git @ Cat's Eye Technologies Robin / 0.1

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Robin is a programming language which draws from Scheme (via Pixley), PicoLisp, and Erlang.

Robin's core language is quite ascetic; however, Robin supports a module system, by which functionality can be brought in from modules (written in Robin, or some other language,) which expose their functionality to programs and other modules.

The standard modules include a small "standard library" to make programming slightly easier, a module for concurrent processes with message-passing, and a module for handling exceptions.

Robin programs are homoiconic, and presented in a S-expression-based syntax.

Instead of function values, Robin supplies macros as the primitive abstraction. Robin's macros are somewhat like PicoLisp's one-argument lambdas -- they do not automatically evaluate their arguments. Function values are built on top of macros, using the built-in macro eval.

Like Erlang, Robin is purely functional except for message-passing. That is, functions have no side-effects, with the single exception of being able to send messages to, and receive messages from, other processes. All facilities of the underlying system are modelled as such processes.

Robin supports a simple system of raising and handling exceptions. This helps define the semantics of otherwise undefined operations, such as trying to obtain the tail of a number.

Lastly, Robin unifies (to a degree) programming and static analysis. The language itself defines essentially no rules of static correctness beyond the basic rules about syntax. Static analyses are available in modules, just like any other kind of functionality, letting the programmer choose what level of pre-execution checking is applied to their code.


The current version of Robin under development is version 0.1. Even it is unreleased, so what you're looking at here is pure "technology preview" stuff. Expect everything to change, perhaps drastically.


Step 1: Obtain the sources.

$ hg clone


$ git clone git://

Step 2: Make sure you have ghc, and the Haskell packages parsec and (optionally) hscurses installed (these can both be instaled via cabal). The following instructions are for Ubuntu; equivalents for other operating systems are left as an exercise for the reader.

$ sudo apt-get install ghc cabal-install
$ cabal install parsec
$ cabal install hscurses   # if you want to use the Console module
$ cabal install random     # if you want to use the Random module

Step 3: Build the sources.

$ cd robin
$ ./

All built-in modules are built by default. If you want to exclude some modules (for example console), you can list them in the WITHOUT environment variable. For example,

$ WITHOUT="CrudeIO Console" ./

Note that if you exclude the built-in small module, robin will fall back to the small module written in Robin, but expect it to be much slower.

Step 4: Get Falderal, so that you can run the tests.

$ cd ..
$ hg clone
$ cd falderal
$ ./
$ cd ..

Step 5: Run the tests.

$ cd robin
$ ./

Step 6: Run an example program or two.

$ bin/robin -m modules eg/hunt-the-wumpus.robin

The robin executable so built is the reference interpreter; it is not intended for production use, so much as to be a model for how to implement Robin. It can, however, be used for light-duty tasks. We suggest creating the following driver script and putting it on your executable search path:

${ROBIN_PATH}/bin/robin -m ${ROBIN_PATH}/module $*

Of course, replace /path/to/robin/repo with the actual path to the clone you created with Mercurial or git. If you write your own modules, you can place them in a directory of your choosing, and pass it after another -m option in the driver script (before the existing -m option, if you want your modules to override the standard ones.)

It is possible to build robin under Windows, using ghc from the Haskell Platform for Windows, and Cygwin to run the shell scripts; however, there are various minor considerations which are currently outside the scope of this README. If you're really motivated, you'll figure it out.


Robin's fundamental semantics are documented in doc/Robin.falderal. From there you will find links to documentation on each of the standard modules as well.


  • To not be unduly burdensome to implement or analyze. The core language is kept very small, the "standard library" can be written in Robin itself, and features such as concurrency and exceptions are optional. The core language is purely functional, to keep it mathematically simple, and the reference implementation is in Haskell, which is a lot closer to an "executable semantics" than one in, say, C would be. The functionality of the language is thoroughly tested. Both the implementation and the test suite are written in a literate style, to keep the prose of the specification in close proximity to the code so that they can be easily checked against each other for inconsistencies.

  • To err on the side of beauty and simplicity and orthogonality, rather than efficient implementation or expediency.

  • At the same time, to allow the programmer to do "real" work, like interfacing with an actual computer.

  • At the same time as that, to be decoupled from any particular computer or operating system, as far as possible. The language does not specify how Robin programs should be run, nor how to locate modules that are imported. Devices are abstracted to "virtual devices" and are modelled as processes; input and output are done with message-passing.

  • To minimize atavisms and jargon. The legacy of Robin's lexicon is Scheme, which itself comes from the legacy of Lisp; while there are some good patterns here (like predicates whose names end in ?), there are also a lot of anachronisms (like car and cdr) which should be jettisoned. Proper English words should be used instead, although of course there is room for abbreviations when they are unambiguous (env, eval, expr, arith, and so forth.)

