Friday, October 19th, 2007


So Logo is 40 years old. I’ll take this as an opportunity to talk about Logo-the-language (as opposed to Logo-the-graphics or Logo-the-educational-experience). It’s a much better language than most people appreciate.

Logo is Lisp. It’s an old Lisp but it’s very Lisp. Let’s look at a classic example:

TO square :size
  REPEAT 4 [FD :size RT 90]

This translates to something like this (in Scheme):

(define (square size)
  (repeat 4 (lambda ()
             (begin (fd size)
                    (rt 90)))))

Well, technically it translates to this:

(define (square size)
  (repeat 4 '(fd size rt 90)))

That is, […] is a quoted list; nothing inside it is evaluated. This is actually a lot like Tcl:

proc square {size} {
  repeat 4 {
    fd $size
    rt 90

In Tcl {…} is just a string literal, but one without substitution, and where you can nest your braces. It’s a lot like a quoted list in Lisp, except where lists are the fundamental type in Lisp, strings are the fundamental type in Tcl.

To get an idea of how this works, here’s the implementation of repeat in these different languages:

TO repeat :count :block
  IF :count > 0 [EVAL :block
                 REPEAT (:count - 1) :block]

(define (repeat count block)
  (if (> count 0)
      (begin (block) (repeat (- count 1) block))))

proc repeat {count block} {
  while {$count > 0} {
      uplevel 1 $block
      set count [expr {$count - 1}]

Tcl doesn’t really encourage recursion, and it’s only partially encouraged in Logo — some implementations implement tail call optimization, but not all of them.

Scoping is an interesting difference here. In Scheme the scoping is lexical, which is the norm in modern languages. That is, any variables you refer to in a lambda (like size in the example) are bound according to where in the source you define that anonymous function. In Tcl the uplevel statement says to evaluate the block in the calling scope. In Logo it’s all implicit because Logo is dynamically scoped. That is, each function call inherits all the variables from the calling function. So you can write something like this:

TO house :size
  FD :size
  RT 60

TO square
  REPEAT 4 [FD :size RT 90]

TO triangle
  REPEAT 3 [FD :size RT 120]

Here :size is inherited in called functions. You can write some really bad code using dynamic scoping, with lots of magic side effects, but Logo isn’t meant for writing large programs so it usually doesn’t come up. A nice side effect of dynamic scoping is that EVAL works pretty well.

Another interesting aspect of Logo (and Tcl) is that it has very few special forms. In one of Logo’s more pure implementations the only special form is TO, and even that wouldn’t have to be a special form (there’s a function DEFINE that does the same thing). For instance, here’s how you set a variable:

MAKE "variable <value>

That is, you call the function MAKE, give it a variable name, and then a value. Some dialects allow MAKE :variable <value>, but some like UCBLogo actually interpret that to mean: set the variable named by :variable.

Another interesting aspect of Logo is how it handles parenthesis. You’ll notice there aren’t many. Lisp is known (and oft criticized) for its parenthesis. Logo shows they aren’t strictly required; it does this by using the arity of functions to inform parsing. An example:


The equivalent Scheme:

(setxy (abs x) y)

If you know that SETXY takes two arguments, and that ABS takes one argument, you can figure out how to parse the Logo. Comparing it to Forth is kind of interesting:

y @ x @ abs setyx

Reverse the order, replace @ with :, and you have Logo. @ and : also share a lot in common: :variable in Logo is syntactic sugar for THING “variable (symbols in Logo are spelled “symbol, like ‘symbol in Scheme, #symbol in Smalltalk, or :symbol in Ruby). THING “variable tells Logo to look up the value associated with the given symbol. Similarly in Forth, y refers to an address, and @ says to lookup the value at that address.

But back to parsing - Forth is based on trust and foreknowledge. You know that abs pops one thing from the stack, and setyx pops two things from the stack. You trust those words to act that way, because there’s nothing stopping them from popping more or less from the stack than they claim. Logo isn’t quite as trusting, but it does see that SETXY takes two values, and grabs two values. In the same way in the first example, when it sees [FD :size RT 90], it can tell that it’s two commands — newlines aren’t required.

One awkward part of this lack of parenthesis is that without knowing what functions you are referring to the expressions can’t be trully parsed. As a result most Logos are really interpreters. If anyone cared enough of course you could optimize this considerably, and maybe some of the more performant Logos like StarLogo or NetLogo do, but I don’t really know. PyLogo is pretty naive about it, and it’s not that fast as a result (but not terrible).

And of course I should take a chance to plug PyLogo, which runs Logo from Python, and lets Logo code easily call Python, and vice versa. Just easy_install PyLogo and you can run pylogo —console to amuse yourself with the language (the docs from UCBLogo might be helpful, and PROCEDURES shows all the functions, while HELPIFELSE will show the help for a particular command.

Another related language is Rebol, which is very close to Logo without the turtles (though with a bunch of new literals and object-oriented features as well). Many things called Logo are just turtle graphics with an extremely poor “language” bolted on in front. Don’t be fooled! On the web Turtle Tracks is one of the more true implementations (though I can’t get graphics, hm).

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. It should (but I fear cannot) go without saying that the opinions expressed here are my own.