RPN Calc Part 10 – Macros and the Intent of the Code

One of the key attributes I look for when writing and reviewing code is that code should express the intent of the developer more than the mechanism used to achieve that intent. In other words, code should read as much as possible as if it were a description of the end goal to be achieved. The mechanism used to achieve that goal is secondary.

Over the years, I’ve found this emphasis improves the quality of a system by making it easier to write correct code. By removing the distraction of the mechanism underneath the code: it’s easier for the author of that code to stay in the mindset of the business process they’re implementing. To see what I mean, consider how hard it would be to query a SQL database if every query was forced to specify the details of each table scan, index lookup, sort, join, and filter. The power of SQL is that it eliminates the mechanism of the query from consideration and lets a developer focus on the logic itself. The computer handles the details. Compilers do the same sort of thing for high level languages: coding in Java means not worrying about register allocation, machine instruction ordering, or the details of free memory reclamation. In the short-term, these abstractions make it easier to think about the problem I’m being paid to solve. Over a longer time scale, the increased distance between the intent and mechanism makes it easier to improve the performance or reliability of a system. Adding an index can transparently change a SQL query plan and Java seamlessly made the jump from an interpreter to a compiler.

One of the unique sources of power in the Lisp family of languages is a combination of features that makes it easier build the abstractions necessary to elevate code from mechanism to intent. The combination of dynamic typing, higher order functions, good data structures, and macros can make it possible to develop abstractions that allow developers to focus more on what matters, the intent of the paying customer, and less on what doesn’t. In this article, I’ll talk about what that looks like for the calculator example and how Clojure brings the tools needed to focus on the intent of the code.

To level set, I’m going to go back to the calculator’s addition command:

(fn [ { [x y & more] :stack } ]
   { :stack (cons (+ y x) more)})

Given a stack, this command removes the top two arguments from the stack, adds them, and pushes the result back on top of the stack. This stack:

1 2 5 7

becomes this stack:

3 5 7

While the Clojure addition command is shorter than the Java version, the Clojure version still includes a number of assumptions about the machinery used in the underlying implementation:

  • Calculator state is passed to the command as a map with a key :stack that holds the stack.
  • The input stack can be destructured as a sequence.
  • The output state is represented in a map allocated at the end of the command’s execution.
  • The output stack is a sequence of cons cells and the output of this command is stored in a newly allocated cell.
  • The command has a single point in time at which it begins execution.
  • The command has a single point in time at which it ends execution.
  • The execution of this command cannot overlap with other commands that manipulate the stack.

Truth be told, there isn’t a single item on this list that’s essential to the semantics of our addition command. Particularly in the case where a sequence of commands is linked together to make a composite command, every item on that list might be incorrect. This is because the state of the stack between elements of a composite command might not ever be directly visible to the user. Keeping that in mind, what would be nice is some kind of shorthand notation for stack operations that hides these implementation details. This type of notation would make it possible to express the intent of a command without the machinery. Fortunately, the programming language Forth has a stack effect notation often used in comments that might do the trick.

Forth is an interesting and unique language with a heavy dependency on stack manipulation. One of the coding conventions sometimes used in Forth development is that every ‘composite command’ (‘word’, in Forth terminology) is associated with a comment that shows a picture of the stack at the beginning and end of the command’s execution. For addition, such a comment might look like this:

: add ( x y -- x+y ) .... ;

This comment shows that the command takes two arguments off the top of the stack, ‘x’ and ‘x’, and returns a single value ‘x+y’. None of the details regarding how the stack is implemented are included in the comment. The only thing that’s left in the comment are the semantics of the operation. This is more or less perfect for defining a calculator command. Mapped into Clojure code, it might look something like this:

(stack-op [x y] [(+ x y)])

This Clojure form indicates a stack operation and has stack pictures that show the top of the stack both before and after the evaluation of the command. The notation is short, yes, but it’s particularly useful because it doesn’t overspecify the command by including the details of the mechanics. All that’s left in this notation is the intent of the command.

Of course, the mechanics of the command still need to be there for the command to work. The magic of macros in Clojure is that they make it easier to bridge the gap from the notation you want to the mechanism you need. Fortunately, all it takes in this case is a short three line macro that tells Clojure how to reconstitute a function definition from our new stack-op notation:

(defmacro stack-op [ before after ]
  `(fn [ { [ ~@before & more# ] :stack } ] 
     { :stack (concat ~after more# ) } ) )

Squint your eyes, and the structure of the original Clojure add command function should be visible within the macro definition. That’s because this macro really serves as a kind of IDE snippet hosted by the compiler, providing blanks to be filled in with the macro parameters. Multiple calls to a macro are like expanding the same snippet multiple times with different parameters. The only difference is that when you expand a snippet within an IDE, it only helps you when you’re entering the code into the editor; the relationship between a block of code in the editor and the snippet from which it came is immediately lost. Macros preserve that relationship, and thanks to Lisp’s syntax, do so in a way that avoids some of the worst issues that plague C macros. This gives us both the more ‘intentional’ notation, as well as the ability to later change the underlying implementation in more profound ways.

Before I close the post, I should mention that there are ways to approach this type of design in other languages. In C, the preprocessor provides access to compile-time macro expansion, and for Java and C#, code generation techniques are well accepted. For JavaScript, any of the higher level languages that compile into JavaScript can be viewed as particularly heavy-weight forms of this technique. Where Lisp and Clojure shine is that they make it easy by building it into the language directly. This post only scratches the surface, but the next post will continue the theme by exploring how we can improve the calculator now that we have a syntax that more accurately expresses our intent.


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