[racket] Getting started with R6RS

From: Robby Findler (robby at eecs.northwestern.edu)
Date: Sat May 14 17:38:46 EDT 2011

Thanks for this very illuminating message! Speaking as one of the
people who's been a core part of Racket since very near the beginning
and the main author/designer of DrRacket I found this message very
helpful and, indeed, I feel more friendly to you now because of it.

Also, and you may find this amusing given Neil's comments, but Matthew
Flatt (the main Racket developer/designer) and I are both co-authors
of the R6RS report (I played a more minor role than he did: Jacob
Matthews and I just did the semantics at the end; he worked on the
standard proper.)


On Sat, May 14, 2011 at 4:20 PM, Elliott Cable <me at ell.io> wrote:
> On Sat, May 14, 2011 at 4:20 PM, Neil Van Dyke <neil at neilvandyke.org> wrote:
>> Shriram Krishnamurthi wrote at 05/14/2011 03:27 PM:
>>> I'd put this a bit differently:
>>> Racket will teach you all the things that Scheme would have (i.e., it
>>> would have the same contribution to your growth as a programmer), but also
>>> much more because of the many things it has that Scheme doesn't have.  You
>>> could stop at the "end of Scheme", or you can keep going.
>> I agree that's probably a better message.
>> In addition, I think it would behoove us to better manage the "standards"
>> perception.  The following is I think that...
>> In the period that I've been paying attention, standards seemed to get
>> really important in software industry in the late '80s and early '90s, with
>> changes like as the "open systems" movement.  And then there was another
>> milestone, when there was initially a ha-ha-not-falling-for-that-one-again
>> reaction when historically abusive MS introduced .NET and C# (which they had
>> to address by creating an "independent, open source alternative").  Plus,
>> there are examples of successful standards for other languages, so having a
>> standard is itself considered a best practice.
>> When industry people come from other languages to look at Racket, they've
>> already placed Racket in their conceptual framework, where "standard" is
>> heavily loaded.  So, when these people read in Wikipedia and memetic
>> descendants of Wikipedia that R6RS is the "standard", even though I think
>> R6RS should be shot in the gut and left in a ditch to die painfully, people
>> naturally assume that R6RS is the obvious way to go.  "Use non-standard?!
>>  Get back from me, you satan!"
>> So they spend the weekend trying to do something in R6RS, stumbling over
>> little headaches doing that in Racket, ask questions, and are suspicious
>> when Racket people try to tell them to just do things in a non-R6RS way that
>> sounds like sneaky "proprietary non-standard extensions lock-in
>> bad-engineering" salesmanship.  In a day or two, they've lost interest or
>> written off "Scheme", and they move on to the next interesting thing to look
>> at.
>> --
>> http://www.neilvandyke.org/
>> _________________________________________________
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> Neil *exactly nailed* down my experience, in every way, down to the
> exact timing.
> Let me expand on that viewpoint a bit for you guys, “from the inside”
> so to speak, give you some of the views that’ve floated through my
> mind as I’ve gone through this process (I’ll get on to my suggestions
> at the end; sorry that this is such a wall-of-text. I just thought
> these thoughts might be valuable input to you guys, a point of view
> you can’t often introspect.):
> 1) First off, and most importantly, the obsession with DrScheme is
> *really* off-putting for any serious developer. I know *piles* of
> programming languages, I’ve written hundreds of distinct open-source
> libraries, I know more toolsets than I can even remember; coming from
> a background like that, seeing references to an integrated IDE
> scattered through the *language documentation* itself (as if the IDE
> is a part of the language), is … alienating. At this point in my
> exploration of Racket (first five minutes to an hour or so), I hadn’t
> yet written off the language, exactly, but I was certainly having the
> seeds of doing so sowed by this. Hell, on my first visit to the front
> page, I was seeing that every single code snippet in the rotating
> presentation had to repeatedly inform me that I could execute that
> snippet via an IDE.
