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[Caml-list] Dynamic types, casts, and rights amplification
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Date: 2001-07-03 (20:47)
From: Mark Seaborn <mrs35@c...>
Subject: [Caml-list] Dynamic types, casts, and rights amplification

Here's a nice use of OCaml's casts to provide what can be viewed as an
open dynamic type (except that variant tags -- called brands here --
are created at run time).

  (* Should obey these axioms:
       unpack b (pack b x) = Some x
       unpack b1 (pack b2 x) = None    provided b1 != b2
       unpack b null = None
     (ie. for the last one, the brand for null is closely-held)
     and lastly:
       make_brand() != make_brand()
     NB. The equality used here is behavioural equality (which
     is undecidable) rather than OCaml's `=' or `=='.
  (* I was going to have:
     make_brand : 'a -> 'a brand
     where the argument is an example value which is ignored.
     But this isn't really necessary, and it could be awkward. *)
  module type Dyn = sig
    type 'a brand
    type t
    val make_brand : unit -> 'a brand
    val pack : 'a brand -> 'a -> t
    val unpack : 'a brand -> t -> 'a option
    val null : t

  module Dyn : Dyn = struct
    (* Don't care about this type; it is cast to and from,
       the equivalent of C's void*. *)
    type any = int
    type 'a brand = Stamp.t
    type t = Stamp.t * any
    let make_brand() = Stamp.make()
    let pack brand value = (brand, Obj.magic value)
    let unpack brand1 (brand2, value) =
      if Stamp.eq brand1 brand2 then Some (Obj.magic value) else None
    let null = pack (make_brand()) ()

using this module:

  module type Stamp = sig
    type t
    val make : unit -> t
    val eq : t -> t -> bool
  module Stamp : Stamp = struct
    type t = unit ref
    let make() = ref()
    let eq s1 s2 = s1 == s2

and here's a utility built with the Dyn module:

  (* Should obey these axioms:
       unpack (pack x) = x
       unpack (pack2 b s x) = x
       amplify b (pack x) = None
       amplify b (pack2 b s x) = Some s
       amplify b1 (pack2 b2 s x) = None    provided b1 != b2
     Note that
       pack x = pack2 b s x
     where b is closely-held, ie. not available to anyone.
     The last axiom is simply the generativity of make_brand:
       make_brand() != make_brand()
     NB. The equality used here is behavioural equality (which
     is undecidable) rather than OCaml's `=' or `=='.
  module type RightsAmp = sig
    type 'a t
    type 'a brand
    val make_brand : unit -> 'a brand
    val pack2 : 'b brand -> 'b -> 'a -> 'a t
    val pack : 'a -> 'a t
    val unpack : 'a t -> 'a
    val amplify : 'b brand -> 'a t -> 'b option
  module RightsAmp : RightsAmp = struct
    type 'a brand = 'a Dyn.brand
    type 'a t = 'a * Dyn.t
    let make_brand = Dyn.make_brand
    let pack2 brand secret value = (value, Dyn.pack brand secret)
    let pack value = (value, Dyn.null)
    let unpack (value, _) = value
    let amplify brand (_, x) = Dyn.unpack brand x

I believe it's type sound, because it's not possible to create
polymorphic brands by the same restriction that prevents reference
values from being used polymorphically (the fact that this worked was
rather neat, I thought).  However, if OCaml changed its tagged data
representation, casting could probably no longer be used this way (is
that likely to happen?).  I think it should be possible to
alternatively implement this with brands as weak hash tables, and
Dyn.t as a unique stamp acting as a hash table key (though OCaml
doesn't provide weak hash tables, I think).

I found this particularly useful for getting around OCaml's
restrictions on circular dependencies between modules (in particular,
not being able to use a module parametrically in a cycle of
mutually-recursive types).

I used it to wrap up closures and allow the creator of closures to
recognise those closures it created and unpack hidden data from them
(or fall back to the default case for closures created by others) --
this is where the RightsAmp module comes in.  It would have been
convenient if this layer of wrapping was not needed and closures could
be branded directly -- I imagine that the representation of closures
is fairly flexible, and this could be a more lightweight solution.
Brands would act a little like classes, except that the identity of a
class would act like a capability and need not be revealed.

I wonder, has anyone done this before?  And if so, what phrases did
they use?  (I have seen `brand' associated with rights amplification,
so I used that term.)

What is the chance of this going into the OCaml distribution?
ie. Would you want to commit yourself to providing this interface in
OCaml in the future?

         Mark Seaborn
   - mseaborn@bigfoot.com - http://www.srcf.ucam.org/~mrs35/ -

        ``Cambridge?  Didn't that used to be a polytechnic?''
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