And... Action! (Part 3, 19 Sep 2009)

In part 2 of the series, I broke the news that so-called action routines (such as extrude) violate Common Lisp evaluation rules in CoCreate Modeling. Which should cause any Lisp aficionado out there to frown; after all, the evaluator is central to any Lisp implementation, and largely determines the nature of a Lisp system. There is a reason why the Lisp-1 vs. Lisp-2 debate has been raging for decades!

So why did CoCreate Modeling insurrect against the Common Lisp standard? Did we have an issue with authorities, did we want to stage a publicity stunt, or were we just a bunch of imbecile script kiddies who didn't know any better?

Nothing of that kind. Instead, I put the blame on having too many users of a successful predecessor product big grin

Let me explain.

In the 80s, our 2D CAD application ME10 (now: CoCreate Drafting) had become extremely popular in the mechanical engineering market. ME10's built-in macro language was a big success factor. Users and CAD administrators counted on it to configure their local installations, and partners wrote macro-based extensions to add new functionality - a software ecosystem evolved.

A typical macro-language command looked like this:

LINE RECTANGLE 0,0 (PNT_XY FOO BAR) 42,0 0,42 END

Users didn't have to type in the full command, actually. They could start by typing in LINE and hitting the ENTER key. The command would prompt for more input and provide hints in the UI on what to do next, such as selecting the kind of line to be drawn, or picking points in the 2D viewport (the drawing canvas). The example above also illustrates that commands such as LINE RECTANGLE could loop, i.e. you could create an arbitrary amount of rectangles; hence the need to explicitly END the command.

Essentially, each of the commands in ME10 was a domain-specific mini-language, interpreted by a simple state machine.

The original architects of SolidDesigner (now known as CoCreate Modeling) chose Lisp as the new extension and customization language, but they also wanted to help users with migration to the new product. Note, however, how decidedly un-Lispy ME10's macro language actually was:

  1. In Lisp, there is no way to enter just the first few parts of a "command"; users always have to provide all parameters of a function.
  2. Lisp functions don't prompt.
  3. Note the uncanny lack of parentheses in the macro example above.

But then, we all know how malleable a language Lisp is. All of the problems above could be solved by a fairly simple extension with the following characteristics:

  • Define a special class of function symbols which represent commands (example: extrude).
  • Those special symbols are immediately evaluated anywhere they appear in the input, i.e. it doesn't matter whether they appear inside or outside of a form. This takes care of issue #3 above, as you no longer have to enclose extrude commands in parentheses.
  • Evaluation for the special symbols means: Run the function code associated with the symbol. Just like in ME10, this function code (which we christened action routine) implements a state machine prompting for and processing user input. This addresses issues #1 and #2.

These days, you would probably use something like define-symbol-macro. Back then, the Common Lisp standard had not been finalized and our Lisp implementation did not provide define-symbol-macro yet. And thus, CoCreate Modeling's Lisp evaluator extensions were born.

To be continued...


And... Action! (Part 2, 08 Sep 2009)

You may have guessed it: The whole set_pers_context business in the first part of this mini-series was actually a red herring. I promise I won't mislead you this time - and I'll even reveal the reason why the series is titled "And...Action!"

No, we don't need contrived constructs like (print extrude) to show that extrude is somehow... different from all the other kids. All we need is a simple experiment.

First, enter extrude in CoCreate Modeling's user input line: The Extrude dialog unfolds in all its glory, and patiently awaits your input.

Now try the same with print: All you get is an uncooperative "Lisp error: The variable PRINT is unbound". How disappointing.

But then, the behavior for print is expected, considering the usual evaluation rules for Common Lisp, particularly for symbols. As a quick reminder:

  • If the symbol refers to a variable, the value of the variable is returned.
  • If the symbol refers to a function and occurs in the first position of a list, the function is executed.

extrude & friends belong to the symbol jet-set in CoCreate Modeling. For them, the usual evaluation rules for functions don't apply (pun intended). Using symbol properties as markers, they carry a backstage pass and can party anywhere. For members of the extrude posse, it doesn't really matter if you use them as an atom, in the first position of a list, or anywhere else: In all cases, the function which they refer to will be executed right away - by virtue of an extension to the evaluator which is unique to CoCreate Modeling's implementation of Common Lisp.

You can create such upper-class symbols yourself - using a macro called defaction. This macro is also unique to CoCreate Modeling. Functions defined by defaction are called, you guessed it, action routines.

But why, you ask, would I want such a feature, particularly if I know that it breaks with established conventions for Lisp evaluation?

Well, precisely because this feature breaks with the established rules.

To be continued...


And... Action! (31 Aug 2009)

Duck and cover! Another mini-series approaching!

My apologies to users of CoCreate Modeling who tried to find some meat for them in the package riddle series for them - there wasn't any, as that series was strictly meant for Lisp geeks. Sorry!

This new series covers programming fundamentals as well. If you ever wanted to understand how Common Lisp functions like print and CoCreate Modeling commands such as extrude differ and how they interact, you've come to the right place.

Reader highway45 recently came up with a very interesting observation (abridged and translated from German):

Usually, I call a dialog like this: (set_pers_context "Toolbox-Context" function)

Or like this: function

As soon as I add parentheses, however, the "ok action" will be called: (function)

extrude.png When highway45 talks of "functions" here, he actually means commands like extrude or turn. So, (set_pers_context "Toolbox-Context" extrude)? Really? Wow!

set_pers_context is an internal CoCreate Modeling function dealing with how UI elements for a given command are displayed and where. I was floored - first, by the fact that an end user found a need to call an internal function like this, and second, because that magic incantation indeed works "as advertised" by highway45. For example, try entering the following in CoCreate Modeling's user input line:

(set_pers_context "Toolbox-Context" extrude)

Lo and behold, this will indeed open the Extrude dialog, and CoCreate Modeling now prompts for more input, such as extrusion distances or angles.

What's so surprising about this, you ask? If you've used CoCreate Modeling for a while, then you'll know that, as a rule of thumb, code enclosed in parentheses won't prompt for more input, but will instead expect additional parameters in the command line itself.

For example, if you run (extrude) (with parentheses!) from the user input line, Lisp will complain that the parameter "DISTANCE is not specified". But in highway45's example, there clearly was a closing parenthesis after extrude, and yet the Extrude command started to prompt!

So is set_pers_context some kind of magic potion? Try this:

  (print extrude)

The Extrude dialog opens and prompts for input! Seems like even print has magic powers, even though it's a plain ol' Common Lisp standard function!

Well, maybe there is something special about all built-in functions? Let's test this out and try a trivial function of our own:

  (defun foobar() 42)
  (foobar extrude)

Once more, the dialog opens and awaits user input!

So maybe it is neither of set_pers_context, print or foobar that is magic - but instead extrude. We'll tumble down that rabbit hole next time.

To be continued...


A package riddle, part IV (28 Aug 2009)

I'll bore you just one more time with this: When executing (test) as defined in the following code, Lisp claimed that the function #:TEST_DIALOG is undefined.

(defun test()
  (test_dialog))

(in-package :clausbrod.de)
(use-package :oli)

(sd-defdialog 'test_dialog
  :ok-action '(display "test_dialog"))

In part 3 of this mini-series, we figured out that the #: prefix indicates an uninterned symbol - and now we can solve the puzzle!

Earlier, I had indicated that sd-defdialog automatically exports dialog names into the default package. To perform this trick, somewhere in the bowels of the sd-defdialog macro, the following code is generated and executed:

(shadowing-import ',name :cl-user)  ;; import dialog name into cl-user package
(export ',name)                     ;; export dialog name in current package
(import ',name :oli)                ;; import dialog name into oli package
(export ',name :oli)                ;; export dialog name from the oli package

As a consequence, the dialog's name is now visible in three packages:

  • The default package (cl-user)
  • Our Lisp API package (oli)
  • The package in which the dialog was defined (here: clausbrod.de)

This is quite convenient for CoCreate Modeling users - typically mechanical engineers, not Lisp programmers. They don't want to deal with the intricacies of Lisp's package handling, but instead simply assume that the command (dialog) will be at their disposal whenever they need it.

Let's look up what the Common Lisp standard has to say on shadowing-import:

shadowing-import inserts each of symbols into package as an internal symbol, regardless of whether another symbol of the same name is shadowed by this action. If a different symbol of the same name is already present in package, that symbol is first uninterned from package.

That's our answer! With this newly-acquired knowledge, let's go through our code example one more and final time:

(defun test()
  (test_dialog))

Upon loading this code, the Lisp reader will intern a symbol called test_dialog into the current (default) package. As test_dialog has not been defined yet, the symbol test_dialog does not have a value; it's just a placeholder for things to come.

(in-package :clausbrod.de)
(use-package :oli)

We're no longer in the default package, and can freely use oli:sd-defdialog without a package prefix.

(sd-defdialog 'test_dialog
  :ok-action '(display "test_dialog"))

sd-defdialog performs (shadowing-import 'test_dialog :cl-user), thereby shadowing (hiding) and uninterning the previously interned test_dialog symbol.

