Mar 6, 2019

Mini Lisp

I implemented a small Lisp interpreter over the weekend. You can find it here: https://github.com/Preetam/mini-lisp. It’s about 400 lines of Go code so far.

I started writing an interpreter a couple of months ago using the mal - Make a Lisp guide. After step 4 my implementation felt really messy, and I felt I was just doing what the guide told me without learning too much about how things actually worked. Later I found Peter Norvig’s (How to Write a (Lisp) Interpreter (in Python)) which is a much simpler version, and that was the inspiration to start over.

Here’s what you can do with it. Let’s start with a simple factorial function:

;; Factorial
(define fact
  (lambda (n)
    (if (<= n 1)
      (* n (fact (- n 1)))

(print (str (fact 5)))
; 120

There are mathematical operations, if, printing, and lambas.

Using (An ((Even Better) Lisp) Interpreter (in Python)), I also added tail recursion optimization. I was almost at that point in the mal guide too. Tail recursion optimization makes it really cheap to execute certain functions implemented recursively. Something like the following function, which takes advantage of tail recursion optimization, can call itself practically infinitely without running out of stack space.

;; sum2 sums numbers up to n.
;; It uses a tail recursion optimization.
(define sum2
  (lambda (n acc)
    (if (= n 0)
      (sum2 (- n 1) (+ n acc))

(print (str (sum2 1000 0)))
; 500500

Finally, the most interesting part I got to (which also took the most time) is call/cc. call/cc is used to implement more complicated control flows and continuation objects. It’s very hard to implement call/cc entirely, so I decided to only implement the simplified version that Norvig wrote about. It behaves like try/catch so I decided to call mine catch!.

;; catch! examples

(catch! (lambda (throw)
  (+ 5 (* 10 (catch! (lambda (escape) (* 100 (throw 3)))))))
; 3

(catch! (lambda (throw)
  (+ 5 (* 10 (catch! (lambda (escape) (* 100 (escape 3)))))))
; 35

Finally, I can pass it a file name to interpret so I can start writing scripts with it.

#!/usr/bin/env mini-lisp
; In ./lisp_script

(print (str "hello, world!"))
$ ./lisp_script
"hello, world!"

That’s it! There isn’t a lot you can do with it now, but over time I can add more built-in functions. I’ll still consider this “done” for now. Not a bad result for a weekend project!