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title: Clojure from the ground up: welcome url: https://aphyr.com/posts/301-clojure-from-the-ground-up-welcome hash_url: 3e0624e344

This guide aims to introduce newcomers and experienced programmers alike to the beauty of functional programming, starting with the simplest building blocks of software. You’ll need a computer, basic proficiency in the command line, a text editor, and an internet connection. By the end of this series, you’ll have a thorough command of the Clojure programming language.

Who is this guide for?

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are deeply rewarding fields, yet few women enter STEM as a career path. Still more are discouraged by a culture which repeatedly asserts that women lack the analytic aptitude for writing software, that they are not driven enough to be successful scientists, that it’s not cool to pursue a passion for structural engineering. Those few with the talent, encouragement, and persistence to break in to science and tech are discouraged by persistent sexism in practice: the old boy’s club of tenure, being passed over for promotions, isolation from peers, and flat-out assault. This landscape sucks. I want to help change it.

Women Who Code, PyLadies, Black Girls Code, RailsBridge, Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It, and Lambda Ladies are just a few of the fantastic groups helping women enter and thrive in software. I wholeheartedly support these efforts.

In addition, I want to help in my little corner of the technical community–functional programming and distributed systems–by making high-quality educational resources available for free. The Jepsen series has been, in part, an effort to share my enthusiasm for distributed systems with beginners of all stripes–but especially for women, LGBT folks, and people of color.

As technical authors, we often assume that our readers are white, that our readers are straight, that our readers are traditionally male. This is the invisible default in US culture, and it’s especially true in tech. People continue to assume on the basis of my software and writing that I’m straight, because well hey, it’s a statistically reasonable assumption.

But I’m not straight. I get called faggot, cocksucker, and sinner. People say they’ll pray for me. When I walk hand-in-hand with my boyfriend, people roll down their car windows and stare. They threaten to beat me up or kill me. Every day I’m aware that I’m the only gay person some people know, and that I can show that not all gay people are effeminate, or hypermasculine, or ditzy, or obsessed with image. That you can be a manicurist or a mathematician or both. Being different, being a stranger in your culture, comes with all kinds of challenges. I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, but I can take a pretty good guess.

At the same time, in the technical community I’ve found overwhelming warmth and support, from people of all stripes. My peers stand up for me every day, and I’m so thankful–especially you straight dudes–for understanding a bit of what it’s like to be different. I want to extend that same understanding, that same empathy, to people unlike myself. Moreover, I want to reassure everyone that though they may feel different, they do have a place in this community.

So before we begin, I want to reinforce that you can program, that you can do math, that you can design car suspensions and fire suppression systems and spacecraft control software and distributed databases, regardless of what your classmates and media and even fellow engineers think. You don’t have to be white, you don’t have to be straight, you don’t have to be a man. You can grow up never having touched a computer and still become a skilled programmer. Yeah, it’s harder–and yeah, people will give you shit, but that’s not your fault and has nothing to do with your ability or your right to do what you love. All it takes to be a good engineer, scientist, or mathematician is your curiosity, your passion, the right teaching material, and putting in the hours.

There’s nothing in this guide that’s just for lesbian grandmas or just for mixed-race kids; bros, you’re welcome here too. There’s nothing dumbed down. We’re gonna go as deep into the ideas of programming as I know how to go, and we’re gonna do it with everyone on board.

No matter who you are or who people think you are, this guide is for you.

Why Clojure?

This book is about how to program. We’ll be learning in Clojure, which is a modern dialect of a very old family of computer languages, called Lisp. You’ll find that many of this book’s ideas will translate readily to other languages; though they may be expressed in different ways.

We’re going to explore the nature of syntax, metalanguages, values, references, mutation, control flow, and concurrency. Many languages leave these ideas implicit in the language construction, or don’t have a concept of metalanguages or concurrency at all. Clojure makes these ideas explicit, first-class language constructs.

At the same time, we’re going to defer or omit any serious discussion of static type analysis, hardware, and performance. This is not to say that these ideas aren’t important; just that they don’t fit well within this particular narrative arc. For a deep exploration of type theory I recommend a study in Haskell, and for a better understanding of underlying hardware, learning C and an assembly language will undoubtedly help.

