Prototype-based Elisp Objects with @

Last weekend I had the itch to play around with a multiple-inheritance prototype-based object system in lisp. It would look a lot like JavaScript’s object system but wanted to try experimenting some different ideas. My favorite lisp to hack in is Emacs Lisp, so that’s what I built it on. What I ended up with is actually pretty neat. Despite the lack of reader macros in Elisp, I still managed to introduce new syntax by manipulating symbols at compile time.

See the README for a quick demonstration. What follows is the long explanation.

It’s called @, due to the syntax that it adds to Elisp as a domain-specific language. It’s a mini-language, really. The name is also a challenge to the code that supports Elisp, because so much of it — including emacs-lisp-mode and Paredit — doesn’t properly handle @ in identifiers. Even Maruku, the Markdown to HTML translator I use for this blog, has bugs that won’t allow it to handle the @ characters in my code, so I had to forgo most syntax highlighting for this post.

Fortunately require does manage just fine.

(require '@)

Objects in @ are vectors with the symbol @ as the first element. The rest of the elements are implementation specific, but, at the moment, the second element is a plist (property list) of all of that object’s properties.

The root object of @ is @, and all other objects are instances of this object, either directly or indirectly. Because it’s prototype based, creating a new object is a matter of extending one or more (multiple-inheritance) existing objects. This is done with the function @extend.

;; Create a brand new object
(defvar foo (@extend @))

If no objects are given to @extend, @ will be used as the parent object, so it’s not necessary as an argument above. This is actually very important, as objects that don’t inherit from @ will not work at all! I’ll get into that detail in a bit. Additionally, @extend accepts keyword arguments, which become properties on the created object.

The function @ is used to access properties on an object. Remember, Elisp is a lisp-2 meaning that variables and functions exist in their own namespaces. This means there can be both a variable @ (the root object) and function @ (property accessor).

(setf rectangle (@extend :width 3 :height 4))
(@ rectangle :width)  ; => 3
(@ rectangle :height)  ; => 4

The @ function is also setf-able, so setting properties should be obvious to any lisper.

(setf (@ rectangle :width) 13)
(@ rectangle :width)  ; => 13

Like JavaScript, methods are just functions stored in properties on an object. In @, the first argument for a method is the object itself, which is called @@ by convention.

(setf (@ rectangle :area)
  (lambda (@) (* (@ @@ :width) (@ @@ :height))))

(funcall (@ rectangle :area) rectangle)  ; => 52

New Syntax

Here’s the first really neat part. I find all that (@ @@ ...) business to be visually unpleasing. Fortunately this can be fixed by adding syntax. The macro def@ transforms variables that look like @: into these @ accessors. The following declaration is equivalent to the lambda assignment above. It’s meant to be very convenient.

(def@ rectangle :area ()
  (* @:width @:height))

This macro walks the body of the function at compile-time (macro expansion time) and transforms these symbols into the full @ calls above. Like most lisp macros, this has no run-time performance cost.

Because using funcall all the time and remembering to pass the object as the first argument is tedious, the @! function is provided for calling methods.

(@! rectangle :area)  ; => 52

The @: variables become function calls when in function position.

(def@ rectangle :double-area ()
  (* 2 (@:area))

In a lisp-1 this would happen for free, but in Elisp this situation expands to the @! form.


This rectangle is starting to look like a nice re-usable object. There’s a @ convention for this: prefix “class” object names with @.

(setf @rectangle rectangle)

Now to create new rectangle objects.

(setf foo (@extend @rectangle :width 3 :height 7.1))
(@! foo :area)  ; => 21.3

Notice that the foo object doesn’t actually have an :area property on itself. It was found on its parent, @rectangle by inheritance. :width and :height were not looked up on the parent because they’re already bound on foo.

Here’s another re-usable prototype. Notice that @: variables are also setf-able — using push in this case.

(defvar @colored (@extend :color ()))

(def@ @colored :mix (color)
  (push color @:color))

The object system has multiple-inheritance, so colored rectangles can be created from these two objects. The parent objects of an object are listed in the :proto property as a list (similar to JavaScript’s __proto__), which can be modified at any time to change an object’s prototype chain.

