Stupid Programming Language Arguments

I have to say, there are few things finer than idiotic metrics for why one programming language is better than another, but by far, my favorite is “how many characters does it take to produce a local binding?”

Some languages do quite good here–Go uses just 2 characters :=, for instance. But, I’d like to compare two languages that are quite similar–they encode different variants of the Lambda Calculus. OCaml, which implements the typed Lambda Calculus, and Scheme, which implements the untyped Lambda Calculus (more or less).

Both languages introduce local bindings with the symbol let, and let in both constructs is equivalent sugar to immediately applying an abstraction of a single parameter with the bindings value. In Scheme, this desugaring looks something like1:

(let ((x 1)) (+ 1 x))       

;; is functionally equivalent to:

((lambda (x) (+ x 1)) 1)

OCaml looks like so:

let x = 1 in
   1 + x

(* which is functionally equivalent to: *)

(fun x -> x + 1) 1

Just by looking at the number of characters used for the desugared version, Scheme looses by quite a bit. And, even the sugared version is close, with OCaml inching ahead. The story quickly changes, however, when a programmer must introduce more than one binding. In OCaml, this looks like so:

let x = 1 in
let y = 2 in
let z = 3 in
   x + y + z

For each binding, we need “let”, 4 characters, an “=”, 1 character, and “in”, 3 characters–8 characters for each new binding, minimum. A simple formula then, is 8n where n is the number of bindings.

Update: A friend suggested that we could use “and” and remove the need for the “in” here, but that implements recursive bindings which are semantically similar to Scheme’s “letrec” which makes it an apples to orange’s comparison.

Update 2: I misunderstood. “and” works here in an apples to apples way, but the whole point of this post is that this type of comparison is stupid anyway, so whatever. But, if you’re counting, that makes it 8 + 6n, which is still worse than Scheme.

Let’s now consider Scheme:

(let ((x 1)
      (y 2)
      (z 3))
   (+ x y z))

We get “(let”, for 4 characters, an opening “(”, for 1, a closing “)” for 1, and a “)”, for 1 to close out the whole form. That’s 7 total just for introducing a let. But, for each binding, it’s only 3 characters extra: “(”, some whitespace (which is only necessary for atoms, e.g. symbols, characters, numbers) and a closing “)”. The basic formula here? 7 + 3n

So, when introducing more than 1 binding, Scheme clearly is better, and it’s pretty close in the single binding case.

What does this mean? Absolutely nothing! It’s a frivolous comparison for the sake of experiment, but is there a point here?

Sort of. I choose to compare Scheme and OCaml simply because they are sort of duals of each other. On the one hand, you have Scheme, vastly flexible and superior because of it’s dynamic nature. On the other hand, you have OCaml, vastly flexible and superior because of it’s static nature.

Now you can argue all you want about why dynamic languages are a special case of staticly typed languages2, but that argument doesn’t help anyone get any (non PL-research) work done, just as character/typing overhead for local bindings, proves nothing about the merit of using one language over another.

Move along, and let people use whatever tools they need to use to get shit done, and spend time with their families.


  1. This isn’t really the whole story, but it’s close enough for illustrative purposes. See tel’s reponse

  2. The punchline of the argument is that a dynamic language has but one single static type.

— 2014-08-15