The “Worse is Better” idea and the future of Lisp

The tag line for the International Lisp Conference 2009 was Lisp: The Next 50 Years. I am very interested in the future of Lisp, and hope to be one of many participants in creating that future. A widely-read paper from 1991 introduced the world to the phrase and philosophy called Worse is Better, and says that this philosophy should be used for the design of the next Lisp. What does that mean, and what parts of the argument still apply and should guide us?

Richard Gabriel and Worse is Better

Richard P. Gabriel is a brilliant computer scientist, probably best known for his company Lucid, Inc., which produced an excellent Common Lisp implementation, and later developed a sophisticated software development environment called Energize.

He has written extensively about the process by which new technological ideas move to the marketplace. His ideas about this are unique and very much worth learning. The most well worked-out version of his thoughts are in his book, Patterns of Software, which I recommend highly.

His first essay on this topic is called Lisp: Good News, Bad News, How to Win Big, originally published in 1989. It’s primarily about why the Lisp language was not succeeding as a vehicle for the delivery of practical applications. It examines Lisp’s successes and apparent failures, and suggests how to improve things. I find it very accurate and thoughtful, and holds up well over time.

The part that got the widest attention was Section 2.1, “The Rise of Worse is Better.” Jamie Zawinsky, then of Lucid, forwarded this section to many people, and soon it was redistributed very widely. It became, in effect, its own paper, generally known as Worse is Better. Do a web search on that phrase and you’ll find all kinds of commentary.

It characterizes a school of design which Gabriel attributes to MIT and Stanford and calls “the right thing”. He contrasts this with what he calls the “worse-is-better” philosophy, which he says “is only slightly different”. Many commentators have oversimplified and overstressed the dichotomy, and so I strongly recommend that you read the original four points that he associates with each philosophy. You’ll see that his characterization is careful and nuanced.

The phrase “Worse is Better” is rather over-the-top, and I think some people have misinterpreted the point because of that name. I sympathize with Gabriel. If you follow my own blog, you’ll see that I use somewhat provocative names for the articles, in order to attract readers. Sometimes it backfires. In my case, I used “Why Did M.I.T. Switch from Scheme to Python?” for an entry whose point was that the switch is not what’s important. But perhaps since it was the title, people commented mostly on the language issue! Oops. Some of the commentary on Worse is Better gets confused and thinks the two philosophies are simple opposites, but it’s much more subtle than that.

Worse is Better contains a story, which starts: “Two famous people, one from MIT and another from Berkeley (but working on Unix) once met to discuss operating system issues.” He wrote the story based on an oral account from me. In fact, the “MIT guy” was me, and the “New Jersey guy” (from Berkeley; see the paper for why) was Bill Joy.

His account is basically right. About the phrase “two famous people”, Bill Joy is far more famous than I am (see the current best-selling book, “Outliers”, for example). Neither of us said “it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken” (a line from an old TV commercial), as far as I remember. If you want to know about the issue that he spells “PC-loser-ing”, see the excellent 1989 paper PCLSRing: Keeping Process State Modular, by my friend Alan Bawden. It has been described as “an unpublished but influential note by Bawden”, and has been widely cited. (The general concept of PCLSR has to do with forcing a thread of execution to be X-consistent, for some level of abstraction X, even if the thread is operating below the level of X.)

Gabriel’s section ends: “But, one can conclude only that the Lisp community needs to seriously rethink its position on Lisp design. I will say more about this later.”

What does this mean for the future of Lisp?

The paper is about Lisp, but if we look carefully, it doesn’t bring the “worse is better” point to bear on Lisp very much.

Section 3.6, “The Next Lisp”, starts: “I think there will be a next Lisp. This Lisp must be carefully designed, using the principles for success we saw in worse-is-better…. The kernel should emphasize implementational simplicity, but not at the expense of interface simplicity. Where one conflicts with the other, the capability should be left out of the kernel.”

He goes on: “Some aspects of the extreme dynamism of Common Lisp should be reexamined, or at least the tradeoffs reconsidered.” He gives an example of correct but undesirable Lisp code, in which a function redefines top-level functions.

It’s hard for a compiler to optimize code in the presence of this kind of runtime behavior. There’s no need to write programs this way. Lisp has better ways to do what this code fragment is trying to do, and any competent Common Lisp programmer knows that and knows the proper way. Therefore, the next Lisp should consider omitting this capability.

Reducing extreme dynamism, way out at the edges, sounds promising, and should be considered carefully. But this specific example is the only one he gives!

The rest of the section is about how to layer the implementation. All of this is great, but it does not seem to have anything to do with “Worse is Better”!

The next section is “Help Applications Writers Win”, and clearly the right thing philosophy makes things better for application writers than the worse is better philosophy, all other things being equal. The point of the paper is that all other things aren’t equal because the worse is better philosophy should help get the system done on time and help it spread. But that’s just the overall thesis of the paper, not specific to Lisp at all.

Why does this paper spend so much time on the Worse is Better philosophy, when it bears so little on Lisp?

I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that this was very much on Gabriel’s mind at the time. He felt it was relevant to Lisp because MIT/Stanford people were frustrated that Unix seemed to be ignoring lessons and techniques that had been developed, and widely used, over so many years. He might even have been thinking of the competition between his own Lucid Lisp product and its competitors. But I ought not put words in his mouth.

Gabriel later wrote much more about the Worse is Better philosophy. He famously conducted a debate with himself, writing the other side under the pseudonym “Nickieben Bourbaki” (an allusion to Nicolas Bourbaki). These include Worse is Better is Worse, Is Worse Really Better?, and even more.

What do you think: do the ideas in the Worse is Better series of papers bear on the question of the future of Lisp? I’d appreciate if you’d take a look at Gabriel’s paper before answering!

P.S. Dept. of Fair Attribution: I borrowed some phrases of text from various Wikipedia articles. Look here for more general discussions about the future of Lisp.