need to do when you work for the master, but if the work is for yourself, a lot of people tend to do it in Lisp.)

JohnL spoke about growing up in the Ozarks. He talked about how his parents influenced him intellectually and genetically. He talked about how racist everyone was there and how he took the slurs personally somehow…. He talked about how he ended hanging out with Jews and how he sort of became, as it were, an “honorary Jew” because they figured if he was so smart, he must be a Jew, too. (I’m trying not to mangle this too badly.) So Sussman asks him one day, “Why are Jews so smart?” Now, JohnL was pained at recounting the answer he gave. He confessed to having picked up on some the racism that was endemic to the Ozarks. “Uh… must be their genes,” he’d said back then. Sussman was very irritated at this answer. “WRONG,” he said, “it’s the LAW!”

I have no idea how many people “got” this. JohnL wasn’t too sure either. The default assumption is that we’re all rabid libertarians and atheists, I suppose. JohnL explained that Sussman was referring to the Torah… the Jewish scriptures. Sussman argued that because Jewish fathers are required to teach their children how to read and write– so they could understand the Law– that this somehow gave them a fantastic intellectual foundation. JohnL referred to a talk that Sussman gave somewhere– it was extemporaneous, but better than most prepared talks. (I want to see this talk if anyone finds a recording!) JohnL was totally blown away by this talk… the best thing he’d ever heard. But in it, Sussman argued that intelligence was transmittable and improvable. Somehow, if you can (legitimately) learn more words, you expand your ability to think. This tied into symbolic thinking being about giving names to things. (This reminds me of that strange story in Genesis about Adam naming the animals in the garden of Eden.) Sussman said, “great ideas can be understood by an ordinary person.”

(That’s a very encouraging thought. I suppose there’s hope even for us “average developers.” This is all the more reason to continue learning a new programming language every year or so. It kind of gives one a little more respect for all of those among the USA’s founding fathers that could read and write Latin, Greek, and Hebrew….)

JohnL had spoken earlier about how he’d gotten a great prep-school type education even though he grew up out in the middle of nowhere in the Ozarks. Farming and industry were all dead there, but… they still had this heritage of education. JohnL pointed out how, for us Americans, this traces back to the Puritans. The fundamental concept of our form of government is that man’s government cannot work. That’s why you have all of those checks and balances– those Puritan-types did not trust man to get things right! (Note to self: compare and contrast this with socialism sometime. Try not to use the word “hubris” gratuitously.) Our education was meant to provide a check on our untrustworthy governmental institutions– but just look at how things are developing in, say, the California public schools. Things do not look good; we’ve lost something….

That’s the gist of JohnL’s talk based just on my hasty and imperfect notes. (That last “tidbit” sort of raged out of control there….) Please feel free to post corrections and clarifications if you feel they are required. I didn’t get the feel that he was a raving evangelical or anything, but I was surprised by the philosophical bent to his talk. But what do you expect from a guy that cuts off his tie with a pair of pruning shears…!