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|From:||Nikodemus Siivola <firstname.lastname@example.org>|
|Subject:||Nikodemus' Common Lisp FAQ, updated|
|Date:||Fri, 6 Apr 2012 04:40:01 -0700 (PDT)|
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* Nikodemus' Common Lisp FAQ
This is a highly uncanonical Common Lisp FAQ with a strong editorial
bias, by Nikodemus Siivola. Partially based on various comp.lang.lisp
and general Lisp FAQs.
If you think I've stolen your words I'm all to happy to 'fess up, so
feel free to drop a line to <email@example.com>.
Current version of this FAQ is available from:
http://random-state.net/files/nikodemus-cl-faq.txt (Who's computer is this?)
This FAQ is also posted to comp.lang.lisp every once in a looong
** Just starting out
*** Common Lisp? CL? Clisp? Lisp?
`Common Lisp' is the name of the ANSI standardized language this FAQ
`CL' is the preferred abbreviation of that name.
`Clisp' is not an acceptable abbreviation, as it is the name of a
specific Common Lisp implementation.
`Lisp' is a category of languages to which CL belongs. Is hasn't been
written as `LISP' for the last 20 years or so. Common Lisp often
referred to as just Lisp when the context is clear.
*** Why should I care?
You can read about the features of Common Lisp here:
http://random-state.net/features-of-common-lisp.html (Who's computer is this?)
*** How can I learn Common Lisp?
(1) Read a good book on Common Lisp.
(2) Start using it.
Many people seem to manage the first stage over and over again, but
fail to act on the second one. Seriously: you cannot learn any
programming language without using it, nor can you properly understand
one without working on a moderately large program in it.
*** Are there any common pitfalls I should avoid?
Any good book will more than adequately deal with language-level
gotchas, but there a couple of psychological and social pitfalls that
stumble some people:
(1) Learning about Lisp macros makes some people go nuts.
While Lisp macros are the bee's knees, the power that goes with
them sometimes makes newcomers lose all perspective.
A typical symptom is trying to build something without having a
clear idea of what it is supposed to do. Remember that anything
you can write with a macro you can write without one. Sometimes
it may not be practical to do so, but remembering this will help
keep you grounded.
Learn to walk before you try to run. It doesn't take long, but
it's well worth it -- and then you get to fly.
(2) Don't be shocked when Lisp isn't perfect. This is not news.
Some people come to Lisp over-hyped, and are disappointed when it
falls short of their expectations. Other people compare Lisp to
language X and find it falls short somehow.
Both of these can be fair and accurate judgments, but trouble
starts when people head to eg. #lisp to air these issues.
If the assessments are accurate, then most likely the subject has
been discussed to death several times over the years, and no-one
has much patience for it.
If the assessments aren't accurate, or are considered more
theoretical than practical, then nonetheless most likely several
disgruntled newbies have aired the exact same complaints several
times over the years and no-one has any patience for it.
This is not to say you aren't allowed to say un-nice things about
lisp on the internet, but ... if you come in as a newbie telling
people how bad things are, don't expect people to welcome you
with open arms -- even if your complaints are 100% accurate.
Complaints coming from people who have been around for a while
and who provide positive inputs to the community carry a lot more
(3) Experienced lispers active on internet see a lot of trolls.
A LOT OF TROLLS. A confused newbie can sometimes look like a
troll, in particular because some of most notorious recurring
trolls habitually masquerade as being new to lisp.
So people may think you're a troll and respond accordingly.
Best way to avoid this: be polite. If you're told you're confused
or mistaken, assume for the moment that they're either right, or
that you at least very much look like so.
*** Which book should I read first?
Read Peter Seibel's `Practical Common Lisp', a.k.a. PCL. It is a good
starting place if you already know how to program in some other
language. It's available both online and in print:
http://www.gigamonkeys.com/book/ (Who's computer is this?)
Another alternative is David Touretzky's `Common Lisp: A Gentle
Introduction to Symbolic Computation', which is a good choice if you
are new to programming or find PCL too hard. Even if you start with
this, read PCL afterwards. If you've already read PCL and understood
it, you can safely skip this. Available both online and in print:
http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~dst/LispBook/index.html (Who's computer is this?)
There are plenty of other books too, but these two are the best bets
for starters. Land of Lisp isn't bad, but in my limited experience it
can foster some misconceptions. If you start with it, follow up with
You should familiarize yourself with the `Hyperspec', aka CLHS -- the
online version of the language standard, which is an invaluable
http://www.lispworks.com/documentation/HyperSpec/index.html (Who's computer is this?)
Don't try to read it right now. Just remember it is there, and
contains the authoritative answer to all possible questions about CL:
it is the perfect place to check if you find yourself in doubt about
what a given operator does. It is also the place you should look in to
discover if there is a built-in that already does what you need.
