To Yield or Not to Yield: An Inferable Question

Hi Rubyists,

My undergraduate thesis is focused on trying to answer interesting
questions about Ruby
code statically. I’ve written a blog post about my first novel result:
attempting to infer
whether a method uses yield, relative to the value of block_given?.

http://carboni.ca/blog/p/To-Yield-or-Not-to-Yield-An-Inferable-Question

I hope you all find it interesting, and I’d be happy to discuss, answer
questions and provide
clarifications either privately or in ruby-talk.

Michael E.
[email protected]
http://carboni.ca/

Points I’d raise:

  1. In my experience, very little real-world Ruby code uses
    ‘block_given?’. If it needs to yield, it just yields. I’d consider this
    to be a case of duck-typing.

With yield you get a run-time error if no block was passed, but that’s
only one of a much larger set of method call errors (such as calling a
method with argument of the wrong type).

Consider also that very little code tests ‘a.respond_to? :foo’ before
calling ‘a.foo’.

  1. If a method uses &blk or Proc.new or yield, I’d say it’s fairly safe
    to assume that the block may be called (at least from the point of
    view of automated documentation). Since it’s unprovable in general even
    whether the method returns or not, it seems like hard work (for little
    benefit) to try to decide whether a method which accepts a block never
    actually calls it.

  2. As you’re undoubtedly aware, Ruby is so dynamic that you can’t
    analyse a method in isolation anyway. You can decide that a bareword
    like ‘foo’ is a method call, but you don’t know what that method will
    actually do when the program is run - it could be redefined dynamically,
    either within a class or on single objects (in their singleton class).

in file one

class Foo
def foo
true
end
def bar
yield 123 if foo # yields, obviously
end
end

in file two

a = Foo.new
def a.foo; false; end
a.bar { |x| puts “I got #{x}” } # actually it doesn’t

That’s an admittedly contrived example, but dynamic method definition
occurs quite a lot in real applications, e.g. web frameworks like Rails.

Regards,

Brian.

Hi Brian Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Since much of what you note
is commonly accepted about Ruby, I am happy that my research is
subtle enough to warrant such discussion (and interesting enough to get
an e-mail or two!)

If you don’t mind, I’d like to write a blog post sharing your concerns
(anonymized, naturally) and my responses. Would that be okay?

Points I’d raise:

  1. In my experience, very little real-world Ruby code uses
    ‘block_given?’. If it needs to yield, it just yields. I’d consider this
    to be a case of duck-typing.

This seems to suggest Rubyists rarely write methods that take blocks
optionally. Of this, I am highly skeptical. Luckily, doing this work in
my
thesis will allow me to study statistics of how block_given? is used.

With yield you get a run-time error if no block was passed, but that’s
only one of a much larger set of method call errors (such as calling a
method with argument of the wrong type).

Correct, but my work intends to show that improper block use, when using
yield,
is a far more easily determined method call error in Ruby than a type
error.
What makes this research fascinating is that Ruby is rich enough to
allow for
such nuance! For a typical language which permits closures as arguments,
one must use careful alias analysis and escape analysis. yield as
syntactic
sugar makes it a much simpler case to analyze, which is why I tackled it
first.

Consider also that very little code tests ‘a.respond_to? :foo’ before
calling ‘a.foo’.

This does not reflect the intent of this analysis - please see below.

  1. If a method uses &blk or Proc.new or yield, I’d say it’s fairly safe
    to assume that the block may be called (at least from the point of
    view of automated documentation). Since it’s unprovable in general even
    whether the method returns or not, it seems like hard work (for little
    benefit) to try to decide whether

Nearly everything about a program is undecidable to determine in
practice - see Rice’s Theorem. [1] Luckily, compiler writers and PL
theorists
have been studying forms of analysis for decades to try to get around
this and discover the patterns that we know can be analyzed. To address
your example, of course termination is unprovable, but the class
of functions for which termination is provable includes many, many
real-world functions. [2] [3]

a method which accepts a block never actually calls it.

Here’s why this issue is worth tackling: ALL methods accept a block,
and no matter how trivial, no tools will tell you that passing a block
to
that method was foolish, let alone statically:

2.+(4) { |x, y| x ** y } #=> 6

Additionally, no tool can tell you that a block is required by a
method,
even if it is obvious:

No tool currently documents that a block is required here

def tap
yield self
end

My work does not try to determine each and every case which
triggers a yield, but merely to develop a coarse classification system
for
a method based on its overall approach to blocks: required, optional,
or ignored. As I showed in my blog post (and as I will prove in my
Thesis),
this classification can be determined precisely when the result of
block_given? is stored only in simple constants (this includes
temporaries)
when yield is used.

