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The following is in response to Jim Miller's message about portability,
which raises an important question I've been hoping to repress. But Freud
tells us that the repressed always returns.
Date: Sat, 31 May 86 21:32:00 EDT
From: Jonathan A Rees <JAR%MX.LCS.MIT.EDU at MC.LCS.MIT.EDU>
To: GJC%MX.LCS.MIT.EDU at MC.LCS.MIT.EDU
cc: JAR at MX.LCS.MIT.EDU
Re: revised^n report
In-reply-to: Msg of Sat 31 May 86 13:16:32 EDT from George J. Carrette <GJC%MX.LCS.MIT.EDU at MC.LCS.MIT.EDU>
Date: Sat, 31 May 86 13:16:32 EDT
From: George J. Carrette <GJC%MX.LCS.MIT.EDU at MC.LCS.MIT.EDU>
To: JAR%MX.LCS.MIT.EDU at MC.LCS.MIT.EDU
One should be able to show that clever underspecification in
a language spec is eventually a losing proposition. Example:
in CL (make-array 3) => #(0 0 0) (e.g. in VAX-NIL) or #(NIL NIL NIL)
in at least the LISPM environments I'm aware of. The idea
is to make the guy say (make-array <x> :initial-element <value>) if
he is depending on the initial value. Supposed to be a big efficiency
win. (now, I've just spent a few hours tracking down a bug in the
DOE-MACSYMA plot package that had to do with the initial element of
an array screw). A few days ago you had a note to the CL list about
a similar underspecification screw in defstruct.
Well, revised^n has its share of clever underspecification too.
But, is this really a win in a language spec? Or is it just a way
of showing (forcing down everybodies neck...) how much the
language designers know about different implementation tricks?
You dont see this kind of stuff in other language specs.
Back to the array example. Is it reasonable to argue that in lisp
there are good natural default values? The empty list as default
for an array? I think it is. On the other hand, if you know that
there might be machine dependancies in these defaults, (in fact it
is usually operating system dependancies. VMS goes to some trouble to
make sure pages allocated to users are filled with zero's)
then why not have:
(make-array 10 :initial-element *:system-prefered-initial-array-element).
I argue that clever underspecifications for the purpose of elicidating
implementation tricks know by the language designers causes:
* "dating" of the language.
* frustration for users of the language
* eventual lack of portability.
This is all too true. I think that if I were designing another language
now I would try to get rid of all underspecifications, since they lead
to so much confusion. I hope that as many underspecifications as
possible will disappear from Common Lisp.
Let me try to figure out why I think it's OK for Scheme to be
underspecified and not for Common Lisp to be underspecified. Scheme's
underspecifications don't generally have anything to do with
"implemetation tricks." Political expediency demands that the report
leave a lot of room for local variation. We wouldn't be able to get
agreement on all these little things. Some differences between versions
result from differing implementation demands, but mostly it's that the
different groups have incompatible ideologies, so each group would have
its own idea of what the "right" thing is for each situation.
The goals of Revised^n Scheme differ from those of Common Lisp, I think.
Mostly we want to be able to read each others' code when it appears in
the literature, and relieve people from the pain of there being
incompatible languages all calling themselves "scheme". Portability is
only a secondary consideration, and we're not so concerned that all
non-erroneous programs should port, only that "well-written" programs
should port. I think there's the feeling that people who write in
Scheme don't just play around until their code just happens to work
(often the only programming technique available in some systems which
will remain nameless) -- they actually write "clean" code which observes
data abstractions and doesn't depend on things it shouldn't depend on
(like the initial value of vector components). So while it's very easy
to write unportable code, people who do so have somehow missed the
point, and probably ought to be programming in CLU or Ada (or the
language I have yet to design?) instead.
If we really want to aim for airtight portability then we've got to start
making a lot of changes.