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[Scheme-reports] Just a load of.. well..

Dear all,

This will be a somewhat weird mail.  As I suffer from chronic fatigue, near the end of the R6RS process I never got around to turning my notes of Scheme ideas into postable material.  Then R7RS started to take shape, and many of my ideas were no longer a propos - but as the activity moved to scheme-reports, which - I suppose - allows discussion of ANY report, some of them became so again, because there may be more standards after R7RS.  As a New Year's resolution I decided to post them.
Currently my energy level has gone up sufficiently to do so, so here they are, as they are, with warts, errors, inconsistencies, incomprehensibilities, et cetera, and all.

May Scheme flourish and remain the ideal for other languages to strive for!
J. A. "Biep" Durieux.

= = = = = = = = = = =


*  Stuff I wrote about during the R6RS-discussion that I still consider important (in the R6RS archives - Anton posted them for me)
  - A philosophical basis for evaluating Scheme versions (grep for 'WdW')
  - How to cut up the language (grep for 'quadripartition')

* Naming the Scheme languages.
  I want unique names, to that I can e.g. grep the number of occurrences of "Scheme" as opposed to "Common Lisp" or "ML" in, say, CiteSeer.  Currently searching for "Scheme" yields a large number of false positives, whereas "Scheme language" yields an undercount.
  I also want to keep the name "Scheme", though, and I like short, catchy names - qualifiers can always be added later on.
  Therefore I propose "Schemer" for small Scheme, and "Schemest" for large Scheme.  The one name clearly indicates its roots, and the other the fact that it is the maximal Scheme.  The name "Scheme" would remain as the family name, and the report could be subtitled "Scheme: Schemer, Schemest".
  (And I think "Schemest" would then be a one-syllable word.)


* Case sensitivity.
  There must be a default behaviour.  I personally like that to be case-insensitive (a micro Scheme might not even KNOW about, say, lower-case letters), but *requiring* some pragma at the beginning of each program is no sensible option, I think.  Libraries are of course independent of user preferences - which might be set in some .ini file.  Libraries ought not to expect any behaviour in this respect, though - exporting both this and This is discouraged.
  If it happens (Xlib's XK_A and XK_a), they may come out as XK_A and |XK_a|.
  But that is up to the install! macro, and thus to the user of the library, and not to the Scheme used.

* The asymmmetry between multiple inputs and multiple outputs for procedures.
  This is inherent in Scheme syntax: the receiver of the output of an expression is indicated by the place where this expression occurs - which is necessarily singular: (get-some g1 (provide p1 p2 p3) g2).  Repeating the expression would lead to repeated execution: (get-some g1 (provide p1 p2 p3) (provide p1 p2 p3) g2) - apart from being cumbersome.
  Prolog has a symmetry in its syntax here that languages with nested expressions simply don't (and I think can't) have.  Mark that this is independent of unification: it would be possible to have an unidirectional prolog-like notation, with a group of input variables and a group of output variables, say separated by a hyphen:
  (lambda (a b - result rem quot) (quotient+remainder a b - quot rem) (* quot rem - result) (display result -))
  Barely possible is "splicing in" multiple results - which would require them to be adjacent.  A splicing construct (+ 1 ,@(quotient+remainder 25 4) 6) might do - see Lua for an even more constricting solution.

* Symbols.
  Maybe symbols should be decoupled from code text - a Chinese might use other names for the identifiers in a Scheme program (alpha renaming) than a German would - without it being another program.  There is simply an abstraction level difference.  Both could collaborate on a common program without ever even knowing what names the other uses.
  First-class environments know the variables, but may not necessarily know their names (maybe just some index number) - just as the German may not know the Chinese names, or even the characters they are written in.
  This also means the English bias will be gone (names such as "if" or "set!") in other 'locales' these symbols can have other text representations.
  Many spreadsheets do this already: function names come out differently in other locales, but code written in one locale works corrextly in others.

