Saturday, December 9, 2017

Spare me the tedium of “simple” linting, please

In the development environments of singly-typed languages like JavaScript and Python, one popular build step for improving code quality is the “linting” or “style” tool. Tools like jshint and pyflakes point out misspellings and references to missing variables, idioms that frequently lead to bugs like == usage, calls with apparently the wrong number of arguments, and many other things.

Much of this is meant to mechanize the enforcement of a team’s style guidelines—at their best, sincere and effective tactics for avoiding common sources of bugs. Unfortunately, many of these guidelines can seem excessively pedantic, forcing the programmer to deal with cases that could not possibly happen.

Normally, it would make sense to tell the programmers to just suck it up and follow the rules. However, this tactic can lead to a couple bad outcomes.

  1. The lint check can lose support among developers, for being more trouble than it’s worth. If programmers feel that a lint is causing more code quality issues than it’s solving, they’ll sensibly support its removal.
  2. Lints without developer support tend to be disabled sooner or later, or simply mechanically suppressed at each point they would be triggered, via “ignore” markers and the like. At that point, the bug-catching benefits of the lint are completely eliminated; in the worst case, you have a universally ignored warning, and are even worse off than if the warning was simply disabled.
  3. If the errors spotted by the lint are serious enough, but the lint warns for too many exceptional cases, the developers might decide to move the style rule to manual code review, with an opportunity to argue for exceptional cases. This is labor-intensive, carries a much longer feedback cycle, and makes it easy to accept an argument for an exception to the style rule that is actually erroneous, as it is not machine-checked.

Many of these “too many false positives” warnings could be a lot better if they simply had more information to work with about what will happen at runtime. That way, they can avoid emitting the warning where, according to the extra information, a construct that appears dangerous will not be a problem in practice.

That is one thing that type systems are very good at. So lint users are on the right track; the solution to their woes of needless ritual is more static analysis, rather than less.

Let’s consider some common lints in JavaScript and see how the knowledge derived from types can improve them, reducing their false positive rate or simply making them more broadly useful.

Suspicious truthiness tests

(This example has the benefit of a recent implementation along the semantic lines I describe, in Flow 0.52. I take no credit for any of the specific lint suggestions I make in this article.)

In JavaScript, a common idiom for checking whether an “object” is not null or undefined is to use its own “truthiness”.

if (o)        // checking whether 'o' is defined
if (o.magic)  // checking whether 'o's 'magic' property is defined

This is concise and does the trick perfectly—if the value being tested isn’t possibly a number, string, or boolean. If it can be only an object, null, or undefined, then this is fine, because even the empty object {} is truthy, while null and undefined are both falsey. Unfortunately, in JavaScript, other classes of data have “falsey” values among them, such as 0 for number.

The “lint” solution to this problem is to always compare to null directly.

if (o != null)                     // not null or undefined
if (o !== null && o !== undefined) // required in more pedantic code styles

This might be encapsulated in a function, but still doesn’t approach the gentle idiom afforded by exploiting objects’ universal truthiness. But the object idiom is simply unsafe if the value could possibly be something like a number. So the question of whether you should allow this exception to the “always compare to null explicitly” lint boils down to “can I be sure that this can only be an object?” And if in review you decide “yes”, this is a decision that must constantly be revisited as code changes elsewhere change the potential types of the expression.

You want to mechanically rule out “possible bugs” that are not really possible in your use of the idiom, so that the linter will not warn about benign use of truthiness—it will save the warnings for code where it could actually be a problem. Ruling out impossible cases so that you only need cope with the possible is just the sort of programming job where the type system fits in perfectly.

A type system can say “this expression is definitely an object, null, or undefined”, and type-aware linting can use that information to allow use of the truthiness test. If that data comes from an argument, it can enforce that callers—wherever else in the program they might be—will not violate the premise of its allowance by passing in numbers or something else.

A type system can also say “this expression will definitely be an object, never null”, or vice versa, thus taking the lint even further—it can now tell the programmer that the if check is useless, because it will always be truthy or falsey, respectively. This is just the sort of premise that’s incredibly hard for humans to verify across the whole program, continuously, but is child’s play for a type-checker.

A type system such as Flow can even say “this expression could have been something dangerous for the truthy test, like number | object, but you ruled out the dangerous possibilities with earlier if tests, so it’s fine here”. Manual exemption can regress in cases like this with something as simple as reordering “if-else if-else” chains a little carelessly—keep in mind here the decades of failure that “be sufficiently careful” has had as a bug-avoidance tactic in programming—but type-aware linting will catch this right away, waking up to declare its previous exemption from the style rule null and void.

The more precise your types in your program, the more understanding of your use of this idiom—in only valid places—the type-aware linter will be. It will not make the reasoning mistakes that human review would make when allowing its use, so you can use it with more confidence, knowing that the lint will only call out cases where there’s a genuine concern of a non-null falsey value slipping in. And there is no need to argue in code review about which cases need != null and which don’t, nor to revisit those decisions as the program evolves; as circumstances change, the type checker will point out when the verbose check becomes unnecessary, or when the succinct check becomes unsafe.

References to undeclared variables

It’s very common to mistake a variable name that isn’t defined for one that is. The larger a program gets, the easier this mistake is to make.

This mistake comes in a few forms. It may be a simple misspelling. It may be a variable you thought was defined here, but is actually defined somewhere else. It may be a variable defined later, but not yet.

Whatever the meaning of the error, linters can catch the problem via a relatively simple method. As the file is scanned, the linter keeps track of what variables are currently in scope. When encountering a variable reference, it checks the variable name against its current working list of variables. If one is not in the list, the linter reports it.

