November 2021 Archives

Vale, David

David H. Adler passed away yesterday.

David was a gentleman and a scholar: a gentle, warm, erudite, funny, clever, and deeply kind man. And one who has made a vast contribution to our Perl and Raku communities over more than quarter of a century.

My most sincere condolences to David's family...and to the countless other colleagues, acquaintances, and admirers around the world who will be mourning him today.

Like so many others, I was proud to call David my friend.
I will miss him profoundly.

A dream resyntaxed

[Author’s note: If you’ve read Curtis Poe’s most recent blog post, what follows is going to seem eerily familiar. This post uses the same concepts, arguments, and code examples as his, and reaches exactly the same conclusions. That’s because both posts originate from a long and wide-ranging email discussion between Curtis and myself, as I’ve been privately consulting with him over the past few months on the design of Corinna.

When I read Curtis’s post I almost decided to bin this one, as he managed to cover everything necessary in his usual succinct, eloquent, and engaging style. But he has encouraged me to post my version of this discussion too, as it provides a little more detail on some of the issues we’re addressing, and on the design rationale for the changes we are jointly proposing.

Personally, I always relish the opportunity to read two versions of exactly the same story by two very different authors, or to watch two directors’ very different takes on the same screenplay. In fact, that’s what initially attracted me away from SmallTalk/C++/Eiffel and into Perl: I read Larry’s version of “Object Orientation”, and found it much more entertaining, and also more enlightening than the other earlier interpretations.

So here’s the “Conway cut” of our joint proposal. Of course, if you’re short on time, you should just go and read Curtis’s original version of this story. But if you’d like some extra insights into the syntactic design of Corinna (and of Perl itself!), and perhaps a slightly more detailed and stereoscopic view of the issues we’re on!]

The Corinna project is fundamentally about providing a declarative mechanism for building OO code in Perl, as opposed to Perl’s current fundamentally emergent approach.

So let’s look at the way we declare things in Perl.

Overwhelmingly, declarations (of variables, subroutines, packages, and formats) are made using the following syntax:

    <keyword>  <identifier>  <modifiers>?  <setup>?

For example:

    <keyword>  <identifier>  <modifiers>?  <setup>?
      my         $lexvar       :shared
      our        $packvar      :Tracked     = 0
      state      $statevar     :Readonly    = 1
      sub        action        :lvalue      () {...}
      package    Namespace      v1.2.3      {...}
      format     Report                     = ... .

Note that in every case, except for the package keyword, any modifications or deviations from standard behaviour (i.e. anything in the <modifiers> column) are always specified by attributes. And, arguably, the package version syntax is a mis-design; it should have been :vers(v1.2.3) instead.

The only other significant deviation from this general syntactic pattern is the way in which modern lexical subroutines are specified:

    my sub foo () {...}

This syntax concatenates two keywords to denote the non-standard behaviour of a lexically scoped subroutine. However, I would argue that this too was a mis-design, or at least an anomaly. It would have been much more consistent with Perl’s underlying syntactic structure if the syntax had been:

    sub foo :lexical () {...}

Or, perhaps, if we had added a completely new declarator keyword to reflect the fundamental differences between package and lexical subs:

    lexsub foo () {...}

Except in the two cases noted above, the unifying principle of Perl’s declaration syntax is that the keyword specifies what the declarand is, and the optional modifiers (i.e. attributes) specify how this particular declarand differs from the standard behaviour for that kind of declarand.

Or in OO terms: the keyword specifies the standard type that the declarand IS-A new instance of, and the modifiers specify any unusual roles/traits or non-standard behaviours that this particular declarand also DOES.

Which brings us to the new object-oriented declaration syntax proposed in Corinna.

Here’s a somewhat contrived example that attempts to exercise all of the new OO features that Corinna provides:

    role Tracked {
        slot $msg :param;
        method report () { $self->show($msg++) }
        method show;

    class Root {
        method is_root () { return 1; }

    abstract class Counter {
        my $obj_count = 0;    # common slot for all objects in class
        method obj_count :common () { return $obj_count; }

        ADJUST   { $obj_count++ }
        DESTRUCT { $obj_count-- }

    class MetaHandler isa Counter does Tracked {
        slot $handler  :handles(exists delete) = Handler->new;
        slot $size     :reader  :param         = 100;
        slot $created  :reader                 = time;

        ADJUST   { croak("Too small") if $size < 1; }
        DESTRUCT { $handler->shutdown; }

        method insert :private ($key, $value ) {
            if ( ! $self->exists($key) ) {
                $handler->set( $key, $value );

        method show ($msg) { say $msg; }

        method obj_count :overrides :common () {
            $self->next::method() - 42;

        before method obj_count :common () { warn "Counting...";         }
        after  method obj_count :common () { warn "...done";             }
        around method obj_count :common () { return 1 + $class->$ORIG();  }

