Four ways to escape a cake

by Stephen Compall on Mar 01, 2017


The mixin style of importing in which classes and traits are defined within traits, as seen in scala.reflect.Universe, ScalaTest, and other Scala styles, seems to be infectious. By that, I mean once you define something in a trait to be mixed in, to produce another reusable module that calls that thing, you must define another trait, and so must anyone using your module, and so on and so forth. You effectively become “trapped in the cake”.

However, we can use type parameters that represent singleton types to write functions that are polymorphic over these “cakes”, without being defined as part of them or mixed in themselves. For example, you can use this to write functions that operate on elements of a reflection universe, without necessarily passing that universe around all over the place.

Well, for the most part. Let’s see how far this goes.

Our little universe

Let’s set aside the heavyweight real-world examples I mentioned above in favor of a small example. Then, we should be able to explore the possibilities in this simpler space.

final case class LittleUniverse() {
  val haystack: Haystack = Haystack()

  final case class Haystack() {
    def init: Needle = Needle()
    def iter(n: Needle): Needle = n
  final case class Needle()

For brevity, I’ve defined member classes, but this article equally applies if you are using abstract types instead, as any Functional programmer of pure, virtuous heart ought to!

Suppose we have a universe.

scala> val lu: LittleUniverse = LittleUniverse()
lu: LittleUniverse = LittleUniverse()

The thing that Scala does for us is not let Haystacks and Needle s from one universe be confused with those from another.

val anotherU = LittleUniverse()

scala> lu.haystack.iter(anotherU.haystack.init)
<console>:14: error: type mismatch;
 found   : anotherU.Needle
 required: lu.Needle

The meaning of this error is “you can’t use one universe’s Haystack to iter a Needle from another universe”.

This doesn’t look very important given the above code, but it’s a real boon to more complex scenarios. You can set up a lot of interdependent abstract invariants, verify them all, and have the whole set represented with the “index” formed by the singleton type, here lu.type or anotherU.type.

Working with a universe on hand

Refactoring in macro-writing style seems to be based upon passing the universe around everywhere. We can do that.

def twoInits(u: LittleUniverse): (u.Needle, u.Needle) =
  (u.haystack.init, u.haystack.init)
def stepTwice(u: LittleUniverse)(n: u.Needle): u.Needle =

The most important feature we’re reaching for with these fancy dependent method types, and the one that we have to keep reaching for if we want to write sane functions outside the cake, is preserving the singleton type index.

scala> twoInits(lu)
res3: (lu.Needle, lu.Needle) = (Needle(),Needle())

scala> stepTwice(anotherU)(anotherU.haystack.init)
res4: anotherU.Needle = Needle()

These values are ready for continued itering, or whatever else you’ve come up with, in the confines of their respective universes. That’s because they’ve “remembered” where they came from.

By contrast, consider a simple replacement of the path-dependencies with a type projection.

def brokenTwoInits(u: LittleUniverse)
    : (LittleUniverse#Needle, LittleUniverse#Needle) =
  (u.haystack.init, u.haystack.init)

scala> val bti = brokenTwoInits(lu)
bti: (LittleUniverse#Needle, LittleUniverse#Needle) = (Needle(),Needle())

That seems to be okay, until it’s time to actually use the result.

scala> lu.haystack.iter(bti._1)
<console>:14: error: type mismatch;
 found   : LittleUniverse#Needle
 required: lu.Needle

The return type of brokenTwoInits “forgot” the index, lu.type.

Getting two needles without a universe

When we pass a LittleUniverse to the above functions, we’re also kind of passing in a constraint on the singleton type created by the argument variable. That’s how we know that the returned u.Needle is a perfectly acceptable lu.Needle in the caller scope, when we pass lu as the universe.

However, as the contents of a universe become more complex, there are many more interactions that need not involve a universe at all, at least not directly.

def twoInitsFromAHaystack[U <: LittleUniverse](
    h: U#Haystack): (U#Needle, U#Needle) =
  (h.init, h.init)
scala> val tifah = twoInitsFromAHaystack[lu.type](lu.haystack)
tifah: (lu.Needle, lu.Needle) = (Needle(),Needle())

Since we didn’t pass in lu, how did it know that the returned Needles were lu.Needles?

