Emacs is hurting Clojure 

Emacs is a very powerful text editor and its popularity amongst Clojurians is easily understood. Emacs has a long tradition in the Lisp communities as it’s written, in a big part, in a flavor of Lisp called Emacs Lisp.

Because of its history, it handles Lisp code wonderfully, with automatic correct indentation, paraedit, integration with REPLs, etc. But Emacs is really hard to use.

Yeah, most Clojurians know how to use it by now and they suffer from bias: “it’s not that hard” they say. Learning Emacs or Clojure is hard enough. Combining them is insane.

Many Clojurians also say it’s worth it. And again, I think they are biased. Human brains are very good at forgetting pain. Other editors these days are also very powerful and although not as much as Emacs, their usage is intuitive so you can achieve a higher level of proficiency just by using it, without spending time and effort in becoming better at it.

The way Emacs is hurting Clojure is by Clojurians maintaining this myth that you need to use Emacs for Clojure. This is not done by simple statements but by a general culture of jokes saying things such as “you are wrong if you don’t use emacs”.

Me, personally, I don’t care what editor you use. If you want to learn Emacs, go for it. Intellij and Cursive is much easier to use and almost as powerful. When I compare myself to another clojurian, productivity is generally decided by knowledge of the language and libraries, not the editor. If you want to use another editor, so be it. It’s better if they understand Lisp code but it’s not a deal breaker for learning Clojure.

I do care about the success and popularity of Clojure. Coupling the growth of the language to the use of an editor that is hard to use and non intuitive makes no sense. It’s hurting us. Even if you are an Emacs power user, when you talk to a Clojure newbie, please, don’t push it down their throats.

Thank you.


Macros, the Lisp advantage

Learning about macros in Lisps was one of my biggest whoa-moments in my programming career and since then I’ve given presentations about them to audiences ranging from 1 to 100 people. I have a little script that I follow in which I implement a custom form of the if-conditional. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve managed to generate many whoa-moments. I’m probably not doing macros justice. It’s not an easy task as they can be complex beasts to play with.

As we are experimenting with Clojure, I eventually needed a tool that I knew was going to be a macro, and I built a simple version of it. The tool is assert_difference. I don’t know where it first appeared, but Rails ships with one and not satisfied with that one I built one a few years ago. In the simplest case it allows you to do this:

assert_difference("User.count()", 1) do

assert_difference("User.count()", 0) do

assert_difference("User.count()", -1) do

The problem

Do you see what’s wrong there? Well, wrong is a strong word. What’s not as good as it could be? It’s the fact that User.count is expressed as a string and not code, when it is code. The reason for doing that is that we don’t want that code to run, we want to have it in a way that we can run it, run the body of the function (adding users, removing users, etc) and run it again comparing it with the output of the previous one.

There’s no (nice) way in Ruby or many languages to express code and not run it. Rephrasing that, there’s no (nice) way to have code as data in Ruby as in most languages. I’m not picking on Ruby, I love that language, I’m just using it because it’s the language I’m most familiar with; what I’m saying is probably true about any programming language you chose.

One of the things you’ll hear repeated over and over in the land of the Lisp, be it Common Lisp, Scheme or Clojure is that code is data. And that’s what we want here, we want to have a piece of code as data. We want this:

assert_difference(User.count(), 1) do

assert_difference(User.count(), 0) do

assert_difference(User.count(), -1) do

which in Lisp syntax it would look like this:

(assert-difference (user-count) 1

(assert-difference (user-count) 0

(assert-difference (user-count) -1

and this, ladies and gentlemen, is not only easy, it’s good practice.

