Turning Asynchronous into Synchronous in Elisp

As a new user of nREPL I was poking around nrepl.el, seeing what sorts of Elisp tricks I could learn. Even though it was written 6 months before Skewer, and I was completely unaware of nREPL’s existence until two weeks ago, there’s a lot of similarity between nrepl.el and Skewer. Due to serving the same purpose for different platforms, this isn’t very surprising.

In particular, Skewer has skewer-eval for sending a string to the browser for evaluation. Like JavaScript, Emacs Lisp is single-threaded: there’s only one execution context at a time and it has to return to the top-level before a new context can execute. There are no continuations or coroutines. skewer-eval requires coordination with an external process (the browser) making it inherently asynchronous. So as a second, optional argument, a callback can be provided for receiving the result.

;; Echo the result in the minibuffer.
(skewer-eval "Math.pow(2.1, 3.1)"
             (lambda (r) (message (cdr (assoc 'value r)))))

However, the equivalent function in nrepl.el, nrepl-eval, is synchronous! It returns the evaluation result. “That’s not true! That’s impossible!”

;; !!!
(plist-get (nrepl-eval "(Math/pow 2.1 3.1)") :value)
;; => "9.97423999265871"

Well, it turns out what I said above about execution contexts wasn’t completely true. There’s exactly one sneaky function that breaks the rule: accept-process-output. It blocks the current execution context allowing some other execution contexts to run, including timers and I/O. However, it will lock up Emacs’ interface. nrepl-eval uses this function to poll for a response from the nREPL process.

When I saw this, a lightbulb went off in my head. This lone loophole in Emacs execution model can be abused to provide interesting benefits. Specifically, it can be used to create a latch synchronization primitive.

The full source code is here if you want to dive right in. I’ll be going over a simplified version piece-by-piece below.

The Latch Primitive

The idea of a latch is that a thread can wait on the latch, blocking its execution. It will remain in that state until another thread notifies the latch, releasing any threads blocked on the latch. Here’s how it might look in Lisp.

(defvar result nil)

(defvar my-latch (make-latch))

(defun get-result ()
  (if result
    (wait my-latch) ; Block, waiting for the result

(defun set-result (value)
  (setf result value)
  (notify my-latch)) ; Release anyone waiting on my-latch

The pattern above is similar to a promise, which we will later implement on top of latches. In our latch implementation I’d also like to optionally pass a value from notify to anyone waiting, which would make the above simpler.

Emacs doesn’t have threads but instead non-preemptive execution contexts. Ignoring the Emacs UI lockup, we can mostly ignore that distinction for now.

To exploit accept-process-output each latch needs to have its own process object. When blocking on a latch it will simply wait for that process to receive input. To notify a latch, we need to send data to that process.

For the process, we’ll ask Emacs to make a pseudo-terminal “process.” It’s basically just a pipe for Emacs to talk to itself. It’s possible to literally make a pipe, which is better for this purpose, but that’s currently broken. To make such a process, we call start-process with nil as the program name (third argument).

Let’s start by making a new class called latch.

(require 'eieio)

(defclass latch ()
  ((process :initform (start-process "latch" nil nil))
   (value :initform nil)))

This class has two slots, process and value. The process slot holds the aforementioned process we’ll be blocking on. The value slot will be used to pass a value from notify to wait. The process slot is initialized with a brand new process object upon instantiation.

(defmethod wait ((latch latch))
  (accept-process-output (slot-value latch 'process))
  (slot-value latch 'value))

(defmethod notify ((latch latch) &optional value)
  (setf (slot-value latch 'value) value)
  (process-send-string (slot-value latch 'process) "\n"))

To wait, call accept-process-output on the latch’s private process. This function won’t return until data is sent to the process. By that time, the value slot will be filled in with the value from notify.

To notify, send a newline with process-send-string. The data to send is arbitrary, but I wanted to send as little as possible (one byte) and I figure a newline might be safer when it comes to flushing any sort of buffer. Buffers tend to flush on newlines. Before sending data, we set the value slot to the value that wait will return.

