~icefox/garnet

#The Generics Problem

(This assumes you know Rust and probably something about compilers. We're also going to pretend for this document that Rust traits and Haskell typeclasses are the same thing, and use the terms basically interchangably. Also I am very much not an expert in type theory or related mathematics; I am at best a very determined idiot.)

The essential problem generics try to solve is one of code reuse. How do we write a data type List<T> and a bunch of methods for it that can work with any type T? If we use C then we copy-paste all our list processing code and find-and-replace the type involved for each different T we need, and call it a day. And it works. (Yes C has macros, they're terrible.) So generics are a purely(?) ergonomic feature, the CPU doesn't care how many times you copy-paste that code (instruction cache aside). But it's absolute hell trying to actually fix and update stuff written like this, so nobody really wants to do it this way. It's a place where it's obvious our tools should take the burden of the work from us.

The alternative to having programming language support for generics or copy-pasting your general-purpose code is to work outside the type system, ie use void pointers everywhere. This chucks compile-time safety out the window and so is unsatisfactory, and it also turns out the CPU does care about it when you write code this way. If your generic data structures always have to touch their data through a pointer then doing that extra pointer load is slower than having data structures that store their contents inline. Generic code the compiler specializes for the data type can be faster than workarounds.

Generic types alone are not too complicated to implement. Every language with typed arrays has some kind of generic types in them. The complexity comes up when you want to start reasoning about the relationships between types, including types you don't know about yet. It's easy to implement List<T>. It is more complicated to make it so you can write an equals() function that takes a List<T>, and have it work for any List<T> where T can be compared for equality. The key point is that the Eq<T> definition doesn't need to know about our List impl, and the List<Eq<T>> impl doesn't need to know anything about T other than it has an Eq impl. You reduce copy-pasting by decoupling the code into a few different interchangable parts, and let the compiler jigsaw-puzzle it back together for you to get the result you want. So that is our goal. How can we do this?

#Why not macros/templates?

Syntactic macros, or their more refined children type templates, are actually a fairly tempting solution to this. I should explore it more, it's on my to-do list. The concept is simple: automate the C-like copy-paste process.

Zig's comptime code generation is an example of this approach. From what I've seen it works pretty well in practice. It has one big property that I don't like though: whether or not your code typechecks is tested when the macro/template is expanded, not when it is defined. This means that you can write a comptime function that generates invalid code in some cases, and you never find out about it as long as those cases never happen. For small macros/templates this is perfectly fine because it's easy to make sure all the code is tested. But when you start using it for large and complicated things that may have unused code paths lurking in unexpected places, it starts to worry me. Maybe it works fine in practice most of the time, but the idea leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Also, the moment you start having non-trivial relationships between your types then with this approach starts falling apart because the compiler can't reason about them very well. It's difficult to express relationships like "Every implementation of Ord is also an implementation of Eq" using macros. So while this approach's power is effectively unlimited, it doesn't offer much help to the programmer beyond the minimum possible.

#Why not typeclasses?

I really feel like a lot of Rust's learning curve and complexity comes from traits. Traits add another layer of semantic reasoning to understand and figure out that is separate from your existing normal code of functions and type definitions, with its own set of concepts like coherence, trait constraints, associated types, and so on. (Then it gets even more complex when you add lifetimes into it; I am not even going to pretend to consider lifetimes for Garnet yet.) Plus when you start to take traits further you start getting into higher kinded types and more complex theoretical stuff which, like deep inheritance hierarchies, tends to bog one down with data-model concerns that seldom have much marginal benefit. Rust also makes some decisions here that I believe don't help the matter, such as using traits to represent magical compiler behaviors such as Copy.

So in the vein of making different choices from Rust I'm going to try to use "modules", which are a different sort of generic abstraction. Modules may trade off some power for simplicity, or maybe just trade off one kind of complexity for another, we will see. That said, typeclasses and modules are definitely related; in some way they are duals of each other, the same image being viewed from different directions. So the goal of this is to try to see how modules work out in practice.

