The Global Store


The subset of JavaScript supported by WebPPL does not include general assignment expressions. This means it is not possible to change the value bound to a variable, or to modify the contents of a compound data structure:

var a = 0;
a = 1; // won't work

var b = {x: 0};
b.x = 1; // won't work

Attempting to do either of these things (which we will collectively refer to as ‘assignment’) generates an error.

This restriction isn’t usually a problem as most of the things you might like to write using assignment can be expressed conveniently in a functional style.

However, assignment can occasionally be useful, and for this reason WebPPL provides a limited form of it through something called the global store.

Introducing the global store

The global store is a built-in data structure with special status in the language. It is available in all programs as globalStore.

Unlike regular compound data structures in WebPPL its contents can be modified. Here’s a simple example:

globalStore.x = 0; // assign
globalStore.x = 1; // reassign
globalStore.x += 1;
display(globalStore.x) // prints 2

When reading and writing to the global store, it behaves like a plain JavaScript object. As in JavaScript, the value of each property is initially undefined.

Note that while the store can be modified by assigning and reassigning values to its properties, it is not possible to mutate compound data structures referenced by those properties: = {x: 0} = {x: 1} // reassigning foo is ok = {x: 0} = 1 // attempting to mutate foo fails

Marginal inference and the global store

Crucially, all marginal inference algorithms are aware of the global store and take care to ensure that performing inference over code that performs assignment produces correct results.

To see why this is important consider the following program:

var model = function() {
  var x = uniformDraw([0, 1]);
  return x;

The marginal distribution on return values for this program is:

Infer({method: 'enumerate'}, model);

// Marginal:
//   0 : 0.5
//   1 : 0.5

Now imagine re-writing this model using assignment:

var model = function() {
  globalStore.x = 0;
  globalStore.x += uniformDraw([0, 1]);
  return globalStore.x;

Intuitively, these programs should have the same marginal distribution, and in fact they do in WebPPL. However, the way this works is a little subtle.

To see why, let’s see how inference in our simple model proceeds, keeping track of the value in the global store as we go.

For this example we will perform marginal inference by enumeration but something similar applies to all inference strategies.

Marginal inference by enumeration works by exploring all execution paths through the program. If the global store was shared across paths then the above example would produce counter-intuitive results.

In our example, the first path taken through the program chooses 1 from the uniformDraw which looks something like:

globalStore.x = 0;                    // {x: 0} <- state of the global store
globalStore.x += uniformDraw([0, 1]); // {x: 1} choose 1, update store
return globalStore.x;                 // Add 1 to the marginal distribution.

Next, we continue from the uniformDraw this time choosing 0:

//                                   // {x: 1} carried over from previous execution
globalStore.x += uniformDraw([0, 1]) // {x: 1} choose 0, updating store produces no change
return globalStore.x;                // Add 1 to the marginal distribution

All paths have now been explored, but our marginal distribution only includes 1!

The solution is have the global store be local to each execution, so that assignment on one path is not visible from another. This is what happens in WebPPL.

Another way to think about this is to view each execution path as a possible world in a simulation. From this point of view the global store is world local; it’s not possible to reach into other worlds and modify their state.

When to use the store

If you find yourself threading an argument through every function call in your program, you might consider replacing this with a value in the global store.

When not to use the global store

Maintaining a store local to each execution as described above incurs overhead.

For this reason, it is best not to use the store as a general replacement for assignment as typically used in imperative programming languages. Instead, it is usually preferable to express the program in a functional style.

Consider for example the case of concatenating an array of strings. Rather than accumulating the result in the global store:

var f = function() {
  var names = ['alice', 'bob'];
  globalStore.out = '';
  map(function(name) { globalStore.out += name; }, names);
  return globalStore.out;

It is much better to use reduce to achieve the same result:

var f = function() {
  var names = ['alice', 'bob'];
  return reduce(function(acc, name) { return acc + name; }, '', names);