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Programming With Nothing

This code accompanies the Ru3y Manor talk “Programming With Nothing”.

The idea is to implement some basic data structures and control flow under the constraint of only being allowed to create and call procs.

Getting started

All code uses the -> syntax, so Ruby 1.9 is required.

If you are brave, the challenge branch has a set of pending specs and an empty implementation file. Can you make them all pass without breaking any of the rules? Use bundle install to set up RSpec, then just type rspec to run the specs. (To use autotest, run gem install ZenTest and then autotest.)

If you are afraid, the story branch contains a series of commits which fill out the implementation until all the specs pass.


  • Your code may create procs (with, Kernel.proc, Kernel.lambda or ->) and call procs (with Proc#call, Proc#[], Proc#=== or Proc#()).
  • Aside from the above, you may not use any of Ruby's built-in classes, modules, methods, keywords or other language features.
  • You may not assign to local variables.
  • As a practical consideration, you must define constants in order to expose your implementations to the specs. You may also define and later refer to constants for the purpose of code reuse.
  • Constant definition may not be used to sneak recursion in through the back door. A constant is not defined until you have finished defining it, so defining FOO in terms of FOO is cheating.


  • DECREMENT is hard, so you may need to steal PRED.
  • The evaluation of any proc-valued expression e can be deferred by writing it as -> x { e[x] } as long as it doesn't have any free variables called x. (This is eta-conversion.)
  • Self-application is the simplest way to define a recursive function without cheating. Instead of FOO = ... FOO[...] ..., try BAR = -> f { ... f[f][...] ... }; FOO = BAR[BAR].
  • The more complex Y combinator is a tidier way to define a recursive function, but in Ruby it loops forever; try the Z combinator instead.
  • If you're already familiar with functional programming, beware that operation names and argument order have been chosen to be familiar to Ruby programmers, e.g. UNSHIFT (vs. CONS) takes a list as its first (vs. last) argument. If you are upset, see the pedant branch.


$ irb -Ilib -Ispec -rsupport/helpers

>> include Nothing, Helpers
=> Object

>> to_integer(from_integer(42))
=> 42

>> to_boolean(from_boolean(false))
=> false

>> to_array(from_array([true, 9, :hello]))
=> [true, 9, :hello]

>> to_array(from_array([representation_of(3), representation_of(5)])).map { |n| to_integer(n) }
=> [3, 5]

>> to_integer(ADD[TWO][THREE])
=> 5


Copyright 2011 Tom Stuart (, @tomstuart). This is free software; see COPYING for details.


Programming with Nothing