(defvar foo (@extend @colored @rectangle :width 10 :height 4))

(@! foo :area)  ; => 40
(@! foo :mix :red)
(@! foo :mix :blue)
(@ foo :color)  ; => (:blue :red)

Even though the initial property was read from the parent, the assignment (push), like all assignments, actually occurred on foo.

Setters and Getters

Remember how I said that objects that don’t eventually inherit from @ will be broken? This is because properties are actually set and accessed through :set and :get methods. That is, @ calls these methods as needed. The @ object provides the default actions for these. An interesting part of the @ code: initially setting :set on @ is a circularity problem, so there’s a special bootstrap step to accomplish it.

By providing your own you can fundamentally change how your object works. For example, here’s an @immutable mix-in which prevents all property assignments. It’s provided as part of @.

(defvar @immutable (@extend))

(def@ @immutable :set (property _value)
  (error "Object is immutable, cannot set %s" property))

This :set method will be found before the @ :set method, so it gets overridden.

Remember how I said all object have a :proto that can be used to modify the objects inheritance? This can be used to freeze an object’s properties in place. Here’s a :freeze method for all objects.

(def@ @ :freeze ()
  "Make this object immutable."
  (push @immutable @:proto))

Pretty cool, eh?

The :get method can be used to provide virtual properties.

(defvar @squares (@extend))

(def@ @squares :get (property)
  (if (numberp property)
      (expt property 2)
    (@^:get property)))  ; explained in a moment

(mapcar (lambda (n) (@ @squares n)) '(0 1 2 3 4))
; => (0 1 4 9 16)

I use this technique in the @vector class under lib/ to expose the elements of the internal vector as if they were properties. Brian used this trick to make a @buffer prototype that wraps Emacs’ buffers, with methods provided virtually by :get. For example, the :string property would return a lambda that calls buffer-string.

With multiple-inheritance and these setters and getters, there are a lot of interesting mix-in possibilities. I’m only just discovering some of them now.


Sometimes it’s really useful to call supermethods. There’s syntax for this: @^:. This calls the next method of that name in the prototype chain. For example, here’s a @watchable mix-in (also provided by @) that allows other code to be notified of changes to an object. It needs to override :set but still call the original :set.

(defvar @watchable (@extend :watchers nil))

(def@ @watchable :watch (callback)
  (push callback @:watchers))

(def@ @watchable :unwatch (callback)
  (setf @:watchers (remove callback @:watchers)))

(def@ @watchable :set (property new)
  (dolist (callback @:watchers)
    (funcall callback @@ property new))
  (@^:set property new))

This behavior is also used for constructors. By convention, the :init method is the constructor. It should generally call the next constructor with (@^:init). @ has a no-op, no-argument :init method to bottom-out this process.

(def@ @rectangle :init (width height)
  (setf @:width width @:height height))

(@! (@! @rectangle :new 13.2 2.1) :area) ; => 27.72

As shown, the :new method provided by the @ object combines both @extend and :init to provide simple single-object inheritance.

The Cost of @

In the lib/ directory there are a bunch of example objects implemented: including @vector, @queue, @stack, and @heap. I found these to be very enjoyable to write, and they’ve been the testing grounds for @. @heap uses an internal @vector instance and exercises @’s features the most.

The performance cost of @ very apparent with @heap. Even byte-compiled it’s slower than the naive implementation (compose push and sort) for even as high as 1,000 elements. While I think @ leads to elegant code, there’s still plenty to do for performance. It’s comically slow.

This really caught Brian’s interest, because it was an opportunity to put on his programming language designer’s hat — which I believe to be his favorite hat. He’s been trying different caching strategies to reduce all the walking of the prototype chain. This effort can be found in the other repository branches and in his fork. The system is so dynamic that cache invalidation is a really complex problem.

Every time a property is set, @ has to find the :set property for that object, which generally means walking all the way up to @. Because :proto can be modified at any time, every property look-up requires computing the precedence order (lazily). This all makes property assignment quite expensive! I can understand why real object systems aren’t this flexible. It comes at a high price.

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Chris Wellons