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Posted 18 Aug 2014

.NET Just Keeps Getting More Annoying

, 12 Sep 2014 LGPL3
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.NET just keeps getting more annoying

It seems like the little design flaws of .NET get on my nerves more and more every week.

Today, I realized that I wanted to do a binary search. No problem--I put a binary search method in Loyc.Essentials; four independent implementations, in fact, one for IList<T>, one for T[], and two for more obscure scenarios. But the list I wanted to search implemented IReadOnlyList<T>, not IList<T>. Since IReadOnlyList<T> is strangely not a subtype of IList<T>, I realized I would have to add another overload with a verbatim copy of the existing implementation. And of course, I'd need to add not one new overload, but three, to support .NET's three standard kinds of comparisons: T implementing IComparable<T>, independent IComparer<T>, and independent Comparison<T>:

public static int BinarySearch<T>(this IReadOnlyList<T> list, T value) where T : IComparable<T>
    return BinarySearch<T>(list, value, G.ToComparison<T>());
public static int BinarySearch<T>(this IReadOnlyList<T> list, T value, IComparer<T> comparer)
    return BinarySearch<T>(list, value, G.ToComparison(comparer));
public static int BinarySearch<T>(this IReadOnlyList<T> list, T find, Comparison<T> compare)
    // Duplication of code for IList<T>

And then my build broke because some code had called BinarySearch with a list that implemented both IReadOnlyList<T> and IList<T>, so I fixed that by adding the usual set of disambiguating overloads, raising the total number of BinarySearch methods in Loyc.Essentials somewhere north of 15.

Next, I realized that the kind of binary search I wanted was a bit unusual. I was writing a Visual Studio syntax highlighting extension and the list being searched was a list of ITagSpan<T> objects, which are Visual Studio objects that combine a "tag" object with a "span" (which is a range of characters in a text file). So I did not actually want to search for a particular ITagSpan<T> object in the list, I wanted to search for an integer such that the ITagSpan matched it in a certain way, e.g.

int i = _tagSpanList.BinarySearch(span.Start.Position, 
    (tspan, start) => (tspan.Span.End.Position-1).CompareTo(start));

This does not change the binary search algorithm at all, but it does change the method signature. Instead of this:

public static int BinarySearch<T>(this IReadOnlyList<T> list, T find, Comparison<T> compare)

what I actually wanted was this:

public static int BinarySearch<T, K>(this IReadOnlyList<T> list, K find, Func<T, K, int> compare)

The delegate type Comparison<T> only supports symmetrical comparisons; in order to support asymmetrical comparisons I had to change Comparison to Func. Of course, if T = K then Comparison<T> and Func<T, K, int> are exactly equivalent... or they should be, but in fact are not, because Microsoft said so. You cannot pass a Comparison<T> into a method that expects Func<T, T, int> or vice versa. It's possible to convert between the two types, but you have to allocate an extra heap object to do so.

But I figured no one else was using my library (much as I wish they would), so I changed the signature... problem solved, and I was able to finish my multi-language syntax highlighter (which currently supports EC# and LES).

But Loyc.Essentials still offers other methods that use Comparison<T>, such as Sort:

public static void Sort<T>(this IList<T> list, Comparison<T> comp) {...}

So imagine you are writing a module that needs to sort and repeatedly search a list. You want it to be generic, so you accept a delegate passed from the outside. What should the type of the delegate be? If you choose Comparison<T>, you can't call BinarySearch and if you choose Func<T,T,int> you can't call Sort. Wonderful.

So I realized that I had made a mistake. While clearly we need a version of BinarySearch that is asymmetrical, we clearly also need a version that accepts Comparison<T>. But this raises the minimum number of Binary Search implementations to four:

  • one for the combination IList<T> and Comparison<T>
  • one for the combination IList<T> and Func<T,K,int>
  • one for the combination IReadOnlyList<T> and Comparison<T>
  • one for the combination IReadOnlyList<T> and Func<T,K,int>

All with identical code inside. Now, I could pick one canonical implementation and use wrappers or adapters for the others, but such things require heap allocations. Do you think a binary search should require heap allocation? Well I don't (I accept a single delegate allocation for the IComparer<T> overloads, which I personally never use.)

Meanwhile eight additional method overloads are provided, which just forward to one of the implementations above:

  • two for IList<T> with IComparer<T> or with no comparer provided
  • two for IReadOnlyList<T> with IComparer<T> or with no comparer provided
  • four for IListAndListSource<T> (which combines IList<T>, IReadOnlyList<T> and my own IListSource<T> interface) with IComparer<T>, with no comparer provided, with Comparison<T> or with Func<T,K,int>

With 12 overloads, we haven't even covered the case that you want to search a slice of the list rather than the entire list (you can do that by calling list.Slice(start, length).BinarySearch(item), of course, but it does have the disadvantage of boxing the slice structure.)

Oh, and one more thing. The version that takes Comparison<T> cannot have the same method name as the version that takes Func<T,K,int> because if you pass a lambda to BinarySearch, the C# compiler will error out because it is "ambiguous" which version to call, even though, of course, it doesn't matter at all which version is called. So I decided to call the Comparison<T> version BinarySearch and renamed the Func<T,K,int> version BinarySearch2.