If one peruses the Ruby standard library, one will find that just in the
Ruby
code alone, block_given? occurs 265 times, in every single case is
used
to execute yield conditionally, and in every single case, the result is
used
only as a simple constant. [4]

  1. As you’re undoubtedly aware, Ruby is so dynamic that you can’t
    analyse a method in isolation anyway. You can decide that a bareword
    like ‘foo’ is a method call, but you don’t know what that method will
    actually do when the program is run - it could be redefined dynamically,
    either within a class or on single objects (in their singleton class).

Yes, this is one of the difficulties inherent in statically analyzing a
dynamic
language. Luckily, Laser does not analyze single methods, it works on
a set of input files and traverses requires/loads by using constant
propagation to
handle changes to $LOAD_PATH and $LOADED_FEATURES. As you note,
a nave approach doesn’t work, and having access to all input files is
very
important. There is code that will be very hard to handle: see
SortedSet.setup’s
code as an example for which I haven’t figured out an approach just yet.

Dynamic method creation is, in my opinion, what challenges static
analysis
in Ruby the most. Naturally, in the general case, it makes all analysis
impossible.
What tool could figure out much about a program containing this code?

def Object.inherited(klass)
def klass.inherited(some_class)
some_class.class_eval(gets)
end
klass.class_eval(gets)
end

My belief, whose validity my research hopes to support (but may
ultimately
reject, or somewhere in the middle) is that such pathological code is
less
of an issue in real-world application code. I do not expect a library
like
RSpec, whose internals are full of dynamic magic, to get as much out of
my research. This is the biggest challenge ahead of me. Luckily,
existing
work has seen success analyzing real-world code without even touching
on this issue. [5]

Thanks again for your interest! I hope my work continues to interest you
as I continue over the coming months.

References (sorry, I’ve only got Bibtex for some of these for now):

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice’s_theorem

[2] @article{cook2006termination,
title={{Termination proofs for systems code}},
author={Cook, B. and Podelski, A. and Rybalchenko, A.},
journal={ACM SIGPLAN Notices},
volume={41},
number={6},
pages={415–426},
issn={0362-1340},
year={2006},
publisher={ACM}
}

[3] @article{andreas6terminator,
title={{Terminator: Beyond safety}},
author={Andreas, R.C. and Cook, B. and Podelski, A. and Rybalchenko,
A.},
journal={In CAV06, LNCS},
volume={4144},
pages={415–418}
}

[4] ack --ruby -c “block_given\?” | grep -e ‘:[^0]$’ | cut -d’:’ -f2 |
awk ‘{s+=$1} END {print s}’
gives the quantity, and using a context-ful grep is enough to see the
usage patterns of
each call. Almost every single call lies in an “if” or “unless”
condition, or the condition of
the ternary operator, and the result is not stored to a variable.
lib/time.rb:264 has an example
justifying my analysis of where block_given? is called once, its result
stored in a variable,
and then that variable is used as a constant to conditionally yield.

[5] @article{ecstatic,
title={{Ecstatic–Type Inference for Ruby Using the Cartesian Product
Algorithm}},
author={Kristensen, K.},
journal={Master’s thesis, Aalborg University},
year={2007}
}

Michael E.
[email protected]
http://carboni.ca/

On Apr 17, 2011, at 14:40 , Michael E. wrote:

  1. In my experience, very little real-world Ruby code uses
    ‘block_given?’. If it needs to yield, it just yields. I’d consider this
    to be a case of duck-typing.

This seems to suggest Rubyists rarely write methods that take blocks
optionally. Of this, I am highly skeptical.

You should be highly skeptical.

From our seattle.rb projects:

% ack -l block_given? */dev/{lib,test} | wc -l
28

And from my gauntlet setup:

% ls | wc -l
20245
% find ~/.gauntlet -type f | xargs zgrep -l block_given? | wc -l
4715

So roughly 1 in 4 gems in my gauntlet downloads use block_given?

I think that makes it clear that your work can provide a lot of insight.

It is the correct link, we had some unscheduled downtime. My apologies.
Give it
a couple minutes for the unicorns to kick in.

Michael E.
[email protected]
http://carboni.ca/

On Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 7:47 PM, Michael E. [email protected] wrote:

My undergraduate thesis is focused on trying to answer interesting questions
about Ruby
code statically. I’ve written a blog post about my first novel result:
attempting to infer
whether a method uses yield, relative to the value of block_given?.

http://carboni.ca/blog/p/To-Yield-or-Not-to-Yield-An-Inferable-Question

I only get 404 for that link (even with “.html” appended). Is this
the proper link?

