On overflowing stacks

I recently set out to implement a few basic data structures in C for the hell of it (and to reassure myself that I can still code C), and ran into an interesting compiler wart…

I was trying to instantiate a static array of 10 million integers (who doesn’t?), in order to test insertions and deletions in my tree. However, as you can astutely deduce from the title of this post, this was too much for the stack of my poor program and ended up in a segfault – a textbook stack overflow.

I did not think of that at first though, and tried to isolate the offending piece of code by inserting a return 0; in the main() after a piece of code I knew to be working, and working my way down to pinpoint the issue.

Much to my dismay, this didn’t really work out. Why? Check the following code:

Do you think it works with that last line uncommented? You’d be wrong!

[15:20:35]florent@Air:~/Experiments/minefield$ gcc boom.c
[15:20:40]florent@Air:~/Experiments/minefield$ ./a.out
Segmentation fault

GCC (4.2.1) wants to instantiate the array even though it’s declared after the function returns!

Interestingly enough, when you tell GCC to optimise the code, it realises the array will never get reached and prunes it away.

[15:26:06]florent@Air:~/Experiments/minefield$ gcc -O2 boom.c
[15:26:16]florent@Air:~/Experiments/minefield$ ./a.out
Hello world!

Clang (1.7) exhibits exactly the same behaviour.

Lessons learnt? return is no way of debugging a program.

Javascript closures as a way to retain state

Long time no blog! Let’s get back into it with a nifty and clean way of retaining state in Javascript – closures.

I was recently looking for an easy way to call a specific function after two separate/unrelated AJAX calls to two remote endpoints have been completed. The naive method would be to make the first AJAX call -> callback to the second AJAX  call -> callback to doSomething, but we can use the fact that these two AJAX calls are not related and run them concurrently. An easy way to achieve that is to:

1. set flags, say initialising two global variables at the beginning of the file:

var callback_one_done = false;
var callback_two_done = false;

2. have each callbacks set its own flag to ‘true’ upon completion and call doSomething
3. check both flags in doSomething:

var doSomething = function() {
    if (callback_one_done && callback_two_done){
        // actually do something

But this is a bit ugly, as it litters the global namespace with two flags that are only used there. Instead, thanks to Javascript’s lexical scope we can declare doSomething as a closure and have the flags live inside the function itself:

var doSomething = (function(){
        var callback_one_done = false;
        var callback_two_done = false;
        return function(source) {
            if (source === 'callback_one') { callback_one_done = true; }
            if (source === 'callback_two') { callback_two_done = true; }
            if (callback_one_done && callback_two_done) {
                // actually do something

What we’ve done here is declare an anonymous function that returns a function. This newly created function, that gets attributed to doSomething, is a closure that contains both the code needed to run and the flag variables. The state is set and kept inside the function itself, without leaking on the outside environment.

Now we just need to call doSomething(‘callback_one’) from the first AJAX call and doSomething(‘callback_two’) from the second AJAX call and doSomething will wait until both calls are complete to run the “actually do something” part.

Bits of javascript goodness

(This blog post is better followed with the associated github repo. Run the Sinatra server with ‘ruby slowserver’, pop up a browser, and follow the revisions to see how the code gradually gets better. :) )

Recently at work, we wanted to modify some js ad code to include weather data for better ad targeting. For certain caching reasons, weather data has to be fetched by an AJAX call, then fed to the ad code.

The existing ad code was (schematically) as follows.

My first idea was to replace those calls by a call to a single js method, which would stall the ad calls using, say, a setTimeout, until the weather data is retrieved. The js looked like this.

Before you go get the pitchforks, I knew that this code was crap, and asked one of my amazing colleagues for help. He advised me to get rid of the timeOuts and instead use a function that would either, depending if the data was retrieved or not, shelf the task in an array, or execute it.

Using an array of tasks (actually callbacks, or anonymous functions, or closures) allows us to have actual event-driven javascript. This means executing the ad loading code only once, not using resources for timeouts when the resource is not available yet, and maybe most importantly not looking stupid when code review time codes.

Additionally, my code littered the general namespace with his variables. We could instead create a module, and have only that module’s name public – we clean up the global namespace and also get private variables for free!
The module pattern is an amazingly useful javascript pattern, implemented as a self-executing anonymous function. If that sounds clear as mud, Ben Cherry has a better, in-depth explanation on his blog.

The js code now looked like this.

But the HTML still contained <script> tags, and separation of concerns taught us it’s better to keep HTML and JS as separate as possible. Cool beans, let’s just add a couple of line to our js file.

Result: a pure event-driven wait for a callback, a single variable in the global js namespace, and a cleaned-up HTML.

