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()

(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:

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()

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.

(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.


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()

(use-package :oli)

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

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


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 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()

(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:


"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 (, 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, 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()

(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...

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