91.301 Organization of Programming Languages, Fall 2009
We will be using the following book:
Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (1984)
Basically all departments that award bachelor's degrees in Computer Science have a course like OPL. Such a class is also required by CSAB, the professional organization that accredits CS degrees. So, everyone's got onewhy?
In my opinion, this course exists to give you a different way of thinking about computing. A way that is really quite apart from the professional programming languages like C, C++, and Java, all of which are based on an edit/compile/debug/deploy model of computation.
There are basically two variants of the OPL-type course at CS departments. One variant is a survey of the ideas in many languages that have been created and implemented. The other variant is a deep-dive into a language favored by language researchers, often Scheme or CAML. Both of these languages are meta-languagesthey are languages for making languages.
At UMass Lowell, we take the 2nd approach (deep dive) in our undergrad course, and the survey approach in our grad class. For many years here, 91.301 has been a close implementation of the famous 6.001 course at MIT, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. This course was created in the 1970s and has been hugely influential.
Now, it so happens that MIT has just implemented a major overhaul of their undergrad EECS curriculum, and as of Fall 2008, the 6.001 course is no longer being offered. Given that, why are we still teaching it, you might ask?
Isnt Scheme a Dead Language? (aka, Why do I have to take this class?)
Scheme isn't exactly dead. There is a committed community involved in on-going development of the version of Scheme we'll be using (PLT-Scheme). Scheme itself is a streamlined, pedagogically pure version of Lisp; Lisp is an expanded version of the language, with lots of libraries useful in real-world applications. While not hugely popular, there are still significant real-world systems being built in Lisp. The Orbitz flight reservation system is a leading example.
More important, the ideas behind Schemee.g., functional programmingare valuable, even if you're not coding in Scheme.
What Is The Big Idea Then?
There are actually several big ideas that we will bring out in OPL:
But in Scheme, the fundamental notation for describing code and data (known as the S-expression) is the same thing. Data structures and executable procedures are both nested lists. Furthermore, it is commonplace for code to produce data that is executed as code.
This leads to the next point...
Please don't confuse C/Java functions with Scheme-style functional programming. In C and Java, functions are really imperative programminga series of commandswith lots of side-effects (mutation of data structures and variable values). In functional programming, given the same input, the result of evaluating a function is always the same (think mathematical functions). There is no global or external state that gets involved.
Functional programming has some advantages in transparency and simplicity, particularly in language and symbolic processing, and is facilitated by a language like Scheme in which code can easily construct and output code on the fly.
This idea, which is of course the basis of object-oriented programming, is so well-established that it may now seem obvious. But this was hardly the case in the 1960s and 1970s when SICP was developed. Scheme has a somewhat different way of bundling together data representations and the procedures (methods) for manipulating them, which allows a high degree of flexibility.
Scheme handles things totally differently. Once you create an object, it's just thereexisting in the environment in which it was created. As long has you have a handle to it (i.e., you've named it, or it's part of another object that you have access to), the object will persist. When you quit Scheme, the entire environment including all objects gets saved to disk. Next time you relaunch, you reload the environment file and everything is exactly as you left it. (There once were Lisp Machines, and the concept of quitting Scheme didn't exist.)
As part of the implementation of the environment, garbage collection was introduced. Objects that had no way of being accessed (i.e., they had no names, no pointers to them) could be removed from memory, and the space they took up could then be freed for other purposes. Once controversial because of its complexity, automatic garbage collection is now considered an obvious part of a modern language design.
Because of the Listener, developing Scheme programs feels quite different than working in a typical edit-compile-test language. After a single procedure is defined, you can try it out interactively, giving it inputs and examining its outputs. Combined with the concept of the environment, you end up iteratively and alternately developing data structures and the code for operating on them.
When you become accustomed to the Listener, you feel stymied without it. It becomes annoying to write
Indeed the whole experience of computing becomes one of building objects that of course persist and seem alive. Rather than writing recipes that only temporarily instantiate objects, you create them directly, knowing that they will be there for you later.
Course Structure and Grading
The class will have regular weekly assignments, which will be graded and returned. Cumulatively these assignments are worth 25% of your overall grade. Assignments will be accepted up to 1 week late with a 50% reduction in that assignment's value. If you fall behind on your homework, it is much better to cut your losses and work on the current assignment, instead of running behind trying to catch up.
There will be two in-class quizzes during the semester. Each is worth 10% of your overall grade.
There will be a cumulative final, worth 20% of your overall grade.
Classroom participation is worth 10% of your overall grade. In practice, if your other grades put you on a marking boundary, this will push it one way or the other.
You may notice that this leaves 25% remaining. Based on last semester's success, I am continuing with a course final project, which will be conducted in the last three weeks of the semester. We will exploratory research and discussions before then, though, so you can start preparing for it.
In the final project, you will apply the ideas developed in the class in an original software implementation. You may thus connect the ideas of the class with your own interestsmusic, robotics, art, databases, the web, networking, gaming, etc. The learning goal of the project is to have you find some real-world relevance of the ideas in the class.
25% Weekly homeworks
Discussion Group / E-Mail List
We will use Google Groups for class conversation and announcements. Please join this group. I'd advise setting your preferences to immediate, individual delivery of messagesclick the Edit my membership tab.
The group address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You have to be a member to send to the list.
You are welcome to discuss ideas in the class with your peers. However, pair programming or other sharing of code is not allowed. By turning in an assignment, you attest that you have written the code that it includes. Please be familiar with the university's academic integrity policy.
Students who are registered for the honors section of the class are expected to have exemplary work, including classroom participation, written work, and the course project. Additional and more difficult problems will be assigned in most of the weekly problem sets.
I am inheriting this course from UML Prof. Holly Yanco, who has taught it in exemplary form for a number of years. Many of the course materials are based on her work.