Collection Libraries

The standard libraries of newer programming languages usually contain so called collection libraries.

Collections can usually be Lists, Sets, Maps or specialization of these.

They cover quite a lot and we start seeing variants that are built on immutability and variants that allow mutability and as always the hybrid in Ruby, that combines these and does an irreversible transition using the freeze method.

There are some interesting collection types other than these, most often we find the Bag as fourth member in the club and then more complex and more specific collections.

What they all have in common is storing a finite number of elements in a certain structure.

Some languages like Clojure, Haskell or Perl 6 use so called lazy collections. That can mean that the members are not actually stored, but that there are methods to calculate them on demand. This allows for very interesting, expressive and beautiful programming, if used properly. Typically a Range of integers is provided as a lazy collection. But there can also be quite interesting lazy collections that are a little bit more sophisticated. Some allow random access to the nth element, like arrays or vectors or arrayLists, some only via iteration.

Interesting lazy collections could be multi-dimensional ranges. Assume we have an array of integers [n_0, n_1, n_2, ...., n_{m-1}] where even m is only known at runtime. Then it is a challenge that sometimes occurs to do a loop like this:

for (i_0 = 0\ldots n_0-1) {
for (i_1 = 0\ldots n_1-1) {
for (i_2 = 0\ldots n_2-1) {

Which is kind of hard to write, because we cannot nest the loops if we do not know how deeply they need to be nested.

But if we have a multi-range collection and do something like this

Collection> mr = new MultiRange([n_0, n_1, n_2, ...., n_{m-1});
for (List li : mr) {

and this beast becomes quite approachable.

A similar one, that is sometimes needed, is a lazy collection containing all the permutations of the n numbers \left\{0\ldots n-1\right\}. Again we only want to iterate over it and possibly not complete the iteration.

Another interesting idea is to perform the set operations like union, intersection and difference lazily. That means that we have a collection class Union, that implements the union of its members. Testing for membership is trivial, iteration does involve some additional structure to avoid duplicates. Intersection and difference are even easier, because they cannot produce duplicates.

What is also interesting is Sets built from intervals. Intervals can be defined in any base set {\mathrm T} (type) that supports comparisons like <, <=, ... We have

  • an open interval (a,b)=\left\{x \in {\mathrm T} : a < x < b\right\}
  • an left half-open interval (a,b]=\left\{x \in {\mathrm T} : a < x \le b\right\}
  • an right half-open interval [a,b)=\left\{x \in {\mathrm T} : a \le x < b\right\}
  • a closed interval [a,b]=\left\{x \in {\mathrm T} : a \le x \le b\right\}

Of these we can create unions and intersections and in the end can always reduce this to unions of intervals. Adjacent intervals can sometimes be merged, overlapping intervals always. If {\mathrm T} supports the concept of successors, than even closed intervals with different limits can be discovered to be adjacent, for example [1,2] and [3,4] for {\mathrm T}={\Bbb Z}. Often this cannot be assumed, for example if we are working with rational numbers with arbitrarily long integers as numerator and denominator.

So these are three concepts to get memory saving, easy to use lazy collections.

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