Lisp50 Notes part IV: Fritz Kunze Enters the Lisp Mine Field

Fritz Kunze (co-founder of Franz Incorporated) gave a talk called “Careening through Lisp mind fields.” He was very informal in his delivery and had lots of humorous anecdotes to go along with his recollections and “armchair” speculations. Combined with the opening “meta talk” by Steel and Gabriel and also JonL’s extremely informal “meaning of life” type talk, one gets the impression that many of the major players in the Lisp world are unable to go along with any sort of standard social convention. Somehow, some way… they all have to find they own way of doing things and their own quirky personal inflections impact everything they do.

Early on in his talk he told a story about the creator of Eliza: Joseph Weizenbaum. (Weizenbaum died earlier this year, by the way.) The story goes that he walked into someones office and the guy in there says, hey– check out my program. You ask it questions and it answers yes or no! So they tried a few, and sure enough, the answers were right every single time. Weizenbaum asked him if it answers questions that are in German. The guy says, sure, but you have to do the typing. So Weizenbaum types in a couple of questions in German and the answers were correct in both cases. “I have to think about this,” he said, and he stomped off to his office. Not too long later he had Eliza up and running. And the program that inspired him? It just gave a “yes” if there were an odd number of characters in the question! (Weizenbaum would later go through a slightly paranoid/Luddite type phase when he was shocked at how ordinary people ascribed ‘real’ intelligence to his Eliza program. He criticized the role of artificial intelligence in society with his book, Computer Power and Human Reason.)

After showing some images created by an extremely unusual Lisp-based drawing program (and talking about some Eliza spinoffs), he then delved into the link between aspergers, autism, emotional immaturity and programming ability. He had a slide outlining some personality traits and a collective hush fell over the room as we all realized that we were part of some sort of incomprehensible evolutionary programmer-genius phenomenon. Okay, okay… I’m exaggerating. But the slide was interesting: it included stuff like “uncomfortable at parties” and “dislikes travelling”. (Are you a misunderstood genius? Take this quiz!) He talked about some of the problems in managing Lisp guys: “There’s a limit to the number of smart people you can put in a room. Things will break down and they won’t talk to each other.” After some more anecdotes and also some unscientific speculations, he concluded that therapy was the only solution… therapy, that is, for the normal people that have to work with the “asperger” guys! After a while, the managers and salesmen begin to emulate the smart people, he explained. If the company culture as whole absorbs too many “aspergerisms”, then the business ceases to be able to talk to its customers!

He concluded his talk with some ideas about the future of lisp. He thought that it would be possible for Lisp to reposition itself as sort of the ultimate DSL for making web pages. The problem, though, is that the Lisp community is made up of people who can neither compromise nor give up control. He proposed that a non-profit Lisp foundation be set up with the goal of producing a new Lisp within 12 months. “If you study history, you repeat yourself over and over again,” he said. “You’ve got to do something brand new!”

JonL stood up immediately following the talk: “As usual, I couldn’t disagree more with everything you said!” JonL was clearly disgusted, and… uh… unwilling to compromise on any of the points what were presented. “Nothing we can do today can change Lisp’s position in the market,” he concluded.

6 Responses to “Lisp50 Notes part IV: Fritz Kunze Enters the Lisp Mine Field”

  1. Martin Says:

    What was the basis of JonL’s disagreement? Did he understand the irony of standing up and being disagreeable (presumably he wasn’t doing it for the sake of it) after a talk about how Lisp people are anti-social?

  2. lispy Says:

    No. JonL was not joking and was not going for irony. I saw him from behind, though, and couldn’t see a “twinkle in his eye” if there was one– but he was truly angry as far as I could tell. Based on my imperfect memory of the situation, I’d say he took offense both at the idea of linking asperger’s to “hacker community” esteem levels (I think Richard Gabriel scored 5 on the test when he needed to be up in the 20’s) and also the idea of starting a foundation to make a new Lisp. The former point was idle, offensive, and silly to him. The latter one was pointless and stupid: I don’t think JonL has any interest in competing with other languages, popularizing Lisp, or sacrificing any of the areas for which he sees Lisp as being strongest in. According to JonL’s view, Lisp is primarily for “back forty” type projects and Lisp hackers are reduced to being sort of the “poets of programming.”

    “We were there when Lisp was actually useful,” he declared. “Nothing we can do today can change Lisp’s position in the market.” My notes are sketchy, of course, but that’s the gist of it. I was stunned….

  3. Alan Crowe Says:

    “The problem, though, is that the Lisp community is made up of people who can neither compromise nor give up control.”

    Putting defmacro in your language is a way of saying: “Wheee! language design is fun. Here, you have a go!” It is about giving up control.

    Ofcourse, some people cannot abide parentheses, so Lisp has read macros, to yield to their wishes also.

  4. Mark Miller Says:

    The title of the talk reminded me of “Mindfields” by Prodigy, “I walk through mindfields so watch your head rock!” 🙂

    I actually tried taking a free Aspergers quiz online (I can’t remember where now), since I had heard speculation about how they correlate, and got a result of:

    Aspie score: 73 out of 200
    Neurotypical score: 129 out of 200
    with “very likely neurotypical”

    In the breakdown of different mental aspects though I scored “above average” on the “Aspie” score and “below average” on my NT (neurotypical) score on a few of them.

