Veit's Blog

Scheme Macros II: Generics


This is a continuation of an earlier post, in which I talked about the power of Scheme macros in the context of modules. Modules aren’t the only use case of macros, though, and so this time I want to talk about generic functions as an another case study.

Generic functions are a milestone in any programming language. Most languages use some kind of interface structure, but the naming is inconsistent. I’ve seen the terms interfaces, protocols, traits, and type classes floating around. zepto calls them protocols.

Let’s define protocols as a structure, define an API, and then go about implementing them! As always, you can get the code to follow along.

What are protocols, anyway?

In zepto, protocols are very similar to type classes in Haskell. They are any number of functions that take an element of the type we want to define the protocol for as a first argument and a predefined number of arguments after that. A protocol is just the declaration of that contract, and an implementation is an implementation of these functions for specific data types.

All we need to do is define two macros defproto and defimpl that do the necessary plumbing to register a new protocol and a new implementation of that protocol, respectively.

I suspect all of this was a bit abstract and hard to follow. In the next section we'll define an API for the two macros and hopefully clear things up a little.


Let’s start with the API of defproto. It will take a protocol name, a number of functions, and their respective arguments. As an illustrating example, let’s define a collection protocol that defines the functions car, cdr, and null?.

(defproto collection
  (car 1)
  (cdr 1)
  (null? 1))
Fig. 1: A simple collection protocol.

As we can see above, all of the functions take exactly one argument. The form for defining functions is a list of pairs. Let’s keep this in the back of our heads for now and move on to an implementation of that protocol for strings.

(defimpl collection string?
  ((car string:head)
   (cdr string:tail)
   (null? (lambda (str) (eq? 0 (string:length str))))))
Fig. 2: An implementation of the collection protocol for strings.

The form for implementing a protocol looks fairly similar to defining a protocol. It takes three arguments: the name of the protocol, a function that returns true if the input matches our expectations—most commonly a typechecking function, but it can be arbitrary, more on that later—, and a list of function names and their implementations. The implementations can be any flavor of callable, from a lambda that’s defined inside the form to a symbol that references any kind of function anywhere else.

This API makes for a relatively slick interface, although it is not necessarily feature-complete. Type safety is not really a thing in this API, although Lisps are generally not known for that anyway. It also doesn’t allow us to define functions with a variable number of arguments, but we'll rectify that during our implementation of the interface. For now we can just note that the API is nice enough to be usable, but fairly suboptimal when compared to the utopian version.

Now for an implementation. These are going to be the most advanced macros on this blog yet, but they’re still among the simpler macros you might encounter when programming Lisp.


We talked a lot about defining and implementing protocols above. If you squint, you might see some parallels to defining and importing modules, which I talked about in a previous post. This connection admittedly might not be obvious, and it only occurred to me in hindsight, but I’ll still use the connection to guide you through the implementation.

To get started with registering and looking up generics we need some structure to save them in. As in the previous post, hash maps come to the rescue. We will need one of those in our implementation; I call it *impls*. *impls* will hold the implementations of a given protocol.

A data format

The data format I’m going to present right now might feel a little arbitrary; this is largely to offer a reference for later, when you want to retrace the traversals and manipulations we do in the macros. First, a view of what *impls* looks like after we’ve defined and implemented the collection protocol above:

    [<function: string?>,
      #{"car" <function: string:head>,
        "cdr" <function: string:tail>,
        "null?" <lambda>}]}
Fig. 3: *impls* after a defintion of the first protocol.

The structure is a hash map, holding the protocol names as keys and as values a pair of the predicate and another hash map of the function names and their implementation. I suggest not worrying too much about it for now and reading on. The definitions of both defproto and defimpl will hopefully make much more sense with this structure in mind.

Defining protocols

As always, let’s start with a simple skeleton. We need a macro defproto that takes a name and a number of functions.

(define-syntax defproto
  (syntax-rules ()
    ((defproto name functions ...)
      ; define the protocol
Fig. 3: A skeleton for defining protocols.

This is all well and good, but what do we actually have to do inside that macro? There are various ways to go about this, but the simple way I like most is defining a dispatch function that will ensure the contract is kept—in this case, this only concerns the number of arguments—and then dispatches the appropriate function. This means we will have to define a number of functions in the macro. Using a pattern discussed in the first post in this series, we'll capture the environment and then map over the given functions. After that, we can register them in our hash map.

Let’s try to extend our skeleton with what we know.

(define-syntax defproto
  (syntax-rules ()
    ((defproto name functions ...)
      (let ((env (current-env)))
          (lambda (fun)
              ; do something here
        (hash:set! *protocols* (symbol->string 'name)
Fig. 4: An extended skeleton, almost useful.

