Monday, July 22, 2013

The Realm of Racket is an enjoyable read

There are many ways to write a programming language book. You can start introducing the syntax and semantics of the language in a naturally comprehensible sequence of complexity and usage. Or you can choose to introduce the various features of the language with real world examples using the standard librray that the language offers. IIRC Accelerated C++ by Andrew Koenig and Barbara Moo takes this route. I really loved this approach and enjoyed reading the book.

Of course Matthias Felleisen is known for a third way of teaching a language - the fun way. The Little Schemer and The Seasoned Schemer have introduced a novel way of learning a language. The Realm of Racket follows a similar style of teaching the latest descendant of Lisp, one game at a time. The implementation of every game introduces the idioms and language features with increasing degrees of complexity. There's a nice progression which helps understanding the complex features of the language building upon the already acquired knowledge of the simpler ones in earlier chapters.

The book begins with a history of the Racket programming language and how it evolved as a descendant of Scheme, how it makes programming fun and how it can be used successfully as an introductory language to students aspiring to learn programming. Then it starts with Getting Started with Dr Racket for the impatient programmer and explains the IDE that will serve as your companion for the entire duration of your playing around with the book.

Every chapter introduces some of the new language features and either develops a new game or builds on some improvement of a game developed earlier. This not only demonstrates a real world usage of the syntax and semantics of the language but makes the programmer aware of how the various features interact as a whole to build complex abstractions out of simpler ones. The book also takes every pain to defer the complexity of the features to the right point so that the reader is not burdened upfront. e.g. Lambdas are introduced only when the authors have introduced all basics of programming with functions and recursion. Mutants are introduced only after teaching the virtues of immutablity. For loops and comprehensions appear only when the book has introduced all list processing functions like folds, maps and filters. And then the book goes into great depth explaining why the language has so many variants of the for loop like for/list, for/fold, for*, for/first, for/last etc. In this entire discussion of list processing, for loops etc., I would love to see a more detailed discussion on sequence in the book. Sequence abstracts a large number of data types, but, much like Clojure it introduces a new way of API design - a single sequence to rule them all. API designers would surely like to have more of this sauce as part of their repertoire. Racket's uniform way of handling sequence is definitely a potent model of abstraction as compared to Scheme or other versions of Lisp.

The games developed progress in complexity and we can see the powers of the language being put to great use when the authors introduce lazy evaluation and memoized computations and use them to improve the Dice of Doom. Then the authors introduce distributed game development which is the final frontier that the book covers. It's truly an enjoyable ride through the entire series.

The concluding chapter talks about some of the advanced features like classes, objects and meta-programming. Any Lisp book will be incomplete without a discussion of macros and language development. But I think the authors have done well to defer these features till the end. Considering the fact that this is a book for beginning to learn the language this sounded like a sane measure.

However, as a programmer experienced in other languages and wanting to take a look at Racket, I would have loved to see some coverage on testing. Introducing a bit on testing practices, maybe a unit testing library would have made the book more complete.

The style of writing of this book has an underlying tone of humor and simplicity, which makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read. The use of illustrations and comics take away the monotony of learning the prosaics of a language. And the fact that Racket is a simple enough language makes this combination with pictures very refreshing.

On the whole, as a book introducing a language, The Realm of Racket is a fun read. I enjoyed reading it a lot and recommend it without reservations for your bookshelf.


Anonymous said...

Have you seen RackUnit? It's pretty nice.

omd said...

How to design program on Coursera offers a systematic both to the language and systematic method of programming depending on the nature of the problem to solve. The lecture introduces nicely testing as part as the development driving toolkit.

EsauCairn said...

As you may have seen, coauthor Conrad Barski wrote the book Land of Lisp first, and I presume a lot of the content of Realm of Racket is inspired by that - Land of Lisp has a Dice of Doom example.

Land of Lisp was my introduction to Lisp, coming from a Java background, and I thought it was outstanding.

Thanks for the review, I may get Realm of Racket.