Until we re-evaluate the definition for (test), it will still refer to the old definition of the symbol test_dialog, which - by now - is a) still without a value and b) uninterned, i.e. homeless.

Lessons learned:

  • Pay attention to the exact wording of Lisp error messages.
  • The Common Lisp standard is your friend.
  • Those Lisp package problems can be pesky critters.

The good news: If you follow a few rules of thumb, you'll probably never run into complex package problems like this. One such simple rule is to define your functions first before referring to them. So in our code example, defining the dialog first before loading/defining the (test) function would have saved us all that hassle.

Phew.


Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming (25 Aug 2009)

The other day, I finally bought Peter Norvig's classic Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming, which everybody in the Lisp community seems to be raving about.

No book review yet, as I haven't even started to read the book. However, a while ago, I worked through Norvig's implementation of the loop macro, and ever since then, I knew I had to buy the book. The code contains a good amount of Lisp macrology, and yet it is clear, concise, and so easy to follow. You can read it like a novel, from cover to back, while sipping from a glass of pinot noir. Impressive work.

If you've soaked up enough Common Lisp to roughly know what lambda and defmacro do, this is the kind of code you should be reading to take the next step in understanding Lisp. This is also a brilliant way to learn how to use loop, by the way.

I can't wait to find out what the rest of the book is like!

Update 9/2013: Norvig's (How to Write a (Lisp) Interpreter (in Python)) is just as readable and inspirational as the loop macro code. Highly recommended.


A package riddle, part III (22 Aug 2009)

Lisp recently surprised me with an error message which I had not expected.

(defun test()
  (test_dialog))

(in-package :clausbrod.de)
(use-package :oli)

(sd-defdialog 'test_dialog
  :ok-action '(display "test_dialog"))

Load the above code, run (test), and you'll get:

testdialog.png

In CoCreate Modeling, the sd-defdialog macro automatically exports the name of the new dialog (in this case, test_dialog) into the default package. Hence, you'd expect that the function (test), which is in the default package, would be able to call that dialog!

Astute readers (and CoCreate Modeling's Lisp compiler) will rightfully scold me for using (in-package) in the midst of a file. However, the error doesn't go away if you split up the above code example into two files, the second of which then properly starts with (in-package). And in fact, the problem originally manifested itself in a multiple-file scenario. But to make it even easier for readers to run the test themselves, I just folded the two files into one.

Lisp actually provides us with a subtle hint which I ignored so far: Did you notice that the complaint is about a symbol #:TEST_DIALOG, and not simply TEST_DIALOG?

The #: prefix adds an important piece to the puzzle. Apparently, Lisp thinks that TEST_DIALOG is not a normal symbol, but a so-called uninterned symbol. Uninterned symbols are symbols which don't belong to any Lisp package - they are homeless. For details:

Uninterned symbols are beasts which live in a slightly darker corner of Common Lisp, or at least you don't run into them too often. And in our particular case, it isn't exactly obvious how TEST_DIALOG turned into an uninterned symbol. We would have expected it to be a symbol interned in the clausbrod.de package, which is where the dialog is defined!

Those who are still with me in this series will probably know where this is heading. Anyway - next time, we'll finally solve the puzzle!


A package riddle, part II (20 Aug 2009)

Yesterday, I presented some Lisp code which puzzled me for a little while.

To recap, here's the test code again:

(defun test()
  (test_dialog))

(in-package :clausbrod.de)
(use-package :oli)

(sd-defdialog 'test_dialog
  :ok-action '(display "test_dialog"))

Here is what happens if you save this code into a file, then load the file into CoCreate Modeling and call the (test) function:

testdialog.png

"The function #:TEST_DIALOG is undefined"? Let's review the code so that you can understand why I found this behavior surprising.

First, you'll notice that the function test is defined in the default Lisp package. After its definition, we switch into a different package (clausbrod.de), in which we then define a CoCreate Modeling dialog called test_dialog.

The (test) function attempts to call that dialog. If you've had any exposure with other implementations of Lisp before, I'm sure you will say: "Well, of course the system will complain that TEST_DIALOG is undefined! After all, you define it in package clausbrod.de, but call it from the default package (where test is defined). This is trivial! Go read The Complete Idiot's Guide to Common Lisp Packages instead of wasting our time!"

To which I'd reply that sd-defdialog, for practical reasons I may go into in a future blog post, actually makes dialogs visible in CoCreate Modeling's default package. And since the function test is defined in the default package, it should therefore have access to a symbol called test_dialog, and there shouldn't be any error messages, right?

To be continued...


A package riddle (19 Aug 2009)

The other day, I spent some time debugging a surprising issue in Lisp code written for CoCreate Modeling. Turns out that the problem can be shrunk down to only a few lines, and is actually quite instructive on how Lisp's packages work - an ideal candidate for this blog!

So here is the innocent-looking code:

(defun test()
  (test_dialog))

(in-package :clausbrod.de)
(use-package :oli)

(sd-defdialog 'test_dialog
  :ok-action '(display "test_dialog"))

packageriddle.png Copy/paste this code into a file called test.lsp, then load the file into a fresh instance of CoCreate Modeling. Run the test function by entering (test) in the user input line. Can you guess what happens now? Can you explain it?

To be continued...


STEP files for the masses (29 Jul 2009)

Every now and then, a CoCreate Modeling user needs some functionality which isn't in the product yet, or at least not precisely in the shape and form she needs it. For example, in a recent forum discussion, someone asked for a way to batch-convert CoCreate Modeling package files into STEP format.

The CoCreate Task Agent provides such functionality, but since it is an add-on module at extra cost, only some customers have it available to them. But that's no reason for despair, as it's pretty simple to add new functionality to the product.

Here's my take on the problem. My solution doesn't have any kind of glitzy UI, it doesn't handle errors, it's not optimized for performance - but it shows how the approach works, and that's all I wanted to accomplish.

;; (C) 2009 Claus Brod
;;
;; Demonstrates how to convert models into STEP format
;; in batch mode. Assumes that STEP module has been activated.

(in-package :clausbrod.de)
(use-package :oli)
(export 'pkg-to-step)

(defun convert-one-file(from to)
  (delete_3d :all_at_top)
  (load_package from)
  (step_export :select :all_at_top :filename to :overwrite)
  (undo))

(defun pkg-to-step(dir)
  "Exports all package files in a directory into STEP format"
  (dolist (file (directory (format nil "~A/*.pkg" dir)))
    (let ((filename (namestring file)))
      (convert-one-file filename (format nil "~A.stp" filename)))))

To use this code:

  • Run CoCreate Modeling
  • Activate the STEP module
  • Load the Lisp file
  • In the user input line, enter something like (clausbrod.de:pkg-to-step "c:/allmypackagefiles")

For each package (*.pkg) file in the specified directory, a STEP file will be generated in the same directory. The name of the STEP file is the original filename with .stp appended to it.

In pkg-to-step, the code iterates over the list of filenames returned from (directory). For each package file, convert-one-file is called, which performs the actual conversion:

Step Command
Delete all objects in memory (so that they don't interfere with the rest of the process) delete_3d
Load the package file load_package
Save the model in memory out to a STEP file step_export
Revert to the state of affairs as before loading the package file undo

For each of those steps, we use one of the built-in commands, i.e. delete_3d, load_package, step_export and undo. (These are the kind of commands which are captured in a recorder file when you run CoCreate Modeling's recorder utility.) Around those commands, we use some trivial Common Lisp glue code - essentially, dolist over the results of directory. And that's all, folks big grin

Astute readers will wonder why I use undo after the load operation rather than delete_3d the model. undo is in fact more efficient in this kind of scenario, which is an interesting story in and of itself - and shall be told some other day.


Java-Forum Stuttgart (06 Jul 2009)

At this year's Java forum in Stuttgart, I was one of 1100 geeks who divulged in Suebian Brezeln and presentations on all things Java.

After a presentation on Scala, I passed by a couple of flipcharts which were set aside for birds-of-a-feather (BoF) sessions. On a whim, I grabbed a free flipchart and scribbled one word: Clojure. In the official program, there was no presentation covering Clojure, but I thought it'd be nice to meet a few people who, like me, are interested in learning this new language and its concepts!

Since I had suggested the topic, I became the designated moderator for this session. It turned out that most attendees didn't really know all that much about Clojure or Lisp - and so I gravitated, a bit unwillingly at first, into presentation mode. Boy, was I glad that right before the session, I had refreshed the little Clojure-fu I have by reading an article or two.

In fact, some of the folks who showed up had assumed the session was on closures (the programming concept) rather than Clojure, the language big grin But the remaining few of us still had a spirited discussion, covering topics such as dynamic versus static typing, various Clojure language elements, Clojure's Lisp heritage, programmimg for concurrency, web frameworks, Ruby on Rails, and OO databases.

