Category Archives: Fortress

Don’t return null; use a tail call

Why should an object-oriented programmer care about tail-call elimination? Isn’t that just another esoteric functional programming concept? Maybe not.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, a common technique for performing a subroutine call worked this way:

  1. The caller stored the address at which it wished to resume execution in a known place (e.g. adjacent to the called routine’s code);
  2. The caller branched to the called routine’s entry address;
  3. Upon completion, the called routine branched indirectly to the stored return address.

Of course, this technique precluded both recursive and re-entrant calls, but those were regarded as esoteric, theoretical concepts with little if any practical use (see the “Historical Footnote” below). Times change, but programmers are still living with constraints whose roots go back to the kinds of mechanism described above. We all know that a simple and correct recursive routine can still founder on the stack overflow reef. But I recently saw a blog post by Zachary D. Shaw that rubbed a bit more salt in that wound.

His post on Returning Null discusses an alternative to the common idiom of returning a null result as a way of saying “not found”. In his post, the caller passes itself as an argument (using a suitable interface type, of course), and the callee responds by invoking either a “found” or “not found” method on the caller. This models the interaction as an exchange of specific and appropriate messages, instead of encoding the “not found” case in an abnormal value which the caller must decode in order to determine what to do.

I’m currently enjoying the book Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests by Steve Freeman and Nat Pryce, of mock objects fame. That book reminded me of the value of separating the design concept of passing messages from the implementation detail of writing methods. It would be nice to be able to use such a technique without stack depth raising its ugly little head as an issue, however fleeting.

Simon Harris posted on this issue from a Ruby perspective, and Guy Steele’s Fortress blog has an elegant illustration in that language. Of course, Steele’s 1977 paper is the ultimate resource on the subject. Even the name of that paper has had its influence.


Historical Footnote: The November 1963 issue of Communications of the ACM contained a short piece entitled “Recursive programming in Fortran II“. Membership is required to download the PDF, but you can get a sense of the attitudes of the time just by reading the abstract on the linked page.

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