A Simple Data Base

In this lesson we learn the basic form of relational programming: defining and querying a data base. In particular, we build a toy data base of the 32 control characters in the ASCII table, associating each character with its integer number and description, for example: BS with number 8 and description “Back space”.

The program is a bit long, yet simple in the sense that the relation defined therein is not recursive: it is a straightforward listing of the data base, which is the very basic form of relational programs.

Reading the Program

The structure of the program is as follows:

  1. The initial opening statement

  2. Type definitions and utilities

  3. The ASCII control characters type - Injection utilities

  4. The logic string type

  5. The data base as a relation ascii_ctrl

  6. Some queries on the database

Read the definition of ascii_ctrl as:

Values c, n and s form the relation ascii_ctrl iff c is NUL and n is 0 and s is the string “Null”, or c is SOH and n is 1 and s is the string “Start of heading”, or …, or c is US and n is 31 and s is the string “Unit separator”.

Read the query:

(** Find the control characters in a given range *)
let _ =
  List.iter print_endline @@
    Stream.take ~n:18 @@
      run q (fun s ->
          ocanren {fresh c,n in Std.Nat.(<=) 0 n
                                & Std.Nat.(<=) n 10
                                & ascii_ctrl c n s}) project

as: Print at most 18 possible values of s, such that exist some c and n where n ranges from 0 to 10 inclusive, and the tuple (c, n, s) satisfies the relation ascii_ctrl.

OCanren will print the following (eleven) strings:

Start of heading
Start of text
End of text
End of transmission
Back space
Horizontal tab
Line Feed

We could see that the relational program specifies a relation, and it has been used to find missing elements of a tuple that is claimed to satisfy some constraint of which the relation is a part. In so doing, we did not tell the program how to find these missing elements. It was the semantics of the programming language that did this automatically. We explain the syntax and semantics next.

Syntax of a Formula

The notion of a formula in OCanren is different from that in logic programming, i.e., the Horn clause subset of first-order predicate logic. Instead it is quite close to formulae in the system μMALL.

A formula is either atomic, or is compound and built from atomic formulae using conjunction (&), disjunction (|) and existential quantification (fresh). Atomic formulae are built from predicate symbols followed by their arguments. There are only two predicate symbols == and =/=. A formula is allowed to be infinitely long. Formulae can be abbreviated by finitely-represented (possibly recurisive) definitions.

Example. Atomic, compound, named and infinite formulae:

  • x == y and 1 =/= 2 are two atomic formulae.

  • By the definition foo x y :=  x == 1 & y =/= 2, we can use foo x y to abbreviate the compound formula x == 1 & y =/= 2.

  • By the recursive definition is_nat x := x == O | fresh y in x == S y & is_nat y we can use is_nat x to abbreviate the infinitely long formula:

    x == O
    | fresh y1 in
      x == S y1 & { y1 == O
                  | fresh y2 in
                    y1 == S y2 & { y2 == O
                                 | fresh y3 in
                                   y2 == S y3 & { ... }}}

We now give the concrete syntax of a formula in OCanren.

formula  = atomic formula
     | compound formula
     | named formula
     | '{', formula, '}' ;

atomic formula = value, '==', value | value, '=/=', value;

compound formula = formula, '&', formula
                 | formula, '|', formula
         | 'fresh', lparams, 'in',  formula;

named formula = formula name, ' ', values;

formula name definition = 'let', ['rec'], let-binding, {'and', let-binding};

let-binding =  formula name, [':', typexpr, '->', 'goal' ], '=',
               'fun', fparams, '->', 'ocanren','{', formula, '}' ;

lparams = param, {',', param};
fparams = param, {' ', param};
values  = value, {' ', value};

The scope of fresh...in extends as far as possible. & binds tighter than |. A formula always has the type goal (this type constructor is provided by the module Core). The braces {} could be used for explicit grouping, as in { x == 1 | x == 2 } & y == 0.