To those who stopped by, thanks a lot for this discussion and for your interest. And to the developer from Bremen whose name I forgot (sorry): As we suspected, there is indeed an alternative syntax for creating Java objects in Clojure.

  (.show (new javax.swing.JFrame)) ;; probably more readable for Java programmers

  (.show (javax.swing.JFrame.)) ;; Clojure shorthand


Common Lisp in CoCreate Modeling (20 Jun 2009)

ELS2009logo.gif

This year's European Lisp Symposium in Milan had several slots in the programme for lightning talks - short, high-adrenaline, sometimes impromptu presentations about all things Lisp.

I loved the format because of the wide variety of topics presented. Also, this gave me the unique chance to present to this audience of hardcore Lisp geeks how we are using Common Lisp in our flagship 3D CAD product, CoCreate Modeling. Since I only had a few minutes, all I could do was skim over a few topics, but that's still better than a poke in the eye with C# big grin

Not many in the audience had heard about our project yet, so there were quite a few questions after the presentation. Over all those years, we had lost touch with the Lisp community a bit - so reconnecting to the CL matrix felt just great.

slide.png

Click on the image to view the presentation. The presentation mentions LOC (lines of code) data; those include test code.

Previous posts on the European Lisp Symposium:


European Lisp Symposium: Geeks Galore! (07 Jun 2009)

ELS2009logo.gif

It's more than a week now that I returned from Milan where I attended this year's European Lisp Symposium, but memories are still fairly fresh. The conferences I go to are usually all pretty nerdy, but this one provided particularly impressive examples of general geekiness.

Not that this came as a surprise. After all, this was a conference about Lisp. Lisp is one of those languages which, as it seems, many love and many others hate, but which leaves few indifferent. And so naturally, the audience at the symposium deeply cared about the language and its underlying value system, and wasn't in Milan just for a few days of company politics or for sightseeing.

For me, this meant:

  • Two days during which I didn't have to explain any of my T-shirts.
  • Not having to hide my symptoms of internet deprivation on the first day of the symposium (when the organizers were still working on wifi access for everyone).
  • Enjoying (uhm...) the complicated protocol dance involved in splitting up a restaurant bill among five or six geeks. This is obviously something that we, as a human subspecies, suck at big grin Special shout-outs go to Jim Newton, Edgar Gonçalves, Alessio Stalla, Francesco Petrogalli and his friend Michele. (Sorry to those whose names I forgot; feel free to refresh my memory.)
  • Meeting Lisp celebrities like Scott McKay (of Symbolics fame)
  • Crashing my hotel room with four other hackers (Attila Lendvai and the amazing dwim.hu crew) who demoed both their Emacs skills and their web framework to me, sometime after midnight. (Special greetings also to Stelian Ionescu.)

How refreshing!


European Lisp Symposium 2009: Keynote (03 Jun 2009)

As promised earlier, here are some more notes from this year's European Lisp Symposium in Milan - this time about Scott McKay's keynote presentation on what he has learned in his years as a Lisp and Dylan programmer at companies like Symbolics, Harlequin, HotDispatch and ITA Software.

Scott joked he might well be the Zelig or Forrest Gump of the Lisp community, after having been around for a long time and making appearances in a number of (unlikely?) places. In amusing anecdotes, he explained some of the key learnings he took away during his career, and what those learnings might mean for the future of Lisp and the Lisp community.

Some notes (from memory, hence most certainly inaccurate):

  • "Any bozo can write code" - this is how David Moon dismissed Scott's attempt to back up one of his designs with code which demonstrated how the design was meant to work.
  • "Total rewrites are good" - Scott was the designer of CLIM, which underwent several major revisions until it finally arrived at a state he was reasonably happy with.
  • "If you cannot describe something in a spec, that's a clue!" - amen, brother!
  • "The Lisp community has a bad habit of building everything themselves"
  • "Immutability is good" (even for single-threaded code)
  • "Ruby on Rails gets it right"; only half-jokingly, he challenged the community to build something like "Lisp on Rails". Later during the symposium, I learned that we already have Lisp on Lines ("LoL" - I'm not kidding you here big grin ).
  • "Java + Eclipse + Maven + XXX + ... is insane!" - and later "J2EE got it spectacularly wrong" big grin
  • He reminded us that the Lisp Machine actually had C and Fortran compilers, and that it was no small feat making sure that compiled C and Fortran programs ran on the system without corrupting everybody else's memory. (I'd be curious to learn more about this.)
  • Lisp code which was developed during Scott's time at HotDispatch was later converted to Java - they ended up in roughly 10x the code size.
  • The QRes system at ITA has 650000 lines of code, and approx. 50 hackers are working on it. Among other things, they have an ORM layer, transactions, and a persistence framework which is "a lot less complicated than Hibernate".
  • Both PLOT and Alloy were mentioned as sources of inspiration.

Scott then went on to develop a list of features which a future version of Lisp, dubbed Uncommon Lisp, should have. That list was pretty long; notable features which I remember were:

  • Should run on a virtual machine
  • Good FFI support very important
  • Support for immutability
  • Concurrency and parallelism support
  • Optional type checking, statically typed interfaces (define-strict-function)
  • "Code as data" not negotiable

Not surprisingly, Clojure was mentioned quite often, both during the keynote and in the subsequent Q&A session. I'm still not quite sure what Scott's position on Clojure really is. To me, most of the points he made seemed to actually back up design decisions in Clojure: For instance, Clojure runs on a VM, reuses the libraries and tools of the underlying platform, connects easily to other languages, makes a decided effort to support concurrency well, and while it breaks with Common Lisp syntax, it is still in the Common Lisp spirit of being a pragmatic implementation of the fundamental Lisp ideas. On the other hand, Scott also criticised some Clojure details (name resolution comes to mind), and seemed uncertain whether to full-heartedly recommend everyone to join the Clojure camp right away.

I think what Scott tried to get across is that a revolutionary approach is both possible and worthwhile for the Lisp community. Revolution, of course, means breaking with the past, and it became obvious during Friday's panel discussion on the future of Common Lisp that not everybody at the symposium felt comfortable with the thought.

PS: Michele Simionato discusses the keynote presentation from a Schemer's point of view.


European Lisp Symposium 2009 (30 May 2009)

This year's European Lisp Symposium took place in Milan. I just returned from the symposium, which was my first such encounter with the Common Lisp community.

I took some notes and hope to blog more about the symposium later. For now, let me just say there's one thing that stood out for me: There is an awful lot of intellectual brilliance in this community, and I'm impressed. Thanks to all presenters and to everybody who helped to set up and organize the symposium!

During the conference, a lot of people stepped up and gave lightning talks, i.e. short talks about some Lisp-related topic of their choice. This was, IMHO, a smashing success in many ways: It broadened the spectrum of the symposium; it provided a forum for the presenters to test how their ideas are received; and it spurred many discussions after the presentations. That said, I'm biased as I also gave a lightning talk on how we're using Lisp in CoCreate Modeling smile

Other bloggers covering the event:

PS: While at lunch on Thursday, I had an interesting chat with a young guy from Hasso-Plattner-Institut in Potsdam (Germany). I was very impressed to hear about the many languages he already worked or experimented with. Unfortunately, I completely forgot his name. So this is a shout-out to him: If Google ever leads you here, I apologize for the brain leakage, and please drop me a note!


Reasons To Admire Lisp (part 1) (16 Apr 2009)

sponge.png

When I tell people that I like and admire Lisp, they will typically roll their eyes and/or give me some pretty weird looks - and then they'll ignore me for the rest of their lives.

Well, after all those years, I'm usually not hurt anymore. Instead, I just giggle to myself like the proverbial mad scientist. You see, in the past few years there has been such a huge surge of interest in functional and dynamic languages that everybody and their sister already programs in a Lisp-like language, only without knowing it. Or, at the very least, they use a language or programming environment whose designers adopted very significant amounts of Lispy concepts. Examples: C#, JavaScript, Ruby, Python, Scheme, Groovy, Perl, Smalltalk, Java - and, in fact, pretty much any language running on top of the CLR or JVM. (Heck, even C++ programmers will soon learn lambdas and closures...)

Being an old fart, my memory doesn't serve me as well as it used to, hence my bias towards simple concepts and simple solutions which are easy to memorize.

For starters, a compelling reason to fall in love with Lisp is its syntactical simplicity. Lisp probably has the easiest syntax of all programming languages, maybe with the exception of Forth-like languages. Want proof? This morning, a good soul over at reddit pointed me to results of the University of Geneva's HyperGOS project: A comparison of BNF graphs for various languages. Lisp's BNF looks like this:

s_expression = atomic_symbol / "(" s_expression "."s_expression ")" / list 

list = "(" s_expression < s_expression > ")"

atomic_symbol = letter atom_part

atom_part = empty / letter atom_part / number atom_part

letter = "a" / "b" / " ..." / "z"

number = "1" / "2" / " ..." / "9"

empty = " "

Now compare the above to, say, Java. (And yes, the description above doesn't tell the whole story since it doesn't cover any kind of semantic aspects. So sue me.)

