Message chains and quoting in Ioke

One of the more advanced features in Ioke is the ability to work with first class messages. At the end of the day, you are manipulating the AST directly by doing this, which means that you can do pretty much anything you want. The manipulation of message chains is the main way of working with macros in Ioke, so understanding what you can do with them is pretty important.

The documentation surrounding these pieces is spread all over the place, so I thought I’d take a look at messages and the way you construct and modify them.


The first step in working with message chains is to actually understand the Message. Message is the core data structure in Ioke, and it has some native properties that define the full structure of the Ioke AST. There are four pieces of the structure that is central to messages, and a few more that is less interesting. So let us look at the core structure. It is actually extremely simple. These are the things that makes a Message:

  • Name – all messages have a name. From the perspective of Ioke, this is a symbol. It will never be nil, but it can be empty.
  • Arguments – a list of messages, zero or more.
  • Prev – a pointer to the previous message in the chain, or nil if there is no previous.
  • Next – a pointer to the next message in the chain, or nil if there is no next message.

A message can also wrap a value. In that case the message will always return that value, and no real evaluation will happen. This can be used to insert any kind of value into a message chain that will later be evaluated. This is called wrapping.

A message chain is just a collection of messages, linked through their Prev and Next pointers.

The arguments to a message are represented as a list of messages. This make sense if you think about it for a few seconds.

OK, now you know what the Ioke AST looks like. It isn’t harder than that. Now, if you actually want to start working with messages, there are several messages that Message can receive, that allow you to work with them. The simpler ones (that I won’t explain closer) is “name”, “name=”, “arguments”, “arguments=”, “next”, “next=”, “prev”, “prev=”.

There are a few more interesting ones that merit some explanation. First, “last”. This message will just return the last message in the message chain. It is the equivalent of following the next pointer until you come to the end.

It’s important to keep in mind that Message is a mutable structure, which means you need to be careful to not change things that will give you unexpected changes. For example, if someone sends in a message, you shouldn’t generally actually modify that without copying it. Now, if you only want to copy a message without copying recursively the next pointer, you can just mimic it. Otherwise you use the method “deepCopy” which will actually copy both the next pointer and the arguments recursively.

Now, if you want to add new arguments to a message, you can use “appendArgument”. This method is aliased as “<<“. It will also return the receiver, so you can add several arguments by linking calls to appendArgument/<<. If you want to add a message at the beginning of the argument list, you instead use >>.

One of the more annoying things is that once you set the next pointer, you generally need to make sure to set the previous pointer of the next value too, unless you are setting it to nil. The same thing is true when setting the prev pointer. So, in the cases when you want to link two messages, you shouldn’t set these specifically, but instead use the “->” method. This allow you to link two Ioke messages. For example “msg1 -> msg2” will actually set the next pointer on msg1 and the prev pointer on msg2. If you do “msg1 -> nil” it will set the next pointer to nil.

And that’s basically it. If you need to actually evaluate the messages, you can either use “sendTo” or “evaluateOn”. The main difference here is that sendTo will actually not evaluate the message chain. It will only evaluate the message that is the receiver of the call. The evaluateOn method will follow the message chain and evaluate it fully, based on the context arguments given to it.

Oh, one last thing. To create new messages from scratch, there are a few different ways. First of all, you can wrap a value like this: “Message wrap(42)”. That will return a new message that wraps the number 42.

You can create a message chain from a piece of text by doing ‘Message fromText(“one two three”)’. This will return a message chain with three messages, linked together.

Finally, you can create a new message chain by using the from-method. You use it like this: “Message from(one two(three) four)”. What is returned is the message chain that is the argument. If you think about it for a few seconds, you can probably guess how to implement this using an Ioke macro.


Now that we understand messages and message chains, let us take a look at how to create new chains in a flexible way.

First of all, all of the above methods are all very useful and nice, but they tend to be a bit verbose. Coming from a Lisp background I felt inclined to put the quoting characters to good use for this. So, first of all, the single quote (‘) does the same thing as “Message from”. The back quote (`) does the same thing as “Message wrap”. So, to wrap the number 42, you can just do `42. In this case you don’t need parenthesis, since the back quote is an operator. To create a new message chain, use the single quote: ‘(foo bar(x) baz).

We almost have everything we need, except that we need some convenient ways of actually putting things into these message chains without having to put them together by hand.

Say for example we have a variable “blah” that contains an unknown message. We want to create a message “one” that is followed by the message in the variable “blah”. And then finally we want to add two messages “bax” and “baz” after it. We could do it like this: x = ‘one. x -> blah. x last -> ‘(bax baz). All in all, that is not too bad, but we can do better. This is done using the splice-quote operator, which is just two single quotes after each other. Using that it would look like this: ”(one `blah bax baz). In this case, the back quote inside of the splice-quote call will actually be evaluated in the current context and then have the result be spliced into the message chain being created. Now, only use the back quote if you are sure you can modify it. If you want to copy blah before inserting it, use the single quote again, instead of the back quote: ”(one ‘blah bax baz)

All in all, this is really all you need, and you can take a look at the core libraries and see how they are used. A typical example is the comprehensions library, and also the destructuring macros. In general, creating these message chains on the fly is the most useful inside of syntax macros.

I am planning to add a new feature to Ioke, that allow you to do tree rewriting for manipulating chains in different ways. This will be a feature built on top of the primitives described here, and these features will continue to be the main way of working with message chains for a long time.