This is better than nothing. Compared to what you can do with a type checker, though, it’s not very good at all.

Suppose that you have a few local functions defined at the top level of your module, foo, bar, and baz. A linter will point out an undeclared variable if you try to call fop, gar, or bax. So you don’t have to wait for the browser reload or test cycle; you can correct these errors right away.

Later on, your module is getting larger, so you decide to group some functions into objects to clean up the top-level namespace. You decide that foo, bar, and baz fit under the top-level object q.

const q = {
    foo(...) {...}

    bar(...) {...}

    baz(...) {...}

During your refactoring, references to these three functions are rewritten to,, and q.baz, respectively. This is a nice way to avoid ad hoc name prefixes as a grouping mechanism; you’re using a first-class language feature to do the grouping instead.

But let’s give a moment’s consideration to q.fop, q.gar, and q.bax. The linter will verify that the reference to q is sound; it’s declared at the module level as const q. However, the linter will not then verify that the “member” references are sound; that is a fact about the structure of q, not its mere existence.

When all you have is “simple” linting, this becomes a tax on modularity, so to speak. If a variable is defined locally—very locally—references to it are checked. If it is defined remotely, whether in another module or simply “grouped” in a submodule, references to it are not checked.

A type system cuts the modularity tax by tracking the names that are beyond the purview of the simple linter. In the case of q, type-checking tracks more than its existence; its statically-known structural features are reqorded as part of its type.

  • In this module, q is defined.
    • It is an object,
    • and is known to have properties:
      • foo,
        • a function which is…;
      • bar,
        • a function which is…, and
      • baz,
        • a function which is…

This continues to work at whatever depth of recursion you like. It works across modules, too: if I want to call baz from another module, I can import this module in that one, perhaps as mm, and then the reference mm.q.baz will be allowed, but mm.q.bax flagged as an error.

An undeclared-variable linter is all well and good, but if you want to take it to its logical conclusion, you need type checking.

hasOwnProperty guards

The best lints focus on elements of code hygiene we’re reluctant to faithfully practice while writing code, but come back to fill us with regret when we fail to do so. One example arises with using for to iterate over objects in JavaScript; the lint checks that you’re guarding the loop with hasOwnProperty.

The purpose of these guards is to handle non-plain objects; that is to say, objects “with class”. The guards are always suggested by the linter to avoid nasty surprises should you try iterating over the properties of an object “with class”.

The irony of this check is that the intent of such code is usually to work with plain objects only, that is, classy objects should not be present in the first place! The construct is still perfectly usable with classy objects; it’s just that more caution is called for when using it in that fashion.

As such, there are two basic scenarios of for iteration over objects.

  1. iteration over plain objects only, and
  2. iteration over potentially classy objects.

The focus of the hasOwnProperty guard ought to be #2, but this concern bleeds over into #1 cases, needlessly or not depending on how pessimistic you are about Object.prototype extension. But this question is moot for the linter, which can’t tell the difference between the two scenarios in the first place.

By contrast, a type checker can make this distinction. It can decide whether a variable is definitely a plain object, definitely not one, or might or might not be one. With that information, depending on your preferences, it could choose not to warn about a missing hasOwnProperty guard if it knows it’s looking at scenario #1. So if a hasOwnProperty is needless, it need not pollute your code for the sake of the scenarios where it will be needed.

Computer, please try to keep up

Humans are pretty good at coming up with complex contractual preconditions and postconditions for their programs, and making those programs’ correct operation depend on the satisfaction of those contracts. But humans are very bad at verifying those contracts, even as they make them more complex and depend more on them.

“Simple” linting tools are good at checking for the fulfillment of very simple rules to help ensure correctness, freeing the human mind to focus on the more complex cases. What makes them a chore to deal with—a reason to put solving linter warnings on the “technical debt backlog” instead of addressing them immediately—is “they don’t know what we know”; they can handle laborious low-level checks, but lack the sophisticated analysis humans use to decide the difference between a correct program and an incorrect one.

Happily, through static analysis, we can get much closer to human-level understanding’s inferences about a program, while preserving the tireless calculation of contractual fulfillment that makes linting such a helpful companion in the development cycle, doing the parts that humans are terrible at. When your linter is so “simple” that it becomes a hindrance, it’s time to put it down, and pick up a type system instead.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Or, we could not, and say we don’t have to

I previously wrote “Values never change types”, whose central thesis statement I hope is obvious. And this still holds, but there is something I left unsaid: values do not have identity, so the notion of “mutating” them is as nonsensical as “mutating 4”. And the formal system of Scala types treats objects with identity similarly, by not permitting them or their variable aliases to change type, even though they are not quite values. But this is a design decision, and other choices could have been made.

There are very good reasons not to make other choices, though. Other type systems come with features that come very close to making the opposite design choice; by imagining that they went just a little farther down this garden path, we can see what might have been.

Refinement, flow, or occurrence typing, by any name

In Flow and TypeScript, when you test properties of a value in a variable, you can “change the type” of that variable. For example, you could have a let s: any; if you write an if block that tests whether s is a string, the type of s—at compile-time, mind you—“changes” to string within the if body. Within the body of that if, you could perform further tests to refine s’s type further; you might also have various other if blocks alongside checking for other types, so that s might variously “change” into number, function, object with a whatsit property whose type is another object with a whosit property, and so on.

So, instead of having a single type attached to a lexical variable over its entire scope, a variable has several types, each tied to a block of code that uses the variable. It is an order more sophisticated, but still tied to the lexical structure of the program, as if the variable has multiplied to honor all the faces it might have. This is a great way to model how people are writing programs at the type level without overly complicating the formal system, which still must always obey a complete set of sound rules.

