"The translation of my (point ...) example into imperative code is straightforward to do during a compilation phase, and fexprs get in the way of compilation phases. :)"
Why not have both? As in, have a way of saying "this should all be done at compile-time" that doesn't involve fexprs at all, or involves a special variant of fexprs. Reminds me of a discussion somewhere about micros (as opposed to macros)...
tl;dr: My micros are fexprs that not only leave their arguments unevaluated but also leave them unparsed. The input to a micro is a string.
Much like how I just said macroexpansion in the compilation phase was like fexpr evaluation, what I've pursued with Penknife and Chops is like a compilation phase based on micro evaluation.
"Why not have both? As in, have a way of saying "this should all be done at compile-time" that doesn't involve fexprs at all, or involves a special variant of fexprs."
One way to have both is to have two fexpr evaluation phases, one of which we call the compile phase. This is staged programming straightforwardly applied to an fexpr language... and it's as easy as wrapping every top-level expression in (eval ... (current-environment)).
However, that means explicitly building all the code. If you want to call foo at the repl, you can't just say (foo a b c), you have to say (list foo a b c).
With quasiquote it's much easier for the code that builds the code to look readable. So suppose the REPL automatically wraps all your code in (eval `... (current-environment)). Entering (foo a b c) will do the expected thing, and we can say (foo a ,(bar q) c) if we want (bar q) to evaluate at compile time.
Now let's fall into an abyss. Say the REPL automatically detects the number of unquote levels we use in a command, and for each level, it wraps our code in (eval `... (current-environment)) to balance it. Now (foo a b c) will do the expected thing because it's wrapped 0 times, (foo a ,(bar q) c) will do the expected thing because it's wrapped once, and so on. We have as many compile phases as we need.
The price is one reserved word: unquote. This would be the one "special variant of fexprs."
"The price is one reserved word: unquote. This would be the one "special variant of fexprs.""
Possible correction: If any kind of 'quasiquote is ever going to be in the language, it should probably have special treatment so that its own unquotes nest properly with the REPL's meaning of unquote. An alternative is to use a different syntax for non-REPL unquotes (e.g. ~ instead of ,).
Also note that ,foo could be a built-in syntax that doesn't desugar to anything at all (not even using the "unquote" name), instead just causing phase separation in a way that's easy to explain to people who understand 'quasiquote.
"Also note that ,foo could be a built-in syntax that doesn't desugar to anything at all (not even using the "unquote" name), instead just causing phase separation in a way that's easy to explain to people who understand 'quasiquote."
Yes, I currently think that all syntax should be at the reader level, rather than trying to use macros to define syntax. As an example of what I'm talking about, in Nu, [a b c] expands into (square-brackets a b c) letting you easily change the meaning of [...] by redefining the square-brackets macro.
Or the fact that 'foo expands into (quote foo) letting you change the meaning of the quote operator... or the fact that `(foo ,bar) expands into (quasiquote (foo (unquote bar))), etc.
I used to think that was great: hey look I can easily change the meaning of the square bracket syntax! But now I think it's bad. I have both conceptual and practical reasons for thinking this.
I'll start with the conceptual problems. In Lisp, there's essentially three major "phases": read-time, compile-time, and run-time. At read-time Lisp will take a stream of characters and convert it into a data structure (often a cons cell or symbol), compile-time is where macros live, and run-time is where eval happens.
Okay, so, when people try to treat macros as the same as functions, it causes problems because they operate at different phase levels, and I think the same exact thing happens when you try to mix read-time and compile-time phases.
To discuss those problems, let's talk about practicality. quasiquote in particular is egregiously bad, so I'll be focusing primarily on it, though quasisyntax also suffers from the exact same problems. Consider this:
`(,foo . ,bar)
You would expect that to be the same as (cons foo bar), but instead it's equivalent to (list foo 'unquote 'bar). And here's why. The above expression is changed into the following at read-time:
(quasiquote ((unquote foo) . (unquote bar)))
And as you should know, the . indicates a cons cell, which means that the above is equivalent to this:
(quasiquote ((unquote foo) unquote bar))
Oops. This has caused practical problems for me when writing macros in Arc.
Another problem with this approach is that you're hardcoding symbols, which is inherently unhygienic and creates inconsistent situations that can trip up programmers. Consider this:
`(,foo (unquote ,bar))
You might expect that to result in the list (list foo (list 'unquote bar)) but instead it results in the list (list foo bar), because the symbol unquote is hardcoded.
Yet another problem is that it requires you to memorize all the hard-coded names for all the syntax. You have to remember to never define a function/macro called quote. To never define a function/macro called unquote, to never define a function/macro called square-brackets, etc... which means this will break:
; oops, redefined the meaning of the quote syntax
(let quote ...
When the number of syntax is small, that's not really a high price to pay, but it is still a price.
Also, this whole "read syntax expands into macros" thing is also inconsistent with other syntax. For instance, (1 2 3) isn't expanded by the reader into (list 1 2 3). That is, if you redefine the list function, the meaning of the syntax (1 2 3) doesn't change. But if you redefine the quote macro, then suddenly the syntax 'foo is different.
The same goes for strings. Arc doesn't expand "foo" into (string #\f #\o #\o) either. So redefining the string function doesn't change the meaning of the string syntax. So why are we doing this for only some syntax but not others?
All of the above problems go away completely when you just realize that read-time is a separate phase from compile-time. So if you want to change the meaning of the syntax 'foo the solution isn't to redefine the quote macro. The solution is to use a facility designed for dealing with syntax (such as reader macros).
This is just like how we separate compile-time from run-time: you use functions to define run-time stuff, macros to define compile-time stuff, and reader macros to define read-time stuff.
This also means that because the only way to change the syntax is via reader macros (or similar), the language designer is encouraged to provide a really slick, simple, easy-to-use system for extending the syntax, rather than awful kludgy reader macros.