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Fexprs as the basis of Lisp function application; or, $vau: the ultimate abstraction

October 3rd, 2010 10:03 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

John N. Shutt’s PhD Thesis is posted.


Abstraction creates custom programming languages that facilitate programming for specific problem domains. It is traditionally partitioned according to a two-phase model of program evaluation, into syntactic abstraction enacted at translation time, and semantic abstraction enacted at run time. Abstractions pigeon-holed into one phase cannot interact freely with those in the other, since they are required to occur at logically distinct times.

Fexprs are a Lisp device that subsumes the capabilities of syntactic abstraction, but is enacted at run-time, thus eliminating the phase barrier between abstractions. Lisps of recent decades have avoided fexprs because of semantic ill-behavedness that accompanied fexprs in the dynamically scoped Lisps of the 1960s and 70s.

This dissertation contends that the severe difficulties attendant on fexprs in the past are not essential, and can be overcome by judicious coordination with other elements of language design. In particular, fexprs can form the basis for a simple, well-behaved Scheme-like language, subsuming traditional abstractions without a multi-phase model of evaluation.

The thesis is supported by a new Scheme-like language called Kernel, created for this work, in which each Scheme-style procedure consists of a wrapper that induces evaluation of operands, around a fexpr that acts on the resulting arguments. This arrangement enables Kernel to use a simple direct style of selectively evaluating subexpressions, in place of most Lisps’ indirect quasiquotation style of selectively suppressing subexpression evaluation. The semantics of Kernel are treated through a new family of formal calculi, introduced here, called vau calculi. Vau calculi use direct subexpression-evaluation style to extend lambda calculus, eliminating a long-standing incompatibility between lambda calculus and fexprs that would otherwise trivialize their equational theories.

The impure vau calculi introduce non-functional binding constructs and unconventional forms of substitution. This strategy avoids a difficulty of Felleisen’s lambda-v-CS calculus, which modeled impure control and state using a partially non-compatible reduction relation, and therefore only approximated the Church-Rosser and Plotkin’s Correspondence Theorems. The strategy here is supported by an abstract class of Regular Substitutive Reduction Systems, generalizing Klop’s Regular Combinatory Reduction Systems.

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