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watcher - Record Function State During Evaluation

Overview

A mechanism to record function state during evaluation for later analysis. Variable values and meta data are recorded for each ‘top-level’ call. Top-level calls are, roughly speaking, distinct R expressions that are visible directly in the source of the R function.

This is package is experimental, rough around the edges, and not currently intended for CRAN publication. It has no tests, and was built with expediency rather than robustness as the guiding principle. The API may change completely in future iterations if there are any. More likely there will be no future updates to the project, except in the unlikely case it garners substantial interest from others.

See the issues page for known limitations.

Usage

watcher works by “instrumenting” a target function. Consider a simple function that adds the integers up to n:

seq_sum <- function(n) {
  x <- 0
  for(i in seq_len(n)) {
    x <- x + i
  }
  x
}
res0 <- seq_sum(10)
res0

## [1] 55

We can make an instrumented version of it, which will behave mostly as the original except that the variable values at each top-level evaluation step are attached to the result as the “watch.data” attribute:

seq_sum_w <- watcher::watch(seq_sum)
res1 <- seq_sum_w(10)
all.equal(res0, res1, check.attributes=FALSE)

## [1] TRUE

watch.dat0 <- attr(res1, 'watch.data')
str(watch.dat0[1:2])

## List of 2
##  $ :List of 2
##   ..$ x: num 0
##   ..$ n: num 10
##   ..- attr(*, "line")= int 2
##  $ :List of 3
##   ..$ i: int 1
##   ..$ x: num 1
##   ..$ n: num 10
##   ..- attr(*, "line")= int 4

Each step of the function evaluation is recorded as a list element. This is a bit awkward to deal with so we can use simplify_data to make the data more accessible. For example, scalar variables are turned into vectors and returned as members of the “.scalar” data frame in the simplified list.

watch.dat1 <- watcher::simplify_data(watch.dat0)[['.scalar']]
head(watch.dat1, 2)

##   .id .line x  n  i
## 1   1     2 0 10 NA
## 2   2     4 1 10  1

One possible visualization is to plot variable values vs. evaluation step (.id):

watch.melt <- reshape2::melt(watch.dat1[c('.id', 'x', 'i')], id.vars='.id')
suppressPackageStartupMessages(library(ggplot2))
ggplot(watch.melt, aes(x=.id, y=value, color=variable)) +
  geom_point()

Code And Data

With a little work we can combine the line information with the function data as we do here with an animation of the insertion sort algorithm:

For more details on how this is done see the vignette (vignette('watcher', package='watcher')).

Possible Improvements

  • Handle nested/recursive calls. Conceptually this isn’t too difficult: we just need to add a call that checks .res for the watch.* attributes after each top level statement. Simplification / visualization will be another matter.
  • Protect the symbols used in tracking (i.e. .res, .line, .id) to avoid conflicts with existing variables of the same name (or at least check for conflict).
  • Automate more of what can be automated, particularly the code / plot juxtaposition.
  • Optimize code; currently we’ve made no effort to make the code efficient.

Acknowledgements

  • Jim Hester for the instrumentation concept which I borrowed from covr; if you are interested in writing your own instrumented code please base it off of his and not mine as I just threw something together quickly with little thought.
  • Thomas Lin Pedersen for gganimate which I used for the insertion sort animation.
  • Hadley Wickham for ggplot.

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