#Garnet's solution thus far: Modules

The design path that lead me to modules was basically one of minimizing language constructs. With traits you define a trait by making a collection of function types, then implement it by writing functions that conform to those types, and so on. And well, we already have a way to make a group of named functions with particular signatures and use it as a type, they're called "structs". So what if our language primitives were actually just functions and structs? What if our "interface"-like definitions were simply structs that worked exactly the same as any other struct, and to make our type-checker happy we just use them in a way that it knows it can solve?

Turns out this is pretty much exactly what SML/OCaml "modules" are. When you strip out nicities those languages add like inheritance, defining relationships with types from other modules, global type inference, and all that jazz, then a module is just a struct that can have types as its members as well as functions. ML traditionally makes things all kinda weird and confusing with a separate module syntax and a plethora of features, but I don't think there's any real reason they can't just be treated like normal structs and manipulated via the same language constructs as any other value. If not entirely, then at least mostly. There's a cool research paper for a language called 1ML that does pretty much exactly this, but frankly if we choose to require type annotations on functions and some values then I don't think we even need 1ML. So far. I could be wrong! This is an experiment after all.

(Digression: Lua does something spiritually similar to this with its metatables. It's pretty great! Basically each value has a "metatable" attached that has some magical methods on it that are called by operators, comparisons, etc. It also includes methods that are called on function application and on method lookup failure, so with these small primitives you can build just about anything. Getting too fancy with this sort of metatable probably isn't a good idea, but you can 100% define a type List, define a new type T, implement a custom comparison method for T and List separately, and have list1 == list2 do the Right Thing. But the key is that a metatable is just a normal table, it looks and works exactly like it and you write code for it in Lua like anything else. The only problem is that Lua is a dynamic language, so actually doing this is usually figured out at runtime. If there's a mistake in a method name, it is found at runtime. I want to be able to make the type checking work at compile time, so that I don't have programs with unpredictable runtime characteristics. So we need to be able to have our type-checker reason about this at compile time.)

Ok, digression over. Let's get to a use case, play it out, and see how it goes. Ignore the syntax, this is all a proof of concept that will change, and I am blatantly just stealing the design and names from the equivalent Rust traits. Let's make an Eq module definition for testing equality of a type:

type Eq(@Self) = struct
    equal: fn(@Self, @Self): Bool
end

This just defines a struct with one generic type parameter, called Self. (The @ is there to make it easy to parse type parameters in my proof of concept code. Like I said, ignore the syntax.) There is absolutely nothing special about the Self type, you could name it T or Arglebargle or whatever you wanted. The struct contains one member, a function that takes two arguments of type Self and returns a Bool. Ok, say we define a new type and want to implement this Eq ability for it. We just make a new instance of this struct:

const IntEq = $Eq(I32) {
    .equal = fn(lhs: I32, rhs: I32): Bool = ... end,
}

-- Actually use it...
IntEq.equal(1, 2)

(The $Eq(T) syntax is a constructor that produces a new struct of the type Eq(T). Our structs are all nominally typed, like Rust's structs: if we have a different struct definition Foo(T) with the same fields as Eq(T), you still cannot interchange them.)

With that out of the way... take a look at our "trait implementation". This is just a normal constant like any other value in the code! It has a name, it has a type, if we want it can have an exported symbol in the binary, etc. We can call IntEq.equal(3, 4) and it just works, and if the compiler can prove that IntEq is constant in your program then it can inline it down so you don't need to go through a function pointer in practice. It's kinda weird that you need to know it's called IntEq instead of the name just being Eq<I32> like it is for Rust traits but that's okay for now. Maybe we can figure out a shortcut for that later, or at worst a naming convention. Let's try this again for something else... how about making a fake List type and implementing index and length methods on it?

type List(@T) = struct
    dummy_data: @T,
end

type Idx(@Self, @Output) = struct
    idx: fn(@Self): @Output,
end

type Len(@Self) = struct
    len: fn(@Self): I32,
end

const ListLen = $Len(List(@T)) {
    .len = fn(self: List(@T)): I32 = ... end
}

const ListIdx = $Idx(List(@T), @T) {
    .idx = fn(self: List(@T), i: I32): @T = ... end
}

Cool, let's do something with it!

fn sum(l: List(I32)): I32 =
    let mut total: I32 = 0
    for i in range(0, ListLen.len(l)) do
        total += ListIdx.idx(l, i)
    end
    total
end

