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Basics of Continuation Passing Style

Continuation Passing Style (CPS) is a style of programming in which the remainder of the program is passed explicitly as a parameter, as opposed to that being handled implicitly represented as call stack.

Consider the following function written in a normal manner:

int factorial(int n) {
    return n*factorial(n-1);

The CPS version of it, in pseudo code by using Java8 lambda syntax, would be something like this:

// CPS function never returns value.
// Instead it yields a value to the coninuation, which is a function that takes a value  
void factorial(int n, Lambda/*(int)->{}*/ continuation) {
    // to compute factorial of n, compute factorial of n-1 first, then when that's done,
    // come back to this lambda, where we multiply the result by n, then pass that result
    // to 'continuation'
    factorial(n-1,(int r) -> {

CPS functions will never return. Instead of returning a value, it jumps to (basically goto) the continuation with the value.

Another way to look at this is that a continuation is a call stack --- it represents where to jump when a 'return' statement is reached, where the exception handler for IOException is, as well as local variables, etc.

Chaining CPS calls

Because CPS functions will never return, expressions will never nest in CPS. Instead, they'll get flattened out.

In the above example, I cheated a little by using n-1 and n*r as a primitive. If you really think about it, it's just a short-hand for a function call, say int minus(int,int) and int multiply(int,int). If we translate those to the CPS form as well, the resulting code will be like this, which shows this chaining well:

void factorial(int n, Lambda/*(int)->{}*/ continuation) {
    // first we compute n-1 => m
    minus(n,1,(int m) -> {
        // then we compute factorial(m) => r
        factorial(m,(int r) -> {
            // then we compute r*n => x
            multiply(r,n,(int x) -> {
                // and that's the result of factorial(n), so pass the control to 'continuation'

As you see, each step performs one atomic operation (one function call), and they are chained into a sequence.

Control flow

In CPS, control flow statements like loops can be represented as ordinary functions:

    while (condition) {
    ... // rest of the program represented as 'continuation'
void whileLoop(Lambda condition, Lambda body, Lambda continuation) {
    // first evaluate the condition => cond
    condition((boolean cond) -> {
        if (!cond) {
            // if the condition evaluates to false, while loop terminates and the execution moves
            // on to the rest of the program
        } else {
            // if the condition evalutes to true, evaluate the body
            body(() -> {
                // then run the while loop again