> Yes, as Neil wrote above, it *might* have some nice things (I can’t
> speak to that effect myself, as it won’t compile on Lion yet), but
> that’s irrelevant to my point: DrScheme could make me coffee and do my
> laundry for me while I program, and as a newcomer to the language, I
> would *still* be put off by this level of conceptual integration,
> right down to the granular documentation. Whether you like it or not,
> whether they apply to DrScheme or not, there are cultural connotations
> to IDEs, and a lot of veteran programmers want nothing whatsoever to
> do with such a tool. If DrScheme is really such a great thing, then
> you should be pipelining developers to it *through* Racket: show them
> that Racket, alone, is amazing, and *then* show them that DrScheme can
> make development in Racket *even better*.
> 2) The whole “languages” thing is nearly as off-putting as the
> DrScheme obsession, but in a different way. When I come across an
> instruction saying to add `#lang racket` or `#!r6rs` at the top of the
> file, with no explanation of what that does, it feels more than a
> little bit too much like “magic.” It feels like the language trying to
> pussyfoot around inexperienced developers, hide from me operation that
> is considered ‘too complex’ for me to understand.
> As a “veteran programmer” (again, not trying to make myself sound
> amazing; I’m absolutely sure that every person who’s replied to this
> thread so far is a better programmer than me. I’m just trying to
> present myself as a representative of a particular group; the group of
> those like yourselves and myself, but excluding those who *already*
> know Scheme … that is, the group of those like yourselves who, like
> me, are *currently interested* in learning Scheme.), I didn’t
> appreciate the feeling that the language was hiding something
> important from me (something important enough that it involved
> *competely different* syntaxes after that directive, which obviously
> means the operation of that directive is “kind’uh a big deal.”)
> Thus, my next step was to attempt to figure out exactly what was being
> ‘hidden’ from me, what those directives *actually did*. Luckily, that
> didn’t take too long once I knew what I was looking for; but while
> abstractions like that are great for getting straight to teaching
> beginners about programming without messing about with complex
> discussions of environment and conceptual set-up just to understand a
> small, simple program (à la HtDP), they’re really not at all so great
> for somebody like me, who expects to understand every line of the
> first source-code file he’s writing in a language that is new to him,
> as he writes them.
> 3) After the issues described above, I realized that the
> ‘documentation path’ I’d been following just wasn’t *for* me. Looking
> around with a little bit more descerning eye, I realized that all the
> documentation I could find seemed to be for children. (Don’t
> misunderstand me; I’m not using that as an insult. I mean, quite
> literally, the documentation seemed to be of very similar form to the
> “teen-specific” books and tutorials that I had seen people passing
> around for other languages like Ruby and JavaScript.)
> Instead of getting right into the meat of the language, the things I
> cared about learning, the first few links / examples / tutorials were
> all about ‘frivolous’ things, such as creating GUIs or images; nothing
> that was likely to really teach me anything about the language itself.
> Those are the kinds of things you show to beginner programmers, to get
> them motivated to keep learning (Hey! Look! I wrote a *program!* It
> has a *button!*); and that’s fine, everybody needs motivation.
> Unfortunately, a button doesn’t give someone like *me* any motivation;
> we need information on the language semantics. We need to know Why
> This Language is Better™ Than All The Others, and we’re not going to
> get that from ‘yet another GUI toolkit.’ (Again, just as with #1, I
> was accosted with this mindset with my very first visit to the
> homepage, before I even knew what Racket was: the first code example I
> saw was something to do with creating images or a window or something;
> I immediately flipped through them, looking for something more
> relevant that would give me a better taste of the language)
> 4) Finally, this has already been discussed a bit above, but I thought
> I’d make sure I included it in this list: after my troubles with
> finding any sane tutorial-style introduction to the “meat” of the
> language, I decided the next best step would be to go straight to the
> specification. Of course, in looking for a Racket specification, I
> found the R6RS specification, and what followed was the exact chain of
> thought described by Neil: “so, this is the real specification, and
> Racket is just a divergent implementation, that has some weird system
> that allows me to trigger it to be conformant. Geeze, anybody remember
> Internet Explorer? Really.” As with the above three points, this just
> led to yet more annoyance with Racket itself; and now I had an outlet:
> the mythical “true Scheme.” All I wanted after this was to find a way
> to run R6RS code. I subsequently forgot about Racket, except the
> things I needed to know to drop into “R6RS mode,” and began to dive
> into the R6RS specification (the first time, mind you, in this entire
> debacle, that I felt like I was actually learning a new language,
> instead of jumping through hoops.)