Great, looks good to me. Kinda chonky, but it works. Now... What if we want to implement the equivalent of Rust's Eq<List<T>> where T: Eq? Well we have a type for Eq already, so we know Eq(List(T)) has to look something like this...

const ListEq = $Eq(List(@T)) {
    .equal = fn(lhs: List(@T), rhs: List(@T)): Bool =
        if ListLen.len(lhs) != ListLen.len(rhs) then return false
        else
            for i in range(0, List.len(lhs)) do
                let thing1 = List.idx(lhs, i)
                let thing2 = List.idx(rhs, i)
                if not thing1 == thing2 then -- OH NO
                    return false
                end
            end
        end
        return true
    end
end

...uh oh. We do thing1 == thing2 which needs to call some method Eq.equal(thing1, thing2) but we don't have a module of type Eq(T). We have to provide an instance of the Eq module that knows how to compare our T type! Uhhhhhh oh dear well let's just write it how we think it should look and see what happens:

    ...
    .equal = (lhs: List(@T), rhs: List(@T), eq_impl: Eq(@T)): Bool =
        if List.len(lhs) != List.len(rhs) then return false
        else
            for i in range(0, List.len(lhs)) do
                let thing1 = List.idx(lhs, i)
                let thing2 = List.idx(rhs, i)
                if not eq_impl.eq(thing1, thing2) then
                    return false
                end
            end
        end
        return true
    end
    ...

Great, but we've changed the signature of the eq() method! We can't do that! If only we could sneak the eq_impl value into the struct via a closure:

fn make_list_eq_thingy(eq_impl: Eq(@T)): Eq(List(@T)) =
    let our_new_eq_method = fn(lhs: List(@T), rhs: List(@T)): Bool =
        if List.len(lhs) != List.len(rhs) then return false
        else
            for i in range(0, List.len(lhs)) do
                let thing1 = List.idx(lhs, i)
                let thing2 = List.idx(rhs, i)
                if not eq_impl.equal(thing1, thing2) then
                    return false
                end
            end
        end
        return true
    end

    $Eq(List(@T)) { .equal = our_new_eq_method }
end

Great, well we don't have a const of type Eq(List(T)) for any T, but we have a function that can produce a value of that type. Weird. But it turns out this kind of thing is perfectly valid! ML calls it a "functor", but really it's just a function that takes a module and returns a new module. (Math people, don't bother correcting me.) So then we can use this to make our Eq(List(@T)) implementations for various T's:

const IntListEq = make_list_eq_thingy(IntEq)
const FloatListEq = make_list_eq_thingy(FloatEq)

...and so on for whatever type implementations we want. This way if a user creates their own type Foo, they can add their own implementation of Eq(List(Foo)) just by calling this function. Even better, if they make a Eq(Foo) impl for their custom type but don't impl List(Eq(Foo)), then a third party can do it. You don't have the coherence rules of Haskell or Rust where you can only make an implementation of a trait/typeclass if you are the creator of the trait or the type you are implementing it for. Win! I've made many PR's to various Rust crates that just added derive(Clone) or derive(Hash) or such to specific types, and it's a giant pain in the ass.

Plus, importantly for a lowish-level language like Garnet, if you use my preferred code analysis method of squinting at it and thinking real hard, you can convince yourself that a Sufficiently Smart Compiler can still evaluate this into something sensible at compile time. It's just a function after all, which does nothing but return a struct. If it's a pure function there's no problem with evaluating it at compile-time, and if it's not a pure function it has no business being called outside of another function anyway: Garnet's const is like Rust's const or Zig's comptime in that it means "this must be able to be evaluated at compile time". The only trick is that the struct has a closure in it, not a normal function. But the compiler has all the info it needs to figure that out and generate efficient code for it.

