Apr 4

So, ELS 2011 is over which was the first conference I attended that was solely aimed at Lisp programmers. Overall I am quite happy with it although not all talks have been of the same quality. In particular I wasn’t too excited about all three key notes, although all had interesting topics. The first one by Craig Zilles about best effort code optimization was about things intelligent compilers could do. Very interesting stuff for sure and I learned a lot about low-level soft- and hardware architectures but there was no apparent direct relation to Lisp. A similar problem troubled the talk about Scala: perhaps it was due to my late arrival (I got on the right subway but in the wrong direction, not for the first time) but the part I attended left me wondering why Scala is relevant on a Lisp conference. Marc Battayani’s invited talk about his use of Common Lisp for programming FPGAs was nice, but first of all it was difficult to follow (not due to the content) and not many details were given about how the specialized Lisp embedded DSLs get converted to the FPGA specific code and what problems he had to overcome.

picture of Hamburgs harbourNow for some of the interesting regular talks: on Thursday, the report about porting SBCL to the supercomputing Blue Gene/P was nice and raised an interesting question: what can/needs to be re-discovered from old Lisp dialects for parallel programming for Lisps when more and more parallel cpus are becoming available to programmers. An issue that came up in both the talk about the futures implementation for ACL2 and in Nicolas Neuss’ initial digression about his experiences in parallelizing Femlisp was that garbage collection can get in the way of effective parallelization, up to the point where much of the expected speedup is lost. The motivation of the talk about actors framework named Jobim for Clojure nicely fitted in with an immediate question that came to my mind when I saw how Clojure connects to Java: What do you do so that Java’s semantics don’t leak into your application code? They seem to have found a nice way to abstract away the underlying Java libraries in their framework. In the last session of the first day, the lightning talk session, two things were interesting: Ralf Möller talked about using user-defined method combinations as a more powerful approach than design patterns, showing how one might implement html specific print-object methods, and Didier Verna talked about user-extensible format directives which he wants to turn in as a CLRFI. Having done a lot of work in computational linguistics, the talk about S-NLTK, the Scheme toolkit for natural language processing, was nice to see. Damir Cavar did a good job promoting the toolkit which has a similar aim like the Python NLTK, although I would have liked to learn more about the API and implementation issues. Finally, Alec Berryman by ITA gave a last minute presentation about things ITA learned about optimizing stuff for SBCL and about issues arising when adopting the old code to multi-threaded programming. Interestingly they didn’t report about gc issues but that may be related to their extensive use of object caches of pre-allocated objects.

The final panel discussion with James Knight, Christophe Rodes, James Anderson and Martin Simmons went back and forth about concurrency, distribution and efficiency vs. performance. The discussion took up several points from the talks, including gc and hardware issues. I took away from the discussion that unsurprisingly a lot of open questions need to be solved of which people are aware while at the same time there doesn’t seem to be much momentum, which, given that the community isn’t that big, isn’t surprising either after all.

Summing up I liked it a lot. For one, it was very nice to see people you only know via the net. For another, I also think that the organizers made a good decision to select a main theme for the conference and an important one, too. It really set the main theme for the conference and the discussions, and hence nicely reached its goal. Generally speaking, the conference was nicely organized so thanks for a pleasant time in Hamburg.

Posted by Holger Schauer

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