  • To serve as an outlet for my predilictions. Sometimes, when using a language, you come across a feature or aspect that just strikes you as wrong-headed, and it makes you want to build something that doesn't irritate you as badly. Robin is, to some extent, that, for me.

  • To not be taken too seriously -- it has many of the attributes of a production language, but it is something I am undertaking for fun.


Fundamental Semantics

  • Add an opaque type -- opaque values have internals that can only be accessed inside the module in which they were created. Actually, we already have function values, and they're traditionally opaque; but I'm not sure that solves the problem of them only being accessible from the module in which they're defined. This will probably start life as some sort of "object" type, which encapsulates some (immutable) state, and supports methods (which may return a transformed object); this may devolve into something which is implemented purely in terms of function values (closing over the state, and returning a new function value with a transformed state.)

  • Work out the approach to short-circuiting (roughly, not given in the semantics, but optimization is allowed by the implementation after it has established all the arguments are pure.)

Standard Modules

  • In the concurrency module, finalize the semantics for exception and final-result and unknown-tag reply messages, particularly during call and respond.

  • Some kind of macro for capturing the recursive function call pattern (like letrec, but not necessary to support mutual recursion.) Possibly called bind-recur. Also let-recur could build on that. Turn:

    (bind-recur foo (fun (a b c) (if a (b c) (foo (bar a) b c))) ...)


  (bind foo
    (bind foo-r (fun (self a b c)
                  (if a
                    (b c)
                    (self self (bar a) b c)))
      (fun (a b c) (foo-r foo-r a b c))) ...)

Lack of a gensym will make this tricky. We don't really have to bind foo-r, we can just repeat the definition of the recursive function; but I don't know how we can add the self parameter without potentially shadowing a user parameter also named self.

An alternative which might be easier (but less elegant) would be to introduce a primitive (self) which evaluates to the function currently being evaluated. This might make the self parameter to macros redundant, though.

But, it might just be simpler to punt on this and make it a part of the sugar in the humane syntax, which could support a form like:

  forward foo in
      foo = fun(a, b, c)
              if a then b(c) else foo(bar(a), b, c)

...and this would transform the binding as appropriate. This would also extend to mutually recursive definitions (forward foo, bar in ...)

  • Work out the static analysis modules. See the Static Analysis document for more information.


  • Create the device module and use it instead of crude-io and console. Perhaps make those two into "interface modules"? I suppose an interface module would expose a predicate to check if a device supports a given interface.

  • Write a timer device which can be asked (via a message) to send back a message after a given time has passed. This could be used to build a version of recv which can time out.

  • Enhance the console device. Write a version of robotfindskitten using it.

Possible Future Modules

  • Write a functional module which exports some functions for working with functions, such as identity, compose, and possibly curry and uncurry.

  • Possibly make a transcendental module to contain exp, pow, log, sqrt, and so forth.

  • Write a trig module which exports trigonometric functions cos, sin, tan, atan, pi, etc. Initially write this in Robin, but it's a good candidate for implementing natively.

  • Write a set module which exports functions which treat lists as sets, with each operation ensuring the set elements are unique in the list.

  • Write a pixley module which exports only the identifiers supported by Pixley. This could be imported, instead of core, to emulate Pixley in Robin.

  • Create a new module for exception semantics extended as follows. Allow the backtrace of an exception to be accessed as a Robin object, and, to some extent, manipulated. When an exception is raised in a context where another exception is being caught, allow the backtraces to be chained together. When an exception is raised during (say) the reading of a text file, allow the backtrace to be amended with the position within the text file to which the problem can be traced. The purpose of all this is to allow producing more complete error messages at the top level.


  • Document the alist functions in the list module.

  • Document the literate Haskell implementation better -- right now it's pretty scant.

  • Document the evaluation rules (they're very similar to Scheme's, but they should still be written down.)


  • Fuller tests for call.

  • Make the tests for core only ever import the core module -- rewrite those tests which currently import small, although they may be pretty ugly expressed purely in core terms.

  • Have the test runner know to only test those built-in modules which were selected for inclusion during the build step. (Write those options to a text file which the test runner script reads.)

  • Informally test tail-recursive behavior (does an infinite loop leak memory?)

  • Improve Falderal to let tests take some text as input; use this for the tests for crude-input.

Other Implementations

  • Build another implementation of Robin. This should probably wait, as even the fundamental semantics are still a moving target, and having to maintain two implementations is not so desirable. However, this will let me have a place to implement "practical" things that arguably don't belong in the reference implementation.

  • Allow the implementation to use a configuration file (likely a .robinrc file (or directory) in the user's home directory) to specify which files (and where) to load for which modules.

  • Implement a selective execution trace facility (configured in the configuration file, probably) which starts and stops tracing at configured points during program execution.

  • Upon an uncaught exception, dump a backtrace. This should be based on the current continuation at the time the exception was raised.