Contradictory refinement

In the systems I’ve described, no further refinement can contradict a prior one. So once you determine that a variable is a string, it’s not going to turn out to be a number later; at most, it can get more specific, like being proven to be a member of a known static set of strings. So this way you know that inner blocks cannot know less than outer blocks about the nature of a variable; that is what I mean by “tied to the lexical structure.”

What “real JavaScript code” could be written that would violate this assumption?

function foo(arg) {
    let s = arg
    if (typeof s === 'string') { // refines s to type string
        s = {teaTime: s}
        // "point of no return"
        if (s.teaTime === "anytime") {

The first if test establishes a block in which s’s type is string. Then we pull the rug out from under the type-checker by assigning to s; with that assignment, it is no longer true that s is a string. Why does this make type-checking more complex?

Let’s twist and tangle the program to support our beloved mutation

The type of the variable s no longer follows the block structure of the program, in the way we usually perceive blocks in a structured program. That’s because the fact established by the outer if test is suddenly invalidated partway through the block. So our first problem is one of raising the complexity burden on human interpretation of the program—the reader can no longer assume that the specificity of a variable’s type only increases as you move inward, reading the block structure of the program—but it is not fatal in itself, at least for this example. We can salvage the model via the Swiss Army knife of semantic analysis, the continuation-passing style (CPS) transform.

function foo(arg, k0) {
    return (s => if (typeof s === 'string') {
                     (_ => if (s.teaTime === "anytime") {
                               drinkTea(s, k0)
                     )(s = (teaTime: s))

Now it is still possible for inner blocks to contradict outer blocks, but at least this is only possible at the block level. So, by “merely” revisualizing our programs in terms of the flow of continuations rather than the visibly apparent block structure, we can sort of still think of the type of variables as a “block”-level concern, as it was before.

Unluckily, performing a CPS transform in your head with all the code you see is a kind of “reverse Turing Test”, something that an AI would have to not be able to do very well in order to fool us into thinking it was human. So no matter what, we are stuck with a significant new complication in our formal model.

But not a fatal one. Yet.

Loop unrolling according to the phase of the moon

What will prove fatal to the formal model of type-changing mutation is delay. Let us see how the seeds of our destruction have already been sown.

while (forSomeTimeNow()) {
    if (itsAFullMoon()) {
        s = {teaTime: s}

The first question, and the last, is “is it safe to drinkTea?”

One necessary prerequisite is that it has been a full moon. I’m using this boolean expression to inject the Halting Problem—we cannot determine in a Turing-complete language whether a boolean expression will evaluate to true or false, generally—but it is probably sufficient to say that it is nondeterministic, even if not Turing-complete. (Pragmatists love Turing completeness and nondeterminism, because “more power is always better”.) So it’s hard enough—by which I mean generally impossible—to say whether the s assignment has happened.

The next prerequisite, which should drive us wholly into despair now if hope yet remains, is that the moon has been full once. Eh? Here’s where the tie of variable types to any semblance of code structure breaks down completely, because s takes on a surprisingly large number of types in this code sample.

To assign a precise type to this program, we have to accurately model what is happening in it. So, suppose that prior to entering this loop, the type of s is string. Each assignment to s—made each time the while’s test is true and the moon is full—takes us one step down this list of types.

  1. string
  2. {teaTime: string}
  3. {teaTime: {teaTime: string}}
  4. {teaTime: {teaTime: {teaTime: string}}}
  5. {teaTime: {teaTime: {teaTime: {teaTime: string}}}}
  6. •••

Now if you want to assign (potentially) all of these infinite possibilities to the program, you have to go even further from the block structure model. Imagine a third dimension of the program text: at the surface, you see s having only the first two types above, but as you look deeper, you see the branching possibilities—oh so many iterations in, oh so many times the moon has been full—each assigning different types to what is on the surface the same code. Looking at this as two-dimensional text, you would only see the infinite superimposition of all possible types of s, weighted according to their probability.

Three dimensions might be too few for this code.

Of course, there’s a well-known, sensible way to type this code, sans the log call: abandon the folly of modeling mutation and assign this recursive union type to s for at least the whole scope of the while loop, if not an even wider scope:

type TeaTimeTower = string | {teaTime: TeaTimeTower}

And supposing the drinkTea function is so polymorphic, all is well, and as a neat side bonus, easy to understand. But we aren’t here to pursue sanity; we gave that up to try to model mutation.

The devil in the delay

If fully desugared, while is a two-argument (not counting still thinking in CPS) higher-order function, taking test functions as arguments. Just like you’re writing Smalltalk.

while(() => forSomeTimeNow(),
      () => {
             () => s = {teaTime: s})

The thing that makes so much trouble for flow analysis is this delay. Type-changing requires us to contradict earlier refinements of a variable’s type, not simply refine them further. But the ability to capture a reference to a variable in a lambda means that we need a deep understanding of how that lambda will be used. It might never be invoked. It might be invoked later in the function, just when we thought it was safe to contradict whatever refinement it was type-checked with. It might be saved off in another variable or data structure elsewhere in the program, making reasoning about when the variable might be referenced in the future a futile endeavor.

Doing flow analysis with sources of delayed execution whose behavior is 100% known, like if and for, is tricky enough. Doing it in the presence of unknown, novel, potentially nondeterministic sources of delay is intractable, if not impossible.

And that’s for the computer. How many dimensions does the model in your head have, now? Zero, no, negative points for abandoning this ivory-tower static analysis and declaring “common sense” the arbiter of your programs’ correctness.

Did anyone else see you come here?

An object with known properties can be thought of as a group of named variables. This is a longtime, straightforward way to represent modules of functions, or clean up a global namespace by putting a lot of related items laying on the floor into the same drawer.