Oh, and while we're at it: Lisp Syntax Doesn't Suck, says Brian Carper, and who am I to disagree.

So there.


So long, and thanks for all the functional fish! (30 Mar 2008)

1982. I'm not even sure if I already had my first computer back then - but that's the year when Peter Henderson published an article about Functional Geometry, in which he describes how to build images from equations, and how to create big images from smaller ones using functional composition.

The original implementation was in UCSD Pascal. A while ago, part-time Lisp hacker Frank Buß ported it to Lisp and added Postscript output, and he also posted a very nice description of his approach, illustrating how this example helped him understand how valuable support for higher-order functions in a language can be.

Frank's code is clear and compact, and the platform dependencies are all in one function, which made it easy to adapt to CoCreate Modeling's dialect of Common Lisp. In fact, all that's needed to run the code is the following loader code:

;; -*-Lisp-*-
;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
;; Description:  Wrapper to run Frank Buss' functional geometry code
;;               in CoCreate Modeling
;; Author:       Claus Brod  
;; Language:     Lisp
;;
;; (C) Copyright 2008 Claus Brod, all rights reserved
;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
;;

(in-package :clausbrod.de)
(use-package :oli)
(export '(plot-escher))

;; Allow using lambda without quoting it via #' first
;; (No longer required in CoCreate Modeling 2008 and later.)
(defmacro lambda (&rest body)
  `(function (lambda ,@body)))

(defparameter *our-loadpath* *load-truename*)
(load (format nil "~A/functional.lsp"
              (directory-namestring *our-loadpath*)))

;; Modeling-specific plotter function
(defun plot-annotation (p)
  (let ((tempfile (format nil "~A/test.mac" (oli:sd-inq-temp-dir)))
        (scale 500.0))
    (startup::activate-annotation)

    (with-open-file (s tempfile
                       :direction :output :if-exists :supersede)
      (format s "line~%")

      (dolist (line (funcall p '(0 0) '(1 0) '(0 1)))
        (destructuring-bind ((x0 y0) (x1 y1)) line
          (format s "  ~D,~D ~D,~D~%"
                  (* scale (float x0))
                  (* scale (float y0))
                  (* scale (float x1))
                  (* scale (float y1)))))

      (format s "end"))

    (oli:sd-execute-annotator-command
     :cmd (format nil "input '~A'" tempfile))
    (docu::docu_vp :fit_vp)
    (delete-file tempfile)))

;; Shortcut for the Escher fish drawing
(defun plot-escher()
  (plot-annotation *fishes*))

The loader code adds the definition for the lambda macro which is missing so far in CoCreate Modeling, loads Frank's code, and then adds a plotter function which creates output in a 2D Annotation window.

Usage instructions:

  • Download Frank's code from his site and save it as functional.lsp.
  • Download the loader code and save it into the same directory.
  • Load the loader Lisp code into CoCreate Modeling 2007 or higher.
  • In the user input line, enter (clausbrod.de:plot-escher)

Thanks to Frank for this cute demo code!


CLR? To me, that's "Common Lisp Runtime"! (12 Mar 2008)

Alright, so I can no longer keep this to myself. I've been fantasizing about it for too long: I want a true Common Lisp implementation running on top of, and integrated with, Microsoft's CLR, and I want it badly.

It took a while, but after all those years at CoCreate (where we write a lot of Lisp code), I fell in love with the language. I want to work on projects which use Common Lisp, and I want the language to be successful and popular in lots of places - if only so that I have a choice of cool jobs should the need ever arise big grin

In other words, I want Common Lisp to become a mainstream language - which it arguably isn't, even though pretty much everybody agrees about its power and potential.

One way to acquire mainstream super-powers is to team up with one of the planet's most potent forces in both software development and marketing: Microsoft. This is the strategic reason for my proposal. Yes, I know, many Lisp gurus and geeks out couldn't care less about Microsoft and the Windows platform, or even shudder at the thought. But there are also tactical and technical reasons, so bear with me for a minute before you turn on your flamethrowers.

When I say Microsoft, I really mean .NET and its Common Language Runtime. Well, that's what they say is how to spell out CLR. But I claim that the L could just as well stand for Lisp, as the CLR, particularly in conjunction with the Dynamic Language Runtime extensions which Microsoft is working on, is a suspiciously suitable platform to build an implementation of Common Lisp upon: Not only does it provide a renowned garbage collector (designed by former Lisp guru Patrick Dussud) and a rich type system, it also has extensive reflection and code generation support, and - through the DLR - fast dynamic function calls, AST processing and compilation, debugger integration, REPL support, and all that jazz. It's no coincidence that languages such as C# and even VB.NET are picking up new dynamic language features with every new release, and that Microsoft has even added a new functional language, F#, to the set of languages which are (or will be) fully integrated into Visual Studio. The wave is coming in, and we better not miss it!

Best of all, it's not just about Windows anymore: The DLR and IronPython also run on top of Mono. Mono is available for Linux, Solaris, Mac OS X, various BSD flavors as well as for Windows, so layering Common Lisp on top of the CLR doesn't limit us to the Windows platform at all!

Note that I explicitly said "Common Lisp". I think that it's vital for an implementation on top of the CLR/DLR to be truly standards-compliant. I am not alone in this belief: In the IronPython and IronRuby projects, Microsoft went to great lengths to make sure that the implementations are true to the original language.

What would this buy us? Well, one recurring and dominant theme in discussions about the viability of Lisp as a mainstream language is the perceived or real lack of actively maintained libraries and tools. With the approach I'm outlining, we could still run all those excellent existing Common Lisp libraries and projects out there, but we'd also be able to use the huge body of code both in the .NET framework itself and in third-party .NET components. Common Lisp code could seamlessly call into a library written in, say, C#, and VB.NET programmers would be able to consume Common Lisp libraries!

Taking it a little further, we could also integrate with Visual Studio. Where I work, it would make all the difference in the world if we could edit, run and debug our Lisp code from within Visual Studio. I'm convinced that this would attract a large new group of programmers to Common Lisp. Hordes of them, in fact big grin

Yes, I know about SLIME and Dandelion and Cusp, and I'm perfectly aware that Emacs will simultaneously iron your shirts, whistle an enchanting tune, convincingly act on your behalf in today's team phone conference, and book flights to the Caribbean while compiling, debugging, refactoring and possibly even writing all your Lisp code for you in the background. Still, there's a whole caste of programmers who never felt any desire to reach beyond the confines of the Visual Studio universe, and are perfectly happy with their IDE, thank you very much. What if we could sell even those programmers on Common Lisp? (And yes, of course you and I could continue to use our beloved Emacs.)

Now, all these ideas certainly aren't original. There are a number of projects out there born out of similar motivation:

  • L Sharp .NET - a Lisp-based scripting language for .NET by Rob Blackwell
  • Yarr - Lisp-based scripting language for .NET based on L Sharp
  • dotLisp - a Lisp dialect for .NET, written by Rich Hickey (of Clojure fame)
  • Rich Hickey mentioned in a presentation that the original versions of Clojure were actually written to produce code for the CLR
  • IronLisp - Lisp on top of the DLR, initiated by Llewellyn Pritchard, who later decided to tackle IronScheme instead
  • There's a even a toy Common Lisp implementation by Microsoft which they shipped as a sample in the .NET Framework SDK (and now as part of the Rotor sources)
  • Joe Marshall has an interesting project which looks like Lisp implemented in C#.
  • LispSharp is a CLR-based Lisp compiler (Mirko Benuzzi)
  • ClearLisp is another CL dialect written in C# by Jan Tolenaar.
  • A LISP/Scheme language for .NET (Adam Milazzo)
  • CLearSharp, by Ola Bini
  • Joe Duffy's Sencha project
  • VistaSmalltalk may not sound like Lisp, but it actually contains a Lisp engine (implemented in C#), and according to the architecture notes I found, Smalltalk is implemented on top of Lisp.
  • CLinNET, by Dan Muller
  • CarbonLisp, by Eric Rochester
  • MBase, a "metaprogramming framework" providing a Lisp-like definition language
  • Sohail Somani experiments with .NET IL generation from Lispy syntax
  • RDNZL - .NET interop layer for Common Lisp (Edi Weitz)
  • FOIL - Foreign object interface for Lisp (i.e. an interop layer) on top of both the JVM and the CLR, by Rich Hickey (again!) and Eric Thorsen

Unfortunately, some of those projects are no longer actively maintained, others implement just a small subset of Common Lisp or even made design decisions which may conflict with the standard, or they are "merely" interop layers which allow Common Lisp code to call code written in managed languages, but don't provide full CLR integration. Don't get me wrong: Most of those projects produced impressive results - I don't mean to bash any of them, quite to the contrary.

What we learn from this project list is that there are quite a number of brilliant Lisp hackers out there who are both interested in such a project and capable of working on it. Most encouraging!

