Rich Hickey Q&A
by Michael Fogus
Best known as the inventor of Clojure, a Lisp that runs on the Java
Virtual Machine and the first new member of the Lisp family to attract
any widespread interest since Scheme and Common Lisp, Rich Hickey has
been a software developer and consultant for two decades.
Prior to starting work on Clojure, he made four attempts to combine Lisp
with either Java or Microsoft's Common Language Runtime: jfli, Foil,
Lisplets, and DotLisp but Clojure was the first to draw significant
attention. To date there have been four books published on Clojure,
including The Joy of Clojure by interviewer Michael Fogus. The first
Clojure conference, ClojureConj held in 2010, drew over two hundred
attendees. And the Clojure Google group has, as of this writing, 4,880
members who have posted over 46,000 messages since it was started in
In past lives Hickey has been a music composition major, a guitarist,
and a serious C++ programmer, even teaching an Advanced C++ course at
New York University. In this interview, Michael Fogus talks with Hickey
about complexity, abstraction, and the past, present, and future of
Fogus: What drew you to programming?
Hickey: I was running a recording studio and
got a computer for it. I was intrigued by what it could do—this was in
the relatively early days of MIDI—and filled with the possibilities of
what it might do. So I taught myself C and assembly language and started
writing music software. I was immediately hooked.
Fogus: You play guitar, correct?
Hickey: Yes, I was a music composition major
Fogus: I've often found that great programmers
are skilled musicians. Do you think that musical art is related to the
art of programming?
Hickey: I think the skills useful for one are
often useful for the other. Coding and music performance are fairly
different, other than being disciplines that reward practice, but
software design and composition have a lot of similarities. Both involve
manipulating and coordinating abstractions, and envisioning their
realization, in the case of programs that are processes, in and over
time. I've certainly found software design satisfies the creative urge I
intended to pursue in composition, and has completely displaced it.
Fogus: What was the first interesting program
that you wrote?
Hickey: An early program I wrote that got me
excited about the possibilities of computing was a simple evolution
program. Bugs moved around on the screen looking for food, with random
movement to start. I would start it before bed, with the bugs shaking
around, and awake to find they had evolved these fluid, efficient
movement strategies. It was then that I realized that simulations and
generative programs would allow us to see and discover things that
analysis and calculation couldn't.
Fogus: What do you do to improve your skills
as a programmer? Do you have certain exercises or pet projects that you
Hickey: I read relentlessly. I don't do any
programming not directed at making the computer do something useful, so
I don't do any exercises. I try to spend more time thinking about the
problem than I do typing it in.
Fogus: Speaking of reading, you once created a
list on Amazon that was very popular. Of those books listed, are there any you
think every programmer should read?
Hickey: I couldn't highlight just a few. Each
illuminates some things and ignores others. I'm not really comfortable
advocating what others ought to do. Personally, I try to read, on an
ongoing basis, books such as those on the list and papers from academia,
many of which are available online. And I like to see a commitment to
learning on the part of people with whom I work.
Fogus: Let's talk about some of your choices
for the Clojure Bookshelf list. For example, on the surface Clojure
seems to be very different from Ruby, yet you list Programming Ruby
1.9 by Thomas, Fowler, and Hunt. How did that book, and Ruby in
general, influence the design of Clojure?
Hickey: Well, influences can be positive or
negative. Looking at Python and Ruby left me resolute that I didn't want
to create yet another syntax and yet another object system. On the other
hand, they set a high bar for concision.
Fogus: Do you think Ruby or Python has taken
the ALGOL-derived syntax to the limit of its concision?
Hickey: I don't know. I'm more interested in
reducing complexity than I am in concision.
Fogus: Let's explore that a little. There are
the complexities of the problem, which are mostly language independent,
and then there are incidental complexities imposed by the language
itself. How does Clojure alleviate the last of these—the incidental
Hickey: Reducing incidental complexity is a
primary focus of Clojure, and you could dig into how it does that in
every area. For example, mutable state is an incidental complexity. The
mechanics of it seem simple, or at least familiar, but the reality is
quite complex. In my opinion, it is clearly the number one problem in
systems. So, Clojure makes immutable data the default.