A Note on the Concept of a Goal

In logic programming, we call the formula which we want to refute a goal. This term (i.e., goal) is inherited by the modern successor of logic programming, which is called relational programming. However, the semantics of a goal nevertheless changes: it is no longer something that we want to refute, but something for which we want to find variable substitutions so that it is true. In other words:

  • Logic programming is proof by contradiction: we want to find variable substitutions so that a formula F is true, but what we do is to find substitutions so that the negation of F is false.

  • Relational programming is proof by straightforward construction without the logical detour of “negation of negation”.

The Semantics of a Formula

A formula has two semantics: the declarational semantics and the operational semantics. The way in which the reader is advised to read the relation definition and the query is actually part of the declarational semantics. The operational semantics concerns how the answers shall be searched for (mechanically), which is part of the implementation of the language.

Declaratively, the two predicate symbols == and =/= means respectively “syntactic equality” and “syntactic disequality”. The logic connectives mean as usual, and a value just denote itself as a syntactic object. The operational semantics of OCanren is a set of stream manipulation rules attached to the logic connectives and the predicate symbols, and formulae are viewed as functions taking a stream member as input and returning a stream. We explain the operational semantics of OCanren in more detail below. Firstly the concept of a stream.


A stream is a generalization of a list: members of a list can be put on one-on-one correspondence with members of some finite subset of the natural numbers, whilst members of a stream can be put on one-on-one correspondence with members of some possibly infinite subset of the natural numbers. Intuitively, the imaginary, infinitely long sequence of all natural numbers itself is an example of a stream. The sequence of all integers ...-3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3... is a stream too, equivalently 0 1 -1 2 -2 3 -3 ... is a stream of integers too, but they are in different order than in previous stream.

The set of all streams can also be defined in the more technical, coinductive manner as follows:

  1. Let FS be an operator whose input is a set of sequences and whose output is also a set of sequences. A sequence is said to be composed of its members drawn from a set of possible members.

  2. The output of FS is constructed by:

    1. Starting with an empty set, to add members to it incrementally;

    2. Adding the empty stream;

    3. Extending each sequence of the input set with an arbitrary member, then adding the results.

  3. The set St of all streams is the largest set that is a fixed-point of FS, in other words, FS (St) = St and St is a superset of st for all FS (st) = st.

Example If we restrict sequence members to integers, and let the input be {123, 111}, which is the set whose members are the sequences 123 and 111. One possible output of FS operating on the input is {e, 0123, 5111} where e is the empty stream. Another possible output is {e,1123, 1111}. In neither case the output equals the input, which is quite usual. The two notable exceptions are the set Lmin of all lists of integers, and the set Lmax of all finite and infinite sequences of integers. They are both fixed-points of FS, known as the least fixpoint and the greatest fixpoint. Lmax is also the set of all streams of integers.

Note that in a typical inductive specification we could require that the set being defined is the samllest fixed-point. Here instead we ask for the largest, hence the coinductive manner.


It looks like very complex description of a stream but maybe it is only for me


A substitution is a list of substitution components. A substitution component (for short: component) is a pair (lvar, value) where lvar is a logic variable. A substitution component (lvar, value) can be applied to some value valuepre, so that all occurrences of lvar in valuepre are simultaneously replaced by value, and the result is another value valuepost. A component is applicable if applying it would make a difference. To apply a substitution is to repeatedly apply its components until none is applicable.

Example Applying [(x, Cons(1,y)); (y, Cons(2,z)); (z, Nil)] to Cons(0,x) results in: Cons(0,Cons(1,Cons(2,Nil))).

Formulae as Stream Builders

A formula is a stream builder as far as the operational semantics is concerned. It takes a substitution \(subst_{in}\) as input and returns a stream of substitutions as output:

\(subst_{in} \xrightarrow{\text{formula}} subst_{out}, subst_{out}, subst_{out}, …\)

For each substitution substout in the returned stream, applying the concatenation substin ^ substout makes the formula true in the sense of the declarational semantics.


