Lecture 10: First-class Functions
1 First-class Functions
2 Reminder:   How are functions currently compiled?
3 The value of a function — Attempt #1
3.1 Passing in functions
3.2 Using function arguments
3.3 Victory!
4 The measure of a function — Attempt #2
5 A function by any other name — Attempt #3
5.1 Making it work:   Sequentialization
6 “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear” — Attempt #4
6.1 Bound and free variables
6.2 Computing the set of free variables
6.3 Using free variables properly:   achieving closure
7 Implementing the new compilation
7.1 Scope-checking
7.2 Compiling function bodies
7.3 Compiling function calls
7.4 Revisiting compiling function bodies
7.5 Complete worked example
8 Recursion
8.1 Victory!
8.6

Lecture 10: First-class Functions

1 First-class Functions

In Lecture function-defs, we introduced the ability for our programs to define functions that we could then call in other expressions in our program. Our programs were a sequence of function definitions, followed by one main expression. This notion of a program was far more flexible than we had before, and lets us define many computations we simply could not previously do. But it is distinctly unsatisfying: functions are second-class entities in our language, and can’t be used the same way as other values in our programs.

We know from other courses, and possibly even from writing compilers in Rust, that higher-order functions — functions whose arguments can be functions — are very useful notions to have. Let’s consider the most trivial higher-order program:

def applyToFive(it):
  it(5)
end

def incr(x):
  x + 1
end

applyToFive(incr)

Do Now!

What errors currently get reported for this program?

Because it is a parameter to the first function, our compiler will complain that it is not defined as a function, when used as such on line 2. Additionally, because incr is defined as a function, our compiler will complain that it can’t be used as a parameter on the last line. We’d like to be able to support this program, though, and others more sophisticated. Doing so will bring in a number of challenges, whose solutions are detailed and all affect each other. Let’s build up to those programs, incrementally.

2 Reminder: How are functions currently compiled?

Let’s simplify away the higher-order parts of the program above, and look just at a basic function definition. The following program:

def incr(x):
  x + 1
end

incr(5)

is compiled to:

incr:
  push RBP            ;; stack frame management
  mov RBP, RSP

  mov RAX, [RBP + 16] ;; get param
  add RAX, 2          ;; add (encoded) 1 to it

  mov RSP, RBP        ;; undo stack frame
  pop RBP
  ret                 ;; exit

start_here:
  push RBP            ;; stack frame management
  mov RBP, RSP

  push QWORD 10       ;; push (encoded) 5
  call incr           ;; call function
  add RSP, 8          ;; remove arguments

  mov RSP, RBP        ;; undo stack frame
  pop RBP
  ret                 ;; exit

This compilation is a pretty straightforward translation of the code we have. What can we do to start supporting higher-order functions?

3 The value of a function — Attempt #1

3.1 Passing in functions

Going back to the original motivating example, the first problem we encounter is seen in the first and last lines of code.

def applyToFive(it):
  it(5)
end

def incr(x):
  x + 1
end

applyToFive(incr)

Functions receive values as their parameters, and function calls push values onto the stack. So in order to “pass a function in” to another function, we need to answer the question, what is the value of a function? In the assembly above, what could possibly be a candidate for the value of the incr function?

A function, as a standalone entity, seems to just be the code that comprises its compiled body. We can’t conveniently talk about the entire chunk of code, though, but we don’t actually need to. We really only need to know the “entrance” to the function: if we can jump there, then the rest of the function will execute in order, automatically. So one prime candidate for “the value of a function” is the address of its first instruction. Annoyingly, we don’t know that address explicitly, but fortunately, the assembler helps us here: we can just use the initial label of the function, whose name we certainly do know.

In other words, we can compile the main expression of our program as:

start_here:
  push RBP           ;; stack frame management
  mov RBP, RSP

  push incr          ;; push the start label of incr
  call applyToFive   ;; call function
  add RSP, 8         ;; remove arguments

  mov RSP, RBP       ;; undo stack frame
  pop RBP
  ret                ;; exit

This might seem quite bizarre: how can we push a label onto the stack? Doesn’t push require that we push a value — either a constant, or a register’s value, or some word of memory? In fact it is no more and no less bizarre than calling a label in the first place: the assembler replaces those named labels with the actual addresses within the program, and so at runtime, they’re simply normal QWORD values representing memory addresses.