This has a couple downsides though. One, the ergonomics is something of a bitch. To compare two List(T)'s you have to find the matching implementation const for that particular List(T). Two, it turns out that coherence isn't just for show. If you call make_list_eq_thingy(IntEq) twice, you get two different Eq(List(I32)) values which, by ML's type rules at least, are not the same. You can say "the compiler knows these constant values are going to be identical and can let you take advantage of that" then it probably works in many cases, but if you have multiple different impl's and mix up one with the other the compiler will just say "Yep they're both Eq(List(I32)), looks good to me." The best example I've found of the hazards of this is that if you have two different implementations of Hash(Foo) and try to make a hashtable with a Foo as the key. You get a type HashTbl(Foo, Val) but if it doesn't encode the actual implementation of Hash involved in the HashTbl then you can have the case where one function in one library calls HashImpl1.insert(tbl, key, val) and another calls HashImpl2.get(tbl, key, val) with the same tbl value. When this happens then you just straight up die. There's ways to make it work that we'll talk about more later, but the bookkeeping involved with trying to keep track of all these module impl's can get intense. But this kind of coherence issue is a fundamental problem with having multiple separate implementations of the same interface, not unlike diamond inheritance in OO systems, and is just as awful to try to solve. IMO when that sort of thing occurs you're better off just telling the programmer to rethink their life instead of trying to be clever and solve it automatically. Rust/Haskell's coherence rules dodge this problem by just making it impossible to have two different implementations of the same trait that the compiler needs to choose among.

Ok, so there's some problems and tradeoffs to this approach. That's fine, we're all about tradeoffs here. The main practical difference between traits/typeclasses and these sorts of modules is that with traits the compiler does more of the accounting work for you. But that also introduces this icky layer of abstraction for you to reason about that loses nice properties like "a module can have the obvious runtime representation of a struct full of function pointers" and "your namespacing is identical for modules and types, and for module impls and values". You add more things to your language, instead of fitting together existing things in new ways. So I can think of a few ways to start smoothing out the bumps in this sort of module system, the simplest just being really good naming conventions with probably some compiler help. But can we do some more fancy stuff? What does it look like if we want to write a sum() function that can take anything vaguely list-y? I don't want to get into iterators right now, so we'll just do it the old fashioned way with our existing Idx and Len modules. Then we need an add() operation for arbitrary types, and a default value to return if the list-like thing we are summing has length 0:

type Add(@T) = struct
    add: fn(@T, @T): @T
end

type Default(@T) = struct
    default: fn(): @T
end

Great, now we can just write a function that iterates through anything list-y with number-ish contents and sums them all up:

fn generic_sum(
    container: @C,
    idx_impl: Idx(@C, @Item),
    len_impl: Len(@C),
    add_impl: Add(@Item),
    default_impl: Default(@Item)
): @Item =
    let mut total: @Out = default_impl.default()
    for i in range(0, len_impl.len(container)) do
        total = add_impl.add(total, idx_impl.idx(container, i))
    end
    total
end

Hey there we go! Simple, obvious, slightly verbose but perfectly normal code with no real tricks except some basic generic parameters, types and structs. It looks and works exactly how you'd expect. There's only one problem:

Trying to actually call this function is absolutely batshit. The signature of this function involves 4 different module impl's, and you have to keep track of them all, remember which values implement these modules for which types, and put them all in explicitly. If the goal is to make code reuse easier, then this is an abject failure.

#Modular implicits: A new hope?

I was feeling kinda down about this realization, but apparently people have been down this road before and in 2015 came up with an idea for a solution called modular implicits. This sounds both hopeful and hazardous from the start, so I was cautious. I hate anything implicit. But I also hate the idea of going from foo.sum() in Rust to sum(foo, std.FooIdx, std.FooLen, std.IntAdd, std.IntDefault) in Garnet. So maybe it's time for a little implicit-ness.

