Elisp Posts

Programming with Elisp is magic

/Tony Aldon/
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org-mode revision: af6f1298b6f6

BOOM!!! Let's get to the point!!!

What's magic when programming Elisp code is that at any time:

  1. we can extract a little part of the program,

  2. replace some symbols by custom values,

  3. send it to the minibuffer with M-x eval-expression (or pp-eval-expression), press RET and,

  4. automatically get back some value in the echo area (or in the dedicated buffer *Pp Eval Output*).

In almost no time, misconceptions about what a program does (or why a program fails) can be spot that way.

Those who have already read the post about link abbrevations and org-open-at-point might be familiar with the above description.

Indeed, today's post is literally a section extracted from this previous post.

Why am I publishing it again?

Because that post didn't received much success (maybe the wrong topic, maybe too long, maybe I don't know) and so does the section about the magic of programming with Elisp.

And this is really unfortunate because it describes a super effective strategy do deal with Elisp code.

Beside adding "print statements everywhere" (message in Elisp parlance) this is my best tool for working with Elisp code, and I want everyone to know it and use it.

I am not a magician who needs to keep his tricks secret, quite the contrary. So, I decided to give that strategy to deal with Elisp code another chance with that post.

I hope you find it useful.

Here is the context.

When we introduced the section "Programming with Elisp is magic" in the post about link abbrevations and org-open-at-point, we were studying some implementation details of the function org-element-link-parser that parses an Org link at point, if any.

For instance, in the following org buffer (if you have never used "link abbreviations", I encourage you to read the info node org#Link Abbreviations:

#+LINK: emacs /tmp/emacs/

[[emacs:lisp/simple.el::(defun next-error (&optional]]

with the point at the beginning of the link, calling the function org-element-link-parser returns the org object (a list):

 (:type "file"
  :path "/tmp/emacs/lisp/simple.el"
  :format bracket
  :raw-link "/tmp/emacs/lisp/simple.el::(defun next-error (&optional"
  :application nil
  :search-option "(defun next-error (&optional"
  :begin 28
  :end 82
  :contents-begin nil
  :contents-end nil
  :post-blank 0))

We were particularly interested in the computation of the values of the properties :path and :search-option.

The function org-element-link-parser is 128 lines long, uses many regexp to do its jobs, mutates several times the local let binded variable path that is returned as the value of the property :path (the one we are interested in).

The first time, I looked at its code, I couldn't understand all the subtleties of the implementation just by reading it.

This is not a problem, because when reading is not enough, I always use the same strategy: I break the problem down into pieces until I arrive at simple s-expressions that I can understand.

And doing it in Emacs/Elisp is super cheap because you can evaluate ANYTHING, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME, for FREE (you just pay the computation).

Think about it!

Fast feedback, this is the magic of programming with Elisp.

So here we are.

Let's say we want to be sure that the following snippet in the function org-element-link-parser does what it seems to do:

(when (string-match "::\\(.*\\)\\'" path)
  (setq search-option (match-string 1 path))
  (setq path (replace-match "" nil nil path)))

In our example, at that point in the function, the local variable path has the string value "/tmp/emacs/lisp/simple.el::(defun next-error (&optional". We can test the result of the when condition by evaluating the following:

(string-match "::\\(.*\\)\\'" "/tmp/emacs/lisp/simple.el::(defun next-error (&optional")
;; 25

By reading the help of string-match, we know that it returns the index of the start of the first match or nil.

Ok, there's a match.

But, to me the string "/tmp/emacs/lisp/simple.el::(defun next-error (&optional" is to long with to many repetive characters that don't appear in the regexp "::\\(.*\\)\\'" to wrap my head around what's going on.

So, let's use the good foo and bar words to simplify our discoveries and gain confidence about this piece of code.

In the regexp, the only part "that seems" of interest is ::, so let's try again with the strings "/tmp/foo::bar", "/tmp/foo::" and "/tmp/foo":

(string-match "::\\(.*\\)\\'" "/tmp/foo::bar")
;; 8
(string-match "::\\(.*\\)\\'" "/tmp/foo::")
;; 8
(string-match "::\\(.*\\)\\'" "/tmp/foo")
;; nil

It become clearer. We start to get a sense of the match.

By reading the documentation (elisp#Simple Match Data), we learn (or recall):

  1. that search functions like string-match or looking-at set the match data for every successful search,

  2. and if the first argument of match-string is 0, we get the entire matching text and if it's 1 we get the first parenthetical subexpression of the given regular expression.

So, continuing with the string "/tmp/foo::bar", we have:

(let ((path "/tmp/foo::bar"))
  (when (string-match "::\\(.*\\)\\'" path)
    (list (match-string 0 path)
          (match-string 1 path))))
;; ("::bar" "bar")

Reading the help buffer about replace-match tells us that this function replaces the text matched by the last search with its first argument. And if we give it an optional fourth argument being a string, the replacement is made on that string.

So replacing the entire match with the empty string "" should remove the matched part of the string:

(let ((path "/tmp/foo::bar"))
  (when (string-match "::\\(.*\\)\\'" path)
    (replace-match "" nil nil path)))
;; "/tmp/foo"

Now putting everything together we can write the following example:

(let ((path "/tmp/foo::bar"))
  (when (string-match "::\\(.*\\)\\'" path)
    `(:search-option ,(match-string 1 path)
      :path          ,(replace-match "" nil nil path))))
;; (:search-option "bar"
;;  :path          "/tmp/foo")

And maybe we've removed some misconceptions about this part of the function org-element-link-parser.