Subject: Re: Destructors From: Erik Naggum <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Sat, 29 Jun 2002 04:05:07 GMT Newsgroups: comp.lang.lisp Message-ID: <email@example.com> * Joel Ray Holveck | Every time I see a question about finalization, I hear lots of admonition | about what it shouldn't be used for. So, what would be an appropriate use of | finalization? In my somewhat limited experience, it is not useful without "weak pointers", which are objects the weak pointers to which "vanish" when they are the only pointers that keep it alive for purposes of garbage collection and the object is therefore not kept alive, either. Sometimes, you would want a system that uses weak hashtables for cached results of some sort, meaning that until the garbage collector runs, you can reference an object through a weak pointer, but if you have had no use for it at the time garbage collection occurs, it will effectively be tossed. This is a very useful feature, but if you want to make the most of it, you might want some concomitant information that should be alive only when the object itself is alive, but which you would not want to tie together with a lot of pointers all over the place, because that would defeat the purpose of weak pointers. Instead of letting things point to the weak object, you let them reference them indirectly and then let the weak object know. When the weak object is tossed, it will know how to remove any indirect traces of itself with it, that would either not vanish on their own at all or which would need a test for whether their target had vanished. (Weak pointers magically turn to nil after garbage collection.) This may be very abstract and sound rather weird, but for a more intuitive example, think of human memory. Forgetting is a rather important feature of human memory, which is extremely underrated. Forgetting the conclusions when the observations are invalidated takes conscious effort in most people. You find lots of people who "learn" something, then integrate that knowledge with something else and come up with a conclusion of some sort, which they tend to believe even after the first thing they learned turned out to be all wrong. It would be much better if the first thing you learned had a normal pointer to it on its own and weak pointers to the conclusions that were based upon it (because they should seamlessly vanish if invalidated, too), so that if you dropped the normal pointer, the finalization would know how to invalidate the conclusions based upon it as it went. A simpler example is perhaps that you worked out a difficult probability problem a decade ago and then you remember that you solved it, but not what the solution was. I may not be an old man, in fact I'm pretty sure I'm not, but working through old math textbooks can be a very humbling experience, to be repeated once very decade or so so you at least still know that your brain works, but the kind of ridiculous despair you may feel the first time in remembering that you solved it and trying so much harder to remember it than to work it out again, is probably very close what a Common Lisp program feels when it goes looking for the cached result of a three-second long computation and the weak pointer only goes "no". On the flip side of Alzheimer's, there are many ways to get screwed if you remember something for too long, too. Many Lisp programmers experience that the system behaves differently after a cold start because they forgot that they have done something the system had not forgotten along with their memory of having done it. Emacs (Lisp) users sometimes have this problem, a useful keybinding that isn't, a mouse wheel that beeps or scrolls the wrong window, forgetting the last keyboard macro you used and thinking you invoked the previous one. Such stuff. The best expression of this problem was provided by an acquaintance of mine when his X server crashed and all remote sessions died, his multiple Emacsen croaked, his log output windows closed, and he was facing the standard X root window, all grey. "My context!", he said quietly. Not that finalizers would have helped him. When I restrict the usefulness of finalization to weak pointers, it is because I strongly favor explicit cleanup for normal objects. However, there is a whole world out there who do not. The C++ crowd, for instance, have a moderately useful feature in that the destructors of stack-allocated objects are called when the stack is, for lack of a precise term, unwound. (It is not, of course, unwound the way Common Lisp does it.) If something like this is needed in Common Lisp, a competent Common Lisp programmer would simply design a new binding form that effectively calls the finalizer when you leave scope unless the object has been passed out of the scope in, say, a returned value. Such a programming style could, for instance, be used with resources, where a "resource" is an object of a type that is picked off a pool of weak pointers to previousely deallocated objects when you need one (or a fresh object is allocated) and effectively returned to the pool when you exit scope. The "finalization" would be to return it to the pool, but you would not do that if you were returning it. Figuring out such lifetime thingies is computer work. A similar stunt _could_ be used when dealing with streams: Suppose you close all streams upon scope exit that you have not returned to your caller as open streams. You would want that stream to be closed when the caller just dropped it sometime later. Note that the file descriptor in Unix is a resource of the above-mentioned kind and that the operating system has a finalization routine that is invoked upon exiting the program. You would want similar precautions in a well-honed Common Lisp program. Leaks are bad, and finalization may be used to ensure that you find them, but in order for leak detection to really work, you want to keep track of things that might leak with weak pointers. Finally, note that implementationally, finalizers are easily implemented with weak pointers -- instead of just turning the weak pointer to nil when only weak pointers point to the object, you would call the finalizer first. -- Guide to non-spammers: If you want to send me a business proposal, please be specific and do not put "business proposal" in the Subject header. If it is urgent, do not use the word "urgent". If you need an immediate answer, give me a reason, do not shout "for your immediate attention". Thank you.