Final Words on Tail Calls

A lot of people remarked that in my post on Tail Recursion Elimination I confused tail self-recursion with other tail calls, which proper Tail Call Optimization (TCO) also eliminates. I now feel more educated: tail calls are not just about loops. I started my blog post when someone pointed out several recent posts by Pythonistas playing around with implementing tail self-recursion through decorators or bytecode hacks. In the eyes of the TCO proponents those were all amateurs, and perhaps that’s so.

The one issue on which TCO advocates seem to agree with me is that TCO is a feature, not an optimization. (Even though in some compiled languages it really is provided by a compiler optimization.) We can argue over whether it is a desirable feature. Personally, I think it is a fine feature for some languages, but I don’t think it fits Python: The elimination of stack traces for some calls but not others would certainly confuse many users, who have not been raised with tail call religion but might have learned about call semantics by tracing through a few calls in a debugger.

The main issue here is that I expect that in many cases tail calls are not of a recursive nature (neither direct nor indirect), so the elimination of stack frames doesn’t do anything for the algorithmic complexity of the code, but it does make debugging harder. For example, if your have a function ending in something like this:

if x > y:
return some_call(z)
return 42

and you end up in the debugger inside some_call() whereas you expected to have taken the other branch, with TCO as a feature your debugger can’t tell you the value of x and y, because the stack frame has been eliminated.

(I’m sure at this point someone will bring up that the debugger should be smarter. Sure. I’m expecting your patch for CPython any minute now.)

The most interesting use case brought up for TCO is the implementation of algorithms involving state machines. The proponents of TCO claim that the only alternative to TCO is a loop with lots of state, which they consider ugly. Now, apart from the observation that since TCO essentially is a GOTO, you write spaghetti code using TCO just as easily, Ian Bicking gave a solution that is as simple as it is elegant. (I saw it in a comment to someone’s blog that I can’t find back right now; I’ll add a link if someone adds it in a comment here.) Instead of this tail call:

return foo(args)

you write this:

return foo, (args,)

which doesn’t call foo() but just returns it and an argument tuple, and embed everything in a “driver” loop like this:

func, args = ...initial func/args pair...
while True:
func, args = func(*args)

If you need an exit condition you can use an exception, or you could invent some other protocol to signal the end of the loop (like returning None).

And here it ends. One other thing I learned is that some in the academic world scornfully refer to Python as “the Basic of the future”. Personally, I rather see that as a badge of honor, and it gives me an opportunity to plug a book of interviews with language designers to which I contributed, side by side with the creators of Basic, C++, Perl, Java, and other academically scorned languages — as well as those of ML and Haskell, I hasten to add. (Apparently the creators of Scheme were too busy arguing whether to say “tail call optimization” or “proper tail recursion.” 🙂
Source: Guido van Rossum