Emacs Lisp Lambda Expressions Are Not Self-Evaluating

This week I made a mistake that ultimately enlightened me about the nature of function objects in Emacs Lisp. There are three kinds of function objects, but they each behave very differently when evaluated as objects.

But before we get to that, let’s talk about one of Emacs’ embarrassing, old missteps: eval-after-load.

Taming an old dragon

One of the long-standing issues with Emacs is that loading Emacs Lisp files (.el and .elc) is a slow process, even when those files have been byte compiled. There are a number of dirty hacks in place to deal with this issue, and the biggest and nastiest of them all is the dumper, also known as unexec.

The Emacs you routinely use throughout the day is actually a previous instance of Emacs that’s been resurrected from the dead. Your undead Emacs was probably created months, if not years, earlier, back when it was originally compiled. The first stage of compiling Emacs is to compile a minimal C core called temacs. The second stage is loading a bunch of Emacs Lisp files, then dumping a memory image in an unportable, platform-dependent way. On Linux, this actually requires special hooks in glibc. The Emacs you know and love is this dumped image loaded back into memory, continuing from where it left off just after it was compiled. Regardless of your own feelings on the matter, you have to admit this is a very lispy thing to do.

There are two notable costs to Emacs’ dumper:

  1. The dumped image contains hard-coded memory addresses. This means Emacs can’t be a Position Independent Executable (PIE). It can’t take advantage of a security feature called Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR), which would increase the difficulty of exploiting some classes of bugs. This might be important to you if Emacs processes untrusted data, such as when it’s used as a mail client, a web server or generally parses data downloaded across the network.

  2. It’s not possible to cross-compile Emacs since it can only be dumped by running temacs on its target platform. As an experiment I’ve attempted to dump the Windows version of Emacs on Linux using Wine, but was unsuccessful.

The good news is that there’s a portable dumper in the works that makes this a lot less nasty. If you’re adventurous, you can already disable dumping and run temacs directly by setting CANNOT_DUMP=yes at compile time. Be warned, though, that a non-dumped Emacs takes several seconds, or worse, to initialize before it even begins loading your own configuration. It’s also somewhat buggy since it seems nobody ever runs it this way productively.

The other major way Emacs users have worked around slow loading is aggressive use of lazy loading, generally via autoloads. The major package interactive entry points are defined ahead of time as stub functions. These stubs, when invoked, load the full package, which overrides the stub definition, then finally the stub re-invokes the new definition with the same arguments.

To further assist with lazy loading, an evaluated defvar form will not override an existing global variable binding. This means you can, to a certain extent, configure a package before it’s loaded. The package will not clobber any existing configuration when it loads. This also explains the bizarre interfaces for the various hook functions, like add-hook and run-hooks. These accept symbols — the names of the variables — rather than values of those variables as would normally be the case. The add-to-list function does the same thing. It’s all intended to cooperate with lazy loading, where the variable may not have been defined yet.


Sometimes this isn’t enough and you need some some configuration to take place after the package has been loaded, but without forcing it to load early. That is, you need to tell Emacs “evaluate this code after this particular package loads.” That’s where eval-after-load comes into play, except for its fatal flaw: it takes the word “eval” completely literally.

The first argument to eval-after-load is the name of a package. Fair enough. The second argument is a form that will be passed to eval after that package is loaded. Now hold on a minute. The general rule of thumb is that if you’re calling eval, you’re probably doing something seriously wrong, and this function is no exception. This is completely the wrong mechanism for the task.

The second argument should have been a function — either a (sharp quoted) symbol or a function object. And then instead of eval it would be something more sensible, like funcall. Perhaps this improved version would be named call-after-load or run-after-load.

The big problem with passing an s-expression is that it will be left uncompiled due to being quoted. I’ve talked before about the importance of evaluating your lambdas. eval-after-load not only encourages badly written Emacs Lisp, it demands it.

;;; BAD!
(eval-after-load 'simple-httpd
                 '(push '("c" . "text/plain") httpd-mime-types))

This was all corrected in Emacs 25. If the second argument to eval-after-load is a function — the result of applying functionp is non-nil — then it uses funcall. There’s also a new macro, with-eval-after-load, to package it all up nicely.

;;; Better (Emacs >= 25 only)
(eval-after-load 'simple-httpd
  (lambda ()
    (push '("c" . "text/plain") httpd-mime-types)))

;;; Best (Emacs >= 25 only)
(with-eval-after-load 'simple-httpd
  (push '("c" . "text/plain") httpd-mime-types))

Though in both of these examples the compiler will likely warn about httpd-mime-types not being defined. That’s a problem for another day.

A workaround

But what if you need to use Emacs 24, as was the situation that sparked this article? What can we do with the bad version of eval-after-load? We could situate a lambda such that it’s evaluated, but then smuggle the resulting function object into the form passed to eval-after-load, all using a backquote.

