Red Flags Return

Astute readers had a number of comments about last week’s Program Repair Shop and Red Flags article.

Control Flow Puzzle

In the article, I had a section of code that looked like this:

       $_ = <INFO> until !defined($_) || /^(\* Menu:|\037)/;
       return @header if !defined($_) || /^\037/;

I disliked the structure and especially the repeated tests. I played with it, changing it to

Table of Contents

Control Flow Puzzle
Pattern Matching
Synthetic Variables
Send More Code

        while (<INFO>) {
          last if /^\* Menu:/;
          return @header if /^\037/;
        return @header unless defined $_;

and then used Simon Cozens’ suggestion of

        do { 
          $_ = <INFO>; 
          return @header if /^\037/ || ! defined $_ 
        } until /^\* Menu:/ ;

This still bothered me, because do...until is unusual. But I was out of time, so that’s what I used.

Readers came up with two interesting alternatives. Jeff Pinyan suggested:

        while (<INFO>) {
          last if /^\* Menu:/;
          return %header if /^\037/ or eof(INFO);

This is perfectly straightforward, and the only reason I didn’t think of it was because of my prejudice against eof(). In the article, I recommended avoiding eof(), and that’s a good rule of thumb. But in this case, I think it was probably the wrong way to go.

After I saw Jeff’s solution, I thought more about eof() and tried to remember what its real problems are. The conclusion I came to is that the big problem with eof() occurs when you use it on a filehandle that is involved in an interactive dialogue, such as a terminal.

Consider code like this:

        my ($name, $fav_color);
        print "Enter your name: ";
        chomp($name = <STDIN>);
        unless (eof(STDIN)) {
          print "Enter your favorite color: ";
          chomp($fav_color = <STDIN>);

This seems straightforward, but it doesn’t work. (Try it!) After user enters their name, we ask for eof(). This tries to read another character from STDIN, which means that the program is waiting for user input before printing the second prompt! The program hangs forever at the eof test, and the only way it can continue is if the user clairvoyantly guesses that they are supposed to enter their favorite color. If they do that, then the program will print the prompt and immediately continue. Not very useful behavior! And under some circumstances, this can cause deadlock.

However, in the example program I was discussing, no deadlock is possible because the information flows in only one direction - from a file into the program. So the use of eof() would have been safe.

Ilya Zakharevich suggested a solution that I like even better:

      while (<INFO>) {
          return do_menu() if /^\* Menu:/;
          last if /^\037/;
      return %header;

Here, instead of requiring the loop to fall through to process the menu, we simply put the menu-processing code into a subroutine and process it inside the loop.

Ilya also pointed out that the order of the tests in the original code is backward:

    return @header if /^\037/ || ! defined $_

It should have looked like this:

    return @header if ! defined $_  || /^\037/;

Otherwise, we’re trying to do a pattern-match operation on a possibly undefined value.

Ilya also suggested another alternative:

    READ_A_LINE: {
      return %header if not defined ($_ = <INFO>) or /^\037/;
      redo READ_A_LINE unless /^\* Menu:/;

Randal Schwartz suggested something similar. This points out a possible rule of thumb: When Perl’s control-flow constructions don’t seem to be what you want, try decorating a bare block.


I said:

now invoke the function like this:

    $object = Info_File->new('');

Unfortunately, the function in question was named open_info_file, not new. The call should have been

    $object = Info_File->open_info_file('');

I got the call right in my test program (of course I had a test program!) but then mixed up the name when I wrote the article. Thanks to Adam Turoff for spotting this.

Pattern Matching

In the article, I replaced this:

    ($info_file) = /File:\s*([^,]*)/;
        ($info_node) = /Node:\s*([^,]*)/;
        ($info_prev) = /Prev:\s*([^,]*)/;
        ($info_next) = /Next:\s*([^,]*)/;
        ($info_up)   = /Up:\s*([^,]*)/;

With this:

    for my $label (qw(File Node Prev Next Up)) {
          ($header{$label}) = /$label:\s*([^,]*)/;

Then I complained that Perl must recompile the regex each time through the loop, five times per node. Ilya pointed out the obvious solution:

     $header{$1} = $2 
         while /(File|Node|Prev|Next|Up):\s*([^,]*)/g;

