getting back to the fun in computer programming

First, a few quotes:

A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer’s idea of a spirit. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all. However, it is very real. It can perform intellectual work. It can answer questions. It can affect the world by disbursing money at a bank or by controlling a robot arm in a factory. The programs we use to conjure processes are like a sorcerer’s spells. They are carefully composed from symbolic expressions in arcane and esoteric programming languages that prescribe the tasks we want our processes to perform.

Fortunately, learning to program is considerably less dangerous than learning sorcery, because the spirits we deal with are conveniently contained in a secure way. Real-world programming, however, requires care, expertise, and wisdom. A small bug in a computer-aided design program, for example, can lead to the catastrophic collapse of an airplane or a dam or the self-destruction of an industrial robot.

If Lisp is not a mainstream language, why are we using it as the framework for our discussion of programming? Because the language possesses unique features that make it an excellent medium for studying important programming constructs and data structures and for relating them to the linguistic features that support them. The most significant of these features is the fact that Lisp descriptions of processes, called procedures, can themselves be represented and manipulated as Lisp data. The importance of this is that there are powerful program-design techniques that rely on the ability to blur the traditional distinction between “passive” data and “active” processes. As we shall discover, Lisp’s flexibility in handling procedures as data makes it one of the most convenient languages in existence for exploring these techniques.

Above and beyond these considerations, programming in Lisp is great fun.

Those of us who already know what I am talking about, wish me luck! Those of us who don’t, here’s a four-letter word for you: SICP.

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