Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lisp insights from learning Logo

So I was just writing a simple recursive procedure in Logo. I wanted to go down a list, cons up a new list, and return the empty list when I get to the end.

My first pass, once I found out how to return something from a function (Logo procedures aren't expressions -- you have to explicitly return) had a line like this:

if (stacks = []) (output [])

Running the procedure gave me the helpful error message:
output didn't output to if in astep
[if (stacks = [] ) (output [] )]


When I remembered that Logo's "if" wants a list of instructions, it clicked with my new nugget of knowledge that literal lists are quoted in Logo. Then I understood what was going on: this "if" is neither a macro (like in Scheme, or most languages) nor lazily evaluated (like Haskell). It's a regular function, but one that expects quoted code to evaluate on demand at runtime. Rubyists and Smalltalkers: this is something like how an if block works for you, yes?

Here's an analogy into Python, for the non-Lispers out there:

def myIf(tf, truecode, falsecode):
  code = {True : truecode, False : falsecode}
  return eval(code[tf])

>>> myIf(0 == 1, "'it was ' + 'true'", "'it was not true'.upper()")

>>> myIf(0 == 0, "'it was ' + 'true'", "'it was not true'.upper()")
'it was true'

Also, apparently Logo in general has dynamic scope -- which shouldn't surprise me, since lexical scope is relatively new in Lisp. And Berkeley Logo in particular has macros. Maybe my little compiler project is going to be harder than I expected. Honestly, I was imagining I'd be done if I could just parse it, do some simple transformations on the tree and spit JavaScript.


jes5199 said...

I don't know about smalltalk, but in Ruby "if" is just a language construct. It's not a macro or an interpolator, it's just a fancy GOTO statement. You could pretend it's a function that takes three code blocks, but its syntax doesn't match that.

Alex Rudnick said...

Oh! Right on, yes.

This is the difference between "if" being an expression and a control-flow statement: if it's control-flow, then "if" can just be a branch.

Not every language defines its functions as one expression that needs to be evaluated, it turns out...