Also, do not neglect the documentation that comes with your
implementation. In case of SBCL, the manual is at:
http://www.sbcl.org/manual (Who's computer is this?)
*** Which implementation should I pick?
Depends on your needs, but as long as you are just starting out
it really doesn't matter. However, if you are expecting a particular
group of people to help you, do pick an implementation they are
Once you have learned more you can make an informed decision for
yourself. Moving between implementations is not that big an issue,
really, so there is no point in agonizing over initial choice.
That said, I am is highly partial to SBCL:
http://www.sbcl.org/ (Who's computer is this?)
SBCL is open source, runs on a number of platforms (Windows), has a
good native compiler, takes ANSI compliance pretty seriously, and
generally bring happiness and joy to the world. ...but then I would
say that, since I am one of its developers and my company Steel Bank
Studio Ltd provides commercial support for it.
If SBCL doesn't bake your cake for one reason or another, I would
suggest working your way down the following list:
*** Which IDE should I use?
If you are using SBCL, then you want to use Emacs and Slime:
http://www.common-lisp.net/project/slime/ (Who's computer is this?)
Even if you haven't used Emacs before, do yourself a favor and use
Slime -- the learning curve isn't all that long, and you can get at
all the commands from menus too.
If you are using another implementation, use the IDE the implementors
recommend for it (though Slime works with practically every
For a reasonable Lisp experience your editing environment should at
* autoindent lisp correctly
* match parens
* provide commands like: "edit definition", "compile defun", "eval
expression", "describe symbol", "disassemble function", "trace
function", "inspect expression", etc. for interacting with you Lisp
* provide integration with the debugger.
* provide integration with the inspector.
Slime does all this and more.
If you love Vi(m), then you may want to check out Slimv, which hooks
Vim into the Common Lisp part of Slime:
http://www.vim.org/scripts/script.php?script_id=2531 (Who's computer is this?)
http://kovisoft.bitbucket.org/tutorial.html (Who's computer is this?)
...but I cannot vouch for it, as I don't use it.
If you really really hate both Vim and Emacs, then there is an Eclipse
plugin called `Cusp', but I won't vouch for it:
http://www.paragent.com/lisp/cusp/cusp.htm (Who's computer is this?)
*** Where are all the libraries? Is there a CPAN or RubyGems
`QuickLisp' is akin to RubyGems:
http://www.quicklisp.org/ (Who's computer is this?)
It puts a ton of libraries at your fingertips, and manages
dependencies between them.
Closest things to CPAN are `Cliki' and `common-lisp.net':
http://www.cliki.net/ (Who's computer is this?)
http://www.common-lisp.net/ (Who's computer is this?)
*** Is there a GUI?
Yes and no. There is no single GUI that everyone doing GUI stuff is
Commercial implementations tend to come with non-portable GUI
libraries that their proponents seem quite fond of. If you use
a commercial implementation and don't need portability then
the vendor toolkit is a natural choice.
One the open source side, there are several libraries you can use.
CommonQt is a Common Lisp binding to the smoke library for Qt:
http://common-lisp.net/project/commonqt/ (Who's computer is this?)
LTK is built on top of Tk:
http://www.peter-herth.de/ltk/ (Who's computer is this?)
CL-GTK2 and CLG both provide GTK+ bindings, but I'm not sure what
their current status is:
http://common-lisp.net/project/cl-gtk2/ (Who's computer is this?)
http://sourceforge.net/projects/clg/ (Who's computer is this?)
CLIM (Common Lisp Interface Manager) is a semi-standardized GUI API
specification, quite different from the widget & event-loop based GUIs
listed above. Don't expect it to feel familiar immediately.
http://random-state.net/files/how-is-clim-different.html (Who's computer is this?)
Some people swear it is the best thing since sliced bread, and some
people think sliced bread is better for building GUIs then it is. At
any rate, most commercial implementations provide a CLIM
implementation, and there exists a portable open source implementation
called McCLIM, which is quite usable, but has lately stalled a bit.
http://common-lisp.net/project/mcclim/ (Who's computer is this?)
CLX is a portable low-level X11 interface written in Lisp, providing a
level of abstraction similar to Xlib.
http://www.cliki.net/CLX (Who's computer is this?)
*** What online forums are there?
http://www.lispforum.com/ (Who's computer is this?)
but I can't vouch for it, since I've never been a regular.
Then there's comp.lang.lisp on Usenet / Google Groups, but it is
inhabited by several trolls. While many of the frequent writers are
quite knowledgeable, uninformed speculation remains common. Reading it
can be a stress-inducing experience, and is definitely not necessary
in order to use Lisp.
http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.lisp (Who's computer is this?)
There are several special-purpose mailing lists which have vastly
better signal to noise ratio: all implementations tend to have their
own user- or help-lists, and most libraries have their own mailing
The IRC channel #lisp on freenode.org is quite popular also,
especially among the open source users and developers.
