On Scheme

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Archive for April 30th, 2006

Real Criticisms of Scheme

Posted by Peter on April 30, 2006

Recently I have noticed a tendency in the Common Lisp community to criticize Scheme, possibly to make the Scheme community look equally bad in its handling of such viewpoints. So to head off silly and/or baseless attacks on Scheme I have created a brief list of things that Scheme actually does have problems with. Maybe someone will even turn them into a SRFI eventually, when we reach some kind of a consensus as to what the best solutions are. Remember these are problems with the language, not an implementation. Even if a specific implementation has fixed them it doesn’t fix the language itself. The language needs to address such issues so that the implementations don’t become too fragmented.

Types can be used to catch stupid programmer errors (the kind mere mortal make all the time, i.e. “which order do those parameters go in again?”) at compile time as well as to optimize away unnecessary run-time checks. Unfortunately the only types that Scheme supports are purely run-time. A type system also makes overloading functions based on the type of their parameters possible (efficiently, checking all parameter types on each call is not efficient), which can be extremely useful.

The macro system, although being nice for having hygienic safety and pattern matching, is at times cumbersome. It should be easy to create Common Lisp style macros when you want them. The macro system is also poorly documented (in my opinion).

The module system doesn’t support versioning well, nor does it support module “trees” (i.e. modules which have sub-modules declared within them). The fact that you can’t set! variables provided by modules feels arbitrary as well.

Scheme doesn’t have objects integrated into the language itself. Although I personally have argued that this can be considered a positive feature (see: here), I admit it can be annoying when to work on five different projects you have to learn five different object systems.

Trapping errors thrown at runtime, such as type errors, can be cumbersome and implementation dependant. Additionally there is no built-in syntax for providing the try-catch features available in other languages, although you can define your own with continuations.

Once again threads should be provided by the language, not by implementations.

Multiple Values
The values construct is cumbersome to work with. It requires special procedures to handle multiple values when it should be as simple as (f (p)) if f expects two parameters and p returns two values.

Lack of Compiler Hinting
This has partly been addressed under the problems with types, but as a whole Scheme lacks methods of hinting to the compiler what you are trying to do so it can optimize rationally. For example if defun was made part of the language we might allow the compiler to make the assumption that symbols created with defun could not be set!, and thus such functions could be inlined safely, ect.

Too Minimalist
Many of these problems resolve to the complaint that Scheme is too minimalist for its own good. Problems with types, threads, errors, objects, and modules are all symptoms of Scheme’s desire to be simple. Minimalism is good of course, because it makes the language easy to learn, implement, and optimize, but it has to be balanced with functionality, so that implementations don’t diverge to far when they are forced to implement features that the language doesn’t support.

Why use Scheme if has all these problems?

From this long list of faults you may think that I am encouraging you to drop Scheme. Many of these deficiencies have been resolved by individual implementations, which means that you can work as though they had been resolved, although there is a possibility that eventually you will have to update you code to bring it in line with the official solutions. Also Scheme still has some cool features that make it shine in comparison with Common Lisp, for example real continuations, guarantees of tail call optimization (no need for nasty do loops), and of course it is a Lisp-1. Additionally there is a formal process for revision, the SRFI, which allows the community to have their input, ensuring that Scheme improvements are really improvements, not fiat from some language deity. Even though these problems are currently open hopefully Scheme can later implement the best solutions to them, leaving the language as elegant as it is currently, unlike the solutions in Common Lisp, which often feel like hacks (just my opinion). If anyone does propose a SRFI to address one of these issues I would be grateful if they would let me know.


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