Dynamic contagion, part two

This is part two of a two-part series on dynamic contagion. Part one is here.


Last time I discussed how the dynamic type tends to spread through a program like a virus: if an expression of dynamic type "touches" another expression then that other expression often also becomes of dynamic type. Today I want to describe one of the least well understood aspects of method type inference, which also uses a contagion model when dynamic gets involved.

Long-time readers know that method type inference is one of my favourite parts of the C# language; for new readers who might not be familiar with the feature, let me briefly describe it. The idea is that when you have a method, say:

Select<A, R>(IEnumerable<A> items, Func<A, R> projection)

and a call to the method, say:

Select(customers, c=>c.Name)

then we infer that you meant to call:

Select<Customer, string>(customers, c=>c.Name)

rather than making you spell it out. In that case, we would first infer that the list of customers is an IEnumerable<Customer> and therefore the type argument corresponding to A is Customer. From that we would infer that lambda parameter c is of type Customer, and therefore the result of the lambda is string, and therefore type argument corresponding to R is string. This algorithm is already complicated, but when dynamic gets involved, it gets downright weird.

The problem that the language designers faced when deciding how method type inference works with dynamic is exacerbated by our basic design goal for dynamic, that I mentioned two weeks ago: the runtime analysis of a dynamic expression honours all the information that we deduced at compile time. We only use the deduced-at-runtime types for the parts of the expression that were actually dynamic; the parts that were statically typed at compile time remain statically typed at runtime, not dynamically typed. Above we inferred R after we knew A, but what if customers had been of type dynamic? We now have a problem: depending on the runtime type of customers, type inference might succeed dynamically even though it seems like it must fail statically. But if type inference fails statically then the method is not a candidate, and, as we discussed two weeks ago, if the candidate set of a dynamically-dispatched method group is empty then overload resolution fails at compile-time, not at runtime. So it seems that type inference must succeed statically!

What a mess. How do we get out of this predicament? The spec is surprisingly short on details; it says only:

Any type argument that does not depend directly or indirectly on an argument of type dynamic is inferred using [the usual static analysis rules]. The remaining type arguments are unknown. [...] Applicability is checked according to [the usual static analysis rules] ignoring parameters whose types are unknown.1

So what we have here is essentially another type that spreads via a contagion model, the "unknown" type. Just as "possibly infected" is the transitive closure of the exposure relation in simplistic epidemiology, "unknown" is the transitive closure of the "depends on" relation in method type inference.

For example, if we have:

void M<T, U>(T t, L<U> items)

with a call

M(123, dyn);

Then type inference infers that T is int from the first argument. Because the second argument is of dynamic type, and the formal parameter type involves type parameter U, we "taint" U with the "unknown type".

When a tainted type parameter is "fixed" to its final type argument, we ignore all other bounds that we have computed so far, even if some of the bounds are contradictory, and infer it to be "unknown". So in this case, type inference would succeed and we would add M<int, unknown> to the candidate set. As noted above, we skip applicability checking for arguments that correspond to parameters whose types are in any way tainted.

But where does the transitive closure of the dependency relationship come into it? In the C# 4 and 5 compilers we did not handle this particularly well, but in Roslyn we now actually cause the taint to spread. Suppose we have:

void M<T, U, V>(T t, L<U> items, Func<T, U, V> func)

and a call

M(123, dyn, (t, u)=>u.Whatever(t));

We infer T to be int and U to be unknown. We then say that V depends on T and U, and so infer V to be unknown as well. Therefore type inference succeeds with an inference of M<int, unknown, unknown>.

The alert reader will at this point be protesting that no matter what happens with method type inference, this is going to turn into a dynamic call, and that lambdas are not legal in dynamic calls in the first place. However, we want to get as much high-quality analysis done as possible so that IntelliSense and other code analysis works correctly even in badly broken code. It is better to allow U to infect V with the "unknown taint" and have type inference succeed, as the specification indicates, than to bail out early and have type inference fail. And besides, if by some miracle we do in the future allow lambdas to be in dynamic calls, we'll already have a sensible implementation of method type inference.


This is part two of a two-part series on dynamic contagion. Part one is here.

  1. That last clause is a bit unclear in two ways. First, it really should say "whose types are in any way unknown". L<unknown> is considered to be an unknown type. Second, along with skipping applicability checking we also skip constraint satisfaction checking. That is, we assume that the runtime construction of L<unknown> will provide a type argument that satisfies all the necessary generic type constraints.

Dynamic contagion, part one

This is part one of a two-part series on dynamic contagion. Part two is here.


Suppose you're an epidemiologist modeling the potential spread of a highly infectious disease. The straightforward way to model such a series of unfortunate events is to assume that the population can be divided into three sets: the definitely infected, the definitely healthy, and the possibly infected. If a member of the healthy population encounters a member of the definitely infected or possibly infected population, then they become a member of the possibly infected population. (Or, put another way, the possibly infected population is closed transitively over the exposure relation.) A member of the possibly infected population becomes classified as either definitely healthy or definitely infected when they undergo some sort of test. And an infected person can become a healthy person by being cured.

This sort of contagion model is fairly common in the design of computer systems. For example, suppose you have a web site that takes in strings from users, stores them in a database, and serves them up to other users. Like, say, this blog, which takes in comments from you, stores them in a database, and then serves them right back up to other users. That's a Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attack waiting to happen right there. A common way to mitigate the XSS problem is to use data tainting, which uses the contagion model to identify strings that are possibly hostile. Whenever you do anything to a potentially-hostile string, like, say, concatenate it with a non-hostile string, the result is a possibly-hostile string. If the string is determined via some test to be benign, or can have its potentially hostile parts stripped out, then it becomes safe.