In more general terms, Clojure is a well-rounded language. It offers broad library support and runs on multiple operating systems. Clojure performance is not terrific, but is orders of magnitude faster than Ruby, Python, or Javascript. Unlike some faster languages, Clojure emphasizes safety in its type system and approach to parallelism, making it easier to write correct multithreaded programs. Clojure is concise, requiring very little code to express complex operations. It offers a REPL and dynamic type system: ideal for beginners to experiment with, and well-suited for manipulating complex data structures. A consistently designed standard library and full-featured set of core datatypes rounds out the Clojure toolbox.

Finally, there are some drawbacks. As a compiled language, Clojure is much slower to start than a scripting language; this makes it unsuitable for writing small scripts for interactive use. Clojure is also not well-suited for high-performance numeric operations. Though it is possible, you have to jump through hoops to achieve performance comparable with Java. I’ll do my best to call out these constraints and shortcomings as we proceed through the text.

With that context out of the way, let’s get started by installing Clojure!

Getting set up

First, you’ll need a Java Virtual Machine, or JVM, and its associated development tools, called the JDK. This is the software which runs a Clojure program. If you’re on Windows, install Oracle JDK 1.7. If you’re on OS X or Linux, you may already have a JDK installed. In a terminal, try:

which javac

If you see something like


Then you’re good to go. If you don’t see any output from that command, install the appropriate Oracle JDK 1.7 for your operating system, or whatever JDK your package manager has available.

When you have a JDK, you’ll need Leiningen, the Clojure build tool. If you’re on a Linux or OS X computer, the instructions below should get you going right away. If you’re on Windows, see the Leiningen page for an installer. If you get stuck, you might want to start with a primer on command line basics.

mkdir -p ~/bin cd ~/bin curl -O https://raw.githubusercontent.com/technomancy/leiningen/stable/bin/lein chmod a+x lein

Leiningen automatically handles installing Clojure, finding libraries from the internet, and building and running your programs. We’ll create a new Leiningen project to play around in:

cd lein new scratch

This creates a new directory in your homedir, called scratch. If you see command not found instead, it means the directory ~/bin isn’t registered with your terminal as a place to search for programs. To fix this, add the line

export PATH="$PATH":~/bin

to the file .bash_profile in your home directory, then run source ~/.bash_profile. Re-running lein new scratch should work.

Let’s enter that directory, and start using Clojure itself:

cd scratch lein repl

The structure of programs

When you type lein repl at the terminal, you’ll see something like this:

aphyr@waterhouse:~/scratch$ lein repl nREPL server started on port 45413 REPL-y 0.2.0 Clojure 1.5.1 Docs: (doc function-name-here) (find-doc "part-of-name-here") Source: (source function-name-here) Javadoc: (javadoc java-object-or-class-here) Exit: Control+D or (exit) or (quit) user=>

This is an interactive Clojure environment called a REPL, for “Read, Evaluate, Print Loop”. It’s going to read a program we enter, run that program, and print the results. REPLs give you quick feedback, so they’re a great way to explore a program interactively, run tests, and prototype new ideas.

Let’s write a simple program. The simplest, in fact. Type “nil”, and hit enter.

user=> nil nil

nil is the most basic value in Clojure. It represents emptiness, nothing-doing, not-a-thing. The absence of information.

user=> true true user=> false false

true and false are a pair of special values called Booleans. They mean exactly what you think: whether a statement is true or false. true, false, and nil form the three poles of the Lisp logical system.

user=> 0 0

This is the number zero. Its numeric friends are 1, -47, 1.2e-4, 1/3, and so on. We might also talk about strings, which are chunks of text surrounded by double quotes:

user=> "hi there!" "hi there!"

nil, true, 0, and "hi there!" are all different types of values; the nouns of programming. Just as one could say “House.” in English, we can write a program like "hello, world" and it evaluates to itself: the string "hello world". But most sentences aren’t just about stating the existence of a thing; they involve action. We need verbs.

user=> inc #<core$inc clojure.core$inc@6f7ef41c>

This is a verb called inc–short for “increment”. Specifically, inc is a symbol which points to a verb: #<core$inc clojure.core$inc@6f7ef41c>– just like the word “run” is a name for the concept of running.

