SICP distilled

If you’re still thinking about reading SICP, here’s an article, written by Abelson and Sussman shortly after publishing the first edition of the book, that may dispel your doubts: Lisp: A language for stratified design. It’s a quick distillation of some of the central themes discussed at length in SICP, with accompanying code. Some of them may seem old hat these days (the article was published in 1987), but they’re as relevant as they were back in the day, and it’s difficult to find them exposed in as good (let alone a better) a way. Its dozen pages are full of quotable pearls of wisdom. For instance, right from the start:

Just as every day thoughts are expressed in natural language, and formal deductions are expressed in mathematical language, methodological thoughts are expressed in programming languages. A programming language is a method for communicating methods, not just a means for getting a computer to perform operations–programs are written for people to read as much as they are written for machines to execute.

and later on

[…]if a methodology is to be robust, it must have more generality than is needed for the particular application. The means for combining the parts must allow for after-the-fact changes in the design plan as bugs are discovered and as requirements change. It must be easy to substitute parts for one another and to vary the arrangement by which parts are combined

The examples include Henderson’s picture language, which motivates a discussion of metalinguistic abstraction (or DSLs, as rediscovered these days):

Part of the wonder of computation is that we have the freedom to change the framework by which the descriptions of processes are combined. If we can precisely describe a system in any well-defined notation, then we can build an interpreter to executed programs expressed in the new notation, or we can build a compiler to translate programs expressed in the new notation into any other programming language.

There’s also a synopsis of the implementation, in Scheme, of a rule language geared at simplifying algebraic expressions, and the accompanying interpreter. The conclusion is that you want to write languages and interpreters, in a variety of paradigms; and that you probably want to write them using Lisp while sitting in greenhouses:

The truth is that Lisp is not the right language for any particular problem. Rather, Lisp encourages one to attack a new problem by implementing new languages tailored to that problem. Such a language might embody an alternative computational paradigm […] A linguistic approach to design is an essential aspect not only of programming but of engineering design in general. Perhaps that is why Lisp […] still seems new and adaptable, and continues to accommodate current ideas about programming methodology.

As true today as it was twenty odd years ago, if you ask me.

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