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7.2.3 Condition Handler

In parse-log-entry you’ll signal a ‘malformed-log-entry-error’ if you can’t parse the log entry.

You signal errors with the function ERROR, which calls the lower-level function SIGNAL and drops into the debugger if the condition isn’t handled. You can call ERROR two ways:

  1. you can pass it an already instantiated condition object, or
  2. you can pass it the name of the condition class and any ‘initargs’ needed to construct a new condition, and it will instantiate the condition for you.

The former is occasionally useful for resignaling an existing condition object, but the latter is more concise. Thus, you could write parse-log-entry like this:

(defun parse-log-entry (text)
  (if (well-formed-log-entry-p text)
      (make-instance 'log-entry ...)
      (error 'malformed-log-entry-error :text text)))

What happens when the error is signaled depends on the code above parse-log-entry on the call stack. To avoid landing in the debugger, you must establish a condition handler in one of the functions leading to the call to parse-log-entry. When a condition is signaled, the signaling machinery looks through a list of active condition handlers, looking for a handler that can handle the condition being signaled based on the condition’s class.

Each condition handler consists of:

At any given moment there can be many active condition handlers established at various levels of the call stack. When a condition is signaled, the signaling machinery finds the most recently established handler whose type specifier is compatible with the condition being signaled and calls its function, passing it the condition object.

The handler function can then choose whether to handle the condition or decline it.

Many condition handlers simply want to unwind the stack to the place where they were established and then run some code.f

The macro HANDLER-CASE establishes this kind of condition handler. The basic form of a HANDLER-CASE is as follows:

(handler-case expression

where each ‘error-clause’ is of the following form:

(condition-type ([var]) code)

For instance, one way to handle the ‘malformed-log-entry-error’ signaled by parse-log-entry in its caller, parse-log-file, would be to skip the malformed entry. In the following function, the ‘HANDLER-CASE’ expression will either return the value returned by parse-log-entry or return ‘NIL’ if a ‘malformed-log-entry-error’ is signaled.

(defun parse-log-file (file)
  (with-open-file (in file :direction :input)
    (loop for text = (read-line in nil nil) while text
          for entry = (handler-case (parse-log-entry text)
                        (malformed-log-entry-error () nil))
          when entry collect it)))

(The it in the ‘LOOP’ clause collect it is another ‘LOOP’ keyword, which refers to the value of the most recently evaluated conditional test, in this case the value of entry.)

When parse-log-entry returns normally, its value will be assigned to entry and collected by the ‘LOOP’. But if parse-log-entry signals a ‘malformed-log-entry-error’, then the ‘error’ clause will return ‘NIL’, which won’t be collected.

This version of parse-log-file has one serious deficiency: it’s doing too much. As its name suggests, the job of parse-log-file is to parse the file and produce a list of ‘log-entry’ objects; if it can’t, it’s not its place to decide what to do instead. What if you want to use parse-log-file in an application that wants to tell the user that the log file is corrupted or one that wants to recover from malformed entries by fixing them up and re-parsing them? Or maybe an application is fine with skipping them but only until a certain number of corrupted entries have been seen.

You could try to fix this problem by moving the HANDLER-CASE to a higher-level function. However, then you’d have no way to implement the current policy of skipping individual entries–when the error was signaled, the stack would be unwound all the way to the higher-level function, abandoning the parsing of the log file altogether. What you want is a way to provide the current recovery strategy without requiring that it always be used.

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