3.2 Using function arguments

Do Now!

The compiled code for applyToFive looks like this:

start_here:
  push RBP            ;; stack frame management
  mov RBP, RSP

  mov RAX, [RBP + 16] ;; get the param
  push ????           ;; push the argument to `it`
  call ????           ;; call `it`
  add RSP, 8          ;; remove arguments

  mov RSP, RBP        ;; undo stack frame
  pop RBP
  ret                 ;; exit

Fill in the questions to complete the compilation of applyToFive.

The parameter for it is simply 5, so we push 10 onto the stack, just as before. The function to be called, however, isn’t identified by its label: we already have its address, since it was passed in as the argument to applyToFive. Accordingly, we call RAX in order to find and call our function. Again, this generalizes the syntax of call instructions slightly just as push was generalized: we can call an address given by a register, instead of just a constant.

3.3 Victory!

We can now pass functions to functions! Everything works exactly as intended.

Do Now!

Tweak the example program slightly, and cause it to break. What haven’t we covered yet?

4 The measure of a function — Attempt #2

Just because we use a parameter as a function doesn’t mean we actually passed a function in as an argument. If we change our program to applyToFive(true), our program will attempt to apply true as a function, meaning it will try to call 0xFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF, which isn’t likely to be a valid address of a function.

As a second, related problem: suppose we get bored of merely incrementing values by one, and generalize our program slightly:

def applyToFive(it):
  it(5)
end

def add(x, y):
  x + y
end

applyToFive(incr)

Do Now!

What happens now?

Let’s examine the stack very carefully. When our program starts, it pushes add onto the stack, then calls applyToFive. (The colors indicate which functions control the data on the stack, while the brackets along the side indicate which function uses the data on the stack; explaining why they don’t quite align at function-argument positions.)

image

That function in turn pushes 10 onto the stack, and calls it (i.e. the address currently stored in RAX):

image

But look at the bracketing for add! It needs two arguments, but receives only one. So it adds 5 (encoded as 10) to the saved RBP, since as far as it knows that stack location is where its second parameter should be.

We had eliminated both of these problems before via well-formedness checking: our function-definition environment knew about every function and its arity, and we could check every function application to ensure that a well-known function was called, with the correct number of arguments were passed. But now that we can pass functions around dynamically, we can’t know statically whether the arities are correct, and can’t even know whether we have a function at all!

We don’t know anything about precisely where a function’s code begins, so there’s no specific property we could check about the value passed in to determine if it actually is a function. But in any case, that value is insufficient to encode both the function and its arity. Fortunately, we now have a technique for storing multiple pieces of data as a single value: tuples. So our second candidate for “the value of a function” is a tuple containing the function’s arity and start address. This isn’t quite right either, since we wouldn’t then be able to distinguish actual tuples from “tuples-that-are-functions”.

So we choose a new tag value, say 0x3, distinct from the ones used so far, to mark these function values. Even better: we now have free rein to separate and optimize the representation for functions, rather than hew completely to the tuple layout. As one immediate consequence: we don’t need to store the tuple length — it’s always 2, namely the function pointer and the function arity. So we might as well instead store the function pointer in the header word where the tuple length used to be: since we’ll have a tag to tell us “this is a function value, not a tuple”, we won’t misinterpret the header word by mistake.

Do Now!

Revise the compiled code of applyToFive to assume it gets one of the new tuple-like values.

The pseudocode for calling a higher-order function like this is roughly:

mov RAX, <the function tuple>  ;; load the intended function
<check-tag RAX, 0x3>           ;; ensure it has the right tag
sub RAX, 3                     ;; untag the value
<check-arity [RAX + 8], num-args>  ;; the second word at stores the arity
<push all the args>            ;; set up the stack
call [RAX]                     ;; the first word stores the function address
add RSP, <8 * num-args>        ;; finish the call

Now we just need to create these tuples.

Exercise

Revise the compiled code above to allocate and tag a function value using this new scheme, instead of a bare function pointer.

Even if we want to represent functions as these tuple-like values, where should we store such tuples? We now have a disparity between “normal” function calls, where we know the name comes from a top-level declaration in the source program, and “higher-order” function calls, where the function to be called comes in as a parameter.

