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Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, 2nd Edition



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Author: Harold Abelson, Gerald Jay Sussman

Publisher: The MIT Press

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Publish Date: September 1, 1996

ISBN-10: 0262510871

Pages: 683

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

Educators, generals, dieticians, psychologists, and parents program. Armies, students, and some societies are programmed. An assault on large problems employs a succession of programs, most of which spring into existence en route. These programs are rife with issues that appear to be particular to the problem at hand. To appreciate programming as an intellectual activity in its own right you must turn to computer programming; you must read and write computer programs — many of them. It doesn’t matter much what the programs are about or what applications they serve. What does matter is how well they perform and how smoothly they fit with other programs in the creation of still greater programs. The programmer must seek both perfection of part and adequacy of collection. In this book the use of “program” is focused on the creation, execution, and study of programs written in a dialect of Lisp for execution on a digital computer. Using Lisp we restrict or limit not what we may program, but only the notation for our program descriptions.

Our traffic with the subject matter of this book involves us with three foci of phenomena: the human mind, collections of computer programs, and the computer. Every computer program is a model, hatched in the mind, of a real or mental process. These processes, arising from human experience and thought, are huge in number, intricate in detail, and at any time only partially understood. They are modeled to our permanent satisfaction rarely by our computer programs. Thus even though our programs are carefully handcrafted discrete collections of symbols, mosaics of interlocking functions, they continually evolve: we change them as our perception of the model deepens, enlarges, generalizes until the model ultimately attains a metastable place within still another model with which we struggle. The source of the exhilaration associated with computer programming is the continual unfolding within the mind and on the computer of mechanisms expressed as programs and the explosion of perception they generate. If art interprets our dreams, the computer executes them in the guise of programs!

For all its power, the computer is a harsh taskmaster. Its programs must be correct, and what we wish to say must be said accurately in every detail. As in every other symbolic activity, we become convinced of program truth through argument. Lisp itself can be assigned a semantics (another model, by the way), and if a program’s function can be specified, say, in the predicate calculus, the proof methods of logic can be used to make an acceptable correctness argument. Unfortunately, as programs get large and complicated, as they almost always do, the adequacy, consistency, and correctness of the specifications themselves become open to doubt, so that complete formal arguments of correctness seldom accompany large programs. Since large programs grow from small ones, it is crucial that we develop an arsenal of standard program structures of whose correctness we have become sure — we call them idioms — and learn to combine them into larger structures using organizational techniques of proven value. These techniques are treated at length in this book, and understanding them is essential to participation in the Promethean enterprise called programming. More than anything else, the uncovering and mastery of powerful organizational techniques accelerates our ability to create large, significant programs. Conversely, since writing large programs is very taxing, we are stimulated to invent new methods of reducing the mass of function and detail to be fitted into large programs.


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