Sunday, January 19, 2014

One and one are eleven

Oh C++, why art thou so hard? Thou giveth us nought but grievance and pain. Often I've cried out because C++ just wouldn't play nice. The language is too hard to learn, and it couldn't do anything you could do in plain C. But I've actually started to like C++. I have come to appreciate it a lot. I suppose it ages like fine wine. C++11 brings a lot of good to the table, well, as long as your compiler is up to par.

Rather than go over all the features of C++11 (there's enough of that on the web to go 'round), I want to show you a neat trick. Lo and behold.
template <typename... Tpack>
void go(Tpack&&... args) {
    std::function<void()> func = std::bind(std::forward<Tpack>(args)...);
    std::thread(trampoline, func);
This defines a go() function that allows you to fire up any function (with arguments!) as a thread. The thing with Tpack is a variadic template, which is a type-safe kind of varargs. The call to std::bind turns it into a std::function object, which is a kind of functor. std::thread creates a new thread and launches a trampoline function that will invoke the function functor for us. Okay, the actual implementation is a little different, I have simplified it here for the sake of example. For one thing, you should catch the std::system_error exception that is thrown in case the operating system fails to launch the thread.

So now we can easily run any function as a thread. Next, I wanted go() to accept my custom Functor class as well. Normally you would go about that doing that like so:
void go(const Functor&);
void go(Functor&);
Guess what, it didn't work! The result was a (not so) glorious Segmentation fault. Tracing it revealed that the compiler was favoring the go(Tpack&&...) variant over the specific Functor functions. But no worries, template specialization to the rescue:
// specialized templates for passing in a Functor
// const Functor& is only used for const functions or
// explicitly const Functors
// in most cases go(Functor&) is used
template <>
inline void go<const Functor&>(const Functor& f) {

template <>
inline void go<Functor&>(Functor& f) {
This weird looking stuff is C++ dark magick, written in the black of night by the light of a candle. If you look past all the confusing glyphs, it's simply telling the compiler to call the right function for what kind of argument we have.

All of this wasn't quite possible to this extent before C++11. Other than impressing your girlfriend with this trickery (not!), C++11 comes with a most important change: the move constructor. This is something you MUST learn. It's hard to believe, but before eleven it was not possible to simply return instances from a function, because the destructor would kick in — you would return a copy and the original object would be destroyed. C++11 fixes this long standing problem by handing you the opportunity to move the content of the original to the copy, allowing you to return objects, like in any sane programming language. Actually, the move constructor is much more important than showing off template and thread trickery, but Brian and me really wanted to bring you the go() function this time.