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Question: background jobs from a for loop using the index variable

costinmanda profile image Costin Manda Originally published at siderite.dev on ・3 min read

Original post: https://siderite.dev/blog/question-background-jobs-from-for-loop-using-index

I am going to do this in Javascript, because it's easier to write and easier for you to test (just press F12 in this page and write it in the console), but it applies to any programming language. The issue arises when you want to execute a background job (a setTimeout, an async method that you do not wait, a Task.Run, anything that runs on another execution path than the current one) inside a for loop. You have the index variable (from 0 to 10, for example) and you want to use it as a parameter for the background job. The result is not as expected, as all the background jobs use the same value for some reason.

Let's see a bit of code:

// just write in the console numbers from 0 to 9
// but delayed for a second
for (var i=0; i<10; i++)
{
  setTimeout(function() { console.log(i); },1000);
}

// the result: 10 values of 10 after a second!

But why? The reason is the "scope" of the i variable. In this case, classic (EcmaScript 5) code that uses var generates a value that exists everywhere in the current scope, which for ES5 is defined as the function this code is running from or the global scope if executed directly. If after this loop we write console.log(i) we get 10, because the loop has incremented i, got it to 10 - which is not less than 10, and exited the loop. The variable is still available. That explains why, a second later, all the functions executed in setTimeout will display 10: that is the current value of the same variable.

Now, we can solve this by introducing a local scope inside the for. In ES5 it looked really cumbersome:

for (var i=0; i<10; i++)
{
  (function() {
    var li = i;
    setTimeout(function() { console.log(li); },1000);
  })();
}

The result is the expected one, values from 0 to 9.

What happened here? We added an anonymous function and executed it. This generates a function scope. Inside it, we added a li variable (local i) and then set executing the timeout using that variable. For each value from 0 to 9, another scope is created with another li variable. If after this code we write console.log(li) we get an error because li is undefined in this scope. It is a bit confusing, but there are 10 li variables in 10 different scopes.

Now, EcmaScript 6 wanted to align Javascript with other common use modern languages so they introduced local scope for variables by defining them differently. We can now use let and const to define variables that are either going to get modified or remain constant. They also exist only in the scope of an execution block (between curly brackets).

We can write the same code from above like this:

for (let i=0; i<10; i++) {
  const li = i;
  setTimeout(()=>console.log(li),1000);
}

In fact, this is more complex than it has to be, but that's because another Javascript quirk. We can simplify this for the same result as:

for (let i=0; i<10; i++) {
  setTimeout(()=>console.log(i),1000);
}

Why? Because we "let" the index variable, so it only exists in the context of the loop execution block, but apparently it creates one version of the variable for each loop run. Strangely enough, though, it doesn't work if we define it as "const".

Just as an aside, this is way less confusing with for...of loops because you can declare the item as const. Don't use "var", though, or you get the same problem we started with!

const arr=[1,2,3,4,5];
for (const item of arr) setTimeout(()=>console.log(item),1000);

In other languages, like C#, variables exist in the scope of their execution block by default, but using a for loop will not generate multiple versions of the same variable, so you need to define a local variable inside the loop to avoid this issue. Here is an example in C#:

for (var i=0; i<10; i++)
{
    var li = i;
    Task.Run(() => Console.WriteLine(li));
}
Thread.Sleep(1000);

Note that in the case above we added a Thread.Sleep to make sure the app doesn't close while the tasks are running and that the values of the loop will not necessarily be written in order, but that's beside the point here. Also, var is the way variables are defined in C# when the type can be inferred by the compiler, it is not the same as the one in Javascript.

I hope you now have a better understanding of variable scope.

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Costin Manda

@costinmanda

Romanian .NET C# developer for 15 years+.

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