Since we were talking about syntax, let's look at classic Lisp. It seems
to be the simplest of syntax, everything is a parenthesized list of
symbols, numbers, and a few other things. What could be simpler? But in
reality, it is not the simplest, since to achieve that uniformity, there
has to be substantial overloading of the meaning of lists. They might be
function calls, grouping constructs, or data literals, etc. And
determining which requires using context, increasing the cognitive load
when scanning code to assess its meaning. Clojure adds a couple more
composite data literals to lists, and uses them for syntax. In doing so,
it means that lists are almost always call-like things, and vectors are
used for grouping, and maps have their own literals. Moving from one
data structure to three reduces the cognitive load substantially.
As programmers we've become quite familiar with many incidental
complexities, but that doesn't make them less complex, it just makes us
more adept at overcoming them. But shouldn't we be doing something more
Fogus: So once incidental complexities have
been reduced, how can Clojure help solve the problem at hand? For
example, the idealized object-oriented paradigm is meant to foster
reuse, but Clojure is not classically object-oriented—how can we
structure our code for reuse?
Hickey: I would argue about OO and reuse, but
certainly, being able to reuse things makes the problem at hand simpler,
as you are not reinventing wheels instead of building cars. And Clojure
being on the JVM makes a lot of wheels—libraries—available. What makes a
library reusable? It should do one or a few things well, be relatively
self-sufficient, and make few demands on client code. None of that falls
out of OO, and not all Java libraries meet this criteria, but many do.
When we drop down to the algorithm level, I think OO can seriously
thwart reuse. In particular, the use of objects to represent simple
informational data is almost criminal in its generation of
per-piece-of-information micro-languages, i.e. the class methods, versus
far more powerful, declarative, and generic methods like relational
algebra. Inventing a class with its own interface to hold a piece of
information is like inventing a new language to write every short story.
This is anti-reuse, and, I think, results in an explosion of code in
typical OO applications. Clojure eschews this and instead advocates a
simple associative model for information. With it, one can write
algorithms that can be reused across information types.
This associative model is but one of several abstractions supplied with
Clojure, and these are the true underpinnings of its approach to reuse:
functions on abstractions. Having an open, and large, set of functions
operate upon an open, and small, set of extensible abstractions is the
key to algorithmic reuse and library interoperability. The vast majority
of Clojure functions are defined in terms of these abstractions, and
library authors design their input and output formats in terms of them
as well, realizing tremendous interoperability between independently
developed libraries. This is in stark contrast to the DOMs and other
such things you see in OO. Of course, you can do similar abstraction in
OO with interfaces, for instance, the
java.util collections, but you
can just as easily not, as in
Fogus: Can you expand on what you mean by
"simple associative model for information"?
Hickey: Most classes used to represent
information are just bespoke associative maps of named
properties/attributes to values. But in the customization process we
usually lose the ability to treat them like generic maps. This then
precludes the writing of generic information manipulation code, since
such code requires the capability to generically access/modify/add
properties by name/key, enumerate properties, etc. An associative
information model retains and emphasizes those capabilities.
Fogus: Are there any domains where this
abstraction-oriented approach isn't suitable?
Hickey: I think the approach in general has
universal appeal. The pressure on abstractions, and on dynamic languages
like Clojure, comes from the quest for performance. People seeking the
utmost performance might not find Clojure suitable. They might not even
find Java suitable, with its lack of composite value types both on the
stack and in arrays.
That said, this is an area of ongoing improvement in Clojure, which is
already pretty fast, as dynamic languages go. With optional type hints,
Clojure can already generate local code as fast as Java, and new work on
primitive arguments and returns is enabling that speed across larger
scopes. Whether that can be carried to the highest levels of the
abstraction stack, without incurring the rigidity and complexity of a
full-on type system, is an open question I intend to pursue.
