An Evening with Dan Friedman (at Lisp NYC)


Are you a computer scientist? How do you know? Dan Friedman has a test: “If the data that your programs produce actually matter, you’re not a computer scientist.”

Dan Friedman is a wildly influential computer scientist, professor, and author. He wrote the books The Little Lisper, The Little Schemer, The Seasoned Schemer, several other “little” books including, most recently, The Little Prover.

If you’re interested in programming (computer scientist or not), you owe it to yourself to try and learn something from these books. At the very least, read enough of them to give yourself a headache.

I had the oppurtunity to hear Dan speak at the Lisp NYC meetup. It was an wonderful talk filled with fascinating stories, amusing quips, and throw-away lines that flew right over my head. I’m sure that a recording of the event will end up posted in the list of past Lisp NYC meetups.

If you’re in the market for talks about Dan (and why he’s so respected), I highly recommend checking out Daniel P. Friedman: A Celebration. It’s a collection of videos from his 60th birthday celebration which included “former and present students, colleagues, research collaborators, co-authors and friends” giving awesome talks about his work and related topics.

My personal favorite is Guy Steele’s talk called Dan Friedman – Cool Ideas (posted below). Also check out The anatomy of a loop to hear a giddy explanation of “The Dan Effect” by Olin Shivers.


Here are my untouched notes from the evening.

  • how’d you get into lisp?
    • “mostly i just like parentheses”
    • “fdidn’t understand a word of it” (lisp 1.5 programmers manual)
  • favorite book
    • lisp 1.5 programmers manual
  • what are you working on?
    • can’t tell you my coworker is
    • dependable prover
      • didn’t like the “dependent prover”
  • when did you have a great idea of how to teach something that didn’t work out?
  • if you’ve earned the right to make it to chapters 8, 9, 10
    • you’ve earned the right to have a headache
  • how did you decide on the socratic style for “the little books”
  • rules for the little books
    • if you brought up a different subject, you’d get fined
    • if someone wants to write a chapter, write it and throw it out if not needed
    • work from 8am until midnight
    • Can’t do books by email, must be in person
      • only proofreading happens via email
    • why elephants?
      • we wanted an animal
      • elephants never forget
      • 2 things trying to teach
        • closures are incredibly powerful (like elephants)
        • they were cute little animals
  • what developments do you hope to see in the future?
    • “so many things out there that i don’t know”
    • “one my belief’s is KISS”
    • dependently typed haskell will be a big deal
  • you’re the author of the essentials of programming. where do you see lisp falling in?
    • i just hope it’s here forever
    • everyone who walks the planet should learn lisp
  • “data is dumb programs”
    • programs matter much more than data
  • what is a computer scientist?
    • if the data you produced actually mattered (to you or someone else), you probably weren’t a computer scientist
  • about “cons should not evaluate its arguments.”
    • cons the magnificent was original title of it
  • “we all know how to program, that’s the easy part of life”
  • In his high school, the only math teacher died, so he taught his senior year math.
    • So he didn’t get trig, so he didn’t do well in calculus in college
  • “the more you challenge yourself the better you’ll be”
  • do you have a favorite program that you’ve written?
    • I’ve got tons!
  • Greatest idea that you’ve ever seen overlooked
    • The logician who died in prision
    • 1930

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