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[POKOLOGY] Array boundaries and closures

From: Jose E. Marchesi
Subject: [POKOLOGY] Array boundaries and closures
Date: Thu, 03 Oct 2019 00:26:21 +0200
User-agent: Gnus/5.13 (Gnus v5.13) Emacs/26.1 (gnu/linux)

[This is also published as an article in the Applied Pokology blog

Hi people!

Poke arrays are rather peculiar.  One of their seemingly bizarre
characteristics is the fact that the expressions calculating their
boundaries (when they are bounded) evaluate in their own lexical
environment, which is captured.  In other words: the expressions
denoting the boundaries of Poke arrays conform closures.  Also, the way
they evaluate may be surprising.  This is no capricious.

There are three different kind of array types in Poke.

Unbounded arrays have no explicit boundaries.  Examples are int[] or
Elf64_Shdr[].  Arrays can be bounded by number of elements specifying a
Poke expression that evaluates to an integer value.  For example,
int[2].  Finally, arrays can be bounded by size specifying a Poke
expression that evaluates to an offset value.  For example, int[8#B].

When an array type is bounded, be it by number of elements or by size,
the expression indicating the boundary doesn't need to be constant and
it can involve variables.  For example, consider the following type

  defvar N = 2
  deftype List = int[N*2]

Let's map a List at some offset:

  (poke) List @ 0#B

As expected, we get an array of four integers.  Very good, obviously the
boundary expression N*2 got evaluated when defining the type List, and
the result of the evaluation was 4, right?.  Typical semantics like in
my garden variety programming language... right?  Right?!?

Well, not really.  Let's modify the value of N and map a List again...

  (poke) N = 1
  (poke) List @ 0#B

Yes, The boundary of the array type changed... come on, this is Poke,
was you really expecting something typical? :)

What happens is that at type construction time the lexical environment
is captured and a closure is created.  The body of the closure is the
expression.  Every time the type is referred, the closure is
re-evaluated and a new value is computed.

Consequently, if the value of a variable referred in the expression
changes, like in our example, the type itself gets updated
automagically.  Very nice but, why is Poke designed like this?  Just to
impress the cat?  Nope.

In binary formats, and also in protocols, the size of some given data is
often defined in terms of some other data that should be decoded first.
Consider for example the following definition of a Packet:

  deftype Packet =
      byte size;    
      byte[size] payload;

Each packet contains a 8-bit integer specifying the size of the payload
transported in the packet.  The payload, a sequence of `size' bytes,

In struct types like the above, the boundaries of arrays depend on
fields that have been decoded before and that exist, like variables, in
the lexical scope captured by the struct type definition (yes, these are
also closures, but that's for another article.)

To show this property in action, let's play a bit:

  (poke) defvar data = byte[4] @ 0#B
  (poke) data[0] = 2
  (poke) data[1] = 3
  (poke) data[2] = 4
  (poke) data[3] = 5
  (poke) dump
  76543210  0011 2233 4455 6677 8899 aabb ccdd eeff
  00000000: 0203 0405 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000
  00000010: 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000
  (poke) defvar p1 = Packet @ 0#B
  (poke) defvar p2 = Packet @ 1#B
  (poke) p1
  Packet {size=0x2UB,payload=[0x3UB,0x4UB]}
  (poke) p2
  Packet {size=0x3UB,payload=[0x4UB,0x5UB,0x0UB]}

Now, let's change the data and see how the sizes of the payloads are
adjusted accordingly:

  (poke) data[0] = 1
  (poke) data[1] = 0
  (poke) p1
  Packet {size=0x1UB,payload=[0x0UB]}
  (poke) p2
  Packet {size=0x0UB,payload=[]}

So, as we have seen, Poke's way of handling boundaries in array types
allows data structures to adjust to the particular data they contain, so
usual in binary formats.  This is an important feature, that gives Poke
part of it's feel and magic.

Happy poking! :)

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