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[Caml-list] Recursive classes are impossible?
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Date: 2002-06-26 (02:37)
From: John Prevost <j.prevost@c...>
Subject: Re: [Caml-list] Recursive classes are impossible?
>>>>> "ab" == Alessandro Baretta <alex@baretta.com> writes:

    ab> Why is it that an explicit upcast is needed?

In this case, the explicit cast is needed to "remove" the color method
and make it into a real tree.

Something to note in this case is that you may not get what you
intended with the classes you defined.  You said:

class tree =
  object (s)
    val mutable ch = ( [] : tree list )
    method get = ch
    method set x = ch <- x

class broccoli =
   object (s)
     inherit tree
     method color = "green"

In this case, you'll notice that the children of broccoli are a tree
list, not a broccoli list.  So while broccoli can hold broccolis, you
can't call the color method on its children.  And, you can put normal
trees into broccolis as well.

As for the broader view, contravariance begins to show up whenever you
have a set method.  One way to get around it in the case of broccoli
and trees might be this:

class type ['a] read_tree =
  object ('s)
    method children : 's list
    method contents : 'a

class type ['a] read_broccoli =
  object ('s)
    method children : 's list
    method contents : 'a
    method color : string

class ['a] tree x =
  object (_ : 's)
    val mutable ch = ([] : 's list)
    val mutable co = (x : 'a)
    method children = ch
    method set_children ch' = ch <- ch'
    method contents = x
    method set_contents co' = co <- co'

class ['a] broccoli x =
    inherit ['a] tree x
    method color = "green"

Now there are several ways to work with variance issues.  First, while
you can't cast a broccoli to a tree, you *can* cast it to a read_tree:

# let a = new broccoli 10;;
val a : int broccoli = <obj>
# (a :> 'a read_tree);;
- : int read_tree = <obj>

This is because a read_tree has no way to set the value, so we've
excluded the contravariant case.  The other good thing about this is
that we've removed two contravariant cases.  One case is the
set_children call, the other is the set_contents call.  This allows us
to go a step further--'a read_tree is covariant now in 'a, so we can
take a function that expects a "'c read_tree" and hand it a "'d
read_tree", assuming that 'c :> 'd.  (Or coerce it.)

Finally, there's a certain distinction between methods and functions
when it comes to these things.  When you define a function, you'll see
polymorphism work better.  For example:

let rec count_nodes x =
  List.fold_left (+) 1 (List.map count_nodes (x #children))

With this function, you can do:

# let a = new broccoli 10;;
val a : int broccoli = <obj>
# let b = new tree 10;;
val b : int tree = <obj>
# count_nodes a;;
- : int = 1
# count_nodes b;;
- : int = 1

You still need explicit coercions if you want to make a list
containing both broccolis and trees:

# List.map count_nodes [(a :> 'a read_tree); (b :> 'a read_tree)];;
- : int list = [1; 1]

but noticing this feature of row-polymorphism goes a long way towards
making good use of the object features of O'Caml.  O'Caml's more
powerful type discipline means we can step on our own feet with these
co- vs. contravariance issues, but it also means we can do more
powerful interesting things: since subtyping isn't bound to
inheritance, polymorphic functions can be very very powerful.


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