We're almost there! The only part missing is what’s actually crucial. Now we need to take care of the scaffolding function. What will it do? We want it to look up the implementations we have and find the one that is appropriate in our case. We will also need to check whether the number of arguments is actually correct. Why do we have to do this manually instead of relying on function arity? The reason is two-fold: it simplifies the scaffolding function and it will allow us to extend the function to work with overloaded/variable argument functions.

Let’s define this mythical scaffolding function. It will be quasi-quoted to enable us to inject information.

`(define ,fun (lambda args
  (let ((impls (*impls* ,fun-name))
        (type (car args)))
    (if (eq? (length args) fun-nargs)
      (let ((funs (filter
                    (lambda (v) (eval (list (car v) 'arg)))
        (apply ((cadr funs) ,fun-str) args))
      (error ,fun-str "takes" ,fun-nargs
             "arguments, was given" (length args))))))
Fig. 5: The scaffolding function.

There are a few variables in there whose definition I’ve omitted. If you want to see where they’re defined, I invite you to study the complete implementation of generics linked to at the top of the page. Here is a quick list to get you up to speed:

Now, what does this code actually do? We’re defining a function that takes a variable number of arguments, checks whether the number of those is equal to what is expected in the contract, and if not, throws an error. If it is, it filters the list of function implementations for the ones whose predicate matches—this is the second argument to defimpl, string? in Figure 2—, and takes the first of these functions, calling it with the arguments. Quite dense, but all of the setup we need.

Now, optionally, we can define a variable number of arguments. All we need to do is define an alternative to the number of arguments—for the sake of this article I’ve chosen the atom1 :varargs—that we insert where we would normally specify the number of arguments—writing e.g. (car :varargs) instead. Then we just need to check for this atom in our if at the beginning of the scaffolding function.

`(define ,fun (lambda args
  (let ((impls (*impls* ,fun-name))
        (type (car args)))
    (if (or (eq? (length args) fun-nargs)
            (eq? :varargs fun-nargs))
      (let ((funs (filter
                    (lambda (v) (eval (list (car v) 'arg)))
        (apply ((cadr funs) ,fun-str) args))
      (error ,fun-str "takes" ,fun-nargs
             "arguments, was given" (length args))))))
Fig. 6: We support variable arguments now!

This actually concludes our definition of defproto. We can now relax a little more with a definition of defimpl.

The implementation of implementations

All the defimpl macro has to do is to put the functions we register into the *impls* macro in such a manner that our scaffolding function finds it. Let’s define a skeleton again and then start to fill in the blanks.

(define-syntax defimpl
  (syntax-rules ()
    ((_ name pred funs)
      ; housekeeping goes here
Fig. 7: A defimpl skeleton.

The defimpl macro takes a protocol name, a predicate function, and the function implementations we need to provide to fulfill the protocol contract.

All we really have to do here is to look up the protocol and register the new implementation. In order to keep this implementation simple we omit all error checking. The reference implementation for zepto comes with all kinds of checks that ensure we respect the contract.

Let's fill in the blanks with some lookup and an update skeleton:

(define-syntax defimpl
  (syntax-rules ()
    ((_ name pred funs)
      (let* ((name-str (symbol->string 'name)))
        (hash:update! *impls* name-str ; update function
Fig. 8: A complete defimpl skeleton.

Here we just convert the name to a string and hand it over to hash:update!, which implements destructive assignment of a hash map’s key-value pair. hash:update! takes a hash map, a key and a function that will be handed the old value—or nil if the key doesn’t exists—and should return the new value.

Equipped with that knowledge, updating the list is as simple as making sure we replace nil with an empty list and append the new implementation to it.

(define-syntax defimpl
  (syntax-rules ()
    ((_ name pred funs)
      (let* ((name-str (symbol->string 'name)))
          (hash:update! *impls* name-str
            (lambda (impl)
              (let ((impl (if (truthy? impl) impl [])))
                (++ impl (list pred (make-hash nfuncs))))))))))
Fig. 9: The finished version of defimpl.

The new implementation is a pair of the predicate, by which we will filter the list of implementations when we look up the function to execute in defproto, and a hash maps of the functions and names. That’s all!

Wrapping up

This is a capable, but very brittle sketch of a generics system. It has all the moving parts. But, as mentioned before, we don’t actually check whether our protocols and their implementations make sense. This is unacceptable in the real world, but it’s also a very simple issue to fix if you want to build upwards from here.

This was the second post in my little series on how we can utilize the power of Scheme macros. If you would like me to continue this series and have any requests for future posts, I invite you to open a reminder issue on Github. Take care and see you very soon!


1: Atoms are equivalent to keywords in Common Lisp and Clojure.