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Date: -- (:)
From: Pierre Weis <Pierre.Weis@i...>
Subject: Re: [Caml-list] let mutable (was OCaml Speed for Block Convolutions)
> About the introduction of a let mutable construct,
> Tom _ <tom7ca@yahoo.com> wrote
> 
> > In any case, whether or not the compiler in the
> > current implementation can or cannot do good type
> > inference and may or may not be forced to box
> > a floating point number, the two constructs mean
> > something different to the programmer, and they
> > behave differently.  In particular "mutable x"
> > can never be passed around as a reference, while
> > "x = ref ..." can.  If not anything else, that
> > prevents the programmer from inadvertently inhibiting
> > a compiler optimization by passing around a reference.
> 
> Not exactly, the compiler may still need to build a reference.
> 
>     let mutable x = 0 in
>     List.iter (fun y -> x <- x+y) l;
>     x
> 
> Since x has to be modified in a function called by iter, it must be
> wrapped into an actual reference cell.
> 
> As the compiler already does a good job at unboxing only locally used
> references, let mutable would only be some syntactic sugar (with
> exactly the same typing as a reference).
> 
> > Besides, the syntax is probably quite a bit more 
> > natural to imperative programmers anyway.
> 
> This is actually the only argument for let mutable.
> I would also like such a construct, but I don't know whether its worth
> it. The real question is whether let mutable should be allowed at
> toplevel, with problems for both answers.
> 
> Cheers,
> 
> Jacques Garrigue
> -------------------
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The introduction of a ``let mutable'', more concisely noted with the
var keyword, is not new: it has been discussed in the Caml groups 3 or
4 years ago. We chose to abandon it for sake of semantics simplicity
of the language. This construction would have introduced the notion of
Lvalue in Caml, thus introducing some additional semantics complexity,
and a new notion to explain to beginners. Furthermore, the efficiency
gain was not clear, since Xavier had succeeded at optimizing reference
allocations for all typical uses of references that are relevant to
the proposed (less powerful) ``let mutable'' bound variables.

Let me explain the semantics arguments (semantics is more important
that many of us think, although all of us are syntax lovers and syntax
alternate features advocates) for pure references and against the
introduction of ``let mutable'' bound variables.

Dynamic semantics (or evaluation mechanism)
-------------------------------------------

You may not have noticed that Caml mutable values (references or
arrays) have a first class citizen status, being treated as regular
values with respect to data structures manipulation and function calls
and returns. For example, the assignment operators are regular
functions with no magic (such as special annotations of arguments at
definition time, or special operation at call sites). Hence you can
define your own assigment functions using regular Caml programming:

let ( += ) r v = r := !r + v;;
val ( += ) : int ref -> int -> unit = <fun>

Now, if you write x += 2 you apply the (infix) operator += to the two
expressions x and 2. This is just regular Caml computation, hence you
can write arbitrary programs instead of x and 2. For instance, f y +=
g 0 means that function call f y returns a reference whose contents is
incremented by (the value of) g 0.

Note that the mechanism is also that simple for the ! operator: ! has
no special evaluation rule, it is applied to the value of its argument
(which must be a reference) and returns it contents. Hence you may
write !(f y), provided that f y returns a reference.

In the same vein you can redefine the usual := operator (for instance
to count the number of assigments in your program):

let assignment_count = ref 0;;

let ( := ) r v =
  incr assignment_count;
  r := v;;
val ( := ) : 'a ref -> 'a -> unit = <fun>

If you prefer the C way, you can even use:

let ( = ) r v = r := v;;
val ( = ) : 'a ref -> 'a -> unit = <fun>

Now you loose = as a short hand for the polymorphic comparison, but as
desired, r = 1 will gladly assign 1 to r ...

Another interesting point: there is no scope limitation or odity for
references; references obey the usual scope and life time rules.

Static semantics (or typechecking mechanism)
--------------------------------------------

On this (hard) side, nothing to gain with the new construct: the
restriction on typechecking of polymorphic refs should be maintained
for vars, or we must revert to the original complicated (and probably
not proved sound) rule of original ML (see below).

Historical (and personal) note:
-------------------------------

The proposed construct is not new: it has been introduced in original
ML (from LCF) by Robin Milner in 1978. Mutable variables were
introduced by letref (reminiscent of the letrec keyword that
introduced recursive definitions at that time). You would declare a
(so-called) reference identifier by the definition

letref x = 0;;

and assign it using:

x := x + 1;;

(Note that on the left of := you needed a left value, hence an
identifier previously defined via letref.)

During the year 1984, the ML team discovered that allocating a cell
for letref identifiers will enhance the power of ``letref''
definitions since references could be treated as first class citizen
values. My first compilation programming exercise was to implement the
new feature into the V6.1 version of the ML compiler during falls 1984
(or may be at beginning of 1985 ?). We simultaneously maintained both
constructs in the language; we also used the same := operator to
assign references (desambiguated via a compiler annotation of letref
bound identifiers), and an explicit deref function to get the contents
of the new references. After the introduction of the shorter !
dereferencing operator, everybody in the ML community (read community
as ``the people logged on our vax or on the Cambridge University's
vax''!) agreed that the old letref construct was subsumed by the new
references stuff. Thus, I suppressed the old letref construct from the
language. The special typing rule for letref was reinforced for the
new references (but getting rid of the strange lambda-bound
restriction of the letref construct) in a trivial way: at the end of
typechecking all references defined in the program should have
monomorphic types. As you may know this was the beginning of a long
and difficult quest of the right typing restriction for safe
manipulation of polymorphic mutable values in ML-like
languages. Although the currently used value restriction rule was
discovered by Greg Morrisset in 1995, the Caml team actively
participated to this quest with a POPL article by Xavier Leroy and I
in 1991, and culminated with Xavier's PHD thesis in 1992.

Conclusion:
-----------

On the language design side, we worked hard to bypass the limitations
of letrefs in order to design first class citizens references, and to
get rid of left values in the language. On the compiler construction
side, Xavier worked hard to optimise spurious allocations of
references that can be treated as vars. I think we now have the power
and conceptual simplicity of references along with the runtime
efficiency of letrefs, I don't see the point to introduce a new
arguably useless construct.

Best regards,

Pierre Weis

INRIA, Projet Cristal, Pierre.Weis@inria.fr, http://pauillac.inria.fr/~weis/


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