And of course… We ended up not using it. The ad code actually expects a document.write, making this delayed approach impossible (document.write appends data inline while the page is still loading, but completely rewrites the page if called after pageload). Good learning experience still!

Format perlcritic output as TAP to integrate with Jenkins

Perl::Critic is a nifty syntax analyzer able to parse your Perl code, warn you against common mistakes and hint you towards best practices. It’s available either as a Perl module or a standalone shell script (perlcritic). Unfortunately, there is no standard way to integrate it with Jenkins.

Jenkins, the continuous-integration-tool-formerly-known-as-Hudson, is the cornerstone of our continuous building process at work. It checks out the latest build from Git, runs a bunch of tests (mainly Selenium, as we develop a website) and keeps track of what goes wrong and what goes right. We wanted to integrate Perl::Critic to Jenkins’ diagnostics to keep an eye on some errors that could creep in our codebase.

So Jenkins doesn’t do Perl::Critic. However, Jenkins supports TAP. TAP, the Test Anything Protocol, is an awesomely simple format to express test results that goes as follow:

ok 1 my first test
ok 2 another successful test
not ok 3 oh, this one failed
ok 4 the last one's ok

The first line (the plan) announces how many tests there are, and each following line is a test result beginning by either “ok” or “not ok” depending on what gave.

Based on such a simple format, we can use a bit of shell scripting to mangle perlcritic’s output to be TAP-compatible:

# Perl::Critic                             \
# with line numbers (nl)...                \
# prepend 'ok' for passed files...         \
# and 'not ok' for each error...           \
# and put everything in a temp file

perlcritic $WORKSPACE                      \
  | nl -nln                                \
  | sed 's/\(.*source OK\)$/ok \1/'        \
  | sed '/source OK$/!s/^.*$/not ok &/'    \
  > $WORKSPACE/perlcritic_tap.results.tmp

# Formatting: add the TAP plan, and output the tap results file.
# TAP plan is a line "1..N", N being the number of tests
echo 1..`wc -l < $WORKSPACE/perlcritic_tap.results.tmp` \
 |cat - $WORKSPACE/perlcritic_tap.results.tmp > $WORKSPACE/perlcritic_tap.results

# Cleanup
rm -f $WORKSPACE/perlcritic_tap.results.tmp

(§WORKSPACE is a Jenkins-set variable referring to where the current build is being worked on.)

And voilà! Jenkins reads the TAP result file and everything runs smoothly.

The only downside of this approach is that the number of tests will vary. For example, a single .pm file containing 5 Perl::Critic violations will show up as 5 failed tests, but fixing these will turn into a single successful test.

A gentle introduction to GNU screen

You probably heard of GNU screen. It’s handy, ubiquitous, and dead simple. Here’s how to use it!

Open a terminal and type:


You’re welcomed by an introduction message, press enter, and… You’re in a shell. Uh?

Screen is simple

screen is a terminal manager, so it’s logical that the first thing you see when you start it is a terminal.

This terminal is as vanilla as the terminal we started from. Just try it:

See? No black magic here, simply a terminal.

Screen is simple

The only difference is that Ctrl+a is now a special key combination that you can use to invoke screen‘s commands.

So let’s take a break and quit screen. Type Ctrl+a to let screen know you want its attention, then d, as in detach. There! You’re back in your first terminal.

Let’s go back in screen and learn some more! Just type:

screen -r

The -r stands for reattach: screen will re-open the last session, the one we detached from. You can see the results of the commands we entered earlier are still here.

We just saw a great feature of screen: the ability to log out and log back in without losing anything. Do you have something long to on a server? SSH into the server, launch screen, launch the task, detach from screen, log out from SSH, go back home, enjoy a good dinner and a well-deserved night of sleep, come back to work, SSH into the server, launch screen -r, and it’s just as if you never left.

Screen is simple

You can already use screen just like that, but let’s just see another nifty feature: multiple terminals!

In screen, type Ctrl-a, then ‘c’, short for create. You’re in a shell. Uh?

Screen is simple

You just created another terminal. screen can manage plenty of simultaneous terminals, not just one. To see a list of them, type Ctrl+a, then the quote symbol “, and you will see your two terminals. Just use the arrows to select which one you want to open.

There you go, you know screen! See, I told you it was simple.

Misc useful commands

Do you want to change the name of a terminal in screen‘s list? In that terminal, Ctrl+a and A.
Do you want to go directly to a specific terminal? Ctrl+a and its number.
Do you want to go to the previous/next terminal? Ctrl+a and p or n.
Do you want to switch to the previous terminal quickly? Ctrl+a and Ctrl+a.
Do you want to remap Ctrl+a to another key, say Ctrl+b? Just put escape ^b in your .screenrc.