[Haskell-cafe] puzzling polymorphism behavior (7.0.3 windows)

Tillmann Rendel rendel at informatik.uni-marburg.de
Thu Mar 15 18:32:41 CET 2012


this is one of the reasons why unsafePerformIO is not type-safe. Lets 
see what's going on by figuring out the types of the various definitions.

> cell = unsafePerformIO $ newIORef []

newIORef returns a cell which can hold values of the same type as its 
arguments. The type of the empty list is [a], because an empty list 
could be a list of arbitrary elements. So the overall type of cell is:

cell :: IORef [a]

cell returns a cell which can hold lists of arbitrary elements.

> push i = modifyIORef cell (++ [i])

Lets say i is of some type b. Then cell needs to hold lists of the type 
b. So in this use of cell, the type variable is instantiated to b, and 
the overall type of push is:

push :: b -> IO ()

So push can accept arbitrary values, and appends them to the list hold 
by cell. (Note that ghc reports the type as (a -> IO ()), but that 
really means the same thing as (b -> IO ()).

> main = do
>   push 3

Here, since you call push with 3, b is chosen to be Int. After this 
line, the cell holds the list [3].

>   push "x"

Here, since you call push with "x", b is chosen to be String. After this 
line, the cell holds the list [3, "x"], which is not well-typed. You 
tricked Haskell to produce an ill-typed list by using unsafePerformIO.

>   readIORef cell >>= return

Here, it is not clear how you want to instantiate the type variable a in 
the type of cell. So lets assume that we want to return a value of type 
c, and instantiate a with c. So even though at this point, the list 
contains an Int and a String, we can (try to) extract whatever type we 
want from the list. Therefore, the overall type of main is:

   main :: IO [c]

> *Main>  main
> [(),()]

Now once more, it is not clear how you want to instantiate c, so, by 
default, () is chosen. That default is only active in ghci, by the way. 
main will extract the Int 3 and the String "x" from the list, but treat 
them as if they were of type ().

Here you get lucky: Since there's only one value of type (), ghci can 
show "()" without looking at it too deeply, so even though this program 
is not type-safe in a sense, it works fine in practice. But try forcing 
ghci to consider a more interesting type instead of ():

*Main> main :: IO [Int]

The string "x" is reinterpreted as a number and shown as such. You can 
try other types instead of Int until your ghci crashes because you 
access some memory you shouldn't have looked at or try to execute some 
random part of your memory as code.

So to summarize, your code exhibits the (well-known) fact that 
unsafePerformIO is not type-safe, because it can be used to implement a 
polymorphic reference, which is a Bad Thing.


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