Spring 2017

The hills above Salt Lake City are finally turning green.

Earlier in the year my family took a short trip to southeast Utah but it rained so much one day that I didn’t think the dirt roads would be passable, so we visited Ratio, a land art installation near Green River UT.

The next day started out foggy and cold, here’s an unassuming stretch of Muddy Creek shortly before it joins the Fremont River to become the Dirty Devil.

Later it cleared up and we explored the San Rafael Desert. This track didn’t seem to have seen much traffic over the winter.

In a nearby canyon I found a grinding stone that someone had stashed between 700 and a few thousand years ago.

Later in spring it turned out my kids’ school vacations were misaligned so instead of getting out into the desert as a family I took each kid individually on a short trip. Here we’re partway up a trail that was used in the first half of the 20th century to give sheep access to a remote mesa top.

The weather was imperfect but showy; here the Henry Mountains, the last part of the lower 48 to be mapped and explored, are getting stormed on. I feel like deserts are supposed to be dry but it seems like we get rained on on almost every trip.

Wind and grass.

North Caineville Mesa and Factory Butte.

Indian paintbrush.

This is the kind of photograph you only seem to get when you’re soaked from one rain storm and another is approaching. We had gotten the tent up during the first shower, so were mostly dry and happy. I accidentally grabbed a one-person tent for this trip so the ten year old and I had a pretty cozy night.

During his break, my older son and I explored some areas around Escalante, UT. This Anasazi granary under an arch is something I’d been wanting to see for a long time, but had previously been thwarted by logistical problems such as a long, rugged drive.

The masonry is in about as good condition as any I’ve seen, and notice the sticks at the top of the opening.

We also ran across some less well-preserved granaries.

I always wonder about the circumstances that lead to this kind of thing being abandoned, perhaps it broke inside an animal or when it hit the ground after a miss? Often you find broken arrowheads along with chippings indicating a site where people sat and worked, but this point was all by itself.

Afternoon light in Alvey Wash, a large canyon draining the Kaiparowits Plateau.

The next day we visited the Red Breaks canyon system, which has some spectacular slots filled with nice sandstone and small climbing problems. Not shown: climbing problems and freezing, waist-deep water.

A bizarre landform in the Red Breaks area that is often called the Escalante Volcano (though it is not, as far as I know, of volcanic origin). It’s hard to tell from this photo but this thing is enormous; the sandstone dome in the center of the “volcano” is about 80 feet tall.

A neat area of petrified logs in Egg Canyon off the Burr Trail near Boulder, UT.

Some of the logs bridged the waterway.

I hope everyone else had a nice spring too!

Taming Undefined Behavior in LLVM

Earlier I wrote that Undefined Behavior != Unsafe Programming, a piece intended to convince you that there’s nothing inherently wrong with undefined behavior as long as it isn’t in developer-facing parts of the system.

Today I want to talk about a new paper about undefined behavior in LLVM that’s going to be presented in June at PLDI 2017. I’m an author of this paper, but not the main one. This work isn’t about debating the merits of undefined behavior, its goal is to describe and try to fix some unintended consequences of the design of undefined behavior at the level of LLVM IR.

Undefined behavior in C and C++ is sort of like a bomb: either it explodes or it doesn’t. We never try to reason about undefined programs because a program becomes meaningless once it executes UB. LLVM IR contains this same kind of UB, which we’ll call “immediate UB.” It is triggered by bad operations such as an out-of-bounds store (which is likely to corrupt RAM) or a division by zero (which may cause the processor to trap).

Our problems start because LLVM also contains two kinds of “deferred UB” which don’t explode, but rather have a contained effect on the program. We need to reason about the meaning of these “slightly undefined” programs which can be challenging. There have been long threads on the LLVM developers’ mailing list going back and forth about this.

The first kind of deferred UB in LLVM is the undef value that acts like an uninitialized register: an undef evaluates to an arbitrary value of its type. Undef is useful because sometimes we want to say that a value doesn’t matter, for example because we know a location is going to be over-written later. If we didn’t have something like undef, we’d be forced to initialize locations like this to specific values, which costs space and time. So undef is basically a note to the compiler that it can choose whatever value it likes. During code generation, undef usually gets turned into “whatever was already in the register.”