* Syntax decoupling.
  As with symbols in the preceding proposal, syntax could be decoupled.  S-expressions exist on the base level and may be used, but other representations are possible.  We need to hack input reading anyway if we want to be able to add new types with their idiosyncratic representations, so why not go the whole way?  In an appropriate context, Dylan, Lua and Algol 60 are simply different syntactic manifestations of Scheme.  This would help in the acceptance of Scheme into the mainstream as well.  Let s-expressions be the raw format, but allow laymen to use jpeg and the like - they'll come to raw when they need the full power.


* Tables and environments.
  This would lead to mutable first-class environments.
  Let identifiers be hygienic - translated to locations (or location indicators, as the case may be) at the moment a procedure is defined.  So (+ x 1) doesn't change when another x is inserted in a more local environment - or when it is deleted from the original environment.  In the latter case the location is not garbage-collected, because this code still refers to it.  It is also possible to write (+ (get-location-of 'a) 1), and *that* code is sensitive to environment manipulation.
  (There might well be a flag indicating that each mention of an identifier is meant as a call to get-location - some kind of "don't inline" pragma.)
  Oh, and environments shouldn't be different from other tables, and should have a way to indicate where to find a location that is not locally available.  In that way various schemes of multiple inheritance would become trivially implementable.

* External resources.
  A common interface should govern all external resources (libraries, files, sockets, ..).  I don't necessarily want to know whether I read a file or interact with a DLL or a user - and certainly don't want to write various copies of my code to do these different things.  That would be like writing separate sorting routines for strings, numbers, etc.

* Uniformity.
  External things should look like internal things in order to have them share all the advantages of the felicitous choice of Scheme internal things (WdW).  That's why to me e.g. a library should look like a procedure, from which the library elements can be obtained:
  (define math (get-library '(my-math))) ; simplified exempli gratia
  (math 'exports) -> '(sin "cos" "Cos" 3.14) ; export tags are not necessarily tokens (but would normally be)
  (define cos (math 'get "cos"))
  Obviously, a macro might inspect the exports and import them, with or without a prefix, in a given environment
  (install! '(math) 'math) ; does get-library, collects the exports and defines them.
  math::cos -> '#<procedure math::cos>
  This way, the user has full control over the way a library changes the programming environment.
  And this macro would be in a library, with a nice bootstrap line in people's .ini files.

* Tables.
  I see no reason why a reified environment or (hash) table should look any different from a library procedure as described here.


* Multi-pass compilation.
  This is like solving a consistency maintenance system (Jon Doyle called that "truth maintenance", some others "reason maintenance"), which is more for constraint satisfaction systems than for Scheme.  Single pass with maximal deferment is the Scheme way: variables inside lambdas don't need to be resolved yet, resolution can be deferred until they are called.  Without very strong reasons, one should not request different behaviour from syntax transformers.  Ease of compilation, or speed of the resulting system are no strong reasons.

* Sublanguages.
  Once there was Lisp/Scheme, which was about lambda.  Then a completely different language for macro rewriting was added, and now a (hidden) constraint satisfaction system.  I don't like that, it is feature on top of feature.  A rewriter can be written in Scheme and then used in macro expansion - great, but let the rewriter then be generally available (because it has other possible uses), and be optional in writing syntax (because there are other ways that sometimes may be better).  The same is true for a consistency maintanance or constraint satisfaction language - let them be first-class, explicit languages that one may use or not according to ones liking.  That's what libraries are for.

* Minimality.
  Something else is lost here.  Scheme was about the right thing, but also about the minimal thing.  Scheme provided a basis which was like a semantic assembly language: it provided primitives with which to build.  Yes, certain complex systems ease programming - so let's make sure such systems can be written in Scheme, but let's not make them the basis of Scheme!  It sounds like old-school anthropology: let's give primitives the right to remain primitive - while making sure they are NOBLE primitives.


* Redefining read.
  This will not change the meaning of code (or anything else) read before, even through explicit calls of the read procedure.  (In some multi-pass models this would be perfectly appropriate behaviour, though.)

