Introduction
VAX APL and then?
Do you remember VAX APL? Wasn't it great to have
something as powerful as APL at your fingertips
on a VMS system (back then without the “Open”)?
Many years ago I used VAX APL extensively while
studying mathematics. What I loved most about
APL was its power and expressiveness  which
came at a price, though. APL programs, having
been written in an interpreted language, were
never as fast as programs written in FORTRAN or
C. However, by using APL, my timetomarket was
faster by at least one or two orders of
magnitude compared with other, more traditional
languages.
VAX APL is long since gone and with it much of
the fun and productivity when it comes to
exploring the behavior of some mathematical
function or the quick implementation of a newly
discovered algorithm.
Although there are quite a few APL interpreters
available for various operating systems, most
are commercial by nature, apart from A+^{[1]}.
Additionally, not one of them is available on
OpenVMS systems, which is unfortunate,
especially for me since I still prefer to do
most of my daily work on an OpenVMS system
(namely, FAFNER, a VAX7000/820).
Expressiveness and complexity
What makes APL so powerful is its approach to
handle deeply nested data in a transparent and
elegant way. Adding two vectors in APL is as
easy as writing
A+B.
The binary function ‘+’
is extended on an itembyitem basis if it is
applied to non scalar values, so it will be
applied to every two corresponding elements of
the two vectors
A and
B. But
APL goes further with complex functions and
operators, which all apply naturally on nested
data structures. In many cases, these can
eliminate the need for explicit loops or
conditionals in APL programs.
This expressiveness of APL comes at a price,
too. APL makes use of a rather strange
character set, which required terminals with
loadable fonts or Xterminals in the times of
VAX APL (as well as a keyboard with additional
labels  or the very good memory of the
programmer).
What makes things even more arcane for the
noninitiated programmer is the fact that APL
evaluates arithmetic expressions from right to
left. This is mathematically elegant since it
makes things like the evaluation of polynomials
easy without cluttering the expression with lots
of parentheses. But from a practical point of
view, with the occasional APL programmer in
mind, this was and still is a constant source of
errors until one really gets adapted to APL.
Combining APL and Forth
Allowing for a short digression from the main
theme of “array languages”, let us explore a
related topic. Many of you have worked with HP
pocket calculators featuring RPL(Reverse Polish
LISP) as their programming language, as I have.
RPL is an interesting concept, as it combines
the main features of two wellknown languages,
namely Forth and LISP. RPL extends the rather
simple Forth stack with a stack that can hold
nearly arbitrary objects, and allows the
execution of LISPlike functions operating on
these structures found on the stack. This works
since nested data structures are represented as
nested lists, which are readily accessible to a
LISPstyle approach of programming.
Some time ago I began thinking about how a
language would look and feel if it combined the
features of Forth and APL, two of my favorite
programming languages. After some
experimentation, with paper and pencil at first,
it became clear that such an approach could very
well work. Namely, by combining the powerful
functions and operators of APL with the
bottomup programming style of Forth, the result
would encompass the expressiveness of both
languages and the simplicity of the resulting
parser in a very powerful blend.
Realizing this, the development of such a
language, which has been named 5, was
started, using Perl as the basis for the 5
interpreter. A first implementation was done in
a couple of weeks during spare evenings and
weekends, and served as a test bed to explore
the possibilities of such a stackbased array
language. The findings of this first iteration
were then used as the foundation for a second
implementation, which was done from scratch^{[2]}
. It is this second implementation that will be
described in the following sections.
It was decided at the very beginning of the
development of 5 to abandon the complex
character set of APL in favor of easily
remembered mnemonics for all functions and
operators to be implemented.
Since the 5 interpreter is written in pure Perl
and does not require any nonstandard packages,
it can be run on any system which has a Perl
interpreter installed. The 5 interpreter has
been written explicitly with the goal of easy
portability – and specifically with OpenVMS in
mind as a target system. It runs outofthebox
on any OpenVMS system that has a Perl
interpreter installed.
The complete 5 project is hosted by sourceforge.
The homepage for this project can be found at
http://lang5.sourceforge.net/. To get
started with 5 on any reasonable platform,
including OpenVMS, you will need the
distribution package, which can be downloaded
from
https://sourceforge.net/projects/lang5/files/
as a ZIPfile (about 270 KB). This file contains
the 5interpreter, some examples, and some PDF
documents containing an introduction to
programming in 5. To install the interpreter on
an OpenVMS system, extract the ZIPfile into a
suitable subdirectory. To use 5, all you need to
do is to define a foreign command, such as^{
[3]}:
$ FIVE :== "PERL DISK$SOFTWARE:[5]5"
To start the interpreter in its interactive mode, just type
five on the DCL prompt:
ULMANN:FAFNER$ five
> loading mathlib.5
> loading stdlib.5
5> "Hello world!\n" .