5 A function by any other name — Attempt #3

The crux of the problem now is that some of our functions are “real” functions that were defined by def and whose addresses and arities are known, whereas some function are “passed-in” functions that are represented as tuples. Because of this distinction, we don’t have any good, uniform way to handle compiling function calls. In particular, we don’t have an obvious place in our compilation to create those tuples.

What if we revise our language, to make functions be just another expression form, rather than a special top-level form? We’ve seen these in other languages: we call them lambda expressions, and they appear in pretty much all major languages:

Language

     

Lambda syntax

Haskell

     

\(x1,...,xn) -> e

Ocaml

     

fun (x1,...,xn) -> e

Javascript

     

(x1,...,xn) => { return e; }

C++

     

[&](x1,...,xn){ return e; }

Rust

     

|x1, x2,..., xn| e

We can rewrite our initial example as

let applyToFive = (lambda it: it(5) end) in
let incr = (lambda x: x + 1 end) in
applyToFive(incr)

Now, all our functions are defined in the same manner as any other let-binding: they’re just another expression, and we can simply produce the function values right then, storing them in let-bound variables as normal. Let’s try compiling a simplified version of this code:

let incr = lambda x: x + 1 end in
incr(5)

Our compiled output will look something like this:

start_here:
  push RBP
  mov RBP, RSP

  incr:
    push RBP
    mov RSP, RBP

    mov RAX, [RBP+8]
    add RAX, 2

    mov RSP, RBP
    pop RBP
    ret

  mov RAX, R15   ;; allocate a function tuple
  or RAX, 0x3    ;; tag it as a function tuple
  mov [R15+0], incr ;; store the function pointer
  mov [R15+8], 1 ;; set the arity of the function
  add R15, 8

  mov [RBP- 8], RAX ;; let incr = ...

  mov RAX, [RBP- 8]
  <check that RAX is tagged 0x3>
  sub RAX, 0x3
  <check that RAX expects 1 argument>
  push 10
  call [RAX]
  add RSP, 8

  move RSP, RBP
  pop RBP
  ret

Do Now!

What’s wrong with this code?

Our program will start executing at start_here, and flows straight into the code for incr, even though it hasn’t been called! We seem to have left out a crucial part of the semantics of functions: while a function is defined by its code, that code should not run until it’s called: lambda-expressions are inert values.

Do Now!

What simple code-generation tweak can we use to fix this?

On the one hand, the code shouldn’t be run. On the other, we have to emit the code somewhere. There are two possible solutions here:

Exercise

Compile the original example to assembly by hand.

5.1 Making it work: Sequentialization

Exercise

Define the sequentialize transformations for lambda expressions and function-applications. Should lambdas be considered immediate, or just sequential expressions? What about the various subexpressions of function-applications?

6 “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear” — Attempt #4

Our running example annoyingly hard-codes the increment operation. Let’s generalize:

let add = (lambda x: (lambda y: x + y end) end) in
let applyToFive = (lambda it: it(5) end) in
let incr = add(1) in
let add5 = add(5) in
(applyToFive(incr), applyToFive(add5))

Exercise

What does this program produce? What goes wrong here? Draw the stack demonstrating the problem.

Our representation of functions cannot distinguish incr from add5: they have the same arity, and point to the same function. But they’re clearly not the same function! This is a problem of scope. How can we distinguish these two functions?

6.1 Bound and free variables

What does incr actually evaluate to? A function-tuple (<code>, 1) where the code is the compiled form of lambda y: x + y. How exactly does that expression get compiled? When we compile the expression x + y, we have an environment where x is mapped to “the first function parameter”, and so is y. In other words, this expression gets compiled to the same thing as y + y which is certainly not the right thing! This is similar to the problem we had a while ago, where we needed to allocate distinct stack slots for all local variables, but it is more insidious here: x and y really are the first function parameters of their respective functions, but within the inner lambda, those descriptions come into conflict.

Define a variable x as bound within an expression e if

Define a variable to be free if it is not bound. For instance, in

let x = lambda m: let t = m in x + t end
in x + y

Now we can see the problem with our add5 and incr example: x is free within the lambdas for those two functions, but our compiled code does not take that into account. We can generalize this problem easily enough: our compilation of all free variables is broken.