That’s basically it! However, processes are not garbage collected by Emacs, so we need a destroy destructor method. The name destroy here is not special to Emacs. It’s something for the user of the library to call.

(defmethod destroy ((latch latch))
    (delete-process (slot-value latch 'process))))

(defun make-latch ()
  (make-instance 'latch))

I also made a convenience constructor function make-latch, with the conventional name make-, since users shouldn’t have to call make-instance for our classes.

That’s enough to turn skewer-eval into a synchronous function.

(defun skewer-eval-synchronously (js-code)
  (lexical-let ((latch (make-latch)))
    (skewer-eval js-code (apply-partially #'notify latch))
    (prog1 (wait latch)
      (destroy latch))))

In combination with lexical-let, apply-partially returns a closure that will notify the latch with the return value passed to it from skewer. We need to get the return value from wait, destroy the latch, then return the value, so I use a prog1 for this.

One-use Latches

In my experimenting, I noticed the prog1 pattern coming up a lot. Having to destroy my latch after a single use was really inconvenient. Fortunately this pattern can be captured by a subclass: one-time-latch.

(defclass one-time-latch (latch)

(defun make-one-time-latch ()
  (make-instance 'one-time-latch))

(defmethod wait :after ((latch one-time-latch))
  (destroy latch))

This subclass destroys the latch after the superclass’s wait is done, through an :after method (purely for side-effects). CLOS is fun, isn’t it?

(defun skewer-eval-synchronously (js-code)
  (lexical-let ((latch (make-one-time-latch)))
    (skewer-eval js-code (apply-partially #'notify latch))
    (wait latch)))

There, that’s a lot more elegant.

If eieio was a more capable mini-CLOS I could also demonstrate a countdown-latch, but this would require an :around method. Most uses of notify would need to skip over the superclass method.


We can build promises on top of our latch implementation. Basically, a promise is a one-time-latch where we can query the notify value more than once. In a one-time-latch we can only wait once.

Our promise will have two similar methods, deliver (like notify), and retrieve (like wait). If a value has been delivered already, retrieve will return that value. Otherwise, it will block and wait until a value is delivered,

(defclass promise ()
  ((latch :initform (make-one-time-latch))
   (delivered :initform nil)
   (value :initform nil)))

(defun make-promise ()
  (make-instance 'promise))

It has three slots, the one-time-latch used for blocking, a Boolean determining the delivery status, and the value of the promise.

(defmethod deliver ((promise promise) value)
  (if (slot-value promise 'delivered)
      (error "Promise has already been delivered.")
    (setf (slot-value promise 'value) value)
    (setf (slot-value promise 'delivered) t)
    (notify (slot-value promise 'latch) value)))

(defmethod retrieve ((promise promise))
  (if (slot-value promise 'delivered)
      (slot-value promise 'value)
    (wait (slot-value promise 'latch))))

A promise can only be delivered once, so it throws an error if it is attempted more than once. Otherwise it updates the promise state and releases anything waiting on it.

What to do with this?

Locking up Emacs’ UI really limits the usefulness of this library. Since Emacs’ primary purpose is being a text editor, it needs to remain very lively or else the user will become annoyed. If I used a synchronous version of skewer-eval, Emacs would completely lock up (easily interrupted with C-g) until the browser responds — which would be never if no browser is connected. That’s unacceptable.

Also, not very many Emacs functions have the callback pattern. The only core function I’m aware of that does is url-retrieve, but it already has a url-retrieve-synchronously counterpart.

Please tell me if you have a neat use of any of this!

Have a comment on this article? Start a discussion in my public inbox by sending an email to ~skeeto/public-inbox@lists.sr.ht [mailing list etiquette] , or see existing discussions.

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Chris Wellons

wellons@nullprogram.com (PGP)
~skeeto/public-inbox@lists.sr.ht (view)