Friday, 30 October 2009

Java's Closures Debate for C++ Eyes

Years ago Sun described Microsoft's delegate extension proposal for Java as:

Many of the advantages claimed for Visual J++ delegates -- type safety, object orientation, and ease of component interconnection -- are simply consequences of the security or flexibility of the Java object model.
Bound method references are simply unnecessary. They are not part of the Java programming language, and are thus not accepted by compliant compilers. Moreover, they detract from the simplicity and unity of the Java language.*

blah, blah, blah, marketing drivel! I don't know what is more annoying here: 1. the object-oriented orthodoxy, or 2. the complacency that "we know it all better! Be that as it may, but now James Gosling (Mr Java himself) says he'd always wanted closures instead of anonymous inner classes in Java, and there is not one, but whole 3 (!!!) proposals how to include functions as first class citiciens of the Java language! So much for the "simply unnessary" argument...

And there is considerable controversy around the very idea of closures, somehow similiar to the C++ debate around Concepts we discuseed recently, deeming it unnecessary and "too complicated". As we are lucky to get lambda functions in C++0x and don't complain the least, the debate in Java community made me curious. Come on, why not to have closures? Even C# has some!

So what is a closure? For the sake of this blog entry it is something like a lambda function in C++ (or Python or Groovy), i.e. an anonymous, freestanding function:

  auto print = [] (int x) { cout << x; }
Now let's do it in Java.

1. Proposals

So let's have a look at the three proposals.**

a) BGGA (Bracha, Gafter, Gosling, Ahé)

This is the most ambitious proposal. It introduces a new type into the language: a function type, and a totally new notation for it. This notation remainds me of Haskell's or of the lambda calculus types.

{T => U} for a function from T to U
{T => U => V} (or is it {T,U => V}?) for a function from T and U to V
I think this notation is one of the purposes why many in the Javaland doesn't like this proposal a bit. The second one will be surely the nonlocal control statements (returns, breaks etc). Come again, non-what? Well, it means that for example the return statement doesn't return from the closure but from the scope which invoked the closure! They don't bind to the closure but to the environment! Why should that be good for? Wait till next section for expanation, dear reader.

An usage example:
  {Integer => void} print = { Integer x => System.out.println(x); }
b) CICE (Concise Instance Creation Expressions)

This is the simplest of the three proposals. Basically it's only a syntactic sugar for defining anonymous classes on the run, nothing more. No first class functions! No obscure functional programming theory!

An usage example:
  public interface IPrint { public void invoke(Integer x);} // exacltly 1 method!
IPrint print = IPrint(Integer x) { System.out.println(x); }
It's the simplest of the proposals, but for my mind, the most annoying one: you have always to refer back to some interface definition, and it sucks!

c) FCM (First Class Methods)

This is a kind of middle ground between the previous two: it introduces first class functions, but doesen't have the nonlocal binding for closures return statement and the irritatinmg lambda-type notation.

An usage example:
  #(void(Integer)) print = #(Integer x) { System.out.println(x); }
From all the three syntactically I like the BGGA proposal the best, as you can just write your code in a familiar code-block manner, without the FCM's hash or CICE's interface tag.

2. The Debate

To put it mildly, sometimes I find the debate somehow childish. Here the typical arguments:***

pro: If the don't implement closures, I'll never code any line of Java an will go to Scala
con: If they implement the closures, I'll just break down and cry... I cannot change to any other language, but I'll hate you all for that!
Come on people! It's just a language feature! And you don't have to use it at all if you don't like it. Beside this, it's not the developers that choose languages, it's the managers! If they can be convinced that a language offers some substantial benefits, it will be adopted. But not because you like Scala or something else better!

Will the closures make Java too complicated? Would they really

"...complicate the language beyond normal usability: mainstream programmers will turn away from Java, so the argument goes, and move on to simpler programming languages
Java will turn into a guru language used only by experts in niche areas

So tell me which the simpler languages for the JVM are! I can see none (nonscripting one) which would be simpler. Guru language? Are you kidding me? The closures are an attempt to make Java less verbose, so everyone should be happy. So why the fear?