Enter the macro

I achieved it with a simple 4-line macro and here it is:

(defmacro assert-difference [form delta & body]
  `(let [count# ~form]
     (assert-equal (+ count# ~delta) ~form)))

If you are not familiar with Clojure that will be very hard to read, so, let me help you:

The first line defines the macro with the name assert-difference  and getting 3 or more parameters with the first one called form , the second delta  and all other parameters, as a list, in body. So, in this example:

(assert-difference (user-count) 1

we end up with:

  • form => (user-count)
  • delta => 1
  • body => [(add-user-to-database)]

Note that the parameters to the macro didn’t get the value of calling (user-count), it got the code itself, unexecuted, represented as data that we can inspect and play with, not an unparsed string.

The body of the macro is a bit cryptic because it’s a template. The backtick at the beginning just identifies it as a template and ~  means “replace this variable with the parameter”. ~@  is a special version of ~  that we have to use because body contains a list of statements instead of a single one. That means that:

`(let [count# ~form]
    (assert-equal (+ count# ~delta) ~form))

turns into:

(let [count# (user-count)]
   (assert-equal (+ count# 1) (user-count)))

Is it starting to make sense? count#  is a variable that is set to (user-count), then we execute the body, that is (add-user-to-database) and then we execute  (user-count) again and compare it count#  plus delta. This is the code that’s emitted by the macro, this is the code that actually gets compiled and executed.

If you are wondering about why the variable name has a hash at the end, imagine that variable was just named count  instead and the macro was used like this:

(let [count 10]
  (assert-difference (user-count) 1
    (add-users-to-database (generate-users count)))

That snippet defines count, but then the macro defines count again, by the time you reach (generate-users count) that count  was masked by the macro-generated one. That bug can be very hard to debug. The hash at the ends makes it into a uniquely named variable, something like count__28766__auto__ , that is consistent with the other mentions of count#  within that macro.

Isn’t that beautiful?

The real solution

The actual macro that I’m using for now is:

(defmacro is-different [[form delta] & body]
  `(let [count# ~form]
     (is (= (+ count# ~delta) ~form))))

which I’m not going to package and release yet like I did with assert_difference because it’s nowhere near finished and I’m not going to keep on improving it until I see the actual patterns that I like for my tests.

You might notice that it doesn’t use assert-equal. That’s a function I made up because I believe it was familiar for non-clojurians reading this post. When using clojure.test, you actually do this:

(is (= a b))

There’s one and only one thing to remember: is . Think of is  as a generic assert and that’s actually all that you need. No long list of asserts like MiniTest has: assert, assert_block, assert_empty, assert_equal, assert_in_delta, assert_in_epsilon, assert_includes, assert_instance_of, assert_kind_of, assert_match, assert_nil, assert_operator, assert_output, assert_predicate, assert_raises, assert_respond_to, assert_same, assert_send, assert_silent and, assert_throws.

In a programming language like Ruby we need all those assertions because we want to be able to say things such as “1 was expected to be equal to 2, but it isn’t” which can only be done if you do:

assert_equal(1, 2)

but not if you do

assert(1 == 2)

because in the second case, assert doesn’t have any visibility into the fact that it was an equality comparison, it would just say something like “true was expected, but got false” which is not very useful.

Do you see where this is going? is  is a macro, so it has visibility into the code, it can both run the code and use the code as data and thus generate errors such as:

FAIL in (test-users) (user.clj:12)
expected: 1
  actual: 2
    diff: - 1
          + 2

which if you ask me, is a lot of very beautiful detail to come out of just

(is (= 1 2))

But language X!

When talking to people about this, I often get rebuttals that this or that language can do it too and yes, other languages can do some things like this.

For example, we could argue that this is possible in Ruby if you encase the code in an anonymous function when passing it around, such as:

assert_difference(->{User.count}, 1) do

but it’s not as nice and we don’t see it very often. What we see is 20 assert methods like in MiniTest. To have an impact in the language, these techniques need to be easy, nice, first class citizens, the accepted style. Otherwise they might as well not exist.

