Brief review: The Little MLer

Sunday, 31st May, 2015

book details

“The Little MLer”
Matthias Felleisen and Daniel P. Friedman
MIT Press


I had resolved not to learn any new languages in 2015, but: I knew if I were to learn a language it would probably be ML (or some kind of proof assistant type thing); this book was on my Amazon Wish List; and MIT Press had a half price sale.

I’m afraid I was quite underwhelmed by The Little MLer. It brings upon itself comparison with The Little Schemer: the same dialogue format, the same illustrator (with “guest appearances” by the Little Schemer elephants), even occasional “in-jokes” about Lisp. It suffers greatly under this comparison.

Lisp is not a normal programming language. The basic building blocks of Lisp — list; first thing in list; rest of list — are so simple — naively, childishly simple, even romantically simple (steady on — Ed.). So the childish dialogue approach in The Little Schemer, with virtually no presuppositions really is plausible, and even appropriate. I thought the book effectively conveyed the charm and wonder of Lisp.

I’m not qualified to say much sensible about ML, but this book felt contrived — the tried and tested dialogue format forced onto an unsuspecting programming language (in the same style there’s also A Little Java and A Few Patterns). The Little Schemer was full of “stout Cortez” moments; The Little MLer had one: a brief exploration of what might have been lazy evaluation.

I have a gut feeling that ML could be an exciting language, but The Little MLer is a dull exposition following an imported schema.