Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Golang gotcha #1: Taking references to loop variables

The indomitable Smiler at Alton Towers
Holder of the world record for the most inversions, at 14

A colleague of mine ran into a bit of a golang gotcha recently. This relates to taking references / pointers to loop variables. I was already aware of the danger of this in the usage of closures. Closures access all variables in scope, implicitly by reference, this is in contrast to a function argument which is passed by value, this is demonstrated in the following example:


The closure in the for loop evaluates a reference to i rather than a copy of it, thus as i changes, the value that each goro has a reference to changes. In contrast, passing i as an argument to a function takes a copy. In general I dislike closures, they have a dirty scope, it is unlikely they use all variables in their scope, thus they have low cohesion and are harder to reason about. In Golang it is idiomatic to favour the explicit over the implicit, if you need access to a variable, you are better off explicitly passing it as an argument.

Now, onto the example which inspired this post:


In this case, similarly to the previous example we take a reference to a loop variable. However, the loop variable is reused in the further iterations of the loop. Thus our reference is now to a different value. It pays to be careful with loop variables and not to take references to them! An alternative solution as demonstrated in the example is to take the index or to take a copy.

Hopefully this post has illustrated some of the dangers of taking references to loop variables.

PS. I went on the Smiler last year, it really is quite good.

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