Fogus: In an old paper of yours, "Callbacks in
C++ Using Template Functors", you write favorably about C++, OOP, and
static typing. Why did you change your mind?
Hickey: I'm not sure I did. I said C++ was
flexible—it is—and that, when implementing a callback system for C++,
one should remain aligned with its object orientation and static typing.
More interesting to me, in rereading it, is that I am still now making
the same arguments I made then, fifteen years ago, against mixins and
derivation as extension mechanisms.
That said, I certainly was a fan of C++ in the day, and five more years
of it cured me of that. The complexity is stunning. It failed as the
library language it purported to be, due to lack of GC, in my opinion,
and static typing failed to keep large OO systems from becoming wretched
balls of mud. Large mutable object graphs are the sore point, and
const is inadequate to address it. Once C++'s performance advantage
eroded or became less important, you had to wonder—why bother? I can't
imagine working in a language without GC today, except in very special
Along the way, I discovered Common Lisp, which was much more flexible,
dynamic, simpler, and fast enough, and decided that was how I wanted to
program. Finally, with Clojure, that is becoming possible, and
practical, for me.
Fogus: In an email exchange, you mentioned
that during the process of learning Lisp, you experienced joy—a
motivation for the title of my book, by the way. Can you elaborate on
that feeling and why it seems that Lisp fosters such a feeling?
Hickey: You can reach a point with Lisp where,
between the conceptual simplicity, the large libraries, and the
customization of macros, you are able to write only code that matters.
And, once there, you are able to achieve a very high degree of focus,
such as you would when playing Go, or playing a musical instrument, or
meditating. And then, as with those activities, there can be a feeling
of elation that accompanies that mental state of focus.
Fogus: What programming languages have you
Hickey: Mainly C, C++, Java, C#, Common Lisp,
Fogus: What is your second favorite
Hickey: If I had been more satisfied with any
of those, I wouldn't have written Clojure. If I had to be stranded with
something other than Clojure, I'd be happiest with a good Common Lisp
and its source code. If I had more free time, I'd spend it with Haskell.
Fogus: I have a theory that the excitement
surrounding Clojure is in part due to a general open-mindedness fostered
by Paul Graham's original Lisp essays and the popularity of Python and
Ruby. What do you attribute to Clojure's success thus far?
Hickey: I agree with your theory. I think Paul
Graham's essays were hugely influential, and got people interested in
Lisp, a Lisp-like way of thinking about programming, and the importance
of rejecting conventional wisdom. And Python and Ruby—and PHP and
people were obviously succeeding with languages other than Java/C#/C++.
All of this paved the way for Clojure.
It's interesting, because Clojure provides almost nothing you can't find
somewhere else. But I do think it occupies an otherwise empty spot in
the multidimensional space of language features and capabilities. If it
hadn't, I wouldn't have written it. That's the spot I wanted to work in,
and enough other people must want to be there too.
Fogus: You've personally done a lot to set the
tone in the Clojure community. How much does a language's community
contribute to its success?
Hickey: I think it is a huge component. I am
so happy with, and proud of, the Clojure community. People are helpful,
and respectful, and positive. I think the key point is that the
community values itself, such that people will decide it is more
important to preserve the quality of the community than to vent their
emotions or prove themselves right.
Fogus: Can you talk briefly about the
Lisp-related projects leading up to the creation of Clojure?
Specifically, what were the goals of dotLisp, Foil, and Lisplets?
Hickey: dotLisp was the inevitable rite of
passage write-a-Lisp-interpreter thing. The only thing interesting about
it was that, like Clojure, it was designed to be hosted and provide
convenient access to the host, the CLR in this case.
Jfli was next, an attempt to provide access to Java by embedding a JVM
inside a Common Lisp process. This worked okay, but still had a
dissatisfying us-and-them feel.
Foil was essentially the same concept, but out of process. It used the
same sexpr wire protocol to support both Java and CLR interop. Still
us-and-them, and slower than same process, but theoretically less
Lisplets was even more decoupled, merely translating Java servlet
requests and responses to sexprs so you could write your servlets in
In the end, none of these really let you sneak Lisp into a more
traditional shop, nor did they provide satisfyingly fast access to the
abundant Java libs from Lisp.