Note that most of these new constructs conform well to the standard syntactic structure for declarations:

    <keyword>  <identifier>   <modifiers>                <setup>?

     role       Tracked                                  {...}

     class      Root                                     {...}

     slot       $msg           :param
     slot       $handler       :handles(exists delete)   = Handler->new;
     slot       $size          :reader  :param           = 100;
     slot       $created       :reader                   = time;

     method     is_root                                  () {...}
     method     show
     method     report                                   () {...}
     method     obj_count      :common                   () {...}
     method     insert         :private                  ($key,$value) {...}
     method     show                                     ($msg) {...}
     method     obj_count      :overrides :common        () {...}

But a few of them diverge significantly from that standard syntactic structure:

    <modifier>  <keyword>  <identifier>  <setup>
     abstract    class      Counter       {...}

    <keyword>  <identifier>  <keyword-modifiers>        <setup>
     class      MetaHandler   isa Counter does Tracked   {...}

    <modifier>  <keyword>  <identifier>  <modifiers>  <setup>
     before      method     obj_count     :common      () {...}
     after       method     obj_count     :common      () {...}
     around      method     obj_count     :common      () {...}

So while Corinna usually specifies modifiers on a declarand in the standard Perl <modifier> syntactic position, sometimes a modifier is instead specified via a prefix keyword, or with both a prefix keyword and something in the usual <modifier> slot:

      before method obj_count :common () {...}

Of course, the class and role declarators do specify some modifiers (namely: the classes they inherit and the roles they compose) in the third syntactic position that is traditionally reserved for modifiers. But they don’t specify those modifiers in the standard form: as attributes. Instead, they are specified as internal keyword-modifier subsequences:

    class Name isa <modifier> does <modifier> {...}

There is one other significant deviation from standard Perl syntactic structure in the Corinna proposal: a particularly nasty case in which specific non-standard behaviour must be requested implicitly by context, rather than explicitly by a distinct keyword or attribute.

Namely, when specifying class data slots:

    my $obj_count = 0;    # common slot for all objects in the class

Of course, this declaration does still have a keyword, but that my keyword is silently behaving very differently from every other my keyword, simply because of the context in which it’s being used. Hence the need to comment it, as a reminder of those unusual extra behaviours.

So how is it different? (And notice that the very fact you have to ask about this tells you that it really shouldn’t be different at all!)

The example my keyword does still inject the symbol $obj_count into the current lexical scope but, because that lexical scope is the block of a class, that particular my has two fundamental context-sensitive differences from any other my declaration anywhere else in the program.

Specifically, because it is declared inside a class declaration, the initialization behaviour and the destruction behaviour of this lexical variable are completely different. Normally, a my variable is initialized at run-time, every time it is encountered in the code. And it is garbage-collected in the usual way whenever it goes out of scope with a zero reference-count. But inside a Corinna class, a my variable is initialized only once — at compile-time — and is garbage-collected only once — after all execution terminates.

That’s the correct and necessary behaviour for a variable which is acting as a class data slot, because we have to be able to use class data slots everywhere, including inside a BEGIN, CHECK, INIT, or END block. So class data has to be initialized at compile-time and persist until the end of execution.

But those special context-sensitive initialization and destruction semantics are nothing like the behaviour of a regular my variable in any other Perl code. So, even though they’re essential to the correct working of their surrounding class, those semantics are also likely to be misleading, confusing, bug-inducing, and brittle.

So, how do we fix these various problems?

The inconsistencies that are purely syntactic in nature:

    abstract  class   Counter                                {...}
              class   MetaHandler  isa Counter does Tracked  {...}
    before    method  obj_count    :common                   () {...}
    after     method  obj_count    :common                   () {...}
    around    method  obj_count    :common                   () {...}

...could easily be handled either by replacing all pre-keyword modifiers and all post-identifier keyword-modifier pairs with simple attributes:

    class   Counter      :abstract                     {...}
    class   MetaHandler  :isa(Counter) :does(Tracked)  {...}
    method  obj_count    :before :common               () {...}
    method  obj_count    :after  :common               () {...}
    method  obj_count    :around :common               () {...}

...or, alternatively, by providing additional keywords to replace the current prefix modifier-keyword sequences:

    abstraction  Counter             {...}
    before       obj_count  :common  () {...}
    after        obj_count  :common  () {...}
    around       obj_count  :common  () {...}

Creating new attributes is almost certainly the better choice here, however. One of Corinna’s fundamental design principles is to avoid adding new declarator keywords to Perl wherever possible. So far, we’ve only needed to add four: class, role, slot, and method.