So maybe it isn't just me. Or am I really the only remaining Lisp programmer with such weird cravings? Be brutally honest with me: Am I a freak?

PS: I did not explicitly look for them while researching this article, but I know there are also a number of similar endeavours in the Scheme world, such as Common Larceny, Bigloo.NET, Dot-Scheme and Tachy.

PS/2: A few days after posting this article, I found that Toby Jones already coined the term "Common Lisp Runtime" three years ago...


In the presence of genius (06 Mar 2008)

The company I work for, CoCreate Software, was recently acquired by PTC. As we are going through the integration process, I noticed with awe that as a result of the acquisition, apparently I now work for the same company as Kent Pitman! Wow.

For those of you with a Lisp background, that name should ring a couple of bells. Kent was the project editor for the ANSI Common Lisp standard and creator of the Common Lisp HyperSpec. He also made numerous other contributions to the Lisp community. For example, he headed the committee which designed Lisp's condition system.

Lisp is still big at CoCreate, and we have a number of Lisp programmers ourselves. While Lisp's core ideas and design principles have all become mainstream recently, Lisp as a language still isn't, and so it's great to find that there are other Lisp holdouts in the same company. Particularly if they happen to harbor a legend like Kent Pitman... adore.gif I sure hope I'll have a chance to meet Kent one day!


Common Lisp at CoCreate (29 Dec 2007)

osm_rendering.png

In his blog, Peter Christensen started a list of companies using Lisp to build their software or run their businesses. It is a little-known fact that CoCreate, the company I work for, relies quite a bit on Common Lisp in its flagship product OneSpace Modeling. In fact, Lisp and C++ are our main implementation languages!

CoCreate OneSpace Modeling is a 3D CAD modeler built on a concept called "explicit modeling". C++ is used mainly in the modeling kernel, while Lisp dominates the UI, the application logic, many add-on modules, and the API. The Lisp part of the project is safely in the 7-digit lines of code range. I don't know much about the other large Lisp projects out there, and LOC isn't exactly the greatest way to compare application complexity anyway, so I'll play safe and just say that this is certainly a non-trivial Common Lisp project.

Back in 1995, when we were still a division of Hewlett-Packard, we published an article in "HP Journal" which outlines why we chose Common Lisp and what we're doing with it in the product. The article is still available at http://www.hpl.hp.com/hpjournal/95oct/oct95a7.pdf. Since then, the application changed a lot, of course - we even renamed it twice wink But much of what is said in the article about Lisp still applies.

The HP Journal article concluded:

Common Lisp is also used as a user accessible extension language for HP PE/SolidDesigner. It is a standardized, open programming language, not a proprietary one as in HP PE/ME10 and PE/ME30, and the developers of HP PE/SolidDesigner believe that this will prove to be an immense advantage.

SolidDesigner was the original product name; ME10 and ME30 were predecessor products which implemented their own little macro interpreters. Back then, we were a bit cautious about the potential benefits we'd reap, as the product was still in its early days. By now, however, we can say that Common Lisp was a key factor in helping a fairly small team of developers keep pace with the big guns in the industry, due to all the well-known productivity features in Lisp, such as macros, the REPL, or automatic memory management.

The HP Journal article describes how we use macros to define a domain-specific language called action routines, which are state machines which guide users through commands. Later, we extended that concept by automatically generating UI for those commands: Using the sd-defdialog macro, application developers can implement full-blown commands in just a few lines of code, without having to write any (or at least hardly any) code for services such as:

  • Automatic "macro recording" of commands
  • Context-sensitive online help
  • UNDO support
  • Command customization (commands can be started from toolbars, menus, a user input line, or from our "taskbar")
  • Sequence control (dependencies of user inputs on other input)
  • UI creation and layout
  • Adherence to UI style guides
  • Graphical feedback both in the UI and in 3D graphics windows
  • Type and range checks for input data
  • Automatic unit conversions (imperial to metric etc.)
  • Prompting

I've been planning to blog more on sd-defdialog for some time, and hope to get around to it Real Soon Now.

Needless to mention, I guess, that I made sure that CoCreate is now also part of Peter's great list... .-)

PS: If you're interested, check out my other blog posts related to CoCreate Modeling or the CoCreate Modeling FAQ.


What's my vector, Victor? (08 Aug 2007)

In graphics and CAD software, users occasionally have to enter 2D or 3D coordinates. One such application is CoCreate's OneSpace Modeling on which I work day to day to help me fill my fridge.

To make coordinate entry as simple as possible, the implementation of Lisp which is embedded in the product understands the following vector syntax:

  (line :two_points 100,100 0,0)

Common Lisp connoisseurs will notice that this is decidedly non-standard behavior. Those commas aren't supposed to be there; instead, commas serve their purpose in list quoting, particularly in macro definitions. (For a refresher, check out The Common Lisp Cookbook - Macros and Backquote.) And in any other implementation of Lisp, this code would indeed result in an error message such as "comma is illegal outside of backquote".

OneSpace Modeling's embedded Lisp, however, will notice a pair of literal numbers and assume that what the user really meant to specify is a structure of type gpnt2d, which holds x and y slots for the coordinates. And so what is really evaluated is more like this:

  (line :two_points (oli:make-gpnt2d :x 100 :y 100) (oli:make-gpnt2d :x 0 :y 0))

oli is the Lisp package which exports the gpnt2d structure as well as its accessor and constructor functions.

This explicit syntax is actually required whenever you need to specify coordinates using non-literals, such as when the actual coordinates are the results of mathematical calculations. For instance, vector syntax is not recognized in the following:

  (line :two_points (+ 50 50),100 0,0)

Now you'll get the expected error message reporting that "a comma has appeared out of a backquote". To make this work, you'd have to say:

  (line :two_points (oli:make-gpnt2d :x (+ 50 50) :y 100) 0,0)

But despite this limitation, the vector syntax extension was tremendously important for us: Coordinates can be entered in all kinds of places in the user interface where casual users would never suspect that what they are entering is actually thrown into funny engines which the propellerheads at CoCreate call "the Lisp reader" and "the Lisp evaluator".


MontStMichel12.jpg

I'm just a simple property list, I didn't expect the Spanish strinquisition! (19 Jul 2007)

My co-worker looked a little tense. Our office is in the sixth floor, my window was wide open, and somehow I became slightly nervous as he walked up to it.

"Now, you're the Lisp aficionado here, right", he said, "You've got to help me out: Strings don't work in property lists!"

Oh, great. Who knows, being regarded (undeservedly) as the local Lisp, ahem, expert may become a factor for my job security some day, so I thought I'd better keep a straight face. Besides, he was still standing close to that window, and I wanted to leave nothing but a reassuring impression on him.

On the other hand, what the heck was he talking about?

Frantically grepping my grey cells for information on property lists, I somehow recalled we sometimes use them as a poor man's hashtable, usually mapping keywords to flags. But it had been so long I used property lists myself that I even had to look up the syntax details. To avoid this embarrassment next time around, here are some notes.

A property list is associated with a symbol. This flat and unstructured list can be thought of as a sequence of indicator/value pairs, with the indicator being the "key", in hash map terms. So the list starts with an indicator, followed by a value, followed by an indicator and its value, and so on. This is how you usually set a symbol property:

  (setf (get 'some-symbol some-indicator) some-value)

And to inquire a symbol property, you just say something like (get 'some-symbol some-indicator).

some-indicator can basically be any type, and so I wasn't sure what my co-worker meant when he said that he couldn't get strings to work, until he explained the details to me: He was calling some Lisp-based API function in our product, and that function returns a property list. Unfortunately, that property list was special in that somebody had stuffed a string into it as an indicator, and so the property list looked somehow like this:

  ("foo" 42 "bar" 4711)

And indeed, if you now try to inquire the "foo" property using (get 'some-symbol "foo"), all you get is - nil.

To retrieve a property value, get walks the list and compares each indicator in the list with "foo" (in this example) - using eq. From which we can immediately conclude:

  • The correct spelling of "property list" is p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e p-r-o-b-l-e-m, as each lookup requires traversing potentially all of the list.
  • eq checks for object equality, not just value equality. Which means that things like literal (!) strings or characters cannot be indicators!

In our case, we say (get 'some-symbol "foo"), and that "foo" string literal creates a new string object. While that new object happens to have the same value as the "foo" string in the property list, it is not the same object.

Indeed, the Common Lisp HyperSpec is quite clear on that topic: "Numbers and characters are not recommended for use as indicators in portable code since get tests with eq rather than eql, and consequently the effect of using such indicators is implementation-dependent."

It all boils down to the simple fact that (eq "foo" "foo") returns nil.

Now hopefully we can fix the API which returned those inadequate property lists to my co-worker's code, but his code also needs to run in older and current installations, and so he needed a workaround of some sort.

