Notes on Raph Levien's "Io" Programming Language

(This is distinct and unrelated to Steve Dekorte's "Io" programming language.)

The original paper, which I don't have a copy of, is:

Raphael Levien, 1989, "Io: a new programming notation", SIGPLAN Notices 24(12) December 1989

There is a little material about Io online, including quotes from the paper. From


Coroutines are an important concept of computing science, but few programming notations properly support them. It is surprising how easy they are to implement in Io.

The idea of coroutines is to have two (or more) routines. When one of the routines gets to a point where it can no longer proceed (such as, when it needs more input), it is suspended, and another routine continues until it, in turn, can no longer continue (such as, when it has a value to output). Then, it is suspended and another routine is resumed.

This is used, for example, in creating a stream. A stream carries a sequence of numbers, without consuming storage. Therefore, it can be infinite. Even in the case of a finite stream, though, it has an advantage over a linked list, because computation can begin immediately after the first number is known.

The Io implementation of streams is analogous to linked lists. A stream takes two arguments. If there is no more data in the stream, it performs its first argument. Otherwise, it performs the second argument, with a data value and the continuation of the stream.

Here we define the operator count-stream, and bind an infinite counting stream to the variable s.

count-streamO: ~ x out;
out x ~ null out;
count-streamO x out.
count-stream: -..) ret;
ret .-9 null full;
count-streamO 0 full.
count-stream ~ s

S has exactly the same structure as a linked list. In fact, writelist s will write 0 1 2 3 4 5... on the screen.

There seem to be some OCR errors here. I think +x1~x is supposed to be + x 1 ~ x, and I suspect (from Raphael Finkel's book, see below) that ~ is actually supposed to be ->. So the definition of count-stream0 should be as follows:

count-stream0: -> x out;
        out x -> null out;
        + x 1 -> x;
        count-stream0 x out.

In Scheme:

(define count-stream0
  (lambda (x out)
    (out x (lambda (null out)
             (%+ x 1 (lambda (x) (count-stream0 x out)))))))

with the following definition of %+:

(define (%+ a b cont) (cont (+ a b)))

I'm more mystified about the count-stream definition. From the text, perhaps the definition is as follows:

count-stream: -> ret;
        ret -> null full;
        count-stream0 0 full.

Because then s gets -> null full; count-stream0 0 full, which takes two arguments (as the text explains) and hands the second one off to count-stream0, which performs it with a data value and the continuation of the stream.

Raphael Finkel's 1995/1996 book "Advanced Programming Language Design", chapter 2, section 3, contains some more examples.

write 5; write 6; terminate

which means, in Scheme:

(write 5 (lambda () (write 6 (lambda () (terminate)))))


write-twice: -> number; write number; write number; terminate.

which means

(define write-twice
  (lambda (number) 
    (write number 
           (lambda () (write number (lambda () (terminate)))))))


write-twice: -> number return;
        write number; write number; return.
write-twice 7; write 9; terminate

Which means

(define write-twice
  (lambda (number return)
    (write number (lambda () (write number 
                                    (lambda () (return)))))))
(write-twice 7 (lambda () (write 9 (lambda () (terminate)))))


+ 2 3 -> number; write number; terminate

which means

(%+ 2 3 (lambda (number) (write number (lambda () (terminate)))))


count: -> start end return;
        write start;
        = start end (return);
        + start 1 -> new-start;
        count new-start end return.
count 1 10; terminate

which means

(define count 
  (lambda (start end return)
    (write start 
           (lambda ()
             (%= start end return
                 (lambda () 
                   (%+ start 1 
                       (lambda (new-start)
                         (count new-start end return)))))))))

with the new definition of %=:

(define (%= a b consequent alternate)
  (if (= a b) (consequent) (alternate)))

This is the CPS expansion of this:

(define (count start end)
  (write start)
  (if (not (= start end)) (count (+ start 1) end)))

I don't know why there are parentheses in "= start end (return)" in the Io example. Perhaps it's an error introduced by Finkel.

One final example, showing the use of parentheses:

make-pair: -> x y return; 
        user (-> client; client x y); return.

which means

(define make-pair
  (lambda (x y return)
    (user (lambda (client) (client x y)) (lambda () (return)))))

Here's the definition of writelist mentioned above:

writelist: -> list return;
        list return -> first rest;
        write first;
        writelist rest;
emptylist: -> null notnull; null.
cons: -> number list econtinuation;
        econtinuation -> null notnull;
        notnull number list.