* Principle of least surprise.
  Reassigning a variable changes the result of each use of that variable.
  Inlining procedure calls is possible exactly when it can be proven that the value of the procedure won't change (e.g. local procedures, direct lambda expressions) - anything else would turn Scheme into a Lisp-2 by giving special privileges to procedure values over other values.  I want my program to be able to redefine procedure variables at run-time, e.g. a program that learns by repeatedly wrapping functions, thus making them more knowledgeable.
  Opaque code may remain unaffected under procedure variable reassignment - and code may be declared opaque.  That basically boils down to the good old (let ((car car) (cdr cdr) ...) ...).  Standard procedures are all opaque.  An opacity declaration may contain exceptions: variables to the reassignment of which the code IS sensitive.
  (opaque (except my-proc memq) code ...) ; - which is like a kind of export clause.

* Locations.
  Having explicit mutable locations (say, ML style), would allow efficient compilation where they aren'n used.  And explicit mutable locations can be used as a base level on which to build Scheme-as-we-know-it, with lambda binding its variables to mutable locations, so that backward compatibility is maintained.  It would help both with parallelism (fewer locks needed) and with inlining.
  "But locations can escape scope, whereas variables can't."  Well (lambda (x) (set! var x)) and (lambda () var) can (and do often) escape, and are just a work-around for locations:
  (define set-var! #f)
  (define get-var #f)
  (let ((var #f))
    (set! set-var! (lambda (x) (set! var x)))
    (set! get-var  (lambda () var)) )
  And other locations, such as the car and cdr of a pair, already excape, so why have an artificial difference between those and variable locations?

* Parallelism.
  Full parallelism is problematic, so some kind of locking will be necessary.  I think locations are the natural place for that: this function wants to update a location, so no-one else should do an update in parallel.  Just reading or writing is no problem, but writing a value that is computed from a read is.
  Let a sequence be a series of expressions that must be executed sequentially (through begin or let*, or because function body execution comes after argument evaluation, or whatever).  Obviously, sequences can be nested.
  Let a location be any mutable pointer storage.
  In beginner mode, any sequence that accesses a certain location locks that location till the end of the sequence.  In special cases, a compiler may prove that a lock is not or no longer necessary.  It is often easy to prove this for primitives such as car, cdr, so that their use doesn't preclude parallelism.
  In advanced mode, locks are set by the programmer through a (lock (<location> ...) code ...) construct.
  Obviously, a lock doesn't prohibit usage by a subsequence (possibly inside a parallel unit), but when that happens other subsequences in the same parallel block are locked out.  So, let Si and Pj stand for sequential and parallel units: (S1 <lock var1> (P1 (S2 <use var1>) (S3 <use var1>) S4) <unlock var1>) sequentialises S2 and S3, but S4 can still run parallel with this sequence of S2 and S3.


* Its place.
  Implementability is an issue for Scheme language design, but ease of implementation, or efficiency of implementation ought not to be.  (I realise there are fringe issues, such as a theoretical lower limit of 2^2^n in space or time..)  Compilability is nice, but never a basis for design decisions.

* Tail call efficiency.
  This should include load: the value of load would then be the value of the last expression in the file loaded.  If one wants anything else, it is trivial to wrap something around an efficient load, whereas the inverse is not possible. 

Other thoughts

* Write/read invariance.
  IO is library material, but the library provided ought to allow write/read invariance on closures and environments.  A unique tag provides unification if the object is already present; if not, it is produced.  In that way two running Schemes can exchange procedures, including ones capturing variables.  The unification scheme for environments allows one to reconstruct environment inheritance incrementally.

