Day 10 – Introspecting the Symbol Tables

Perl 6 is designed with extensibility in mind. And when you want to extend something, you often need to know as much as possible about the environment.

Today we’ll look at an aspect of finding out about the environment: introspecting symbol tables.

A symbol is something you refer to by name, so it could be a package, class, variable, routine, constant etc.

A symbol table is a data structure in which symbols can be looked up. Perl 6 has three main types of symbol tables, differentiated by scope: lexical symbols live in the lexical pad, package symbols live in a Stash, and methods in a method table.

Enough theory, time for action:

    $ perl6 -e 'my $x = 42; say MY::.keys'
    $x $! $/ $_ GLOBALish EXPORT $?PACKAGE ::?PACKAGE $=pod !UNIT_MARKER

MY is a pseudo package representing the current scope, and appending two colons gives us its symbol table. Which in turn roughly behaves like a Hash, so we can use a method like keys to find all symbols in that table. Or look up a string there:

    $ perl6 -e 'my $x = 42; say MY::<$x>'

A complicated way to say $x, but you can use that to lookup symbols by name:

    $ perl6 -e 'my $x = 42; my $var = q[$x]; say MY::{$var}'

Or if you don’t care if it comes from the current lexical scope, just from somewhere:

    $ perl6 -e 'my $x = 42; my $var = q[$x]; say ::($var)'

No need to tell you that in general, this is a bad idea; just use it when you have exceptional circumstances.

But wait, what were all those other symbols from the first line? $!, $/ and $_ are the three “special” variables for errors, matches and the current topic; the rest is stuff that doesn’t need to be in lexical scope, but the compiler puts it there because it makes stuff easier.

Outer lexicals are accessible through the OUTER:: pseudo package:

    $ perl6 -e 'my $x = 1; { my $x = 2; say OUTER::<$x>; say $x }'

Instead of OUTER::<$x>, you can also say $OUTER::x. In general, you can move the sigil to the front and omit the angle brackets if the symbol name is a literal.

Package declarations and explicitly our-scoped symbols generally go into a stash, with the top-most being GLOBAL::

    class A {
        class B { }
    say GLOBAL::<A>;    # (A)
    say A;              # (A)
    say A::.keys;       # B

Not only the double colon gives you the symbol table, you can also get it with .WHO (which also works for non-literals). So a long way to write A::B is

    say A::B === GLOBAL::<A>.WHO<B>;    # True

Finally, methods live in a classes or roles, and you can use the meta object to introspect them; those generally respect inheritance and role composition, so they are a bit more complicated than stashes.

    my $m = Str.^can('split')[0];
    say $m.^name;               # Method
    say $m('a1B', /\d/).perl;    # ("a", "B").list

Here .^can(name) returns a list of methods on that object with a given name. It’s a list, because it includes methods from superclasses, so there can be more than one. To get a list of all available methods, you can use .^methods and .^methods(:all):

    $ perl6-m -e 'say  Str.^methods(:all).grep: {.name ~~ /^m/ }'
    match match map min max minmax

.^methods(:all) includes methods from all superclasses, without the :all, methods from classes Cool, Any and Mu are excluded.

This concludes our short tour through the land of the symbol table. There is more to see (for example the EXPORT package, and various pseudo packages), and the daring can go to the design documents or play with Rakudo’s implementation, which is fairly robust.