GC, Continuations, Ruby Internals

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 :: Tagged under: pablolife engineering plt. ⏰ 2 minutes.


Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄


When I was about 6, I told my mom I wanted to be a garbageman when I grew up. I mostly just liked the truck, and hanging from the side of it while it drove from house to house.

Garbage collection still fascinates me. I found this talk on Ruby's garbage collector of great interest. While we program with abstractions to make application development easier, the sad fact is that it still helps you avoid shooting yourself in the foot to know how your languages features are being implemented. Even if it didn't, wouldn't you be curious?

This is also a great example of a poor (or simply inflexible) design choice having major consequences down the road. In the talk they explain how Ruby's conservative, stop-the-world mark and sweep collector can't really be replaced by other, more efficient collectors due to the representation of objects. Personally, I'm partial to generational stop-and-copy's; but it only showed up in the talk as an impossibility. The best they could do was curb their lame mark-and-sweep (also Python uses reference counting lol).

I dropped a lot of jargon there; for any curious folk, I can explain what they mean in a later post ^_^ I'll spend the remainder of this one talking about another Ruby feature whose underlying implementation destroyed my algorithm.


Ruby is one of the few languages to support continuations out-of-the-box (in Ruby 1.8 anyways, in 1.9 you have to require continuation). The presence of continuations are a sign of flair: when a designer has worked to put it in the language (Matz called it the hardest language feature of Ruby to implement) they are pretty much telling you they are committed to writing a flexible, powerful language that lets the programmer do whatever they want. Naturally, when I see a use for them, I use them.

Kent Dybvig shows us that continuations can be implemented to be very efficient. Unfortunately in Ruby, they aren't: like the GC, continuations are implemented in about the most bare-bones way possible. In Ruby, they implement a continuation by copying the entire program stack in its current state and storing it elsewhere. When you call the continuation, they copy back the old stack over the current one.

Here's the problem: I wrote a program to push the current continuation onto a stack before every call to the recursion. The idea was to use the continuations to keep track of backtracking over several parameters, and the stack meant you would only call as many as you needed.

The problem was, every recursive call increased the size of the stack, since Ruby doesn't support tail-call optimization. So at every recursive call, you would copy over the entire stack somewhere in memory, augment it, and recur. DEATH!

Needless to say, I found another solution. But this was another example of how the implementation of a feature can make the feature usable or not. Had I implemented the same algorithm in Dybvig's Chez Scheme, with both tail-calls and efficient continuations, this algo would have sailed.


Coming back full circle, there was a time when I considered peeking into the Ruby source and forking it to support Dybvig's stack frame model (gutting the whole language primarily to support... continuations?). Looking at the object representation from the GC talk though, it's probably much harder than I imagined ^_^.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