Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Friday, October 5, 2012
Programming in Forth is different from programming in most other languages. It seems to expand to fill whatever void it encounters. In most languages one writes a program that is run in a compiled or interpreted form different from the language it was written in. It is possible to write a Forth program in this style, but it is also possible to take another path- to extend the Forth programming language until it includes the capabilities we want. If you want a text editor you can extend Forth until it is a text editor. If you want to communicate with a piece of hardware, extend Forth until it includes that hardware. I've been thinking about this recently, and had some thoughts to record.
With Forth, the language itself is in some sense an extension of the inner interpreter. The inner interpreter is essentially just a finite control- a finite automata that executes some primitive instructions and read and writes to an infinite store (the return and parameter stack and memory). The outer interpreter is a useful extension of this machine because it gives a way for the system to extend itself, and once a system can extend itself we have a very cool thing. By feeding this system text it is able to add to its abilities by adding to its store of actions (the dictionary). Add definitions that process strings, and we have a string processor. If we describe a text editor to this system in the language that extends it, then it has a text editor. The feeling that we are extending the system and not creating a separate program comes from the fact that the system does not stop accepting input. We can feed it as much as we want, extending it with any functionality we want, and it will work through it and wait for user input when it is done. When it is reading user input any functionality added to it can be invoked.
A disadvantage to this model is that it is essentially a global namespace. This is not to say there is no modularity mechanism, as there are vocabularies, but you do have to be very careful with Forth. You can change the interpreter any time you want, and it has a global effect on the system. This is not like what I've heard smalltalk can be like, where I believe the environment is persistent. Usually with Forth we reinterpret everything from the start.
Its an interesting and possibly pretty cool system, and I always feel like one could try placing Forth as the heart of a system- like a Forth operating system (which of exists, and in fact it seems like traditionally Forths have seen themselves as the center of the system)- and just let it expand to fill any void it encounters. I seems like you would end up with a monolithic system (perhaps this is avoidable?) that includes everything one would need for a computing platform. I'm sure this has happened before, though I wonder what heights the idea has been taken to.