Boxing and Unboxing

As we observed earlier, by default functions and capabilites are second class – they cannot be returned nor stored in mutable cells and can only be passed as second-class parameters to other functions. We can lift this restriction by boxing these functions and capabilities, reifying the set of captured capabilites from the binder to the type.

interface Greeter { def sayHello(): Unit }

def myGreeter() {
  try {
    // boxing a capability and storing it in a mutable variable
    var capturedGreeter = box greeter;

    // unboxing requires `greeter` to be in scope
    def user() { (unbox capturedGreeter).sayHello() }

    // automatic boxing of `user`, stored in a value binder
    val firstClassUser: () => Unit at {greeter} = user;

    // automatic unboxing of firstClassUser
  } with greeter : Greeter {
    def sayHello() { println("Hello World!"); resume(()) }

Here, we box greeter to store it in the mutable cell capturedGreeter. Note that System C supports automatic boxing and unboxing, and we could have omitted box. We can also explicitly annotate the expected capability set as box {greeter} greeter. In the function user, we unbox the captured first-class block and call sayHello. The fact that we unbox it is reflected in the inferred capability set annotated on user.

Boxed values act as normal first-class values in System C until unboxed. In particular, they can be passed as values to value-polymorphic functions.

def invoke[T](v : T){f : (T) => Unit}: Unit { f(v) }

def indirectMyGreeter { greeter: Greeter }: Unit {
  val capturedGreeter = box greeter;
  invoke(capturedGreeter){ (f : Greeter at { greeter }) =>

Hovering over capturedGreeter shows how the capture is reflected in the type.

Reasoning about Purity

Boxes reflect capture of tracked variables in their types. Let us assume the following function in the standard library:

// def setTimeout(callback: () => Unit at {}, duration: Int): Unit

Its implementation uses the FFI to JavaScript. System C is implemented as a compiler to JavaScript and requires a monadic runtime. The value passed to the JavaScript builtin window.setTimeout should not make use of any control effects or effect handlers since it will be called later outside of all possible handlers. To express this, we require the callback to be “pure” (i.e. () => Unit at {}).

We can still use the unsafe println function, as illustrated in the following example

setTimeout(box { () => println("Hello after 2 seconds!") }, 2000)