Even though it's originally inspired by Scala, the concept behind modular implicits is very simple. You write your hideous generic_sum() function signature as above and mark certain arguments as implicit. Then when you write a module definition you can also mark it implicit. Then instead of calling sum(foo, std.FooIdx, std.FooLen, std.IntAdd, std.IntDefault) you can just call sum(foo) and it will look for implicit definitions with types Idx(Foo, I32), Len(Foo), Add(I32), and Default(I32) and if it finds them then it will fill in the appropriate args with them. If there is more than one possible value for any arg, it will stop with a type error and tell you to disambiguate, and then you just pass the impl you want in like a normal param. And if you want to specify a particular impl over the default, again you can just pass it in. If you want to add a particular module to the list of implicits it will search for, then you just import it into the local scope, similar to Rust's traits. Making a type checker that is capable of handling these implicit args often requires that you give it explicit signatures for function definitions, but we do that already; no need for global inference IMO. So modular implicits are actually mind-bogglingly simple in concept, and apparently it works out pretty well. Let's try rewriting our horrible generic_sum() function using them:

const implicit ListIdx = ...
const implicit ListLen = ...
const implicit IntAdd = ...
const implicit IntDefault = ...

fn generic_sum(
    container: @C,
    idx_impl: implicit Idx(@C, @Item),
    len_impl: implicit Len(@C),
    add_impl: implicit Add(@Item),
    default_impl: implicit Default(@Item)
): @Item =
    let mut total: @Out = default_impl.default()
    for i in range(0, len_impl.len(container)) do
        total = sum_impl.add(total, idx_impl.idx(container, i))
    end
    total
end

let some_container: List(I32) = ...
generic_sum(some_container)

I don't like the implicit syntax per se, because despite appearances I don't actually like random modifier keywords hanging around all over the place. But that's just cosmetics. There's other ways you could specify what values to search for, up to and including just letting it use any value with the appropriate type, but same as the @ and $ sigils, starting off with explicit implicit markers is easy to parse and works fine for a proof of concept.

So... yeah. It's a braindead-obvious solution that seems to work pretty well, which appeals to me. There's some actual finesse involved with doing the search successfully, of course. You can read the paper and it discusses various details like "does this actually always work?" and "does the search for implementations actually always terminate?" and "do we get different results if we do the search in different orders?" You know, the little things.

#It's probably not that easy

Of course it isn't. Here's the major issues I am aware of.

#Inheritance

One wrinkle is module inheritance. IMO this is rarely necessary, but when it is useful it's very useful. A good example is having an Eq module and an Ord module. Anything that implements Ord is also Eq by definition. Meanwhile something that is not Eq can not be Ord. The Modular Implicits paper uses this case to demonstrate a sort of diamond-inheritance problem, let's re-implement it in Garnet to see how it looks (making up new syntax as necessary):

type Eq(@Self) = struct
    equal: fn(@Self, @Self): Bool
end

type Ord(@Self) = struct
    inherits Eq(@Self)
    cmp: fn(@Self, @Self): Ordering
end

So then you could do something like this:

fn make_list_eq(eq: Eq(@T)): Eq(List(@T) = ...
fn make_list_ord(ord: Ord(@T)): Ord(List(@T) = ...

const IntListOrd: Ord(List(I32)) = make_list_ord(IntOrd)
const IntListEq: Eq(List(@T)) = make_list_eq(IntEq)

fn equal(eq: implicit Eq(@T), x: @T, y: @T): Bool =
    eq.equal(x, y)
end

equal(list_of_int1, list_of_int2)

Since ListOrd is a valid implementation of Eq(List(@T)) as well as of Ord(List(@T)), the call to equal() can resolve the implicit argument to be Eq(List(I32)) or Ord(List(I32)). To paraphrase the Modular Implicits paper, we can restrict Ord(I32) to its parent Eq(I32) and then apply make_list_eq() to it to get Eq(List(I32), or we can apply make_list_ord() to IntOrd to get Ord(List(I32) and then restrict it to an Eq to get Eq(List(I32)). We have two unrelated implementations that can resolve to the same type, and ambiguous implicit resolutions are not allowed, so this will not typecheck without you giving it an implementation to use explicitly. And which is the right impl for you to give, anyway? So with this sort of inheritance, if you have different implementations in scope, different parts of the program may do different things from the same function call! Again from the paper, "in Haskell, the problem is avoided by canonicity -- it doesn't matter which way around the diamond we go, we know the result will be the same", because there's only one valid implementation of each trait.

