Ironic Space Lisp Part 6


Since last time, I did two things: switched from error_chain to failure, and refactored with the visitor pattern. They took about the same amount of time, and the refactor is much more interesting. I briefly touch on an issue I encountered with failure, but I’d rather discuss the refactor.

The Visitor Pattern

Calling this the visitor pattern is a bit grand. The visitor pattern has intricacies that aren’t entirely relevant in this situation, but I can describe how this visitor works, and why I decided on it.

pub enum AST {
    If {
        pred: Rc<AST>,
        then: Rc<AST>,
        els: Rc<AST>,
    Let {
        defs: Vec<Def>,
        body: Rc<AST>,
    Lambda {
        args: Vec<Keyword>,
        body: Rc<AST>,
    Application {
        f: Rc<AST>,
        args: Vec<AST>,

This is my full AST as it stands now. It’s missing quote, quasiquote, and some others, but this is a pretty good basis. It has important and hard bits, like local bindings and functions. Like all ASTs, it’s inherently recursive, and so operating over it can be somewhat tedious. Consider the interpreter:

pub fn env_eval(&self, a: &AST, env: &mut Env) -> Result<Literal> {
    match a {
        AST::Value(l) => ...,
        AST::Var(k) => ...,
        AST::If { pred, then, els } => ...,
        AST::Def(ref def) => ...,
        AST::Let { defs, body } => ...,
        AST::Do(asts) => ...,
        _ => Err(err_msg("Not implemented")),

Each branch can get really quite large, given the complexity of implementing, say, let, and each branch of the match has to return a value for Result. As you can see here, even a relatively simple interpreter can get unwieldy. Additionally, there’s error context to consider. It would be convenient to be able to add context to every error that you might encounter while recurring down the AST. Sometimes while evaluating you want to return an error about your specific problem, but you also want to evaluate child ASTs from your node, and you want to tag those with your context too. Breaking every match branch into its own function is a convenient way of easily tagging all those errors properly. Although the VM doesn’t recur down an AST, it uses this error handling approach:

match op {
    Op::Lit(l) => self.op_lit(l).context("Executing operation literal"),
    Op::Return => self.op_return().context("Executing operation return"),
    Op::PopEnv => self.op_popenv().context("Executing operation popenv"),
    Op::Dup => self.op_dup().context("Executing operation dup"),

I encountered a small issue when using failure, however. With error_chain, I could use the chain_err function on Result to add context to an error and then return it directly. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I can’t return a context error from my functions. But if use the ? operator, it works. The above code is what I would like it to look like, with the type of the match being Result<()> just like the function, but this is what I have to use instead.

Ok(match op {
    Op::Lit(l) => self.op_lit(l).context("Executing operation literal")?,
    Op::Return => self.op_return().context("Executing operation return")?,
    Op::PopEnv => self.op_popenv().context("Executing operation popenv")?,
    Op::Dup => self.op_dup().context("Executing operation dup")?,

The type of the match is actually (), because the match threatens to return early if the result of the function call isn’t Ok, then I rewrap it in Ok immediately after calling. Someone encountered this problem too, although he didn’t think it was as important.

Anyway, while thinking about iterating over ASTs for various purposes (AST passes, code generation, etc), I began to think about more complex error handling. I’m currently using strings for all my errors, which is usually cited as an “okay” idea for prototype projects and applications, but for libraries, you should really use more complex error types to make it easier to match on failure sand respond correctly. Of course, complex error types are also useful for holding information. If I encounter an error while processing an AST, having each recursion level tag the error can produce a neat little backtrace for the AST, but being able to produce errors with the AST copied into them, showing directly in the AST where the error occured would be very useful, and having errors using both the AST and potentially line and character numbers could enable some very nice error messages, which are always important for a programming language.

However, if I had to rewrite this error handling code for each AST pass I wanted to write, I would invariably not do this error handling code at all, because no one pass was so important that it needed this extra effort. If I could abstract that away, however, and write the code once, I could get it almost for free in many different places. Plus, as I planned out AST passes like checking for unbound variables, and comparing them in my head to the current AST passes I had (interpretation), the similarities were obvious at a relatively high level, and I could express each as a effectively a reentrant pseudo-map reduce function.

I wouldn’t call this full map reduce. There is no particular reduce function, and not every application needs to map over the entire AST, some can short circuit.

pub trait ASTVisitor<R> {
    fn value_expr(...) -> Result<R>;
    fn if_expr(...) -> Result<R>;
    fn def_expr(...) -> Result<R>;
    fn let_expr(...) -> Result<R>;
    fn do_expr(...) -> Result<R>;
    fn lambda_expr(&mut self, args: &Vec<Keyword>, body: &Rc<AST>) -> Result<R>;
    fn var_expr(...) -> Result<R>;
    fn application_expr(...) -> Result<R>;

It also implements a very familiar function visit to dispatch an AST to the right method.This is how the interpreter visit an do expression.

fn do_expr(&mut self, exprs: &Vec<AST>) -> Result<Literal> {
    let mut vals: Vec<Literal> = exprs
        .map(|e| self.visit(e))
        .context("Evaluating do sub-expressions")?;
    Ok(vals.pop().ok_or(err_msg("do expressions can't be empty"))?)

Note that the recursive call is self.visit(e). This is because ASTVisitor is a trait to be implemented on a particular type that is neither AST nor R, and it forms a sort of second generic type argument. This probably makes sense from an object oriented view, but can lead to some semantically confusing implementations.

For example, the interpreter implements ASTVisitor on Env. Env holds lexical bindings, but it’s very strange to say “Env visits each AST node to evaluate the expression”. The idea that the environment binding is taking the action “visit” on the AST is sort of alien: it doesn’t make semantic sense, even if the code works. What makes it particularly strange is that the Env value changes. While evaluating some ASTs, we have to introduce limited local environment bindings, so we make a new Env with the old Env as a parent, add our bindings, then have that Env visit the body ASTs . I’m not entirely sure how the visitor pattern is supposed to work, but swapping out or “object” mid-flight is very strange from an object oriented point of view. To solve this conceptual issue, I considered making ASTVisitor to have two type arguments. The implementer type would be assumed to be a dummy at best, and then have each function take both a self and a generic argument. I ultimately decided against this, because the implementing type basically is another generic argument, even if it’s weird to think about it that way. Maybe it isn’t that weird to think about, making I’m taking an excessively object oriented approach to this.

After making this pattern, I reimplemented the interpreter as an ASTVisitor over Env, and proved it worked with the existing tests. I then wrote an AST pass to find unbound variables, which worked quite well. I certainly hope that ASTVisitor proves to be robust enough to build a full compiler with it.

Speaking of the compiler, I’m trying to decide if I should do research on how to write compilers. That may sound like a silly question, but I’m interested in just trying to write a compiler and see how far I get without professional help. I can’t say I wrote this code alone so far; I’ve learned programming language implementation in an academic setting before, but I haven’t learned compilers in the same way. I guess I’m interested in seeing what a compiler written by an “outside” would like like compared to a traditional compiler. That is, my plan is to write the compiler in isolation, then compare notes with a textbook. That might be too ambitious, however. I might get half way through the compiler and realize that I missed some critical piece early in the processing, my work has been built on a shoddy foundation, and I was going to have to start over again from scratch, or even worse, I couldn’t think of where to go next. At that point, I might turn to a compiler text book in despair, having been beaten by the task.

Simply reading the books is probably the easiest solution, but maybe important insight can be gleaned from simply throwing myself into the problem. Then I can post the insight on my blog.

rust code language