There’s a key distinction here–that a signifier, a reference, a label, is not the same as the signified, the referent, the concept itself. If you write the word “run” on paper, the ink means nothing by itself. It’s just a symbol. But in the mind of a reader, that symbol takes on meaning; the idea of running.

Unlike the number 0, or the string “hi”, symbols are references to other values. when Clojure evaluates a symbol, it looks up that symbol’s meaning. Look up inc, and you get #<core$inc clojure.core$inc@6f7ef41c>.

Can we refer to the symbol itself, without looking up its meaning?

user=> 'inc inc

Yes. The single quote ' escapes a sentence. In programming languages, we call sentences expressions or statements. A quote says “Rather than evaluating this expression’s text, simply return the text itself, unchanged.” Quote a symbol, get a symbol. Quote a number, get a number. Quote anything, and get it back exactly as it came in.

user=> '123 123 user=> '"foo" "foo" user=> '(1 2 3) (1 2 3)

A new kind of value, surrounded by parentheses: the list. LISP originally stood for LISt Processing, and lists are still at the core of the language. In fact, they form the most basic way to compose expressions, or sentences. A list is a single expression which has multiple parts. For instance, this list contains three elements: the numbers 1, 2, and 3. Lists can contain anything: numbers, strings, even other lists:

user=> '(nil "hi") (nil "hi")

A list containing two elements: the number 1, and a second list. That list contains two elements: the number 2, and another list. That list contains two elements: 3, and an empty list.

user=> '(1 (2 (3 ()))) (1 (2 (3 ())))

You could think of this structure as a tree–which is a provocative idea, because languages are like trees too: sentences are comprised of clauses, which can be nested, and each clause may have subjects modified by adjectives, and verbs modified by adverbs, and so on. “Lindsay, my best friend, took the dog which we found together at the pound on fourth street, for a walk with her mother Michelle.”

Took Lindsay my best friend the dog which we found together at the pound on fourth street for a walk with her mother Michelle

But let’s try something simpler. Something we know how to talk about. “Increment the number zero.” As a tree:

Increment the number zero

We have a symbol for incrementing, and we know how to write the number zero. Let’s combine them in a list:

clj=> '(inc 0) (inc 0)

A basic sentence. Remember, since it’s quoted, we’re talking about the tree, the text, the expression, by itself. Absent interpretation. If we remove the single-quote, Clojure will interpret the expression:

user=> (inc 0) 1

Incrementing zero yields one. And if we wanted to increment that value?

Increment increment the number zerouser=> (inc (inc 0)) 2

A sentence in Lisp is a list. It starts with a verb, and is followed by zero or more objects for that verb to act on. Each part of the list can itself be another list, in which case that nested list is evaluated first, just like a nested clause in a sentence. When we type

(inc (inc 0))

Clojure first looks up the meanings for the symbols in the code:

(#<core$inc clojure.core$inc@6f7ef41c> (#<core$inc clojure.core$inc@6f7ef41c> 0))

Then evaluates the innermost list (inc 0), which becomes the number 1:

(#<core$inc clojure.core$inc@6f7ef41c> 1)

Finally, it evaluates the outer list, incrementing the number 1:


Every list starts with a verb. Parts of a list are evaluated from left to right. Innermost lists are evaluated before outer lists.

(+ 1 (- 5 2) (+ 3 4)) (+ 1 3 (+ 3 4)) (+ 1 3 7) 11

That’s it.

The entire grammar of Lisp: the structure for every expression in the language. We transform expressions by substituting meanings for symbols, and obtain some result. This is the core of the Lambda Calculus, and it is the theoretical basis for almost all computer languages. Ruby, Javascript, C, Haskell; all languages express the text of their programs in different ways, but internally all construct a tree of expressions. Lisp simply makes it explicit.


We started by learning a few basic nouns: numbers like 5, strings like "cat", and symbols like inc and +. We saw how quoting makes the difference between an expression itself and the thing it evaluates to. We discovered symbols as names for other values, just like how words represent concepts in any other language. Finally, we combined lists to make trees, and used those trees to represent a program.

With these basic elements of syntax in place, it’s time to expand our vocabulary with new verbs and nouns; learning to represent more complex values and transform them in different ways.