  1. The type of lu.haystack is lu.Haystack.
  2. That type is shorthand for lu.type#Haystack.
  3. We passed in U = lu.type, and our argument meets the resulting requirement for a lu.type#Haystack (after expanding U).
  4. The type of the expression h.init is u.Needle forSome {val u: U}. We use an existential because the relevant variable (and its singleton type) is not in scope.
  5. This type widens to U#Needle, satisfying the expected return type.

This seems like a more complicated way of doing things, but it’s very freeing: by not being forced to necessarily pass the universe around everywhere, you’ve managed to escape the cake’s clutches much more thoroughly. You can also write syntax enrichments on various members of the universe that don’t need to talk about the universe’s value, just its singleton type.

Unless, you know, the index appears in contravariant position.

Syntactic stepTwice

One test of how well we’ve managed to escape the cake is to be able to write enrichments that deal with the universe. This is a little tricky, but quite doable if you have the universe’s value.

With the advent of implicit class, this became a little easier to do wrongly, but it’s a good start.

implicit class NonWorkingStepTwice(val u: LittleUniverse) {
  def stepTwiceOops(n: u.Needle): u.Needle =

That compiles okay, but seemingly can’t actually be used!

scala> lu stepTwiceOops lu.haystack.init
<console>:15: error: type mismatch;
 found   : lu.Needle
 required: _1.u.Needle where val _1: NonWorkingStepTwice
       lu stepTwiceOops lu.haystack.init

There’s a hint in that we had to write val u, not u, nor private val u, in order for the implicit class itself to compile. This signature tells us that there’s an argument of type LittleUniverse, and a member u: LittleUniverse. However, whereas with the function examples above, we [and the compiler] could trust that they’re one and the same, we have no such guarantee here. So we don’t know that an lu.Needle is a u.Needle. We didn’t get far enough, but we don’t know that a u.Needle is an lu.Needle, either.

Relatable variables

Instead, we have to expand a little bit, and take advantage of a very interesting, if obscure, element of the type equivalence rules in the Scala language.

class WorkingStepTwice[U <: LittleUniverse](val u: U) {
  def stepTwice(n: u.Needle): u.Needle =

implicit def WorkingStepTwice[U <: LittleUniverse](u: U)
    : WorkingStepTwice[u.type] =
  new WorkingStepTwice(u)

Unfortunately, the ritual of expanding the implicit class shorthand is absolutely necessary; the implicit class won’t generate the dependent-method-typed implicit conversion we need.

Now we can get the proof we need.

scala> lu stepTwice lu.haystack.init
res7: _1.u.Needle forSome { val _1: WorkingStepTwice[lu.type] } = Needle()

// that's a little weird, but reduces to what we need
scala> res7: lu.Needle
res8: lu.Needle = Needle()

How does this work?

  1. Implicitly convert lu, giving us a conv: WorkingStepTwice[lu.type].
  2. This means that conv.u: lu.type, by expansion of U.
  3. This in turn means that conv.u.type <: lu.type.

The next part is worth taking in two parts. It may be worth having §3.5.2 “Conformance” of the language spec open for reference. First, let’s consider the return type (a covariant position), which is simpler.

  1. The return type expands to conv.u.type#Needle.
  2. The ninth conformance bullet point tells us that the left side of a # projection is covariant, so because conv.u.type <: lu.type (see above), the return type widens to lu.type#Needle.
  3. For this, lu.Needle is a shorthand.

It was far longer until I realized how the argument type works. You’ll want to scroll up on the SLS a bit, to the “Equivalence” section. Keep in mind that we are trying to widen lu.Needle to conv.u.Needle, which is the reverse of what we did for the return type.

  1. Our argument’s type expands to lu.type#Needle.
  2. The second bullet point under “Equivalence” says that “If a path p has a singleton type q.type, then p.type ≡ q.type.” From this, we can derive that conv.u.type = lu.type. This is a stronger conclusion than we reached above!
  3. We substitute the left side of the # using the equivalence, giving us conv.u.type#Needle.

I cannot characterize this feature of the type system as anything other than “really freaky” when you first encounter it. It seems like an odd corner case. Normally, when you write val x: T, then x.type is a strict subtype of T, and you can count on that, but this carves out an exception to that rule. It is sound, though, and an absolutely essential feature!

val sameLu: lu.type = lu

scala> sameLu.haystack.iter(lu.haystack.init)
res9: sameLu.Needle = Needle()

Without this rule, even though we have given it the most specific type possible, sameLu couldn’t be a true substitute for lu in all scenarios. That means that in order to make use of singleton type indices, we would be forever beholden to the variable we initially stored the value in. I think this would be extremely inconvenient, structurally, in almost all useful programs.