Hello world!
5>
Programming 5
Basics
At the beginning of the VAX
APL Reference Manual, it says:
“This manual is not a
tutorial and is inappropriate for novice users.
Programmers experienced with other languages
such as FORTRAN or BASIC can learn VAX APL from
this manual, but are advised to study it in
conjunction with an APL language primer.”
The same holds true for the
following sections. 5 is far too complex to be
described in a few pages, but it is possible to
give some examples illustrating the
expressiveness of 5 and the ease by which even
complex algorithms may be implemented. A much
more complete description of the language,
together with introductory examples, can be
found in the PDF files of the distribution kit,
which has already been mentioned.
The look and feel of 5 is
quite like Forth at first sight, since there is
a central stack holding all data to which
functions and operators will be applied. The
parser is thus rather simple since all operators
and functions only act on the stack so that no
precedence rules  parentheses, etc., must be
taken care of. In fact, the parser just splits
the input read from
STDIN
or from a file on whitespace characters and
either executes the tokens found if these are
valid operators, functions, or words, or pushes
raw data onto the stack. Thus, to compute the
result of (1+2)*3 using 5, one just has to enter
this expression in postfix notation at the
prompt of the interpreter:
5> 3 2 1 + * .
9
5>
The single dot at the end
of the command line prints the element found on
the top of stack, which will be referred to as
TOS in the following sections. Now, how
does this example work? First, the interpreter
has pushed the three scalar values
3,
2, and
1 onto
the stack. Following this, the binary operator ‘+’
has been applied, which in effect has removed
the two topmost elements from the stack (or
1 and
2
respectively), and placed the resulting sum on
the TOS, which now contains the scalar value
3. The
next step then calculates the product of
3 and
this sum and places the result,
9,
onto the stack, which is then printed by using
the dot function.
As in APL, the unary and
binary operators as they are referred to in 5,
normally act on simple scalar values. If such
operators are applied to nested structures, they
will, in effect, be applied in an elementwise
fashion to all elements of the affected
structure(s), as the following example shows:
5> [1 2 3] 2 * .
[ 2 4 6 ]
5> [1 2 3] [4 5 6] + .
[ 5 7 9 ]
5>
This is where 5 departs
from a traditional Forth interpreter, as its
stack can hold arbitrarily structured data
instead of only simple scalars. In the first
example shown above, every element of a
threeelement vector is multiplied by 2, while
in the second example, two threeelement vectors
are added element by element.
Userdefined words and more complex array operations
Another feature
that 5 borrows from Forth is the possibility to extend the language itself by
introducing userdefined words, which can be used in exactly the same way as the
builtin functions and operators. The following example shows the definition of
a word that returns the square of a value:
5> : square dup * ;
5> 5 square .
25
5>
As one can easily see, any word definition that
starts with a colon followed by the name of the
word can be defined. The end of such a
definition, which in effect is just a list of 5
operators, functions, other words or operands,
is denoted by a semicolon. The word
square
defined above will duplicate the element found
on TOS and multiply the resulting two elements.
Thus, applying this newly defined word
square
to the value
5 on the TOS yields the result
25 on
the TOS.
Let us have a look at this slightly more complex
example^{[4]}
that simulates throwing a sixsided dice 100
times and returns the arithmetic mean of the
results:
: throw_dice
6 over reshape
? int 1 +
'+ reduce swap /
;
100 throw_dice .
What does this
example illustrate? First of all a new word,
throw_dice,
is defined. This word places the value
6
onto the TOS and copies the number of runs, which is now on the element just
below the TOS, using the
over
function to the TOS again. Assuming that
100
runs are to be performed, the stack now contains the values
100,
6,
and 100.
The two last values are then used as arguments for the
reshape
function, which yields a vector containing
100
elements, each having the value
6
on the TOS: [6 6 … 6].
This vector is then used as argument for the ?
operator, which generates a pseudorandom number between
0 (inclusively) and the element it is
applied to (exclusively). Since the ? operator is a unary operator, it will be applied to all the
elements of a nested data structure automatically by the 5 interpreter. This
will result in a vector containing a number of pseudorandom numbers between
0 and
6 being placed on the TOS. Applying the
intoperator will remove the fractional part of the elements of this
vector; adding 1 will yield a vector
with elements ranging pseudorandomly between
1 and 6.
In the following step something tricky happens: A
multiplication operator is pushed onto the stack, which is done by preceding it
with a single quote to prevent the interpreter from executing it immediately.
This operator and the vector described above are then used as arguments to the
reducefunction, which acts exactly
like the reduce operator in APL. It applies the operator found on TOS between
every two elements of the vector found on the element just below TOS. In effect,
this calculates the sum of all elements of the vector.
