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[Caml-list] some Hashtbl observations
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Date: -- (:)
From: doug@b...
Subject: [Caml-list] some Hashtbl observations
I recently had occasion to create a hash table to remember some Num's
I was generating. Of course, I didn't figure out right away that you
can't directly use the generic interface for Hashtbl with the type
"Num".

Well, actually, you *can* but you won't find out you have made an
error until you are already a good way into your work:

# #load "nums.cma";;
# let h = Hashtbl.create 10;;
val h : ('_a, '_b) Hashtbl.t = <abstr>
# let one = Num.num_of_int 1;;
val one : Num.num = Num.Int 1
# let nine_tenths = Num.num_of_string "9/10";;
val nine_tenths : Num.num = Num.Ratio <abstr>
# let ten_ninths = Num.num_of_string "10/9";;
val ten_ninths : Num.num = Num.Ratio <abstr>
# let remember k = try Hashtbl.find h k with Not_found -> Hashtbl.add h k ();;
val remember : ('a, unit) Hashtbl.t -> 'a -> unit = <fun>
# remember one;;
- : unit = ()
# remember nine_tenths;;
- : unit = ()
# remember ten_ninths;;
Exception: Failure "equal: abstract value".

D'oh!  So I guess I shouldn't use an <abstr> type as a hash key in the
generic Hashtbl interface.  That makes sense in hindsight.

Well, I went off to try to create my own custom hash with the functorial
interface. The invocation was a bit of a mystery to me, but I eventually
found an example and got that to work. But it seemed pretty slow. I
tried a couple different hashing functions, one was just:

let hash_of_num n = Hashtbl.hash (float_of_num n);;

With the other I tried converting the numer/denom to ints, and
shifting the numerator left 15 bits. In any case, it seemed like I
ended up with pretty slow find/add operations. (Also, I was using
eq_num as the "equal" function).

I realized that since I was only using Num's to represent small rational
numbers that I could switch back to the generic Hashtbl interface and
use as a key a tuple of ints to represent (numerator, denominator). That
turned out faster than my custom hash (by about an order of magnitude
for my program), and the generic Hashtbl interface seemed happy with it.
(I also saved the actual Num value along with each key generated so I
didn't have to do any backwards conversion).

I sat and pondered why OCaml couldn't tell me earlier on why there was
a problem storing Num's via the generic interface. I think I figured it
out. Some operations require the application of (=) to the keys, and
unless you hit that operation on keys that are =-wise incompatible, you
won't see the exception above. e.g.:

# one = one;;
- : bool = true
# one = ten_ninths;;
- : bool = false
# nine_tenths = ten_ninths;;
Exception: Failure "equal: abstract value".

Well, that makes sense. I wondered if the type system could be used to
check earlier on if the key type has the property of being =-compatible,
but am I right in surmising that if so, it would require changes to both
Hashtbl and Num? I suppose that may not be practical.

Maybe Hashtbl's behavior for keys of abstract type could be more
explicitly documented? It might help some other newbies.

Anyway, that's my trip report from the land of Hashtbl. If anyone can
suggest ways I could have made life easier for myself, please let me
know.  Thanks.

cheers,
doug
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