Unfortunately, the semantics of undef don’t justify all of the optimizations that we’d like to perform on LLVM code. For example, consider this LLVM function:

define i1 @f(i32) {
  %2 = add nsw i32 %0, 1
  %3 = icmp sgt i32 %2, %0
  ret i1 %3

This is equivalent to “return x+1 > x;” in C and we’d like to be able to optimize it to “return true;”. In both languages the undefinedness of signed overflow needs to be recognized to make the optimization go. Let’s try to do that using undef. In this case the semantics of “add nsw” are to return undef if signed overflow occurs and to return the mathematical answer otherwise. So this example has two cases:

  1. The input is not INT_MAX, in which case the addition returns input + 1.
  2. The input is INT_MAX, in which case the addition returns undef.

In case 1 the comparison returns true. Can we make the comparison true for case 2, giving us the overall result that we want? Recall that undef resolves as an arbitrary value of its type. The compiler is allowed to choose this value. Alas, there’s no value of type i32 that is larger than INT_MAX, when we use a signed comparison. Thus, this optimization is not justified by the semantics of undef.

One choice we could make is to give up on performing this optimization (and others like it) at the LLVM level. The choice made by the LLVM developers, however, was to introduce a second, stronger, form of deferred UB called poison. Most instructions, taking a poison value on either input, evaluate to poison. If poison propagates to a program’s output, the result is immediate UB. Returning to the “x + 1 > x” example above, making “add nsw INT_MAX, 1” evaluate to poison allows the desired optimization: the resulting poison value makes the icmp also return poison. To justify the desired optimization we can observe that returning 1 is a refinement of returning poison. Another way to say the same thing is that we’re always allowed to make code more defined than it was, though of course we’re never allowed to make it less defined.

The most important optimizations enabled by deferred undefined behavior are those involving speculative execution such as hoisting loop-invariant code out of a loop. Since it is often difficult to prove that a loop executes at least once, loop-invariant code motion threatens to take a defined program where UB sits inside a loop that executes zero times and turn into into an undefined program. Deferred UB lets us go ahead and speculatively execute the code without triggering immediate UB. There’s no problem as long as the poisonous results don’t propagate somewhere that matters.

So far so good! Just to be clear: we can make the semantics of an IR anything we like. There will be no problem as long as:

  1. The front-ends correctly refine C, C++, etc. into IR.
  2. Every IR-level optimization implements a refinement.
  3. The backends correctly refine IR into machine code.

The problem is that #2 is hard. Over the years some very subtle mistakes have crept into the LLVM optimizer where different developers have made different assumptions about deferred UB, and these assumptions can work together to introduce bugs. Very few of these bugs can result in end-to-end miscompilation (where a well-formed source-level program is compiled to machine code that does the wrong thing) but even this can happen. We spent a lot of time trying to explain this clearly in the paper and I’m unlikely to do better here! But the details are all there in Section 3 of the paper. The point is that so far these bugs have resisted fixing: nobody has come up with a way to make everything consistent without giving up optimizations that the LLVM community is unwilling to give up.

The next part of the paper (Sections 4, 5, 6) introduces and evaluates our proposed fix, which is to remove undef, leaving only poison. To get undef-like semantics we introduce a new freeze instruction to LLVM. Freezing a normal value is a nop and freezing a poison value evaluates to an arbitrary value of the type. Every use of a given freeze instruction will produce the same value, but different freezes may give different values. The key is to put freezes in the right places. My colleagues have implemented a fork of LLVM 4.0 that uses freeze; we found that it more or less doesn’t affect compile times or the quality of the generated code.

We are in the process of trying to convince the LLVM community to adopt our proposed solution. The change is somewhat fundamental and so this is going to take some time. There are lots of details that need to be ironed out, and I think people are (rightfully) worried about subtle bugs being introduced during the transition. One secret weapon we have is Alive where Nuno has implemented the new semantics in the newsema branch and we can use this to test a large number of optimizations.

Finally, we noticed that there has been an interesting bit of convergent evolution in compiler IRs: basically all heavily optimizing AOT compilers (including GCC, MSVC, and Intel CC) have their own versions of deferred UB. The details differ from those described here, but the effect is the same: deferred UB gives the compiler freedom to perform useful transformations that would otherwise be illegal. The semantics of deferred UB in these compilers has not, as far as we know, been rigorously defined and so it is possible that they have issues analogous to those described here.

