This was a good exercise. My biggest hurdle was figuring out why $_ held the value 2 and @_ contained qw(nothing nothing) rather than qw(alpha omega). After a bit of searching I think I found the answer.
I tracked down information on the qw operator and found this in the perlop manpage:
qw// is exactly equivalent to split(' ', q/STRING/); This equivalency means that if used in scalar context, you'll get split's (unfortunate) scalar context behavior...
So read the documentation on split and found:
If not in list context, returns the number of fields found and splits into the @_ array.
So is that pretty much answer? Is there any more magic to it?
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