6.2 Computing the set of free variables

We need to know exactly which variables are free within an expression, if we want to compile them properly. This can be subtle to get right: because of shadowing, not every identifier that’s spelled the same way is in fact the same name. (We saw this a few lectures ago when we discussed alpha-equivalence and the safe renaming of variables.) It’s easy to define code that appears right, but it’s tricky to convince ourselves that the code in fact is correct.

Do Now!

Define a function free_vars<Ann>(e: &SeqExp<Ann>) -> Vec<String> that computes the set of free variables of a given expression.

Now what?

6.3 Using free variables properly: achieving closure

We know from using lambdas in other languages what behavior we expect from them: their free variables ought to take on the values they had at the moment the lambda was evaluated, rather than the moment the lambda’s code was called.1Think carefully about what your intuition is here, when a free variable is mutable... We say that we want lambdas to close over their free variables, and we describe the value of a function as a closure (rather than the awkward “function-tuple” terminology we’ve had so far). To accomplish this, we clearly need to store the values of the free variables in a reliable location, so that the compiled function body can find them when needed...and so that distinct closures with the same code but different closed-over values can behave distinctly! The natural place to store these values is in our tuple, after the function-pointer. We might consider also storing the number of closed-over variables; we’ll store that between the function-pointer and the closed-over values.

Do Now!

What language feature (that we may or may not have yet) might want to know how many closed-over variables are in our closure?

This leads to our latest (and final?) representation choice for compiling first-class functions.

Let’s work through a short example:

let five = 5 in
let applyToFive = (lambda it: it(five) end) in
let incr = (lambda x: x + 1 end) in
applyToFive(incr)

First, let’s focus on the compilation of the let-binding of applyToFive: our closure should be a 4-tuple (code = applyToFive, arity = 1, size = 1, five = 5), where I’ve labelled the components for clarity.

  ...
  mov RAX, 10
  mov [RBP-8], RAX ;; let five = 5 in ...

  jmp applyToFive_end
applyToFive:
  ...
applyToFive_end:

  mov [R15+0], applyToFive ;; set the code pointer
  mov [R15+8], 1    ;; set the arity of the function
  mov [R15+16], 1   ;; number of closed-over variables
  mov RAX, [RBP-8]  ;; load five
  mov [R15+24], RAX ;; store it in the closure
  mov RAX, R15 ;; start allocating a closure
  add RAX, 0x3 ;; tag it as a closure

  mov [RBP-8], RAX ;; let applyToFive = ...
  ...

Do Now!

This example shows only a single closed-over variable. What ambiguity have we not addressed yet, for closing over multiple variables?

7 Implementing the new compilation

7.1 Scope-checking

Exercise

What should the new forms of well-formedness and scope checking actually do? What needs to change?

7.2 Compiling function bodies

Now we just need to update the compilation of the function body itself, to look for closed-over variables in the correct places. Let’s agree to stash the variables in alphabetical order, so that we have a canonical representation for each closure. We can codify this understanding by updating the environment we use when we compile a function body. We have two options here:

  1. We can repeatedly access each free variable from the appropriate slot of the closure

  2. We can unpack the closure as part of the function preamble, copying the values onto the stack or into registers as if they were let-bound variables, and offsetting our compilation of any local let-bound variables by enough slots to make room for these copies.

Exercise

What are some of the design tradeoffs of these two approaches? Which phase of compilation is most directly affected? Within that phase, which piece of bookkeeping is most affected?

7.3 Compiling function calls

We need to change how we compile function applications, too, in order to make our compilation of closures work. Let’s agree to change our calling signature, such that the first argument to every function call is the closure itself. In other words, the compilation of function calls will now look like:

  1. Retrieve the function value, and check that it’s tagged as a closure.

  2. Check that the arity matches the number of arguments being applied.

  3. Push all the arguments..

  4. Push the closure itself.

  5. Call the code-label in the closure.

  6. Pop the arguments and the closure.

7.4 Revisiting compiling function bodies

Our function bodies will now be compiled as something like

  1. Compute the free-variables of the function, and sort them alphabetically.

  2. Update the environment:

    • All the arguments are now offset by one slot from our earlier compilation

    • All the free variables need to be mapped to registers or stack slots

    • The body must be compiled with a starting stack-index that accommodates those already-initialized local variable slots used for the free-variables

  3. Compile the body in the new environment

  4. Produce compiled code that, after the stack management and before the body, reads the saved free-variables out of the closure (which is passed in as the first function parameter), and stores them in the reserved local variable slots or registers.

