Why I’m Learning Clojure

Recently, I posed the question of which language I should learn in 2010. The options were Squeak, Common Lisp, Clojure, Groovy… or to make a second attempt with Ruby. I must admit I was veering towards Lisp when I wrote it, but all options were still possibilities. Out of the two Lisp dialects, Common Lisp was probably my preference over Clojure but in the end I decided I would give the latter a shot.

So why Clojure?

Well, the first reason is down to it being a new language. There’s something quite interesting about trying a language in the early days. Since I’m not going to be writing production code with it for the foreseeable future, having a moving target isn’t really an issue. The community surrounding the language is still forming and there’s a chance to watch and interact with a forming and evolving Clojure ecosystem. London also has a Clojure code dojo running, aimed at introducing people to Clojure, which offers an excellent opportunity to help with my learning – and best of all, there’s an overlap with some members of the London Python community. Very handy.

Secondly, Clojure is a Lisp dialect. Lisp has been on my list of languages to learn for a long time, but I’ve always ended up looking elsewhere and my only real experiences with the Lisp world have been trivial at best, and never with “the real thing”. In some ways I guess I’m still following that path, though Clojure feels more like a proper Lisp because at heart it is.

Clojure’s primary environment is of the JVM, an area I’ve only limited experience of. There was a time when Java was appealing to me, but every time I take a second/third/umpteenth look at the language it seems to have accumulated more baggage and bloat. It’s a huge and complex language and ecosystem to get into these days, though very mature and powerful. Clojure would give me an opportunity to delve into the JVM world a bit more.

The language is also making progress in supporting the .NET world. Much as I’m definitely not a Microsoft fan, .NET has grown on me and there’s some interesting work happening with it and the open source Mono implementation. I actually rather like C#, though wish someone would take the core language and move it out of the .NET world – probably a weird idea to some. Anyway, Clojure on the CLR is an interesting idea, so adds a little to the interest because I have to mix things up with .NET developers at work.

So that’s all the fluffy stuff out of the way – what are the other reasons?

Well, Clojure is a functional programming language, which is a current interest of mine. Spurred on by my adventures with Erlang, functional programming is growing on me. It’s also dynamically typed, which has been one of the big revelations during my career, perhaps even more than object-oriented development. It compiles to JVM bytecode; being Lisp, it has read/eval/print which makes language exploration and prototyping a joy; and I can delve into a language with a proper, powerful macro capability.

Clojure is also geared up for the big issue of the now: concurrency. Erlang interested me because of the way it tackled concurrency, something that all programmers are going to have to face up to sooner or later as we live in a multicore world. I like Erlang’s approach a lot, but there are other options out there and I feel it is my duty to examine a few of the options. In particular, the use of Software Transactional Memory (STM) holds an appeal to me. Having used databases the last ten years, transactions feel quite a natural approach for many problems, but definitely not all, and incorporating them into other software domains can only be a good idea. I was considering Haskell at one point to investigate STM, but I must admit to not being a massive fan of parts of Haskell’s syntax so never pursued the idea. With Clojure, I can at last take the chance to delve into STM.

I’m not going to stop learning and exploring Erlang, far from it, but I’m looking forward to adding Clojure to my programming toolkit.

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