Quote from an email I received from a prospective PhD student:
I get the impression that if doing a PhD is really going to help push me forward on this, I’ll have to be working closely with people from that whole milieu surrounding the ’80s/’90s Common Lisp scene and the heyday of PARC. There seem to be not too many still around who are still doing work along the same lines and who could serve as thesis advisors. I joke with my friends that it’s like trying to train under an old Jedi master – you’ve got to find their hideout in the swamps of Dagobah.
Sit down, younglings. Let me tell you the story of the Jedi Masters.(*)
A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…
My story begins in Episode IV, when the Galactic Empire was nearing completion of the Death Star. The Death Star was the most powerful weapon anyone had ever seen, combining the muscle power of objects, the protection of well-designed static type shields, and the ever popular curly brackets for securing wide-spread acceptance among citizens of the Galaxy. The Death Star would allow the Empire to crush the Rebel Alliance, a loose collection of powerful Jedi and Ninja. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Jedi were trained to use the Force, an omnipresent energy that can be harnessed by those with that ability, known as Force-sensitives. The Force allows Force-sensitives “to perform various supernatural feats such as telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, and mind control and can amplify certain physical traits, such as speed and reflexes; these abilities vary between characters and can be improved through training.” Or so says Wikipedia, but you know you can’t always trust Wikipedia. Supernatural or not, there is no doubt that the Force gives people the ability to think many thoughts, to practice many styles of programming, to become one with the programs, to build all sorts of structures, and to neatly express the ideas that pass through their minds, no matter how crazy they are. The Force liberates the mind. (Perhaps too much!, some say)
When I started my Jedi training in the mid-90s, the Force had been through some disturbances. Throughout the Galaxy, Jedi had been fighting Jedi for some time, with different factions fighting for control of the Force. In an attempt to ease the tensions, the Jedi Council had established a set of common values in what became known as Common Lisp. Indeed, the earlier version of these values, called simply Lisp, was the very first embodiment of the Force available to humans. The Force had been discovered and made available to us a long, long time ago by the oldest and most revered Jedi of all, Master Yoda. Master Yoda is believed to be no longer in this world.
Master Yoda spoke in an unusual way. If he needed to add 2 to 5 and then multiply the result by 3, he would say “multiply by 3 the result of adding 2 to 5.” This made conversations with him always intriguing, as when asked for directions to the bathroom he would say things like “come back to the council room after counting two doors on the left after turning left after coming out of the bathroom after washing your hands after peeing after entering the bathroom on the 3rd door on the right after counting two doors on your right after turning right after exiting the council room.” As a consequence, all Jedi spoke like that… at least until many years later, when a rebellious Jedi called Jolee Bindo found a clever way of transforming the language of the Force into the language spoken by non-Force-sensitives, which helped a lot of people not to get lost on their way to the bathroom… while still being puzzled about whether they were actually allowed to pee, as that would irreversibly change the state of the world. Anyway, I digress.
The Force can be used for Good and Bad. The Jedi are bound to use it for Good. Force-sensitives using it from a position of anger, rage or personal financial gains end up in the Dark Side, and are known as Sith Lords.
Unbeknownst to George Lucas, the Empire was also home to a group of Mutant Super Ninja Masters to whom nothing nor anyone can stand in the way of efficiency. The Mutant Super Ninjas also had access to the Force, but they dealt with the it in its rawest form. Like the Jedi, the Ninjas are able of performing supernatural feats, but of a different kind: they throw darts at the speed of light, they reduce objects to their absolute smallest forms and they carefully take care of their own garbage, many times transforming empty tuna cans into water glasses without even apologizing for the smell. For the Ninja, the Force is a fluffy pink cloud that hangs over the cold hard metal from which they make their swords.
