musings of a Lispnik

Daniel Janus's blog

ECLM 2008

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What is there left for me to do in this life?
Did I achieve what I had set in my sights?
Am I a happy man, or is this sinking sand?
Was it all worth it?—-was it all worth it?
      —– Queen

Gusts of moderate wind are blowing at my face through the open window of a train from Amsterdam to Warsaw as I write these words. The last buildings of Amsterdam have vanished a while ago, giving ground to the damp, low countryside of the Netherlands —– not quite fascinating sight to be watching —– so I decided to fire up my laptop and write down some impressions while they are sharp and vivid —– impressions from the European Common Lisp Meeting that was held in Amsterdam yesterday.

I was there with Maciek and Richard. Amsterdam did not receive us warmly, pouring some mild yet cold rain on us, but our hosts —– Lispniks from the Hague, Gabriele and Victor from Streamtech —– turned out to be really nice guys. I’m not going to go into a very detailed description of the social aspects of our trip, instead focusing on the conference itself. And that is definitely a topic worth talking about for a long time.

The first man to speak was Jeremy Jones of Clozure Associates, talking about InspireData and how they did it in Lisp. Although they also seem to be the people behind Clozure CL the implementation of Common Lisp, InspireData, the product their presentation was about, seems to have been written in LispWorks. It is a quite interesting application for browsing datasets in many interesting ways and draw conclusions for them. Jeremy started off with a demonstration presenting the key ideas of InspireData and what it can do, and this almost instantly hooked the attention of most of the gathered Lispers; mine, at least, definitely. First off, it seems to be quite a nice success story of a real-world application of Lisp, well worth learning about and mentioning where it deserves a mention. Second, one of its great features shown by the demo is that one can copy HTML tables from a Web browser and paste them as InspireData datasets. Given that Poliqarp now has statistical features and can export its data to HTML, I wonder whether it is possible to couple it with InspireData to interactively explore linguistic material in an absorbing way. That’s certainly a topic worthy of further research.

And last but not least, Jeremy outlined the points they did wrong and those they got right. Among those latter were two letters that now constitute a huge part of my professional life: QA. He just couldn’t emphasize enough how crucial the fact that they had a serious quality assurance process from the very beginning proved to yield the final quality of the product. That’s the lesson I’m now quickly learning. When I learned that InspireData was mostly tested by hand by a skilled QA team, I felt somewhat proud of being able to automate large parts of the process at Sentivision. I’m very curious where this path will lead me to. Let’s hope for the best!

The next speaker was Nicolas Neuss of University of Karlsruhe, talking about Femlisp, a framework for solving partial differential equations in Common Lisp. I have little to say about this one, since I lack the mathematical background needed to fully comprehend and appreciate the topic; it’s just not my kettle of fish. Undoubtedly, though, Femlisp seems to be filling its niche in a neat way, as the demonstrations showed.

After a coffee break, Stefan Richter came up with the one presentation that I’ve been looking forward to the most; that of using Common Lisp for large, scalable Internet systems. After all the talks were over, Maciek dubbed it a “very nice anti-FUD presentation” and I could not agree more. I didn’t learn many new things from it, but the author clearly knows how to attempt to convince non-Lispers to try out Lisp. The talk started off with outlining the typical designs of Web apps and portals, starting with simple one-server scenarios that don’t scale well and progressing in the direction of more scalable and extensible ones. Stefan then pointed out that in some mainstream languages like Java there exists a mature and proven infrastructure for employing such designs. And then came the key point —– that this is the case also for Common Lisp! All the necessary tools are there, ready to use Right Now and free for the most part; they’re just not as mature in some cases. This is not much of a problem, though, given the incremental nature of Lisp development: any problem at hand is typically fixable much faster than in case of other languages. The only weird thing was that the author advocated using continuation-based Web frameworks (such as Weblocks or UnCommon Web) just a couple of minutes after discouraging using sticky sessions.

Next came Killian Sprotte with a speech about PWGL, the program for computer-aided music composing. I have very mixed feelings about it. Notice that I didn’t use the word “presentation” —– there was no presentation at all. Yes, that’s right. The speaker was just talking and showing off various things in the musical engine. Now, having no presentation accompanying the talk is not necessarily a bad thing in itself; but without one, it’s a little harder to draw attention of the audience and a whole lot easier to deliver a chaotic talk instead of a cleanly-structured and well-organized one. Such was the case with this speech. Some features were shown, but with a fair amount of obscurity and boredom thrown in, leaving me with a rather low overall impression.

