I recently finished the “Functional Programming Principles in Scala” online course that Martin Odersky teaches via Coursera. The course gives an introduction to Scala syntax while at the same time introducing functional programming basics like recursive algorithms using accumulators and building linked lists from cons cells. A lot of the examples and exercises comes from SICP but they are done in Scala instead of Scheme. This blog post is just a writeup of some notes from this course.

Throughout the course, when Odersky introduces new syntax, he often also explains how that construct could be rewritten or expressed using lower level language features. For example, an anonymous function expressed using (x: Int) => x * x can be rewritten as:

    class AnonFunc extends Function1[Int, Int] {
        def apply(x: Int): Int = x * x
    new AnonFunc

This type of rewrites makes it easier to reason about the language because the problem is reduced to studying a subset. Compared to for example C or Go, Scala is a much larger language and it also has higher level language constructs, so it can be hard to understand of how the various language constructs interact with each other. Also, for better or worse, Scala has not been as conservative about adding language features over the years, and you got a few examples where language contructs that ought to be orthogonal cannot be used together at all1.

One of the main benefits of functional programming is that it is easier to reason about the code, both for the programmer as well as for the compiler. In particular, you can evaluate expressions involving pure functions (functions with no side effects) by using a substitution model based on lambda calculus. While not covered in this particular course; Odersky et al have actually been working for several years on identifying a very small subset of language constructs that can be used as the foundation of the Scala language (to formally prove type soundness and so on). It is called DOT calculus and Odersky talked about it in his keynote at Scala Days earlier this year.

In most imperative languages you have “call by value” and in some, like C++ and C#, you can use “call by reference” as well. In Scala you have a third evaluation strategy named “call by name”. When calling a method with a “call by name” parameter, an “expression” is passed rather than the value it evaluates to. It is then up to the called method to evaluate this expression 0, 1 or more times. Microsoft .NET offers a similar capability with its Expression<T> type, but call by name has a long history; it was even used in ALGOL 602.

In Scala, if you declare def myMethod(a: Int, b: => Int): Int = ... the parameter a is a regular “call by value” parameter while b uses “call by name”. This means that for a call like myFunc(f(), g()) you cannot tell from looking at the callsite alone whether g will run once or multiple times or maybe not run at all. Ultimately, to know whether g() from above will actually execute the function g, one would have to read the implementation of myFunc (or in some cases dig even further, i.e. if the “call by name” parameter is passed into another function via another “call by name” parameter). This requirement of non-local source knowledge to understand a particular line of code is analogous to how the syntax used for C++ references make code hard to read:

#include <cstdio>

void func(int a, int& b) {
    b = a;

int main() {
    int x = 1, y = 0;
    func(x, y);
    printf("%d %d\n", x, y);
    return 0;

In the example above, you cannot know whether func(x, y) modifies the variables x and y until you have read the implementation of func. Some C++ developers use int* b instead just because that forces &y at the call site (which is a cue to the reader that y might be modified), but pointers are unsafe, they can be NULL and come with aliasing issues. C# offers a really nice solution to this problem, there the compiler forces the programmer to write func(x, ref y) at the call site if y can be modified (and it even offers the variant func(x, out y) for out-only parameters). Maybe Scala’s call by name syntax could be made less icky by adding such a callsite cue as well? i.e. if it forced you to write myFunc(f(), => g()) (or something like that) if the second param of myFync was call by name?

Leaving that aside, call by name is a pretty neat feature to have because it allows you to implement lazy data structures such as streams, which in turn are important for making functional programs with decent performance. The ability to opt into (or more importantly, to opt out of) laziness makes Scala much better equipped to interoperate with existing imperative codebases.

In Scala, infix operators are really just another way of calling regular methods so for example a + b == a.+(b). This, coupled with “call by name” parameters, means that you can effectively implement an binary operator with short-circuit evaluation as a regular method call! There are some special cases though, for example the assignment operator is actually reserved word in Scala. Anyway, with call by name you could even implement support for while loops using a single tail recursive function, like this:

def myWhile(condition: => Boolean)(body: => Unit): Unit =
  if (condition) {
  } else ()

Other noted things:

  • In Python, if you don’t write import foo, then you cannot use foo.bar. In Java on the other hand, even if you don’t have any import com.foo.Bar; you can still use com.foo.Bar in the code because everything on the classpath is available as long as you use the fully qualified name. So in Python you can search for the import statements and reading them will actually tell you something about the dependencies, whereas in Java the imports are mostly an aliasing mechanism that contain little information/value. Unsurpringly, Scala imports are similar to Java imports.

  • The three main types of collections in Scala are Map, Set and Seq and they all inherit from Iterable. List (roughly linked list with O(n) lookup and append) and Vector (array like with effectively constant lookup and append) are both subclasses of Seq. The reason why Seq exists, and why List and Vector doesn’t inherit directly from Iterable, is that Scala defines an implicit conversion from Java arrays to Seq. This means that you can treat Java arrays (and Strings etc) as any other Scala collection even though they, by their nature, cannot inherit from Seq. There is an overview of performance characteristics of Scala collection classes here.

  • Vector is actually a kind of bitmapped trie with a branching factor of 32 (supposedly to make each level block roughly the size of a single cache line). I actually checked the cache line size on my laptop (cat /sys/devices/system/cpu/cpu0/cache/index0/coherency_line_size) and it was 64 bytes. So if one level of the trie has 32 pointers that would be at least 32*8=256 bytes (depending on the memory layout that the JVM would use), i.e. I think it would actually have to pull at least four cache lines per trie level? It would be interesting to investigate this data structure a bit closer at some point.

  • Some of the good stuff in Scala (like arrow functions) made it into Java 8, but this also caused some (partial) overlap. For example Scala Option vs Java 8’s Optional. But it’s hard to do map/filter in Java and not miss Scala’s placeholder syntax for anonymous functions for example.

  • Scala actually lets you declare the type variance by annotating the type parameter of a generic type: you write class MyType[+A] {} for covariance, class MyType[+A] {} for contravariance and class MyType[A] {} for non-variance. Of course mutable types cannot be covariant without breaking type safety so you have to be careful. The rules that determine what kind of variance that makes sense for a given type parameter is roughly (not but exactly): covariant type parameters maybe only be used for method results, contravariant type parameters maybe only be used for method arguments. Non-variant type parameters can be used anywhere.

  • Generic types in Scala have the same type erasure issue as you see in Java/Haskell/ML etc, so at runtime a list of integers and a list of strings appear to have the same type. So if you ran the following Scala code:

List(1,2,3) match {
  case l : List[String] => println("wtf")
  case _ => println("bacon")

..there would be no bacon for you. If you want bacon, go with C++/C# or F#.

1: For example, "repeated parameters" declared with ```T*``` cannot be passed using "call-by-name" although there are some cleanup efforts to remove oddities like that.

2: In ALGOL 60, from what I understand, you could even pass an "lvalue" as call by name and assign to it. This made it possible to sum the first 100 elements of an array using a call like Sum(i, 1, 100, V[i]) which is pretty funky (also leads to "interesting" effects if you call swap(i,a[i]) and so on). See the Wikipedia article on Jensen's Device