Posted on 5 minute read

I recently enjoyed participating in a discussion about recursion in R on the new RStudio Community site, and I thought to inaugurate my blog with a post inspired by the discussion.

R supports recursive functions, but does not optimize tail recursive functions the way some other languages do. Fortunately, with a mechanism known as a trampoline, the R programmer can implement something like the optimization manually and with very little code.

To understand trampolines, one must first understand the mechanics of function calls and recursion.

The Call Stack

As in many other languages, functions in R may call themselves. For example, here is a recursive function that decrements its argument until 0 is reached:

This function has no problem with small values of n:

> countdown(10)
[1] "done"
> countdown(100)
[1] "done"
> countdown(1000)
[1] "done

Unfortunately, when n is big enough, an error is raised:

> countdown(10000)
Error: C stack usage  7969236 is too close to the limit

The problem here is that the top-most invocation of the countdown function, the one we called with countdown(10000), can’t return until countdown(9999) returned, which can’t return until countdown(9998) returned, and so on.

R keeps track of all of these calls in a data structure called the call stack or sometimes just the stack. The stack contains references to all outstanding function calls, recursive or not.

Since the stack is stored in memory, and since computers only have so much memory, the number of nested calls that can occur in a program is limited.

If we want to decrement a number 10000 or more times and print something when we’re done, we have to do it a different way. That way is to use a loop.

Loops

Here’s the countdown function using a loop instead of recursion:

It doesn’t overflow the stack:

> countdown(10000)
[1] "done"

The new countdown contains the same essential pieces as the recursive version: the n > 0 test, decrementing n, and returning "done" at the end. The pieces are just slightly differently arranged so that countdown doesn’t need to call itself.

If it does what we want, and looks only slightly different than the recursive version… why did we care about recursion again?

Well, maybe we don’t. The choice to use recursion is a stylistic one with arguable benefits. People with a mathematical bent seem to enjoy it. So do I, usually.

Forgoing a debate of the merits of recursive style, let’s assume we want it, and continue on to trampolines: a means to stack-friendly recursive functions.

Trampoline

A trampoline is a function or set of functions that together give us the tools we need to write code in a recursive style, in a way that doesn’t overflow the stack. Here’s an awesome trampoline by Jim Hester:

Using it, countdown now looks like this:

It’s very close stylistically to the original recursive version, but has no stack issues:

> countdown(10000)
[1] "done"

The trampoline works because it’s thin veneer over a regular loop. Compared to our direct loop version of countdown, the body of the trampoline’s while is parameterized by the f function instead of being hard-coded.

The only new requirement of this re-arrangement is that the body, or the f function, return recur instead of calling itself if it wants to keep going.

In languages that perform this optimization automatically, applicable cases are recognized by the compiler and the recursive code is rewritten as a loop. Compilers that do this are said to perform TCO, where TCO stands for tail-call optimization.

Tail call conversion

Trampolines only apply to singly-recursive functions that call themselves in tail position, but many algorithms commonly expressed do not meet these criteria. For example, here’s a recursive factorial function in R that can’t immediately be trampolined:

Note: It probably wouldn’t make sense to trampoline this function without other modifications first, because n is coerced to the numeric class if it wasn’t already. For medium-sized n, the numeric (double precision) n overflows to Inf before the stack overflows. The gmp library might be a way to produce the necessary large integers. I’ll use factorial anyway because it’s a compact function and the transformation is clear.

The “tail” of factorial is the expression n*factorial(n-1), which places a call to factorial on the stack before returning. This is exactly the operation that eventually leads to stack overflow and that we need to eliminate.

The way forward is to introduce an accumulator, or a variable to store intermediate state between calls. It’s a step towards an explicit loop, but with R’s named and default argument support, can be done in a decidedly un-loopy way:

Instead of relying on a recursive call for the number to multiply n by, we store it explicitly in the prod argument and pass it along. In this way the running product is maintained across invocations and the stack doesn’t need to grow.

Of course, in R, the stack does grow, but now we’ve refactored the function sufficiently enough to apply trampoline. Let’s do that:

Mutual recursion

Jim’s trampoline is really efficient, but can’t handle interdependent, mutually recursive functions. These are functions that call one another.

Arrangements like this don’t come up much in my experience, and require a different kind of trampoline, and so I generally prefer solutions like Jim’s. One type of program where mutual recursion seems to come up is in parsers.

But just for completeness, here’s a trampoline function and two mutually recursive functions from SICP:

Conclusion

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed! In summary:

  • A certain kind of recursive function, tail recursive, can be mechanically transformed into a loop and so not consume stack space.
  • In languages that don’t perform the transformation automatically, it can be applied manually by the programmer using a trampoline.
  • Some recursive functions can be transformed to tail recursive functions with the introduction of accumulator variables, which are facilitated by R’s support for named arguments.
  • Mutually-recursive functions can also be trampolined.