Since we love mutation, and we love mutating variables, we should love mutating object properties (and their types) even more, right?

function schedule(s) {
    s.teaTime = "anytime"

The type of s in the caller after schedule finishes is straightforward: it’s whatever it was before, with the teaTime field (whatever it might have been before, if anything) type set to string, or perhaps the literal singleton type "anytime".

But what schedule is so eager to forget will not be so easily forgotten by the rest of the program.

Namely, the contradicted, earlier type of s is very hard to reliably eradicate. This is an aliasing problem, and it brings the excitement of data races in shared-mutable-state multithreaded programs to the seemingly prosaic JavaScript execution model.

To type s in the aftermath of schedule, you must perfectly answer the question, “who has a reference to s”? Suppose that teaTime was a now-contradicted function. Any code that calls that function via property lookup on its reference now takes on another dimension: before schedule executes, it is safe, but afterwards it no longer is, so it takes on the prerequisite “can only be called before calling schedule(s).” The dimensional multiplication directly results from the multiplication of possible types for s.

The problem broadens virally when you try to model other variables that are not s, but whose types will still change due to schedule being called! Here is an example of such a variable.

const drinks = {coffee: coffeeMod; tea: s}
  // where s is the value we’re talking about

So all the analysis of references to s induced by the type mutation means references to drinks must undergo the same ordeal. And references to something that refers to drinks, and references to something that refers to that, and so on, ad infinitum.

And that is assuming we can statically determine what object identities will be flying around the program. As with so much else in this article, this is generally impossible.

By the way, the problem with lambdas is just a special case of this one; it’s exactly that lambdas alias variables that causes so much grief for our wannabe-mutating ventures.

A different kind of power, at a much more reasonable price

Since we are only imagining this insanity, not attempting to truly partake of it, we have something good to feel about, after all: the grass is really quite brown on the other side, alas, but that on this side is a little greener than first glance might indicate.

Type systems like those of Haskell, Java, OCaml, Scala, and many other languages simply don’t permit the types of variables to change. When you consider the introduction of type equalities in Haskell or Scala GADTs, or more direct refinements made in Typed Racket, Flow, or TypeScript; you can include all of these languages in the broader category of type systems whose variable types can only complement, never contradict.

This is a powerful simplifying assumption, because under this restriction, none of the above problems matter. “Functional types” are not only powerful enough to model programs, and far easier to understand for the human programmer, they are the only way out of the quagmire of complexity wrought by trying to “model mutation”. Even problems that almost look amenable to mutation analysis, like the while example above, admit a simpler solution in an immutable type like the recursive TeaTimeTower.

More power is sometimes worse.

When you forbid unneeded capabilities, you get back capabilities in other areas. Sometimes this comes in the form of improved understanding, such as we get for large programs by introducing type restrictions. It makes sense to give up “power” that is not practical to get benefits that are.

Take the forbidding of mutation. We take type-level immutability for granted in the same way that many practitioners take value-level mutability for granted. Perhaps one reason for resistance to functional programming might be that we are so accustomed to the drawbacks of unconstrained mutability that it does not seem quite as insane at the value level as, seen above, it is at the type level.

But, familiarity cannot make the insane any less so.

This article was tested with Flow 0.57.2 and TypeScript 2.5.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Advanced type system features are [usually] a good thing

The desire to allow more programs to be typed—by assigning more accurate types to their parts—is the main force driving research in the field. – Benjamin Pierce, Types and Programming Languages

Type system design is a major factor in whether you can write programs, and how easily you can do so. Simplicity is an important consideration, but that entails a trickier question to start: “what is simplicity?”

In this article, I want to consider two questions about type system simplicity by comparing two—relatively good as these things go—type systems, Haskell’s and TypeScript’s.

First: what dangers come from an excess of pragmatism in type system design? By pragmatism, I mean the elevation of design compromise as the highest virtue. The pragmatist seeks to compromise even those “pure” designs that are entirely suitable when considering the practical constraints in play.

I don’t use this word, ‘pragmatist’, because I think it’s nice and accurate. Nor do I think that it’s fair to those who don’t fit the definition I’ve just given, yet still think of themselves as “pragmatic” in the broader sense. I use this word because the people I describe have claimed the mantle of “pragmatism”, and reserved it for themselves, quite successfully in the world of programming. And first, we must name the enemy.

Second: what is so compelling about advanced type system features? New type systems are often beset with users requesting features like rank-N types, higher-kinded types, GADTs, existential quantification, &c. There are good, practical reasons these features are requested; they result in a kind of “simplicity” that cannot be had simply by having a small number of features.

An unsound feature in TypeScript

Function parameters are a contravariant position; contravariance and invariance are the only sound choices for them. So TypeScript’s “function parameter bivariance” is a deliberately unsound choice; if you’re unfamiliar with it, I strongly recommend stopping now and reading the linked documentation, along with the explanation of why they do it; it’s a good piece of documentation, describing an eminently practical circumstance in which it might be used.

However, this example is worth examining more closely. Think about it from the perspective of a type system designer: how would you support the call to addCallback below?

enum EventFlag {

interface Event;
interface MouseEvent extends Event {/*...*/}
interface KeyEvent extends Event {/*...*/}

function addCallback(
  flag: EventFlag,
  callback: (Event) => void): void {
  // ...

addCallback(EventFlag.MousePress, (e: MouseEvent) =>
  { } // handle e

The temptation of pragmatism

TypeScript’s design choice to support this sort of call is unsound. This is explained by the documentation; again, please refer to that if you haven’t yet.

