Create Your Own Reality

I’ve been thinking about closures recently. Closures are really neat. And they’re not particularly hard to understand, at least at a summary level. But they’re often misunderstood because it’s hard to understand why they’re so powerful and why they’re so useful. For that, you need context. So let’s get into some Γ1!

Closures stem from a simple problem: How do I hide information, while still providing some form of access to it? Languages like C have two ways of allocating data: stack allocation and heap allocation. Stack allocation is very simple: you call a function, it allocates a predetermined amount of space (called a frame), and once the function is done being called, you automatically roll back up the stack and deallocate the memory. What’s nice about stack allocation is that it’s very hard to mess up. You can’t forget to free memory, you can’t access it once it’s been called. Most importantly, when you call into a library, you know what’s going to happen: stack frame gets allocated, stuff happens, stack gets rolled back up. The issue comes with sharing data that A. you don’t know the size of at compile time, and B. persists beyond a function call. For this, you need heap allocation.

Heap allocation is a little messier. You manually call some sort of allocater, in C stdlib it’s called malloc, with a requested amount of memory, then when you’re done, you manually call free and it frees the memory. The issue comes when you have a library or some unknown code that operates on the heap. Namely, you don’t know what’s going to happen! For all you know, the library could overwrite the memory. Or it could free it. Or just mess it up in some way. You can think of it as sending your memory into big, mysterious monolith that may or may not destroy it.

So what’s a smart developer like yourself to do? You create what’s called a closure. A closure stems from a simple idea: functions are values. This may seem a little weird, depending on the languages you’ve used. Nonetheless, bear with me. The first corollary to this simple idea is that functions can be returned from functions2. Again, a little odd. But what’s the big deal here? Well let’s take a look at this piece of code:

function foo() {
  var a = 10;
  return function() {
    console.log(a);
  }
}
var fn = foo();
fn();

What does this print? There’s two (somewhat) reasonable options: undefined (I’d also accept NullPointerException or an “a is undefined” error), or 10. The first one is tempting, especially according to the rules of stack allocation. After all, once foo has been called, the stack should be rolled up and the variables deallocated. Even if we assign the function that foo returns to a new variable, the function is trying to call a variable that no longer exists. And if this were true, we’d basically have function-values that are very much like C function pointers—basically just variable GOTOs. But what if we choose the other option? What if we break the rules here3. What if we change our reality?

The answer here is you get an innovation. You get something that changes programming forever. Seem overdramatic? Sure, but it’s also true. The first big deal is information hiding.

Imagine we have a dictionary that associates names to birthdays:

var birthdays = {
	"Alexei": "12 August 1904",
	"Olga": "15 November 1895",
	"Anastasia": "18 June 1901",
	"Nicholas": "18 May 1868"
};

Now imagine we pass it to a function mysteriousMonolith that we don’t know. This could be a library function or code written by coworkers or even gasp code you copied from StackOverflow.

// Nobody knows what goes on in there...
mysteriousMonolith(birthdays);

// Could print the birthdays, nothing, 
// or something completely different.
console.log(birthdays)

For all we know, the dictionary could have been eaten by the aliens inside the monolith. Or it could be turned into a gigantic space baby4.

Not ideal. Well, with closures we can do the following:

function createBirthdayLookup(birthdays) {
	return function(name) {
		birthdays[name];
	}
}


var lookup = createBirthdayLookup(birthdays);

Now, instead of passing our precious dictionary of birthdays to the mysterious monolith, we can pass a function.

Now, we can sleep easy by simply passing a closure:

mysteriousMonolith(lookup)
// Guaranteed to print the same as before
console.log(birthdays);

But this is only the beginning. The second big deal is where it gets really good.

function createPerson(name, age, height) {
	
	function getName() {
	  return name;
	}
	
	function getHeight() {
	  return height;
	}
	
	function getAge() {
	  return age;
	}
	
	return function(msg) {
	  switch(msg) {
		  case "getName":
			  return getName();
			  break;
		  case "getHeight":
			  return getHeight();
			  break;
		  case "getAge":
			  return getAge();
			  break;
	  }
	}
}

This may seem familiar5. Indeed, we can think of this function, createPerson, as creating an object! Now you’re probably wondering, “This can’t be an object! Where’s the class? Where’s the inheritance?“. And sure, in modern day programming, object oriented programming is expected to follow certain idioms. Objects are instantiated using classes, which are usually signified by a nice class keyword. The class is expected to inherit from a different class, etc, etc. But at its core, object oriented programming doesn’t have to have inheritance or fancy keywords. At their core, objects are simply closures that respond to messages. And besides, your class? Just a plain ol’ function called createPerson.6

The really really cool part about this is that closures aren’t something built into the computer. They’re not some physical law or some reaction discovered. They were an idea that people invented. People decided to break the laws of the stack. Except…the laws of the stack aren’t built into the computer either. In fact, the computer has no idea about all of these mumblings about stack and heap and their differences. To the computer, memory is just a big array. A really really big array, but that’s about it.

So who does know about these ideas? The language! Whether it’s a compiler, an interpreter or a compiler-interpreter, whatever implements the underlying language is the one to know all of these concepts and translate them into machine speak.

And that’s what’s so damn cool about language design. In the end, you’re creating your own reality.7 Want a world where closures exist? Build it. Want a world where memory safety is guaranteed? Go ahead and build it. Want a world where variables are hoisted and this behaves exactly the opposite of what you’d expect? Sure thing Mr. Eich! Go right ahead and build it.

So maybe the next time you have a problem that you’re struggling to solve, don’t just think about how to solve it. Think about how to change your reality.


  1. Lame type theory joke. Please ignore. [return]
  2. A second corollary is that functions don’t necessarily have to have names. This isn’t as important.

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  3. An interesting question to ask is what happens when you break these rules?

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  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXS8P0HksQo&t=1s [return]
  5. Yeah yeah, I know, there are more idiomatic ways of doing this, but I wanted to be explicit.

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  6. Fun exercise to the reader: add inheritance to closure-based classes. I don’t quite know how to do this either, so I’m interested to see what people do!

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  7. Not to mention, this is a pretty badass way of solving your problems. Got a problem? Make a reality where it doesn’t exist. How very Thanos of you.

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