Interview with Clojure author

Simple-talk has an interview with Rich Hickey, author of the programming language Clojure (pronounced “closure”). Clojure is a dialect of Lisp designed to run on top of the Java Virtual Machine. The language is also being ported to the .NET framework as Clojure CLR.

Two things stood out to me in the interview: a comparison of Lisp with C++, and a discussion of complexity.

You’ll often hear a programmer argue that language X is better than language Y.  To support their argument, they’ll say they wrote a program in Y, then wrote it in X in less time. For example, someone might argue that Ruby is better than Python because they were able to rewrite their web site using Ruby in half the time it took to write the original Python version. Such arguments are weak because you can write anything faster the second time. The first implementation required analysis and design that the second implementation can reuse entirely or at least learn from.

Rich Hickey argues that he can develop programs in Lisp faster than in C++. He offers as support that he first wrote something in Lisp and then took three times longer to rewrite it in C++. This is just a personal anecdote, not a scientific study, but it carries more weight than the usual anecdote because he’s claiming the first language was more efficient than the second.

In his discussion of incidental complexity, complexity coming from ones tools rather than from the intrinsic complexity of the problem being solved, Hickey says

I think programmers have become inured to incidental complexity, in particular by confusing familiar or concise with simple. And when they encounter complexity, they consider it a challenge to overcome, rather than an obstacle to remove. Overcoming complexity isn’t work, it’s waste.

The phrase “confusing familiar or concise with simple” is insightful. I never appreciated the arguments about the complexity of C++ until I got a little distance from the language; C++ was so familiar I didn’t appreciate how complex it is until I had a break from writing it. Also, simple solutions are usually concise, but concise solutions may not be simple. I chuckle whenever I hear someone say a problem was simple to solve because they were able to solve it in one line — one long stream of entirely mysterious commands.

Thanks to Omar Gomez for pointing out the interview article.

Related posts:

I disagree with Linus Torvalds about C++

I heard about this note from Linus Torvalds from David Wolever yesterday. Here’s Torvald’s opinion of C++.

C++ is a horrible language. It’s made more horrible by the fact that a lot of substandard programmers use it, to the point where it’s much much easier to generate total and utter crap with it. Quite frankly, even if the choice of C were to do *nothing* but keep the C++ programmers out, that in itself would be a huge reason to use C.

Well, I’m nowhere near as talented a programmer as Linus Torvalds, but I totally disagree with him. If it’s easy to generate crap in a relatively high-level and type-safe language like C++, then it must be child’s play to generate crap in C. It’s not fair to compare world-class C programmers like Torvalds and his peers to average C++ programmers. Either compare the best with the best or compare the average with the average. Comparing the best with the best isn’t very interesting. I imagine gurus like Bjarne Stroustrup and Herb Sutter can write C++ as skillfully as Linus Torvalds writes C, though that is an almost pointless comparison. Comparing average programmers in each language is more important, and I don’t believe C would come out on top in such a comparison.

Torvalds talks about “STL and Boost and other total and utter crap.” A great deal of thought has gone into the STL and to Boost by some very smart people over the course of several years. Their work has been reviewed by countless peers. A typical C or C++ programmer simply will not write anything more efficient or more robust than the methods in these libraries if they decide to roll their own.

Torvalds goes on to say

In other words, the only way to do good, efficient, and system-level and portable C++ ends up to limit yourself to all the things that are basically available in C.

I’ve had the opposite experience. I’d say that anyone wanting to write a large C program ends up reinventing large parts of C++ and doing it poorly. The features added to C to form C++ were added for good reasons. For example, once you’ve allocated and de-allocated C structs a few times, you realize it would be good to have functions to do this allocation and de-allocation. You basically end up re-inventing C++ constructors and destructors. But you end up with something totally sui generis. There’s no compiler support for the conventions you’ve created. No one can read about your home-grown constructors and destructors in a book. And you probably have not thought about as many contingencies as the members of the C++ standards committee have thought of.