There is always the temptation to poke a hole in the type system when dealing with the problem, “how do I express this?” That’s because you can then do something you want, without having gone through the bother of proving that it’s safe. “You can’t do whatever you feel like doing” is exactly what a sound type system must say. The benefits of soundness diffuse across your program, filling in the negative space of the tests that you no longer need to write; they can seem far away when confronted with a problem here to be solved now.

In this way, unsound features are the greatest ally of the pragmatist. They’re an asymmetric weapon, because sound features can never say “just do what you like, here; don’t worry about the distant consequences”.

We who have a strong distaste for pragmatism must make do instead with research.

A sound alternative, in Haskell

Haskell is a testbed for many advanced type system features, demarcated by extension flags. One of the joys of working with Haskell is learning about a new extension, what it means, and thinking of ways to use it.

Many of these features are guarded by an extension flag; we’re going to call on one such feature by placing at the top of the Haskell source file


One of the things this enables is that you can attach type parameters to enum members. EventFlag gets a type parameter indicating the associated type of event.

data EventFlag e where
  MousePress :: EventFlag MouseEvent
  KeyPress :: EventFlag KeyEvent

-- MouseEvent and KeyEvent can be
-- related types, but don't have to be
data MouseEvent = -- ...
data KeyEvent = -- ...

addCallback :: EventFlag e
            -> (e -> IO ())
            -> IO ()

e is a type parameter; when you pass an EventFlag to addCallback, the callback type (e -> IO () above) changes to reflect what event type is expected.

λ> :t addCallback MousePress
(MouseEvent -> IO ()) -> IO ()
λ> :t addCallback KeyPress
(KeyEvent -> IO ()) -> IO ()

This is a better design in two ways.

  1. It is sound; you cannot screw up the relationship between the EventFlag argument and the event type that will be passed to the callback.
  2. It is more convenient; if you pass a lambda as the callback argument, it will simply “know” that the argument type is KeyEvent or MouseEvent; your editor’s coding assistance can act accordingly, without you having to declare the lambda’s argument type at all.

I would go so far as to say that this makes this addCallback simpler; it’s easier and safer to use, and can even be implemented safely. By contrast, function parameter covariance requires you, the user of the function, to think through in your head whether it’s really OK, without type-checker assistance, and even then the library function can’t offer any help to callers if they declare the lambda argument type wrong.

What’s simpler?

A type system without powerful features for polymorphism makes it difficult or impossible to describe many programs and libraries in fully sound ways. A more powerful type system simplifies the task of the programmer—its features give you a richer language with which to describe generic APIs.

When the core of a type system doesn’t give you a way to type an interface, you might follow the pragmatist’s advice, and poke a hole in the type system. After that, you won’t be able to generally trust the conclusions of the type checker throughout the program, anymore.

Instead, you might look at the leading edge of type system research, for a sound way with which to express the API. This is not so expedient, but yields APIs that are safer and more convenient to use and implement.

With an unsound feature, the pragmatist can offer you the world, but cannot offer the confidence that your programs don’t “go wrong”. Powerful type system features might bend your mind, but promise to preserve that confidence which makes type systems, type systems.

This article was tested with TypeScript 2.4 and GHC 8.0.2.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Why I didn't sign the Scala CLA

I wrote this shortly after I opted not to sign the Scala CLA in 2015. Since Scala still requires a CLA in its contribution process, and even contributing to Typelevel Scala effectively requires assent to the same unjust mechanism, I have decided to publish it at last.

One of the most important advantages of Free, Open Source Software (FOSS) is that it returns power to the community of users. With proprietary software, power is always concentrated in the hands of the maintainer, i.e. the copyright holder.

The [more] equal status of maintainer and user in FOSS creates a natural check. It keeps honest, well-intentioned maintainers honest, and permits the community to reform around new maintainership should a formerly good situation change. And circumstances can always change.

This equal status does not fall out of the sky; it is mediated by a legal constitution: the license(s) of the software and documentation developed by the project. When users accept the license terms—by redistributing the code or changes thereto—they agree to this constitution. When maintainers accept contributions under that license, as in an ordinary CLA-less project, under inbound=outbound, they agree to the very same constitution as the users.

A project with a CLA or ©AA is different. There is one legal constitution for the users, and one for the maintainers. This arrangement always privileges the maintainers by

  1. removing privileges from the users and reserving them for the maintainers, and
  2. removing risk from the maintainers and reserving it for the users.

Despite fine words in the Scala CLA about “being for your protection as well as ours” (to paraphrase), the terms that follow are, with few exceptions, utterly and unapologetically nonreciprocal.

I believe this situation is acceptable in some cases; the only such agreements I have signed without regret are with the FSF. But no CLA or ©AA I have ever seen makes the strong reciprocal promises that the FSF does, and it is anyway unreasonable to expect any contributor to so carefully evaluate the likely future behavior of each organization maintaining some software they might like to contribute to. For myself, I decided that, given my past regrets, and the degree to which EPFL’s agreement transfers power to its own hands and risk back to the contributors’, there was no way I would come to trust EPFL sufficiently to sign.

This is not to say that EPFL would be an ill-behaved caretaker! But by what means could I make that determination? Moreover, why is it even necessary?

The closest thing to an acceptable rationale for the Scala CLA is that it addresses legal concerns left unmentioned by the license, e.g. patent grants. These are important concerns, too frequently unaddressed by projects using minimalist licenses such as Scala uses. But the appropriate place to do this is to address these concerns in the basic legal constitution for all: the license. If these guarantees are so important that EPFL must have them, then why should we, as contributors, not ask them of EPFL, via inbound=outbound? If these terms would make the license “too complex”, no longer minimal, what about their placement in a CLA will make them any better understood?