Fun at the UNIX Terminal Part 1

This post is aimed at kids, like the 6th graders who I was recently teaching about programming in Python. It is more about having fun than about learning, but I hope that if you enjoy playing around at the UNIX terminal, you’ll eventually learn to use this kind of system for real. Keep in mind this immortal scene from Jurassic Park.

To run the commands in this post, you’ll need a UNIX machine: either Linux or Mac OS X will work. You’ll also need the ability to install software. There are two options:

  • Install precompiled binaries using a package manager, I’ll give command lines for Homebrew on OS X and for Apt on Ubuntu Linux. You’ll need administrator access to run Apt or to install Homebrew, but you do not need administrator access to install packages after Homebrew has been installed. Other versions of Linux have their own package managers and they are all pretty easy to use.
  • Build a program from source and install it in your home directory. This does not require administrator access but it’s more work and I’m not going to go into the details, though I hope to do this in a later post.

ROT13 using tr

The tr utility should be installed by default on an OS X or Ubuntu machine. It translates the characters in a string into different characters according to rules that you provide. To learn more about tr (or any other command in this post) type this command (without typing the dollar sign):

$ man tr

This will show you the UNIX system’s built-in documentation for the command.

In this and subsequent examples, I’ll show text that you should type on a line starting with a dollar sign, which is the default UNIX prompt. Text printed by the system will be on lines not starting with a dollar sign.

We’re going to use tr to encrypt some text as ROT13, which simply moves each letter forward in the alphabet by 13 places, wrapping around from Z to A if necessary. Since there are 26 letters, encrypting twice using ROT13 gives back the original text. ROT13 is fun but you would not want to use it for actual secret information since it is trivial to decrypt. It is commonly used to make it hard for people to accidentally read spoilers when discussing things like movie plot twists.

Type this:

$ echo 'Hello this is a test' | tr 'A-Za-z' 'N-ZA-Mn-za-m'
Uryyb guvf vf n grfg

Now to decrypt:

$ echo 'Uryyb guvf vf n grfg' | tr 'A-Za-z' 'N-ZA-Mn-za-m'
Hello this is a test

Just two more things before moving on to the next command.

First, the UNIX pipe operator (the “|” character in the commands above, which looks a little bit like a piece of pipe) is plumbing for UNIX commands: it “pipes” the output of one command to the input of a second command. We’ll be using it quite a bit.

Second, how exactly did we tell tr to implement ROT13? Well, the first argument, ‘A-Za-z’, gives it a set of characters to work with. Here A-Z stands for A through Z and a-z stands for a through z (computers treat the capital and lowercase versions of letters as being separate characters). So we are telling tr that it is going to translate any letter of the alphabet and leave any other character (spaces, punctuation, numbers, etc.) alone. The second argument to tr, ‘N-ZA-Mn-za-m’, specifies a mapping for the characters in the first argument. So the first character in the first argument (A) will be translated to the first character of the second argument (N), and so on. We could just as easily use tr to put some text in all uppercase or all lowercase, you might try this as an exercise.


Tragically, this command isn’t installed by default on a Mac or on an Ubuntu Linux machine. On a Mac you can install it like this:

brew install fortune

If this doesn’t work then you need to get Homebrew setup, try this page.

On Ubuntu try this:

sudo apt-get install fortune

The “sudo” command will ask you to enter your password before running the next command, apt-get, with elevated privileges, in order to install the fortune program in a system directory that you are normally not allowed to modify. This will only work if your machine has been specifically configured to allow you to run programs with elevated privileges.

In any case, if you can’t get fortune installed, don’t worry about it, just proceed to the next command.

Fortune randomly chooses from a large collection of mildly humorous quotes:

$ fortune 
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
		-- Mark Twain


This command is installed by default on a Mac; on Ubuntu you’ll need to type “sudo apt install gnustep-gui-runtime”.

Type this:

$ say "you just might be a genius"

Make sure you have sound turned up.

The Linux say command, for whatever reason, requires its input to be a command line argument, so we cannot use a pipe to send fortune’s output to say. So this command will not work on Linux (though it does work on OS X):

$ fortune | say

However, there’s another trick we can use: we can turn the output of one command into the command-line arguments for another command by putting the first command in parentheses and prefixing this with a dollar sign. So this will cause your computer to read a fortune aloud:

$ say $(fortune)

Another way to accomplish the same thing is to put fortune’s output into a file and then ask say to read the file aloud:

$ fortune > my_fortune.txt
$ say -f my_fortune.txt

Here the greater-than symbol “redirects” the output of fortune into a file. Redirection works like piping but the output goes to a file instead of into another program. It is super useful.