We could add more keywords for abstract classes plus the three kinds of method wrappers, but that would double the proposed number of new keywords, and with a proportionately much smaller payback on the second four, as those specialized constructs are far less common than classes, roles, slots, and methods.

Method wrappers can also be a “code smell” in OO code, indicating something is amiss is the original design of a class hierarchy. So it seems odd to devote three entire keywords to them.

Of course, the concept of being able to extend an existing chunk of behaviour without having to copy-and-paste the original code is, in itself, perfectly valid. But that concept is also not unique to methods. We might, for example want to be able to wrap regular subroutines as well. But if we make before mean before method, we’d then have to come up with yet another keyword (ante? ere?, afore?) if we ever want to support before sub. And that way lies madness.

To leave open the future possibility of general-purpose wrappers, it’s clearly better to specify method wrappers with attributes (:before, :after, :around), so that those same attributes might later be applied to subroutines as well, if we ever decide that Perl should also have that capacity.

As for the implicit, context-sensitive behaviour of my inside a class or role, it could also be made explicit and context-free via either of those same two syntactic changes. That is: either by an explicit attribute on an existing keyword:

    slot $obj_count :common = 0;

...or else with a more precise, distinct, and explicit keyword:

    common $obj_count = 0;

Here too, an attribute is probably the right choice. A class data slot still intrinsically IS-A data slot, just one that DOES something slightly different in terms of its initialization and destruction. So the slot keyword is the right one for it, with a :common attribute to denote the differing behaviour.

Moreover, we already specify class methods using the :common attribute. So it would be more consistent (i.e. more teachable and more likely to just DWIM) if we also specify class slots with that same attribute.

But whether or not we add a common keyword, or simply allow a :common attribute on the slot keyword, the use of my as a declarator for class data slots really has to go. Having declarators whose behaviour silently changes in fundamental ways depending on their context is always a Very Bad Idea.

Note, too, that by adopting the slot $name :common approach for specifying class slots, we also remove the very real annoyance of always having to hand-code any accessors for such slots:

    my $obj_count = 0;
    method obj_count :common () { return $obj_count; }

...because now we can just write:

    slot $obj_count :common :reader = 0;

The only remaining problem is the actual name of the :common attribute. While I do agree that “common” is the least-worst linguistic alternative to have been suggested so far, it’s still significantly less-than-awesome.

So what is the fundamental difference between an instance slot and a class slot, or between an instance method and a class method?

Well, it’s right there in the definition:

    Class slots and methods are mutually shared
    and jointly accessible by all objects, classwide.

So, instead of:

    slot   $obj_count  :common  = 0;
    method  obj_count  :common  () {...}
    before  obj_count  :common  () {...}

...why not:

    slot   $obj_count  :joint  = 0;
    method  obj_count  :joint  () {...}
    before  obj_count  :joint  () {...}


    slot   $obj_count  :mutual  = 0;
    method  obj_count  :mutual  () {...}
    before  obj_count  :mutual  () {...}

...or even:

    slot   $obj_count  :classwide  = 0;
    method  obj_count  :classwide  () {...}
    before  obj_count  :classwide  () {...}

Myself, I rather like :joint. It’s concise, distinct, and (best of all) I’m sure there are a couple of really good “role-ing a joint” and “high-class joint” puns to be had in there somewhere!


Anyway, putting all those ideas together, the earlier full example would become:

    role Tracked {
        slot $msg :param;

        method report () { $self->show($msg++) }

        method show;

    class Root {
        method is_root () { return 1; }

    class Counter :abstract {
        slot $obj_count :common :reader = 0;

        ADJUST   { $obj_count++ }
        DESTRUCT { $obj_count-- }

    class MetaHandler :isa(Counter) :does(Tracked) {
        slot $handler  :handles(exists delete) = Handler->new;
        slot $size     :reader  :param         = 100;
        slot $created  :reader                 = time;

        ADJUST   { croak("Too small") if $size < 1; }
        DESTRUCT { $handler->shutdown; }

        method insert :private ($key, $value ) {
            if ( ! $self->exists($key) ) {
                $handler->set( $key, $value );

        method show ($msg) { say $msg; }

        method obj_count :common :overrides () {
            $self->next::method() - 42;

        method obj_count :common :before () { warn "Counting...";         }
        method obj_count :common :after  () { warn "...done";             }
        method obj_count :common :around () { return 1 + $class->$ORIG();  }

They’re not huge changes to the current proposal, but I think they make the new OO syntax cleaner, clearer, more consistent, and — most importantly — more Perlish.

About Damian Conway