C++11 FQA anyone?

March 22nd, 2014

isocpp.org announced "the C++ FAQ" to which reportedly Bjarne Stroustrup and Marshall Cline will link to help boost its search rank. Good stuff; also, given that the language is >30 years old – it's about time.

Which reminds me. I'm failing to keep my promise to update the C++ FQA, an overly combative reply to Marshall Cline's fairly combative FAQ, to the new standard from hell – C++11.

Could you perhaps do it instead of me? Unfortunately, explaining how terrible C++ is cannot be made into a career the way explaining how wonderful C++ is can be. So I sort of moved on to other things; I managed to summon the mental energy just that one time to write the C++ FQA, and even as I wrote it I knew that I better hurry because that energy was waning. After all, at work I managed to reduce the amount of C++ I deal with to a minimum, so there was neither a profit motive nor continuous frustration to recharge me.

Not that I haven't made money off the C++ FQA – indirectly I did make money, specifically by getting a headhunter's attention and significantly improving my employment conditions. But I don't think a new FQA's maintainer/co-author could count on something along those lines.

Still, you'd become about as widely famous in narrow circles as I am, getting maybe 200K unique visitors per year and hundreds of "thank you" emails. Most importantly, you'd do the world a great service.

There's a curious double standard in the world of programming languages. Say, PHP is widely ridiculed because, for instance, its string comparison operator converts strings to numbers if they start with "0e" and this results in unexpected behavior. And it doesn't help PHP that === works just fine.

Imagine someone mocking C++ for two char pointers comparing "wrong" with ==. Immediately they'd be told that casting to std::string (more verbose than ===) would work just fine, and that "you just don't get it".

Why is PHP – a language full of quirks which at least gives you memory and type safety – is universally ridiculed and the developers, while defending the language, never ridicule back, while C++, an absolutely insane language, is ridiculed often enough but C++ developers always counter-attack viciously? For that matter, why isn't Lisp ridiculed for EQ, EQL, EQUAL and EQUALP, if comparison operators are so funny?

The reason, IMO, is simple: PHP is not taught in academic CS courses. C++ developers are much more likely to have a CS degree, therefore both they and others treat their knowledge of crazy C++ arcana as something of intellectual value. And Lisp is the poster child of academic programming language development. Educated proponents deter attempts at ridiculing a language.

In a "rational" universe, PHP would be held in high esteem given the amount of output produced by PHP developers with little training. In our universe we have this double- or triple-standard. Pointing out the darker aspects of C++ – which are most of its aspects – thus increases the supply of a rather scarce commodity.

But why C++ and not, say, Lisp, Haskell or C#?

One reason is that C++ is arguably the craziest language in widespread use, combining the safety of C (and I can live with C just fine) with the clarity of Perl (and I can live with Perl peacefully enough). But it is of course subjective.

The thing that really sets C++ apart is its development culture and value system – a perverse amalgamation of down-to-earth shrewdness and idealistic perfectionism. The whole idea of making the best, richest, most efficient and most generic/versatile programming language of the planet – you can sense that Bjarne Stroustrup aims at nothing less – ON TOP OF C is the perfect illustration of this culture, and perhaps its origin.

Stroustrup always knew that the language would be better if it didn't have to be compatible with C and he publicly acknowledged it – the "smaller, much simpler language struggling to come out" remark. But he also knew that using an Embrace, Extend and Exterminate strategy is a much more likely way to succeed. So he did that. In fact he managed to more or less kill C or at least put it in a coma – as even C99, not to mention C11, will never be supported by the Microsoft compiler, and C89 is a really old and really restrictive standard.

A shrewd move – almost an evilly shrewd one – netting the people behind C++ fame and fortune at the expense of programmers dealing with a uniquely dangerous language full of sugar-coated death traps.

(Yes, sugar-coated death traps, you clueless cheerleaders. X& obj=a.b().c() – oops, b() is a temporary object and c() returns a reference into it! Shouldn't have assigned that to a reference. Not many chances for a compiler warning, either.)

Who did things differently? Sun and Microsoft, for example, marketing Java and C#, respectively. They made much cleaner languages from scratch, and to solve the chicken-and-egg problem – we have no legacy projects hence no programmers hence no new projects hence no programmers – they used money, large marketing budgets and large budgets for creating large standard libraries. A much more honest approach yielding much better results, I find.

And Stroustrup says about himself that he "lacks marketing clout" and says Java and C# are bad for you because they're "platforms, not languages", whatever that means.

