First, I designed with Michael Abshoff a new feature for our testing framework, so we can test only optional doctests that depend on a certain component or program being present. Without a usable, efficient, and flexible testing system it is impossible to develop good code, so we had to do this. Next, I worked on fixing the numerous issues with the current Sage/Magma interface, as evidenced by many existing doctests failing. It was amusing because some of the doctests had clearly never ever succeeded, e.g., things like
sage: magma.eval('2') # optional
sage: other stuff
was in the tree, where the output was simply missing.
Anyway, in fixing some of the much more interesting issues, for example, things like this that involve nested polynomial rings, I guess I came to understand better some of the subtleties of getting math software to talk with other math software.
sage: R.<x,y> = QQ; S.<z,w> = R; magma(x+z)
The first important point is that one often thinks that the problem with interfacing between systems is given an object X in system (say Sage), finding a string s such that s evaluates in another system (say Magma) to something that "means the same thing" as X. This is the problem that OpenMath attempt to solve (via XML and content dictionaries), but it is not quite the right problem. Instead, given a particular mathematical software system (e.g., Magma) in a particular state, and a view of that state by another system (e.g, Sage), the problem is to then come up with a string that evaluates to the "twin image" of X in the running Magma system.
To do this right involves careful use of caching. Unless X is an atomic element (e.g., a simple thing like an integer) it's important to cache the version of X in Magma as an attribute of X itself. Let's take an example where this caching is very important and subtle. Consider our example above, which has the following Sage code as setup.
sage: R.<x,y> = QQ
sage: S.<z,w> = R
This creates the nested polynomial ring (QQ[x,y])[z,w]. The new code in sage-3.2.1 (see #4601) does the following to convert x + z to a particular Magma session. Note that the steps to convert x+z to Magma depend on the state of a particular Magma session! Anyway, Sage first gets the Magma version of S, then askes for the generator names of that object in the given Magma session. These are definitely not z,w:
sage: m = magma(S)
The key point is the strings returned by the gen_names command are strings that are valid in Magma and evaluate to each of the generators we're after. They depend on time -- if you did stuff in the interface earlier you would get back different numbers (not 4 and 5). Note that it's very important that the Python objects in Sage that _sage_ and _sage_ point to do not get garbage collected, since if they do then _sage_ and _sage_ also become invalid, which is not good. So it's important that the magma version (m above) of S is cached.
Next Sage gets the magma string version of each of the coefficients of the polynomial x+z (over the base ring R) using a similar process. It all works very well without memory leaks, but only because of careful track of state and caching.
And the resulting string expression involves the _sage_[...]'s.
z + x
Notice that _magma_init_ -- the function that produces the string that evaluates to something equal to x+z in magma -- now takes as input a particular Magma session (there can be dozens of these in a given Sage session, with different Magma's running on different computers all over the world). This is a change to _magma_init_ that makes the implementation of what's described above easy. It's an API change that might also be carried over to many of the other interfaces (?).