11.12. One-Pointed Mind

As a student of Zen, I like the idea of a one-pointed mind: Do one thing at a time, and do it well.

This, indeed, is very much how UNIX® works as well. While a typical Windows® application is attempting to do everything imaginable (and is, therefore, riddled with bugs), a typical UNIX® program does only one thing, and it does it well.

The typical UNIX® user then essentially assembles his own applications by writing a shell script which combines the various existing programs by piping the output of one program to the input of another.

When writing your own UNIX® software, it is generally a good idea to see what parts of the problem you need to solve can be handled by existing programs, and only write your own programs for that part of the problem that you do not have an existing solution for.

11.12.1. CSV

I will illustrate this principle with a specific real-life example I was faced with recently:

I needed to extract the 11th field of each record from a database I downloaded from a web site. The database was a CSV file, i.e., a list of comma-separated values. That is quite a standard format for sharing data among people who may be using different database software.

The first line of the file contains the list of various fields separated by commas. The rest of the file contains the data listed line by line, with values separated by commas.

I tried awk, using the comma as a separator. But because several lines contained a quoted comma, awk was extracting the wrong field from those lines.

Therefore, I needed to write my own software to extract the 11th field from the CSV file. However, going with the UNIX® spirit, I only needed to write a simple filter that would do the following:

  • Remove the first line from the file;

  • Change all unquoted commas to a different character;

  • Remove all quotation marks.

Strictly speaking, I could use sed to remove the first line from the file, but doing so in my own program was very easy, so I decided to do it and reduce the size of the pipeline.

At any rate, writing a program like this took me about 20 minutes. Writing a program that extracts the 11th field from the CSV file would take a lot longer, and I could not reuse it to extract some other field from some other database.

This time I decided to let it do a little more work than a typical tutorial program would:

  • It parses its command line for options;

  • It displays proper usage if it finds wrong arguments;

  • It produces meaningful error messages.

Here is its usage message:

Usage: csv [-t<delim>] [-c<comma>] [-p] [-o <outfile>] [-i <infile>]

All parameters are optional, and can appear in any order.

The -t parameter declares what to replace the commas with. The tab is the default here. For example, -t; will replace all unquoted commas with semicolons.

I did not need the -c option, but it may come in handy in the future. It lets me declare that I want a character other than a comma replaced with something else. For example, -c@ will replace all at signs (useful if you want to split a list of email addresses to their user names and domains).

The -p option preserves the first line, i.e., it does not delete it. By default, we delete the first line because in a CSV file it contains the field names rather than data.

The -i and -o options let me specify the input and the output files. Defaults are stdin and stdout, so this is a regular UNIX® filter.

I made sure that both -i filename and -ifilename are accepted. I also made sure that only one input and one output files may be specified.

To get the 11th field of each record, I can now do:

% csv '-t;' data.csv | awk '-F;' '{print $11}'

The code stores the options (except for the file descriptors) in EDX: The comma in DH, the new separator in DL, and the flag for the -p option in the highest bit of EDX, so a check for its sign will give us a quick decision what to do.

Here is the code:

;;;;;;; csv.asm ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
; Convert a comma-separated file to a something-else separated file.
; Started:	31-May-2001
; Updated:	 1-Jun-2001
; Copyright (c) 2001 G. Adam Stanislav
; All rights reserved.

%include	'system.inc'

%define	BUFSIZE	2048

section	.data
fd.in	dd	stdin
fd.out	dd	stdout
usg	db	'Usage: csv [-t<delim>] [-c<comma>] [-p] [-o <outfile>] [-i <infile>]', 0Ah
usglen	equ	$-usg
iemsg	db	"csv: Can't open input file", 0Ah
iemlen	equ	$-iemsg
oemsg	db	"csv: Can't create output file", 0Ah
oemlen	equ	$-oemsg

section .bss
ibuffer	resb	BUFSIZE
obuffer	resb	BUFSIZE

section	.text
align 4
	push	dword iemlen
	push	dword iemsg
	push	dword stderr
	push	dword 1		; return failure

align 4
	push	dword oemlen
	push	dword oemsg
	push	dword stderr
	push	dword 2

align 4
	push	dword usglen
	push	dword usg
	push	dword stderr
	push	dword 3

align 4
global	_start
	add	esp, byte 8	; discard argc and argv[0]
	mov	edx, (',' << 8) | 9

	pop	ecx
	or	ecx, ecx
	je	near .init		; no more arguments

	; ECX contains the pointer to an argument
	cmp	byte [ecx], '-'
	jne	usage

	inc	ecx
	mov	ax, [ecx]

	cmp	al, 'o'
	jne	.i

	; Make sure we are not asked for the output file twice
	cmp	dword [fd.out], stdout
	jne	usage

