Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The bat-signal operator

Starting now, I propose that every programming language strive to incorporate the bat-signal operator: ~@~

Friday, May 16, 2008


Automatically repairing errors and continuing execution goes against the grain of software engineering, for good reason, but I've come to see that it's what makes the web go 'round. Robert O'Callahan has an interesting market-oriented take on error recovery:
...the economics of error recovery --- the fact that recovering from malformed input, instead of hard failure, is a competitive advantage for client software so in a competitive market it's sure to develop and you might as well put it in specifications...
In other words: ignore the errors, users will love you, and you win. We may not like it, but you fight economics at your own peril.

Friday, May 09, 2008

N-ary infix predicates

In languages with operator overloading, it's possible to define binary infix predicates such as (using Haskell here):
infix <:
(<:) :: Ty -> Ty -> Bool
x <: y = x `subtype` y -- for some auxiliary subtype function
With arithmetic operators that continue to return elements of the same type (does this make their types endofunctors? I'm no category theorist), so as long as you declare an associativity, the n-ary case is easy to parse. Predicates aren't closed over their input type, though, so in Haskell I can't take the above definition and write:
t1 <: t2 <: t3
But in math, we overload binary predicates to the n-ary case by assuming an implicit "and" between each pair. It would just take a little kludge (but one with the full weight of historical precedent) to let the operator overloading and type system conspire to determine that any binary predicate (i.e., with result type Bool) can be extended to the n-ary case using &&.

(You could maybe also extend this to any type Monad m => m a using >>= instead of &&?)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Solving the wrong problem

I've been having a depressing couple of weeks trying to solve a really hard problem in my research. Occasionally I thought I had some promising leads, but usually they just led to more despair.

Then I discovered today that I've been tackling the entirely wrong problem all along.

I never knew feeling so stupid could feel so good.

Monday, May 05, 2008


> (eqv? +NaN.0 +NaN.0)
> (eq? +NaN.0 +NaN.0)
> (= +NaN.0 +NaN.0)
> (equal? +NaN.0 +NaN.0)

A functional visitor pattern

When your data definitions get big enough, it becomes Tedious and Error-Prone (oh my!) to write multiple operations over the same datatype, so it's useful to define a generic traversal. Here's a pattern I used recently for the ECMAScript Edition 4 reference implementation.

Lots of languages have mutually recursive AST definitions. For example, take a language with mutually recursive expressions Ast.expr, statements Ast.stmt, and declarations Ast.decl. Define an interface VISITOR:
signature VISITOR = sig
datatype cmd = Stop | Skip | Cont

type ('a, 'z) method = 'a * 'z -> 'z * cmd

type 'z visitor = { visitExpr : (Ast.expr, 'z) method,
visitStmt : (Ast.stmt, 'z) method,
visitDecl : (Ast.decl, 'z) method }

val foldExpr : 'z visitor * Ast.expr * 'z -> 'z
val foldStmt : 'z visitor * Ast.stmt * 'z -> 'z
val foldDecl : 'z visitor * Ast.decl * 'z -> 'z
A visitor is a record of operations, one for each variant of AST nodes. (Alternatively, we could have defined a single type datatype ast = Expr of ... | Stmt of ... | Decl of ...;. But there's no need for the extra indirection.) Each operation takes a node and an intermediate result, and produces a new intermediate result along with a "traversal command" cmd.

This simple traversal language instructs the fold either to continue (Cont), to skip all descendants of the current node (Skip), or to abort the traversal entirely (Stop).

The implementation of the fold uses a few auxiliary functions to compute a list of child nodes for each node:
type children = Ast.expr list * Ast.stmt list * Ast.decl list

fun exprChildren (e : Ast.expr) : children = ...
fun stmtChildren (e : Ast.stmt) : children = ...
fun declChildren (e : Ast.decl) : children = ...
The fold itself is (internally) in CPS. At each node, there are three potential continuations: the empty continuation for aborting, the given continuation for skipping the current node's children, or a new continuation that first traverses the current node's children and then uses the given continuation.
type 'z cont = 'z -> 'z

fun cont (result : 'z, cmd : cmd)
(skipk : 'z cont)
(contk : 'z cont)
: 'z =
case cmd of
Stop => result
| Skip => skipk result
| Cont => contk result

fun foldExprK (v as { visitExpr, ... }, expr, init) k =
cont (visitExpr (expr, init))
(fn x => foldAllK v (exprChildren expr) x k)

and foldStmtK (v as { visitStmt, ... }, stmt, init) k =
cont (visitStmt (stmt, init))
(fn x => foldAllK v (stmtChildren stmt) x k)

and foldDeclK (v as { visitDecl, ... }, decl, init) k =
cont (visitDecl (decl, init))
(fn x => foldAllK v (declChildren decl) x k)

and foldAllK (v : 'z visitor)
((exprs, stmts, decls) : children)
(init : 'z)
(k : 'z cont)
: 'z =
fun foldList f (v, asts, init) k =
case asts of
[] => k init
| [ast] => f (v, ast, init) k
| ast::asts => f (v, ast, init)
(fn x => foldList f (v, asts, x) k)
foldList foldExprK (v, exprs, init) (fn result =>
foldList foldStmtK (v, stmts, result) (fn result =>
foldList foldDeclK (v, decls, result) k))
I originally had foldList defined at the top-level, in the same mutual recursion group with foldExprK et al, and got smacked by SML because that would require polymorphic recursion. Luckily I was able to work around it by placing its definition inside the body of foldAllK, but since I'd never run into SML's lack of polymorphic recursion before, it took quite a while to decipher the type error (with help from #sml).

Finally, the top-level functions seed the CPS functions with an initial continuation:
fun id x = x

fun foldExpr x = foldExprK x id
fun foldStmt x = foldStmtK x id
fun foldDecl x = foldDeclK x id
(Note that because of the value restriction, there's no possibility of refactoring these into point-free val-declarations.)

Aren't auto-curried functions non-expansive?

The value restriction in ML is so limited. If I have an auto-curried function
> fun foo (k : int -> 'a) (x : int) = ...;
it should be the case that partial application of foo is always non-expansive, right? It's really annoying that partial applications of auto-curried functions often can't be given general types.
> val raisek (x : int) = raise (Fail (Int.toString x));
> val fooRaise = foo raisek;
Warning: type vars not generalized because of value restriction...
I hate when the type system interferes with standard, semantics-preserving transformations.