So doing this kind of inheritance can make things explode, taking our already-not-necessarily-great coherence problem and making it worse. In the paper they instead do something similar to inheritance using "module aliases". Which, as far as I can tell, are baaaaasically just variables in your modules that refer to other modules. Well... what if our modules were just structs? You can already nest structs. So once again we turn OCaml's special case into our general case:

type Eq(@Self) = struct
    equal: fn(@Self, @Self): Bool
end

type Ord(@Self) = struct
    self_eq: Eq(@Self),
    cmp: fn(@Self, @Self): Ordering
end

Ok let's see what the world looks like with these new definitions:

-- A functor to define Eq for anything that already defines Ord.
-- This feels a little circular... but that circularity is
-- precisely the problem we're trying to solve, so here we go.
-- This is our "inheritance" operation...  we want Ord to inherit
-- from Eq, so any time you have an Ord(T) then you can turn it
-- into an Eq(T).
fn make_ord_eq(ord: Ord(@T)): Eq(@T) =
    $Eq(@T) {
        .equal: ord.self_eq.equal,
    }
end

const IntEq = $Eq(I32) {
    .equal = fn(lhs: I32, rhs: I32): Bool = ... end
}

const IntOrd = $Ord(I32) {
    .self_eq: IntEq,
    .compare = fn(lhs: I32, rhs: I32): Ordering = ... end
}

-- Functors to implement our Eq and Ord modules for lists of
-- particular T's.
fn make_list_eq(eq: Eq(@T)): Eq(List(@T)) =
    $Eq(List(@T) {
        .equal = fn(lhs: List(@T), rhs: List(@T)): Bool = ... end
    }
end

fn make_list_ord(ord: Ord(@T)): Ord(List(@T)) =
    $Ord(List(@T) {
        .self_eq = make_list_eq(ord.self_eq),
        .cmp: fn(lhs: List(@T), rhs: List(@T)): Ordering = ... end
    }
end

Ok, now if you try to create an Eq(List(@T)) you can call make_ord_eq(make_list_ord(OrdInt)) OR you can call make_list_eq(EqInt), which is a great demonstration of the diamond problem. (And also IMO a great example of how much ML's separate module syntax obscures its semantics, since it took me like half an hour on one page of the paper to figure out what the hell is actually going on here.) But (supposedly) the compiler is able to trace the value through the self_eq fields of the Ord implementatons to the make_list_eq(@T) call either way, so itknows it gets to the same actual value of type Eq(Int) both times, IntEq. The inheritance diamond still exists but, like Haskell, you can prove that you end up with the same actual implementation of your module no matter which path you trace through the diamond.

As the paper notes, this requires that all our functors that produce these modules are totally absolutely 100% pure functions. Fortunately, our functors need to be evaluated at compile time so that the compiler can figure out all the unknown types and optimize unneeded indirection away, and the way you make functions easy to evaluate at compile time is also to make them totally absolutely 100% pure functions. Since we can demonstrably do this kind of type metaprogramming with nothing but functions, structs and type params, I don't think this restriction is much of a problem.

#Coherence

So let's talk about this whole coherence problem more, since it seems to keep coming up. The modular implicits paper makes a useful distinction here: canonicity is the property that, essentially, each trait/typeclass has only one implementation per type. In Rust you can't have one crate that implements Hash<Foo> and another crate that implements Hash<Foo> for the same trait Hash and the same type Foo. With modules, we do not have this sort of canonicity, and in fact we can not since a programmer can just create whatever const struct value they want.

However, canonicity is a means, not an end in itself. The actual goal is coherence, which is basically the property that the definition of a function can't result in two different implementations depending on how its types are inferred. The above inheritance problem demonstrates a case where you can have two different valid solutions to a type inference problem that lead to different module implementations. So how can we have coherence without canonicity? Once again we'll take an example from the paper, that of an ordered set implemented by a binary tree:

type TreeSet(@Item) = struct
    contents: @Item,
    left: Option(TreeSet(@Item)),
    right: Option(TreeSet(@Item)),
end

fn contains(ord: implicit Ord(@T), set: TreeSet(@T, value: @T): Bool = ... end

let set_of_ints: TreeSet(I32) = ...
contains(IntOrd, set_of_ints, 3)
-- Or if IntOrd is already in scope we can let it be implicit:
contains(set_of_ints, 3)

However, this function doesn't quite work the way you want it to, because you can have multiple implementations of Ord(I32), say one that compares integers in ascending order and one that compares in descending order.