    If the company culture as whole absorbs too many “aspergerisms”, then the business ceases to be able to talk to its customers!

    LOL! Well that explains right there why companies don’t do this, then. 🙂

    Maybe I just don’t understand Lisp, but I don’t agree with JohnL. As far as “changing Lisp’s place in the market” I agree there’s nothing that can be done in the short term, but I go back to what Alan Kay and even what Peter Seibel has said in the past: it’s about culture. Folded into that is it’s about a way of thinking, but I don’t think you have to “give people Aspergers” for them to get it. For example Richard Stallman talked about how one of his associates wrote the first Lisp implementation of Emacs on MULTICS, wrote an easy to follow manual for it, and gave it to his organization to use, and the secretaries were modifying Emacs in Lisp. The key he said was “don’t call it programming”, because that scared people away from it. They learned programming without realizing it, or put another way, “while doing something else.”

    Personally I found JohnL’s response kind of funny, from your description. As McCarthy said, just as before, people can go off and create their own Lisp if they want. Nothing’s stopping them. I guess what JohnL was really saying was, “If you’re going to go off and do this, don’t expect any support from the likes of me.”

    Kay has complained, though not bitterly I think, that Smalltalk and Lisp “eat their own young”. What he’s meant by this is they are both so useful that most people who get into them don’t aspire to create anything better, and this contributes to the slow progress of CS research. He’s said that using building architecture as an analogy, Smalltalk is at the level Gothic architecture (1,000 years old). Current software development practice with current tools is at the level of ancient Egyptian pyramid building (4,500 years old). I haven’t heard him give a historical analogy to Lisp. He has said something like “It’s the most beautiful language ever written.” This gives you an idea, though, of how far he thinks we have to go before CS gets to the level of modern engineering.

  5. Informatimago Says:

    Is there really nothing that can be done to change Lisp’s place in the market?

    We can just write applications in Lisp to compete with other applications, being orders of magnitude “better”. Applications with less bugs, applications more intelligent, etc.

    If you want to improve Lisp’s place in the market, just write more Lisp applications.

  6. Dan Weinreb Says:

    I felt that Kunze made a lot of strong statements with no, or very thin, support. For example, he said that the Common Lisp process was deeply flawed, which can be seen by its low adoption rate, but with no further explanation. He described Symbolics as “remarkable in scope and breadth of vision”, played an extensive excerpt from a (bad) Symbolics video commercial, and told a story about a building being built on a geologically unsound foundation, but never explained further than that what his point was, and what his justification for that point was.

    He talked about Harold Cohen’s AARON, a very impressive program that creates artistic images, and has been under development and improving for 35 years. AARON was originally written in C, but was rewritten in Lisp in the early 1990’s.

    He talked about the first (or, an early) Lisp compiler, written by Michael Levin and Tim Hart. He told the story of Josetph Weitzenbaum’s famous ELIZA program Kunze wrote a version of Eliza that he put on the web (it’s gone now) with 10,000 questions, which got a great deal of use: over 682 million interactions.

    He then talked about Lisp’s current unpopularity, and claimed the reason for it is that Lisp programmers all have Asperger’s Syndrome. His supposed evidence for this is a short online quiz that some programmers took.

    The quiz came from Simon Baron-Cohen, and much of what Kunze said seems to come from Baron-Cohen’s, such as his theory about autism-spectrum disorders being “an extreme form of the male brain”. Except that Baron-Cohen refers to these things as “hypotheses”, whereas Kunze cites them as facts.

    — The idea that you can dianose Asperger’s with such a quiz is preposterous.

    — If he is referring to Simon Baron-Cohen’s EQ SQ tests, they do not claim to diagnose Asperger’s syndrome.

    — I have had extensive experience with people who have Asperger’s, and am absolutely certain that the vast majority of Lisp programmers do not have it.

    — I asked whether he had tried the quiz on non-Lisp programmers, and he admitted that he had done so with the same results, even though he had been very specifically directing his attacks to the Lisp community specifically.

    He said that you can tell that they have Asperger’s Syndrome because they hate to travel, and don’t like being with many other people. I felt this was ironic, since he was talking to a room full of Lisp programmers who had travelled in order to be with a lot of other people.

    He also accused Lisp programmers of being unable to compromise, and being unmanagable. This is the opposite of my own experience, and I wonder if it says more about his own experiences as a manager than it does about Lisp programmers.

    He said that languages take 15 years to mature, citing 1984-2008 for Common Lisp, and 1995-2008 (not yet mature) for Java. He didn’t say how he came up with this.

    He said that a big problem was that there were not enough trained people, citing a figure of 900 computer science Ph.D.’s in the 1990’s, and 1000 now. Why he thinks that being “trained” requires a Ph.D., he did not explain. He also said that he feels it takes four years to become a good programmer, but that you “cannot” retrain people: for example, at Electronic Arts, 60% of the developers could not move from 8-bit to 16-bit processors. This seems quite implausible to me; he didn’t say where he got this figure.

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