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A Robin Tutorial

This tutorial will lead you through writing a few simple Robin programs.

This document is aimed at programmers who have written some programs in a Lisp-like language such as Scheme or Racket or Irken. If you haven't, it will probably help a lot if you work through one of the many excellent tutorials available for these languages first. This tutorial will concentrate on the more unusual features of Robin, the ones that are not shared with many other languages.

Basic usage

First, if you haven't done so, obtain a Robin interpreter for your system. The README gives instructions for obtaining and building the reference interpreter, robin. We'll use it in these examples.

A Robin program is usually saved as a plain text file on your computer. Open up a text editor, enter the following, and save it as difference.robin:

(display (subtract 50 42))

Now if you run the Robin interpreter on this file by typing, in your terminal:

bin/robin difference.robin

You will see it display a number


which is the answer to the question, "What is 50 minus 42?".

Top-level forms

In this small Robin program, display is what's called a top-level form. It's called this because it can only appear at the outermost level; it can't be nested inside something. You can have multiple top-level forms in a file, and Robin will try to do something with all of them. You can edit your file to say

(define one 1)
(display (subtract 8 one))

And if you run it again you will get the output


As of this version of Robin, there are five kinds of top-level forms:

  • display evaluates an expression and outputs the result.
  • define evaluates an expression and assigns a name to it.
  • assert evaluates an expression and causes the interprter to abort with a message, if the expression does not evaluate to #t (true).
  • require behaves like assert, but intends to signal that a particular symbol needs to have been given a meaning.
  • reactor evaluates some expressions, creates a reactor based on them, and installs it.

Intrinsics vs. the Standard Library

Expressions in Robin are based on a very simple definition, in which there are only 15 intrinsic operators. [subtract][] is one such intrinsic operator. [add][], by contrast, is not an intrinsic operator. If you create a program

(define one 1)
(display (add 8 one))

and run it with

bin/robin sum.robin

you'll get an error like

(abort (unbound-identifier add))

However, Robin does come with a standard library of operations, which are defined in terms of intrinsics. You need to tell Robin to load this standard library before you can use any of the operations in it. So, if you run,

bin/robin pkg/stdlib.robin sum.robin

You'll see the answer you probably expected,



Let's write a factorial function, and compute 5!.

(define fact (fun (self n)
  (multiply n
    (if (gt? n 1)
      (self self (subtract n 1))
(display (fact fact 5))

Some of this definition is probably what you would expect from a recursive definition of factorial in any Lisp-like language. However, some of it is probably not.

It comes from the fact that Robin has no way to make a forward reference — no letrec or equivalent. At the time the definition of fact is being read, the fact symbol is not yet defined, so fact cannot call itself directly.

So we give fact a way to call itself by following a convention: whenever fact is called (including when fact needs to call itself), the fact function itself is passed as the first argument to fact. By convention we call this parameter self.

This is related to the so-called Y combinator.


If you run the above factorial program with the reference interpreter,

bin/robin fact.robin

You'll see a message such as the following:

(abort (inapplicable-object (abort (unbound-identifier fun))))

You might conclude from this that [fun][] is not built-in to the language — and you'd be right! Unlike almost every other Lisp-like language, in Robin, fun is defined in the standard library, which must be imported before it can be used.

It's defined as a so-called "fexpr" (which is like a macro but even more general — more on them in a minute.)

As you saw above, you can ask the Robin reference interpreter to load in the standard library before it runs your program:

bin/robin pkg/stdlib.robin fact.robin

and you'll see the expected


but you may notice that it's not exactly quick to come back with that answer.

Even though they are defined in Robin, parts of the standard library are often implemented in some other language. This is because, while their definition in Robin is intended to be correct and normative, it is not necessarily efficient. If some other, more efficient implementation of the operation has the same semantics as the Robin definition of the operation, they can be used interchangeably.

In particular, the reference implementation can expose, if requested, a set of "builtins" which map to the "small" subset of the standard library. You can turn them on with:

bin/robin --enable-builtins fact.robin

When you run this, you'll see it displays the answer much more promptly this time.

Note that the reference implementation doesn't implement all of the standard library as builtins; and note that there is no conflict if you have it process the built-in definitions externally as well. So this will work just as well:

bin/robin --enable-builtins pkg/stdlib.robin fact.robin


As we mentioned above, functions aren't intrinsic to Robin — the fun operator that creates a function is defined as a so-called "fexpr" in the standard library.

You're quite free to simply import the standard library and use fun without knowing or caring that it's defined as a fexpr, whatever that is.

However, you can write your own fexprs as well, using [fexpr][].

The main difference between a fexpr and a function is that a fexpr does not evaluate the arguments that are passed to it. It receives them as an unevaluated S-expression. What it does with this unevaluated S-expression is completely up to it.

One trivial thing it can do with it is simply return it unmodified. This is what the [literal][] operator in the standard library does, and this is how it's defined:

(define literal (fexpr (args env)

With this definition in place you can run

(display (literal (hello world)))

and you'll see

(hello world)

So literal is essentially the same as quote in Lisp or Scheme. Except, of course, it's not intrinsic to the language. We wrote a fexpr to do it instead.

