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Songs of the Cardinal

In Combinatory Logic, the cardinal is one of the most basic permuting combinators; it reverses and parenthesizes the normal order of evaluation.

As explained in Kestrels, the practice of nicknaming combinators after birds was established in Raymond Smullyan's amazing book To Mock a Mockingbird. In this book, Smullyan explains combinatory logic and derives a number of important results by presenting the various combinators as songbirds in a forest. Since the publication of the book more than twenty years ago, the names he gave the birds have become standard nicknames for the various combinators.

Cirque du Northern Cardinal (c) 2008 Ehpien, some rights reserved

The cardinal is written Cxyz = xzy. In Ruby:

What does this mean? Let's compare it to the thrush. The thrush is written Txy = yx. In Ruby terms,

The salient difference is that a cardinal doesn't just pass a_value to a_proc. What it does is first passes a_proc to proc_over_proc and then passes a_value to the result. This implies that proc_over_proc is a function that takes a function as its argument and returns a function.

Or in plainer terms, you want a cardinal when you would like to modify what a function or a block does. Now you can see why we can derive a thrush from a cardinal. If we write:

identity = lambda { |f| f }

Then we can write:

thrush =

What we have done is say a thrush is what you get when you use a cardinal and a function that doesn't modify its function but answers it right back.

Note to ornithologists and ontologists:

This is not object orientation: a thrush is not a kind of cardinal. The correct relationship between them in Ruby is that a cardinal creates a thrush. Or in Smullyan's songbird metaphor, if you call out the name of an identity bird to a cardinal, it will call out the name of a thrush back to you.

Now, this bizarre syntactic convention of writing is not very helpful for actually writing software. It is great for explaining what's going on, but if we are going to use Ruby for the examples, we need to lift our game up a level and make some idiomatic Ruby.

Let's build a cardinal in Ruby

The next chunk of code works around the fact that Ruby 1.8 can't define a proc that takes a block and also doesn't allow define_method to define a method that takes a block. So for Ruby 1.8, we will start by making a utility method that defines methods that can take a block, based on an idea from coderr. For Ruby 1.9 this is not necessary: you can use define_method to define methods that take blocks as arguments.

def define_method_taking_block(name, method_body_proc)
  self.class.send :define_method, "__cardinal_helper_#{name}__", &method_body_proc
  eval <<-EOM
    def #{name}(a_value, &a_proc)
      __cardinal_helper_#{name}__(a_value, a_proc)

Now we can see what the expression "accidental complexity" means. Do you see how we need a long paragraph and a chunk of code to explain how we are working around a limitation in our tool? And how the digression to explain the workaround is longer than the actual code we want to write? Ugh!

With that out of the way, we can write our cardinal:

def cardinal_define(name, &proc_over_proc)
  define_method_taking_block(name) do |a_value, a_proc|

Ready to try it? Here's a familiar example. We'll need a proc_over_proc, our proc that modifies another proc. Because we're trying to be Ruby-ish, we'll write it out as a block:

do |a_proc|
  lambda { |a_value| unless a_value.nil?

This takes a a_proc and returns a brand new proc that only calls a_proc if the value you pass it is not nil. Now let's use our cardinal to define a new method:

cardinal_define(:maybe) do |a_proc|
  lambda { |a_value| unless a_value.nil?

Let's try it out:

maybe(1) { |x| x + 1 }
  => 2
maybe(nil) { |x| x + 1 }
  => nil

If we're using Rails, we can make a slightly different version of maybe:

cardinal_define(:unless_blank) do |a_proc|
  lambda { |a_value| unless a_value.blank?

unless_blank(Person.find(...).name) do |name|

Remember we said the cardinal can be used to define a thrush? Let's try our Ruby cardinal out to do the same thing. Recall that expressing the identity bird as a block is:

do |a_proc|

Therefore we can define a thrush with:

cardinal_define(:let) do |a_proc|

let((1..10).select { |n| n % 2 == 1 }.inject { |mem, var| mem + var }) do |x| 
  x * x
  => 625

As you can see, once you have a defined a cardinal, you can create an infinite variety of methods that have thrush-like syntax--a method that applies a value to a block--but you can modify or augment the semantics of the block in any way you want.

In Ruby terms, you are meta-programming. In Smullyan's terms, you are Listening to the Songs of the Cardinal.

More on combinators: Kestrels, The Thrush, Songs of the Cardinal, Quirky Birds and Meta-Syntactic Programming, Aspect-Oriented Programming in Ruby using Combinator Birds, The Enchaining and Obdurate Kestrels, Finding Joy in Combinators, Refactoring Methods with Recursive Combinators, Practical Recursive Combinators, The Hopelessly Egocentric Blog Post, and Wrapping Combinators.

NEW! Kestrels, Quirky Birds, and Hopeless Egocentricity, all of my writing about combinators, collected into one convenient and inexpensive e-book!

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