The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 18 Mar 2006

Who farted?
The software that generates these web pages from my blog entries is Blosxom. When I decided I wanted to try blogging, I did a web search for something like "simplest possible blogging software", and found a page that discussed Bryar. So I located the Bryar manual. The first sentence in the Bryar manual says "Bryar is a piece of blog production software, similar in style to (but considerably more complex than) Rael Dornfest's blosxom." So I dropped Bryar and got Blosxom. This was a smashing success: It was running within ten minutes. Now, two months later, I'm thinking about moving everything to Bryar, because Blosxom really sucks. . But for me it was a huge success, and I probably wouldn't have started a blog if I hadn't found it. It sucks in the best possible way: because it's drastically under-designed and excessively lightweight. That is much better than sucking because it is drastically over-designed and excessively heavyweight. It also sucks in some less ambivalent ways, but I'm not here (today) to criticize Blosxom, so let's move on.

Until the big move to Bryar, I've been writing plugins for Blosxom. When I was shopping for blog software, one of my requirements that that the thing be small and simple enough to be hackable, since I was sure I would inevitably want to do something that couldn't be accomplished any other way. With Blosxom, that happened a lot sooner than it should have (the plugin interface is inadequate), but the fallback position of hacking the base code worked quite well, because it is fairly small and fairly simple.

Most recently, I had to hack the Blosxom core to get the menu you can see on the left side of the page, with the titles of the recent posts. This should have been possible with a plugin. You need a callback (story) in the plugin that is invoked once per article, to accumulate a list of title-URL pairs, and then you need another callback (stories_done) that is invoked once after all the articles have been scanned, to generate the menu and set up a template variable for insertion into the template. Then, when Blosxom fills the template, it can insert the menu that was set up by the plugin.

With stock Blosxom, however, this is impossible. The first problem you encounter is that there is no stories_done callback. This is only a minor problem, because you can just have a global variable that holds the complete menu so far at all times; each time story is invoked, it can throw away the incomplete menu that it generated last time and replace it with a revised version. After the final call to story, the complete menu really is complete:

        sub story {
          my ($pkg, $path, $filename, $story_ref, $title_ref, $body_ref,
                 $dir, $date) = @_;
          return unless $dir eq "" && $date eq "";
          return unless $blosxom::flavour eq "html";
          my $link = qq{<a href="$blosxom::url$path/$filename.$blosxom::flavour">} .
                     qq{<span class=menuitem>$$title_ref</span></a>};
          push @menu, $link;
          $menu = join "&nbsp;/ ", @menu;
That strategy is wasteful of CPU time, but not enough to notice. You could also fix it by hacking the base code to add a stories_done callback, but that strategy is wasteful of programmer time.

But it turns out that this doesn't work, and I don't think there is a reasonable way to get what I wanted without hacking the base code. (Blosxom being what it is, hacking the base code is a reasonable solution.) This is because of a really bad architecture decision inside of Blosxom. The page is made up of three independent components, called the "head", the "body", and the "foot". There are separate templates of each of these. And when Blosxom generates a page, it does so in this sequence:

  1. Fill "head" template and append result to output
  2. Process articles
  3. Fill "body" template and append result to output
  4. Fill "foot" template and append result to output
This means that at the time the "head" template is filled, Blosxom has not yet seen the articles. So if you want the article's title to appear in the HTML <title> element, you are out of luck, because the article has not yet been read at the time that the <title> element is generated. And if you want a menu of article titles on the left-hand side of the page, you are out of luck, because the article has not yet been read at the time that the left-hand side of the page was generated.

So I had to go in and hack the Blosxom core to make it fractionally less spiky:

  1. Process articles
  2. Fill "head" template and append result to output
  3. Fill "body" template and append result to output
  4. Fill "foot" template and append result to output
It's tempting to finish this article right now with a long explanation of the philosophical mistakes of this component of Blosxom's original design, how it should have been this:

  1. Process articles
  2. Fill and output templates:
    1. Fill "head" template and append result to output
    2. Fill "body" template and append result to output
    3. Fill "foot" template and append result to output
Or an analysis of Blosxom's confusion between structure and presentation, and so forth. Why three templates? Why not one? The one template, as distributed with the package, could simply have been:

        #include head
        #include body
        #include foot
But if I were to finish the article with that discussion, then the first half of the article would have been relevant and to the point, and as regular readers know, We Don't Do That Here. No, there must come a point about a third of the way through each article at which I say "But anyway, the real point of this note is...".

