Elmord's Magic Valley

Computers, languages, and computer languages. Às vezes em Português, sometimes in English.

Types and Fenius

2020-05-19 21:35 +0100. Tags: comp, prog, pldesign, fenius, in-english

Hello, fellow readers! In this post, I will try to write down some ideas that have been haunting me about types, methods and namespaces in Fenius.

I should perhaps start with the disclaimer that nothing has really happened in Fenius development since last year. I started rewriting the implementation in Common Lisp recently, but I only got to the parser so far, and the code is still not public. I have no haste in this; life is already complicated enough without one extra thing to feel guilty about finishing, and the world does not have a pressing need for a new programming language either. But I do keep thinking about it, so I expect to keep posting ideas about programming language design here more or less regularly.

So, namespaces

A year ago, I pondered whether to choose noun-centric OO (methods belong to classes, as in most mainstream OO languages) or verb-centric OO (methods are independent entities grouped under generic functions, as in Common Lisp). I ended up choosing noun-centric OO, mostly because classes provide a namespace grouping related methods, so:

This choice has a number of problems, though; it interacts badly with other features I would like to have in Fenius. Consider the following example:

Suppose I have a bunch of classes that I want to be able to serialize to JSON. Some of these classes may be implemented by me, so I can add a to_json() method to them, but others come from third-party code that I cannot change. Even if the language allows me to add new methods to existing classes, I would rather not add a to_json() method to those classes because they might, in the future, decide to implement their own to_json() method, possibly in a different way, and I would be unintentionally overriding the library method which others might depend on.

What I really want is to be able to declare an interface of my own, and implement it in whatever way I want for any class (much like a typeclass in Haskell, or a trait in Rust):

from third_party import Foo

interface JSONSerializable {
    let to_json()

implement JSONSerializable for Foo {
    let to_json() = {

In this way, the interface serves as a namespace for to_json(), so that even if Foo implements its own to_json() in the future, it would be distinct from the one I defined in my interface.

The problem is: if I have an object x of type Foo and I call x.to_json(), which to_json() is called?

One way to decide that would be by the declared type of x: if it's declared as Foo, it calls Foo's to_json(), and JSONSerializable's to_json() is not even visible. If it's declared as JSONSerializable, then the interface's method is called. The problem is that Fenius is supposed to be a dynamically-typed language: the declared (static) type of an object should not affect its dynamic behavior. A reference to an object, no matter how it was obtained, should be enough to access all of the object's methods.

Solution 1: Interface wrappers

One way to conciliate things would be to make it so that the interface wraps the implementing object. By this I mean that, if you have an object x of type Foo, you can call JSONSerializable(x) to get another object, of type JSONSerializable, that wraps the original x, and provides the interface's methods.

Moreover, function type declarations can be given the following semantics: if a function f is declared as receiving a parameter x: SomeType, and it's called with an argument v, x will be bound to the result of SomeType.accept(v). For interfaces, the accept method returns an interface wrapper for the given object, if the object belongs to a class implementing the interface. Other classes can define accept in any way they want to implement arbitrary casts. The default implementation for class.accept(v) would be to return v intact if it belongs to class, and raise an exception if it doesn't.

Solution 2: Static typing with dynamic characteristics

Another option is to actually go for static typing, but in a way that still allows dynamic code to co-exist more or less transparently with it.

In this approach, which methods are visible in a given dot expression x.method is determined by the static type of x. One way to see this is that x can have multiple methods, possibly with the same name, and the static type of x acts like a lens filtering a specific subset of those methods.

What happens, then, when you don't declare the type of the variable/parameter? One solution would be implicitly consider those as having the basic Object type, but that would make dynamic code extremely annoying to use. For instance, if x has type Object, you cannot call x+1 because + is not defined for Object.

Another, more interesting solution, is to consider any untyped function parameter as a generic. So, if f(x) is declared without a type for x, this is implicitly equivalent to declaring it as f(x: A), for a type variable A. If this were a purely static solution, this would not solve anything: you still cannot call addition on a generic value. But what if, instead, A is passed as a concrete value, implicitly, to the function? Then our f(x: A) is underlyingly basically f(x: A, A: Type), with A being a type value packaging the known information about A. When I call, for instance, f(5), under the hood the function is called like f(5, Int), where Int packages all there is to know about the Int type, including which methods it supports. Then if f's body calls x+1, this type value can be consulted dynamically to look up for a + method.

Has this been done before? Probably. I still have to do research on this. One potential problem with this is how the underlying interface of generic vs. non-generic functions (in a very different sense of 'generic function' from CLOS!) may differ. This is a problem for functions taking functions as arguments: if your function expects an Int -> Int function as argument and I give it a A -> Int function instead, that should work, but underlyingly an A -> Int takes an extra argument (the A type itself). This is left as an exercise for my future self.

Gradual typing in reverse

One very interesting aspect of this solution is that it's basically the opposite of typical gradual typing implementations: instead of adding static types to a fundamentally dynamic language, this adds dynamic powers to a fundamentally static system. All the gradual typing attempts I have seen so far try to add types to a pre-existing dynamic language, which makes an approach like this one less palatable since one wants to be able to give types to code written in a mostly dynamic style, including standard library functions. But if one is designing a language from scratch, one can design it in a more static-types-friendly way, which would make this approach more feasible.

I wonder if better performance can be achieved in this scenario, since in theory the static parts of the code can happily do their stuff without ever worrying about dynamic code. I also wonder if boxing/unboxing of values when passing them between the dynamic and static parts of the code can be avoided as well, since all the extra typing information can be passed in the type parameter instead. Said research, as always, will require more and abundant funding.

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