;;; Note: this is subtly broken
(eval-after-load 'simple-httpd
    ,(lambda ()
       (push '("c" . "text/plain") httpd-mime-types)))

When everything is compiled, the backquoted form evalutes to this:

(funcall #[0 <bytecode> [httpd-mime-types ("c" . "text/plain")] 2])

Where the second value (#[...]) is a byte-code object. However, as the comment notes, this is subtly broken. A cleaner and correct way to solve all this is with a named function. The damage caused by eval-after-load will have been (mostly) minimized.

(defun my-simple-httpd-hook ()
  (push '("c" . "text/plain") httpd-mime-types))

(eval-after-load 'simple-httpd
  '(funcall #'my-simple-httpd-hook))

But, let’s go back to the anonymous function solution. What was broken about it? It all has to do with evaluating function objects.

Evaluating function objects

So what happens when we evaluate an expression like the one above with eval? Here’s what it looks like again.

(funcall #[...])

First, eval notices it’s been given a non-empty list, so it’s probably a function call. The first argument is the name of the function to be called (funcall) and the remaining elements are its arguments. But each of these elements must be evaluated first, and the result of that evaluation becomes the arguments.

Any value that isn’t a list or a symbol is self-evaluating. That is, it evaluates to its own value:

(eval 10)
;; => 10

If the value is a symbol, it’s treated as a variable. If the value is a list, it goes through the function call process I’m describing (or one of a number of other special cases, such as macro expansion, lambda expressions, and special forms).

So, conceptually eval recurses on the function object #[...]. A function object is not a list or a symbol, so it’s self-evaluating. No problem.

;; Byte-code objects are self-evaluating

(let ((x (byte-compile (lambda ()))))
  (eq x (eval x)))
;; => t

What if this code wasn’t compiled? Rather than a byte-code object, we’d have some other kind of function object for the interpreter. Let’s examine the dynamic scope (shudder) case. Here, a lambda appears to evaluate to itself, but appearances can be deceiving:

(eval (lambda ())
;; => (lambda ())

However, this is not self-evaluation. Lambda expressions are not self-evaluating. It’s merely coincidence that the result of evaluating a lambda expression looks like the original expression. This is just how the Emacs Lisp interpreter is currently implemented and, strictly speaking, it’s an implementation detail that just so happens to be mostly compatible with byte-code objects being self-evaluating. It would be a mistake to rely on this.

Instead, dynamic scope lambda expression evaluation is idempotent. Applying eval to the result will return an equal, but not identical (eq), expression. In contrast, a self-evaluating value is also idempotent under evaluation, but with eq results.

;; Not self-evaluating:

(let ((x '(lambda ())))
  (eq x (eval x)))
;; => nil

;; Evaluation is idempotent:

(let ((x '(lambda ())))
  (equal x (eval x)))
;; => t

(let ((x '(lambda ())))
  (equal x (eval (eval x))))
;; => t

So, with dynamic scope, the subtly broken backquote example will still work, but only by sheer luck. Under lexical scope, the situation isn’t so lucky:

;;; -*- lexical-scope: t; -*-

(lambda ())
;; => (closure (t) nil)

These interpreted lambda functions are neither self-evaluating nor idempotent. Passing t as the second argument to eval tells it to use lexical scope, as shown below:

;; Not self-evaluating:

(let ((x '(lambda ())))
  (eq x (eval x t)))
;; => nil

;; Not idempotent:

(let ((x '(lambda ())))
  (equal x (eval x t)))
;; => nil

(let ((x '(lambda ())))
  (equal x (eval (eval x t) t)))
;; error: (void-function closure)

I can imagine an implementation of Emacs Lisp where dynamic scope lambda expressions are in the same boat, where they’re not even idempotent. For example:

;;; -*- lexical-binding: nil; -*-

(lambda ())
;; => (totally-not-a-closure ())

Most Emacs Lisp would work just fine under this change, and only code that makes some kind of logical mistake — where there’s nested evaluation of lambda expressions — would break. This essentially already happened when lots of code was quietly switched over to lexical scope after Emacs 24. Lambda idempotency was lost and well-written code didn’t notice.

There’s a temptation here for Emacs to define a closure function or special form that would allow interpreter closure objects to be either self-evaluating or idempotent. This would be a mistake. It would only serve as a hack that covers up logical mistakes that lead to nested evaluation. Much better to catch those problems early.

Solving the problem with one character

So how do we fix the subtly broken example? With a strategically placed quote right before the comma.

(eval-after-load 'simple-httpd
    ',(lambda ()
        (push '("c" . "text/plain") httpd-mime-types)))

So the form passed to eval-after-load becomes:

;; Compiled:
(funcall (quote #[...]))

;; Dynamic scope:
(funcall (quote (lambda () ...)))

;; Lexical scope:
(funcall (quote (closure (t) () ...)))

The quote prevents eval from evaluating the function object, which would be either needless or harmful. There’s also an argument to be made that this is a perfect situation for a sharp-quote (#'), which exists to quote functions.

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

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