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Writing a Lisp, Part 16: Standard Library

March 22, 2017

We’ve gotten to the point where we can define some useful utility functions directly by writing Lisp, which means that we can start to write a standard library.

A standard library, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is software bundled together in the runtime of the language. So for C it’s things in libc (anything you can #include without linking with another file), for C++ it’s the STL (vector, map, etc), for Python it’s all of the non-package imports… you get the picture.

Since we have some new I/O functions, I figure it would be useful to provide the reader with functions like the compose function o (which we defined inline in the metacircular evaluator), println (print plus newline), and even a sorting function!

The standard library I am envisioning is a string inside the interpreter that gets evaluated, and the resulting environment captured. Then we go on and evaluate whatever the user wants, whether that be a REPL or a file reader.

It seems to me like this would be a good use case for OCaml’s built-in Stream module, and a good time to refactor some of our s-expression reading code.

The Stream module has a pretty slick interface:

module type Stream = sig
  type 'a t
  exception Failure
  val of_string : string -> char t
  val of_channel : in_channel -> char t
  val next : 'a t -> 'a
  (* ... *)

Since we’ll be reading from both files and strings, of_string and of_channel seem particularly useful. We’ll need to now also handle Failures when dealing with input. And we can use next to get the next thing in our stream — which for both strings and channels is a char. Lovely.

So there first thing we’ll want to revisit is the type of stream (lowercase “s”) that we defined near the top of the interpreter. Since Stream has no pushback buffer, we’ll need to keep ours.

type 'a stream = {
  mutable line_num: int;
  mutable chr: char list;
  stdin: bool;
  stm: 'a Stream.t

I’ve added a field, stdin, that helps determine if the current stream is standard input. I’ve also parametrized the type by adding a 'a that it can then pass to Stream.t. This has no bearing on the other function of the stream. Last, I changed the field name from chan to stm so as not to be misleading.

Updating read_char does not take too much effort — only changing input_char to Stream.next:

let read_char stm =
    match stm.chr with
      | [] ->
              let c = Stream.next stm.stm in
              if c = '\n' then let _ = stm.line_num <- stm.line_num + 1 in c
              else c
      | c::rest ->
              let _ = stm.chr <- rest in c

In order to more easily create streams, I’ve created some helper functions. They neatly abstract the record away.

let mkstream is_stdin stm = { chr=[]; line_num=1; stdin=is_stdin; stm=stm } 
let mkstringstream s      = mkstream false     @@ Stream.of_string s
let mkfilestream f        = mkstream (f=stdin) @@ Stream.of_channel f

So we have mkstream, which is a generic stream creator. It sets stdin and stm appropriately. Then we have mkstringstream, which would never be from the standard input, so it always sets stdin to false and makes a string stream. Then last we have mkfilestream, which sets stdin to true only when operating on the standard input (duh).

Let’s take a look now at main, which used to initialize a stream by hand:

let main =
  let ic = get_ic () in
  try  repl (mkfilestream ic) stdlib
  with Stream.Failure -> if ic <> stdin then close_in ic

We still get an input channel, but then we make a file stream from it. No more records in main! Hurrah!

And of course you’re wondering now, “what is this stdlib variable”? As well you should, because it’s kind of clunky but also kind of great.

let stdlib =
  let ev env e =
    match e with
    | Defexp d -> evaldef d env
    | _ -> raise (TypeError "Can only have definitions in stdlib")
  let rec slurp stm env =
    try  stm |> read_sexp |> build_ast |> ev env |> snd |> slurp stm
    with Stream.Failure -> env
  let stm = mkstringstream "(define o (f g) (lambda (x) (f (g x))))"
  in slurp stm basis

Instead of making a file stream for the standard library, we want to make a string stream and read from some embedded string. This allows us to ship a standard library easily with the interpreter without dealing with a filesystem.

Once we have a string stream, we have to read an s-expression, build an AST from that s-expression, evaluate the definition, grab the mutated environment from that definition, and then continue reading until we’re done (Stream.Failure). That problem lends itself super nicely to the |> operator, which acts much like the Unix pipe (|).

slurp does exactly what I described in English above (apply a series of transforms one after the other until end of input) with only minor gross-ness in ev.