I wouldn't want to program in Io in the raw way described above; it's pretty verbose and confusing. But it's much clearer than Scheme for expressing code in explicit CPS, for three simple reasons.

First, a series of nested lambdas is a flat structure rather than a nested structure as in Scheme.

Second, the syntactic overhead of the lambda is a single punctuation character, or possibly three, rather than ten characters including some letters: (lambda()).

Third, as a result, in the usual case, the distance between the names of arguments and the place they come from (that is, the procedure that will eventually invoke the lambda that the arguments belong to) is much less, and they appear as a unit rather than as things far apart. + x 1 -> x; is quite clear. (Unfortunately, this closeness of association is misleading sometimes; consider out x -> null out; in the definition of count-stream0, where the -> null out; ... part of the routine is suspended for some arbitrary period of time while the rest of the program runs, and may in fact never resume.)

More Syntactic Sugar

If you actually wanted to write programs in the language, you could benefit from changing it to have a little bit more syntactic sugar.

Nested expressions

For example, you could define

count [+ start 1] end return

as an abbreviation for

+ start 1 -> new-start;
count new-start end return

and for procedures that have only a single exit point, you could imagine writing

{-> number; write number; write number}

as an abbreviation for

-> number return; write number; write number return

In cases where a "statement" contains more than a single set of square brackets, the order of evaluation could be undefined, so that e.g.

string-scan src [+ srcidx 1] [- len 1] c

could rewrite either to

+ srcidx 1 -> v1;
- len 1 -> v2;
string-scan src v1 v2 c

or to

- len 1 -> v1;
+ srcidx 1 -> v2;
string-scan src v2 v1 c

Or the order of evaluation could be defined; who cares? However, it's important for our sanity that this:

string-scan src [+ srcidx 1]; foobar [- len 1]

rewrite to this:

+ srcidx 1 -> v1;
string-scan src v1;
- len 1 -> v2;
foobar v2

and not this:

+ srcidx 1 -> v1;
- len 1 -> v2;
string-scan src v1;
foobar v2

Note that the above transformation is just the CPS transformation in Scheme for normal nested application expressions. It's just a thousand times more readable than usual because of the Io lambda notation.

One-argument lambda sugar

It might also be helpful to be able to write one-argument lambdas more concisely, with an automatic name for "the last result". In Python's REPL and in Arc, this variable is called "_". With this, for example, you could write each of the following:

count-stream: ; _ -> null full; count-stream0 0 full.

+ 2 3; write _; terminate

make-pair: -> x y ret; user (; _ x y) ret.

Mostly this is duplicative with the []-nesting idea, though. I'm not sure which is better in the cases where both are applicable. Consider this example:

def render(text):
    body = str(markdown.Markdown(text))
    soup = BeautifulSoup.BeautifulSoup(body)

    headers = soup('h1')

In Io, that looks like this:

render: -> text;
    markdown.Markdown text -> foo;
    str foo -> body;
    BeautifulSoup.BeautifulSoup body -> soup;

    soup "h1" -> headers; ...

With implicit single arguments:

render: ;
    markdown.Markdown _;
    str _;
    BeautifulSoup.BeautifulSoup _;

    _ "h1" -> headers; ...

With nesting:

render: -> text;
    [BeautifulSoup.BeautifulSoup [str [markdown.Markdown text]]] "h1" 
        -> headers; ...

The nested expressions are more compact, but in this case, I think the implicit arguments are clearer.


It would be nice if there were a way to conveniently rejoin streams of control after a conditional. For example, it would be nice to be able to write

if (= x y) (write "x y equal") (write "x y not equal");
if (= x z) (write "x z equal") (write "x z not equal");
if (= y z) (write "y z equal") (write "y z not equal");

If the language had automatic currying, you could define this if quite easily:

if: -> cond result alt cont; cond (; result cont) (; alt cont).

You can use the above if definition without automatic currying if you write out the arguments explicitly:

if (-> a b; = x y a b) (-> c; write "x y equal" c) 
                       (-> c; write "x y not equal" c)

You could, however, imagine syntactic sugar for this as well. For example, this expression could expand into the above call to "if":

= x y ? write "x y equal" : write "x y not equal"

As with the nested expressions, note that this is just the CPS transformation for if.