The mid-90s was, therefore, a period of great change and unrest in the Galaxy. Common Lisp did not appease the infighting among the Jedi; they all felt threatened by the increasing power of the Mutant Super Ninjas, but couldn’t agree on a strategy to fight them. A Jedi called Kit Fisto wrote a provocative, passive-aggressive essay suggesting that the ways of the Jedi were inferior to the ways of the Ninja, maybe, which he later counter-argued, maybe. It didn’t help that his counter-argument was written under a pseudonym, Nickieben Bourbaki. Kit Fisto had had too much fluffy pink substances and was clearly in need of a break. But his essay helped shatter the already fragile alliances among the Jedi factions.
Without a clear vision and leadership, all around me, many of my fellow Jedi apprentices and some Jedi Masters were being irreversibly lost to the Dark Side, especially for personal financial gains that seemed to be hanging from a freaky Bubble known as dot-com that emerged out of thin air in 1995. Some called it the second Death Star. No one really knew what that Bubble was all about, and who was driving it. It certainly weren’t the Jedi nor the Mutant Super Ninja Masters; it appears to have been some grassroots movement of Ninja and Jedi renegades led by King Lionheart, who, armed with the pragmatism they learned from their Masters but too impatient to wait for the advanced lectures, decided to unleash a powerful virus into the Galaxy whose motto was “better now than good.” This virus made the Gollum come out of their hiding holes (yes, there’s more than one Gollum), as they saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to regain control of their “precious” by taking the renegades as slaves, connecting them to computers and soda machines 24-7, alluring them to produce more bad things now, and painting the resulting products with rainbow-colored veneer that they then fed in ready-to-consume hyperbolic sound bites to the members of the press, therefore inducing the citizens of the Galaxy to assimilate all sorts of mental viruses.
Many of the Jedi who defected to this Bubble knew that they had an advantage over the Ninjas, because they knew the ways of the Force and possessed the supernatural powers that come with it, which allowed them to sleep for a couple of hours a day. The Force was strong in these Sith Lords.
Meanwhile, some Jedi Masters, led by Obi-wan Kenobi, engaged in forging alliances with the Mutant Super Ninja Masters, led by Raphael, in the hopes of bringing ever-lasting peace to the Galaxy. Little did they know that Sith Lord Darth Sidious, who could see into the future, was behind this seemingly peaceful alliance with the sole purpose of having them build the Death Star, which would be capable of destroying both the Jedi and the Ninjas. Neither the Jedi Masters nor the Ninja Masters could have predicted that sinister plan, so they went ahead with their alliance and built the Death Star. A long Winter came… Scores of younglings were trained and used as clones to build gigantic structures for the elite of the Empire. They were programmed to think only in The Things Way, and robbed of experiencing the full spectrum of human thought.
Mind you, the Death Star was not all bad; it was a powerful weapon designed to impose order in the Galaxy. And order ensued. The problem was that, while the Jedi and Ninjas who built it were versed in the ways of the Force, the younglings who operated the Death Star were unaware of the Force, and knew only one way of thinking; they were mindless clones, gleefully applying one complex pattern or another without really understanding that sometimes there were other, simpler, ways of doing the same things.
The Death Star and the Bubble delivered serious blows to the Jedi and the Ninja Orders, to the point that they all scattered across the four corners of the Galaxy. Many retreated to the swamps of Dagobah. Many more joined the ranks of the Dark Side and dedicated their talents to making people click ads (see here).
A handful of Jedi Masters retreated to Academies in Ivory Towers, and seem to have been completely oblivious to the people around them being enslaved. They continued to forge ahead with the ways of the Force. With Common Lisp in ruins, they saw an opportunity to push for their version of the Force. Two factions of Jedi seem to have survived in these strongholds.
