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Recommended to Wolfram Research

  • To: mathgroup at
  • Subject: Recommended to Wolfram Research
  • From: Scott Perkins <perkins at>
  • Date: Sun, 10 May 92 01:21:22 CDT

>Date: Wed, 6 May 1992 09:52:07 -0500
>From: "Theodore W. Gray" <guam!me at>
>To: perkins at
>Subject: Stack overflow
>As for things Apple could or could not do to improve performance, 
>there are a lot.  For one thing, the virtual memory swapping speed in
>System 7 is very slow.  For another, having to decide ahead of time
>how much memory to allow Mathematica to ever use tends to cause
>people to allot less memory that is going to be needed.  If 
>Mathematica could grow its partition as needed, you would be much
>less likely to run out of memory.  Not that this excuses crashing on
>out of memory condition, which should never happen, but still it
>would make you much more likely to get an answer.  (Even if we were
>all perfect superhumans, Mathematica would still not be able to give
>a correct answer without enough memory.)

Thanks for the response.  I have a few suggestions you may want to test:

Under System 7 it is possible for Mathematica to use memory beyond the minimum 
partition established at launch time (provided that there is extra memory 
available).  Apple calls this temporary memory, since it is not permanently 
reserved for your application.  This still doesn't solve the problem of having a 
fixed size stack, but it might help avoid the need to shut down the program to 
adjust it's memory. This can be annoying if you create an animation which takes 
a long time and then you discover you need more memory and have to run it again 
from the beginning.  

Another good idea would be to make the graphics purgeable into a temporary disk 
file.  Having to keep the whole notebook in memory is a limitation on notebook 
size, program speed, and general functionality, and will cause lots of segment 
swapping and VM swapping, of which you have complained about the speed.  No VM 
system can match the efficiency of the programmer who intelligently purges 
unneeded resources.

I feel that reliability is more important than speed.  You may want to poll the 
user community to see how they feel about this.  It would be very impressive if 
Mathematica were the only symbolic math product on the market that NEVER 

In any case it would be better if Mathematica had some kind of stack checking of 
it's own, since the MacOS kills Mathematica the moment the stack overflows.  
There is no chance to save your work after a stack overflow.  I have a 
recommendation on a way to implement this that would not slow things down very 

MacOS tracks stack overflows by a sniffer mechanism that runs 60 times per 
second.  This sniffer is a simple routine that compares the stack limit address 
with the current stack pointer.  If the pointer is greater than the limit you 
get the bomb box. 

You can use the same approach.  Make a determination about what would be a good 
amount of "cushion" space in your stack. Then check your stack pointer during 
the main event loop of Mathematica to see if it has entered the cushion range.  
The amount of cushion would be based on how fast the stack can fill up between 
calls to the main loop and this depends on the speed of the CPU to some extent, 
but also on the design of Mathematica's internal multi-tasking. If you can 
guarantee a limited number of recursions between calls to the scheduler 
(something you must already be doing), then your home-free.  You will have 
protection and you are not making the check before every recursive call.   To 
really make this plan work the stack cushion may have to be pretty big, say 256K 
or so.  but that is a small amount of memory to trade in return for reliability.   

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to set recursion limit to infinity without 
worrying about a crash?  Then you could recurse to your heart's content and if 
you run out of space it's no big deal.

Another user on the list sent me a piece of sample code that demonstrates this:

bikini [65] roach> math20
Mathematica 2.0 for NeXT
Copyright 1988-91 Wolfram Research, Inc.
 -- NeXT graphics initialized --

In[1]:= $RecursionLimit=Infinity;$IterationLimit=Infinity;

In[2]:= Foo[n_]:=

In[3]:= Foo[1]
/usr2/users/roach/math20: 842 Memory fault
bikini [66] roach>

Notice that this was run on the NeXT, not the Macintosh.  Though this example 
was deliberate, it's just not right for the user to be able to type something 
that makes the program crash.

At Vanderbilt we have many crashes that occur when a working function is re-run 
using larger arguments.  One professor was demonstrating to a class how the 
output of a function changes based on the input arguments.  He tried a larger 
argument each time, but finally a stack overflow occurred.  He was using a 
MacIIfx with 32 MB of real RAM, with Mathematica 2.0 using about 16 MB or so. I 
won't get into the details because this bug report has already been addressed.  
But I appeal to you to recognize the need for a better approach to stack useage.  

Thanks for listening,

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