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Writing a Lisp, Part 7: Primitives 2

January 18, 2017

Right now the way we handle evaluation of primitive functions is less than ideal – each requires a separate clause in eval:

let rec eval_sexp sexp env =
    [...]
    | Pair(_, _) when is_list sexp ->
            (match pair_to_list sexp with
                 | [Symbol "if"; cond; iftrue; iffalse] ->
                         eval_sexp (eval_if cond iftrue iffalse) env
                 | [Symbol "env"] -> (env, env)
                 | [Symbol "pair"; car; cdr] ->
                         (Pair(car, cdr), env)
                 | [Symbol "val"; Symbol name; exp] ->
                         let (expval, _) = eval_sexp exp env in
                         let env' = bind (name, expval, env) in
                         (expval, env')
                 | _ -> (sexp, env)
            )
    | _ -> (sexp, env)

This, as you can imagine, makes life repetitive and bug-prone. In fact, there’s even a bug in the code above. Can you spot it?

I’ve forgotten to evaluate the car and cdr in the pair primitive. pair should evaluate its arguments and make the values into the pair — not the original expressions. 1

In this post we will explore a means for having the same plumbing for all primitive functions. For example… what if we could store them in an environment? That would be pretty neat. Then we could look them up, store them in data structures, etc. And eval would look something like:

let rec eval_sexp sexp env =
    [...]
    match sexp with
    [...]
    | Primitive(n,f) -> (Primitive(n,f), env)
    | Pair(_, _) when is_list sexp ->
            (match pair_to_list sexp with
                 | [Symbol "if"; cond; iftrue; iffalse] ->
                         eval_sexp (eval_if cond iftrue iffalse) env
                 [...]
                 | (Symbol fn)::args ->
                         (match eval_sexp (Symbol fn) env with
                              | (Primitive(n, f), _) -> (f args, env)
                              | _ -> raise (TypeError "(apply func args)"))
                 | _ -> (sexp, env)
            )
    | _ -> (sexp, env)

with the new type for lobject looking like:

type lobject =
  | Fixnum of int
  | Boolean of bool
  | Symbol of string
  | Nil
  | Pair of lobject * lobject
  | Primitive of string * (lobject list -> lobject)     (* NEW *)

The difference in this implementation is that we would just have to handle special forms separately. A special form is a type of expression that does not follow the normal rules of evaluation (evaluate the arguments, then apply the function). Great examples of special forms so far are if and val:

Speaking of if, the mistake I made earlier is to keep the resulting environment. Let’s rectify that now:

let rec eval_sexp sexp env =
    [...]
    match sexp with
    [...]
    | Primitive(n,f) -> (Primitive(n,f), env)
    | Pair(_, _) when is_list sexp ->
            (match pair_to_list sexp with
                 | [Symbol "if"; cond; iftrue; iffalse] ->
                         let (ifval, _) =
                               eval_sexp (eval_if cond iftrue iffalse) env
                         in
                         (ifval, env)
    [...]
    | _ -> (sexp, env)

That’s really the only change we need — ignore the resulting environment and we’re good to go. Sneak peek, by the way, of the new semantics of if (expressed in Big-Step Operational Semantics):

(cond, rho) -> (true, rho')   (e1, rho) -> (v1, rho'') 
------------------------------------------------------ IFTRUE
(IF(cond, e1, e2), rho) -> (v1, rho)

(cond, rho) -> (false, rho')   (e2, rho) -> (v2, rho'') 
------------------------------------------------------- IFFALSE
(IF(cond, e1, e2), rho) -> (v2, rho)

These are two separate judgement forms for two separate cases of an if-expression: the condition evaluates to true or the condition evaluates to false.

In brief, -> means “evaluates to”, and here we are evaluating pairs of exp * env. These pairs evaluate to pairs of val * env, where the environment may have changed. It is common to use rho to denote your environment. It is also common to use sigma. They are slightly different. Above the line are preconditions. If they are satisfied, the part below the line can happen. Does happen.

I’ll talk more about operational semantics (“opsem”, colloquially… at least at Tufts) later.

Anyway. Back to adding primitives to the environment. Let’s add two primitives: pair, which we had above, and +, so we can add two numbers (it’s about time):

let basis =
    let prim_plus = function
        | [Fixnum(a); Fixnum(b)] -> Fixnum(a+b)
        | _ -> raise (TypeError "(+ int int)")
    in
    let prim_pair = function
        | [a; b] -> Pair(a, b)
        | _ -> raise (TypeError "(pair a b)")
    in
    let newprim acc (name, func) =
        bind (name, Primitive(name, func), acc)
    in
    List.fold_left newprim Nil [
        ("+", prim_plus);
        ("pair", prim_pair)
       ]

This is slightly tricky but all it does is allow us to bind a list of primitives to their names instead of manually writing out Pair(Symbol "+", Primitive(Symbol "+", ....

Also note that we’ve only defined + for Fixnums, but we could also easily define it for Symbols by having it concatenate their string values. Food for thought.

Download the code here if you want to mess with it.

We can see that our code is getting kind of clunky to work with. Who the heck wants to manipulate what is just screaming at us to be a tree as a list? Certainly not me. It’s messy and occasionally difficult to get right. So:

Next up, ASTs.




1 There is a formal and programming-language independent way to specify the expected behavior of a programming language called Big-Step Operational Semantics. With this, it would have been clear that pair should definitely evaluate each of its arguments, then form a Pair of the values. We could completely write out the expected behavior of this Lisp before ever sitting down to write the interpreter, and that would be great in theory, but it would mean a couple of bad things for us in practice:

I plan on introducing operational semantics at some point in this series, time permitting — but there are so many other exciting topics! 2

2 Can footnotes have footnotes? I want to cover so many topics in this series, such as (in no particular order):