An even better syntax for blocks in Ruby might help with the issue and indeed what you are left with is a different approach to incredible flexibility and it already exists. It’s called Smalltalk and there’s some discussion about closures, what you have in Lisp,  and objects, what you have in Smalltalk, being equivalent.

I’m also aware of a few languages having templating systems to achieve things such as this, like Template Haskell, but they are always quite hard to use and left for the true experts. You rarely see them covered in a book for beginners of the language, like macros tend to be covered for Lisp.

There are also languages that have a string based macro system, like C and I’ve been told that Tcl does as well. The problem with this is that it’s from hard to impossible to build something that’s of medium complexity, to the point that you are recommended to stay away from it.

All of the alternative solutions I mention so far have a problem: code is not (nice) data. When a macro in Lisp gets a piece of code such as:

(+ 1 2)

that code is received as a list of three elements, containing + , 1  and 2 . If the macro instead received:

(1 2 +)

the code would be a list containing 1, 2 and +. Note that it’s not valid Lisp code, it doesn’t have to be because it’s not being compiled and executed. The output of a macro has to be valid Lisp code, the input can be whatever and thus, making a macro that changes the language from prefix notation to suffix notation, like in the last snippet of code, is one of the few first exercises you do when learning to make macros.

What makes it so easy to get code as data and work with it and then execute the data as code is the fact that Lisp’s syntax is very close to the abstract syntax tree of the language. The abstract syntax tree of Lisp programs is something Lisp programmers are familiar with intuitively while most programmers of other languages have no idea what the AST looks like for their programs. Indeed, I don’t know what it looks like for any of the Ruby code I wrote.

Most programmers don’t know what an AST actually is, but even the Lisp programmers that don’t know what an AST is have an intuition for what the ASTs of their programs are.

This is why many claim Lisp to be the most powerful programming language out there. You could start thinking of another programming language that has macros that receive code as data and that their syntax is close to the AST and if you find one of those, congratulations, you found a programming language of the Lisp family because pretty much those properties make it a member of the Lisp family.

Why I love Lisp

This post was extracted from a small talk I gave at Simplificator, where I work, titled “Why I love Smalltalk and Lisp”. There’s another post titled “Why I love Smalltalk” published before this one.

Desert by Guilherme Jófili

Lisp is an old language. Very old. Today there are many Lisps and no single language is called Lisp today. Actually, there are as many Lisps as Lisp programmers. That’s because you become a Lisp programmer when you go alone in the desert and write an interpreter for your flavor of lisp with a stick on the sand.

There are two main Lisps these days: Common Lisp and Scheme, both standards with many implementations. The various Common Lisps are more or less the same, the various Schemes are the same at the basic level but then they differ, sometimes quite significantly. They are both interesting but I personally failed to make a practical use of any of those. Both bother me in different ways, and of all the other Lisps, my favorite is Clojure. I’m not going to dig into that, it’s a personal matter and it’ll take me a long time.

Clojure, like any other Lisp, has a REPL (Read Eval Print Loop) where we can write code and get it to run immediately. For example:

;=> 5

"Hello world"
;=> "Hello world"

Normally you get a prompt, like user>, but here I’m using the joyful Clojure example code convention. You can give this REPL thing a try and run any code from this post in Try Clojure.

We can call a function like this:

(println "Hello World")
; Hello World
;=> nil

It printed “Hello World” and returned nil. I know the parenthesis look misplaced but there’s a reason for that and you’ll notice it’s not that different from Javaish snippet:

println("Hello World")

except that Clojure uses the parenthesis in that way for all operations:

(+ 1 2)
;=> 3

In Clojure we also have vectors:

[1 2 3 4]
;=> [1 2 3 4]


;=> symbol

The reason for the quote is that symbols are treated as variables. Without the quote, Clojure would try to find its value. Same for lists:

'(li st)
;=> (li st)

and nested lists

'(l (i s) t)
;=> (l (i s) t)

Here’s how defining a variable and using it looks like

(def hello-world "Hello world")
;=> #'user/hello-world

;=> "Hello world"

I’m going very fast, skipping lots of details and maybe some things are not totally correct. Bear with me, I want to get to the good stuff.