Fogus: What lessons did you take away from
those experiments when creating Clojure?
Hickey: That it was possible to create a
satisfying Lispy syntax for accessing traditional OO stuff. That you
really want to be on the same side of the fence, sharing GC, etc. with
the host. The 'foreign' part of FFI has to go.
Fogus: Clojure was once in parallel
development on both the JVM and the CLR, why did you eventually decide
to focus in on the former?
Hickey: I got tired of doing everything twice,
and wanted instead to do twice as much.
Fogus: Referring back to your previous comment
regarding the negative aspect of influences, I'm led to wonder if the
inclusion of Prolog Programming for Artificial Intelligence by Ivan
Bratko to your Bookshelf was of this variety. You've mentioned elsewhere
that the common view of Prolog as declarative is overblown—can I assume
that Prolog negatively influenced Clojure?
Hickey: I didn't say overblown. I said it is
less declarative than it might be, what with cut/fail and clause order
dependence. On the other hand, it is much more declarative than what
most of us are doing all the time, and serves as inspiration towards a
more declarative approach. During the early development of Clojure, I
built a prototype predicate dispatch system for it using a Lisp-based
Prolog. It never became part of Clojure, but I am still interested in
predicate dispatch, as well as using logic systems in place of a type
system for Clojure. Definitely a positive influence, if somewhat
under-delivered upon, as of yet.
Fogus: I have studied the Clojure Datalog
implementation and am saddened that it does not get a lot of exposure.
Do you think that there is a place for it, or some derivative, as the
basis for that "logic system"?
Hickey: Yes, definitely. I like Datalog a lot.
Fogus: To what extent should a programming
language be designed to prevent programmers from making mistakes or
writing bad code?
Hickey: I'm reluctant to say "should", as
different languages can rightly take different approaches to this. I
know my personal focus is on enabling people to do the right thing
rather than preventing them from doing the wrong thing. In the end,
there is nothing that will prevent people from making mistakes or
writing bad code.
Fogus: Following that idea—some people are
surprised by the fact that Clojure does not engage in data-hiding
encapsulation on its types. Why did you decide to forgo data-hiding?
Hickey: Let's be clear that Clojure strongly
emphasizes programming to abstractions. At some point though, someone is
going to need to have access to the data. And if you have a notion of
"private", you need corresponding notions of privilege and trust. And
that adds a whole ton of complexity and little value, creates rigidity
in a system, and often forces things to live in places they shouldn't.
This is in addition to the other losing that occurs when simple
information is put into classes. To the extent the data is immutable,
there is little harm that can come of providing access, other than that
someone could come to depend upon something that might change. Well,
okay, people do that all the time in real life, and when things change,
they adapt. And if they are rational, they know when they make a
decision based upon something that can change that they might in the
future need to adapt. So, it's a risk management decision, one I think
programmers should be free to make.
If people don't have the sensibilities to desire to program to
abstractions and to be wary of marrying implementation details, then
they are never going to be good programmers.
Fogus: Where can we draw the line between
sensibilities and language philosophy? That is, could the same be said
for immutability in that we could simply say that programmers should
follow a convention of immutability instead of it being enforced by the
Hickey: There's no such thing as a convention
of immutability, as anyone who has tried to enforce one can attest. If a
data structure offers only an immutable API, that is what's most
important. If it offers a mixed API, it's simply not immutable.
Enforcement is orthogonal. That's not to say there isn't value in
enforcement, as many optimizations can come into play. But there's no
free lunch—type systems that can enforce purity are complex.
Fogus: What would you say to people who claim
that Clojure is not a "real Lisp"?
Hickey: Life is too short to spend time on
such people. Plenty of Lisp experts have recognized Clojure as a Lisp. I
don't expect everyone to prefer Clojure over their favorite Lisp. If it
wasn't different in some ways, there'd be little reason for it to exist.
