RPN Calc Part 8 – Moving to Clojure

So far in this series, I’ve taken a basic calculator written in Java and transformed it from a command-oriented procedural design into a more functional style. In some ways, this has made for simpler code:
calculator state is better encapsulated in value objects, and explicit control flow structures have been replaced with domain-specific higher order functions. Unfortunately, Java wasn’t designed to be a functional language, so the notation has become progressively more cumbersome and lengthy. 151 lines of idiomatic Java is now 327 lines of inner classes, custom iterators, and inverted control flow patterns. It should be difficult to get this kind of code through a serious Java code review.

Despite this difficulty, there is value in the functional design approach; What we need is a new notation. To show what I mean, this article switches gears and ports the latest version of the calculator from Java to Clojure. This reduces the size of the code from 327 lines down to a more reasonable-for-the-functionality 82. More importantly, the new notation opens up new opportunities for better expressiveness and further optimization. Building on the Clojure port, I’ll ultimately build out a version of the calculator that uses eval for legitimate purposes, and compiles calculator macros and can run them almost as fast as code written directly in Java.

The first step to understanding the Clojure port is to understand how it’s built from source. For the Java versions of the code, I used Apache Maven to automate the build process. Maven provides standard access to dependencies, a standard project directory structure, and a standard set of verbs for building, installing, and running the project. In the Clojure world, the equivalent tool is called Leiningen. It provides the same structure and services for a Clojure project as Maven does for a Java project, including the ability to pull in Maven dependencies. While it’s possible to build Clojure code with Maven, Leiningen is a better choice for new work, largely because it’s more well integrated into the Clojure ecosystem out of the box.

For the RPN calculator project, the project definition file looks like this:

(defproject rpn-calc "0.1.0-SNAPSHOT"
  :description "KSM Partners - RPN Calculator"

  :license {:name "Eclipse Public License"
            :url "http://www.eclipse.org/legal/epl-v10.html"}

  :dependencies [[org.clojure/clojure "1.5.0"]]

  :repl-options {
                 :host ""
                 :port 53095

  :main rpn-calc.main)

This file contains the same sorts of information as the equivalent POM file for the Java version of the project. (In fact, Leiningen provides way to take a Leiningen project definition file and translate it into an equivalent Maven pom.xml.) Rather than XML, the Leiningen project file is written in an S-expression, and it contains a few additional settings. Notably, the last line is the name of the project’s entry point: the function that gets called when Leiningen runs the project. For this project, rpn-calc.main is a function that ultimately delegates to one of three entry points for the three Clojure versions of the calculator. For this post, the implementation specific entry point looks like this:

(defn main []
  (loop [ state (make-initial-state) ]
    (let [command (parse-command-string (read-command-string state))]
      (if-let [new-state (apply-command state command)]
        (recur new-state)

It’s been a while, so to provide context, here’s the Java equivalent:

public void main() throws Exception
    State state = new State();

    while(state != null) {
        System.out.print("> ");

        String cmdLine = System.console().readLine();

        if (cmdLine == null)

        Command cmd = parseCommandString(cmdLine);

        state = cmd.execute(state);

Unwrapping the code, both function definitions include construction of the initial state and then the body of the Read-Eval-Print-Loop. These two lines of code include both elements.

  (loop [ state (make-initial-state) ]
      (recur new-state))

The loop form, surrounded by parentheses, is the body of the loop. Any loop iteration variables are defined and initialized within the bracketed form at the beginning of the loop. In this case, a variable state is initialized to hold the value returned by a call to make-initial-state. Within the body of the loop, there can be one or more recur forms that jump back to the beginning of the loop and provide new values for all the iteration variables defined for the loop. This gives a bit more flexibility than Java’s while loop: there can be multiple jumps to the beginning of a loop.

The body of this loop form is entirely composed of a let form. A let form establishes local variable bindings over a block of source code and provides initial values for those variables. If this sounds a lot like a loop form without the looping, that’s exactly what it is.

(let [command (parse-command-string (read-command-string state))]

This code calls read-command-string, passing in the current state and then passes the returned command string into a call to parse-command-string. The result of this two step read process is the Clojure equivalent of a command object, which is modeled as a function from a calculator state to a state.

Digressing a moment, there are several attributes of the Clojure syntax that are worth pointing out. The most important is that, as with most Lisps, parenthesis play a major role in the syntax of the language. Parenthesis (and braces and brackets) delimit all statements and expressions, group statements into logical blocks, delimit function definitions, and serve as the syntax for composite object literals. In contrast, a language like Java uses a combination of semicolons, braces, and parsing grammar to serve the same purposes. This gives Clojure a more homogeneous syntax, but a syntax with fewer rules that’s easier to parse and analyze. Explicit statement delimiters also allow Lisp more freedom to pick symbol names. Symbols in Lisp can include characters (‘-‘, ‘<', '&', etc.) that infix languages can't use for the purpose, because the explicit statement grouping makes it easier to distinguish a symbol from its context. The topic of Lisp syntax is really interesting enough for its own lengthy series of posts and articles. Going back to the Clojure calculator's main loop, the next statement in the loop is yet another binding form. Like loop, this binding form also includes an element of control flow.

(if-let [new-state (apply-command state command)]
   (recur new-state)

It may be easiest to see the meaning of this block of code by paraphrasing it into Java:

State newState = applyCommand(state, command);

if (newState != null)
    return recur(newState);
    return null;

What if-let does is to establish a new local variable and then conditionally pick between two alternative control flow paths based on the value of the new variable. It’s a common pattern within code, so it’s good to have a specific syntax for the purpose. What’s interesting about Clojure, though, is that if the language didn’t have it built in, a programmer working in Clojure could add it with a macro and you couldn’t tell the difference from built-in features. (In fact, the default Clojure implementation of if-let is itself a macro.)

At this point, I’ve covered the basic structure of the Clojure project, as well as the project’s main entry point. Subsequent posts will cover modeling of application state within Clojure, as well as the command parser, and the commands themselves. Once I’ve covered the basic functionality of the calculator, I’ll use that as a starting point to discuss custom syntax for command definitions, and ultimately a compiler for the calculator.

Categories: Clojure, Functional Programming, Uncategorized
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