With the rule in place, we can fully relate the lu and conv.u variables, to let us reorganize how we talk about universes and values indexed by their singleton types in many ways.

A pointless argument

Let’s try to hide the universe. We don’t need it, after all. We can’t refer to u in the method signature anymore, so let’s try the same conversion we used with twoInitsFromAHaystack. We already have the U type parameter, after all.

class CleanerStepTwice[U <: LittleUniverse](private val u: U) {
  def stepTwiceLively(n: U#Needle): U#Needle =

implicit def CleanerStepTwice[U <: LittleUniverse](u: U)
    : CleanerStepTwice[u.type] =
  new CleanerStepTwice(u)

This has the proper signature, and it’s cleaner, since we don’t expose the unused-at-runtime u variable anymore. We could refine a little further, and replace it with a U#Haystack, just as with twoInitsFromAHaystack.

This gives us the same interface, with all the index preservation we need. Even better, it infers a nicer return type.

scala> def trial = lu stepTwiceLively lu.haystack.init
trial: lu.Needle

Now, let’s turn to implementation.

class OnceMoreStepTwice[U <: LittleUniverse](u: U) {
  def stepTwiceFinally(n: U#Needle): U#Needle =

<console>:18: error: type mismatch;
 found   : U#Needle
 required: OnceMoreStepTwice.this.u.Needle

This is the last part of the escape! If this worked, we could fully erase the LittleUniverse from most code, relying on the pure type-level index to prove enough of its existence! So it’s a little frustrating that it doesn’t quite work.

Let’s break it down. First, the return type is fine.

  1. Since u: U, u.type <: U. (This is true, and useful, in the scope of u, which is now invisible to the caller.)
  2. iter returns a u.type#Needle.
    • Note: since u is not in scope for the caller, if we returned this as is, it would effectively widen to the existentially bound u.type#Needle forSome {val u: U}. But the same logic in the next step would apply to that type.
  3. By the # left side covariance, u.type#Needle widens to U#Needle.

Pretty simple, by the standards of what we’ve seen so far.

Contravariance is the root of all…

But things break down when we try to call iter(n). Keep in mind that n: U#Needle and the expected type is u.Needle. Specifically: since we don’t know in the implementation that U is a singleton type, we can’t use the “singleton type equivalence” rule on it! But suppose that we could; that is, suppose that we could constrain U to be a singleton type.

  1. The argument type is U#Needle.
  2. By singleton equivalence, since u: U and u is stable, so u.type = U.
  3. By substituting the left-hand side of the #, we get u.type#Needle.
  4. This shortens to u.Needle.

If we are unable to constrain U in this way, though, we are restricted to places where U occurs in covariant position when using cake-extracted APIs. We can invoke functions like init, because they only have the singleton index occurring in covariant position.

Invoking functions like iter, where the index occurs in contravariant or invariant position, requires being able to add this constraint, so that we can use singleton equivalence directly on the type variable U. This is quite a bit trickier.

Extracting more types

We have the same problem with the function version.

def stepTwiceHaystack[U <: LittleUniverse](
    h: U#Haystack, n: U#Needle): U#Needle =

<console>:18: error: type mismatch;
 found   : U#Needle
 required: _1.Needle where val _1: U

Let’s walk through it one more time.

  1. n: U#Needle.
  2. h.iter expects a u.type#Needle for all val u: U.
  3. Suppose that we constrain U to be a singleton type:
    1. [The existential] u.type = U, by singleton equivalence.
    2. By # left side equivalence, h.iter expects a U#Needle.

The existential variable complicates things, but the rule is sound.

As a workaround, it is commonly suggested to extract the member types in question into separate type variables. This works in some cases, but let’s see how it goes in this one.

def stepTwiceExUnim[N, U <: LittleUniverse{type Needle = N}](
    h: U#Haystack, n: N): N = ???

This looks a lot weirder, but should be able to return the right type.

scala> def trial2 = stepTwiceExUnim[lu.Needle, lu.type](lu.haystack, lu.haystack.init)
trial2: lu.Needle

But this situation is complex enough for the technique to not work.

def stepTwiceEx[N, U <: LittleUniverse{type Needle = N}](
    h: U#Haystack, n: N): N =

<console>:18: error: type mismatch;
 found   : N
 required: _1.Needle where val _1: U

Instead, we need to index Haystack directly with the Needle type, that is, add a type parameter to Haystack so that its Needle arguments can be talked about completely independently of the LittleUniverse, and then to write h: U#Haystack[N] above. Essentially, this means that any time a type talks about another type in a Universe, you need another type parameter to redeclare a little bit of the relationships between types in the universe.