If you run “say” on both a Linux box and a Mac you will notice that the Mac’s speech synthesis routines are better.


The extremely important cowsay command uses ASCII art to show you a cow saying something. Use it like this:

$ fortune | cowsay
/ What is mind? No matter. What is \
| matter? Never mind.              |
|                                  |
\ -- Thomas Hewitt Key, 1799-1875  /
        \   ^__^
         \  (oo)\_______
            (__)\       )\/\
                ||----w |
                ||     ||

Both Homebrew and Apt have a package called “cowsay” that you can install using the same kind of command line you’ve already been using.

Cowsay has some exciting options, such as “-d” which makes the cow appear to be dead:

$ fortune | cowsay -d
/ Laws are like sausages. It's better not \
| to see them being made.                 |
|                                         |
\ -- Otto von Bismarck                    /
        \   ^__^
         \  (xx)\_______
            (__)\       )\/\
             U  ||----w |
                ||     ||

Use “man cowsay” to learn more.


Don’t install ponysay unless you feel that cowsay is too restrictive. Also, it isn’t available as a precompiled package. You can build it from source code by first installing the “git” package using apt-get or brew and then running the following commands:

$ git clone https://github.com/erkin/ponysay.git
$ cd ponysay
$ ./setup.py --freedom=partial --private install

This procedure puts ponysay into an odd location, but whatever. Here (assuming Linux, on a Mac you’ll need to pipe a different command’s output to ponysay) a cute pony tells us the prime factorization of a number:


Figlet (actually called FIGlet but that’s not what you type to run the command) prints text using large letters comprised of regular terminal characters. For example:

$ whoami | figlet
 _ __ ___  __ _  ___| |__  _ __ 
| '__/ _ \/ _` |/ _ \ '_ \| '__|
| | |  __/ (_| |  __/ | | | |   
|_|  \___|\__, |\___|_| |_|_|   

Figlet has lots of options for controlling the appearance of its output. For example, you can change the font:

$ echo 'hello Eddie' | figlet -f script
 _          _   _          ___                    
| |        | | | |        / (_)   |     |  o      
| |     _  | | | |  __    \__   __|   __|      _  
|/ \   |/  |/  |/  /  \_  /    /  |  /  |  |  |/  
|   |_/|__/|__/|__/\__/   \___/\_/|_/\_/|_/|_/|__/

Another command, toilet, is similar to figlet but has even more options. Install both of these programs using the same kinds of commands we’ve already been using to talk to package managers.


The UNIX “cat” program prints a file, or whatever is piped into it, to the terminal. Lolcat is similar but it prints the text in awesome colors:


The bb program doesn’t seem to be available from Homebrew, but on Ubuntu you can install it using “sudo apt-get install bb”. It is a seriously impressive ASCII art demo.


You know how lots of web sites want you to sign up using your name and address, but your parents hopefully have trained you not to reveal your identity online? Well, the rig utility can help, it creates a random identity:

$ rig
Juana Waters
647 Hamlet St
Austin, TX  78710
(512) xxx-xxxx

The zip codes and telephone area codes are even correct. For some reason rig will never generate an identity that lives in Utah.


The bc program is a calculator but unlike almost every other calculator you use, it can handle numbers of unlimited size (or, more precisely, numbers limited only by the amount of RAM in your computer) without losing precision. Try this:

$ echo '2 ^ 100' | bc

Unfortunately bc does not have a built-in factorial function but you can write one easily enough using bc’s built-in programming language. Start bc in interactive mode (this will happen by default if you don’t pipe any text into bc) by just typing “bc”. Then enter this code:

define fact(n) {
  if (n < 2) return 1;
  return n * fact(n - 1);

Now you can compute very large factorials:


While we're at it, you should figure out why the factorial of any large number contains a lot of trailing zeroes.


We've only scratched the surface, I'll share more entertaining UNIX commands in a followup post. Some of these programs I hadn't even heard of until recently, a bunch of people on Twitter gave me awesome suggestions that I've used to write this up. If you want to see a serious (but hilariously outdated) video about what you can do using the UNIX command line, check out this video in which one of the original creators of UNIX shows how to build a spell checker by piping together some simple commands.