Summer 2010 reading

“Let over Lambda – 50 Years of Lisp” by Doug Hoyte

This one had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost a year.

“Let Over Lambda is one of the most hardcore computer programming books out there. Starting with the fundamentals, it describes the most advanced features of the most advanced language: COMMON LISP. The point of this book is to expose you to ideas that you might otherwise never be exposed to.”

and

“Macros are what make lisp the greatest programming language in the world.”

and

“If you are looking for a dry coding manual that re-hashes common-sense techniques in whatever langue du jour, this book is not for you. This book is about pushing the boundaries of what we know about programming.”

“Only the top percentile of programmers use Lisp and if you can understand this book you are in the top percentile of Lisp programmers.”

I’m sure that the author has received his fair share of derision for making statements like these and for his clear and well researched content showing how Lisp is the greatest programming language ever invented. It may come off as conceited to some, but he is right. He’s also in good company with the greatest computer scientists ever known who have also made similarly bold statements regarding Lisp. This style is lacking in most technical writing today, there has been too much coddling and dilution in programming texts over the last decade. The fact is that unless you have mastered this language then you are in no position to even begin disussing this topic. This book, much like any of the posts on this site, is not for convincing the majority of Blub programmers that they should be using Lisp but to encourage a few that have an appreciation for the world’s greatest programming language to look even deeper.

Here’s a quote from the first chapter for those that might have known for a long while that there is more to programming than the hype of formal object systems that we’ve all been subjected to for the past few decades :

“Object systems are a formalisation of a subset of let and lambda combinations, sometimes with gimmicks like inheritance bolted on. Because of this, Lisp programmers often don’t think in terms of classes and objects. Let and lambda are fundamental; objects and classes are derivatives. As Steele says, the ‘object’ need not be a primitive notion in programming languages. Once assignable value cells and good old lambda expressions are available, object systems are, at best, occasionally useful abstractions and, at worst, special-case and redundant.”

Buy the book. Programming language choice matters.

“Introduction to Metamathematics” by Stephen Cole Kleene

Not much more needs to be said about this one.

“The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature” by Steven Pinker

From the Washington Post :

“Language comes so naturally to us that it’s easy to believe there’s some sort of intrinsic logic connecting the thing and its name, the signifier and the signified. In one of Plato’s dialogues, a character named Cratylus argues that “a power more than human gave things their first names.”

But Cratylus was wrong. Human language is an emanation of the human mind. A thing doesn’t care what we call it. Words and their rules don’t tell us about the world; they tell us about ourselves.

That’s the simple premise behind Steven Pinker’s latest work of popular science. According to the Harvard psychologist, people are “verbivores, a species that lives on words.” If you want to understand how the brain works, how it thinks about space and causation and time, how it processes emotions and engages in social interactions, then you need to plunge “down the rabbit hole” of language. The quirks of our sentences are merely a portal to the mind.

In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker pitches himself as the broker of a scientific compromise between “linguistic determinism” and “extreme nativism.” The linguistic determinists argue that language is a prison for thought. The words we know define our knowledge of the world. Because Eskimos have more nouns for snow, they are able to perceive distinctions in snow that English speakers cannot. While Pinker deftly discredits extreme versions of this hypothesis, he admits that “boring versions” of linguistic determinism are probably accurate. It shouldn’t be too surprising that our choice of words can frame events, or that our vocabulary reflects the kinds of things we encounter in our daily life. (Why do Eskimos have so many words for snow? Because they are always surrounded by snow.) The language we learn as children might not determine our thoughts, but it certainly influences them.

Extreme nativism, on the other hand, argues that all of our mental concepts — the 50,000 or so words in the typical vocabulary — are innate. We are born knowing about carburetors and doorknobs and iPods. This bizarre theory, most closely identified with the philosopher Jerry Fodor, begins with the assumption that the meaning of words cannot be dissected into more basic parts. A doorknob is a doorknob is a doorknob. It only takes Pinker a few pages to prove the obvious, which is that each word is not an indivisible unit. The mind isn’t a blank slate, but it isn’t an overstuffed filing cabinet either.

So what is Pinker’s solution? He advocates the middle ground of “conceptual semantics,” in which the meaning of our words depends on an underlying framework of basic cognitive concepts. (As Pinker admits, he owes a big debt to Kant.) The tenses of verbs, for example, are shaped by our innate sense of time. Nouns are constrained by our intuitive notions about matter, so that we naturally parcel things into two different categories, objects and substances (pebbles versus applesauce, for example, or, as Pinker puts it, “hunks and goo”). Each material category comes with a slightly different set of grammatical rules. By looking at language from the perspective of our thoughts, Pinker demonstrates that many seemingly arbitrary aspects of speech, like that hunk and goo distinction, aren’t arbitrary at all: They are byproducts of our evolved mental machinery.

Pinker tries hard to make this tour of linguistic theory as readable as possible. He uses the f-word to explore the topic of transitive and intransitive verbs. He clarifies indirect speech by examining a scene from “Tootsie,” and Lenny Bruce makes so many appearances that he should be granted a posthumous linguistic degree. But profanity from Lenny Bruce can’t always compensate for the cryptic vocabulary and long list of competing ‘isms. Sometimes, the payoff can be disappointing. After a long chapter on curse words — this book deserves an “explicit content” warning — Pinker ends with the banal conclusion that swearing is “connected with negative emotion.” I don’t need conceptual semantics to tell me that.

The Stuff of Thought concludes with an optimistic gloss on the power of language to lead us out of the Platonic cave, so that we can “transcend our cognitive and emotional limitations.” It’s a nice try at a happy ending, but I don’t buy it. The Stuff of Thought, after all, is really about the limits of language, the way our prose and poetry are bound by innate constraints we can’t even comprehend. Flaubert was right: “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *