# Monday, 10 May 2004
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Generics Again

I have a hard time truly understanding the Java generics model. I understand the implementation and I think it's a hack and this is probably making it harder for me to see the design objectively.

After looking at the recent JDK 1.5 beta, there was one method that particularly puzzled me:

public T cast(Object obj)

In java.lang.Class. Why would you need a method to dynamically cast? If you understand how generics work under the covers, you know that T is actually java.lang.Object, so calling this cast method doesn't actually buy you anything (the compiler will insert a real cast after your call).

Before diving in, if your knowledge of how Java generics work under the covers is a bit rusty, I recommend reading the paper on GJ: Making the future safe for the past: Adding Genericity to the Java Programming Language. While I was re-reading it, a few things jumped out: "Adding generics to an existing language is almost routine.." In fact, it's so easy that today in 2004 we still don't have generics in Java, even though the design was already done in 1998. Another quote: "GJ comes with a cast-iron guarantee: no cast inserted by the compiler will ever fail. (Caveat: this guarantee is void if the compiler generates an 'unchecked' warning, which may occur if legacy and parametric code is mixed without benefit of retrofitting.)" Please note that the caveat applies when you use one of the principal features of GJ: "GJ contains a novel language feature, raw types, to capture the correspondence between generic and legacy types, and a retrofitting mechanism to allow generic types to be imposed on legacy code."

Another interesting paper (that is referenced in the GJ paper as NextGen), is Compatible Genericity with Run-time Types for the Java TM Programming Language.

Anyway, let's look at some code and try to figure out what the purpose of the new cast method is:

Class<String> c = String.class;;
String s = c.cast("foo");;

This is compiled as:

ldc_w java/lang/String
astore_1
aload_1
ldc "foo"
invokevirtual java/lang/Class cast(Ljava/lang/Object;)Ljava/lang/Object;
checkcast java/lang/String
astore_2

Note in particular the checkcast that I highlighted. This is inserted by the compiler and is key to how Java generics work. Presumably the Class.cast() method also checks that the passed in object is actually castable to the type, so effectively you get two casts for the price of one (or rather, you pay twice for the same cast).

Why would you want (or need) that? The answer became clear (?) to me when I was contrasting the Java generics with the .NET generics model.

Let's look at some more code (C# 2.0 this time):

T LameFactory<T>() where T : new()
{
  return new T();
}

This method generically constructs instances. It's not relevant to my point, but it is interesting to note that the C# compiler uses reflection under the covers to implement this. Most C# generics constructs are actually supported by the CLR, but instantation isn't. The compiler generates something like this:

T LameFactory<T>()
{
  // If T is a Value Type, we don't need
  // to use Activator.CreateInstance.
  if((object)T.default != null)
  {
    return T.default;
  }
  return (T)Activator.CreateInstance(typeof(T));
}

How would you do something similar in Java? Here's how:

T LameFactory(Class<T> factory)
{
  return factory.newInstance();
}

In essence, what you're doing here is the same as what the CLR is doing under the covers (passing an extra parameter with the type information, at least conceptually). Class.newInstance returns an appropriately typed reference, because Class is a generic type. Suppose it hadn't returned the appropriate type, but simply Object like in the good old days. You could have used Class.cast() to the the downcast instead! Admittedly this isn't the greatest example for explaining the existence of Class.cast(), but I do understand now that it provides real functionality that would have been impossible to (safely) get in any order way. Note that the obvious:

T LameFactory(Class factory)
{
  Object o = factory.newInstance();
  return (T)o;
}

Isn't the right answer. When compiling this, the compiler rightfully warns: Note: cast.java uses unchecked or unsafe operations. The cast is unsafe, because it dissolves at compile time. Note that this doesn't break type safety (in the VM/security sense), because the caller of LameFactory will have inserted its own cast to T, but it does (allow you to) break compile time type safety. If you value compile time type safety, it's a good idea to stay away from code that generates this warning.

Monday, 10 May 2004 12:07:15 (W. Europe Daylight Time, UTC+02:00)  #    Comments [4]