Insights to Common Lisp

Common Lisp (CL) is a dialect of the Lisp programming language, published in ANSI standard document ANSI INCITS 226-1994 (R2004) (formerly X3.226-1994 (R1999)). The Common Lisp HyperSpec, a hyperlinked HTML version, has been derived from the ANSI Common Lisp standard.

The Common Lisp language was developed as a standardized and improved successor of Maclisp. By the early 1980s several groups were already at work on diverse successors to MacLisp: Lisp Machine Lisp (aka ZetaLisp), Spice Lisp, NIL and S-1 Lisp. Common Lisp sought to unify, standardise, and extend the features of these MacLisp dialects. Common Lisp is not an implementation, but rather a language specification. Several implementations of the Common Lisp standard are available, including free and open-source software and proprietary products. Common Lisp is a general-purpose, multi-paradigm programming language. It supports a combination of procedural, functional, and object-oriented programming paradigms. As a dynamic programming language, it facilitates evolutionary and incremental software development, with iterative compilation into efficient run-time programs. This incremental development is often done interactively without interrupting the running application.

It also supports optional type annotation and casting, which can be added as necessary at the later profiling and optimization stages, to permit the compiler to generate more efficient code. For instance, fixnum can hold an unboxed integer in a range supported by the hardware and implementation, permitting more efficient arithmetic than on big integers or arbitrary precision types. Similarly, the compiler can be told on a per-module or per-function basis which type safety level is wanted, using optimize declarations.

Common Lisp includes CLOS, an object system that supports multimethods and method combinations. It is often implemented with a Metaobject Protocol.

Common Lisp is extensible through standard features such as Lisp macros (code transformations) and reader macros (input parsers for characters).

Common Lisp provides some backwards compatibility to Maclisp and to John McCarthy’s original Lisp. This allows older Lisp software to be ported to Common Lisp.

Work on Common Lisp started in 1981 after an initiative by ARPA manager Bob Engelmore to develop a single community standard Lisp dialect. Much of the initial language design was done via electronic mail. In 1982, Guy L. Steele, Jr. gave the first overview of Common Lisp at the 1982 ACM Symposium on LISP and functional programming.

The first language documentation was published 1984 as Common Lisp the Language (known as CLtL1), first edition. A second edition (known as CLtL2), published in 1990, incorporated many changes to the language, made during the ANSI Common Lisp standardization process: extended LOOP syntax, the Common Lisp Object System, the Condition System for error handling, an interface to the pretty printer and much more. But CLtL2 does not describe the final ANSI Common Lisp standard and thus is not a documentation of ANSI Common Lisp. The final ANSI Common Lisp standard then was published in 1994. Since then no update to the standard has been published. Various extensions and improvements to Common Lisp (examples are Unicode, Concurrency, CLOS-based IO) have been provided by implementations and libraries (many available via Quicklisp).

Scalar types:

Number types include integers, ratios, floating-point numbers, and complex numbers. Common Lisp uses bignums to represent numerical values of arbitrary size and precision. The ratio type represents fractions exactly, a facility not available in many languages. Common Lisp automatically coerces numeric values among these types as appropriate.

The Common Lisp character type is not limited to ASCII characters. Most modern implementations allow Unicode characters.

The symbol type is common to Lisp languages, but largely unknown outside them. A symbol is a unique, named data object with several parts: name, value, function, property list and package. Of these, value cell and function cell are the most important. Symbols in Lisp are often used similarly to identifiers in other languages: to hold the value of a variable; however there are many other uses. Normally, when a symbol is evaluated, its value is returned. Some symbols evaluate to themselves, for example all symbols in the keyword package are self-evaluating. Boolean values in Common Lisp are represented by the self-evaluating symbols T and NIL. Common Lisp has namespaces for symbols, called ‘packages’.

A number of functions are available for rounding scalar numeric values in various ways. The function round rounds the argument to the nearest integer, with halfway cases rounded to the even integer. The functions truncatefloor, and ceiling round towards zero, down, or up respectively. All these functions return the discarded fractional part as a secondary value. For example, (floor -2.5) yields −3, 0.5; (ceiling -2.5) yields −2, −0.5; (round 2.5) yields 2, 0.5; and (round 3.5) yields 4, −0.5.

Data structures:

Sequence types in Common Lisp include lists, vectors, bit-vectors, and strings. There are many operations that can work on any sequence type.

As in almost all other Lisp dialects, lists in Common Lisp are composed of conses, sometimes called cons cells or pairs. A cons is a data structure with two slots, called its car and cdr. A list is a linked chain of conses or the empty list. Each cons’s car refers to a member of the list (possibly another list). Each cons’s cdr refers to the next cons—except for the last cons in a list, whose cdr refers to the nil value. Conses can also easily be used to implement trees and other complex data structures; though it is usually advised to use structure or class instances instead. It is also possible to create circular data structures with conses.

Common Lisp supports multidimensional arrays, and can dynamically resize adjustable arrays if required. Multidimensional arrays can be used for matrix mathematics. A vector is a one-dimensional array. Arrays can carry any type as members (even mixed types in the same array) or can be specialized to contain a specific type of members, as in a vector of bits. Usually only a few types are supported. Many implementations can optimize array functions when the array used is type-specialized. Two type-specialized array types are standard: a string is a vector of characters, while a bit-vector is a vector of bits.

Hash tables store associations between data objects. Any object may be used as key or value. Hash tables are automatically resized as needed.

Packages are collections of symbols, used chiefly to separate the parts of a program into namespaces. A package may export some symbols, marking them as part of a public interface. Packages can use other packages.

Structures, similar in use to C structs and Pascal records, represent arbitrary complex data structures with any number and type of fields (called slots). Structures allow single-inheritance.

Classes are similar to structures, but offer more dynamic features and multiple-inheritance. (See CLOS). Classes have been added late to Common Lisp and there is some conceptual overlap with structures. Objects created of classes are called Instances. A special case are Generic Functions. Generic Functions are both functions and instances.

The above is a brief about Common Lisp. Watch this space for more updates on the latest trends in Technology.

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