I wish I had thought of this, because you can produce it almost mechanically. In fact, I think my original code betrays a red flag itself. Whenever you have something like this:

    for $item (LIST) {
          something involving m/$item/;

this is a red flag, and you should consider trying to replace it with this:

    my $pat = join '|', LIST;
        Something involving m/$pat/o;

As a simple example, consider this common construction:

    @states = ('Alabama', 'Alaska', ..., 
               'West Virginia', 'Wyoming');
        $matched = 0;
        for $state (@states) {
          if ($input =~ /$state/) { 
            $matched = 1; last;

It’s more efficient to use this instead:

    my $pat = join '|', @states;
        $matched = ($input =~ /$pat/o);

Applying this same transformation to the code in my original program yields Ilya’s suggestion.

Synthetic Variables

My code looked like this:

    while (<INFO>) {
          return 1 if /^\037/;    # end of node, success.
          next unless /^\* \S/;   # skip non-menu-items
          if (/^\* ([^:]*)::/) {  # menu item ends with ::
              $key = $ref = $1;
          } elsif (/^\* ([^:]*):\s*([^.]*)[.]/) {
              ($key, $ref) = ($1, $2);
          } else {
              print STDERR "Couldn't parse menu item\n\t$_";
          $info_menu{$key} = $ref;

Ilya pointed out that in this code, $key and $ref may be synthetic variables. A synthetic variable isn’t intrinsic to the problem you’re trying to solve; rather, they’re an artifact of the way the problem is expressed in a programming language. I think $key and $ref are at least somewhat natural, because the problem statement does include menu items with names that refer to nodes, and $key is the name of a menu item and $ref is the node it refers to. But some people might prefer Ilya’s version:

       while (<INFO>) {
           return 1 if /^\037/;        # end of node, success.
           next unless s/^\* (?=\S)//; # skip non-menu-items
           $info_menu{$1} = $1, next if /^([^:]*)::/; 
           $info_menu{$1} = $2, next if /^([^:]*):\s*(.*?)\./;
           print STDERR "Couldn't parse menu item\n\t* $_";

Whatever else you say about it, this reduces the code from eleven lines to six, which is good.

Old News

Finally, a belated correction. In the second Repair Shop and Red Flags Article way back in June, I got the notion that you shouldn’t use string operations on numbers. While I still think this is good advice, I then tried to apply it outside of the domain in which it made sense.

I was trying to transform a number like 12345678 into an array like ('12', ',', '345', ',', '678'). After discussing several strategies, all of which worked, I ended with the following nonworking code:

    sub convert {
          my ($number) = shift;
          my @result;
          while ($number) {
            push @result, ($number % 1000) , ',';
            $number = int($number/1000);
          pop @result;      # Remove trailing comma
          return reverse @result;

If you ask this subroutine to convert the number 1009, you get ('1', ',', '9'), which is wrong; it should have been (1, ',', '009'). Many people wrote to point this out; I think Mark Lybrand was the first. Oops! Of course, you can fix this with sprintf, but really the solutions I showed earlier in the article are better.

The problem here is that I became too excited about my new idea. I still think it’s usually a red flag to treat a number like a string. But there’s an exception: When you are formatting a number for output, you have to treat it like a string, because output is always a string. I think Charles Knell hit the nail on the head here:

By inserting commas into the returned value, you ultimately treat the number as a string. Why not just give in and admit you’re working with a string.

Thanks, Charles.

People also complained that the subroutine returns a rather peculiar list instead of a single scalar, but that was the original author’s decision and I didn’t want to tamper with it without being sure why he had done it that way. People also took advantage of the opportunity to send in every bizarre, convoluted way they would think of to accomplish the same thing (or even a similar thing), often saying something like this:

You are doing way too much work! Why don’t you simply use this, like everyone else does?

    sub commify {
          $_ = shift . '*';
          "nosehair" while s/(.{1,3})\*/*,$1/;

I think this just shows that all code is really simple if you already happen to understand it.

Send More Code

Finally, thanks to everyone who wrote in, especially the people I didn’t mention. These articles have been quite popular, and I’d like to continue them. But that can’t happen unless I have code to discuss. So if you’d like to see another ``Red Flags” article, please consider sending me a 20- to 50-line section of your own code. If you do, I won’t publish the article without showing it to you beforehand.



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