It’s my hope that Scala will abandon the CLA, and switch to a lightweight option that holds true to the principles of FOSS projects. A couple options are

  1. A formal license-assent-only mechanism, like Selenium’s.
  2. A Developer Certificate of Origin, like the Linux kernel.

This may or may not be coupled with the switch to a longer license that incorporates stronger patent protections, like Apache License 2.0. This should alleviate the concerns that are currently addressed by the CLA, but in a way that is equitable to the Scala project, all of its contributors, and all of its users.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

...and the glorious subst to come

If you’re interested in design with zero-cost type tagging, or some cases of AnyVal I didn’t cover in the first article, or you’re looking for something else I missed, check here. There’s a lot more I didn’t have room for in the first article. Consider this “bonus content”.

Unidirectional subst

We saw earlier that though subst appears to substitute in only one direction, that direction can easily be reversed. This is due to the symmetry of type equality—if A = B, then surely also B = A.

Suppose that apply implemented some per-String validation logic. In that case, you wouldn’t want users of the Label API to be able to circumvent this validation, wholesale; this is easy to do with the subst I have shown, and we saw it already when we tagged a whole list and function, both designed only for plain Strings!

We can get an idea of how to fix this by comparing Leibniz and Liskov. Looking at the signature of Liskov.subst, you decide to introduce widen, replacing subst.

// in LabelImpl
  def widen[F[+_]](ft: F[T]): F[String]

// in val Label
  override def widen[F[+_]](ft: F[T]) = ft

With this design, you can untag a tagged list.

scala> Label.widen(taggedList)
res0: List[String] = List(hello, world)

You can tag a function that takes an untagged list as parameter.

scala> def report(xs: List[String]): Unit = ()
report: (xs: List[String])Unit

scala> def cwiden[F[-_]](fs: F[String]): F[Label] =
         Label.widen[Lambda[`+x` => F[x] => F[Label]]](identity)(fs)
cwiden: [F[-_]](fs: F[String])F[Label]

scala> cwiden[Lambda[`-x` => List[x] => Unit]](report)
res1: List[Label] => Unit = $$Lambda$3263/1163097357@7e4f65b7

However, logically, this kind of “tagging” is just a delayed “untagging” of the Ts involved, so your validation rules are preserved.

What’s happening? With subst, we selectively revealed a type equality. widen is deliberately less revealing; it selectively reveals a subtyping relationship, namely, T <: String.

scala> import scalaz.Liskov, Liskov.<~<

scala> Label.widen[Lambda[`+x` => (Label <~< x)]](Liskov.refl)
res2: scalaz.Liskov[Label.T,String] = scalaz.Liskov$$anon$3@58e8db18

Cheap tagging with validation

You can think of + or - in the signatures of widen and cwiden above as a kind of constraint on the F that those functions take; by contrast, subst took any F without bounds on its argument.

There are other interesting choices of constraint, like Foldable.

import scalaz.{Failure, Foldable, Success, ValidationNel}
import scalaz.syntax.std.option._
import scalaz.syntax.foldable._

// in LabelImpl, alongside def widen:
  def narrow[F[_]: Foldable](fs: F[String])
    : ValidationNel[Err, F[T]]

// in val Label
  override def narrow[F[_]: Foldable](fs: F[String]) =
    fs.foldMap{string =>
      // return errors if not OK, INil() if OK
    }.toNel cata (Failure(_), Success(fs))

This is interesting because if you pass anything and get back a Success, the succeeding value is just the argument you passed in, no reallocation necessary. (To reallocate, we would need Traverse instead of Foldable.)

Unidirectional without subtyping

If you prefer to avoid subtyping, you can also constrain subst variants with typeclasses indicating directionality. For Scalaz or Cats, providing both of these would be a sufficient substitute for the widen[F[+_]] introduced above.

  def widen[F[_]: Functor](ft: F[T]): F[String]
  def cwiden[F[_]: Contravariant](fs: F[String]): F[T]

T = String translucency

subst and widen are very powerful, but maybe you’re bothered by the fact that T erases to Object, and you would rather “untagging” happen automatically.

Thus far, you’ve been selectively revealing aspects of the type relationship between T and String. What if you were to globally reveal part of it?

To be clear, we must not globally reveal T = String; then there would be no usable distinction. But you can reveal weaker properties.

// in LabelImpl
  type T <: String

Now, widening happens automatically.

scala> taggedList: List[String]
res0: List[String] = List(hello, world)

scala> report: (List[Label] => Unit)
res1: List[Label] => Unit = $$Lambda$3348/1710049434@4320749b

Narrowing is still forbidden; T and String are still separate.

scala> (taggedList: List[String]): List[Label]
<console>:23: error: type mismatch;
 found   : List[String]
 required: List[hcavsc.translucent.Labels.Label]
    (which expands to)  List[hcavsc.translucent.Labels.Label.T]
       (taggedList: List[String]): List[Label]

Moreover, erasure looks like AnyVal subclassing erasure again.

// javap -c -cp target/scala-2.12/classes hcavsc.translucent.MyFirstTests

  public java.lang.String combineLabels(java.lang.String, java.lang.String);

However, this makes it very difficult for typeclass resolution to reliably distinguish String and T. It’s also easy to accidentally untag. That’s why we took this out of Scalaz’s Tags; discriminating typeclass instances is a very useful feature of tags. If these aren’t concerns for you, globally revealed tag subtyping may be the most convenient for you.

