Talking to Donkeys

Too much choice is challenging, to say the least. Well, it is to me anyway. I get hung up on trying to pick the best choice from a huge list of items and end up doing nothing at all. All too often just making a choice, any choice, would be the best idea. However when you’re writing software and trying to pick from an array of available libraries the penalties of a wrong choice can be amplified later. This penalty comes from having to bet early on your chosen horse, but here’s the kicker, you could well have a lot of capital in the race before you realise you backed a donkey.


For instance, if you choose the wrong core library for the “Next Big Thing” now, you run the risk of tying yourself to an implementation that might have a flaw in it that you can’t fix because it’s not open source or because you don’t have the resources to undo it. So you have to adopt a work-around. Thankfully, most of the time things don’t turn out so bad. But if I stop talking to the donkeys for a minute and listen very carefully I can hear millions of developers happily using Microsoft’s tools and libraries without a care in the world. They don’t have to think about this sort of problem very often because Microsoft thought about it for them and gave them the library as part of the SDK. Those developers are real happy with what they’ve got and who can blame them, it’s like having an older brother who looks out for you. So what if he steals your lunch money, it’s part of his charm.

I don’t want to bash Microsoft here, by the way, I think they have a massively important role to play and I have to admit that some of the more recent tools they have made have been pretty awesome achievements for a gigadollar-company. It seems obvious, to me at least, that the higher Microsoft raises the bar in terms of tools the better it is for pretty much everyone. But the (real?) world outside of Redmond is a little more confusing, I know from (old) experience that when I want to use a SMTP client in Java I’ve got to go through a process of evaluation. In .NET the client that comes free in System.Net.Mail will do just fine, nothing to add. Sure sometimes .NET will sometimes be found lacking, but I’ve been pretty happy with the standard libraries in .NET so far and it’s only when I want something a little unusual that I need to go elsewhere (except for the annoying lack of a built-in Set class but that’s a different story).

Well all I wanted to do this week on my continuing Lisp learning exercise was send a multicast packet from my Common Lisp project. Guess what, network programming in Common Lisp is simply not possible. Gasp. It seems that the Common Lisp standard was set in 1994 and so predated the massive expansion of the internet. So CL projects like trivial-sockets and usocket have been created as CL vendor neutral APIs. Unfortunately, it seems trivial sockets is abandonware so I guess usockets is the way to go. But then, it seems broadcast networking is still work in progress for usocket so it seems fair to say that Common Lisp network programming for multicast will be some time off. In a platform independent way at least.

Even that’s ok. I don’t mind. I’m not producing any world-changing libraries here. Hell I might even pitch in on the usocket effort to help out. But right now I’m only messing about trying out some ideas to see what might fly, it’s what Lisp is good at after all. So I’m happy to use whatever multicast support SBCL has. Crap. They don’t seem to have implemented all the socket options needed . Then I read this very illuminating 2005 paper that lays the CL network programming problem out beautifully but when you scroll down to the “Proposed Solution” it says:

… To be written

If you stop talking to your own donkeys for a second and listen you might be able to hear me laughing. Very faintly.

Ok, I know what I’ll do. I’ll take a look at what I need to do make a foreign-function interface work. Yeah, that’s good, I’ll do that. Crap. I’ve got to chose between UFFI & CFFI. So I already know that I’m going to have to take a look at both to see what’s going on. A short while later and I’m starting to believe that CFFI is the cleaner of the two but then I stumble upon Verrazano and SWIG and my head starts to spin.

At this point it’s hard to be cross or frustrated about anything. This isn’t really anything that I can really blame CL for, it’s just how it is, if time-travel had of been available when the 1994 ANSI Common Lisp standard had been accepted then I’m sure they would have added a sockets layer. I can’t blame OpenSource because I can’t stop applauding it. I bow down to those people that have sacrificed their own personal time to make my life easier / better. I know that the fact that I have to do a little bit of work in the decision making process should make me happy because I have a choice to begin with. And anyway it’s better than having to do the whole thing from scratch myself.

But here’s the thing. When I stop shouting and beating my donkeys for being a bit lame and look up there’s millions of Microsoft developers cheerfully waving at the crazy guy who talks (and occasionally beats) his donkeys. I know if I was one of them, I’d think I was crazy too.

I think we donkey beaters can turn this around. I still believe that in general what I can hold in my hand for free is far more powerful than anything I can buy. The problem is essentially one of continuing improvement and better communication. All I have to do is stop cursing the donkeys and do something about it.

4 replies on “Talking to Donkeys”

You make a good point with ‘free is far more powerful than anything I can buy’, but it’s not very well illustrated with ‘1994 ANSI Common Lisp’.
The more popular open source languages illustrate it much better: Python’s “batteries included”, Perl’s CPAN, and even Java (not strictly open source) has most things you need in the JDK, J2EE, or on Apache / Jakarta. Ruby and PHP also have pretty fully featured standard libraries.
Lisp simply doesn’t have enough people using it to enjoy the ‘network effects’ that make open source so successful.
The open source advantage is that the best version becomes standard, often being incorporated into future versions (Python does this), whereas with a closed language you get only v0.1 baked into the language forever.
You don’t have to use C# or Lisp, Steve, there’s joy in the middle!

Yeah, well Lisp does have CLiki which is similar in concept to CPAN but it’s not very easy to navigate and some of the dependencies appear to be missing.

You are of course correct in your assertion that it does not have many people using it. I don’t know if it’s ever going to improve and I’m not going to hold my breath.

The central point, for me at least, is “does it have enough to it to let me do what I want?”. So far the answer to that it is definitely yes. Perhaps, what CL probably needs is another standardisation effort but again there will be no holding of any breath.

You need, what, IP_ADD_MEMBERSHIP? In the future, I would recommend that you send email to either sbcl-help or sbcl-devel, and ask for support to be added.

Of course, large requests may never happen due to resource constraints, and even trivial ones may take a while — but we do try to implement things people ask for.

As for multicasting sockopts, I have an untested patch that adds them to SB-BSD-SOCKETS, should you wish to play to guinea pig…

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