New Pluralsight Course: Introduction to Data Structures and Algorithms in C++

A new course of mine was published in the Pluralsight library: Introduction to Data Structures and Algorithms in C++.

In this course, you’ll learn how to implement some fundamental data structures and algorithms in C++ from scratch, with a combination of theoretical introduction using slides, and practical C++ implementation code.

Introducing the stack with an interesting metaphor

No prior data structure or algorithm theory knowledge is required. You only need a basic knowledge of C++ language features (please watch the “Prerequisites” clip in the first module for more details about that).

Explaining linear search using slides

During this course journey, you’ll also learn some practical C++ coding techniques (ranging from move semantic optimization, to proper safe array copying techniques, insertion operator overloading, etc.) that you’ll be able to use in your own C++ projects, as well.

So, this course is both theory and practice!

Spotting a subtle bug

Here’s just a couple of feedback notes from my reviewers:

The callouts are helpful and keep the demo engaging as you explain the code. [Peer Review]

To say that this is an excellent explanation of Big-O notation would be an understatement. The way you illustrate and explain it is far better than the way it was taught to me in college! [Peer Review]

Big-O doesn’t have to be boring!

Starting from this course page, you can freely play the course overview, and read a more detailed course description and table of content.

I hope you’ll enjoy watching this course!

 

C++ String Guidance

Last time, I enumerated a few types of strings available in C++.

These days, I’d suggest as the default option for cross-platform standard C++ code to use std::string, storing UTF-8-encoded text inside it. Note that pure ASCII is a proper subset of UTF-8, so storing pure ASCII text in std::string objects is just fine.

In addition, for those platform-specific sections of C++ code, I’d suggest using whatever string class and encoding are typical and “natural” for that platform. For example, at the Windows API boundary, use the UTF-16 encoding, and the std::wstring class in C++ code that doesn’t use ATL or MFC.

In addition, in C++ Windows-specific code that already uses ATL or MFC, another option is to use CString (or the explicit CStringW) enabling Visual Studio Unicode builds (“Configuration Properties” | “General” | “Character Set”: “Use Unicode Character Set”, which has been the default since probably Visual Studio 2005).

On the other hand, Qt-based C++ code can use the QString class, and so on.

 

How Many Strings Does C++ Have?

(…OK, a language lawyer would nitpick suggesting “How many string types…”, but I wanted a catchier title.)

So, if you program in Python and you see something enclosed by either single quotes or double quotes, you have a string:

s = 'Connie'

Something similar happens in Java, with string literals like “Connie” implemented as instances of the java.lang.String class:

String s = "Connie";

All right.

Now, let’s enter – drumroll, please – The Realm of C++! And the fun begins 😊

So, let’s consider this simple line of C++ code:

auto s1 = "Connie";

What is the type of s1?

std::string? A char[7] array? (Hey, “Connie” is six characters, but don’t forget the terminating NUL!)

…Something else?

So, you can use your favorite IDE, and hover over the variable name, and get the deduced type. Visual Studio C++ IntelliSense suggests it’s “const char*”. Wow!

Visual Studio IntelliSense deduces const char pointer.

And what about “Connie”s?

auto s2 = "Connie"s;

No, it’s not the plural of “Connie”. And it’s not a malformed Saxon genitive either. This time s2 is of type std::string! Thank you operator””s introduced in C++14!

Visual Studio IntelliSense deduces std::string

But, are we done? Of course, not! Don’t forget: It’s C++! 😊

For example, you can have u8”Connie”, which represents a UTF-8 literal. And, of course, we need a thread on StackOverflow to figure out “How are u8-literals supposed to work?”

And don’t forget L”Connie”, u”Connie” and U”Connie”, which represent const wchar_t*, const char16_t* (UTF-16 encoded) and const char32_t* (UTF-32 encoded) respectively.

Now we are done, right? Not yet!

In fact, you can combine the previous prefixes with the standard s-suffix, for example: L”Connie”s is a std::wstring! U”Connie”s is a std::u32string. And so on.

Done, right? Not yet!! In fact, there are raw string literals to consider, too. For example: R”(C:\Path\To\Connie)”, which is a const char* to “C:\Path\To\Connie” (well, this saves you escaping \ with \\).

And don’t forget the combinations of raw string literals with the above prefixes and optionally the standard s-suffix, as well: LR”(C:\Path\To\Connie)”, UR”(C:\Path\To\Connie)”, LR”(C:\Path\To\Connie)”s, UR”(C:\Path\To\Connie)”s, and more!

Oh, and in addition to the standard std::string class, and other standard std::basic_string-based typedefs (e.g. std::wstring, std::u16string, std::u32string, etc.), there are platform/library specific string classes, like ATL/MFC’s CString, CStringA and CStringW. And Qt brings QString to the table. And wxWidgets does the same with its wxString.

