Chapter I: The pull/push conundrum

Looping collections

It all starts with looping. Let's consider two kinds of data structures you can loop through: trees and arrays. In an array, everything exists sequentially in a line, so looping is easy. A tree has a non-linear branching structure, so looping it isn't so straightforward. Also, terminology note: when you loop through a collection, we'll say that you're the consumer, while the collection is the producer.

Pull mode

As data flows from producer to consumer, "pull mode" means that the consumer initiates the transfer, while the producer remains passive:

for (var i=0; i<array.length; i++) {

Looping the array was fairly easy. Looping a tree is more complicated. Let's assume it's a binary search tree. A bit of googling turns up an algorithm we can use:

var queue = tree.root ? [tree.root] : [];
while (queue.length > 0) {
  var node = queue.shift();
  if (node.left) { queue.push(node.left); }
  if (node.right) { queue.push(node.right); }

That's quite a pile of code to have to memorize and type out just to loop a collection, but since I'm initiating the transfer, the task falls to me.

Push mode

Which raises the question: why should I initiate the transfer? Why not let producer do it? Hence push mode, in which the collection has a forEach() method that accepts a callback, which it uses to push values to us, while we sit back and passively receive the values.

array.forEach(elmt => visit(elmt));
tree.forEach(elmt => visit(elmt));

Much better. The various state tracking and algorithmic details are encapsulated away from us inside the forEach() method, which is a great separation of concerns.

Unfortunate tradeoffs

So push mode wins, right? Sadly, by switching from pull to push, we lost some power and flexibility:

Those behaviors could be simulated using some sort of pre-agreed-upon signaling mechanism between the callback and its runner, but by then we've begun to re-invent the wheel, since the language gives us those capabilities for free with loops.

Next: Chapter II: The for/of loop →

Copyright © 2016 by Greg Reimer (github, twitter). Submit issues to the GitHub issues page.