The problem with this is that we already declared those relationships by declaring the universe! All of the non-redundant information is represented in the singleton type index. So even where the above type-refinement technique works (and it does in many cases), it’s still redeclaring things that ought to be derivable from the “mere” fact that U is a singleton type.

The fact that it’s a singleton type

(The following is based on enlightening commentary by Daniel Urban on an earlier draft.)

Let’s examine the underlying error in stepTwiceEx more directly.

scala> def fetchIter[U <: LittleUniverse](
    h: U#Haystack): U#Needle => U#Needle = h.iter
<console>:14: error: type mismatch;
 found   : _1.type(in method fetchIter)#Needle
             where type _1.type(in method fetchIter) <: U with Singleton
 required: _1.type(in value $anonfun)#Needle
             where type _1.type(in value $anonfun) <: U with Singleton
           h: U#Haystack): U#Needle => U#Needle = h.iter

It’s a good thing that this doesn’t compile. If it did, we could do


Which is unsound.

§3.2.1 “Singleton Types” of the specification mentions this Singleton, which is in a way related to singleton types.

A stable type is either a singleton type or a type which is declared to be a subtype of trait scala.Singleton.

Adding with Singleton to the upper bound on U causes fetchIter to compile! This is sound, because we are protected from the above problem with the original fetchIter.

def fetchIter[U <: LittleUniverse with Singleton](
    h: U#Haystack): U#Needle => U#Needle = h.iter

scala> fetchIter[lu.type](lu.haystack)
res3: lu.Needle => lu.Needle = $$Lambda$1397/1159581520@683e7892

scala> fetchIter[LittleUniverse](lu.haystack)
<console>:16: error: type arguments [LittleUniverse] do not conform
                     to method fetchIter's type parameter bounds
                     [U <: LittleUniverse with Singleton]

Let’s walk through the logic for fetchIter. The expression h.iter has type u.Needle => u.Needle for some val u: U, and our goal type is U#Needle => U#Needle. So we have two subgoals: prove u.Needle <: U#Needle for the covariant position (after =>), and U#Needle <: u.Needle for the contravariant position (before =>).

First, covariant:

  1. Since u: U, u.type <: U.
  2. Since the left side of # is covariant, #1 implies u.type#Needle <: U#Needle.
  3. This re-sugars to u.Needle <: U#Needle, which is the goal.

Secondly, contravariant. We’re going to have to make a best guess here, because it’s not entirely clear to me what’s going on.

  1. Since [existential] path u has a singleton type U (if we define “has a singleton type” as “having a type X such that X <: Singleton”), so u.type = U by the singleton equivalence.
  2. Since equivalence implies conformance, according to the first bullet under “Conformance”, #1 implies U <: u.type.
  3. Since the left side of # is covariant, #2 implies that U#Needle <: u.type#Needle.
  4. This resugars to U#Needle <: u.Needle, which is the goal.

I don’t quite understand this, because U doesn’t seem to meet the requirements for “singleton type”, according to the definition of singleton types. However, I’m fairly sure it’s sound, since type stability seems to be the property that lets us avoid the universe-mixing unsoundness. Unfortunately, it only seems to work with existential vals; we seem to be out of luck with vals that the compiler can still see.

// works fine!
def stepTwiceSingly[U <: LittleUniverse with Singleton](
    h: U#Haystack, n: U#Needle): U#Needle = {

// but alas, this form doesn't
class StepTwiceSingly[U <: LittleUniverse with Singleton](u: U) {
  def stepTwiceSingly(n: U#Needle): U#Needle =

<console>:15: error: type mismatch;
 found   : U#Needle
 required: StepTwiceSingly.this.u.Needle

We can work around this by having the second form invoke the first with the Haystack, thus “existentializing” the universe. I imagine that most, albeit not all, cakes can successfully follow this strategy.

So, finally, we’re almost out of the cake.

  1. Escape covariant positions with universe variable: complete.
  2. Escape contravariant/invariant positions with universe variable: complete.
  3. Escape covariant positions with universe singleton type: complete!
  4. Escape contravariant/invariant positions with universe singleton type: 90% there!

This article was tested with Scala 2.12.1.