Fogus: Aside from an obvious language choice
like Lisp-1 vs. Lisp-2, how does Clojure differ from and hope to improve
on Common Lisp and Scheme?
Hickey: The two most significant changes are:
the core library is implemented in terms of abstractions, not concrete
data types, e.g. sequence and associative abstractions rather than cons
cells, and the core data structures are immutable and persistent.
Fogus: Referring back to your previous
statement about Clojure allowing Lisp to be sneaked into traditional
shops—how does Clojure differ in this respect from other JVM-based
Hickey: Not much. You can sneak in almost any
JVM language similarly.
Fogus: You've said you've been surprised by
how popular Clojure has become, but on the other hand didn't you bet a
couple years of your life with little or no other income to produce the
Hickey: I started it while on a sabbatical I
had given myself. Not a break from work, but a break to work, as a
completely free person. I gave myself leave to do whatever I thought was
right, with no regard for what others might think, nor any motivation to
profit. In releasing it, I had the normal expectations for a new
language—that ten to a hundred people might use it. Maybe I would get
some help or code contributions.
It has taken off, and subsequently demanded far more time than the
sabbatical I planned. So, I'm trying to recoup some of the investment
I've made. Had it been a financially motivated undertaking, I'm sure
Clojure would not exist, but I don't regret having invested in it.
Fogus: You released a series of videos
introducing Clojure that generated serious buzz around the language. In
my opinion they are a brilliant marketing strategy, especially for a
young language. Were you intentionally creating those videos as
marketing material, or was that simply a side effect of a purely
Hickey: I've never intentionally marketed
Clojure, other than the first email announcing its existence to the very
few members of the jfli and Foil mailing lists.
I've given many invited talks, and the videos are recordings of some of
those talks. It just seemed like a sensible way to leverage the effort
that went into doing the talks. I was quite surprised by the audience
they received, but it proves that videos like that are much more
efficient than talking to fifty to a hundred people at a time.
Fogus: As someone who only knows Haskell
enough to read the papers, Clojure appears to be influenced by it
substantially. From the names and operation of core functions—
repeat, etc.—to its protocols facility, there is a
lot in Clojure that a Haskell programmer would recognize. Can you
elaborate on Haskell's influences on Clojure both positive and negative?
Hickey: I think Haskell is a fantastic,
awe-inspiring piece of work. I haven't used it in anger, but it
certainly was a positive influence. Haskell obviously goes much further
than Clojure in pursuing the ideals of functional programing. In
particular they differ in the approach to using types to enforce things.
In some ways, Clojure is an experiment to see how many of the benefits
of functional programming can be delivered without static enforcement.
Certainly Clojure shows that you can get many benefits of using
immutable data and pure functions merely by supplying them as defaults
and choosing to use them, much in the same way you can get the benefits
of walking on the sidewalk without there being guard rails forcing you
to stay on the sidewalk.
I think the great challenge for type systems in practical use is getting
them to be more expressive without a corresponding—or worse—increase in
complexity. I have yet to see that, so they are not aligned with my
desire to reduce complexity in programing.
As far as protocols go, they are as much akin to Common Lisp's generic
functions as to Haskell's type classes, both of which demonstrate it is
more flexible and extensible to keep functions and data separate, than
to combine them as in typical OO.
Fogus: It's clear that protocols are
influenced by CLOS. However, while CLOS allows you to build complex
class hierarchies, Clojure's types and protocols do not. Can you comment
on the problems associated with class hierarchies and how protocols
Hickey: One way to think about inheritance and
hierarchy is as a form of logical implication—if X is a Y, then all the
things that are true of Y's are true of X's. The problems come about
when you attach something to the hierarchy. If Y is just an interface,
then it's relatively easy to make X satisfy it without conflict or
contradiction. If Y is behavior and/or data, then things get dangerous
quickly. There's more potential for conflict and contradiction, and,
usually, there's also a method for partial overriding of the inheritance
and thus, qualification of the isa implication. The implication is
broken and your ability to reason about things turns to mud. And then of
course there are the type-intrusion problems of inheritance-based
Protocols and datatypes generally eschew implementation inheritance, and
support interface inheritance for interop only. Protocols support direct
connections of datatypes to protocols, without any inheritance. And
protocols support direct implementation composition, which, in my
opinion, is far preferable to inheritance for that purpose. You can
still get implementation inheritance by extending protocols to
interfaces, but that is a necessary compromise/evil for interop
purposes, and should be used with care.
