Perl was the first programming language I really liked, the first language that made programming fun.
Perl has three basic types: “scalars” for atomic values, arrays for ordered sets, and hash tables for unordered sets. (Yes, there are others, but those are the popular ones.) I quickly discovered that these three types can be combined to produce most any data structure you might need. Need an ordered list of records? Use an array of hashes. Need a tree of named elements with attributes (e.g. XML)? Use nested arrays with hashes in them.
These basic types can also be conveniently mapped to external data. A CSV file can be represented as an array of hashes. A database table can be an array of arrays, an array of hashes, or a hash of hashes, whichever you prefer.
Python and Ruby both followed in Perl’s footsteps here. (Python calls them “lists” and “dictionaries.”) Lisp, predating all these new-fangled “scripting” languages, includes lists, arrays, hash tables, plus a whole raft of other built-in types. This is one of those areas that makes Common Lisp difficult for the beginner to grasp. When should you use a plist, an alist, or a hash table? When should you use arrays and when should you use lists? The answers to these questions delve into details of how the various structures are implemented. The only obvious criteria for choice is speed at handling a given data set, something a beginning programmer doesn’t want to worry about when designing a new piece of code.
At least one hacker has implemented generic get/set functions for all of Common Lisp’s data types, but to my knowledge no one has implemented abstract ordered/unordered set types that don’t care about their implementation. CL-Containers is a good foundation, but it further complicates the issue by adding a bunch of new data types.
What I want is a general-purpose “collection” class, of which instances can be declared ordered or unordered, numerically-indexed or key-indexed. Something like this:
(define-collection my-set :ordered t :index string)
Then, based on the data that I feed in to that class and the operations I perform on it, the compiler decides what sort of data structure to use for maximum efficiency. Or, if that’s too much magic to ask, at least let me change the underlying implementation without affecting any of the code that uses the collection:
(implement-collection my-set (array :resizable :elements (cons string object)))