I disagree that writing projects in C keeps out inferior C++ programmers who are too lazy to write C. One could as easily argue the opposite, that C is for programmers too lazy to learn C++. Neither argument is fair, but I think there is at least as much validity to the latter as there is to the former. I think there may be a sort of bimodal distribution of C programmer talent: some of the best and some of the worst programmers use C but for different reasons.

I do not claim that C++ is perfect, but I’ve never had any desire to go back to C after I moved to C++ many years ago. I’ll grant that I’m not writing my own operating system, but neither are the vast majority of programmers. For my work, C++ is as low-level as I care to go.

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Has C++ jumped the shark?

Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of C++, wrote an article for Dr. Dobbs recently lamenting the decision to cut “concepts” from the upcoming revision of the C++ standard. His article left me with the feeling that C++ had jumped the shark.

The upcoming standard has been called “C++0x” based on the assumption (or at least the hope) that the standard would come out in the first decade of this century. But there will be no C++0x; now it will have to be C++1x. Part of the reason for removing concepts was to avoid pushing the release of the the standard out even further. Stroustrup says he expects concepts will be added to the standard in five years. How many people will care by the time the standard is finished?

I’ve written C++ for a long time and I still use C++ for some problems. I like the language, but it has gone about as far as it can go. It’s safe to say the language has essentially stopped evolving if new standards are only going to come out every decade or two.

I have great respect for the people working on the C++ standard committee. The design of C++ is an engineering marvel given its constraints. But if it takes such Herculean efforts to make changes, maybe it’s time to call the language finished.

I’m content with the current version of C++. If I used C++ for everything I do, maybe I’d be anxious for new features. But if something is hard to do in C++, I just don’t use C++. I don’t see a new version of C++ changing my decisions about what language to use for various tasks. If something is easier to do in Python than in C++ now, for example, that will probably still be the case when the new standard is implemented.

Update: The ISO committee approved the final draft of the C++ 2011 standard 25 March 2011.

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Two perspectives on the design of C++

Here are two complementary (but not entirely complimentary!) blog posts about C++.

Roshan James has a scathing article about C++. When asked to recommend books on C++, he replied that he doesn’t recommend C++. He explains how the best C++ books may be Scott Meyer’s series Effective C++ but argues that they should be called “Defective C++. ” He isn’t criticizing Scott Meyers, only the aspects of the C++ language that made it necessary for Scott Meyers to write such books. Effective C++ explains how to get around problems that don’t exist in more recent languages.

Bruce Eckel’s article The Positive Legacy of C++ and Java focused more on what C++ did well. C++ was designed to be backwardly compatible with C. Bjarne Stroustrup, original author  of C++, realized that the decision to be compatible with C would cause major difficulties, but he also thought (correctly) that without such compatibility no one would move over to the new language. Given this severe constraint, C++ has been remarkably well designed.

Update: Check out the C++ FQA site Alessandro Gentilini mentions in the comments. “FQA” is not a typo. It stands for Frequently Questioned Answers.

Troubleshooting C++ TR1 problem in Visual Studio 2008

Patrick Getzmann and I have been exchanging email about a problem he had using some sample code I’d written for working with regular expressions in C++. I wasn’t much help, but Patrick figured it out. I wanted to post his solution here in case someone else has the same problem.

His code would compile but not link. The compiler gave the error message “regex.obj : error LNK2019 …” His solution follows.

I have German Visual Studio installed. The Feature Pack is bundled with SP1 in the German Version. My Installation order was:

1. Visual Studio 2008
2. Visual Studio 2008 SP1 (including the Feature Pack)
3. Windows SDK for Windows Server 2008 and .NET Framework 3.5

But it should be (If one needs/wants the Server 2008 SDK):

1. Visual Studio 2008
2. Windows SDK for Windows Server 2008 and .NET Framework 3.5
3. Visual Studio 2008 SP1 (including the Feature Pack)

Otherwise reinstallation of SP1 helps.

The same problem would show up if you were using C++ TR1 random number generators. In a nutshell, try reinstalling SP1.