His first idea was to get the property list and fix it up in a preprocessing step before using get or getf for lookup, i.e. something like this:

(defun fix-plist(plist old-indicator new-indicator)
  (let ((cnt 0))
    (mapcar 
      #'(lambda(item)
          (incf cnt)
          (if (and (oddp cnt) (equal item old-indicator))
              new-indicator item))
      plist)))

(setf my-symbol 42)
(setf (get 'my-symbol "indicator") "value") ;; mess up plist
(print (get 'my-symbol "indicator"))        ;; returns NIL
(print (getf (fix-plist (symbol-plist 'my-symbol) "indicator" :indicator) :indicator))

This works, kind of - but it is actually quite ugly. Sure, with this code, we should be able to safely move ahead, especially since I also closed that office window in the meantime, but still: I really hope I'm missing something here. Any other ideas out there?


"Macro" considered harmful (01 May 2007)

In the OneSpace Modeling FAQ pages, I sometimes used or still use the term "macro" for the code snippets which I present there. Not a wise choice, as it occurred to me a while ago, and I intend to fix that now, or at least over time as I revisit those pages for other updates.

I used "macro" mostly for historical reasons. "Macro" is an overloaded term which can mean (too) many things:

  • In Lisp, a macro is a piece of code defined by defmacro. Macros in Lisp are a clever way to extend the language. If you want to learn more about this (or about Common Lisp in general, in fact), I recommend Peter Seibel's "Practical Common Lisp" - here's the section on macros.
  • CoCreate's 2D package, OneSpace Drafting, has a built-in macro interpreter which can be used to customize and extend the product. Since many OneSpace Drafting migrate from 2D to 3D, i.e. to OneSpace Modeling, they tend to take their nomenclature with them, and so they often call pieces of Lisp customization code a "macro", too.
  • In many software packages, users can record the interaction with the product and save the result into files, which are then often called macro files. OneSpace Modeling's recorder is such a mechanism, and so using the word "macro" is kind of natural for many users.

And so many users of OneSpace Modeling call their Lisp functions and customizations "macros", although this isn't really the correct term. Well, at least in most cases. Many of those customizations use an API called sd-defdialog which is provided by the "Integration Kit" library which ships with OneSpace Modeling. This API is, in fact, implemented using defmacro, i.e. sd-defdialog is itself a Lisp macro. So if a user writes code which builds on sd-defdialog and then calls the result a macro, he's actually not that far from the truth - although, of course, still incorrect.


Don't quote me on this (18 Mar 2006)

Let us assume that I'm a little backward and have a peculiar fondness for the DOS command shell. Let us further assume that I also like blank characters in pathnames. Let us conclude that therefore I'm hosed.

But maybe others out there are hosed, too. Blank characters in pathnames are not exactly my exclusive fetish; others have joined in as well (C:\Program Files, C:\Documents and Settings). And when using software, you might be running cmd.exe without even knowing it. Many applications can run external helper programs upon user request, be it through the UI or through the application's macro language.

The test environment is a directory c:\temp\foo bar which contains write.exe (copied from the Windows system directory) and two text files, one of them with a blank in its filename.

Now we open a DOS shell:

C:\>dir c:\temp\foo bar
 Volume in drive C is IBM_PRELOAD
 Volume Serial Number is C081-0CE2

 Directory of c:\temp

File Not Found

 Directory of C:\

File Not Found

C:\>dir "c:\temp\foo bar"
 Volume in drive C is IBM_PRELOAD
 Volume Serial Number is C081-0CE2

 Directory of c:\temp\foo bar

03/18/2006  03:08 PM    <DIR>          .
03/18/2006  03:08 PM    <DIR>          ..
01/24/2006  11:19 PM             1,516 foo bar.txt
01/24/2006  11:19 PM             1,516 foo.txt
03/17/2006  09:44 AM             5,632 write.exe
               3 File(s)          8,664 bytes
               2 Dir(s)  17,448,394,752 bytes free

Note that we had to quote the pathname to make the DIR command work. Nothing unusual here; quoting is a fact of life for anyone out there who ever used a DOS or UNIX shell.

Trying to start write.exe by entering c:\temp\foo bar\write.exe in the DOS shell fails; again, we need to quote:

C:\>"c:\temp\foo bar\write.exe"

And if we want to load foo bar.txt into the editor, we need to quote the filename as well:

C:\>"c:\temp\foo bar\write.exe" "c:\temp\foo bar\foo bar.txt"

Still no surprises here.

But let's suppose we want to run an arbitrary command from our application rather than from the command prompt. The C runtime library provides the system() function for this purpose. It is well-known that under the hood system actually runs cmd.exe to do its job.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <process.h>

int main(void)
{
  char *exe = "c:\\temp\\foo bar\\write.exe";
  char *path = "c:\\temp\\foo bar\\foo bar.txt";

  char cmdbuf[1024];
  _snprintf(cmdbuf, sizeof(cmdbuf), "\"%s\" \"%s\"", exe, path);

  int ret = system(cmdbuf);
  printf("system(\"%s\") returns %d\n", cmdbuf, ret);
  return 0;
}

When running this code, it reports that system() returned 0, and write.exe never starts, even though we quoted both the name of the executable and the text file name.

What's going on here? system() internally runs cmd.exe like this:

  cmd.exe /c "c:\temp\foo bar\write.exe" "c:\temp\foo bar\foo bar.txt"

Try entering the above in the command prompt: No editor to be seen anywhere! So when we run cmd.exe programmatically, apparently it parses its input differently than when we use it in an interactive fashion.

I remember this problem drove me the up the freakin' wall when I first encountered it roughly two years ago. With a lot of experimentation, I found the right magic incantation:

  _snprintf(cmdbuf, sizeof(cmdbuf), "\"\"%s\" \"%s\"\"", exe, path);
  // originally: _snprintf(cmdbuf, sizeof(cmdbuf), "\"%s\" \"%s\"", exe, path);

Note that I quoted the whole command string another time! Now the executable actually starts. Let's verify this in the command prompt window: Yes, something like cmd.exe /c ""c:\temp\foo bar\write.exe" "c:\temp\foo bar\foo bar.txt"" does what we want.

I was reminded of this weird behavior when John Scheffel, long-time user of our flagship product OneSpace Designer Modeling and maintainer of the international CoCreate user forum, reported funny quoting problems when trying to run executables from our app's built-in Lisp interpreter. John also found the solution and documented it in a Lisp version.

Our Lisp implementation provides a function called sd-sys-exec, and you need to invoke it thusly:

(setf exe "c:/temp/foo bar/write.exe")
(setf path "c:/temp/foo bar/foo bar.txt")
(oli:sd-sys-exec (format nil "\"\"~A\" \"~A\"\"" exe path))

Kudos to John for figuring out the Lisp solution. Let's try to decipher all those quotes and backslashes in the format statement.

Originally, I modified his solution slightly by using ~S instead of ~A in the format call and thereby saving one level of explicit quoting in the code:

  (format nil "\"~S ~S\"" exe path))

This is much easier on the eyes, yet I overlooked that the ~S format specifier not only produces enclosing quotes, but also escapes any backslash characters in the argument that it processes. So if path contains a backslash (not quite unlikely on a Windows machine), the backslash will be doubled. This works surprisingly well for some time, until you hit a UNC path which already starts with two backslashes. As an example, \\backslash\lashes\back turns into \\\\backslash\\lashes\\back, which no DOS shell will be able to grok anymore.

John spotted this issue as well. Maybe he should be writing these blog entries, don't you think? smile

From those Lisp subtleties back to the original problem: I never quite understood why the extra level of quoting is necessary for cmd.exe, but apparently, others have been in the same mess before. For example, check out this XEmacs code to see how complex correct quoting can be. See also an online version of the help pages for CMD.EXE for more information on the involved quoting heuristics applied by the shell.

PS: A very similar situation occurs in OneSpace Designer Drafting as well (which is our 2D CAD application). To start an executable write.exe in a directory c:\temp\foo bar and have it open the text file c:\temp\foo bar\foo bar.txt, you'll need macro code like this:

LET Cmd '"C:\temp\foo bar\write.exe"'
LET File '"C:\temp\foo bar\foo bar.txt"'
LET Fullcmd (Cmd + " " + File)
LET Fullcmd ('"' + Fullcmd + '"')  { This is the important line }
RUN Fullcmd

Same procedure as above: If both the executable's path and the path of the data file contain blank characters, the whole command string which is passed down to cmd.exe needs to be enclosed in an additional pair of quotes...

PS: See also http://blogs.msdn.com/b/twistylittlepassagesallalike/archive/2011/04/23/everyone-quotes-arguments-the-wrong-way.aspx


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Comment dit-on "knapsack" en français? (01 Mar 2006)

This week, a customer of our software asked a seemingly innocent question; given a set of tools of various lengths, he wanted to find subsets of those tools which, when combined, can be used to manufacture a screw of a given length.

From the description, I deduced that we were talking about a variation of the subset sum problem which is a special case of the knapsack problem. Faint memories of my time at university arose; I couldn't resist the weird intellectual tickle. Or maybe it was just the beginning of my pollen allergy for this year big grin Anyway, I searched high and low on my quest to reacquire long-lost knowledge.

