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Right now, doesn't the GC traverse the entire heap and keep all objects where the memory's value looks like it might possibly be a pointer to some other object in memory?

This certainly isn't an awesome solution but couldn't the GC backtrace(3) the current process and look at %eax at all C stack frames to additionally include that value in the "pointers currently plausibly in flight" list?

The problem is this[1]: strings are compound objects, which use 2 memory allocations. One for the object representation, the other for the memory holding the character array. The problem arises when you access the character array but technically no longer need the string object itself anymore. The C compiler notices that you don't use the pointer to the string object anymore, so it doesn't bother storing that on the stack. It is allowed to do this. The GC's mark phase now runs; it inspects all the stack frames and the global roots. It detects that no references to the string object exist and decides to collect it. There happens to be a destructor function associated with that memory object, which frees the character array, as the character array is manually memory managed. It blows up when you then try to access that character array directly.[2]

The correct way to handle this is to add the object reference to the GC's "root" set while you're using its guts, and removing it again when you're done.

Another possible solution is to allocate the string object and its character representation in one chunk of memory. This only works for immutable strings which never share substructure, though. The reason this works is that most conservative GCs will consider objects live as long as there is a pointer pointing to somewhere within a chunk of memory, not necessarily at the beginning.

[1] note: I'm not a Ruby coder but I fixed a very similar problem in a Lua implementation about 4 years ago. That one wasn't even conservative GC. EDIT: I told the story of that bug on HN 3 years (!) ago http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=217189

[2] worse, it probably doesn't blow up immediately and instead causes memory corruption.

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