Another idea on mutability

Tuesday, October 11, 2011
I was thinking about the way that 'const' gets used in C++ programs. In particular, it's extremely tedious work to take a body of source code that doesn't use 'const' and refactor it to be const-correct. Typically what happens is you add 'const' modifiers to a small section of the code, and then try to compile, at which point you get a jillion errors. You then go and fix up all of those errors to be const-correct, try to compile, and now you have a jillion-squared errors.

(Of course, this tends to be more true for some uses of const than others - it depends on how widely referred-to is the thing that you are making const.)

In other words, because const is so viral in C++, you end up having to convert your entire program in one go - there's no easy way to break up the change into manageable chunks.

So I wonder if it makes sense to give programmers a "soft landing" option, in which const-correct and const-incorrect code can interoperate without creating a ton of warnings. There are of course some serious downsides to this idea. The fact that the C++ compiler tells you exactly what values you need to add the 'const' modifier to is pretty useful. And allowing programmers to write non-const-correct code means a loss in safety.

BTW, all of this started because I was trying to figure out how to write the following function:

  def tracePointer[%T <: Object](v:T);

The <: operator means "isSubtype" - basically it's saying that the T parameter must be type Object, or a subtype of Object - it can't be an int for example.

The problem is that this fails if you attempt to bind T to "readonly(Object)". The reason is because "Object" means the same as "mutable(Object)", which is a specialization of "readonly(Object)". From the compiler's point of view, mutable(Object) <: readonly(Object), not the other way around.

Unfortunately, while this makes sense from a theoretical point of view, it fails the practicality test. When you say "A <: B", with no mutability qualifiers on either A or B, what you generally mean is "type A is a subtype of type B, and I don't care what the mutability modifiers are". If you'd explicitly given a mutability modifier, like "A <: mutable(B)", that would be an entirely different story.

Since one of the design rules of Tart is that practicality should dominate over theoretical purity, I put in a temporary hack that basically says "when using the subtype operator, if neither side of the expression has an explicit type qualifier, then don't consider the type qualifiers of the values they are bound to when doing the comparison." However, this hack is rather ugly, and is yet one more thing to remember when programming in Tart.

A different, and much more radical idea is this: That a type name with no mutability qualifiers ("Object") doesn't mean "mutable" like it does now. Instead, it means "mutability unspecified", in other words there are no guarantees about mutability or immutability at all. So the hierarchy would look like this:
  • (no qualifier)
    • readonly
      • mutable
      • immutable
Basically it means that you can implicitly convert from (no qualifier) types to readonly, mutable, or immutable types and the compiler won't complain. So upcasting is implicit and silent - downcasting (converting from (no qualifier) to a qualified type) requires an explicit cast.

What this means is that a lazy programmer can write code without thinking about mutability at all - they just don't use the mutability qualifiers in their code. If at some future point they decide that explicit mutability is a good idea, they can go and start adding the keywords where they are needed. Unfortunately, the compiler won't be as helpful as it would be in the case of C++ - if you forget to add the keyword in some places, the compiler won't always detect that, since it's legal to convert from readonly(Object) to Object without an explicit cast.

It also means that the expression "T <: Object" now says exactly what we intuitively think it ought to mean.

This is an interesting idea, but I think it goes a little too far, in that it does more than just allow the programmer not to be distracted by mutability concerns - it *actively encourages* programmers to write code that doesn't address mutability issues by making such code much cleaner-looking and easy to type. You see, I think that the easiest option should also be the correct one - that is, you can break the rules if you want, but if you follow the rules you'll not only get the satisfaction of having correct code, but you'll also get clean-looking, succinct code as well.

Unfortunately, with mutability this is hard to do - making the compiler smart enough to guess the correct default without the programmer having to explicitly type it means making the rules of the language much more complicated and hard to remember.

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