Yue Li, what you meant saying ‘applying concatenation’?

Example. Given as input the empty substitution [] :

  • The formula x == Cons(1, Nil) returns the stream that consists of the substitution [(x, Cons(1,Nil))].

  • The formula x == Cons(1, Nil) & y == Cons(2, x) returns the stream that consists of the substitution [ (x, Cons(1,Nil)); (y, Cons(2,x)) ].

  • The formula is_nat x returns the stream that consists of the substitutions [(x, O)], [(x, S(y1));(y1, O)], [ (x, S(y1)); (y1, S(y2)); (y2, O) ], …

  • The formula 1 == 1 returns the stream whose only member is [].

  • The formula 1 == 2 returns the empty stream: there is no way to make the formula true.

Disjunction as stream interleaving

Example. Let \(s_1\) denote the stream of all positive intergers, and \(s_2\) the stream of all negative intergers. The result of interleaving \(s_1\) with \(s_2\), denoted \(s_1 |zip| s_2\) is 1, -1, 2, -2, ..., and \(s_2 |zip| s_1\) is -1, 1, -2, 2, ....

The disjunction \(F_1 \mid F_2\) of two formulae \(F_1\), \(F_2\) is itself a formula on the top level, so it is a stream builder, taking a substitution as input and returns a stream of substitutions. It builds the output stream by interleaving the two streams built separately by \(F_1\) and \(F_2\), both of which share the same input as their immediate top level formula. In more formal terms:

\[(F_1 \mid F_2)\ substin\quad =\quad (F_1\ substin)\ |zip| \ (F_2\ substin)\]

Every substitution from the output stream (concatenated with the input) makes either of the two disjuncts true.

Conjuction as a Stream Map-Zipper

To map-zip a stream builder F with a stream \(s := m_1, m_2, m_3, ...\) (denoted \(F\ mzip\ s\)), is to apply \(F\) individually to each member \(m_k\) of the stream, resulting in streams \(s_k\), and then zip all \(s_k\) together.

\begin{eqnarray*} & F mzip s\\ =& F\ mzip\ m_1,\ m_2,\ m_3, \dots\\ =& F\ m_1 zip\ (F\ m_2\ zip\ (F m_3\ zip\ (…))) \\ =& s_1\ zip\ (s_2\ zip (s_3\ zip (…))) \end{eqnarray*}

Example. Let F be a stream builder that works like this: \(F\ n = n,n,n,…\) Then:

\begin{eqnarray*} & F\ mzip\ 1,2,3 \\ =& F_1\ zi\ (F_2\ zip\ F_3) \\ =& 1,1,1,…\ zip\ (2,2,2,…\ zip\ 3,3,3,…) \\ =& 1,1,1,…\ zip\ 2,3,2,3,… \\ =& 1,2,1,3,1,2,1,3, … \end{eqnarray*}

A conjunction \(F_1 & F_2\) provides the input substitution to \(F_1\) first, and then map-zips the output of \(F_1\) with \(F_2\) :

(F_1\ &\ F_2) subst_{in}\ =\ F_2 mzip ( F_1 subst_{in})

Every substitution from the output stream (concatenated with the input) makes both of the two conjuncts true.

Working with GT and Camlp5

We use packages GT and Camlp5 in OCanren programs. The influence of GT Camlp5 syntax extension is that we can use the @type syntax to define types, which convenienty generates useful functions for the defined type, for example, a show function that converts values of the defined type into a string, which we use to print the result of a query. Camlp5 expands the content of the ocanren{} quotation, allowing us to write readable code.

The @type syntax

In OCanren, type constructors are often defined by :

type definition = '@type', typedef, 'with', plugins

plugins = plugin { ',' , plugin }

plugin  ::= 'show' | 'gmap' | etc

where the syntactic category typedef is the same as that of OCaml, and the category etc signifies omission: the most frequently used plugins in OCanren are show and gmap, providing for the defined type a string conversion function (like Stdlib.string_of_int) and a structure preserving map function (a generalization of List.map) respectively. The other less used plugins are not shown here.