Anyway, the real point of this note is to discuss was the debugging technique I used to fix Blosxom after I made this core change, which broke the output. The menu was showing up where I wanted, but now all the date headers (like the "Sat, 18 Mar 2006" one just above) appeared at the very top of the page body, before all the articles.

The way Blosxom generates output is by appending it to a variable $output, which eventually accumulates all the output, and is printed once, right at the very end. I had found the code that generated the "head" part of the output; this code ended with $output .= $head to append the head part to the complete output. I moved this section down, past the (much more complicated) section that scanned the articles themselves, so that the "head" template, when filled, would have access to information (such as menus) accumulated while scanning the articles.

But apparently some other part of the program was inserting the date headers into the output while scanning the articles. I had to find this. The right thing to do would have been just to search the code for $output. This was not sure to work: there might have been dozens of appearances of $output, making it a difficult task to determine which one was the responsible appearance. Also, any of the plugins, not all of which were written by me, could have been modifying $output, so it would not have been enough just to search the base code.

Still, I should have started by searching for $output, under the look-under-the-lamppost principle. (If you lose your wallet in a dark street start by looking under the lamppost. The wallet might not be there, but you will not waste much time on the search.) If I had looked under the lamppost, I would have found the lost wallet:

      $curdate ne $date and $curdate = $date and $output .= $date;
That's not what I did. Daunted by the theoretical difficulties, I got out a big hammer. The hammer is of some technical interest, and for many problems it is not too big, so there is some value in presenting it.

Perl has a feature called tie that allows a variable to be enchanted so that accesses to it are handled by programmer-defined methods instead of by Perl's usual internal processes. When a tied variable $foo is stored into, a STORE method is called, and passed the value to be stored; it is the responsibility of STORE to put this value somewhere that it can be accessed again later by its counterpart, the FETCH method.

There are a lot of problems with this feature. It has an unusually strong risk of creating incomprehensible code by being misused, since when you see something like $this = $that you have no way to know whether $this and $that are tied, and that what you think is an assignment expression is actually STORE($this, FETCH($that)), and so is invoking two hook functions that could have completely arbitrary effects. Another, related problem is that the compiler can't know that either, which tends to disable the possibility of performing just about any compile-time optimization you could possibly think of. Perhaps you would like to turn this:

        for (1 .. 1000000) { $this = $that }
into just this:

        $this = $that;
Too bad; they are not the same, because $that might be tied to a FETCH function that will open the pod bay doors the 142,857th time it is called. The unoptimized code opens the pod bay doors; the "optimized" code does not.

But tie is really useful for certain kinds of debugging. In this case the question is "who was responsible for inserting those date headers into $output?" We can answer the question by tieing $output and supplying a STORE callback that issues a report whenever $output is modified. The code looks like this:

        package who_farted;

        sub TIESCALAR {
          my ($package, $fh) = @_;
          my $value = "";
          bless { value => \$value, fh => $fh } ;
This is the constructor; it manufactures an object to which the FETCH and STORE methods can be directed. It is the responsibility of this object to track the value of $output, because Perl won't be tracking the value in the usual way. So the object contains a "value" member, holding the value that is stored in $object. It also contains a filehandle for printing diagnostics. The FETCH method simply returns the current stored value:

        sub FETCH {
          my $self = shift;
The basic STORE method is simple:

        sub STORE {
          my ($self, $val) = @_;
          my $fh = $self->{fh};
          print $fh "Someone stored '$val' into \$output\n";
          ${$self->{value}} = $val;
It issues a diagnostic message about the new value, and stores the new value into the object so that FETCH can get it later. But the diagnostic here is not useful; all it says is that "someone" stored the value; we need to know who, and where their code is. The function st() generates a stack trace:

        sub st {
          my @stack;
          my $spack = __PACKAGE__;
          my $N = 1;
          while (my @c = caller($N)) {
            my (undef, $file, $line, $sub) = @c;
            next if $sub =~ /^\Q$spack\E::/o;
            push @stack, "$sub ($file:$line)";
          } continue { $N++ }
Perl's built-in caller() function returns information about the stack frame N levels up. For clarity, st() omits information about frames in the who_farted class itself. (That's the next if... line.)

