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Read-time _apply_: an external representation for any value



This article was inspired by an exchange of messages between
Dr. Clinger and Dr. Feeley about external representation of uniform
vectors, which are proposed in SRFI-4. This post attempts to make a
rather sweeping generalization of Dr. Clinger's suggestion. It
proposes an extensible, new old way for external representation of
Scheme values: read-time _application_.


Motivation
Introduction
Proposed syntax
Examples
Representation of uniform vectors and matrices
Comparisons
        Comparisons with CL's #. reader-macro
How to extend the reader while it scans the code
Going ahead


Motivation

The exchange of messages mentioned above stemmed from a minor
incompatibility between SRFI-4 and some Scheme implementations: SRFI-4
says:
> [T]he external representation of instances of the datatype TAGvector is
> #TAG(... elements ...). ... Note that the syntax for float vectors
> conflicts with Standard Scheme which parses #f32() as 3 objects: #f, 32,
> and ().  For this reason, conformance to this SRFI implies this minor
> nonconformance to Standard Scheme.

In a message <http://srfi.schemers.org/srfi-4/mail-archive/msg00002.html>
Dr. Clinger proposed a general workaround for this incompatibility
problem:
> why not consume just one more octathorpe [that is, #]
> character (say 'v' for vector) as follows:
>    #vs8(...) #vu8(...) [elided] #vf64(...)
> Then some future SRFI for vectors of vectors of floating point numbers
> (or whatever) will have a notation that can be extended for the purpose,
> and we won't have to have this same discussion all over again for the
> second time, redundantly.

I'd like to discuss an even more generic, universal way of
representing an arbitrary Scheme data type. It is similar to
Smalltalk's object serialization and CL's #. reader-macro.


Introduction

In Smalltalk, any object that defines a 'writeOn:' method may be asked
to externalize itself. The result is a string that spells out a
particular invocation of object's constructor. Evaluation of this
string by an interpreter recreates the original object. LISP X3J13 document
<http://www.harlequin.com/education/books/HyperSpec/Body/sec_2-4-8-6.html>
expresses the goal of a read-time _evaluation_ with utmost clarity:
"For an object that does not have a convenient printed representation,
a form that computes the object can be given using the #. notation."

It appears however that a weaker alternative -- a read-time
_application_ -- may suffice. Most of the Scheme values -- with an
exceptions of ports, structures, wills, semaphores and other exotic
beasts -- have an external representation. The representations of
booleans, numbers, lists, vectors, strings, etc. are codified in
RnRS. Every Scheme reader has an in-born knowledge how to parse the
corresponding strings and build Scheme values they represent. The set
of these built-in constructors is however fixed, and not amenable. I'd
like to propose to lift this limitation.


Proposed syntax of a read-time application

        #`(tag arg1 ...)
A 'tag' must be an (external representation of an) identifier, and
'arg1' etc. are external representations of some values, including
other read-time applications. #@ (rather than #`) seems to be another
good way to denote read-time applications.

Upon encountering an #` external form, the read procedure should
locate a read-constructor associated with the 'tag', read the
arguments 'arg1'... and apply the constructor to the arguments. The
result of the application is taken to be the value that corresponds to
the external form under consideration

There must be a way to declare an association between a tag and the
corresponding constructor-procedure. Regular 'define' introduces an
association between an identifier and a procedure applied at run time;
'define-macro' or 'define-syntax' introduce bindings for procedures
applicable at compile time. Thus 'define-reader-ctor' literally
suggest itself as a form to introduce a constructor to apply at read
time.

Examples:
If
        (define-reader-ctor 'vector vector)
then
        (with-input-from-string "#`(vector 1 2 3)" read) ==> '#(1 2 3)
        (equal? '#(1 2 3) '#`(vector 1 2 3)) ==> #t

Thus #`(vector 1 2 3) becomes another external representation for a
vector. With suitably defined reader-constructors, all standard Scheme
data types may be represented in an external form of
read-applications:

        #`(list 1 2 3)
        #`(list #`(string #\1 #\a) 1 2 #`(vector #f #f))

Furthermore, structures (records) and ports gain a printed form and
can be read in:

        #`(make-structure point (x 3) (y 5) (color read))
        #`(open-input-file "/tmp/a")
For example, an expression

        (with-input-from-string "#`(open-input-file \"/tmp/a\")"
                (lambda () (read-char (read))))
will return the first character of the file "/tmp/a"


Representation of uniform vectors and matrices

The proposed read-time application gives uniform vectors the following
generic external form:

        #`(vector-f32 1 2 3)
        #`(vector-u8 1 2 3), etc.