  5. The closure itself is a heap-allocated tuple (code-pointer, arity, N, free-var1, ... free-varN).

7.5 Complete worked example

Let’s try compiling the following program:

def foo(w, x, y, z):
  (lambda a: a + x + z)
end

foo(1, 2, 3, 4)(5)

After turning the def into a lambda, and sequentializing, we get:

let foo =
  (lambda w, x, y, z:
    (lambda a:
      let temp1 = a + x in
      temp1 + z
    end)
  end) in

let temp2 = foo(1, 2, 3, 4) in
temp2(5)

Looking at the outermost program, we see two bindings (for foo and temp2), so we allocate stack slots for them, leading to an environment for code-generation of

foo   ==> [RBP - 8]
temp2 ==> [RBP - 16]

Within the lambda for foo, we initially see a code-generation environment containing just the four arguments. But remember that we changed our calling convention, and there is now an implicit “self” argument as the very first argument:

self ==> [RBP + 16]
w    ==> [RBP + 24]
x    ==> [RBP + 32]
y    ==> [RBP + 40]
z    ==> [RBP + 48]

Within the innermost lambda, our code-generation environment is trickier. For scope checking and type checking, we have the five names w, x, y, z and a in scope. Of those, the only free variables in the lambda are x and z. So our code-generation environment needs to include them, as well as the arguments of the lambda. As a first draft, our environment will be

self ==> [RBP + 16]
a    ==> [RBP + 24]
x    ==> [self + 24]
z    ==> [self + 32]

Accessing x or z requires two memory lookups, first to load the closure and second to offset into it; this double-indirection is one reason why we choose to unpack the closure within our function body. So we’d like our environment for the lambda to actually be

self ==> [RBP + 16]
a    ==> [RBP + 24]
x    ==> [RBP - 8]
z    ==> [RBP - 16]

We’ll need to compile the lambda’s body with this environment, and with an initial stack slot of 3, so that we bind temp1 to [RBP - 24]. The compiled code of our innermost lambda will be:

    inner_lambda:
      ;; prologue
      push RBP
      mov RBP, RSP
      ;; unpack the closure
      sub RSP, 16         ;; reserve space on the stack for closed-over vars
      mov R14, [RBP + 16] ;; \ load the self argument
      sub R14, 0x3        ;; / and untag it
      mov RAX, [R14 + 24] ;; \ load x from closure
      mov [RBP - 8], RAX  ;; / into its correct stack slot
      mov RAX, [R14 + 16] ;; \ load z from closure
      mov [RBP - 16], RAX ;; / into its correct stack slot
      ;; actual function body
      sub RSP, 8          ;; reserve space on the stack for locals
      mov RAX, [RBP + 24] ;; \
      add RAX, [RBP - 8]  ;; | let temp1 = a + x in ...
      mov [RBP - 24], RAX ;; /
      mov RAX, [RBP - 24] ;; \ temp1 + z
      add RAX, [RBP - 16] ;; /
      ;; epilogue
      mov RSP, RBP
      pop RBP
      ret
    inner_lambda_end:

Note that this is not a closure yet! It’s merely the code of our lambda. To generate a closure, we need to surround it by additional work. This work takes place in the environment for foo:

    ;; skip over the code for the lambda
    jmp inner_lambda_end
    inner_lambda:
      ... everything above ...
    inner_lambda_end:
    ;; start filling in the closure information
    mov [R15 + 0 ], inner_lambda ;; code pointer
    mov [R15 + 8 ], 1            ;; arity
    mov [R15 + 16], 2            ;; # of free variables
    mov RAX, [RBP + 32]          ;; \ copy x from argument
    mov [R15 + 24], RAX          ;; / into closure
    mov RAX, [RBP + 40]          ;; \ copy z from argument
    mov [R15 + 32], RAX          ;; / into closure
    ;; start creating the closure value
    mov RAX, R15                 ;; \ create the closure
    add RAX, 0x3                 ;; /
    add R15, 48                  ;; update heap pointer, keeping 16-byte alignment
    ;; now RAX contains a proper closure value

