FC++ lazy list implementation

As of v1.3, lists have been completely reimplemented in a way that is far more efficient than the previous implementation. This document describes the new list implementation structure, and how you can write functoids to take advantage of the new structure to be more efficient.

If, instead, you don't actually care about the new list structure, but you just want your now-broken code to compile again, jump down to How to get away with being ignorant of the new List structure.

Lists, Caches, and OddLists

There are three main structures in the new implementation: Lists, Caches, and OddLists. They are characterized by these equations:
   List<T>      = pointer to a Cache<T>
   OddList<T>   = pair< T, List<T> >
   Cache<T>     = variant{ Fun0< OddList<T> >
                       or  OddList<T>         }
In pseudo-C++
   template <class T> class List {
      IRef< Cache<T> > rep;
   template <class T> class OddList {
      T first;
      List<T> second;
   template <class T> class Cache {
      enum { UNCACHED, CACHED } state;
      Fun0< OddList<T> > fxn;   // valid in the "uncached" state
      OddList<T> value;         // valid in the "cached" state

The significance of Caches

Caches enable laziness in a way that is efficient. Caches can either be in an "uncached" state, where the function is the valid member of the variant, or in a "cached" state, where the value is valid. Consider the code
   List<int> l = enumFrom(1);
   cout << head(l) << endl;
After executing that, here is a picture of memory, where the variable l is represented by the little box at the left:
Suppose now we say
   cout << head(tail(l)) << endl;
Here is what happens:
  1. We try to evaluate tail(l). Since l's Cache is in the "cached" state, we simply return the next node of the list (l.rep->value.second).
  2. We call head() on that result. Since this is an "uncached" Cache, we must execute the function to get the value, and then return it (value=fxn(); state=CACHED; return value;)
  3. The result is printed.
As a result, things now look like this:

The significance of OddLists

OddLists are used for efficiency. Consider

   List<T> l = something();
In order to evaluate head(l) (or tail(l) or null(l)) we must see if the Cache is in the "cached" state, and if not, call the fxn to produce the value.

Now consider

   head( cons(1,NIL) );
If cons() were to return a List, then head() would be forced to check to see if the Cache were in the "cached" state before producing a value, since that's how we just saw taking the head of a List works. However clearly that is unnecessary in this instance; cons() always produces a "cached" value, as C++ is a strict (non-lazy) language, and by passing parameters to cons(), we have already evaluated the "value" of the list node being produced. As a result, rather than have cons() return a List, it returns an OddList. OddLists have exactly the same interface as lists, but they are more efficient (at the opportunity cost of always having their first element be non-lazy).

How to write functoids to take advantage of these structures

These structures matter most when writing recursive list functoids. Consider, for example, Map written in the old style (where everything is a List):

struct Map {
   template <class F, class L>
   struct Sig : public FunType<F,L,
      List<typename F::template Sig<typename L::ElementType>::ResultType> > {};

   template <class F, class T>
   List<typename F::template Sig<T>::ResultType>
   operator()( const F& f, const List<T>& l ) const {
      if( null(l) )
         return NIL;
         return cons( f(head(l)), curry2( Map(), f, tail(l) ) );
Note that the call to cons() takes two parameters, of these types
typename F::template Sig<T>::ResultType 
   (the list element type, let's call it "E" for short)
binder1and2of2<Map,F,List<T> >   // what curry2() returns
   (a zero-argument functoid that returns a List<E>)
The second argument type is non-ideal. cons() will return an OddList which contains an E and a pointer to a Cache, but that Cache's thunk will be ugly. Recall that Cache thunks are functions that return OddLists, but we have passed a function that returns a List to cons(). As a result, we have to create a new thunk, which stores a reference to the one passed (call it "f"), whose body is
   return f().force();
This makes the types work out, by transforming a function-that-returns-a-List into a function-that-returns-an-OddList, but it has to use extra space and time to do it.

Now consider Map written to return an OddList:

struct Map {
   template <class F, class L>
   struct Sig : public FunType<F,L,
      OddList<typename RT<F,typename L::ElementType>::ResultType> > {};

   template <class F, class L>
   OddList<typename RT<F,typename L::ElementType>::ResultType>
   operator()( const F& f, const L& l ) const {
      if( null(l) )
         return NIL;
         return cons( f(head(l)), curry2( Map(), f, tail(l) ) );
Now everything works nicely on the cons() end of things; curry2() creates the right type of functoid to pass to cons(), since Map has the "right" return type. There is no more "impedence mismatch" at the recursive call.

Note also that we've changed the type of Map's second parameter; rather than take only Lists, we take L, which could match an OddList or a List. This way, calls to

   map( f, cons(1,NIL) );
work, and we do not "waste" the known "cachedness" of the first element of this list. Transforming functions that take Lists into functions that take Ls (where L is a template parameter) is nearly the same as writing two overloaded versions of the function--one that works on OddLists, and one that works on Lists.

Implications for laziness

There's a great paper about adding laziness to strict languages, "How to add laziness to a strict language, without even being odd", which explains where we got the name OddList from. However, the "odd" lists described in that paper always evaluate "one too far ahead" in a list, whereas FC++'s OddLists effectively have "even" tails, which means only the original call is too eager; the recursive calls are fine. Thus, the example from that paper:

   cutoff( 5, map( sqrt, countdown(4) ) );
returns the right answer in FC++. The only time FC++ is too eager is in the edge case; this code
   cutoff( 0, map( sqrt, countdown(-1) ) );
throws an exception. We believe that this is "how it should be". C++ is strict, and therefore a call to map should "do work". If you wanted to original call to map to be lazy, you would have written
   List l = curry2( map, sqrt, countdown(-1) );
   cutoff( 0, l );
that is, you would have curried the first call to make it lazy. Indeed, the code above works fine in FC++, returning the empty list.

Interface comparison with previous List implementation

Let's move on to more pragmatic issues. Lists and OddLists both support the same external interface; here are things you can do with an L:

   L l;     // L may be List or OddList
   tail(l);        // always returns List
   cons(3,l);      // always returns OddList
   l.operator bool();   // !null(l)

   // The new stuff
   l.force();      // return an OddList of me
   l.delay();      // return a List of me
   // There are also implicit conversions between OddList and List
List actually supports a little more functionality than OddList does (it contains the iterator interface, both to make a list from a pair of iterators, and to use the begin() and end() member functions), but for the vast majority of tasks, the two are completely interchangeable.

How to get away with being ignorant of the new List structure

If all you care about is making broken code compile; here's the quickie guide to how to fix broken code. Say you'd written this, which works with pre-v1.3 FC++:

   struct SomeFunc {
      template <class L>
      struct Sig : public FunType<L,L> {}; 

      template <class T>
      List<T> operator()( const List<T>& l ) const {
         // probably a more interesting body
         return l;
   } some_func;

   int main() {
      some_func( cons(1,NIL) );   // compiler error
and have been annoyed to discover that it gives a compiler error with the new version of the library:
   tmp2.cc: In function `int main()':
   tmp2.cc:20: no match for call to `(SomeFunc) (fcpp::OddList)'
The solution is simple; the call should be
      some_func( cons(1,NIL).delay() );
More generally, when the compiler tells you that you have an OddList, and you just want a List, call delay() on it and all will be well.

Last updated on July 26, 2001 by Brian McNamara