As for PWGL itself, some of the ideas employed in it seem a bit peculiar (for want of a better word) to me. As befits a Lisp program, it is an extensible utility that actually allows users to program music just as one programs software. But the way that programming is done… well, think of a graphical editor for Lisp programs. An editor in which to write, say, a factorial function, you right-click an initially blank sheet, select defun from a pop-up with a complicated set of menus and submenus… and kaboom! up comes a box divided into several sub-boxes. They correspond to —– what else they could? —– the name of the function, list of arguments, and a body. You can draw boxes representing computations, drag them around and link them with arrows — this is supposed to build complicated expressions out of simpler ones. And there is a huge library of musical tools, all available for the convenience of a programmer. Or, should I say, a composer.

Sounds cool? Maybe —– for a newbie. I can’t really say. As someone who has high experience with Lisp and programming in general, I can only speak for myself. And for me all this click-and-drag-programming seems to be an unnecessarily tedious, obscure and error-prone way of doing things. Stuff like score editors, chord editors or various transformations is admittedly cool, but for lower-level matters the kind of visualization PWGL offers (and it obviously has its rough edges) seems to get in the way rather than staying out of it. But perhaps that’s just me?

By the time the fourth talk ended, most Lispers were already hungry, so a lunch break followed. I talked to some guy (I don’t remember his name, alas) who’s working on porting Clozure CL to 64-bit Windows. This is great news —– when the port’s complete, it has high chances of becoming the free Common Lisp implementation of choice for many Windows Lisp hackers.

Juan José García-Ripoll then talked about ECL, another CL implementation that is characterized by a fairly small memory and disk footprint, while still managing to achieve decent performance (via compilation to C) and good standard compliance. It was good to see that ECL is still quite alive and getting better and better with each release. Just for the heck of it, I attempted in the evening to reproduce the problem I had with ECL a while ago on a fresh CVS checkout. I managed to reproduce it (for the curious, it was an issue with ECL failing to build after having been configured with the option --disable-shared). So I reported the bug to Juan, and he promised to look into it within the next days. And I must say that reporting bugs IRL to open source projects’ maintainers is a very nice experience. :–)

And then came a really big surprise, and I mean a nice surprise. It took the form of Kristofer Kvello of Selvaag, a Norwegian-based house-building company, and his presentation on House Designer, a Common Lisp program for aiding in designing residences, as the name suggests. Yet another example of a success story in an area CL can really excel at. Basically, what House Designer can do is that you give it a sketch, containing a rough description of the shape of a flat or residence and layout of rooms, and out comes a very detailed project with all sorts of bells and whistles: the program automatically figures out what the number of windows should be and where they should be located, the number and location of electric outlets, the optimal types of walls, layout of water installation and what not. It’s transfixing when you think of the sheer amount of tedious labour it automates, taking into account all of the professional knowledge about designing houses accumulated over years, some parts of which a human can easily omit. And it’s been Lisp all the lifetime of this project, and it’s Lisp all the way down (except for the GUI in Java)! Very, very impressive!

Marc Battyani’s talk about programming FPGAs in Lisp probably should not have been stacked so late in the venue. I mean, the topic seems to be quite interesting (though a bit low-level for my interests), but there was something about Marc’s way of talking and showing things that sent me off dozing almost instantaneously. I’d been a bit tired after the many hours of sitting and listening to speeches, especially after having woken up at six o’clock, and so I somewhat regret missing large parts of the talk. It’s nice to know, though, that it is possible to do such things with Lisp. Seems to have a high hack value, as in: “Why do it this way? Because we can!

And what better end of a conference could one ask for than a rant by Kenny Tilton? If you have only encountered Kenny on the Usenet (some of the crème de la crème of his postings is meticulously collected by Maciek) and think he’s one heck of a freak, you definitely should listen to him live. Here was another talk without slides —– just talking and demonstrating stuff —– but this time, it was a totally different thing. Kenny sure knows how to attract the attention of the audience and how not to let it loose throughout an hour’s worth of talking. And he changes topics with mastery, using digressions to a great effect to avoid the boredom slipping in, caused by bragging about one thing all the time. There was Cells in that talk, there was teaching of algebra, and there was high-speed driving through the streets of New York. I only hope someone has recorded that to put it online.

So, this was it. There was much talk afterwards, there was much beer, there was much socializing, there was much rejoicing. I saw a real XO-1 and played with it for a while, and boy, isn’t it cute! And then we all came back. And here I am, sitting at my desk in Warsaw (it’s the next day already; I really wish my laptop had a better battery), finishing up this longish blog entry and asking myself: was this 50 euro well spent?

Yes, it was a worthwhile experience, hahhahahahahhaaaa!
(evil chuckle à la Kenny)
It was worth it!