SICP Review: Sections 3.1 & 3.2


Here are my thoughts on Sections 3.1 and 3.2 of my SICP journey; the deeper I go in the book, the more I appreciate the effort, style and work the authors put into it. Each section builds on earlier sections and it is amazing how it forces you to see software development from a new angle. Enjoy…

1. Perception and Design

Our perceptions of the real world influence the way we model objects in software development. The example in the book uses two objects – a rational number and a bank account. Modifications of a rational number always generate a new rational number that is different from the original (e.g. adding 1/2 to 3/8).  We do not ‘view’ rational numbers as being capable of changing – i.e. the value of 3/8 is always 3/8.

Conversely a bank account object has a balance that can ‘change’; withdrawals and deposit change this value even though we still say it’s the same bank account object! There appears to be a double standard right? If internal details (i.e. the numerator or denominator) of a rational number changes, we might end up with a new rational number however if a bank account balance changes we still have the same bank object.

Strange isn’t it, the way we think does influence the way we write code.

2. Environment

The environment (context) is very important in programming languages even though we just sometimes forget about it. Every language has some global environment that determines what expressions, values and parameters mean. If you change the environment, then it becomes highly possible that the expression has a different meaning.

Lets take an example from human languages, the word ‘wa’ means ‘come’ in Yoruba but can mean ‘and’ in Arabic. The same applies to programming languages, have you ever wondered why and where the + (a free variable) is defined? It has to be in the global environment so the programming language knows what it means. Now if you overrode the ‘+’ (why you’ll do this beats me) then it can mean something else.

3. Execution Order 

Exercise 3.08 was pretty fun, it was a simple ask – write a procedure such that evaluating (+ (f 0) (f 1)) will return 0 if the arguments to + are evaluated from left to right but will return 1 if the arguments are evaluated from right to left.

While the exercise is trivial and probably just an academic exercise, it shows how assignments can influence program execution. My solution uses a closure to track the number of calls and returns a unary lambda. The lambda returns the value of its argument on its first call and a zero on subsequent calls.

Thus if the execution order is left-to-right, then the first call will have a parameter of 0 and further calls will return 0 leading to (+ 0 0) while if it was right-to-left, then the first call will have a value of 1 and further calls will evaluate to 0.

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