There is also a fairly active game writing community, but I'm not
really familiar with it. Googling for lispgames should set you on its
Mailing list pro is targeted at people who actually use Common Lisp on
a regular basis. Discussions about other Lisp dialects are off-topic,
and newbie-questions are NOT welcome:
http://lists.common-lisp.net/mailman/listinfo/pro (Who's computer is this?)
** Language features
*** How do I compile a file?
Short answer: start your Lisp, and type:
Then you probably want to LOAD the compiled file.
Long answer: most compiled languages are non-interactive -- you
compile a file from the command line or IDE, and then run the compiled
file. Not so with Lisp.
While you can generally speaking turn your project into an executable
file, the typical Common Lisp development session does not resemble
the edit, compile, run cycle you've come to expect.
Normally you interact with a long-running Lisp process that holds your
development session, and add code to it incrementally. For example:
1. Open Emacs, start Slime and Lisp with M-x slime.
2. Load existing code to Lisp using eg. ASDF.
3. Open the file you're interested in, edit a function, and then
hit C-c C-c to recompile that single function.
4. Go to the Slime REPL and test your changes.
5. Go to step 3.
The ASDF alluded above is "Another System Definition Facility", which
can be used to describe the way several files form a single system,
and allows the files to be eg. compiled and loaded with a single
command. Sort of like Make, but not at all like it really.
*** How do I make an executable?
The answer depends on the implementation you are using. Refer to its
documentation. That said, if you are using SBCL:
;; First load you application into SBCL, then do this. MY-FUNCTION
;; is the entry point to your application.
(save-lisp-and-die "my.exe" :executable t :toplevel 'my-function)
*** FUNCALL and APPLY -- what's the difference, which one should I
Short answer: Use FUNCALL if you can, APPLY otherwise.
Long answer: With FUNCALL the number of arguments must be known at the
call site. With APPLY (and MULTIPLE-VALUE-CALL) the number of
arguments need not be known.
(defun map-list-with-1 (function list arg)
(mapcar (lambda (elt)
(funcall function elt arg))
(defun map-list-with-n (function list &rest args)
(mapcar (lambda (elt)
(apply function elt args))
There is no reason to write MAP-LIST-WITH-1 using APPLY, and FUNCALL
is almost certain to be more efficient here.
In contrast, MAP-LIST-WITH-N cannot be written using FUNCALL, as the
number of arguments is not known at the call site -- APPLY has to be
*** SET, SETQ and SETF -- what's the difference, which one should I
Short answer: Always use SETF.
Long answer: Originally, in the days of yore, long before there was
Common Lisp, there were no lexical variables -- only dynamic ones. And
there was no SETQ or SETF, just the SET function.
What is now written as:
(setf (symbol-value '*foo*) 42)
was written as:
(set (quote *foo*) 42)
which was eventually abbreviavated to SETQ (SET Quoted):
(setq *foo* 42)
Then lexical variables happened, and SETQ came to be used for
assignment to them too -- so it was no longer a simple wrapper around
Later, someone invented SETF (SET Field) as a generic way of assigning
values to data structures, to mirror the l-values of other languages:
x.car := 42;
would be written as
(setf (car x) 42)
For symmetry and generality, SETF also provided the functionality of
SETQ. At this point it would have been correct to say that SETQ was a
Low-level primitive, and SETF a high-level operation.
Then symbol macros happened. So that symbol macros could work
transparently, it was realized that SETQ would have to act like SETF
if the "variable" being assigned to was really a symbol macro:
(defvar *hidden* (cons 42 42))
(define-symbol-macro foo (car *hidden*))
foo => 42
(setq foo 13)
foo => 13
*hidden* => (13 . 42)
So we arrive in the present day: SET and SETQ are atrophied remains of
older dialects, and will probably be booted from eventual successors
of Common Lisp.
Just Use SETF.
*** '(1 2 3) or (list 1 2 3)?
Short answer: Use
(list 1 2 3)
unless you understand the difference. If you have
'(1 2 3)
to deal with, don't modify it destructively. (Eg. with SORT or
Long answer: First off, the single quote is a read macro, transforming
at read-time, so
'(1 2 3) === (quote (1 2 3))
Secondly, QUOTE is a special operator that returns its argument
'(1 2 3)
returns a literal list. Like in most languages, modifying literal data
leads to undefined consequences. For example, the compiler is allowed
to coalesce constants including literals:
(let ((a '(1 2 3))
(b '(1 2 3)))
(eq a b)) ; => T or NIL
The upshot of which is that modifying A may also modify B. What is
QUOTE good for, then? If you have eg. large constant lists that you
would like the compiler to coalesce, then putting them in as literal
constants gives the compiler license to do so.