Makefile Assignments are Turing-Complete
For over a decade now, GNU Make has almost exclusively been my build system of choice, either directly or indirectly. Unfortunately this means I unnecessarily depend on some GNU extensions — an annoyance when porting to the BSDs. In an effort to increase the portability of my Makefiles, I recently read the POSIX make specification. I learned two important things: 1) POSIX make is so barren it’s not really worth striving for, and 2) make’s macro assignment mechanism is Turing-complete.
If you want to see it in action for yourself before reading further, here’s a Makefile that implements Conway’s Game of Life (40x40) using only macro assignments.
Run it with any make program in an ANSI terminal. It must literally
life.mak. Beware: if you run it longer than a few minutes,
your computer may begin thrashing.
make -f life.mak
It’s 100% POSIX-compatible except for the
sleep 0.1 (fractional
sleep), which is only needed for visual effect.
A POSIX workaround
Unlike virtually every real world implementation, POSIX make doesn’t support conditional parts. For example, you might want your Makefile’s behavior to change depending on the value of certain variables. In GNU Make it looks like this:
ifdef USE_FOO EXTRA_FLAGS = -ffoo -lfoo else EXTRA_FLAGS = -Wbar endif
.ifdef USE_FOO EXTRA_FLAGS = -ffoo -lfoo .else EXTRA_FLAGS = -Wbar .endif
If the goal is to write a strictly POSIX Makefile, how could I work around the lack of conditional parts and maintain a similar interface? The selection of macro/variable to evaluate can be dynamically selected, allowing for some useful tricks. First define the option’s default:
USE_FOO = 0
Then define both sets of flags:
EXTRA_FLAGS_0 = -Wbar EXTRA_FLAGS_1 = -ffoo -lfoo
Now dynamically select one of these macros for assignment to
EXTRA_FLAGS = $(EXTRA_FLAGS_$(USE_FOO))
The assignment on the command line overrides the assignment in the
Makefile, so the user gets to override
$ make # EXTRA_FLAGS = -Wbar $ make USE_FOO=0 # EXTRA_FLAGS = -Wbar $ make USE_FOO=1 # EXTRA_FLAGS = -ffoo -lfoo
Before reading the POSIX specification, I didn’t realize that the left side of an assignment can get the same treatment. For example, if I really want the “if defined” behavior back, I can use the macro to mangle the left-hand side. For example,
EXTRA_FLAGS = -O0 -g3 EXTRA_FLAGS$(DEBUG) = -O3 -DNDEBUG
DEBUG is set to empty, it may still result in true for
ifdef depending on which make flavor you’re using, but will always
appear to be unset in this hack.
$ make # EXTRA_FLAGS = -O3 -DNDEBUG $ make DEBUG=yes # EXTRA_FLAGS = -O0 -g3
This last case had me thinking: This is very similar to the (ab)use of
mov instruction in mov is Turing-complete. These
macro assignments alone should be enough to compute any algorithm.
Macro names are just keys to a global associative array. This can be used to build lookup tables. Here’s a Makefile to “compute” the square root of integers between 0 and 10.
sqrt_0 = 0.000000 sqrt_1 = 1.000000 sqrt_2 = 1.414214 sqrt_3 = 1.732051 sqrt_4 = 2.000000 sqrt_5 = 2.236068 sqrt_6 = 2.449490 sqrt_7 = 2.645751 sqrt_8 = 2.828427 sqrt_9 = 3.000000 sqrt_10 = 3.162278 result := $(sqrt_$(n))
The BSD flavors of make have a
-V option for printing variables,
which is an easy way to retrieve output. I used an “immediate”
result since some versions of make won’t
evaluate the expression before
$ make -f sqrt.mak -V result n=8 2.828427
-V, a default target could be used instead:
output : @printf "$(result)\n"
There are no math operators, so performing arithmetic requires some
creativity. For example, integers could be represented as a
series of x characters. The number 4 is
xxxx, the number 6 is
xxxxxx, etc. Addition is concatenation (note: macros can have
A = xxx B = xxxx A+B = $(A)$(B)
However, since there’s no way to “slice” a value, subtraction isn’t possible. A more realistic approach to arithmetic would require lookup tables.