Boxing Ints

AnyVal might seem to have better, more justifiable boxing behavior in the cast of primitive types like Int. When putting than AnyVal wrapper around Int, the custom box replaces the plain Integer box, rather than adding another layer.

final class MagicInt(val x: Int) extends AnyVal

val x = 42
val y = 84

// javap -c -cp target/scala-2.12/classes hcavsc.intsav.BytecodeTests

List(x, y)
      // skipping some setup bytecode
      13: newarray       int
      15: dup
      16: iconst_0
      17: iload_1
      18: iastore
      19: dup
      20: iconst_1
      21: iload_2
      22: iastore
      23: invokevirtual #25                 // Method scala/Predef$.wrapIntArray:([I)Lscala/collection/mutable/WrappedArray;
      26: invokevirtual #29                 // Method scala/collection/immutable/List$.apply:(Lscala/collection/Seq;)Lscala/collection/immutable/List;

List(new MagicInt(x), new MagicInt(y))
      // skipping more setup
      37: anewarray     #31                 // class hcavsc/intsav/MagicInt
      40: dup
      41: iconst_0
      42: new           #31                 // class hcavsc/intsav/MagicInt
      45: dup
      46: iload_1
      47: invokespecial #35                 // Method hcavsc/intsav/MagicInt."<init>":(I)V
      50: aastore
      51: dup
      52: iconst_1
      53: new           #31                 // class hcavsc/intsav/MagicInt
      56: dup
      57: iload_2
      58: invokespecial #35                 // Method hcavsc/intsav/MagicInt."<init>":(I)V
      61: aastore
      62: invokevirtual #39                 // Method scala/Predef$.genericWrapArray:(Ljava/lang/Object;)Lscala/collection/mutable/WrappedArray;
      65: invokevirtual #29                 // Method scala/collection/immutable/List$.apply:(Lscala/collection/Seq;)Lscala/collection/immutable/List;

By contrast, the opaque T to Integer when we apply(i: Int): T. It then remains in that box until we deliberately get the Int back.

// MagicInt is defined like Label,
// but over Int instead of String
val x = MagicInt(42)
// javap -c -cp target/scala-2.12/classes hcavsc.ints.OtherTests
       0: getstatic     #21                 // Field hcavsc/ints/MagicInts$.MODULE$:Lhcavsc/ints/MagicInts$;
       3: invokevirtual #25                 // Method hcavsc/ints/MagicInts$.MagicInt:()Lhcavsc/ints/MagicInts$MagicIntImpl;
       6: bipush        42
       8: invokevirtual #29                 // Method hcavsc/ints/MagicInts$MagicIntImpl.apply:(I)Ljava/lang/Object;

// javap -c -cp target/scala-2.12/classes 'hcavsc.ints.MagicInts$$anon$1'
  public java.lang.Object apply(int);
       0: aload_0
       1: iload_1
       2: invokevirtual #23                 // Method apply:(I)I
       5: invokestatic  #29                 // Method scala/runtime/BoxesRunTime.boxToInteger:(I)Ljava/lang/Integer;
       8: areturn

List(x, x)
      // skipping setup as before
      19: anewarray     #4                  // class java/lang/Object
      22: dup
      23: iconst_0
      24: aload_1
      25: aastore
      26: dup
      27: iconst_1
      28: aload_1
      29: aastore
      30: invokevirtual #43                 // Method scala/Predef$.genericWrapArray:(Ljava/lang/Object;)Lscala/collection/mutable/WrappedArray;
      33: invokevirtual #46                 // Method scala/collection/immutable/List$.apply:(Lscala/collection/Seq;)Lscala/collection/immutable/List;

While the boxing in the above example happened in MagicInt.apply, there’s nothing special about that function’s boxing; the standard Int boxing serves just as well.

// javap -c -cp target/scala-2.12/classes hcavsc.ints.OtherTests

val xs = List(42)
      44: newarray       int
      46: dup
      47: iconst_0
      48: bipush        42
      50: iastore
      51: invokevirtual #50                 // Method scala/Predef$.wrapIntArray:([I)Lscala/collection/mutable/WrappedArray;
      54: invokevirtual #46                 // Method scala/collection/immutable/List$.apply:(Lscala/collection/Seq;)Lscala/collection/immutable/List;
      57: astore_2

val mxs = MagicInt.subst(xs)
      58: getstatic     #21                 // Field hcavsc/ints/MagicInts$.MODULE$:Lhcavsc/ints/MagicInts$;
      61: invokevirtual #25                 // Method hcavsc/ints/MagicInts$.MagicInt:()Lhcavsc/ints/MagicInts$MagicIntImpl;
      64: aload_2
      65: invokevirtual #54                 // Method hcavsc/ints/MagicInts$MagicIntImpl.subst:(Ljava/lang/Object;)Ljava/lang/Object;

val y: MagicInt = mxs.head
      73: invokevirtual #60                 // Method scala/collection/immutable/List.head:()Ljava/lang/Object;
      76: astore        4

This is nice for two reasons:

  1. subst still doesn’t imply any additional boxing beyond what the underlying primitive type implies.
  2. Where the primitive boxing is optimized, you get to keep those optimizations; AnyVal subclass boxing effectively turns off these optimizations. For example, Integer boxing is optimized, but MagicInt’s AnyVal class is not.

The one remaining problem with the tag version of MagicInt is that its erasure is still Object.

def myId(x: MagicInt): MagicInt
// javap -c -cp target/scala-2.12/classes hcavsc.ints.OtherTests
  public abstract java.lang.Object myId(java.lang.Object);

However, if you use the “translucent” variant where it is always known that type T <: Int, the erasure is the same as Int itself.

// javap -c -cp target/scala-2.12/classes hcavsc.translucentints.OtherTests
  public abstract int myId(int);

(The boxing/unboxing of MagicInt changes to match.) Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell Scala what the erasure ought to be without exposing that extra type information, which may be quite inconvenient.