Functional programming in C++ with function objects

Here’s something I do all the time. I have a function of one variable and several parameters. I implement it as a function object in C++ so I can pass it on to code that does something with functions of one variable, such as integration or optimization. I’ll give a trivial example and then show the most recent real problem I’ve worked on.

Say I have a function f(x; a, b, c) = 1000a + 100b + 10c + x. In a sense this is simply a function of four variables. But the connotation of using a semicolon rather than a comma after the x is that I think of x as being a variable and I think of a, b, and c as parameters. So f is a function of one variable that depends on three constants. (A “parameter” is a “constant” that can change!)

I create a C++ function object with two methods. One method is a constructor that takes the function parameters as arguments and saves them to member variables. The other method is an overload of the parenthesis method. That’s what makes the class a function object. By overloading the parenthesis method, I can call an instance of the class as if it were a function. Here’s some code.

class FunctionObject
{
public:
	FunctionObject(double a, double b, double c)
	{
		m_a = a;
		m_b = b;
		m_c = c;
	}

	double operator()(double x) const
	{
		return 1000*m_a + 100*m_b + 10*m_c + x;
	}

private:
	double m_a;
	double m_b;
	double m_c;
};

So maybe I instantiate an instance of this function object and pass it to a function that finds the maximum value over an interval [a, b]. The code might look like this.

FunctionObject f(3, 1, 4);
double maximum = Maximize(f, a, b);

Here’s a more realistic example. A few days ago I needed to solve this problem. Given user input parameters λ, σ, n, and ξ, find b such that the following holds.

int_0^1 frac{1}{sqrt{2}nu} Phileft(frac{lambda sqrt{2nu n}}{sqrt{sigma^2(1 - 2nu) + bn}}right) , dnu = xi

The function Φ above is the CDF of a standard normal random variable, defined here.

To solve this problem, I wrote a function object to evaluate the left side of the equation above. It takes λ, σ, and n as constructor arguments and takes b as an argument to operator(). Then I passed the function object to a root-finding method to solve for the value of b that makes the function value equal ξ. But my function is defined in terms of an integral, so I needed to write another function object first that returns the integrand. Then I pass that function object to this numerical integration routine.  So I had to write two function objects to solve this problem.

There are several advantages to function objects over functions. For example, I would typically do parameter validation in the constructor. Quite often I also do some expensive calculations in the constructor and cache the results so that each call to operator() is then more efficient. Maybe I want to keep track of how often the function is called, so I put in some sort of odometer method that increments a counter with each call.

Unfortunately there’s a fair amount of code to write in order to implement even the simplest function. This effort hardly matters in production code; so many other things take more time. But it is annoying when doing some quick exploration. The next post shows how this can be done much easier in Python. The Python approach would be much easier for small problems, but it doesn’t have the advantages mentioned above such as caching expensive calculations in a constructor.

Computing the inverse of the normal CDF

Someone asked me this week for C++ code to compute the inverse of the normal (Gaussian) distribution function. The code I usually use isn’t convenient to give away because it’s part of a large library, so I wrote a stand-alone function using an approximation out of Abramowitz and Stegun (A&S). There are a couple things A&S takes for granted, so I decided to write up the code in the spirit of a literate program to explain the details. The code is compact and portable. It isn’t as fast as possible nor as accurate as possible, but it’s good enough for many purposes.

A literate program to compute the inverse of the normal CDF

Free C# book

Charles Petzold is a highly respected author in Windows programming circles. For years, his book was THE reference for Win32 API programming. I knew he had since written several books on .NET programming but I didn’t realize until I listened to an interview with Petzold that he has a .NET book that he gives away on his web site.

.NET Book Zero: What the C or C++ Programmer Needs to Know About C# and the .NET Framework

How to compute standard deviation accurately

The most convenient way to compute sample variance by hand may not work in a program. Sample variance is given by

sigma^2 = frac{1}{ n(n-1)}left(n sum_{i=1}^n x_i^2 -left(sum_{i=1}^n x_kright)^2right)

If you compute the two summations and then carry out the subtraction above, you might be OK. Or you might have a large loss of precision. You might get a negative result even though in theory the quantity above cannot be negative. If you want the standard deviation rather than the variance, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when you try to take your square root.