* Macros.
  The principle of least surprise is already violated with macros.  Macros must be bound before use; there is no equivalent to anonymous lambdas.  Imagine ((if freevar <procedure def> <macro def>) arg ...) - this cannot be in Scheme, because Scheme wants to evaluate the arguments together with the head, whereas the head stipulates whether the arguments need to be evaluated in the first place.  I think this evaluation rule reflects a thought error: a seeming symmetry was taken for a real one.  Anonymous macros would be a boon, as would be runtime evaluation of expression heads, even if they are or may evaluate to macros.  Right now a real symmetry (between procedures and macros) is lost for the sake of a false one.
  This is about removing restrictions in the Clinger-sense, I think - having first-class syntactic transformers.  Currently they have a status comparable to CL's functions - without the possibility of anonymous transformers or SYNCALL.
  There is also no syntactic equivalent of "direct code" as opposed to code stored in a lambda form.  Direct syntactic code would of course be immune to later redifinitions of transformers - as the transformation has taken place at the moment the single evaluation pass dealt with that bit of code.

* Ports.
  Flushing an output port is the symmetric opposite of peeking at an input port - or it ought to be.  I think lazy streams could make ports more Schemey - I don't like the built-in necessity to deal imperatively with ports.  But I am not clear on all this - I only feel Scheme could have a clean mathematical notion of ports which is unlike what other languages have.

* The REPL.
  In thinking about REPL behaviour, the Lua notion of a chunk is useful.  Balancing parens may delimit a chunk (as with begin), but the REPL might provide other ways, say Shift+Enter to stay within the chunk.

* Time.
  Time is an elusive concept.  It is generally measured by comparison to cyclic systems, either individual ones (the earth turning around its axis) or generic ones (a cesium atom vibrating).  The two are different, in that the individual one may have an explicit zero point, relative to a reference point (the Greenwich meridian pointing away from the sun, or pointing to Betelgeuze, or to the moon will all define individual days of slightly differing length), and many of those are in use (a year may be the earth being back in its position to the sun relative to Betelgeuze or to its axis of rotation, or a number of moon cycles, or a number of days, or a combination of those).  Many systems also use more than one individual cyclic system, using some leap system to keep them more or less in sync.
  Scheme is simply to recognise this, and see a time period or point as a formula of base measurements: so many cycles of the earth around the sun relative to its axis of rotation plus so many moon cycles measured thus plus so many days measured thus minus so many seconds defined yet another way.
  Primitive measures could be declared as time units, with or without a zero point, preferably but not necessarily giving an approximation formula in terms of already-declared measures ("a year-of-type-x tends to be so many seconds; the length of an Ethiopian year in days can be approximated by this formula; the interest due date is the last working day of the month or the transaction day, whichever comes first."), and usin those conversion formulas Scheme could then give a normally inexact conversion of one time span or point into another.  Obviously some conversions, such as a week into days, could be exact.  Time point ordering would be based on these inexact measures.  A Scheme that expands its notion of inexactness to include, say, a probability distribution and returns a probability for predicates can do so here.

* Strings
  Wouldn't a Schemish string be a sequence of character objects (soco), where a character object can be complex (base + modifiers)?  Just as s-expressions respect the grammatical complexity of expressions, a soco would respect the grammatical complexity of text.  If the sequence is a vector, string indexing and string-set! would be O(1).  Yes, socos take more space than classical strings, but the same is true for s-expressions as opposed to flat program code.
  For Schemes with only ASCII, the set of character objects would be the ASCII set, and the pointers could be 8-bit, i.e. the strings could be the classical string that we all know and love/hate.  There's backwards compatibility.
  Those who want size-changing substitutions can use some kind of tree representation of the sequence instead of vectors (lists being an extreme kind of unbalanced trees).
  The interesting thing would be that people can choose their sequencing level: if you want to reason about code points, use sequences of code points; if you want to reason on the syllable level, make sequences of syllables.  It is possible to have several levels: a sequence of words, each of which is a sequence of characters, each of which is a sequence of code points.
  In other words: Scheme should not prescribe one crippling string format, but rather a set of specifiers which which people can define the strings they need.  A classical ASCII-like one is obligatory, the others are optional.

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