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+ 17.1 Variables and Pointers

In Felix, there are two kinds of entities: values and objects.

Most literals are values, all computations yield values, and all parameter passing is notionally passing of a value.


Strings are technically mutable objects although they're usually used as values.

In Felix all value types are first class, meaning they can be default initialised, copy constructed, copy assigned, and destroyed. Values are generally immutable.

Although everything is a value, Felix also has objects. Objects are not first class and need not be default initialisable, copyable or assignable, although they must be destructible.

Objects types in Felix are always constructed on the heap and represented thereafter by a pointer. Pointers are first class values in themselves, even though what they represent may not be. If T is a type then {&T} is the type of a pointer to that type.

We have seen you can name values like this:

    val x = 1;
    val y = 2;
    val z = y + y;

All values can be used as objects. There are two ways to do this. The first way is to copy the value onto the heap using new and retrieve the value by dereferencing the returned pointer: with operator {*}:

    val px = new 1;
    val py = new 2;
    val z = *px + *py;

The second way is to create a variable slot on the stack or global store with a var definition and find a pointer to the variable using the addressing operators {&}:

    var x = 1;
    val px = &x;
    val z = *px + *px;

Note that unlike C and C++ it is safe, although definitely not recommended, to take the address of a variable in a function and return it:

  fun f(x:int) : &int = {
     var a = x;
     return &a; // safe!

if you do this, Felix will allocate the function's stack frame on the heap, and the garbage collector will not reap that object until it is unreachable. Whilst the pointer to the variable a is itself stored in a reachable location, the stack frame will remain allocated.

Storing function frames on the heap is inefficient compared to using the stack so it is better to avoid this practice.