A fexpr defined this way also has access to the environment in which it was called (the env parameter). There is also an intrinsic operator called [eval][] which evaluates a given S-expression in a given environment. With these tools, we can write fexprs that do evaluate their arguments, just like functions.

(define id (fexprs (args env) (eval env (head args))))
(display (id (subtract 80 4)))

If you run this you should see 76.

When we don't care to distinguish between "functions" and "fexprs" and "macros" we just call them all "operators".

Recursive fexprs

(To be written).


Just like a function, in Robin, is a kind of fexpr, so too is a macro a kind of fexpr. A macro is a fexpr whose return value is expected to be a piece of syntax which will be further evaluated as a Robin expression.

(To be continued).

Referential transparency

The code you've been writing inside those defines and displays is an expression. Expressions are distinct from top-level forms; you can't say display inside an expression, and you can't say subtract at the top level. (This is different from a lot of Lisps and Schemes, and it is quite intentional.)

In fact, in Robin, expressions cannot have any side-effects. This is sometimes called being "purely functional".

An implication of this is that all data in Robin is immutable: once created, a list or other data structure cannot be changed. Rather, a new data structure, similar to the original data structure but altered in some way, must be created.

We can be even more specific and say that in Robin, all expressions are referentially transparent. There are a number of equivalent ways to describe what this means. One that I find intuitive is:

Evaluation of an operator is affected by nothing except its input values, and has an effect on nothing except its output value.

(I also find it reminiscent of the saying "Take only photographs, leave only footprints", but as to whether that has any mnemonic value, well, YMMV.)

This is a surprisingly strong guarantee. This is good, because it helps immensely in reasoning about programs. But it can be surprising.

Abort values

For example, it rules out conventional exception handling, because conventionally, exception handling involves setting up an exception handler, and when an exception occurs in some operator, this handler is invoked. But this handler is not an input value to the operator. So the operator is relying on something that was not passed to it. So it is not referentially transparent.

So instead of exceptions, Robin has abort values. You've seen them already as results of running some of the example code above.

An abort value is produced whenever an operator encounters an error and can't provide a sensible value.

You can also produce one explicitly with the [abort][] operator:

(display (abort (literal (something went wrong))))

Also, most operators have the following convenient behaviour: if any of their inputs are an abort value, they produce an abort value.

In addition, they usually nest the abort value they received inside the abort value they produce. This leads to a chain of abort values. This chain is similar to the traceback that is provided when an uncaught exception occurs in a procedural language such as Python or Java.

It is often quite reasonable to simply let a program evaluate to an abort value, if there was an error in it — a philosophy sometimes known as "let it crash". However, if it does become important to recover from such an error condition, the [recover][] operator can be used to intercept an abort value and achieve some alternate computation instead.

(display (recover
  (abort (literal (something went wrong)))
  value (list value #t)
  error (list error #f)))

Running this (with stdlib) you should see:

((something went wrong) #f)

which, you will note, is not an abort value.


The problem with expressions being referentially transparent is that, in practice, software usually does something over and above calculating the result of an expression. Users click buttons, shapes get displayed on the screen, files get written to filesystems.

Some languages solve this problem by having functions that interact with the outside world take a representation of the outside world as one of their inputs, and produce a (possibly modified) representation of the outside world as part of their output.

Robin's approach is not this. Robin's approach is rather more like JavaScript: it is event-oriented. Events happen, and the program reacts to them by evaluating pure functions. These functions evaluate to a description of actions for the system to take; and these actions possibly cause more events to happen, and the cycle repeats.

Specifically, a Robin program may define a reactor by giving an initial state, and an operator called the transducer.

The transducer will be evaluated any time an event comes in. The event could come in from the outside world (for example, the user clicks a button,) or it could be generated by the Robin program itself.

When the transducer is evaluated, it is passed the event, and also the current state. These values are passed in raw; they need no evaluation, so the transducer is not written as a function. Instead, the [bind-vals][] operator is useful for obtaining these arguments.

The return value of the transducer consists of two parts: a new value to use as the new current state, and a list of "commands" to issue. Each "command" is a two-element list, which is not really different from a new event that will happen.

This setup is very similar to "The Elm Architecture" used in the language Elm.

Here is an example reactor.

(reactor (line-terminal) 0
  (fexpr (args env)
    (bind-vals ((event-type event-payload) state)
      (if (equal? event-type (literal init))
        (list state
          (list (literal writeln) (literal ''Hello, world!''))
          (list (literal stop) 0))
        (list state)))))

The (line-terminal) part at the top is the configuration referred to above; in this case it indicates that the reactor wishes to subscribe to a facility called line-terminal (similar to "standard I/O" in most other languages.)

The 0 at the top is the initial state. In fact this example is so simple that the state does not change and does not make any difference to the program, but an initial state still must be given.

After that is the transducer, given as a fexpr. It receives, as its arguments, an event, which consists of an event type and an event payload, and the current state. It extracts these.

It compares the event type against init to see if it is the initialization event.

If it is, it returns the current state unchanged and issues two commands: a command to write Hello, world! as a line of output, and a command to stop the program.

If it's not, it just returns the current state unchanged. The reactor will wait for the next event and process it.

(To be continued).