In Clojure you create functions like this:

(fn [n] (* n 2))
;=> #<user$eval1$fn__2 user$eval1$fn__2@175bc6c8>

That ugly long thing is how a compiled function is printed out. Don’t worry, it’s not something you see often. That’s a function, as created by the operator fn, of one argument, called n, that multiplies the argument by two and returns the result. In Clojure as in all Lisps, the value of the last expression of a function is returned.

If you look at how a function is called:

(println "Hello World")

you’ll notice the pattern is, open parens, function, arguments, close parens. Or saying it in another way, a list where the first item is the operator and the rest are the arguments.

Let’s call that function:

((fn [n] (* n 2)) 10)
;=> 20

What I’m doing there is defining an anonymous function and applying it immediately. Let’s give that function a name:

(def twice (fn [n] (* n 2)))
;=> #'user/twice

and then we can apply it by name:

(twice 32)
;=> 64

As you can see, functions are stored in variables like any other piece of data. Since that’s something that’s done very often, there’s a shortcut:

(defn twice [n] (* 2 n))
;=> #'user/twice

(twice 32)
;=> 64

Let’s make the function have a maximum of 100 by using an if:

(defn twice [n] (if (> n 50) 100 (* n 2))))

The if operator has three arguments, the predicate, the expresion to evaluate when the predicate is true and the one when it’s false. Maybe like this it’s easier to read:

(defn twice [n]
  (if (> n 50)
      (* n 2)))

Enough basic stuff, let’s move to the fun stuff.

Let’s say you want to write Lisp backwards. The operator at the last position, like this:

(4 5 +)

Let’s call this language Psil (that’s Lisp backwards… I’m so smart). Obviously if you just try to run that it won’t work:

(4 5 +)
;=> java.lang.ClassCastException: java.lang.Integer cannot be cast to clojure.lang.IFn (NO_SOURCE_FILE:0)

That’s Clojure telling you that 4 is not a function (an object implementing the interface clojure.lang.IFn).

It’s easy enough to write a function that converts from Psil to Lisp:

(defn psil [exp]
  (reverse exp))

The problem is that when I try to use it, like this:

(psil (4 5 +))
;=> java.lang.ClassCastException: java.lang.Integer cannot be cast to clojure.lang.IFn (NO_SOURCE_FILE:0)

I obviously get an error, because before psil is called, Clojure tries to evaluate the argument, that is, (4 5 +) and that fails. We can call it explicitly turning the argument into a list, like this:

(psil '(4 5 +))
;=> (+ 5 4)

but that didn’t evaluate it, it just reversed it. Evaluating it is not that hard though:

(eval (psil '(4 5 +)))
;=> 9

You can start to see the power of Lisp. The fact that the code is just a bunch of nested lists allows you to easily generate running programs out of pieces of data.

If you don’t see it, just try doing it in your favorite language. Start with an array containing two numbers and a plus and end up with the result of adding them. You probably end up concatenating strings or doing other nasty stuff.

This way of programming is so common on Lisp that it was abstracted away in a reusable thing call macros. Macros are functions that receive the unevaluated arguments and the result is then evaluated as Lisp.

Let’s turn psil into a macro:

(defmacro psil [exp]
  (reverse exp))

The only difference is that I’m now calling defmacro instead of defn. This is quite remarkable:

(psil (4 5 +))
;=> 9

Note how the argument is not valid Clojure yet I didn’t get any error. That’s because it’s not evaluated until psil processes it. The psil macro is getting the argument as data. When you hear people say that in Lisp code is data, this is what they are talking about. It’s data you can manipulate to generate other programs. This is what allows you to invent your own programming language on top of Lisp and have any semantics you need.

