Learning to grok Lispen

This is not my late entrance into the Unix editor flame wars. I’ve always disliked vi and emacs about equally. I’m sure that both are amazing if you have a memory and use them every day. I don’t. I am, however, interested in computational models. The Unix ‘small pieces loosely joined’ philosophy had always leaned me towards vi. I knew emacs had ‘Lisp inside’ but I didn’t care. I had a bad experience with Lisp at university, but what really put me off was that emacs isn’t just an editor; it’s an environment. It duplicates things that happened elsewhere in Unix. You go in there and you don’t come out until home time. In the Winter, you don’t see light. It is neither small nor loose and I didn’t understand why. Was it the first IDE?

Richard M. Stallman hacked on emacs at MIT’s famous AI Lab. The Lab and its culture were torn apart by a war over intellectual property¬† of the family Lisp machines. It was a difficult breakup and RMS was abandoned by both halves of his family. In reaction to creeping commercialisation he started the GNU project which later enabled GNU/Linux &c.

I’ve realised only recently how incredibly unimportant Unix was to RMS. He simply wanted somewhere to run a Lisp environment that couldn’t be taken away from him, or others who subscribed to the original MIT AI hippy culture and ethics of free sharing of code and information. He ported a ‘C’ compiler to port emacs and started a movement to maintain everything else he needed.

The latest trend in current computing is ‘platforms’. We have gone back to worrying about the ancient concern of application portability. We’ve divided into language tribes: Java, JavaScript, Ruby, Python, .Net, Apple, Google – each with their own library system, to free us from the tyranny of operating systems, designed to free us from hardware. RMS did that in the 70s/80s.

I fought against the idea of Clojure (a Lisp dialect) running on the Java VM rather than a real OS. Another version runs on .Net and one is being ported to JavaScript. I get it now. People want to get stuff done and to do that, they need the support of a tribe (or two.)

MIT’s free educational videos contributed to my understanding of these issues. They used Scheme (another Lisp) before moving to Python to get access to more libraries. Perhaps they should move back to Clojure.



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