And I'm not claiming to be able to read minds, but if I had to bet – I'd say he really believes that. He probably thinks he's your altruistic benefactor and Java and C# are evil attempts to drag you into proprietary platforms.

And you can see the same shrewdness, the same "altruism", the same attention to detail, the same tunnel vision – "this shit I'm working on is so important, it deserves all of my mental energy AND the mental energy of my users at the expense of caring about anything else" – throughout the C++ culture. From the boost libraries to "Modern C++ Design" (the author has since repented and moved to D – or did he repent?..) to the justifications for duplicate and triplicate and still incomplete language features to your local C++ expert carrying his crazy libraries and syntactic wrappers and tangling your entire code base in his net.

And this approach to life – "altruism" plus perfectionism plus cleverness plus shrewdness – extends way beyond C++ and way beyond programming. And the alternative is taming your ambitions.

This was my larger purpose in writing about all this shit. I'm pretty sure I failed in the sense that it got drowned in C++ error messages and other shits and giggles.

So maybe you'll do better than me. If you do, you might contribute to the sanity of many a young idealistic programmer – these tend to get sucked into C++'s sphere of influence, either emerging old and embittered years later or lost to sanity forever, stuck in an internally consistent but absolutely crazy way of thinking.

BTW I never wanted it to be a personal attack, in the sense that (1) I don't know what's inside the heads of people who promote C++ and (2) I can tell you with certainty that if I made something 10 times as bad as C++ and it was 0.0001x as popular as C++, I'd be immensely proud of myself and I wouldn't give a damn about what anyone thought. Just like I don't give a damn about people with so much time on their hands to actually have thousands of karma points at StackOverflow explaining just how lame C++ FQA is.

In this sense, C++ is fine and a worthy achievement of a lifetime. Especially in a world where Putin is a candidate for a Nobel Peace prize and Obama already got one.

I basically just think that (1) C++'s horrible quirks are worth pointing out and (2) there's something to be learned from this story about the way we pave the road to hell with our good intentions. That's all.


A lot of people have spoken about "a C++ renaissance" when C++11 was ratified. I tend to agree – indeed the new standard is a fresh doze of the same thing that C++ always was: "zero-overhead" pretty-looking syntax with semantics quite horrendous once you think what it actually means.

Fittingly for a new revision of the C++ standard, more things we could once safely count on have gone with the wind. For instance, anything you could pass to a function used to be an expression, and expressions had one and only one type. How ironic that this revision, the revision that finally capitalized on this fact by introducing auto, also made this fact no longer true: {0} could be an int or an std::initializer_list, depending on the context. Context-dependent types were one thing that Perl had (scalar/vector context) but C++ didn't have.

(I have observed someone do this: _myarr[5]={0}; – they had in the .h file the definition int _myarr[5] and they remembered that this thing could be initialized with {0} in other contexts. What they did wouldn't compile in C++98; in C++11 it promptly assigned the int 0 to the non-existent 5th element of _myarr, and the usual hilarity ensued. Imagine how PHP would be ridiculed for this kind of little behavior – and PHP at least would never overwrite an unrelated variable with garbage. Imagine how with C++, the poor programmer will be ridiculed instead.)

This is nothing, BTW – it's not the kind of thing the FQA would normally poke fun at. We have bigger fish to fry. For instance, C++11's "closures" or "lambdas" – the preposterous thing where you say [](){...} and an anonymous struct gets generated. BTW it's one of the reasons I urged everyone where I work to upgrade to C++11; because it lets you implement a nicely-looking parallel_for. In C I would have added a compiler extension for it AGES AGO but extending the C++ grammar? No sir. I waited patiently until C++11 lambdas.

So, C++11 lambdas. Someone needs to write everything about those hideous capture lists – are references captured by value or by reference?! – and how you can end up passing dangling references if this closure thingie outlives variables it references (we don't need no stinking garbage collection! but why doesn't C++11 let one capture variables by std::shared_ptr?.. It's so much better than gc!), and about the type of this shit and how it looks in debuggers, and about std::function etc. etc.

And this won't be me because frankly, I don't have time to even fully master this arcana anymore.

If you dislike C++ and have the time to write about it, I'll gladly pass the torch on to you; specifically I'll redirect C++ FQA to point to your site, following the example of Bjarne Stroustrup and Marshall Cline. Or we could run a wiki, or something. Email or comment if you're interested.