[Rd] R's copying of arguments (Re: Julia)
oliver at first.in-berlin.de
Sat Mar 17 16:35:22 CET 2012
regarding the copying issue,
I would like to point to the
"Writing R-Extensions" documentation.
There it is mentio9ned, that functions of extensions
that use the .C interface normally do get their arguments
In section 5.2:
"There can be up to 65 further arguments giving R objects to be
passed to compiled code. Normally these are copied before being
passed in, and copied again to an R list object when the compiled
But for the .Call and .Extension interfaces this is NOT the case.
In section 5.9:
"The .Call and .External interfaces allow much more control, but
they also impose much greater responsibilities so need to be used
with care. Neither .Call nor .External copy their arguments. You
should treat arguments you receive through these interfaces as
Why is read-only preferred?
Please, see the discussion in section 5.9.10.
It's mentioned there, that a copy of an object in the R-language
not necessarily doies a real copy of that object, but instead of
this, just a "rerference" to the real data is created (two names
referring to one bulk of data). That's typical functional
programming: not a variable, but a name (and possibly more than one
name) bound to an object.
Of course, if yo change the orgiginal named value, when there
would be no copy of it, before changing it, then both names
would refer to the changed data.
of course that is not, what is wanted.
But what you also can see in section 5.9.10 is, that
there already is a mechanism (reference counting) that allows
to distinguish between unnamed and named object.
So, this is directly adressing the points you have mentioned in your
So, at least in principial, R allows to do in-place modifications
of object with the .Call interface.
You seem to refer to the .C interface, and I had explored the .Call
interface. That's the reason why you may insist on "it's copyied
always" and I wondered, what you were talking about, because the
.Call interface allowed me rather C-like raw style of programming
(and the user of it to decide, if copying will be done or not).
The mechanism to descide, if copying should be done or not,
also is mentioined in section 5.9.10: NAMED and SET_NAMED macros.
with NAMED you can get the number of references.
But later in that section it is mentioned, that - at least for now -
NAMED always returns the value 2.
"Currently all arguments to a .Call call will have NAMED set to 2,
and so users must assume that they need to be duplicated before
(section 5.9.10, last sentence)
So, the in-place modification can be done already with the .Call
intefcae for example. But the decision if it is safe or not
is not supported at the moment.
So the situation is somewhere between: "it is possible" and
"R does not support a safe decision if, what is possible, also
can be recommended".
At the moment R rather deprecates in-place modification by default
(the save way, and I agree with this default).
But it's not true, that R in general copies arguments.
But this seems to be true for the .C interface.
Maybe a lot of performance-/memory-problems can be solved
by rewriting already existing packages, by providing them
via .Call instead of .C.
On Tue, Mar 06, 2012 at 04:44:49PM +0000, William Dunlap wrote:
> S (and its derivatives and successors) promises that functions
> will not change their arguments, so in an expression like
> val <- func(arg)
> you know that arg will not be changed. You can
> do that by having func copy arg before doing anything,
> but that uses space and time that you want to conserve.
> If arg is not a named item in any environment then it
> should be fine to write over the original because there
> is no way the caller can detect that shortcut. E.g., in
> cx <- cos(runif(n))
> the cos function does not need to allocate new space for
> its output, it can just write over its input because, without
> a name attached to it, the caller has no way of looking
> at what runif(n) returned. If you did
> x <- runif(n)
> cx <- cos(x)
> then cos would have to allocate new space for its output
> because overwriting its input would affect a subsequent
> I suppose that end-users and function-writers could learn
> to live with having to decide when to copy, but not having
> to make that decision makes S more pleasant (and safer) to use.
> I think that is a major reason that people are able to
> share S code so easily.
> Bill Dunlap
> Spotfire, TIBCO Software
> wdunlap tibco.com
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: oliver [mailto:oliver at first.in-berlin.de]
> > Sent: Tuesday, March 06, 2012 1:12 AM
> > To: William Dunlap
> > Cc: Hervé Pagès; R-devel
> > Subject: Re: [Rd] Julia
> > On Tue, Mar 06, 2012 at 12:35:32AM +0000, William Dunlap wrote:
> > [...]
> > > I find R's (& S+'s & S's) copy-on-write-if-not-copying-would-be-discoverable-
> > > by-the-uer machanism for giving the allusion of pass-by-value a good way
> > > to structure the contract between the function writer and the function user.
> > [...]
> > Can you elaborate more on this,
> > especially on the ...-...-...-if-not-copying-would-be-discoverable-by-the-uer
> > stuff?
> > What do you mean with discoverability of not-copying?
> > Ciao,
> > Oliver
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