Since we duplicated the value found on the TOS in the
very first step of the user defined word, which corresponded to the number of
times we should throw the dice, there is still a copy of this value found in the
element just below TOS. Using the swapfunction,
this value and the value of the sum calculated above are interchanged so that
applying the /operator will yield the
desired arithmetic mean.
A more complex example – calculating primes
The next example is a bit more complex than the dice
simulation shown above. The goal is to generate a list of prime numbers between
2 and a number given on the TOS. Instead of applying test divisions by odd
integers or the like, a more APLlike approach has been chosen:
Imagine that a list of
primes between 2 and 100 is to be calculated.
This information will be used to form a vector
[2 3 4
...
100]. Two of these vectors (copies are
made using the
dupfunction)
are then used to create a matrix by computing an
outer vector product. This matrix contains 99
times 99 elements, none of which is a prime
since all the elements in this matrix are the
result of at least one multiplication. In the
next step, the original vector and this matrix
are used as arguments to the set operation
in,
which yields a vector containing 99 elements
being 0
or 1.
A 0
denotes an element of the original vector that
was not found in the matrix, while
1
represents the opposite case. Clearly, this
vector contains a
0 at
every location, where a prime number was found
in the original vector. Inverting this vector
will yield a selection vector containing the
value 1
at every location, corresponding to a prime
element in the original vector. This selection
vector is then applied to the original vector
using the
selectfunction, which yields all prime
numbers between 2 and 100.
The corresponding userdefined word in 5 looks
like this:
: prime_list
1 – iota 2 +
dup dup dup
'* outer
swap in not
select
;
Entering 100 prime_list . will yield:
[ 2 3 5 7 11 13 17 19 23 29 31 37 41 43 47 53 59 61 67 71 73 79 83 89 97 ]
as a result.
At first glance, this program does not look very
intuitive to someone who is used to programming
in traditional imperative or OO languages like
C, Fortran, etc. However, one can quickly
become accustomed to the idea of array languages
in general, and 5 in particular, since the
interactive nature of the 5interpreter makes
experiments easy and ensures that it can be
learned quickly.
It is noteworthy that things like
ifelse
constructions, recursion or loops, which are all
supported by 5, are used only rarely when an
arrayoriented approach to programming is
employed!
Even more complex – multiplying a matrix by a vector
To illustrate the basic idea of this more or less
loopfree programming style, let us have a look at another example program,
which implements a matrixvector multiplication word in 5:
5> : inner+{u} '+ reduce ;
5> : mv* 1 compress '* apply 'inner+ apply ;
5> [[1 2 3][4 5 6][7 8 9]] [10 11 12]
5> mv* .
[ 68 167 266 ]
The main word is mv* (short for
matrixvectormultiplication), which expects a
vector on TOS and a matrix in the element below
TOS. As an initial step, the vector found in TOS
is enclosed in another vector yielding a vector
of the form
[[
...
]]. Following this, the operator * is
pushed onto the stack and then applied in an
elementwise fashion along the first axis of the
matrix and vector found in the two topmost
stack elements by means of the
applyfunction.
This yields a vector with all partial products
of the desired matrixvector product. Applying a
special userdefined word
inner+
will then reduce these partial products by
adding them together. Note that this word
definition differs from a simple userdefined
word as described in the preceding sections by
specifying
{u} after the name of the word to be
defined. This tells the interpreter that the
word to be defined will be a unary word, which
will be handled in exactly the same way as a
builtin unary operator. Otherwise, it would not
have been possible to apply this word to all
elements of the resulting structure along its
first axis using the
apply
function.
Conclusion
5 is a rather powerful
array language and supports a highly interactive
style of programming due to the features
inherited from Forth. Since the basic data
structures that 5 operates on are nested arrays,
many problems can be solved without the need for
explicit loops or complex conditionals, as the
preceding examples have shown. Since I have 5
running on my OpenVMS system, I do not miss VAX
APL any longer since 5 brings nearly all of the
power of APL to my system without the need for
costly thirdparty software, etc.
Nevertheless, 5 is still a
work in progress. Although the set of operators
and functions which are implemented at the time
of writing this journal is rather large
there may be problems that may require
extensions to the language. In many cases, these
extensions can be incorporated in the standard
library
stdlib.5 or the mathematical library
mathlib.5,
which are both part of the 5 distribution kit.
If this is not feasible for a particular
problem, it is rather easy to extend the
interpreter itself.
If you like what you have
been introduced to in this paper and are
interested in learning more, please feel
cordially invited to participate in the
development efforts of 5. The next steps of the
development team will involve the addition of
new words in the libraries, enhancing the
documentation (a quick reference guide is
currently being written, in addition to the
rather complete introductory documents), and the
development of a stable regression test suite to
facilitate further developments, etc.
For more information
Contact the author at
ulmann@vaxman.de.
