Complex data structures and the two sorts of languages

March 16, 2009

I've written before about the two sorts of languages, namely the ones where you can write code that runs as fast as the builtin features, and ones where you can't. For now, let me call these 'fast' and 'slow' languages, on the grounds that it is a slightly less loaded set of terms than other possible ones.

It's recently struck me that one of the effects of this language gap on the 'slow' languages is that it basically cuts off your ability to write new implementations of interesting data structures that are speedy and efficient. I think that this is important because it is my sense that it is usually exactly when time and space are at a premium that you want to write such a new data structure; otherwise, you might as well just use the built in ones.

(There are cases where an algorithm is most clearly and compactly expressed by using a specific data structure, so it is worth using it even when it is not the 'best' from a performance perspective.)

In turn this may mean that you just can't such languages to tackle problems that call for such specific, specialized data structures because your implementation will wind up too slow to be usable. (This is different from the language being slow in general; in the sort of case I am thinking of, the problem would be perfectly feasible in the language if only you had a fast implementation of the underlying data structure.)

As someone who likes playing around with programming, I find this regrettable for more than the obvious reason. For example, it means that there really is not much point in implementing, say, splay trees in Python (normally my preferred language), because while the result will work it probably won't run fast enough to be useful for any real code I write.

Written on 16 March 2009.
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Last modified: Mon Mar 16 01:13:40 2009
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