Mike Schaeffer's Blog

January 20, 2008

The other day, I had the following (abbreviated) dialog with my little Scheme interpreter:

scheme> (intern! 'xyzzy2 (find-package "keyword"))
; Fatal Error: Assertation Failed: STRINGP(pname) @ (oblist.cpp:451)

scheme> (intern! 12)
; Fatal Error: Assertation Failed: STRINGP(sym_name) @ (oblist.cpp:269)

Needless to say, 'Fatal errors' aren't good things, and fatal errors in intern!, a core function, are even worse. Without going into too many details, the first call should be returning successfully, and the second should be throwing a runtime type check error. However, the implementation of intern! wasn't checking argument types and passing invalid arguments into lower layers of the interpreter's oblist (symbol table) code, which died with an assertation failure.

To put this in perspective, my implentation of intern! is about five years old, and something that I thought to be a fairly reliable piece of code. At the very least, I didn't think it was susceptable to something as simple as a type checking error that would crash the entire interpreter. Of course, when I looked at my test suite, there wasn't a set of tests for intern!. That might have something to do with it, don't you think?

Here are the morals I'm taking from this little story:

  • Do not assume something works, unless you have a complete test suite for it. (Even then be wary, because your test suite is probably not complete.)
  • Shoot for more than 60% code coverage on your test cases.
  • Don't write your own interpreter, because there are probably hundreds of other bugs just like this one. :-)