Branching could be achieved through more lookup tables. For example,
square_0 = 1 square_1 = 2 square_2 = 4 # ... result := $($(op)_$(n))
And called as:
$ make n=5 op=sqrt # 2.236068 $ make n=5 op=square # 25
Or using the
DEBUG trick above, use the condition to mask out the
results of the unwanted branch. This is similar to the
result := $(op)($(n)) = $($(op)_$(n)) result$(verbose) := $($(op)_$(n))
And its usage:
$ make n=5 op=square # 25 $ make n=5 op=square verbose=1 # square(5) = 25
What about loops?
Looping is a tricky problem. However, one of the most common build
(anti?)patterns is the recursive Makefile. Borrowing from the
mov paper, which used an unconditional jump to restart the program
from the beginning, for a Makefile Turing-completeness I can invoke
the Makefile recursively, restarting the program with a new set of
Remember the print target above? I can loop by invoking make again with new inputs in this target,
output : @printf "$(result)\n" @$(MAKE) $(args)
Before going any further, now that loops have been added, the natural
next question is halting. In reality, the operating system will take
care of that after some millions of make processes have carelessly
been invoked by this horribly inefficient scheme. However, we can do
better. The program can clobber the
MAKE variable when it’s ready to
halt. Let’s formalize it.
loop = $(MAKE) $(args) output : @printf "$(result)\n" @$(loop)
To halt, the program just needs to clear
Suppose we want to count down to 0. There will be an initial count:
count = 6
A decrement table:
6 = 5 5 = 4 4 = 3 3 = 2 2 = 1 1 = 0 0 = loop
The last line will be used to halt by clearing the name on the right side. This is three star territory.
The result (current iteration) loop value is computed from the lookup table.
result = $($(count))
The next loop value is passed via
loop was cleared above,
this result will be discarded.
args = count=$(result)
With all that in place, invoking the Makefile will print a countdown from 5 to 0 and quit. This is the general structure for the Game of Life macro program.
Game of Life
A universal Turing machine has been implemented in Conway’s Game of Life. With all that heavy lifting done, one of the easiest methods today to prove a language’s Turing-completeness is to implement Conway’s Game of Life. Ignoring the criminal inefficiency of it, the Game of Life Turing machine could be run on the Game of Life simulation running on make’s macro assignments.
In the Game of Life program — the one linked at the top of this
article — each cell is stored in a macro named xxyy, after its
position. The top-left most cell is named 0000, then going left to
right, 0100, 0200, etc. Providing input is a matter of assigning each
of these macros. I chose
X for alive and
- for dead, but, as
you’ll see, any two characters permitted in macro names would work as
$ make 0000=X 0100=- 0200=- 0300=X ...
The next part should be no surprise: The rules of the Game of Life are encoded as a 512-entry lookup table. The key is formed by concatenating the cell’s value along with all its neighbors, with itself in the center.
The “beginning” of the table looks like this:
--------- = - X-------- = - -X------- = - XX------- = - --X------ = - X-X------ = - -XX------ = - XXX------ = X ---X----- = - X--X----- = - -X-X----- = - XX-X----- = X # ...
Note: The two right-hand
X values here are the cell coming to life
(exactly three living neighbors). Computing the next value (n0101)
for 0101 is done like so:
n0101 = $($(0000)$(0100)$(0200)$(0001)$(0101)$(0201)$(0002)$(0102)$(0202))
Given these results, constructing the input to the next loop is simple:
args = 0000=$(n0000) 0100=$(n0100) 0200=$(n0200) ...
The display output, to be given to
printf, is built similarly:
output = $(n0000)$(n0100)$(n0200)$(n0300)...
In the real version, this is decorated with an ANSI escape code that
clears the terminal. The
printf interprets the escape byte (
so that it doesn’t need to appear literally in the source.
And that’s all there is to it: Conway’s Game of Life running in a Makefile. Life, uh, finds a way.