> Unrelated note: while, according to Neil and the rest of you, R6RS may
> be a bit of a joke in the Scheme community (I can’t really comment
> yet, honestly) … it has a *wonderfully* well-written specification.
> It’s the best technical specification I’ve ever read. It’s both exact
> *and* a great introduction to the language for someone completely
> unfamiliar with it. Even if R6RS itself is worthless, I certainly
> suggest y’all learn as much as you can from the form and style of that
> specification, and bring it back to Racket’s documentation.
> … which brings me to my recommendations, after all this, and after
> Neil’s (and other’s) input here: Improve your documentation-path for
> non-beginners.
> Of course, it’s a lot more complex than just doing that; but I hope
> everything I’ve shown above will give you some input as to how to do
> so.
> For instance, I’m biased, of course, but I really think all of this
> beginner introduction content, the HtDP-derived things, should be
> moved elsewhere. They’re out of place right in the language’s official
> documentation, and I don’t believe their presence there is in fact
> *helping* anybody. The documentation is too hard to find and too,
> well, “programmer-y” (look at the page; it’s terribly designed, it
> looks like any other technical documentation out there.) Create a
> seperate site, something like [the][1] [obvious][2] [examples][3] from
> the Ruby world; hire or otherwise rope a *good designer* into making
> it “flow” for the newcomer, and make *that* the central hub for
> newcomers to programming in general and teens. That’ll help expose
> them to DrRacket and Racket, and programming things like this in
> general; it’s a great start.
> Then, provide a clear documentation path, right from
> http://racket-lang.org/ and ending in an actual technical
> specification, that caters to programmers who simply want to learn
> “Racket Scheme”, the language, none of the other cruft. Make sure that
> path has them buried in lingual semantics and syntax as quickly as
> possible, make sure it gets them writing code into a text editor and
> running it on their command line (of which I guarantee you they
> already at least four open) As soon As Possible.
> While you’re at it (and I know this is going to raise some hackles,
> but I haven’t pulled any *other* punches in this post, so why start
> now?), remove every single reference to DrScheme along that path
> (except perhaps exactly one, of the form “Racket provides an
> integrated editor and debugger platform for you, if you wish to use
> it!” … but perhaps not even that, as there’s no way of writing
> “integrated editor and debugger platform” or any other mutation of
> that phrase that doesn’t jump out of the page and scream “IDE! IDE!
> Run away!” to most of us by now.) And (yes, more hackles), that path
> includes the landing page. Select a point in the path, far enough into
> the documentation that the average visitor is already going to know
> some basic semantics of Racket, know a bit of the answer to that
> eternal question I posed above (“Why This Language is Better™ Than All
> The Others”); then relegate all mention and coverage of DrScheme to
> *after* that chosen point.
> Finally, relatively minor to the other suggestions … somewhere, as
> soon as it’s fesible in aforementioned documentation-path, mention the
> R6RS specification, and explain *why* it’s not followed. Put some
> rationale in there. While you’re at it, make it easier for people to
> play with ‘pure’ R6RS, even after having told them that that’s a bad
> idea, so they can decide such for themselves.
>  [1]: http://mislav.uniqpath.com/poignant-guide/
>  [2]: http://camping.rubyforge.org/
>  [3]: http://hackety-hack.com/
> Postscript: I know I’m not making any friends with this post. I’m not
> trying to. A lot of these opinions, and a lot of the suggestions, are
> going to seem offensive from your point of view. That is, in a way, my
> point: your collective points of view, as people already knowing
> Racket/Scheme, are just as invalid in this discussion of a
> non-Schemer’s experience with the Racket website and documentation, as
> would be my own input in a discussion of a general non-programmers. I
> truely hope, reading this post, you can come to understand my mindset
> even if you disagree with the actual arguments made; and that you,
> taking that new understanding, can create better documentation, a
> better initial experience, for Racket. (-:
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