The solution the paper seems to give for this problem is "don't do this". You can instead write your contains() function as a method in a module that incorporates a particular Ord implementation, and use a functor to generate the implementation from whatever ordering you get it:

type Set(@SetType, @T) = struct
    .contains = fn(@SetType, itm: @T): Bool,
end

fn make_tree_set(ord: implicit Ord(@T)): Set(TreeSet(@T), @T) =
    $Set(TreeSet(@T), @T) {
        .contains = fn(set: TreeSet(@T), itm: @T): Bool = ... end
    }
end

fn contains(set_impl: implicit Set(@SetType, @T), set: @SetType, value: @T): Bool =
    set_impl.contains(set, value)
end

-- All right now let's imagine we have a file foo.gt:
const implicit IntAscendingOrd: Ord(I32) = ...
const MySetType = make_tree_set()

fn do_stuff(set: MySetType) =
    ...
end

-- then we have file bar.gt:
const implicit IntDescendingOrd: Ord(I32) = ...
const MySetType = make_tree_set()

let bar_set: MySetType = ...
foo.do_stuff(bar_set)

This successfully doesn't compile! foo.do_stuff() takes an value of type foo.MySetType, which is created by calling make_tree_set(foo.IntAscendingOrd), while bar.MySetType looks like it's defined the same way but is a different value created by calling make_tree_set(foo.IntDescendingOrd). These types are not interchangable and the compiler knows it! So if you define your Set module interface this way, then you get coherence without canonicity and the compiler will infallibly enforce it for you. In other words, you can't accidentally mix up Set impls with different implementations of Ord, as long as you make sure you define its interface properly.

So the compiler doesn't enforce it for you, but you can still work around the coherence problem with a bit of care. "Don't do that" isn't necessarily a particularly satisfactory solution to this sort of issue... but honestly, the canonicity solution of "you didn't create this type or this trait, so you better make a PR upstream because someone forgot to put #[derive(Ord)] on their structure" isn't very satisfactory either. And, upon inspection, Rust's HashMap implementation does something very similar to this in practice to allow you to substitute in different hash algorithms and create hashmaps with identical signatures but non-interchangable types. So really it turns out that the world is just an imperfect place where careful design is always a priority, either by action or inaction.

#Associated types

An associated type is basically just the ability to have a module with a field that is a type rather than a value:

type Foo = struct
    type SomeType
    foo: fn(self.SomeType)
end

If you're brave then you can just have associated types act like normal struct fields with the type type:

type Foo = struct
    SomeType: type,
    foo: fn(self.SomeType)
end

You can do this in practice quite simply: you just say that any instance of this struct cannot exist at runtime, you can only create it and evaluate it at compile time and it all must be optimized away into a puff of logic in the final program. This is basically the approach we've been taking with modules this whole time anyway. The problem is that having a type type that can represent any type is a heckin' fast track to making your type checker undecidable. Letting a program manipulate arbitrary types without any constraints makes it very easy to construct paradoxes like T = List<T> or T1 = T2, T2 = T1, and for some reason people tend to frown on type checkers that never terminate, and which can't even necessarily tell you why your program isn't type checking. So to prevent that you need more limitations and stuff on just what kind of type type can be, and proving that it all fits together correctly gets capital-T Tricky. It's a solvable problem with the right restrictions, and finding different sets of self-consistent restrictions leads you down the road of type systems like System F. But I'd prefer to just avoid it entirely if I can. No matter what choice I make it will be a layer of special cases atop our nicely simple system.

The thing is... I'm not convinced that we need associated types anyway. I've yet to run into a case with this module system where I couldn't just lift the associated type out of the struct into a type parameter, turning the module impl into a functor if necessary. In other words, every time I've translated a Rust trait with an associated type into Garnet been able to use type parameters and turn this:

type Foo = struct
    SomeType: type,
    foo: fn(self.SomeType)
end

into this:

type Foo(@SomeType) = struct
    foo: fn(@SomeType)
end

That isn't to say that associated types won't be needed at some point. Just that I haven't yet needed them. I may be missing something; these ARE fundamentally different things. Type parameters are given when the type is defined, associated types are given when the type is implemented. So maybe I'll eventually run into a case where associated types are necessary.