The real STORE dumps the stack trace, and takes some pains to announce whether the value of $output was entirely overwritten or appended to:

        sub STORE {
          my ($self, $val) = @_;
          my $old = $ {$self->{value}};
          my $olen = length($old);
          my ($act, $what) = ("set to", $val);
          if (substr($val, 0, $olen) eq $old) {
            ($act, $what) = ("appended", substr($val, $olen));
          $what =~ tr/\n/ /;
          $what =~ s/\s+$//;
          my $fh = $self->{fh};
          print $fh "var $act '$what'\n";
          print $fh "  $_\n" for st();
          print $fh "\n";
          ${$self->{value}} = $val;
To use this, you just tie $output at the top of the base code:

        open my($DIAGNOSTIC), ">", "/tmp/who-farted" or die $!;
        tie $output, 'who_farted', $DIAGNOSTIC;
This worked well enough. The stack trace informed me that the modification of interest was occurring in the blosxom::generate function at line 290 of blosxom.cgi. That was the precise location of the lost wallet. It was, as I said, a big hammer to use to squash a mosquito of a problem---but the mosquito is dead.

A somewhat more useful version of this technique comes in handy in situations where you have some program, say a CGI program, that is generating the wrong output; maybe there is a "1" somewhere in the middle of the output and you don't know what part of the program printed "1" to STDOUT. You can adapt the technique to watch STDOUT instead of a variable. It's simpler in some ways, because STDOUT is written to but never read from, so you can eliminate the FETCH method and the data store:

        package who_farted;

        sub rig_fh {
          my ($handle, $diagnostic) = shift;
          my $mode = shift || "<";
          open my($aux_handle), "$mode&=", $handle or die $!;
          tie *$handle, __PACKAGE__, $aux_handle, $diagnostic;

        sub TIEHANDLE {
          my ($package, $aux_handle, $diagnostic) = @_;
          bless [$aux_handle, $diagnostic] => $package;

        sub PRINT {
          my ($aux_handle, $diagnostic) = @$self;
          print $aux_handle @_;
          my $str = join("", @_);
          print $diagnostic "$str:\n";
          print $diagnostic "  $_\n" for st();
          print $diagnostic "\n";
To use this, you put something like rig_fh(\*STDOUT, $DIAGNOSTIC, ">") in the main code. The only tricky part is that some part of the code (rig_fh here) must manufacture a new, untied handle that points to the same place that STDOUT did before it was tied, so that the output can actually be printed.

Something it might be worth pointing out about the code I showed here is that it uses the very rare one-argument form of bless:

        package who_farted;

        sub TIESCALAR {
          my ($package, $fh) = @_;
          my $value = "";
          bless { value => \$value, fh => $fh } ;
Normally the second argument should be $package, so that the object is created in the appropriate package; the default is to create it in package who_farted. Aren't these the same? Yes, unless someone has tried to subclass who_farted and inherit the TIESCALAR method. So the only thing I have really gained here is to render the TIESCALAR method uninheritable. <sarcasm>Gosh, what a tremendous benefit</sarcasm>. Why did I do it this way? In regular OO-style code, writing a method that cannot be inherited is completely idiotic. You very rarely have a chance to write a constructor method in a class that you are sure will never be inherited. This seemed like such a case. I decided to take advantage of this non-feature of Perl since I didn't know when the opportunity would come by again.

"Take advantage of" is the wrong phrase here, because, as I said, there is not actually any advantage to doing it this way. And although I was sure that who_farted would never be inherited, I might have been wrong; I have been wrong about such things before. A smart programmer requires only ten years to learn that you should not do things the wrong way, even if you are sure it will not matter. So I violated this rule and potentially sabotaged my future maintenance efforts (on the day when the class is subclassed) and I got nothing, absolutely nothing in return.

Yes. It is completely pointless. A little Dada to brighten your day. Anyone who cannot imagine a lobster-handed train conductor sleeping in a pile of celestial globes is an idiot.

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