There is a simple but non-obvious way to compute sample variance that has excellent numerical properties. The algorithm was first published back in 1962 but is not as well known as it should be. Here are some notes explaining the algorithm and some C++ code for implementing the algorithm.

Accurately computing running variance

The algorithm has the added advantage that it keeps a running account of the mean and variance as data are entered sequentially.

Update: Related posts

NaN, 1.#IND, 1.#INF, and all that

If you’ve ever been surprised by a program that printed some cryptic letter combination when you were expecting a number, you’ve run into an arithmetic exception. This article explains what caused your problem and what you may be able to do to fix it.

IEEE floating-point exceptions

Here’s a teaser. If x is of type float or double, does the expression (x == x) always evaluate to true? Are you certain?

Multiple string types: BSTR, wchar_t, etc.

This morning I listened to a podcast interview with Kate Gregory. She used some terms I hadn’t heard in years: BSTR, OLE strings, etc.

Around a decade ago I was working with COM in C++ and had to deal with the menagerie of string types Kate Gregory mentioned. I wrote an article to get all the various types straight in my head: all the different memory allocation rules, conventions for use, conversions between types, etc. I never published the article. When I started my personal web site I thought about posting the article there, but then I thought that by now nobody cared about such things. But the interview I listened to this morning made me think more people might be interested than I’d thought. So I posted my article Unravelling Strings in Visual C++ in case someone finds it useful.

Random number generation in C++ TR1

The C++ Standard Library Technical Report 1 (TR1) includes a specification for random number generation classes.

The Boost library has supported TR1 for a while. Microsoft released a feature pack for Visual Studio 2008 in April that includes support for most of TR1. (They left out support for mathematical special functions.) Dinkumware sells a complete TR1 implementation. And gcc included support for TR1 in version 4.3 released in May. (According to the gcc status page the latest version supports most of TR1 except regular expressions. I’ve been able to get some TR1 features to work using gcc 4.3.1 but have not been able to get random number generation to work yet.)

I’ve posted a set of notes that explain how to use the C++ TR1 random number generation classes in Visual Studio 2008. The notes include sample code and point out a few gotchas. They also explain how to use the C++ TR1 classes to generate from distributions not directly supported by the TR1.

C++ templates may reduce memory footprint

One of the complaints about C++ templates is that they can cause code bloat. But Scott Meyers pointed out in an interview that some people are using templates in embedded systems applications because templates result in smaller code.

C++ compilers only generate code for template methods that are actually used in an application, so it’s possible that code using templates may result in a smaller executable than code that a more traditional object oriented approach.

Programming language subsets

I just found out that Douglas Crockford has written a book JavaScript: The Good Parts. I haven’t read the book, but I imagine it’s quite good based on having seen the author’s JavaScript videos.

Crockford says JavaScript is an elegant and powerful language at its core, but it suffers from numerous egregious flaws that have been impossible to correct due to its rapid adoption and standardization.

I like the idea of carving out a subset of a language, the good parts, but several difficulties come to mind.

  1. Although you may limit yourself to a certain language subset, your colleagues may choose a different subset. This is particularly a problem with an enormous language such as Perl. Coworkers may carve out nearly disjoint subsets for their own use.
  2. Features outside your intended subset may be just a typo away. You have to have at least some familiarity with the whole language because every feature is a feature you might accidentally use.
  3. The parts of the language you don’t want to use still take up space in your reference material and make it harder to find what you’re looking for.

One of the design principles of C++ is “you only pay for what you use.” I believe the primary intention was that you shouldn’t pay a performance penalty for language features you don’t use, and C++ delivers on that promise. But there’s a mental price to pay for language features you don’t use. As I’d commented about Perl before, you have to use the language several hours a week just to keep it loaded in your memory.

There’s an old saying that when you marry a girl you marry her family. A similar principle applies to programming languages. You may have a subset you love, but you’re going to have to live with the rest of the language.