All this code lives inside the compiled body of foo:

  foo:
    ;; prologue
    push RBP
    mov RBP, RSP
    ;; unpack the closure -- nothing to do here
    ;; actual function body
    ;; skip over the code for the lambda
      ... everything above ...
    ;; now RAX contains a proper closure value
    ;; since the inner lambda is in tail position,
    ;; RAX is our return value, so we're done.
    ;; epilogue
    mov RSP, RBP
    pop RBP
    ret
  foo_end:

Once again, note that this is not a closure yet! It’s merely the code of our foo lambda. To generate a closure, we need to surround it by additional work. This work takes place in the environment for start_here:

  ;; skip over the code for foo
  jmp foo_end
  foo:
    ... everything above ...
  foo_end:
  ;; start filling in the closure information
  mov [R15 + 0 ], foo          ;; code pointer
  mov [R15 + 8 ], 4            ;; arity
  mov [R15 + 16], 0            ;; # of free variables
  ;; start creating the closure value
  mov RAX, R15                 ;; \ create the closure
  add RAX, 0x3                 ;; /
  add R15, 24                  ;; update heap pointer
  ;; now RAX contains a proper closure value

All this code lives inside the compiled body of start_here:

start_here:
  ;; prologue
  push RBP
  mov RBP, RSP
  ;; skip over the code for foo
    ... everything above ...
  ;; now RAX contains a proper closure value
  mov [RBP - 8], RAX          ;; let foo = (lambda ...) in
  ;; start calling foo(1, 2, 3, 4)
  mov RAX, [RBP - 8]
  mov R14, RAX              ;; load up the value
  and R14, 0x7              ;; mask off the non-tag bits
  cmp R14, 0x3              ;; \ check for desired tag
  jne error_not_closure     ;; /
  sub RAX, 0x3              ;; untag
  cmp [RAX + 8, 8]          ;; \ check arity
  jne error_wrong_arity     ;; /
  push 0x8                  ;; \
  push 0x6                  ;; | push arguments
  push 0x4                  ;; |
  push 0x2                  ;; /
  push [RBP - 8]            ;; push closure itself
  call [RAX]                ;; make the call
  add RSP, 40               ;; pop arguments
  mov [RBP - 16], RAX       ;; let temp2 = foo(1, 2, 3, 4) in ...
  ;; start calling temp2(5)
  mov R14, RAX              ;; load up the value
  and R14, 0x7              ;; mask off the non-tag bits
  cmp R14, 0x3              ;; \ check for desired tag
  jne error_not_closure     ;; /
  sub RAX, 0x3              ;; untag
  cmp [RAX + 8, 8]          ;; \ check arity
  jne error_wrong_arity     ;; /
  push 0x10                 ;; push argument
  push [RBP - 16]           ;; push closure itself
  call [RAX + 0]            ;; make the call
  pop 16                     ;; pop arguments
  ;; epilogue
  mov RSP, RBP
  pop RBP
  ret
start_here_end:

Note that we have to be a bit careful about start_here: if it gets compiled as if it were a closure, then when we call it from main we have to be careful to pass itself in as the first argument: starts_here(start_here, ... any further arguments). Or, we could special-case it slightly, and not treat it as following the standard C calling convention rather than our revised closure-tolerant calling convention.

8 Recursion

If we try even a simple recursive function — something that worked with our previous top-level function definitions — we run into a problem. Because we now only have let-bindings and anonymous lambdas, we have no way to refer to the function itself from within the function. We’ll get a scope error during well-formedness checking; such a program wouldn’t even make it to compilation.

let fac = (lambda n:
  if n < 1: 1
  else: n * fac(n - 1)) # ERROR: fac is not in scope
in fac(5)

To accommodate this we’ll keep our old syntax for function definitions, but now you can use it inside any expression. So you can write

let input = 5 in
def fac(n):
  if n < 1: 1
  else: n * fac(n - 1))
end
fac(input)

Exercise

Extend the compilation above to work for recursive functions. Hint: the locations of free variables is going to change, to make room for something else.

8.1 Victory!

We can now pass functions with free-variables to functions and to themselves! Everything works exactly as intended.

Do Now!

Break things, again. (Hint: try larger programs...)

Exercise

Fix things, again.

1Think carefully about what your intuition is here, when a free variable is mutable...