Suppose you’re an epidemiologist modeling the potential spread of a highly infectious disease. The straightforward way to model such a series of unfortunate events is to assume that the population can be divided into three sets: the definitely infected, the definitely healthy, and the possibly infected. If a member of the healthy population encounters a member of the definitely infected or possibly infected population, then they become a member of the possibly infected population. (Or, put another way, the possibly infected population is closed transitively over the exposure relation.) A member of the possibly infected population becomes classified as either definitely healthy or definitely infected when they undergo some sort of test. And an infected person can become a healthy person by being cured.
This sort of contagion model is fairly common in the design of computer systems. For example, suppose you have a web site that takes in strings from users, stores them in a database, and serves them up to other users. Like, say, this blog, which takes in comments from you, stores them in a database, and then serves them right back up to other users. That’s a Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attack waiting to happen right there. A common way to mitigate the XSS problem is to use data tainting, which uses the contagion model to identify strings that are possibly hostile. Whenever you do anything to a potentially-hostile string, like, say, concatenate it with a non-hostile string, the result is a possibly-hostile string. If the string is determined via some test to be benign, or can have its potentially hostile parts stripped out, then it becomes safe.
The “dynamic” feature in C# 4 and above has a lot in common with these sorts of contagion models. As I pointed out last time, when an argument of a call is dynamic then odds are pretty good that the compiler will classify the result of the call as dynamic as well; the taint spreads. In fact, when you use almost any operator on a dynamic expression, the result is of dynamic type, with a few exceptions. (“is” for example always returns a bool.) You can “cure” an expression to prevent it spreading dynamicism by casting it to object, or to whatever other non-dynamic type you’d like; casting dynamic to object is an identity conversion.
The way that dynamic is contagious is an emergent phenomenon of the rules for working out the types of expressions in C#. There is, however, one place where we explicitly use a contagion model inside the compiler in order to correctly work out the type of an expression that involves dynamic types: it is one of the most arcane aspects of method type inference. Next time I’ll give you all the rundown on that.