There’s an operator on Clojure called macroexpand which makes a macro skip the evaluation part so you can see what’s the code that’s going to be evaluated:

(macroexpand '(psil (4 5 +)))
;=> (+ 5 4)

You can think of a macro as a function that runs at compile time. The truth is, in Lisp, compile time and run time are all mixed and you are constantly switching between the two. We can make our psil macro very verbose to see what’s going on, but before, I have to show you do.

do is a very simple operator, it takes a list of expressions and runs them one after the other but they are all grouped into one single expression that you can pass around, for example:

(do (println "Hello") (println "world"))
; Hello
; world
;=> nil

With do, we can make the macro return more than one expression and to make it verbose:

(defmacro psil [exp]
  (println "compile time")
  `(do (println "run time")
       ~(reverse exp)))

That new macro prints “compile time” and returns a do that prints
“run time” and runs exp backwards. The back-tick, ` is like the quote ' except that allows you to unquote inside it by using the tilde, ~. Don’t worry if you don’t understand that yet, let’s just run it:

(psil (4 5 +))
; compile time
; run time
;=> 9

As expected, compile time happens before runtime. If we use macroexpand things will get more clear:

(macroexpand '(psil (4 5 +)))
; compile time
;=> (do (clojure.core/println "run time") (+ 5 4))

You can see that the compile phase already happened and we got an expression that will print “run time” and then evaluate (+ 5 4). It also expanded println into its full form, clojure.core/println, but you can ignore that. When that code is evaluated at run time.

The result of the macro is essentially:

(do (println "run time")
    (+ 5 4))

and in the macro it was written like this:

`(do (println "run time")
     ~(reverse exp))

The back-tick essentially created a kind of template where the tilde marked parts for evaluating ((reverse exp)) while the rest was left at is.

There are even more surprises behind macros, but for now, it’s enough hocus pocus.

The power of this technique may not be totally apparent yet. Following my Why I love Smalltalk post, let’s imagine that Clojure didn’t come with an if, only cond. It’s not the best example in this case, but it’s simple enough.

cond is like a switch or case in other languages:

(cond (= x 0) "It's zero"
      (= x 1) "It's one"
      :else "It's something else")

Around cond we can create a function my-if straightforward enough:

(defn my-if [predicate if-true if-false]
  (cond predicate if-true
        :else if-false))

and at first it seems to work:

(my-if (= 0 0) "equals" "not-equals")
;=> "equals"
(my-if (= 0 1) "equals" "not-equals")
;=> "not-equals"

but there’s a problem. Can you spot it? my-if is evaluating all its arguments, so if we do something like this, the result is not as expected:

(my-if (= 0 0) (println "equals") (println "not-equals"))
; equals
; not-equals
;=> nil

Converting my-if into a macro:

(defmacro my-if [predicate if-true if-false]
  `(cond ~predicate ~if-true
         :else ~if-false))

solves the problem:

(my-if (= 0 0) (println "equals") (println "not-equals"))
; equals
;=> nil

This is just a glimpse into the power of macros. One very interesting case was when object oriented programming was invented (Lisp is older than that) and Lisp programmers wanted to use it.

C programmers had to invent new languages, C++ and Objective C, with their compilers. Lisp programmers created a bunch of macros, like defclass, defmethod, etc. All thanks to macros. Revolutions, in Lisp, tend to just be evolutions.

Thanks to Gonzalo Fernández, Alessandro Di Maria, Vladimir Filipović for reading drafts of this.

Croation translation on http://science.webhostinggeeks.com/zasto-volim-lisp

Getting started with La Clojure on Mac OS X, a visual guide

These are instructions to get started with Clojure using IntelliJ IDEA, La Clojure and Leiningen for people that don’t know any of those tools. They are for Mac OS X but they may be adaptable to other operating systems as well.

