JSON Encoder/Decoder for PicoLisp

You can get it on GitHub.

This library can be used to parse and serialize (encode/decode) JSON strings in PicoLisp.


Explanation: JSON Encoder/Decoder for PicoLisp

This document provides a short walkthrough of the source code for the PicoLisp-JSON encoder/decoder.

It’s split into a few sections for easier reading:

  1. Global variables: Important variables used throughout the library.
  2. Native calls (ffi-bindings): The Parson native C library, and how it’s used.
  3. Internal functions: Recursion and datatype-checking.

Make sure you read the README to get an idea of what this library does.

Also, I recommend you read my Nanomsg Explanation for additional PicoLisp tips and ideas.

Global variables

PicoLisp does not prevent variables from leaking into the global namespace. In order to prevent that, you must use local and define exactly what should not affect the global namespace. This is important to avoid un-intended side-effects.

(local MODULE_INFO *Json *JSONError *JSONNull)

This will ensure the variables will not affect anything outside their current scope (namespace). It’s similar to var Myvar; in JavaScript.

A few global variables have been defined at the top of the file.

  *Json         (pack (car (file)) "lib/libparson.so")
  *JSONError    -1
  *JSONNull     1
  *JSONString   2
  *JSONNumber   3
  *JSONObject   4
  *JSONArray    5
  *JSONBoolean  6
  *JSONSuccess  0
  *JSONFailure  -1 )

You’ll notice I’m following the PicoLisp Naming Conventions this time.

The variables prefixed with *JSON were copied directly from Parson’s source code:

enum json_value_type {
    JSONError   = -1,
    JSONNull    = 1,
    JSONString  = 2,

When working with a native C library in PicoLisp, it’s important to use the same (or very similar) symbol names to avoid confusion.

Native calls (ffi-bindings)

Parson is a very simple C library, with functions accepting zero to three arguments, and returning simple validated values and structures.


(json-type (json-parse-string "{\"Hello\":\"World\"}"))
-> 4

This returns 4 which is *JSONObject based on our variables defined earlier.

As we’ll see later, our picolisp-json library can make decisions on how to parse data based on these types of results.

Internal functions

The meat of this library is in the internal functions. The (json-parse-string) and (json-parse-file) functions validate the JSON string. If those calls are successful, then we can safely iterate over the result and generate our own list.

decoding JSON

We’ll begin by looking at how JSON is decoded in this library.


We’ll first look at the (iterate-object) function. This is a recursive function which loops and iterates through the results of each native C call, and quickly builds a sexy PicoLisp list.

[de iterate-object (Value)
    (let Type (json-type Value)
      (case Type  (`*JSONArray    (link-json-array  Value))
                  (`*JSONObject   (link-json-object Value))
                  (`*JSONString   (chain (json-string  Value)))
                  [`*JSONBoolean  (chain (cond
                                            ((= 1 (json-boolean Value)) 'true)
                                            ((= 0 (json-boolean Value)) 'false) ]
                  (`*JSONNumber   (chain (json-number  Value)))
                  (`*JSONNull     (chain 'null)) ]

Lots of meat there.


We’ve seen make before, but I didn’t fully explain it.

The (make) function is the instigator for building a list. You put it at the top or start of your function, and watch it build lists using link and chain.

We use case here as our switch statement. This concept is similar in other programming language. This (case) call compares the Type value with those defined as global variables. If a match is found, it runs the following expression. Otherwise it returns NIL (aka: stop looping, i’m done damnit!).

JSON Arrays and Objects are a bit more tricky to parse, so we’ll get to those later. In the case of String, Boolean, Number or Null, we add them to the list using (chain).

When the value is an Array (Type = 5 = *JSONArray), we loop through it to build a list (arrays are mapped as lists).

[de link-json-array (Value)
  (let Arr (json-array Value)
    (link T)
    (for N (json-array-get-count Arr)
      (let Val (json-array-get-value Arr (dec N))
        (link (iterate-object Val)) ]

You’ll notice we added (link T) before the for loop. After long discussions with Alexander Burger, it was made clear that a marker is required to differentiate Objects from Arrays (in PicoLisp). We do that by appending T as the first element in the list.