This notation also appears to help with a problem of representing a 2D
matrix with a zero dimension. This problem was mentioned by Dr. Feeley
in <http://srfi.schemers.org/srfi-4/mail-archive/msg00003.html>:
> The only problem with such a [SRFI-4] representation is that it is
> not possible to distinguish a 0 by 4 float vector from an empty
> one dimensional float vector, but a special notation could be used
> for this very unusual case,
>  #f32((0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0) ^ 0) ; a 0 by 4 float vector
>  #f32((0.0 ^ 4) ^ 0)         ; the same 0 by 4 float vector
>  #f32(() ^ 0)                ; a 0 by 0 float vector

The notation proposed in the present article can easily handle even
the unusual cases above. Assuming we have defined a procedure (define
(build-matrix-f32 dims values) ...) and an association
(define-reader-ctor 'matrix-f32 build-matrix-f32), we can write
        #`(matrix-f32 (2 3) (10. 1.0) (20. 2.0) (30. 4.0))
        #`(matrix-f32 (0 4)) ; a 0 by 4 float vector
        #`(matrix-f32 (4 0)) ; a 4 by 0 float vector
        #`(matrix-f32 (0 0)) ; a 0 by 0 float vector
        #`(matrix-f32 (0)) ; a 0 element one-dimensional float vector,
                which is the same as #`(vector-f32)

Comparisons

In Metcast Request Language
<http://pobox.com/~oleg/ftp/Scheme/Request-Language.html>, which is
used to describe an order for a great variety of weather-related data,
a form "(tag a b ...)" is interpreted as (apply OBJ-loader:tag a b
...) where given 'tag', a procedure OBJ-loader:tag is looked up in the
current dynamic "environment".

Guile allows a user to declare his own #-symbol dispatch. In this
proposal, the user is not limited to one letter after #.

Read-time application mechanism defined in this article is rather
close to Lisp reader's macro functions. Unlike CL, however, a
reader-constructor is not allowed to read from the input stream on its
own. It may only build values from other values, which must have
already been read and internalized. A reader-constructor must always
return one value; it may not return "nothing". It may however throw an
exception or simply return an "inappropriate" value such as #f, which
will be caught later. Unlike compile-time function applications (that
is, macro-expansions), a read-time application has no "second pass".

Common Lisp defines an external form #.obj, which instructs the Lisp
reader to evaluate 'obj' right after the reader parsed it. While #. is
a general-purpose read-evaluator:
        #.obj === (eval obj)
#` is merely an application:
        #`obj === (apply (lookup (car obj)) (cdr obj))
and obj must be an external representation of a list. Read-time
applications are further restricted to only those procedures that have
been specifically declared for that purpose (via
define-reader-ctor). The user thus has a fine-grained control over
which functions are being applied at read time.

The following examples will show the difference between #. and #`. The
examples are hypothetical - I don't have a CL system handy to verify
the Lisp reader returns what I think it does, and #` is still a
proposal.

(read-from-string "#.(+ 1 2)") ==> 3

(define-reader-ctor '+ +)
(with-input-from-string "#`(+ 1 2)" read) ==> 3

(read-from-string "#.(+ 1 (+ 2 3))") ==> 6

(define-reader-ctor '+ +)
(with-input-from-string "#`(+ 1 (+ 2 3))" read) ==> error: can't add
                a number 1 and a list '(+ 2 3)
(with-input-from-string "#`(+ 1 #`(+ 2 3))" read) ==> 6

(define-reader-ctor 'my-vector
        (lambda x (apply vector (cons 'my-vector-tag x))))
(with-input-from-string "#`(my-vector (my-vector 1 2))" read) ==>
        a vector whose second element is a list of a symbol my-vector,
        number 1, and number 2.
(with-input-from-string "#`(my-vector #`(my-vector 1 2))" read) ==>
        a vector whose second element is a my-vector constructed from
        numbers 1 and 2.

How to extend the reader while it scans the code

The remaining question is how and _when_ to define
reader-constructors.  If define-reader-ctor is a regular built-in
function, declaration of a new reader-constructor will affect the
Scheme reader only when the code has been completely read,
(byte)compiled and is being executed. We would like to be able to
extend the Scheme reader while it still reads the code. For example,
we want to declare (define-reader-ctor 'vector-f32 <constructor>) and
be able to write
        (let ((v1 #`(vector-f32 1 2 3)))
         ...)
further down the code. Fortunately, there are several ways code can
affect a compiler/interpreter while it scans the code. For example,
define-macro or define-syntax "extend" a Scheme compiler at compile
time. So do command-line switches and pragmas, which are present in
many systems. In Gambit, pragmas are called "declare forms". In
addition, Gambit allows customization via profile forms, which may
also be specified on command line:
        gsi -e "(set-case-conversion! #f)" /tmp/case-sensitive-code.scm


Going ahead

Implementation of the proposed reader-application scheme is relatively
straightforward, especially in Gambit. A Gambit reader is actually
quite close to the Lisp reader -- readtables and such. Introducing of
#` will require only few minor extensions. As Gambit reader is written
in Scheme, reader-constructors could immediately be ported to other
implementations. However, since the Gambit reader is written and
copyrighted by Marc Feeley, and is a big chunk of gambc30/lib/_io.scm
file, it is wise to seek Dr. Feeley's permission first. I can
implement reader-constructors relatively quickly -- provided it is
worth doing at all.