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1. Introduction

This document describes the STELLA programming language. STELLA stands for Strongly-TypEd, Lisp-like LAnguage. It is an object-oriented language that strongly supports symbolic programming tasks. We developed it, since none of the currently "healthy" languages such as C++ or Java adequately support symbolic programming. While Common-Lisp would probably still be today's language of choice for many symbolic programming applications, its dwindling vendor support and user base make it more and more difficult to justify its use.

When we started the development of the PowerLoom knowledge representation system in 1995 we were faced with exactly this problem. PowerLoom had to be delivered in C++, but it was simply incoceivable to write such a large symbolic programming application directly in C++. The solution was to invent a new programming language we called STELLA and write PowerLoom in STELLA instead.

STELLA is a strongly typed, object-oriented, Lisp-like language specifically geared to support artificial intelligence applications. STELLA preserves those features of Common Lisp deemed essential for symbolic programming such as built-in support for dynamic data structures, heterogeneous collections, first-class symbols, powerful iteration constructs, name spaces, an object-oriented type system with a simple meta-object protocol, exception handling, language extensibility through macros and automatic memory management. Maybe the biggest difference between STELLA and Common Lisp is that STELLA is strongly typed. All externally visible interfaces such as slots, function parameters and return values, etc. have to be explicitly typed. Internal objects such as local variables, however, are mostly typed implicitly supported by type inference. This in conjunction with a powerful type coercion mechanism significantly reduces the number of explicit type information that needs to be supplied by the programmer compared to languages such as C++ or Java.

STELLA programs are first translated into a target language such as Common Lisp, C++ or Java, and then compiled with the native target language compiler to generate executable code. The language constructs of STELLA are restricted to those that can be translated fairly directly into native constructs of the intended target languages. This allows STELLA to be translated into efficient, conventional and readable Lisp, C++ and Java code. The resulting native code can be understood and to some extent even maintained by programmers who don't know STELLA, and it can easily be interfaced with other programs not written in STELLA.

As of Fall 2000, we have programmed approximately 100,000 lines of STELLA code - about 50% for the STELLA kernel itself and the other 50% for the PowerLoom knowledge representation system and related systems. Our subjective experience has been that it is only slightly more difficult to write and debug a STELLA program than a Lisp program, and that the inconvenience of having to supply some type information is much outweighed by the benefits such as catching many errors during compile time instead of at run time.

The biggest benefit, however, seems to be that we can still leverage all the incremental code development benefits of Lisp, since we use the Common Lisp-based version of STELLA for prototyping. This allows us to incrementally define and redefine functions, methods and classes and to inspect, debug and fix incorrect code on the fly. Even the most sophisticated C++ or Java IDE's don't yet seem to support this fully incremental development style, i.e., a change in a class (every change in Java is a change to a class) still requires recompilation and restart of the application. But it is the restart that can be the most time consuming if one debugs a complex application that takes a significant time to reach a certain state!

Once a STELLA program has matured, it can be translated into C++ or Java to gain extra efficiency, to deliver it as a stand-alone application, or to link it with other programs.

1.1 Credits and History  

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1.1 Credits and History

Bob MacGregor invented STELLA in 1995 to implement the PowerLoom knowledge representation system. He wrote most of the first Lisp-based kernel system of STELLA and still occasionally writes extensions or provides fixes. Today he is primarily a STELLA user writing his own applications.

Hans Chalupsky completed the first full STELLA bootstrap (STELLA translating itself) in Spring 1996, and then went on to deal with all the changes necessary to handle the many C++ and Java idiosyncrasies that were discovered when the first versions of these translators came online. He is currently one of the principal maintainers of STELLA supporting the STELLA code analyzer and the Lisp and C++ translators.

Eric Melz wrote the first version of the C++ translator under very trying circumstances (i.e., at a stage where the STELLA language changed under him on a daily basis). He got the first C++ version of STELLA running in the Fall of 1996.

Tom Russ wrote the Java translator and got the first Java version of STELLA running in Spring 1999. He is currently one of the principal maintainers of STELLA supporting the STELLA code analyzer and the Lisp and Java translators. He is also still active writing occasional extensions such as the STELLA XML parser.

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