Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Joy of Clojure

Clojure is a modern Lisp dialect that runs on the JVM. Since its release in 2007, it's become quite popular with elite hackers of a certain persuasion. Michael Fogus and Chris Houser's Joy of Clojure is a thoroughly enjoyable bit of summer reading explaining the philosophy behind the language, showing how Clojure promotes simplicity and flexibility, deals with time and state, and generally brings fun back into programming.

Concurrency is one of the motivating factors behind Clojure. Hickey's approach to sane management of state is anchored on the concept of immutability. The language encourages "immutability by default" with persistent collections - efficient implementations of list, vector, map and set that preserve historical versions of their state. When concurrency becomes necessary, Clojure provides some very modern constructs including STM (software transactional memory), agents similar to the actor model of Erlang, and atomic values.

Aside from the parentheses, one big difference between Clojure and Java (as well as fellow JVM resident, Scala) is dynamic typing. Entities in Clojure are typically modeled in terms of the basic data structures already mentioned, especially maps and vectors. In practice, this ends up looking like JSON or Javascript objects, which are just bags of properties. The book includes a basic implementation of prototype based inheritance as an example. I've always thought that was more appropriate to dynamic languages than building class hierarchies (as in Python and Ruby). You might go so far as to say that JSON is to Clojure what lists are to classic Lisp.

Clojure's interop with it's host platform gracefully bridges the conceptual gap between Java and Lisp, enabling Clojure to call into Java code making available the wealth of Java libraries. It's equally possible to expose Clojure APIs to Java code. Dynamically generating Java classes and proxies as well as creating and implementing interfaces on the fly leads to the belief in the Clojure community that "Clojure does Java better than Java." In spite of the differences in semantics, Clojure feels like a natural layer on top of Java, raising the levels of abstraction and dynamism while easing many pain-points that every Java programmer stumbles over.

The Clojure language is also branching out beyond the JVM. Clojurescript is a Clojure to javascript cross-compiler. Another offshoot targets Microsoft dot.net's CLR.

Aside from persistent data structures and Java interop, Clojure comes with a bunch of functional goodness built in. Clojure's multimethods put control of method dispatch into the programmer's hands. Macros let you construct your own flow-of-control structures, as demonstrated by do-until and unless examples in the book. Illustrating how Lisp and it's macros can be used to construct little languages or DSLs, the book implements a mini-SQL interpreter.

One especially nice aspect of the book is the putting it all together sections, which cover examples like: lazy quicksort, A*, and a builder for chess moves. These longer examples are still bite sized, making them more easily digested than the extended case studies found in some books.

The Joy of Clojure is not an introductory book nor is it a language reference. It will appeal to the reader who already has some programming experience. It's a good idea to spend some time with the online tutorials first. Where the book is strongest is answering the why questions, getting you started learning how to think about programming in Clojure and showing you how Clojure changes the way you think.

Companies using Clojure:

Popular Clojure projects and libraries:


Luckily for those wanting to learn more without leaving their hammock, there are lots of videos about Clojure. A lot of clear thinking about software, whether you do it in Clojure or not, can be found in Rich Hickey's talks.

More Clojure Stuff