On one side, we have the Jedi that call for a safer and more pure Force. They brought in the static type shields, got rid of all parenthesis, and pushed very strongly for banning impurities out of the Force. You see, “impurities” are things like peeing or drinking a glass of water. You can’t do that if you are pure; at the very least you need to feel guilty afterwards and pray 7 Hail Marys for redemption of your sins. One thing these Jedi did, perhaps unintentionally, was to lead the younger generations of Jedi apprentices to believe that Lisp was just a dreamsong, including changing the name of their main conference from “Lisp and Functional Programming” to “International Conference on Functional Programming”, and changing the name of their main journal from “Lisp and Symbolic Computation” to “Higher-Order and Symbolic Computation,” for which Kit Fisto still holds a grudge. By now, many young Jedi really believe that the impact of Lisp is just an urban legend, as Lisp was a “functional-flavored” small step towards the greater things that they learn about in these Ivory Towers.
The other faction is found hanging to a much smaller version of Lisp known as Scheme. Scheme had been carved out of Lisp by Master Obi-Wan Kenobi himself long before he dedicated his talents to the alliance with the Ninjas. The mothership has sunk, but this little baby, and the feisty Jedi Knights that protect it, survived. Within the ranks of this faction you can find Jedi Masters such as Cin Drallig, Admiral Gial Ackbar, and dozens of their padawans who are now masters in their own right. Continuing the tradition of infighting that had plagued the earlier generation of Jedi, the Scheme Jedi quickly proceeded to fork their language, also quickly followed by a plethora of Scheme implementations made by just about everyone who likes this flavor of the Force. It can get a little dangerous to navigate through those waters.
Aside from these strongholds, many Jedi simply retreated to their lone caves. They still continued to practice the Force for all these years, perhaps without telling their benefactors. The Force never disappeared. Many Force-sensitives without formal Jedi training designed languages, for example this one, that used the Force freely, mixing it with teachings from the Ninja and many other Sages.
Many young people were unhappy with the The Things Way of thinking and become curious about other thoughts. Feeling the pain, a Mutant Ninja Jedi, who had originally helped build the Death Star, built a bridge between the Death Star and the Force. Inspired by his efforts, some Jedi have brought the Old Language back and are retrofitting it on top of the chassis of the Death Star itself. Exciting things are happening in the Galaxy!
And this, dear younglings, this is how we came to where we are today. Indeed, the old Jedi Masters are hard to find. They suffered serious blows. Some died. Troves of them joined the Dark Side and hopped on the Bubble. Some are found in the Ivory Towers and swamps of Dagobah. Many are spread in obscure corners of the Galaxy. But you are young and curious. The Force is within your reach. Don’t let yourself be bound to any One Way of thinking. Unbound creativity is the power and the weakness of the Force. The Art of Programming Well lies in forging a balance between endless possibilities and strict discipline.
Who am I in this story?, I hear you ask. I’m just an observer in this story. I was first trained as a Ninja, but at some point I became more and more curious about the Jedi ways. When opportunity knocked, I quickly moved to one of the strongholds of the Jedi, a mythical place known as PARC in the heart of Coruscant. There, I was a Padawan to Master Ki-Adi-Mundi. We studied telekinesis.
(*) This story is not to replace the many accounts of Lisp history that can be found here, here, here, here and even here; this story is a personal, partial and mostly fictional account of what I saw and experienced as Apprentice to the Jedi in the mid-90s at PARC, and then the long Winter that came after. Any resemblance to actual people, ideas and events is purely coincidental; the hyperlinks were introduced by my dog. (**)
(**) This is fan fic written under the influence of Ibuprofen due to a shoulder injury I got for carrying my heavy purse through the streets of New York last week. Reading it again this morning, I feel I must make a disclaimer. I’m well aware of the trend of companies hiring “Jedi”, “Ninjas”, “Pirates” and whatnot. Unless HR people in those companies are permanently under the influence of drugs, that practice doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than flagging to the world that these companies are in dire need of experienced adults to help them distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Learning Lisp, Smalltalk or Snobol4 is like finding the remains of an ultra-advanced alien civilisation buried in your backyard.
No nerd should be deprived of this wonder. No Padawan may rise to Grand Master without it.
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