Emacs Lisp Best Practices?

April 24, 2010

I’ve been spending a bit of time steeping myself in EmacsLisp these last few days. I’ve been looking for information on elisp "best practices" — specifically, is it OK to rely on (require 'cl)?

Here’s one page wondering the same thing. There’s always a ton of interesting stuff whenever you go poking at emacs packages; most surprising to me this time around was ELPA, the Emacs Lisp Package Archive. Perl has CPAN, Python has PyPI, Ruby has Rubygems.

I also found the blog emacs-fu pretty interesting looking — approximately one post a week, I think. Lots of stuff I wish I could absorb better.

Emacs Coding Conventions from the Elisp manual is also pretty helpful. To this point (about CL), it says:

Please don’t require the cl package of Common Lisp extensions at run time. Use of this package is optional, and it is not part of the standard Emacs namespace. If your package loads cl at run time, that could cause name clashes for users who don’t use that package.

However, there is no problem with using the cl package at compile time, with (eval-when-compile (require 'cl)). That’s sufficient for using the macros in the cl package, because the compiler expands them before generating the byte-code.

For me, this is enough, because I want to use dolist. But there are programmers out there like David O’Toole, who writes in his interactive guide to the GNU Emacs CL package:

Despite what people say about still being able to use the macros while complying with the policy, in my opinion the policy is still a discouragement. You have to memorize which of its features you must abstain from using (and therefore lose the benefit of those features) if you are to have any hope of someday contributing Lisp code to GNU Emacs.

I think the GNU Emacs maintainers are hesitant to allow use of a package, like cl, which isn’t "namespaced". I bet if all the functions in cl were prefixed with cl-, nobody would mind…

[Update, 2010-Apr-27: From an email on the magit email list:

There's also the small matter that many of the function implementations in cl, striving for the full generality of Common Lisp (much of which is completely useless in Emacs), turn out to be horrible.

E.g., for a fun time, dig down through

(find-if pred list :from-end t),

and look at what it ACTUALLY does when you finish macroexpanding everything. It tests every element of the list against the predicate, not just the rightmost ones stopping when it finds the first match. Once it determines the rightmost match, it then retains NOT the element itself, but its ordinal position N, which then gets used in (elt list N), meaning ANOTHER listwalk, just to get the element back in order to return it. Nor is the byte-compiler anywhere near smart enough to optimize this away (I'm not sure any compiler would be...)

I'll grant cl has some useful macros in it, but it comes bundled with a lot of crap and you need to be really careful about what you use. For many things, you're better off rolling your own functionality using the standard routines available (e.g., while, mapcar, and reverse are all written directly in C).

And you most definitely do NOT want to be foisting the crap on everybody else, hence the need to keep it out of the runtime.


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