So this is my problem with .NET. We shouldn't need 12 overloads (including 3 under a different name), we should only need 2 overloads and a single implementation:

  • One overload that accepts IReadOnlyList<T> and no special comparison method. This method should accept IList<T> also since IReadOnlyList<T> should be a subtype of IList<T>.
  • One overload for the combination IReadOnlyList<T> and Func<T,K,int>. This should cover the other three cases since Comparison<T> should be considered an alias for Func<T,T,int>, not an unrelated type. (And while we're fixing this flaw, let's have delegates be value types, not heap-allocated, okay?)
  • IComparer<T> is redundant, Func<T,K,int> is all you need. (Note that given a class type T that implements IComparable<T>, you can efficiently derive a Func<T,K,int> from that by creating an open delegate; .NET conventionally converts to IComparer<T> instead but this is less efficient on average, as it requires double virtual dispatch.)

As the author of a library that is highly generic, the unnecessary incompatibilities in .NET make me more and more uneasy every year. Today I've discussed two issues; here are some others, most of which I have discussed before:

  • Structures/classes cannot embed a fixed-length array of arbitrary type T. This limits optimization opportunities when implementing data structures, which made my CPTrie and InternalSet data structures (among others) less efficient than they could have been.
  • A nullable value type is not equivalent to or compatible with a nullable reference type. You cannot write generic code that treats them the same way. If the CLR designers had defined T? as a boxed version of T, this problem would not exist. (We would still have a smaller problem, that the "nullable" concept cannot be nested: you cannot use Nullable<Nullable<T>>. There is no standard way to express the concept "optional value of type T, in which T itself might be nullable". The standard solution, of course, is to use an independent boolean to express whether the T is present.)
  • .NET does not support weak delegates.
  • Covariant return types are still not allowed in .NET after all these years!!!
  • It is not possible to bitwise-compare two arbitrary values (two values of a value type or two references, or for that matter the contents of two objects of the same type).
  • "Generic interface unification" is forbidden even when it makes sense and causes no problems.
  • .NET is not able to support ad-hoc interfaces (like those offered in Go) in a performant manner, nor is there "structural typing" for interfaces, so two interfaces with identical methods defined in different assemblies, or different versions of the same assembly, are incompatible, even if the methods are listed in the same order. For instance, I haven't been able to define IReadOnlyList<T> in an assembly built in Visual Studio 2010 (.NET 4) such that it is compatible with the identical interface in .NET 4.5 (but see [TypeForwardedTo]).
  • When creating a thread, it is impossible to cause the child thread to inherit thread-local values from the parent thread. Even propagating values manually is difficult.
  • Fibers (stack switching) are not really supported (the async features of C# compensate for this. Technically stack-switching is more general and flexible, but I suppose it's okay not to support them: some tests I did in D suggested that either x86 CPUs are not designed to switch stacks efficiently, or, for all I know, that the Windows OS makes it slow by trapping the operation.)
  • Having two different length attributes, "Length" and "Count", can be a nuisance.
  • Needless coupling between property getters and setters causes various minor problems. You can't derive from a read-only base class or interface and "just" add a setter; you can't make only the setter virtual, etc. (The other issues are CLR-wide; for this one I'm not sure if it's a CLR issue or a C# issue.)
  • Structures can't have default constructors (as distinct from default(T)). Jon Skeet found that this was mostly a C# limitation except in one important way that is CLR-wide: the constructor is not invoked by generic code.

These are mostly limitations of the CLR. If we add limitations of C#, or limitations of the BCL, the list becomes considerably longer.

I really believe a "managed environment" for software development should be available, in which developers can easily use dynamic loading, reflection, garbage collection and run-time code generation, and in which programs written in different languages are interoperable without hassles. But it is clear to me that both the Java and .NET implementations of this concept are flawed. That's why I have called for a new VM to fix all these problems and supplant Javascript, to boot. Now if only someone would hire me to help build it...


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPLv3)


About the Author

Software Developer None
Canada Canada
Since I started programming when I was 11, I wrote the SNES emulator "SNEqr", the FastNav mapping component, the Enhanced C# programming language (in progress), the parser generator LLLPG, and LES, a syntax to help you start building programming languages, DSLs or build systems.

My overall focus is on the Language of your choice (Loyc) initiative, which is about investigating ways to improve interoperability between programming languages and putting more power in the hands of developers. I'm also seeking employment.

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Comments and Discussions

GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Paulo Zemek12-Sep-14 5:03
professionalPaulo Zemek12-Sep-14 5:03 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 Pin
Richard Deeming14-Oct-14 7:51
professionalRichard Deeming14-Oct-14 7:51 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 Pin
Paulo Zemek14-Oct-14 7:59
professionalPaulo Zemek14-Oct-14 7:59 
QuestionJust wondering Pin
Chad3F28-Aug-14 16:30
memberChad3F28-Aug-14 16:30 
AnswerRe: Just wondering Pin
Qwertie29-Aug-14 6:40
memberQwertie29-Aug-14 6:40 
QuestionGood article! Pin
Thornik26-Aug-14 0:16
memberThornik26-Aug-14 0:16 
Questionre - .NET annoying Pin
john morrison leon20-Aug-14 2:41
memberjohn morrison leon20-Aug-14 2:41 
QuestionInteresting viewpoint. Pin
jlopez78819-Aug-14 5:39
memberjlopez78819-Aug-14 5:39 
AnswerRe: Interesting viewpoint. Pin
Qwertie19-Aug-14 6:49
memberQwertie19-Aug-14 6:49 
AnswerRe: Interesting viewpoint. Pin
Paulo Zemek12-Sep-14 5:21
professionalPaulo Zemek12-Sep-14 5:21 
SuggestionOr you could just have used IEnumerable... Pin
Nicolas Penin18-Aug-14 22:19
memberNicolas Penin18-Aug-14 22:19 
GeneralRe: Or you could just have used IEnumerable... Pin
Yakigato Niji19-Aug-14 6:04
memberYakigato Niji19-Aug-14 6:04 

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