It doesn’t expect you to know Clojure or IntelliJ IDEA. I think this might be a good way for beginners to get started (instead of Emacs for example). I been using RubyMine for quite a while and I’m happy with it. The only requirement in installing Homebrew on your mac, which you should anyway if you want to code.

Install Clojure and Leiningen using Homebrew:

brew install clojure
brew install leiningen

Download IntelliJ IDEA and install it:

Run it:

Open the preferences (⌘,) and go to the plugins section:

Download and install La Clojure plugin:

Download and install the Leiningen plugin.


Restart IntelliJ IDEA:


Create a Leiningen project:

lein new foobar
 Created new project in: /Users/pupeno/Temporary/foobar

Open the project in IntelliJ IDEA:


Now open Project Structure (⌘;) and go to SDK. If you tried to run the Clojure REPL and got the error “No jdk for module ‘foobar'”, this is what you need to do to fix it:

Click on the plus sign and add a JSDK:

The default is just fine:

And you should see something like:

Go to the project

and select the newly created 1.6 SDK:

Go to modules

open dependencies:

and add a single entry:

Use the installed Clojure from /usr/local/Cellar/clojure/1.2.1/clojure.jar:

I’m not totally sure about that step. It might be that the IntelliJ project you are creating works only on a machine where Clojure is located on the same path.

As they say… works for me! Restart IntelliJ… not sure if you’ll need to, but I needed it.

Open the project if it wasn’t open and start the Clojure REPL (⇧⌘F10), it’s in the Tools menu:

It works:

Open a file:

Type a little program, like:

(defn hello-world []
  (println "Hello world"))

Load the file on the REPL (⇧⌘L), which is in Tools → Clojure REPL:

Enjoy magnificent code completion:

and run the code:

And that’s it. Whether IntelliJ IDEA and La Clojure is a viable developing environment only time will tell.

Another simplistic solution, with SCons

SCons is a program designed to replace make and autotools. SCons being a new tool is built with all the knowledge of what problem really this kind of tool should be solving, while make and autotools were built while discovering the real problem. It is natural to expect SCons to have a better design that covers the big picture. Continue reading

Solving Lisp’s problem: a simplistic solution with make

I recently stated what I believe is the biggest problem with Lisp, you can’t make programs with it. In my quest, my first solution is a very simplistic Makefile that does the job using cl-launch, a very interesting program that can turn a Common Lisp program into a Bash script. Other solutions are likely to use cl-launch as well.

So, we’ll play with this little program:

(defun main ()
  (format t "Hello world!~%"))


Very trivial indeed. And to “compile it”, we’d use this trivial Makefile:

%: %.lisp
        cl-launch --output $@ --file $&<

hello-world: hello-world.lisp

All we have to do now is run make:

$ make
cl-launch --output hello-world --file hello-world.lisp

And we now have a runable hello-world:

$ ./hello-world
Hello world!

It run! it worked! it’s portable! Isn’t it great?

Obviously all the logic is hidden inside cl-launch (thank you Fare Rideau). The problems with this simple solution is that using only make makes programs harder to port and package for different distributions and operating systems. That’s why the autotools where invented. Remember those days when to compile something we had to open a Makefile and set up variables? well, this simplistic solution is going back to those days. We can do better, I hope I can do better.

Now, for the curious, this is how the hello-world script looks like (I’d say its quite remarkable):

LISPS="cmucl sbcl clisp ecl openmcl gclcvs allegro lisp gcl"

# This file was generated by CL-Launch 2.03
# This file was automatically generated and contains parts of CL-Launch
. /usr/share/common-lisp/source/cl-launch/wrapper.sh

launch_self "$@"


# |#

(load "/usr/share/common-lisp/source/cl-launch/header.lisp" :verbose nil :print nil)


(cl-launch::run :load :self)


;;; 65bcc57c2179aad145614ec328ce5ba8 SOFTWARE WRAPPED BY CL-LAUNCH BEGINS HERE:

(defun main ()
(format t "Hello world!~%"))