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The Implicit Accumulator: a design pattern using optional arguments
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Date: 2007-06-27 (16:38)
From: Thomas Fischbacher <tf@f...>
Subject: Re: [Caml-list] The Implicit Accumulator: a design pattern using optional arguments

Quc Peyrot wrote:

>> There are many many way more advanced tricks one would want to play
>> with the idea of "allocating buffers at the appropriate time". For
>> example, if this were LISP, one could often use dynamically scoped (in
>> the sense of (declare (dynamic-extent buffer-stack))) contextual
>> variables for great benefit (and these gory details often can also be
>> hidden quite conveniently under a few (maybe even in-place macrolet)
>> macros...), but unfortunately, OCaml does not support anything like
>> that. Of course, re-entrantness of your code may always become an
>> issue if you move buffers to higher scopes.
> I didn't get that part, but I'm not familiar with Lisp.

One example: what you can do quite easily in LISP is to introduce
a global lookup thingy MEMOIZATIONS (say, a list of hash tables
or something like that) and define macros WITH-LOCAL-MEMORY and
MEMOIZING where WITH-LOCAL-MEMORY defines a new dynamic
memoization scope, and MEMOIZING wraps up a few functions in such
a way that they use memoization. Result: we can have both
memoization on functions as well as defined behaviour with respect
to when memoized values are being forgotten again (namely, when
we are finished with the evaluation of the form


Note that functions dynamically called from functions lexically scoped
inside this construct will ALSO use the same local memoization table!
In other words, when control flow exits the WITH-LOCAL-MEMORY block
(in whatever way it does so), our memoizing information is returned to
precisely the state it was in before we entered that block. That is
the magic of dynamic scoping.

In code:

(defvar *MEMOIZATIONS* '())

(defun _LOOKUP-MEMO (sym-f args)
   (let ((f-args (cons sym-f args)))
	((walk (rest-memo)
	       (if (null rest-memo)
		   (values nil nil)
		 (let ((h (car rest-memo)))
		   (multiple-value-bind (entry was-present)
		       (gethash f-args h)
		     (if was-present
			 (values entry t)
		       (walk (cdr rest-memo))))))))
       (walk *MEMOIZATIONS*))))

(defmacro WITH-LOCAL-MEMORY (&body body)
   `(let ((*MEMOIZATIONS*
	  (cons (make-hash-table :test 'equal)
      (declare (dynamic-extent *MEMOIZATIONS*))
      . ,body))

(defmacro MEMOIZING (funs &body body)
   (let* (($args (gensym "args-"))
	 ($key (gensym "key-"))
	 ($val (gensym "val-"))
	 ($have (gensym "have-"))
	  (lambda (sym)
	    `(,sym (&rest ,$args)
		(let ((,$key (cons ',sym ,$args)))
		  (multiple-value-bind (,$val ,$have)
		      (_LOOKUP-MEMO ',sym ,$args)
		    (if ,$have ,$val
		      (let ((,$val (apply #',sym ,$args)))
			(setf (gethash ,$key (car *MEMOIZATIONS*)) ,$val)
     `(flet ,(mapcar wrap-funcall funs)
        . ,body)))

;; Example:

     ((foo (x) (+ 1 (* 3 x)))
      (bar (x) (/ x 2)))
   (memoizing (foo bar)
	((check-3x+1 (n nr-steps)
	    ((= n 1) nr-steps)
	    ((evenp n) (check-3x+1 (bar n) (+ 1 nr-steps)))
	    (t (check-3x+1 (foo n) (+ 1 nr-steps))))))
       (do ((j 1 (+ 1 j))) ((= j 100))
	 (print (cons j (check-3x+1 j 0))))))))

> I mean, for someone like me, with quite some experience in the asm/c/c 
> ++ world (i.e. a garbage collector-less world) but not much in other  
> languages, it's easy to naively think of a garbage collector as a  fancy 
> feature to prevent from having to call "free/delete". But I'm  starting 
> to realize there is a whole new set of powerful design  patterns which 
> come along. It has been said multiple times on this  mailing list, but I 
> think we really miss a book about these design  patterns and 
> optimization tricks often specific to a given (or a set  of) feature 
> (functional, lazy computations, garbage collector...).

