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Searching for the declarative language

I'm really tired of telling these dumb machines every instruction they should perform! I know that they only pretend to be dumb, and they can act clever if they're taught to.

After I implemented yet another graph traversing algorithm, after I wrote "if it doesn't exists, create, and only then proceed" for the million times, after I had troubles with parallelization of totally independent tasks just because I didn't write the program to be parallel, I felt that I'm done. Most programs I wrote had a similar scheme: loosely connected computations at different nodes with some dependencies between the results of them.

But over and over again I had to implement the exact sequence, while it really either doesn't matter, or is easily computable. I started looking for a language that takes this burden off me, for the language that allows me to declare my intent and build the sequence of actions on its own.

I discovered that there's a programming paradigm devoted explicitly to this: declare intent rather than steps. And, not least, I should be able to use it at work, to write production code with it! However, the languages I knew back then didn't support this paradigm. So I started looking, both for new languages and inside the things I already knew to spot declarativeness in them.

I was disappointed. Nearly nothing out there was really what I want. Here's what I've discovered so far.

Markov algorithms

What is Markov algorithm?

Markov algorithm is one of the basic forms of algorithm notations. It expresses a computations as a series of string rewrites. Given an input—a string—execution of Markov algorithm is a prioritized substitution of one substring with another, the substitutions being prespecified and immutable; the list of substitutions forms an algorithm. Here's a program that converts binary to unary:

|0 → 0||
1  → 0|
0  → 

You can see why this works on the Wikipedia page.

You can simulate a Turing machine with Markov algorithm. Just draw a "caret" on the string and express the algorithm as the caret movements. Inside the caret you may store and modify the "state" of a Turing machine. Here's how a Turing machine's rule "if a caret reads A and is in the fourth state, write B, change state to 10th and move right" would look like:

|4|A → B|10|

That is, Markov algorithms form a Turing-complete language.

This is a declarative language, about which almost everyone who studied computer science knows. (Well, at least, in Russia; due to national origin of its inventor it may be more widespread there). However, nearly no one could name it when asked about declarative languages. Sad that people don't establish connections between what they learn at the university and what they call "real life"...

Back to the topic, Markov algorithm is an ordered set of statements A → B, each of which really means "there can't be sequence A in the resultant string! But if there is, it should be replaced with B"

It's nevertheless questionable if Markov algorithm is declarative. Sure, it doesn't tell exactly how the computation should occur. Of course, the exact calculations can be easily inferred, but it is true for any declarative language.

The problem with it is that Markov algorithm is a mathematical abstraction. Although, following the notation of Markov algorithms, some useful languages were designed (one of them is the Refal language), they still resemble mathematical abstractions, and I can't see how I could use them in production.


What I could—and do—use in production is Make, the language of Linux makefiles. It doesn't have a specific name, actually, so I'll call it "Make" here.

Basically, a structure of a Make program is a list of "rules". Each rule specifies a target (or a target pattern, like %.cpp), and a list of prerequisites. A rule means that in order to accomplish the target, you must

  1. get done with prerequisites
  2. execute commands specified within the rule.

The commands usually take prerequisites as input, but they don't have to. This creates an oriented graph of dependencies, which is walked until you reach the target. Sounds like a cool concept, which should have been backed up with some kind of mathematical theory and notation!..

In reality, it's not. Make evolved from (and, perhaps, still remains) a build system. And here go some gory details. The targets and prerequisites denote files in the filesystem, and the timestamp of these files (i.e. the time they were last modified) is used as a measure of whether you're "done" with prerequisites.

The rules are implemented in one of the shell languages you choose. Technically, they could be written in any language, but shell scripts are chosen because they're tied to work with files as input—and files are the primary objects Make works with. This fits building application perfectly, but you can go over this domain if you treat file system as just a key-value database.

However, the biggest limitation of Make is that it can't modify the dependency graph after the execution is started. There are techniques to overcome this restriction, but they're not generic, and are too tricky and fragile to be used in production.

Another thing is that Make is just...too old. Programming has changed a little since 1978, you know... Make is not flexible, has problems with debugging, and doesn't evolve much: its computational model is already exhausted.


An esoteric language I was introduced to in a programmers.SE question is Whenever. Basically, a Whenever program consists of an unordered list of clauses. A clause can contain an operator. An operator is executed if the clause that contains it is in the to-do list, and if some conditions apply. Operators may add and/or remove clauses from the to-do list, or print text (and we know that printing text is no different from any useful work, actually).

Memory cells are implemented as possibility to have a clause several times on the to-do list and as expression that returns this number. The conditions mentioned above can refer to this expression.

Fairness is a property of a nondeterministic system, which can repeatedly and infinitely face a multiple choice, to not allow behavior when a certain item is never chosen past any moment of time. I wrote a big article about fairness, check it out for more details.

The language is called "Whenever" because its main feature is that it's not clear when a certain clause could be executed! Each clause in to-do list is considered for execution with uniform probability. (I think the equality of probability could be safely replaced with enforcing fairness). Sadly, the author was so excited with the concept of such "absence of urgency", that he overlooked the declarative nature of the language.

Here's a sample program, which is just a "while" loop. It should print A ten times:

1 defer (2) 3;
2 print ("A");
3 3;
4 defer (1 || N(3)<=10) -3#N(3),-5;
5 again (5) defer (1 || N(3)>10) 2,1;

Play with the language yourself! You can read more about the available commands, and download Java (sic!) interpreter at the Whenever language homepage. It seems that David Morgan-Mar is its author.

Whenever language's key difference from Make is that it has control over its own dependency graph. It can impose and drop dependencies as the clauses are executed. However, the weakness of this language is its esoteric nature coupled with absence of a developed mathematical model (it resembles several concepts at once, but not any particular one).

Still not what I want

So, my results of searching a declarative language, which could fit into production, are still not great. The languages I observed here are either too conceptual (Markov algorithms and Whenever), or too limited (Refal, Make). I believe this gap will be getting closer over time. Or, perhaps, I'm just searching in the wrong place? Maybe such languages as Haskell and Prolog can already do what I want, but I'm just not aware of it? And do I really know what I want?..

Well, this only means that there'll be another blog post when I get to it!

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