Tag Archives: Key-Value Observing

Subtle pitfalls of doing things in -dealloc

Let me describe the setup for this issue.

Take a gobal (set property on a singleton object) list of objects which holds only weak references (in this case, if it held strong references, the objects would never lose their last retain and could never be deallocated, yes I know GC avoids it):

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Now consider a class which, as part of its initialization and deallocation, adds itself to and removes itself from this singleton’s container:

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This pattern is useful when you need to track every instance of a given class – in this case, my actual code maintains the set property as a property on the class object itself rather than a separate singleton, but the result is the same and I thought I’d use something more familiar for this example.

The first time you release an instance of ListedObject to the point of deallocation, you’ll crash during your next event loop.

Next event loop? Experienced Cocoa readers will immediately guess “autorelease pool”. And they’d be right. To debug this, I added backtrace_symbols_fd() calls to -retain and -release of the ListedObject class. This may seem strange versus using a GUI tool like Instruments’ “Object Allocation” template, but I’m old-fashioned and this was simple. The object was indeed being overreleased, with the extra release coming from the main event loop’s autorelease pool.

The cause is rather intricate. At the time of the deallocation, I had a registered key-value observation on the container property. So, when the object removed itself from the list, KVO called [NSSet setWithObject:removedObject] in order to pass it as part of the change dictionary to the observer callback. This naturally went on the autorelease pool. But oops, we were already in -dealloc of the removed object, so the retain the autoreleased set tried to add was a no-op. Finally, next time through the event loop, that set was freed by the autorelease pool, and tried to call -release on the removed object, but that object had already been fully deallocated. Crash!

Now, a purist will say “stop trying to do things in -dealloc!” Others would point out that GC would bypass this entire problem. Either way, I wanted a simple solution. The problem was an autorelease pool, so just add another one!

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KVO’s set is no longer deferred-release, and all is well.

As it happens, this uncovered an underlying issue in my code, a design flaw which essentially makes the entire debacle unnecessary because the list management needed to be in other methods rather than -init and -dealloc, but I thought it was an interesting note nonetheless.

Missions of the Reliant: Cleaning up the wreckage of the train crash

I’m back, and I didn’t give up on Missions! I’m sure there must be exactly one person out there who cares :-).

But seriously. I don’t have any new features to show at the moment, unfortunately. When I went to implement the laser cannon for the player, I realized I’d never be able to test it without something to fire at. I also realized the cannon itself would be useless without the target scanner since it has to lock onto a target. The scanner is also useless without something to scan. So, it was time to implement the base code for mobile enemies. Probably should’ve done that long ago, and here’s why…

As we all know, I’m using Objective-C to write this code. That means, among other things, that my code is object-oriented in nature. Up until this point, things like planets, starbases, and the player had all been entirely separate implementations. This is what Mike did with the original code. As always, what he did then was only sensible for the time and environment, but I can avoid a hell of a lot of code duplication by giving everything that exists in space a common superclass: a “Presence”. (Presences are themselves subclasses of the even more general “Responder”, which is used for everything that needs to process game happenings in any way, but that’s only a side note). As one can imagine, since I didn’t have the foresight to design the code this way to begin with, implementing it now required some significant refactoring.

Another issue cropped up halfway through the refactoring: The severe limitations of Apple’s built-in Key-Value Observing, which I use extensively throughout the code to avoid having to call “update this” and “update that” manually for every single affected object whenever something changes. For example, KVO doesn’t let you use blocks for callbacks, and if a superclass and a subclass both register for the same notification, there’s no way to manage the two independantly. Fortunately, Michael Ash noticed these problems some time back, and created a replacement, his MAKVONotificationCenter. Unfortunately, even the updated version published by Jerry Krinock didn’t do everything I needed, at least not in a way that I found usable with blocks added to the equation. Managing observations by tracking the resulting observation objects means having lots of instance variables to hold the observations, and since I’m building for Leopard, I can’t use the new associated objects for the purpose.

“Wait a minute,” you’re saying! “Leopard? Then why are you talking about using blocks?” Answer: I’m using PLBlocks.

So, armed with PLBlocks on one side, and Michael Ash’s typically brilliant code on the other, I dove in and pretty much rewrote the entire MAKVONotificationCenter to do three things it didn’t before:

  1. Block callbacks.
  2. Tagging observations with a simple integer value.
  3. Several alternative ways of specifying groups of observations to remove, based on observer, target, key path, selector, tag, or most combinations thereof.

With that done (and unit tested, and Doxygen-documented), I’m now integrating them into my revised class heirarchy for Missions itself. With any luck, I’ll have at least a screenshot of a fighter flying around before the week is out. Stay tuned, those of you who are crazy enough to stick around for all this :-).

Footnote: I was finally able to find a way to access the original model files for the game’s graphics; with some luck and a bit of help from Mike (I’m clueless when it comes to this stuff), there may be higher-quality graphics to be seen in the screenshots soon.

Key-Value Observing on classes

In the course of experimentation, I just discovered a neat trick. You can use key-value observing on a class object! Consider this simple example:

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And it works!

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It has some caveats, of course:

  • Automatic notification doesn’t work, probably for some reason having to do with the way the runtime implements class objects and the method swizzling KVO does to make automatic notifications work. Your setters have to explicitly call -willChangeValueForKey: and -didChangeValueForKey:
  • This is a hack. It’s not documented to work at all and thus Apple is under no obligation to see that it keeps working.
  • You’re not supposed to do things like this with classes. You’re supposed to define a singleton object, e.g. [NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] and use that.
  • I’ve only tried this on Snow Leopard (though it was compiled against the Leopard SDK). I don’t have anything else handy to test with.
  • I haven’t tried this with any of the more advanced KVO features (to-many relationships, dependent keys, NSKeyValueObservingOptionPrior).
  • Obviously, as shown this isn’t thread-safe, though that’s more for the use of the static variable to hold the value.

The only use for it I can think of offhand is when you have a class which keeps a list of its objects and provides a method for accessing that list as an array, and you want some other object to be notified when that list changes (for example, one could in theory want to observe changes in NSValueTransformer’s +valueTransformerNames). The documentation explicitly states, “Instead of observing an array, observe the ordered to-many relationship for which the array is the collection of related objects.”, so to see changes in the list by KVO, one has to observe the property of the class itself. Classes can’t have properites (or static instance variables, come on Apple), so something like this is one way of doing the trick.

Use at your own risk!