Two comments about this: First, one should not think along the lines of
"design patterns" here, as if this were Something Universally Good(TM).
Rather, a "design pattern" very often is the equivalent of a clever way
to open a tin with a pair of scissors: an "industry best practice"
workaround that deals with a problem created by the language that should
not be there in the first place! (Paul Graham wrote a nice article on

Whenever you discover a "design pattern" in your work, it pays to think
about it like this: why does such a pattern occur? Is it because I try
to work around a problem such as wanting to tell the machine about X but
not being able to express it the way I like to think about it myself?

If so, it is often a good idea to consider introducing a language
extension (quite simple if your language provides you with some
meta-linguistic capabilities, ideally: dirty macros plus a code-walker)
to deal with this evidently linguistic limitation.

This brings me to my second comment: it does take a lot of experience
to advance to the level of a language-shaping wizard: there are many
pitfalls and things that at first look as if they may work, but have
subtle undesired implications. One has to develop a strong sense for
important invariants under code transformations to get that bit right.

With this, I suppose, a proper book on both "functional optimization
strategies" and "ideas that help you to overcome mental barriers with
respect to what's possible when one can shape the language" would be
useful, not so much to "teach specific patterns", but to teach people
how to overcome their mental blockades and learn how to use their
phantasy to do marvelous things by shaping language. In the
Permaculture community, there is this proverb that "yield is
limited only by imagination". I think this holds just as much for
functional and in particular metalinguistic programming.

(I have been planning for years to eventually write up some
lengthier introductory text on metalinguistic techniques, but so
far only managed to write a few articles and give some short courses
on the subject...)

> I find it ironical that high-level languages (such as ocaml) are  
> intended (of course that's my interpretation of it) to hide low-level  
> details and give you more expressiveness in your code, which should  
> naively make you more productive, and make it easier to program  
> something. But requires therefore tons of new knowledges and deep  
> understanding of advanced concepts to be able to actually code  
> efficient (runtime and memory-wise) code.

Languages such as OCaml are not "intended to hide low-level details".

Rather, there are (at least) two very different notions of "programming"

(1) Putting information into a mechanically behaving system in order
     to get some desired behaviour. (This is what asm/C/C++ is about,
     but actually, this even is a much broader notion that also includes
     e.g. this:

(2) Formalizing some "mental process" in such a way that one can
     then use stringent reasoning to analyze its properties. (This is
     what, in essence, functional programming is about.)

Evidently, the more advanced you get, the more important the second
point of view becomes. But, with people being hedonistic and out for
quick results, we will keep on re-inventing simple instruction-based
programming systems over and over again, redoing all the historic
mistakes of unstructured goto programming, inappropriate checks for
exceptional conditions (such as overflows), not paying attention to
dynamical resource management at the level of the framework,
etc. etc. in novel designs till the dusk of the computing epoch.

>> Other advanced optimization techniques that can be used for benefit
>> in very specialized situations include (explicit) continuation coding:
>> rather than returning a value (e.g. a tuple), you take as an argument
>> a function to which you then pass on your return value(s). This is  quite
>> useful whenever "execution flow branches out into multiple paths that
>> have to be taken", and may sometimes (though rarely) also be used for
>> good as a poor man's VALUES/MULTIPLE-VALUE-BIND substitute.
> I didn't get that part at all. I think I would need an example to  
> understand
> why it is interesting to pass the function instead of just returning  
> the tuple
> and processing it.

Exercise: Write a program that takes as an argument an integer N and
spits out a string that is a piece of C code which looks as follows
for N=2:

void sort(int x1, int x2, int *buffer)

This should be generalized to higher N, where the constraints are:

* The generated piece of code must only contain ifs, </> comparisons,
   and assignments to the buffer.

* In the end, buffer must hold the input variables in sorted order.

* The code must use the minimal number of comparisons.

If you do this exercise, you will discover that the idea of continuation
coding can be very, very helpful.

best regards,
Thomas Fischbacher