Kind regards

robert

On Mon, Apr 18, 2011 at 11:46 AM, Michael E. [email protected]
wrote:

It is the correct link, we had some unscheduled downtime. My apologies. Give it
a couple minutes for the unicorns to kick in.

Now I see it. Thanks! This looks interesting and I think this is
something to muse about further. On first glance I only noticed the
complete absence of another case of “optional block” apart from calls
guarded by block_given? or tests for &b parameter to be non nil:
caught exceptions

irb(main):003:0> def foo
irb(main):004:1> yield
irb(main):005:1> rescue LocalJumpError
irb(main):006:1> end
=> nil
irb(main):007:0> foo
=> nil
irb(main):008:0> foo { puts “called” }
called
=> nil

irb(main):009:0> LocalJumpError.ancestors
=> [LocalJumpError, StandardError, Exception, Object, Kernel,
BasicObject]

irb(main):010:0> def bar; yield rescue LocalJumpError;end
=> nil
irb(main):011:0> bar
=> LocalJumpError
irb(main):012:0> bar { puts “called” }
called
=> nil

That will also be tricky since there are multiple exceptions that can
be caught to make the failed call “disappear” plus you can have
arbitrary nesting of begin - rescue - end blocks which can depend on
each other in bad ways (although these are more on the side of
pathological code).

Kind regards

robert

Michael E. wrote in post #993395:

  1. In my experience, very little real-world Ruby code uses
    ‘block_given?’. If it needs to yield, it just yields. I’d consider this
    to be a case of duck-typing.

This seems to suggest Rubyists rarely write methods that take blocks
optionally. Of this, I am highly skeptical.

Ah, by “optionally” I think you mean “does one thing when a block is
given, but something else when a block is not given”. Now I think some
more, there is a fairly common case:

class MyFile
def self.open(*args)
file = open_it(*args)
if block_given?
begin
yield file
ensure
file.close
end
else
return file
end
end
end

Code analysis can tell you that it’s OK to call the method either with
or without a block (at least assuming no pathological use cases, like
redefining ‘block_given?’)

Regards,

Brian.

Robert,

Excellent, and thank you! It seems I had let myself be tricked by the
more common use of “block_given?” into forgetting the actual semanticsof
a failed raise. My current analysis is equivalent to just skipping the
exception handling part, and assuming the exception isn’t handled. In
fact, I realize now that I should not even have a special “yield”
instruction, but instead lower it even further to something roughly like
this:

%temp = HiddenAnalyzerMagic.current_block_if_any
if %temp
%temp.call(…)
else
raise LocalJumpError.new(‘no block given (yield)’, FILE, LINE)
end

In the “failed yield” case, constant propagation would take over, prune
the if-true “%temp.call(…)” branch above, and then the only remaining
branch does a raise. Raise just sets $! to the LocalJumpError constant
and unconditionally jumps to a copy of the rescue handler. $! is
read-only, so constant propagation works on it too, even though it’s a
global.

A rescue handler is just a bunch of #=== calls and jumps, so a sane
rescue handler which has constants in its rescue clause is actually just
a bunch of (some_constant === $!) calls and branches on the result.
Constant propagation can handle that, eliminating any rescue handlers
that fail to match the LocalJumpError. If the exception is caught and
not re-raised, the only path left in the rescue handler will lead out of
the handler: it’s optional! If it fails to be caught (either always or
sometimes), there will be a path left to the next exception handler (or
the Exit), via an error-path, and if that LJE continues to have an
uncaught path until the Exit, then the yield is a required one.

Some graphviz graphs would help illustrate this, but I don’t want to
spam up the list too much with big PNGs.

As usual, that’s if you have constants and pure methods as your rescue
handler. It all hopes you don’t do something like this (Ruby 1.9 only):

Handler = Object.new
def Handler.===(other)

analyzer definitely not smart enough to know rand(10) always < 10

other.message.size > rand(10)
end

def foo
begin
yield
rescue Handler
# always caught, because the LJE message is longer than 10 chars.
end
end

foo is block-optional, but the analyzer as implemented would say it is
block-required, as it can’t prove the exception is always caught. Ouch.