A type definition of the form @type <typedecl> with <plugins> is expanded at the syntactic level by GT into:

  1. A type definition of the usual form type <typedecl>, where the value of <typedecl> is preserved, and

  2. Several (auto-generated) plugin definitions.

The effect of syntactic transformation, including what the @type definitions become after expansion, can be viewed by adding the “dump source” option -dsource in the Makefile as explained in a comment line there. For instance, the String module:

 (** {2  The logic string type} *)
module String = struct
  @type t = GT.string with show
  @type ground = t with show
  @type logic = t OCanren.logic with show
  type groundi = (ground, logic) injected

would be expanded into this, where we could see that besides the type constructor definitions a lot more codes have actually been auto-generated to support any GT plugin that the user may request.

Note in the LString module that the type constructor name string is qualified by the module name GT, for we need to use the GT version of the string type which provides the useful plugins and otherwise it is the same as the OCaml built-in string type. Plugins are (auto-)created inductively: GT provides plugins for base types and rules for building plugins for compound types from component types.


Write properly part about syntax extensions and port this part there


I will clarify this a bit. We do not use the GT version of string type, in reality it is a just type alias: module GT = struct type string = Stdlib.string ... end. What is really happening here, is that functions for showing and gmapping string type are located in module GT. So we need 1) either write GT.string instead of string and preprocessor will generate GT.show GT.string instead of GT.show string, 2) or make open GT somewhere about and use type string without fully qualified name. **

The injection functions and the ocanren {...} quotation

The signature of the ASCII_Ctrl.Inj module shall explain itself. For every value constructor, an accompanying injection function shall be defined (either by the user or auto-generated by the tool noCanren), whose name shall be the same as the constructor name except that the first letter is set to lower case. In the ocanren{...} quotation, wherever a value constructor occurs, its corresponding injection function is implicitly called. Hence the let open ASCII_Ctrl.Inj in statement that preceeds the body of the ascii_ctrl relation. The quotation in the body of ascii_ctrl is expanded as follows:

let ascii_ctrl =
  (fun c n s ->
     let open ASCII_Ctrl.Inj in
       (OCanren.conj (OCanren.unify c (nUL ()))
           (OCanren.conj (OCanren.unify n (OCanren.Std.nat 0))
             (OCanren.unify s (OCanren.inj (OCanren.lift "Null")))))
           (OCanren.conj (OCanren.unify c (sOH ()))
             (OCanren.conj (OCanren.unify n (OCanren.Std.nat 1))
                 (OCanren.unify s
                   (OCanren.inj (OCanren.lift "Start of heading")))))
             (OCanren.conj (OCanren.unify c (sTX ()))
                 (OCanren.conj (OCanren.unify n (OCanren.Std.nat 2))
                   (OCanren.unify s
                       (OCanren.inj (OCanren.lift "Start of text")))))
(* ... etc *)

The above code excerpt is also from what is displayed on the terminal after compiling the source with the “dump source” option -dsource.


A program in OCanren is understood with respect to its syntax and semantics. We define types in four levels, using the @type syntax of GT. We define injection functions for value constructors. We then define formulae in OCanren formula syntax, which are put in the ocanren{} quotation powered by Camlp5. In set theory when we think about a relation, we are actually thinking about a function R that can be applied to its arguments and return either true or false, like this:

\(arg_1, …, arg_n \rightarrow R \rightarrow true\ |\ false\)

But in relational programming, when we think about a relation R, the most important thing is not that R is a function, but \(R(arg_1, …, arg_n)\) in whole is a function, i.e., we regard what is known by logicians as a formula, as a function whose input is an initial variable substitution and whose output is the set of all possible variable substitutions where each member when combined with the initial substitution makes the formula true, like this:

\(subst_{in} \rightarrow R(arg_1, …, arg_n) \rightarrow subst_{out}, subst_{out}, subst_{out},...\)