One (non PC) answer might be, that the "too complicated" camp is perfectly happy with the language as it is now, doesn't mind the lack of elegance, and don't want learn new mechanisms. And maybe there is some point where there are to much mechanisms (or paradigms) in the language? Me, as a C++ guy, I'm accustomed to the "multiparadigm design", as C++ is a real behemot in that respect. I just try not to think about the mechanisms I'm not using now.

Maybe in Javaland this isn't so simple, as the programmers were lectured for years that there is only one paradigm in the world: the object oriented one. This would explain why some people think that the addition of generics stressed the complexity of language to the limits (the other explanation is the design choices for backward compatibility, in particular the wildcards).
So it seems to be either the the irritation caused the generics or the unusual nonlocal returns in BGGA which provoked the strong feelings, dont you think?

3. Discussion

But let's get more technical: why do we need closures in Java? The answer is probably: because Ruby has got it! The Java community seems still to be in a collective Ruby trauma, and emulating Ruby features is a good enough reason in itself. As they used to say behind the Iron Curtain: to learn form Ruby is to learn how to win! So now, just as in Ruby (or Groovy and C# for that count) we'll be able to write in Java:

  Utils.forEach(names, { Integer x => System.out.println(x); }); // BGGA

So, that's kind what we've always had in C++ with STL and lambda libraries.

But that's not all there is! In each of the three above proposals there is a second part, which allows some kind of finer-grained resource management, i.e. a kind of "destructors for the modern times". I can only say "finally", because Java's resource management is just a big pain in the rear.

BGGA tries to achieve this goal by nonlocal control statements mentioned above, which will then allow to implement the "execute around" pattern as so called "control abstractions"** , but are somehow not very intuitive. In the BGGA proposal the keyword this will be lexically bound and will automatically refer to an instance of the enclosing type in which the closure is defined. For me, Groovy solves the problem of nonlocal bindings somehow clearer - introducing two members for a closure: owner (refering to the enclosing object) and delegate (defining the lexical binding). In tis way wee can always explicitely say what type of lexical binding we need, the default value of delegate being owner!

The other proposals try to address the same question as well: CICE by ARM (Automatic Resource Management Blocks - a special type of block where a dispose method will be automatically applied when leaving it) and FCM by JCA (Java Control Abstractions - this one is more like the "execute around" pattern mentioned above, and requires nonlocal lexical bindings as BGGA does).

At this point let us try to draw some conclusions.

Firstly: with C# having the lambdas in its 3.0 version****, and C++0x having lambdas and the auto specifier, leaving closures out of Java 7 would let Java looking pretty old in comparison!

But don't despair, there is a library solution out there ( Maybe a library solution will be suffiecient in this case? I don't know, the syntax doesn't look very intuitive, but it's probably the best you can get.

Secondly: what I find the most instructive lesson here is however, that we can see that the old notion of destructor isn't so old-fashioned after all! C# has meanwhile its using statement and Java deserves (and needs) some destructor-like mechanism as well! So much for the (former) "modern languages".

* form SUN's rebuttal of delegates -, where they claim that delegates (i.e. C# equivalent of C++ member function pointers) are bad, because the anonymous classes can do all the same ans are object oriented too! A typical case ob the object-craze of the nineties IMHO

** I will only skim the surface here, as my aim is only the look-and-feel. If you need more information a good place to start is: ("Understanding the closures debate - Does Java need closures? Three proposals compared", by Klaus Kreft and Angelika Langer,, 06/17/08)

*** rephrased ;-U from the discussion here -, but seen in that form on other places in the Web

**** Let us digress a little: in C# we'd define the above lambda like that:

  Function<int, void> p = name => Console.WriteLine(name);
or use it directly like that:
  names.FindAll(name => name != "Marek")
.ForEach(name => Console.WriteLine(name));

Note that in C++ the lambdas aren't templates (they are monomorphic, i.e. we must define the argument types) but in C# they are! To achieve the same in C++ you have to use a template lambda library.

I mean the C# language is looking increasingly cool, perhaps I should learn it, as everybody can program Java these days???