Michael E.
[email protected]
http://carboni.ca/

On Apr 18, 2011, at 7:16 AM, Robert K. wrote:

Now I see it. Thanks! This looks interesting and I think this
issomething to muse about further. On first glance I only noticed
thecomplete absence of another case of “optional block” apart from
callsguarded by block_given? or tests for &b parameter to be non nil:
caught exceptions

Michael E. wrote in post #993395:

If one peruses the Ruby standard library, one will find that just in the
Ruby
code alone, block_given? occurs 265 times, in every single case is
used
to execute yield conditionally, and in every single case, the result is
used
only as a simple constant. [4]

However there are some cases where this is done unnecessarily,
net/telnet.rb being the prime example. e.g.

  if block_given?
    waitfor({"Prompt" => match, "Timeout" => time_out}){|c| yield c 

}
else
waitfor({“Prompt” => match, “Timeout” => time_out})
end

could have been written simply as:

  waitfor({"Prompt" => match, "Timeout" => time_out}, &blk)

Net::Telnet also has a load of conditionals because it lets you pass an
optional block to each call for capturing debug information - an awkward
API to use, because often you end up passing the same block every time.
It would have been much easier to pass this in the options hash where it
could have been set as a default.

e.g.

t = Net::Telnet.new(“Debug” => lambda { |c| print c }, …)
t.cmd(“foo”)
t.cmd(“bar”)
t.cmd(“baz”)

whereas as the moment you have to write

t = Net::Telnet.new(…)
out = lambda { |c| print c }
t.cmd(“foo”,&out)
t.cmd(“bar”,&out)
t.cmd(“baz”,&out)

Also, a Debug parameter could invoke the “<<” method instead of “call”,
which would make it usable with Files and Strings. Then Proc#<< could be
aliased to call, and duck-typing would suddenly become a lot prettier.
There would also be no need for Enumerator::Yielder either.

Sorry, I’ve strayed right off there :slight_smile:

You are of course right in your analysis.

My point is more that using “block_given?” in itself is API smell. It
means you have one method which can be called in two different ways,
with two different behaviours.

The other main example in the core library (1.8.7+) is methods like
‘each’ which return an Enumerator if you don’t pass a block. I don’t
like that either.

On Apr 20, 2011, at 4:59 AM, Brian C. wrote:

could have been written simply as:

 waitfor({"Prompt" => match, "Timeout" => time_out}, &blk)

I don’t know much about the Telnet library, so I’ll comment only on how
this affects analysis.

If you rewrote the code you provided as you sugested, the question of
whether the block is used then simply depends on whether waitfor calls
it. No matter how pathologically you write that method, if you introduce
the current block as a variable (either via Proc::new or as an explicit
block argument, or …) an analyzer should assume that waitfor(..., &blk) may refer to the currently active block, unless it can prove
otherwise.

So the question becomes: how are blocks used by Net::Telnet#waitfor, and
all overrides of #waitfor by subclasses which in turn do not override
#cmd without invoking super? In other words, resolve the call to
#waitfor, and recursively analyze the yield behavior of all possible
targets of that method call. If analysis worked on one method, it will
work on #waitfor ! Indeed, the only definition of #waitfor I could find
in the standard library has only two calls to yield:

yield buf if block_given? # telnet.rb:594

and

yield nil if block_given? # telnet.rb:599

The hard part is “resolve the call to #waitfor”. My belief is that
method resolution is undecidable in Ruby, though I haven’t proven it
just yet. The compiler writers live with this fact and haven’t yet gone
nuts, for which we owe them our sincerest gratitude. But in designing a
linter, one is permitted to occasionally take shortcuts, perhaps even
opinionated ones! While I must do my best to accommodate dynamic
behavior, I personally have no issue with giving an incorrect analysis
if you are nondeterministically creating a subclass of Net::Telnet and
overriding methods.

Somewhere down the line, it may be reasonable to turn off certain
optimistic assumptions such as “by the time I analyze this method, I
have seen definitions (using def, eval(constant_string),
define_method(constant), …) of all possible methods it may call.”
For now though, purely conservative inference is not yet my focus.

Michael E.
[email protected]
http://carboni.ca/

On Thu, Apr 21, 2011 at 11:47 AM, Brian C. [email protected]
wrote:

You are of course right in your analysis.

My point is more that using “block_given?” in itself is API smell. It
means you have one method which can be called in two different ways,
with two different behaviours.

The standard and core libraries are full of those (File.open,
Enumerable methods…).

The other main example in the core library (1.8.7+) is methods like
‘each’ which return an Enumerator if you don’t pass a block. I don’t
like that either.

I find that utterly convenient. For generating a series of values I
often use something like

17.times.map { … }
42.times.to_a

I find that very elegant. Brian, we are (or rather: Ruby is) not
loosing you, are we? That would be sad.

Kind regards

robert

Robert K. wrote in post #994268:

The standard and core libraries are full of those (File.open,

I’d forgotten about File.open with a block. That is good.

Brian, we are (or rather: Ruby is) not
loosing you, are we?

Only when 1.8 is end-of-life :slight_smile:

Regards,

Brian.

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