With ev I did two minorly gross things:

  1. Switch the order of the arguments so that ev env evaluates to a curried function that expects just one argument: an expression
  2. Allow only definitions in the standard library

The second thing has two reasons:

  1. We don’t want arbitrary, potentially side-effecting code in the standard library. Nobody wants to see a print statement executed every time!
  2. Non-Defs don’t mutate the environment at all, so there would be no changes that we care about anyway. evaldef is kind enough to return both the expression and the new environment.

Since we don’t want to only define the composition function o, but also I did not want to inline a massive string in the small code snippet above, I have reprocuced the full standard library below:

(define o (f g) (lambda (x) (f (g x))))
(val caar (o car car))
(val cadr (o car cdr))
(val caddr (o cadr cdr))
(val cadar (o car (o cdr car)))
(val caddar (o car (o cdr (o cdr car))))

(val cons pair)

(val newline (itoc 10))
(val space (itoc 32))

; This is pretty awkward looking because we have no other way to sequence
; operations. We have no begin, nothing.
(define println (s)
  (let ((ok (print s)))
    (print newline)))

; This is less awkward because we actually use ic and c.
(define getline ()
  (let* ((ic (getchar))
         (c (itoc ic)))
    (if (or (eq c newline) (eq ic ~1))
      (cat c (getline)))))

(define null? (xs)
  (eq xs '()))

(define length (ls)
  (if (null? ls)
    (+ 1 (length (cdr ls)))))

(define take (n ls)
  (if (or (< n 1) (null? ls))
    (cons (car ls) (take (- n 1) (cdr ls)))))

(define drop (n ls)
  (if (or (< n 1) (null? ls))
    (drop (- n 1) (cdr ls))))

(define merge (xs ys)
  (if (null? xs)
    (if (null? ys)
      (if (< (car xs) (car ys))
        (cons (car xs) (merge (cdr xs) ys))
        (cons (car ys) (merge xs (cdr ys)))))))

(define mergesort (ls)
  (if (null? ls)
    (if (null? (cdr ls))
      (let* ((size (length ls))
             (half (/ size 2))
             (first (take half ls))
             (second (drop half ls)))
        (merge (mergesort first) (mergesort second))))))

Fun fact: in my writing of mergesort I discovered a rather nasty bug in let*, which would have been evident had I written out the desired behavior beforehand. Whoops. The bug was thus:


So say the programmer wrote something like this:

(val x 1)
(let* ((a x)) a)

The interpreter would see that and raise NotFound "x", which is obviously wrong because of course x, defined right above, should be in scope for the let-expression. This happened because at evaluation-time for let*, it bound a lot of variables by using List.fold_left onto an empty list, then extended the current environment with that new one.

The fold_left on the empty list is the problem here. How can evbinding possibly make a binding of a->x if the empty environment doesn’t contain x?

A better solution, which I have included in the interpreter attached to this post, is as follows:

    | Let (LETSTAR, bs, body) ->
        let evbinding acc (n, e) = bind (n, evalexp e acc, acc) in
        evalexp body (List.fold_left evbinding env bs)

This instead starts with the existing environment and evaluates each binding in turn from there.

These kinds of problems make clear the need for rigorous interpreter testing, something I hope to eventually cover.


Last, on a note that is completely unrelated to the standard library, sometime over the last few posts I got frustrated with the level of error reporting in the interpreter and thought it would be nice to have an actual backtrace of what the heck was going on when debugging one of these irritating problems.

I thought a good solution would be to repeatedly catch and raise errors in evalexp all the way up until repl. That is, if in some complicated expression a small node tens of layers deep in the AST has an issue, the error propagates up through each level of the AST, printing the expression as it goes. Here’s what I came up with:

let rec evalexp exp env =
  let rec ev = function
    ev exp
  with e ->
      let err = Printexc.to_string e in
      print_endline @@ "Error: '" ^ err ^ "' in expression " ^ string_exp exp;
      raise e

I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on it. It works fine for me, but it’s kind of noisy and also carries no information about the raw source of the program — just the stringified representation of the AST.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for standard libraries. I’ll probably add things to this one in the future.

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

Next up, the post I have been waiting quite some time for: modules.