Fogus: Protocols and datatypes provide the
basis for a bootstrapped Clojure—how important is it to implement
Clojure in Clojure?
Hickey: It is important to be able to
implement Clojure in Clojure, in order to make sure it has sufficient
facilities to implement its data structures and algorithms. We are
implementing any new data structures this way, and it is working out
well. As far as going back and redoing things, I think the most
important bit is the Clojure compiler. It currently is a lot of Java,
and no fun to maintain. In addition, there are several things I'd like
to do differently with it in order to provide better support for tools.
Next most important would be to move the abstractions from interfaces to
protocols. Finally, a full bootstrap would make ports easier.
Fogus: Different target hosts would naturally
support different subsets of Clojure's functionality. How do you plan to
unify the ports?
Hickey: I don't. It has not been, and will not
be, the objective of Clojure to allow porting of large programs from one
host to another. That is simply a waste of time, and needed by almost no
one. Currently, you often have to change languages when you change
short of some full portability layer. The idea is to be able to take
one's knowledge of Clojure and its core libraries, and of the host du
jour, and get something done. Certainly, non-IO libraries, like
Clojure's core, can move between hosts. The JVM and CLR have rough
Fogus: Will you formally define a "Clojure
Kernel" as part of the Clojure-in-Clojure process?
Hickey: I doubt it. Perhaps after a few ports
exist we can put a label on the commonality, but trying to do such
formalization prior to getting a few hosts under your belt seems folly.
Fogus: Favorite tools? Editor? Version
control? Debugger? Drawing tool? IDE?
Hickey: Circus Ponies NoteBook, OmniGraffle, hammock. [^1]
Fogus: You have been known to speak out
against test-driven development. Do you mind elaborating on your
Hickey: I never spoke out 'against' TDD. What
I have said is, life is short and there are only a finite number of
hours in a day. So, we have to make choices about how we spend our time.
If we spend it writing tests, that is time we are not spending doing
something else. Each of us needs to assess how best to spend our time in
order to maximize our results, both in quantity and quality. If people
think that spending fifty percent of their time writing tests maximizes
their results—okay for them. I'm sure that's not true for me—I'd rather
spend that time thinking about my problem. I'm certain that, for me,
this produces better solutions, with fewer defects, than any other use
of my time. A bad design with a complete test suite is still a bad
Fogus: Clojure provides function constraints
via pre- and post-condition checks that provide a subset of Eiffel's
contracts programming. Do constraints eliminate the need for, or
complement unit testing?
Hickey: They complement unit tests. They have
a number of nice properties—they document the intent of the code at the
point it is written, and can optionally run in the context of the
Fogus: It seems that your decision to include
features in Clojure is orthogonal to their implementation and inherent
complexities. For example, it seemed that streams were right on the cusp
of being integrated but were discarded outright. Likewise, scopes are
relatively simple to comprehend and implement, but likewise seem to have
been dropped, or at least delayed greatly. What are the reasons that you
stepped away from these two in particular, and in general, what is your
ultimate criteria for adding new features to Clojure?
Hickey: The default position is to not add
features. Complexity does matter.
Streams, in particular, exposed some difficult things in the API with
which I wasn't comfortable. Now some of the motivating ideas have moved
into pods, where they make more holistic sense. Various features
interact, e.g. pods, transients, and references, so you can't look at
any one in isolation. Scopes may seem easy to implement, but only in
ways that suffer the same limitations as vars and binding vis-à-vis
thread-pool threads. I have ideas about how to do that and binding
better, and that work may have to precede delivering scopes. Scopes are
still on the table.
