Pointers in Haskell??

Hamilton Richards ham@cs.utexas.edu
Fri, 7 Dec 2001 12:11:23 -0600

In my previous example,

>  t = [0..]
>  b = 3 : t
>  c = 5 : t

lists b and c share t, but in

>  x = 3 : [0..]
>  y = 5 : [0..]

lists x and y share nothing. Extensionally, they have the same values as b
and c, but each has its own copy of [0..].
   Unless, that is, the compiler is clever enough to recognize the
subexpression [0..] which x and y have in common. I don't know whether any
Haskell compilers look for common subexpressions, but it's certainly an
   So the question of whether names are "*the* (only) way" to obtain
sharing isn't really a language question-- it's more of a compiler question.

Thanks to Haskell's referential transparency, whether or not structures
--or the expressions that define them-- are shared doesn't affect Haskell
programs' semantics; it affects only their efficiency.
   That "only" is not intended to depreciate the significance of
efficiency. It's just that one of the benefits of referential transparency
is that it allows an unusually clean separation of concerns between
efficiency and correctness. The absence of any update operation means that
it's impossible to write a program that can detect whether a structure is
being shared, so sharing is extremely common. And indeed, in the typical
implementation values are nearly always implemented by pointers.
   In a function call, for instance, all occurrences of a parameter in the
function's definition point to the same argument, thereby sharing it
(another example in which sharing involves names). If the argument is an
expression not in normal form, it's never evaluated more than once: On the
first evaluation, the value replaces the argument, and all occurrences of
the parameter share that value.


At 11:07 AM -0600 12/7/01, Jeff Dalton wrote:
>The answers are making this question seem trickier than I'd thought it
>was, because so far they (both) make it sound like structure-sharing
>is tied very closely to names / variables.  For instance:
>> In Haskell, you can arrange for a large data structure to be shared by
>> giving it a name, and then using the name wherever you'd use a pointer in
>> some other language.
>The idea here seems to be that you have a name that refers
>specifically to the struccture you wish to share (as opposed
>to needing only an expression whose value is that structure),
>and then there are two possible interpretations:
>One possible interpretation is: this is *a* way to get sharing,
>to show that it's possible to have shared structures.
>The other possible interpretation is: this is *the* (only) way
>to do it.
>What I'd expected was that it would suffice to have an expression
>(and indeed that implementationally it would be much like Lisp or
>Java so that values were always (except in exceptional cases)
>secretly "pointers to".)
>-- Jeff

Hamilton Richards, PhD           Department of Computer Sciences
Senior Lecturer                  Mail Code C0500
512-471-9525                     The University of Texas at Austin
Taylor Hall 5.138                Austin, Texas 78712-1188
ham@cs.utexas.edu                hrichrds@swbell.net