The (for) loop is rather simple, but in each case we’re obtaining new values by performing native C calls, and then adding to the list using (link).

If you’ve had your coffee today, you would notice the dec call. As it turns out, (for) starts with 1 and counts to the total number of items in the Array. We use (dec N) to start at 0.


for N 5
  N = 1
  (json-array-get-value Arr 0)
  N = 2
  (json-array-get-value Arr 1)

Finally, the (link) function makes a call to (iterate-object). Remember earlier? when (link-json-array) was called within (iterate-object)?

Note: This is called recursion, where a function calls itself (in our case, with a different value). You can ask Google about it.

The reason we perform this recursion is in case the value in the array is itself an array or an object. The (iterate-object) function will simply return a string, boolean, number or null otherwise.

The (link-json-object) is similar to (link-json-array) except, you guessed it, it loops over objects.

(link (cons Name (iterate-object Val)))

The other difference is during the (link) call, it appends a cons pair instead of a single value. We do this because a JSON Object is represented as a (cons) pair in PicoLisp.

{"hello":"world"} <-> '(("hello" . "world"))

Of course, this function also recursively calls (iterate-object).

encoding JSON

Decoding was fun, because Parson did most of the work for us. Encoding is ugly, so I tried to make it as simple and intuitive as possible (less chance for bugs).


Since we now have a friendly JSON string represented as a PicoLisp list, we’ll iterate over it and turn it back into a JSON string.

[de iterate-list (Item)
  (let Value (cdr Item)
      (get-null Value)
      (get-boolean Value)
      (get-json-number Value)
      (get-json-string Value)
      (get-json-array Value)
      (make-object Value) ]

This is a bit sneaky, but I :heart: it. I’m not sure how efficient it is either, but it works well, and I’d rather have slow, but valid data than fast, but invalid data

It’s not slow, in fact it’s incredibly fast based on my opinion of what fast looks like.

This function uses or as a conditional statement. The Value passes through each function to determine the type of value it is, as well as to convert it to a string, number, boolean, null, or whatever.


This function does nothing special, but I wanted to show something interesting.

[de get-null (Value)
  (when (== 'null Value) "null") ]

You’ll notice we check if Value is == to 'null. What’s going on here? Using double equal signs checks for Pointer equality. This is really important, make sure you understand the difference for a happy PicoLisp life.

This checks if the things we’re comparing are not just equal, but also identical. In other words: Is null the exact same thing as null (Value). Not "null" or NULL or any other variation, but null. Yes. Got it?


You should remember earlier we discussed appending T as the first element in the list, in the case of an Array.

[de get-json-array (Value)
  (when (=T (car Value)) (make-array (cdr Value))) ]

What we’re doing here is checking if the car of the Value is T. If yes, then call the (make-array) function.


This function builds an Array suitable for JSON.

[de make-array (Value)
  (pack "["
        (glue ","
                '((N) (iterate-list (cons NIL N)))
                Value ) )
        "]" ]

We’ve seen what pack does. We use it to build our Array with opening and closing [] brackets.

The cool thing I discovered recently is glue. It is similar to Array.join() in Ruby and JavaScript, by concatenating a list with the supplied argument. In our case, it’s a comma ,.

Here we’re doing something a little different.

If you remember (mapcar), you’ll know the first argument is a function, but in this code we have this:

'((N) (iterate-list (cons NIL N)))

Above is an anonymous function. If you’re familiar with Ruby, it looks something like this:

->(N) { iterate-list [nil, N] }

In the case of PicoLisp, our function that we defined on the fly will be applied to the Value, but will first make a recursive call to (iterate-list) with a (cons) pair as its argument.


This function is almost identical to (make-array), except it generates a JSON Object using opening and closing {} braces, of course iterating recursively with (iterate-list).