Would you box a JavaScript string?

Maybe if we weren’t working with types. Since we are working with types, we don’t have to box our strings in JavaScript in order to keep track of what sort of strings they are. But Scala might want to, anyway.

val x = new Label("hi")
js.Array(x, x)

// sbt fastOptJS output
  [new $c_Lhcavsc_av_Label().init___T("hi"),
   new $c_Lhcavsc_av_Label().init___T("hi")];

Surely it doesn’t have to for our tag-like Label. And indeed it doesn’t.

val h = Label("hi")
  // compiles to
  var h = "hi";
  // fastOptJS is smart enough to know
  // that apply can be elided

val hs = js.Array(h, h)
  // compiles to
  var hs = [h, h];

val strs = Label.subst[Lambda[x => js.Array[x] => js.Array[String]]](identity)(hs)
strs(0) + strs(1)
  // compiles to
  (("" + $as_T(hs[0])) + hs[1])
  // fastOptJS is smart enough to know
  // that subst, too, can be elided

The possible existence of subst tells us something about the deeper meaning of our abstract type definition, type T = String, that holds true no matter how much of this equality we hide behind existential layers. It is this: the compiler cannot predict when the fact that T = String will be visible, and when it will not be. It must therefore not generate code that would “go wrong” in contexts where this is revealed.

For example, at one point, we saw that


would yield indeed produce a suitable Monoid[Label]. This means not only is the value’s type reinterpreted, but also, by consequence, its members.

scala> val labelMonoid = Label.subst(Monoid[String])
labelMonoid: scalaz.Monoid[Label.T] = scalaz.std.StringInstances$stringInstance$@6f612117

res0: hcavsc.subst.Labels.Label.T = ""

scala> labelMonoid.append _
res1: (Label.T, => Label.T) => Label.T = $$Lambda$3184/987934553@3af2619b

However, in subst, we have charged the compiler with doing this arbitrarily complex substitution with 100% accuracy and in constant time. There are no opportunities to generate “wrappers”, not for these structures that merely employ Label in their types. And, by consequence, there’s nowhere to put code that would use some means to treat Label and String differently based on runtime choices.

If you wish to automatically add “wrappers”, you have a difficult problem already with parametric polymorphism. With higher-kinded types, you have an intractable problem.

Speaking of higher-kinded types…

Type tagging works perfectly well with parameterized types.

type KWConcrete[W, A, B] = Kleisli[(W, ?), A, B]

sealed abstract class KWImpl {
  type T[W, A, B]

  def subst[F[_[_, _, _]]](fk: F[KWConcrete]): F[T]

val KW: KWImpl = new KWImpl {
  type T[W, A, B] = KWConcrete[W, A, B]

  override def subst[F[_[_, _, _]]](fk: F[KWConcrete]) = fk

type KW[W, A, B] = KW.T[W, A, B]

This is nice for a few reasons.

  1. You can still “add a type parameter” to do abstraction on your tagged types.
  2. You can hide much of the complexity of a monad transformer stack, allowing it to infer more easily with Unapply or -Ypartial-unification. This is because, unlike standalone type aliases, scalac can’t dealias your abstraction away. (Warning: this doesn’t apply if you make the type T “translucent”; hide your types to keep them safe from scalac’s prying expander.)
  3. You can use subst to “GND” your Monad and other typeclass instances.
implicit def monadKW[W: Monoid, A]: Monad[KW[W, A, ?]] = {
  type MF[KWC[_, _, _]] = Monad[KWC[W, A, ?]]
  // KW.subst[MF](implicitly) with better inference
  KW.subst[MF](Kleisli.kleisliMonadReader[(W, ?), A])

“Tagless final effects à la Ermine Writers” develops this kind of type abstraction in another direction.

For the derivation of subst’s weird signature above, see “Higher Leibniz”.

Why is the : LabelImpl ascription so important?

Suppose that you ignored my comments and defined the concrete LabelImpl without an ascription.

val Label = new LabelImpl {
  // ...implementation continues as before

Then, the abstraction would disappear; you would no longer have a “new type”.

scala> val lbl: Label = "hi"
lbl: Label = hi

scala> lbl: String
res0: String = hi

scala> implicitly[Label =:= String]
res1: =:=[Label,String] = <function1>

Why did it break so hard? Well, the inferred type of val Label is different from the one you were ascribing.

scala> Label
res2: LabelImpl{type T = String} = hcavsc.broken.Labels$$anon$1@48cd7b32

That means that Label.T is no longer existential; it’s known, and known to be String. Accordingly, type Label also expands to String, and vice versa.

If you want it a new type, you must keep it existential.

Some background

The unboxed tagging technique is based on cast-free type tags in the upcoming Scalaz 7.3.0. That, in turn, was based on use of existential types in Ermine's implementation to hide expansions from scalac.

This is also a specialization of the type-member based MTL encoding I used in "Tagless final effects à la Ermine Writers". The essential difference is that individual program elements were universally quantified over the expansion of the abstract type, where here, the entire program is universally quantified over that expansion, because the existential quantifier is globally bound.

I’m certainly not the first person to explore this technique; for example, Julian Michael wrote about it several months before this article.

And, of course, if you are an ML (OCaml, SML, &c) fan, you’re probably thinking “yeah, so what? I do this all the time.” Sorry. We can be a little slow on the uptake in Scala world, where we greatly undervalue the ideas of the functional languages before us.

This article was tested with Scala 2.12.1, Scalaz 7.2.10, Scala.js 0.6.13, and Kind Projector 0.9.3. The code is available in compilable form for your own experiments via Bazaar.