But if I can get away without having associated types, then I would like to. So let's look at a couple Rust traits that use associated types and try to implement them with modular generics:

-- Iterator module
type Iterator(@Iter, @Item) = struct
    next: fn(@Iter) -> Option(@Item),
end

-- Actual iterator type for our lists
type IteratorForList(@T) = struct
    list: List(@T),
    current_pos: I32,
end

-- impl Iterator<List<Item>> for IteratorForList<Item>
const ListIter = $Iterator(IteratorForList(@Item), @Item) {
    .next = fn(iter: IteratorForList(@Item)): Option(@Item) =
        if iter.current_pos == List.len(iter.list) then
            None
        else
            let itm = List.idx(iter.list, iter.current_pos)
            iter.current_pos += 1
            Some(itm)
        end
    end
}

Seems fine, really. Basically, we allow module implementations to have unbound type parameters in them, which is fine 'cause we allow functions to have unbound type parameters in them anyway, and our module implementations are just piles of functions. I might be doing this wrong, I'm still writing the code for actually implementing this. But it works in my head. Let's try again, and make something a bit more sophisticated than our previous Add definition:

type Add(@Lhs, @Rhs, @Out) = struct
    add: fn(@Lhs, @Rhs): @Out
end

const IntAdd = $Add(I32, I32, I32) {
    .add = fn(lhs: I32, rhs: I32): I32 = ... end
}

-- So we can do `instant + some_duration` and get a new instant out
const InstantDurationAdd = $Add(Instant, Duration, Instant) {
    .add = fn(lhs: Instant, rhs: Duration): Instant = ... end
}

So, seems to work. We don't need to refer to Self::Output or anything like the Rust version does, all those type parameters are in the same namespace introduced by $Add(...). It there's something where we don't know all those types until implementation time, we can we can write functors to fill in the gaps. (Section 3.6 of the Modular Implicits paper actually talks about exactly this, but I figured it out myself before reading it, hah!)

#Conclusions

So yeah. I'm fairly convinced this approach should work. I'm even reasonably convinced that it can create code that isn't a gigantic pain in the ass, which is the whole point after all. (And that's also more than I can say for stock ML modules.) I have a proof of concept of a type checker that implements the basic type system like 90% worked out as of Dec 2022, and adding the implicit searching atop it should really just be a transformation layer without any changes to the core type checker. So I should hopefully be able to play around with this for real fairly soon.

Things that are out of scope for now but will need be solved later:

  • Inheritance. Do we need it at all? I don't think so. As demonstrated above, we can define it ourselves within this system. If it gets too painful in practice it might be worth looking at options though.
  • Default values/implementations. This leads to just having default for struct types, which is pretty nice to have anyway.
  • We need something like Rust's derive macros. I love Rust's derive macros more than life itself.
  • Probably want a nice method call syntax. This is something I want anyway, so. My hope is that I can have foo:do_stuff() be syntactic sugar for do_stuff(foo), which then takes an implicit module argument do_stuff(SomeModule, foo). It will take a bit of juggling to see if that works out well in practice though. (On the flip side, our explicit modules already give us the ability to specialize function calls a la Rust's turbofish.)
  • Jesus these module impl names. impl Foo for Bar<T> where T: Eq is way more readable than fn make_foo(Bar(@T), Eq(@T)): Foo(Eq(@T)) or whatever. We really need some syntactic sugar around this sort of nonsense, and it might also be quite nice to make it so that functors can get called implicitly when we need them. Possibly we have a macro or something that takes a type and a module, and implements that module for that type and creates a value of that impl with a consistent naming scheme? Or we extend our modular implicits so that instead of searching for a module impl Foo(Bar) they can also search for a functor that returns a Foo(Bar) and calls it if necessary? This could end up related to whatever we do that is similar to derive's.

Discussion: https://lobste.rs/s/hot5by/garnet_generics_problem

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commit 3f084b326619e4446e39036ef33bdc7a26491b7f
Author: Simon Heath <icefox@dreamquest.io>
Date:   2024-04-18T12:16:52-04:00

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