April 30th, 2024

Breaking And Continuation


I've started trying to integrate UCL into a second tool: Dynamo Browse. And so far it's proving to be a little difficult. The problem is that this will be replacing a dumb string splitter, with command handlers that are currently returning a tea.Msg type that change the UI in some way.

UCL builtin handlers return a interface{} result, or an error result, so there's no reason why this wouldn't work. But tea.Msg is also an interface{} types, so it will be difficult to tell a UI message apart from a result that's usable as data.

This is a Dynamo Browse problem, but it's still a problem I'll need to solve. It might be that I'll need to return tea.Cmd types — which are functions returning tea.Msg — and have the UCL caller detect these and dispatch them when they're returned. That's a lot of function closures, but it might be the only way around this (well, the alternative is returning an interface type with a method that returns a tea.Msg, but that'll mean a lot more types than I currently have).

Anyway, more on this in the future I'm sure.

Break, Continue, Return

As for language features, I realised that I never had anything to exit early from a loop or proc. So I added break, continue, and return commands. They're pretty much what you'd expect, except that break can optionally return a value, which will be used as the resulting value of the foreach loop that contains it:

echo (foreach [5 4 3 2 1] { |n|
  echo $n
  if (eq $n 3) {
    break "abort"
--> 5
--> 4
--> 3
--> abort

These are implemented as error types under the hood. For example, break will return an errBreak type, which will flow up the chain until it is handled by the foreach command (continue is also an errBreak with a flag indicating that it's a continue). Similarly, return will return an errReturn type that is handled by the proc object.

This fits quite naturally with how the scripts are run. All I'm doing is walking the tree, calling each AST node as a separate function call and expecting it to return a result or an error. If an error is return, the function bails, effectively unrolling the stack until the error is handled or it's returned as part of the call to Eval(). So leveraging this stack unroll process already in place makes sense to me.

I'm not sure if this is considered idiomatic Go. I get the impression that using error types to handle flow control outside of adverse conditions is frowned upon. This reminds me of all the arguments against using expressions for flow control in Java. Those arguments are good ones: following executions between try and catch makes little sense when the flow can be explained more clearly with an if.

But I'm going to defend my use of errors here. Like most Go projects, the code is already littered with all the if err != nil { return err } to exit early when a non-nil error is returned. And since Go developers preach the idea of errors simply being values, why not use errors here to unroll the stack? It's better than the alternatives: such as detecting a sentinel result type or adding a third return value which will just be yet another if bla { return res } clause.


Now, an idea is brewing for a feature I'm calling "continuations" that might be quite difficult to implement. I'd like to provide a way for a user builtin to take a snapshot of the call stack, and resume execution from that point at a later time.

The reason for this is that I'd like all the asynchronous operations to be transparent to the UCL user. Consider a UCL script with a sleep command:

echo "Wait here"
sleep 5
echo "Ok, ready"

sleep could simply be a call to time.Sleep() but say you're running this as part of an event loop, and you'd prefer to do something like setup a timer instead of blocking the thread. You may want to hide this from the UCL script author, so they don't need to worry about callbacks.

Ideally, this can be implemented by the builtin using a construct similar to the following:

func sleep(ctx context.Context, arg ucl.CallArgs) (any, error) {
  var secs int
  if err := arg.Bind(&secs); err != nil {
    return err

  // Save the execution stack
  continuation := args.Continuation()

  // Schedule the sleep callback
  go func() {
    <- time.After(secs * time.Seconds)

    // Resume execution later, yielding `secs` as the return value
    // of the `sleep` call. This will run the "ok, ready" echo call
    continuation(ctx, secs)

  // Halt execution now
  return nil, ucl.ErrHalt

The only trouble is, I've got no idea how I'm going to do this. As mentioned above, UCL executes the script by walking the parse tree with normal Go function calls. I don't want to be in a position to create a snapshot of the Go call stack. That a little too low level for what I want to achieve here.

I suppose I could store the visited nodes in a list when the ErrHalt is raised; or maybe replace the Go call stack with an in memory stack, with AST node handlers being pushed and popped as the script runs. But I'm not sure this will work either. It would require a significant amount of reengineering, which I'm sure will be technically interesting, but will take a fair bit of time. And how is this to work if a continuation is made in a builtin that's being called from another builtin? What should happen if I were to run sleep within a map, for example?

So it might be that I'll have to use something else here. I could potentially do something using Goroutines: the script is executed on Goroutine and args.Continuation() does something like pauses it on a channel. How that would work with a builtin handler requesting the continuation not being paused themselves I'm not so sure. Maybe the handlers could be dispatched on a separate Goroutine as well?

A simpler approach might be to just offload this to the UCL user, and have them run Eval on a separate Goroutine and simply sleeping the thread. Callbacks that need input from outside could simply be sent using channels passed via the context.Context. At least that'll lean into Go's first party support for synchronisation, which is arguably a good thing.