One of the weirder search results was a TV show called Des chiffres et des lettres which has been running for ages now on French TV. In that show, they play a game called "Le compte est bon" which is actually a variation of the subset sum problem! The candidates are supposed to solve this puzzle in about a minute or so during the show. Wow - these French guys must be math geniuses! wink

Anyway, I couldn't help but try a subset sum algorithm in Lisp. I ran it both using CLISP and the implementation of Lisp provided in CoCreate OneSpace Modeling. I started to collect some benchmark results for CLISP, comparing interpreted and compiled code to get a better feeling for the kind of improvements I can expect from the CLISP compiler. In the case of CLISP, the compiler improves runtime by roughly an order of magnitude. See the discussion of the algorithm for detailled results.


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Delegating closures to C# (26 Feb 2006)

Last time, I looked at how closures work in Lisp, and tried to mimick them in C++ (without success) using function objects.

To recap, a closure can be thought of as:

  • A function pointer referring to the code to be executed
  • A set of references to frames on the heap, namely references to all bindings of any free variables which occur in the code of the function.

C# 2.0 introduces anonymous delegates. Their implementation actually goes beyond simple delegates; they are, in fact, closures (I think). Here is an example:

class TestDelegate
{
  public delegate void MyDelegate();

  public MyDelegate GetDelegate()
  {
    string s = "Hiya";
    return delegate() { Console.WriteLine(s); }; // anon delegate
  }

  static void Main(string[] args)
  {
    TestDelegate p = new TestDelegate();
    MyDelegate anonDel = p.GetDelegate();
    anonDel();
  }
}

In the anonymous delegate, s is a free variable; the code compiles because the delegate refers to the definition of s in the surrounding code. If you run the above code, it will indeed print "Hiya", even though we are calling the delegate from Main, i.e. after we have left GetDelegate() which assigns that string to a local variable.

This is quite cool, considering that the .NET CLR uses a conventional stack and probably wasn't designed to run Lisp or Scheme all day. How do they do this?

Let's look at the disassembled code of GetDelegate() (using .NET Reflector, of course):

public TestDelegate.MyDelegate GetDelegate()
{
  TestDelegate.<>c__DisplayClass1 class1 = new TestDelegate.<>c__DisplayClass1();
  class1.s = "Hiya";
  return new TestDelegate.MyDelegate(class1.<GetDelegate>b__0);
}

So the compiler morphed our code while we were looking the other way! Instead of assigning "Hiya" to a local variable, the code instantiates a funky <>c__DisplayClass1 object, and that object apparently has a member called s which holds the string. The <>c__DisplayClass1 class also has an equivalent of the original GetDelegate function, as it seems. Hmmm.... very puzzling - let's look at the definition of that proxy class now:

[CompilerGenerated]
private sealed class <>c__DisplayClass1
{
      // Methods
      public <>c__DisplayClass1();
      public void <GetDelegate>b__0();

      // Fields
      public string s;
}

public void <GetDelegate>b__0()
{
      Console.WriteLine(this.s);
} 

Aha, now we're getting somewhere. The compiler moved the code in the anonymous delegate to the function <>c__DisplayClass1::<GetDelegate>b__0. This function has access to the field s, and that field is initialized by the compiler when the proxy object is instantiated.

So when the C# compiler encounters an anonymous delegate, it creates a proxy object which holds all "bindings" (in Lisp terminology) of free variables in the code of the delegate. That object is kept on the heap and can therefore outlive the original GetDelegate(), and that is why we can call the delegate from Main and still print the expected string instead of referring to where no pointer has gone before.

I find this quite a cool stunt; I'm impressed by how the designers of C# are adding useful abstractions to the language. Lisp isn't the only language which supports closures, and maybe wasn't even the first, but I'm pretty sure that the folks at Microsoft were probably influenced by either Lisp (or Scheme) while developing anonymous delegates. It is amazing how such an old language continues to inspire other languages to this day.

And that is, after reading a couple of good books and enlightening articles, what I understood about closures. Now, as a long-time boneheaded C++ programmer, I might have gotten it all wrong, and this blog entry is actually one way to test my assumptions; if my views are blatantly misleading, then hopefully somebody will point this out. (Well, if anybody reads this at all, of course.)

What a simple and amazing concept those closures really are! I only had to shed all my preconceptions about the supposedly one and only way to call and execute functions and how to keep their parameters and variables on a stack...

Closures are definitely very handy in all situations where callbacks are registered. Also, I already alluded to the fact that you could possibly build an object concept on top of closures in Lisp. And doesn't "snapshot of a function in execution" sound frighteningly close to "continuation" or "coroutines"? (Answer: Yes, kind of, but not quite. But that's a different story.)

I'm still trying to learn what closures do and how to best apply them in practice. But that doesn't mean they are constructs for the ivory tower: Knowing about them helped me only recently to diagnose and explain what originally looked like a memory leak in some Lisp test code that we had written. The final word of the jury is still out, but this is probably not a real leak, rather a closure which holds on to the binding of a variable, so that the garbage collector cannot simply free the resources associated with that variable.


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Closing in on closures (23 Feb 2006)

The other day, I battled global variables in Lisp by using this construct:

(let ((globalFoo 42))
    (defun foobar1()
      (* globalFoo globalFoo))

    (defun foobar2(newVal)
      (setf globalFoo newVal))
  )

globalFoo is neither declared nor bound within the functions foobar1 or foobar2; it is a free variable. When Lisp encounters such a variable, it will search the enclosing code (the lexical environment) for a binding of the variable; in the above case, it will find the binding established by the let statement, and all is peachy.

globalFoo's scope is limited to the functions foobar1 and foobar2; functions outside of the let statement cannot refer to the variable. But we can call foobar1 and foobar2 even after returning from the let statement, and thereby read or modify globalFoo without causing a runtime errors.

Lisp accomplishes this by creating objects called closures. A closure is a function plus a set of bindings of free variables in the function. For instance, the function foobar1 plus the binding of globalFoo to a place in memory which stores "42" is such a closure.

To illustrate this:

> (load "closure.lsp")  ;; contains the code above
T
> globalFoo     ;; can we access the variable?
*** Variable GLOBALFOO is unbound
> (foobar1)     ;; we can't, but maybe foobar1 can
1764
> (foobar2 20)  ;; set new value for globalFoo
20
> (foobar1)
400

Hmmm - what does this remind you of? We've got a variable which is shared between two functions, and only those functions have access to the variable, while outside callers have not... he who has never tried to encapsulate data in an object shall cast the first pointer!

Proofreading this, I realize that the simple Lisp code example is probably not too instructive; I guess closures really start to shine when you let functions return anonymous functions with free variables in them. Hope to come up with better examples in the future.

So this is how closures might remind us of objects. But let's look at it from a different angle now - how would we implement closures in conventional languages?

Imagine that while we invoke a function, we'd keep its parameters and local variables on the heap rather than on the stack, so instead of stack frames we maintain heap frames. You could then think of a closure as:

  • A function pointer referring to the code to be executed
  • A set of references to frames on the heap, namely references to all bindings of any free variables which occur in the code of the function.

Because the "stack" frames are actually kept on the heap and we are therefore no longer obliged to follow the strict rules of the hardware stack, the contents of those frames can continue to live even beyond the scope of the executed function.

So we're actually storing a (partial) snapshot of the execution context of a function, along with the code of the function!

Let's see how we could implement this. The first obvious first-order approximation is in C++; it's a function object. A function object encapsulates a function pointer and maybe also copies of parameters needed for the function call:

  typedef bool (*fncptr)(int, float);
  fncptr foobar_fnc; // declaration

  class FunctionObject {
  private:
    int m_i;
    float m_f;
    fncptr m_fnc;
  public:
    FunctionObject(fncptr fnc, int i, float f) : m_fnc(fnc), m_f(f), m_i(i) {}
    bool operator() { m_fnc(m_i, m_f); }
  };

  FunctionObject fo(foobar_fnc, 42, 42.0);

FunctionObject captures a snapshot of a function call with its parameters. This is useful in a number of situations, as can be witnessed by trying to enumerate the many approaches to implement something like this in C++ libraries such as Boost; however, this is not a closure. We're "binding" function parameters in the function object - but those are, in the sense described earlier, not free variables anyway. On the other hand, if the code of the function referred to by the FunctionObject had any free variables, the FunctionObject wouldn't be able to bind them. So this approach won't cut it.

There are other approaches in C++, of course. For example, I recently found the Boost Lambda Library which covers at least parts of what I'm after. At first sight, however, I'm not too sure its syntax is for me. I also hear that GCC implements nested functions:

typedef void (*FNC)(void);

FNC getFNC(void)
{
  int x = 42;
  void foo(void)
  {
    printf("now in foo, x=%d\n", x);
  }
  return foo;
}

int main(void)
{
  FNC fnc = getFNC();
  fnc();
  return 0;
}

Unfortunately, extensions like this didn't make it into the standards so far. So let's move on to greener pastures. Next stop: How anonymous delegates in C# 2.0 implement closures.