The "dynamic" feature in C# 4 and above has a lot in common with these sorts of contagion models. As I pointed out last time, when an argument of a call is dynamic then odds are pretty good that the compiler will classify the result of the call as dynamic as well; the taint spreads. In fact, when you use almost any operator on a dynamic expression, the result is of dynamic type, with a few exceptions. ("is" for example always returns a bool.)  You can "cure" an expression to prevent it spreading dynamicism by casting it to object, or to whatever other non-dynamic type you'd like; casting dynamic to object is an identity conversion.

The way that dynamic is contagious is an emergent phenomenon of the rules for working out the types of expressions in C#. There is, however, one place where we explicitly use a contagion model inside the compiler in order to correctly work out the type of an expression that involves dynamic types: it is one of the most arcane aspects of method type inference. Next time I'll give you all the rundown on that.


This is part one of a two-part series on dynamic contagion. Part two is here.

A method group of one

I'm implementing the semantic analysis of dynamic expressions in Roslyn this week, so I'm fielding a lot of questions within the team on the design of the dynamic feature of C# 4. A question I get fairly frequently in this space is as follows:

public class Alpha
{
  public int Foo(string x) { ... }
}
  ...
  dynamic d = whatever;
  Alpha alpha = MakeAlpha();
  var result = alpha.Foo(d);

How is this analyzed? More specifically, what's the type of local result?

If the receiver (that is, alpha) of the call were of type dynamic then there would be little we could do at compile time. We'd analyze the compile-time types of the arguments and emit a dynamic call site that caused the semantic analysis to be performed at runtime, using the runtime type of the dynamic expression. But that's not the case here. We know at compile time what the type of the receiver is. One of the design principles of the C# dynamic feature is that if we have a type that is known at compile time, then at runtime the type analysis honours that. In other words, we only use the runtime type of the things that were actually dynamic; everything else we use the compile-time type. If MakeAlpha() returns a class derived from Alpha, and that derived class has more overloads of Foo, we don't care.

Because we know that we're going to be doing overload resolution on a method called Foo on an instance of type Alpha, we can do a "sanity check" at compile time to determine if we know that for sure, this is going to fail at runtime. So we do overload resolution, but instead of doing the full overload resolution algorithm (eliminate inapplicable candidates, determine the unique best applicable candidate, perform final validation of that candidate), we do a partial overload resolution algorithm. We get as far as eliminating the inapplicable candidates, and if that leaves one or more candidates then the call is bound dynamically. If it leaves zero candidates then we report an error at compile time, because we know that nothing is going to work at runtime.

Now, a seemingly reasonable question to ask at this point is: overload resolution in this case could determine that there is exactly one applicable candidate in the method group, and therefore we can determine statically that the type of result is int, so why do we instead say that the type of result is dynamic?

That appears to be a reasonable question, but think about it a bit more. If you and I and the compiler know that overload resolution is going to choose a particular method then why are we making a dynamic call in the first place? Why haven't we cast d to string? This situation is rare, unlikely, and has an easy workaround by inserting casts appropriately (either casting the call expression to int or the argument to string). Situations that are rare, unlikely and easily worked around are poor candidates for compiler optimizations. You asked for a dynamic call, so you're going to get a dynamic call.

That's reason enough to not do the proposed feature, but let's think about it a bit more deeply by exploring a variation on this scenario that I glossed over above. Eta Corporation produces:

public class Eta {}

and Zeta Corporation extends this code:

public class Zeta : Eta
{
  public int Foo(string x){ ... }
}
  ...
  dynamic d = whatever;
  Zeta zeta = new Zeta();
  var result = zeta.Foo(d);

Suppose we say that the type of result is int because the method group has only one member. Now suppose that in the next version, Eta Corporation supplies a new method:

public class Eta
{
  public string Foo(double x){...}
}

Zeta corporation recompiles their code, and hey presto, suddenly result is of type dynamic! Why should Eta Corporation's change to the base class cause the semantic analysis of code that uses a derived class to change? This seems unexpected. C# has been carefully designed to avoid these sorts of "Brittle Base Class" failures; see my other articles on that subject for examples of how we do that.

We can make a bad situation even worse. Suppose Eta's change is instead:

public class Eta
{
  protected string Foo(double x){...}
}

Now what happens? Should we say that the type of result is int when the code appears outside of class Zeta, because overload resolution produces a single applicable candidate, but dynamic when it appears inside, because overload resolution produces two such candidates? That would be quite bizarre indeed.

The proposal is simply too much cleverness in pursuit of too little value. We've been asked to perform a dynamic binding, and so we're going to perform a dynamic binding; the result should in turn be of type dynamic. The benefits of being able to statically deduce types of dynamic expressions does not pay for the costs, so we don't attempt to do so. If you want static analysis then don't turn it off in the first place.


Next time on FAIC: The dynamic taint of method type inference.

Representation and identity

(Note: not to be confused with Inheritance and Representation.)

I get a fair number of questions about the C# cast operator. The most frequent question I get is:

short sss = 123;
object ooo = sss;            // Box the short.
int iii = (int) sss;         // Perfectly legal.
int jjj = (int) (short) ooo; // Perfectly legal
int kkk = (int) ooo;         // Invalid cast exception?! Why?

Why? Because a boxed T can only be unboxed to T.1 Once it is unboxed, it’s just a value that can be cast as usual, so the double cast works just fine.
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  1. Or Nullable<T>.