Killing Primitive Loops and Conditionals

July 24, 2010 code finch language

The challenge I had giving my talk on Finch at the Emerging Languages Camp yesterday was knowing that I had nothing original to say that the megabrains in front of me didn’t already know. Worse, my unscheduled talk was during what was originally a break, so not only did I have to compete with Rich Hickey and Gilad Bracha, I had to compete with going to take a leak or maybe having some ice cream.

I figured since I couldn’t outwit them, I’d go for zany shenanigans, which seemed to work pretty well. I only managed to say one patently dumb thing that I’m aware of. Late in the talk, I mentioned that a language only needed two primitive flow control constructs: if for jumping forward, and while for jumping back. A couple of voices in the audience immediately called me on it, saying “You don’t even need those!”

I stammered some awkward reply and went on to something else. It turns out knowing more about implementing programming languages than 99.99% of the world is a small consolation when the remaining 0.01% are sitting in the audience in front of you.

In the shower this morning, it finally dawned on me what they were getting at. As of this evening, Finch no longer has any primitive flow control constructs. Here’s how:


Unless you’re writing some batch script that just does X, Y, Z, you’re going to eventually need two things: to not do something, and to do something more than once. if:then:else: calls in Finch handle the former. They look like this:

if: rapper = vanilla ice then: {
  writeLine: "Too cold"
} else: {
  writeLine: "Wack MC"

If you aren’t familiar with Finch, I can translate that into something a little more vanilla. What you see there is a single call to an if:then:else: function, passing in three arguments. The first is the condition—the result of evaluating rapper = vanilla ice. The other two are “blocks”, what other languages call lambdas or closures.

All if:then:else: needs to do is invoke the first block argument if the condition is true, and the second if it’s false. How can we do this using the building blocks Finch already has?

The one thing Finch has that’s like if is dynamic dispatch: Finch intrinsically knows how to send the same message to different objects and have them behave differently. It’s pretty straightforward to get conditionals working in terms of that. We’ll define two ifTrue:else: methods. The version on objects that are truthy will always evaluate the “then” block argument (with no conditional logic needed). The version bound to false objects will always evaluate the “else” argument.

In Finch, all objects are implicitly false except for the one magic True object, so the code looks like this:

Object prototype :: ifTrue: then else: else { else call }
True :: ifTrue: then else: else { then call }

The first line defines ifTrue:else: on the prototypical object that all others inherit from. All it does is invoke the “else” block. The second line overrides method that for the True global object to instead invoke the “then” block.

(I should note here that this is exactly how Smalltalk works. All condition logic is done with message sends to Boolean objects. So, uh, I really should have known this the whole time.) Because I’m not crazy about how Smalltalk syntax looks for this, we’ll go ahead and wrap it in a method on Ether to make it look a little more normal:

Ether :: if: condition then: then else: else {
    condition ifTrue: then else: else

All that does is bounce the call over as a message on the condition object, and we’ve got if:then:else: working without needing any hard-coded support beyond message dispatch. Swell!


Now that we can do stuff less than one time, let’s see how to do stuff more than one time. Everyone who took Scheme in college now has their hand waving furiously in the air. Yes, I’m going to call on you. Yes, you have the right answer. First, here’s a while loop:

while: { mother burnedDown? not } do: {
    writeLine: "Burn, baby, burn"
    writeLine: "Disco inferno"

If you don’t have looping built in, there’s only one way for something to happen more than once: it has to invoke itself recursively. I’ve known about using tail recursion for loops for a long time but for some reason it fell off my radar. Maybe because Finch didn’t get proper tail call optimization until recently, or maybe it’s all the alcohol.

Now that Finch does have it, we can use it like so:

Ether :: while: condition do: block {
    if: condition call then: {
        block call
        while: condition do: block

All it does is check the condition. If True, it evaluates the block and then recursively calls itself. The TCO will ensure that it can loop as long as it needs like this without worrying about blowing the stack.

The end result of all of this is that I got to delete a good chunk of C++ code and replace it with a little Finch code. And I learned a little lesson about making blanket assertions when standing in front of a bunch of really smart people.