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Fight globalization! (18 Feb 2006)

A few days ago, I talked everybody to sleep about special variables and dynamic bindings in Lisp. I somehow managed to avoid this topic for years, but then I finally had to understand it to fix subtle issues in our code when dealing with what I thought were simple global variables.

In Lisp, you usually declare a global variable using defvar and defparameter - but this way, the variable not only becomes global, but also special. They are probably called special because of the special effects that they display - see my blog entry for an idea of the confusion this caused to a simple-minded C++ programmer (me).

Most of the time, I would use defvar to emulate the effect of a "file-global" static variable in C++, and fortunately, this can be implemented in a much cleaner fashion using a let statement at the right spot. Example:

  // C++, file foobar.C
  static int globalFoo = 42;
  
  int foobar(void)
  {
    return globalFoo * globalFoo;
  }
  int foobar2(int newVal)
  {
    globalFoo = newVal;
  }

  ;; Lisp
  (let ((globalFoo 42))
    (defun foobar1()
      (* globalFoo globalFoo))

    (defun foobar2(newVal)
      (setf globalFoo newVal))
  )

The let statement establishes a binding for globalFoo which is only accessible within foobar1 and foobar2. This is even better than a static global variable in C++ at file level, because this way precisely the functions which actually have a business with globalFoo are able to use it; the functions foobar1 and foobar2 now share a variable. We don't have to declare a global variable anymore and thereby achieve better encapsulation and at the same time avoid special variables with their amusing special effects. Life is good!

This introduces another interesting concept in Lisp: Closures, i.e. functions with references to variables in their lexical context. More on this hopefully soon.


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I'm so special (11 Feb 2006)

The large application which I help to develop has an embedded Lisp interpreter and compiler, and over time I also left my marks in that subsystem. It was only after a considerable amount of tinkering with the innards of the interpreter that my insights into Lisp finally reached critical mass. I guess I understand now why Lispniks are so devoted to their language and why they regard all those other languages as mere Lisp wannabees.

While learning Lisp, bindings and closures were particularly strange to me. It took me way too long until I finally grokked lexical and dynamic binding in Lisp. Or at least I think I get it now.

Let us consider the following C code:

  int fortytwo = 42;

  int shatter_illusions(void)
  {
    return fortytwo;
  }

  void quelle_surprise(void)
  {
    int fortytwo = 4711;
    printf("shatter_illusions returns %d\n", shatter_illusions());
  }

A seasoned C or C++ programmer will parse this code with his eyes shut and tell you immediately that quelle_surprise will print "42" because shatter_illusions() refers to the global definition of fortytwo.

Meanwhile, back in the parentheses jungle:

  (defvar fortytwo 42)

  (defun shatter-illusions()
    fortytwo)

  (defun quelle-surprise()
    (let ((fortytwo 4711))
      (format t "shatter-illusions returns ~A~%" (shatter-illusions))))

To a C++ programmer, this looks like a verbatim transformation of the code above into Lisp syntax, and he will therefore assume that the code will still answer "42". But it doesn't: quelle-surprise thinks the right answer is "4711"!

Subtleties aside, the value of Lisp variables with lexical binding is determined by the lexical structure of the code, i.e. how forms are nested in each other. Most of the time, let is used to establish a lexical binding for a variable.

Variables which are dynamically bound lead a more interesting life: Their value is also determined by how forms call each other at runtime. The defvar statement above both binds fortytwo to a value of 42 and declares the variable as dynamic or special, i.e. as a variable with dynamic binding. Even if code is executed which usually would bind the variable lexically, such as a let form, the variable will in fact retain its dynamic binding.

"Huh? What did you say?"

  1. defvar declares fortytwo as dynamic and binds it to a value of 42.
  2. The let statement in quelle-surprise binds fortytwo to a value of 4711, but does not change the type of binding! Hence, fortytwo still has dynamic binding which was previously established by defvar. This is true even though let usually always creates a lexical binding.
  3. shatter-illusions, when called, inherits the dynamic bindings of the calling code; hence, fortytwo will still have a value of 4711!

Kyoto Common Lisp defines defvar as follows:

(defmacro defvar (var &optional (form nil form-sp) doc-string)
  `(progn (si:make-special ',var)
          ,(if (and doc-string *include-documentation*)
               `(si:putprop ',var ,doc-string 'variable-documentation))
          ,(if form-sp
               `(or (boundp ',var)
                    (setq ,var ,form)))
          ',var))

In the highlighted form, the variable name is declared as special, which is equivalent with dynamic binding in Lisp.

This effect is quite surprising for a C++ programmer. I work with both Lisp and C++, switching back and forth several times a day, so I try to minimize the number of surprises a much as I can. Hence, I usually stay away from special/dynamic Lisp variables, i.e. I tend to avoid defvar and friends and only use them where they are really required.

Unfortunately, defvar and defparameter are often recommended in Lisp tutorials to declare global variables. Even in these enlightened times, there's still an occasional need for a global variable, and if you follow the usual examples out there, you'll be tempted to quickly add a defvar to get the job done. Except that now you've got a dynamically bound variable without even really knowing it, and if you expected this variable to behave like a global variable in C++, you're in for a surprise:

  > (print fortytwo)
  42
  42
  > (quelle-surprise)
  shatter-illusions returns 4711
  NIL
  > (shatter-illusions)
  42
  > (print fortytwo)
  42
  42

So you call shatter-illusions once through quelle-surprise, and it tells you that the value of the variable fortytwo, which is supposedly global, is 4711. And then you call the same function again, only directly, and it will tell you that this time fortytwo is 42.

The above code violates a very useful convention in Lisp programming which suggests to mark global variables with asterisks (*fortytwo*). This, along with the guideline that global variables should only be modified using setq and setf rather than let, will avoid most puzzling situations like the above. Still, I have been confused by the dynamic "side-effect" of global variables declared by defvar often enough now that I made it a habit to question any defvar declarations I see in Lisp code.

More on avoiding global dynamic variables next time.


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Should Lisp programmers be slapped in public? (17.1.2006)

After fixing a nasty bug today, I let off some steam by surfing the 'net for fun stuff and new developments. For instance, Bjarne Stroustrup recently reported on the plans for C++0x. I like most of the stuff he presents, but still was left disturbingly unimpressed with it. Maybe it's just a sign of age, but somehow I am not really thrilled anymore by a programming language standard scheduled for 2008 which, for the first time in the history of the language, includes something as basic as a hashtable.

Yes, I know that pretty much all the major STL implementations already have hashtable equivalents, so it's not a real issue in practice. And yes, there are other very interesting concepts in the standard which make a lot of sense. Still - I used to be a C++ bigot, but I feel the zeal is wearing off; is that love affair over?

Confused and bewildered, I surf some other direction, but only to have Sriram Krishnan explain to me that Lisp is sin. Oh great. I happen to like Lisp a lot - do I really deserve another slap in the face on the same day?

But Sriram doesn't really flame us Lisp geeks; quite to the contrary. He is a programmer at Microsoft and obviously strongly impressed by Lisp as a language. His blog entry illustrates how Lisp influenced recent developments in C# - and looks at reasons why Lisp isn't as successful as many people think it should be.

Meanwhile, back in the C++ jungle: Those concepts are actually quite clever, and solve an important problem in using C++ templates.

In a way, C++ templates use what elsewhere is called duck typing. Why do I say this? Because the types passed to a template are checked implicitly by the template implementation rather than its declaration. If the template implementation says f = 0 and f is a template parameter, then the template assumes that f provides an assignment operator - otherwise the code simply won't compile. (The difference to duck typing in its original sense is that we're talking about compile-time checks here, not dynamic function call resolution at run-time.)

Hence, templates do not require types to derive from certain classes or interfaces, which is particularly important when using templates for primitive types (such as int or float). However, when the type check fails, you'll drown in error messages which are cryptic enough to violate the Geneva convention. To fix the error, the user of a template often has to inspect the implementation of the template to understand what's going on. Not exactly what they call encapsulation.

Generics in .NET improve on this by specifying constraints explicitly:

  static void Foobar<T>(IFun<T> fun) where T : IFunny<T>
  {
    ... function definition ...
  }

T is required to implement IFunny. If it doesn't, the compiler will tell you that T ain't funny at all, and that's that. No need to dig into the implementation details of the generic function.

C++ concepts extend this idea: You can specify pretty arbitrary restrictions on the type. An example from Stroustrup's and Dos Reis' paper:

  concept Assignable<typename T, typename U=T> {
    Var<T> a;
    Var<const U> b;
    a = b;
  };

  ;; using this in a template definition:
  template <typename T, typename U>
    where Assignable<T, U>
  ... template definition ...

So if T and U fit into the Assignable concept, the compiler will accept them as parameters of the template. This is cute: In true C++ tradition, this provides maximum flexibility and performance, but solves the original problem.

Still, that C# code is much easier on the eye...


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