I'd like for any new features to be actually needed and have designs I
feel good about. It is a process that requires exploratory work, and
time to think. I reserve the right to come up with a better idea, and
sometimes I am just allocating time to do that by waiting. I like to
think I don't primarily work on features—I work on problems that
features help solve. Scopes are a feature but resource management is a
problem; streams and pods are features but process is a problem. As you
work on problems, you develop—and sometimes abandon—ideas for features.
Fogus: I've spoken with a few of your former
co-workers, and they described you as a trouble-shooting and debugging
master. How do you debug?
Hickey: I guess I use the scientific method.
Analyze the situation given the available information, possibly
gathering more facts. Formulate a hypothesis about what is wrong that
fits the known facts. Find the smallest possible thing that could test
the hypothesis. Try that. Often this will involve constructing an
isolated reproducing case, if possible. If and only if the hypothesis is
confirmed by the small test, look for that problem in the bigger
application. If not, get more or better facts and come up with a
different idea. I try to avoid attempting to solve the problem in the
larger context, running in the debugger, just changing things to see
Ideally, you know you have solved the problem before you touch the
computer, because you have a hypothesis that uniquely fits the facts.
Fogus: Is there a fundamental difference
between debugging imperative/OO code versus Clojure code?
Hickey: There is no fundamental difference,
but debugging functional code is much easier because of the better
Fogus: Clojure's threaded concurrency story is
very solid with numerous flavors of reference types providing different
usage scenarios. Do you feel satisfied with Clojure's current
concurrency offerings, or do you have plans to expand on the current
reference model, or perhaps venture into distributed concurrency?
Hickey: Over time I've come to see this as
more of a state/identity/value/time/process thing rather than
concurrency in and of itself. Obviously it matters greatly for
concurrent programs. I think there is room for at least one more
reference type. To the extent one value is produced from another via a
transient process, you could have a construct that allowed that process
to have extent and/or multiple participants. This is the kind of thing
people do on an ad hoc basis with locks, and could be wrapped in a
reference-like construct, pods, that would, like the others, automate
it, and make it explicit and safe.
I don't see distributed concurrency as a language thing. In addition, I
don't think most applications are well served with directly connected
distributed objects, but would be better off with some sort of message
Fogus: While there are also primitives
supporting parallelism, Clojure's story here has a lot of room for
expansion. Do you plan to include higher-level parallel libraries such
as those for fork-join or dataflow?
Hickey: Yes, there are plans, and some
implementation work, to support fork-join–based parallel
map/reduce/filter etc. on the existing data structures.
Fogus: Are high-level languages harder to
Hickey: I have no idea. What I do know is
that, as we get to more virtualization, adaptive runtimes, dynamic
compilation, etc., it is becoming more difficult to obtain a
deterministic performance model for all languages on such runtimes. This
is presumably a trade-off to get better performance than we could obtain
through manual optimization.
Fogus: You've cited the philosophy of Alfred
North Whitehead—in particular his works Process and Reality and
Science and the Modern World—in explaining Clojure's notion of state,
time, and identity. What can we, as programmers, learn from Whitehead
specifically and philosophy in general? Is there a place for philosophy
in the education of software developers?
Hickey: I am not a proponent of the philosophy
or metaphysics of Whitehead, and could hardly claim to understand it
all. I was putting together a keynote for the JVM language summit and
striving to find language-independent core ideas in the Clojure work. I
was reminded of some Whitehead I had studied in college, so opened up a
few of his books. Sure enough, he was all over some of the themes of my
talk—time, process, immutability, etc. He is quite quotable, so I made
him the 'hero' of the talk. But Whitehead was not an inspiration for
Clojure—any connections were a serendipitous discovery after the fact.
That said, the number of connections was startling.
To the extent we create simplified models of the world, like object
systems, as programming constructs, yes, I guess any broader
understanding of the world could benefit programmers.
[^1]: Hickey has dubbed his previously mentioned tendency to spend more time thinking about problems than typing in code "Hammock-Driven Development".
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