	; Find the path to output file - it is either at [ECX+1],
	; i.e., -ofile --
	; or in the next argument,
	; i.e., -o file

	inc	ecx
	or	ah, ah
	jne	.openoutput
	pop	ecx
	jecxz	usage

	push	dword 420	; file mode (644 octal)
	push	dword 0200h | 0400h | 01h
	push	ecx
	jc	near oerr

	add	esp, byte 12
	mov	[fd.out], eax
	jmp	short .arg

	cmp	al, 'i'
	jne	.p

	; Make sure we are not asked twice
	cmp	dword [fd.in], stdin
	jne	near usage

	; Find the path to the input file
	inc	ecx
	or	ah, ah
	jne	.openinput
	pop	ecx
	or	ecx, ecx
	je near usage

	push	dword 0		; O_RDONLY
	push	ecx
	jc	near ierr		; open failed

	add	esp, byte 8
	mov	[fd.in], eax
	jmp	.arg

	cmp	al, 'p'
	jne	.t
	or	ah, ah
	jne	near usage
	or	edx, 1 << 31
	jmp	.arg

	cmp	al, 't'		; redefine output delimiter
	jne	.c
	or	ah, ah
	je	near usage
	mov	dl, ah
	jmp	.arg

	cmp	al, 'c'
	jne	near usage
	or	ah, ah
	je	near usage
	mov	dh, ah
	jmp	.arg

align 4
	sub	eax, eax
	sub	ebx, ebx
	sub	ecx, ecx
	mov	edi, obuffer

	; See if we are to preserve the first line
	or	edx, edx
	js	.loop

	; get rid of the first line
	call	getchar
	cmp	al, 0Ah
	jne	.firstline

	; read a byte from stdin
	call	getchar

	; is it a comma (or whatever the user asked for)?
	cmp	al, dh
	jne	.quote

	; Replace the comma with a tab (or whatever the user wants)
	mov	al, dl

	call	putchar
	jmp	short .loop

	cmp	al, '"'
	jne	.put

	; Print everything until you get another quote or EOL. If it
	; is a quote, skip it. If it is EOL, print it.
	call	getchar
	cmp	al, '"'
	je	.loop

	cmp	al, 0Ah
	je	.put

	call	putchar
	jmp	short .qloop

align 4
	or	ebx, ebx
	jne	.fetch

	call	read

	dec	ebx

	jecxz	.read
	call	write

	push	dword BUFSIZE
	mov	esi, ibuffer
	push	esi
	push	dword [fd.in]
	add	esp, byte 12
	mov	ebx, eax
	or	eax, eax
	je	.done
	sub	eax, eax

align 4
	call	write		; flush output buffer

	; close files
	push	dword [fd.in]

	push	dword [fd.out]

	; return success
	push	dword 0

align 4
	inc	ecx
	cmp	ecx, BUFSIZE
	je	write

align 4
	jecxz	.ret	; nothing to write
	sub	edi, ecx	; start of buffer
	push	ecx
	push	edi
	push	dword [fd.out]
	add	esp, byte 12
	sub	eax, eax
	sub	ecx, ecx	; buffer is empty now

Much of it is taken from hex.asm above. But there is one important difference: I no longer call write whenever I am outputting a line feed. Yet, the code can be used interactively.

I have found a better solution for the interactive problem since I first started writing this chapter. I wanted to make sure each line is printed out separately only when needed. After all, there is no need to flush out every line when used non-interactively.

The new solution I use now is to call write every time I find the input buffer empty. That way, when running in the interactive mode, the program reads one line from the user's keyboard, processes it, and sees its input buffer is empty. It flushes its output and reads the next line. The Dark Side of Buffering

This change prevents a mysterious lockup in a very specific case. I refer to it as the dark side of buffering, mostly because it presents a danger that is not quite obvious.

It is unlikely to happen with a program like the csv above, so let us consider yet another filter: In this case we expect our input to be raw data representing color values, such as the red, green, and blue intensities of a pixel. Our output will be the negative of our input.

Such a filter would be very simple to write. Most of it would look just like all the other filters we have written so far, so I am only going to show you its inner loop:

	call	getchar
	not	al		; Create a negative
	call	putchar
	jmp	short .loop

Because this filter works with raw data, it is unlikely to be used interactively.

But it could be called by image manipulation software. And, unless it calls write before each call to read, chances are it will lock up.

Here is what might happen:

  1. The image editor will load our filter using the C function popen().

  2. It will read the first row of pixels from a bitmap or pixmap.

  3. It will write the first row of pixels to the pipe leading to the fd.in of our filter.

  4. Our filter will read each pixel from its input, turn it to a negative, and write it to its output buffer.

  5. Our filter will call getchar to fetch the next pixel.

  6. getchar will find an empty input buffer, so it will call read.

  7. read will call the SYS_read system call.

  8. The kernel will suspend our filter until the image editor sends more data to the pipe.

  9. The image editor will read from the other pipe, connected to the fd.out of our filter so it can set the first row of the output image before it sends us the second row of the input.

  10. The kernel suspends the image editor until it receives some output from our filter, so it can pass it on to the image editor.

At this point our filter waits for the image editor to send it more data to process, while the image editor is waiting for our filter to send it the result of the processing of the first row. But the result sits in our output buffer.

The filter and the image editor will continue waiting for each other forever (or, at least, until they are killed). Our software has just entered a race condition.

This problem does not exist if our filter flushes its output buffer before asking the kernel for more input data.

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