Wow! And I would not be surprised if I missed some other string variation out 😊

P.S. With all this string variety (maybe too much…), what about adding to the C++ Standard Library some convenient functions for at least common string operations like trimming spaces and converting strings to upper case and lower case? All in all, C++ does already have rocket-science stuff like Bessel functions in its Standard Library. While, back in the old MFC days, CString already offered convenient methods like Trim, MakeLower and MakeUpper, just to name a few.


Sample slide: Introducing the std::string class
Sample slide: Introducing the std::string class

If you want to learn modern C++ from scratch, in a fun and interesting way, with engaging slides and demo code, please check out my course!

Is Your “C++11 from Scratch” Course Still Valid Today? Yes, Absolutely!

I’m very proud of my “C++11 from Scratch” course published by Pluralsight.

We are in 2018, and there have been C++14 and C++17 in the meantime. So, a legit question is: “Does it make sense for me to watch your C++11 course today for a beginner-oriented introduction to C++?” And the answer is a BIG STRONG YES! 😊

In fact, in that course you will learn modern C++ topics that are valid in both C++11, and also in next versions of the language. For example, what you will learn about the parameter passing rules, like passing by reference vs. passing by value, is perfectly valid in C++11, C++14, and C++17 as well.

Moreover, the practical introductions I gave to standard library’s classes like std::string, or std::vector, and to the std::sort algorithm, just to name a few, are totally valid also in C++14 and C++17.

Similarly, my discussions on defining custom types, constructors, destructor, the RAII pattern and the scope-based lifetime of objects are still valid in C++14 and C++17, as well.

Maybe a better title for that course would be “Modern C++ from Scratch”. Anyway, the content is already there, available for an enjoyable learning experience, with a mix of slides containing interesting visuals, and demo code.

Sample slide: Introducing the std::string class
Sample slide: Introducing the std::string class

And, if you are already familiar with C++11, you may enjoy my follow-up course on “Practical C++14 and C++17 Features”.

Happy learning!

 

ATL::CStringW vs. std::wstring Performance: String Sorting and Comparisons

According to previous measurements, std::wstring performs better than ATL::CStringW:

  1. in all string concatenation tests
  2. when sorting string vectors that are made by small strings, thanks to std::basic_string’s SSO

So, I focused my attention on the string vector sorting scenario, and it seems to me that (at least in the VS2015 implementation), the slowdown of (non-SSO) wstrings is caused by wmemcmp calls, that are used to compare wstrings when sorting the string vectors. On the other hand, CStringW invokes wcscmp, that seems to run faster.

In fact, invoking std::sort with a custom comparator function that calls wcscmp to compare the C-style pointers returned by wstring::c_str, results in faster vector<wstring> sorting times. So, in this case wstring sorting performs better than CStringW even for non-SSO strings.

However, as Stephan T. Lavavej pointed out, std::basic_string supports embedded nulls, so wstring cannot use wcscmp (that works only for C-style null-terminated strings, without embedded nulls).

 

String Performance Tests: ATL vs. STL

I wrote some C++ code to test the performance of the ATL CStringW class vs. the C++ Standard Library’s std::wstring.

There are several aspects that can be considered when comparing string class performance: In the aforementioned code, I tested string vector sorting and string concatenation.

The code is available in this repository on GitHub.

You can take a look at the README for further details (including my test results).

 

Limited-time Discount on Pluralsight Annual Subscriptions

I’d like to give you a heads-up that for a limited time, Pluralsight will be discounting Individual Annual Subscriptions 33% (or $100), making them only $199.

33% Off Pluralsight Annual Subscriptions – Save $100 for a Limited Time!

I encourage you to take this opportunity to save $100 on your annual subscription!

Note that if you are an existing subscriber you can take advantage of this offer as well: In fact, your current subscription will be extended for a year for $199.

New Pluralsight Course: Practical C++14 and C++17 Features

A new course of mine was published in the Pluralsight library: Practical C++14 and C++17 Features.

From the course short description:

C++14 and C++17 added many new features to the C++ language. This course will teach you practical features introduced in C++14 and C++17, that you will be able to use to write clearer, simpler, and higher-quality modern C++ code.

You can take this course to learn about practical features added in C++14 and C++17, ranging from syntactic sugar like digit separators, to more substantial features like polymorphic lambdas (this course will offer an introduction to basic lambdas as well), relaxed constexpr functions, the Chrono library with its standard-defined duration suffixes, and C++17 juice ranging from nested namespaces, variable declarations in if statements, to “constexpr if” and structured bindings, just to name a few.

Building an Italian-to-English dictionary with std::map

I discussed these topics with both slides and demo code, including showing some bugs and how to fix them.

Demo: Sorting by string length using lambdas

You can watch the course trailer and read a more detailed course description and the table of content starting from this course page.

Proper unit conversions are important!

I put the discussed features in proper context for learners who are already familiar with basic elements of C++11. For example, when I introduced C++14 std::make_unique, I also talked about smart pointers and introduced std::unique_ptr as well. If you need an introduction to basic elements of modern C++, you can take my “C++11 from Scratch” course.

Here’s some feedback from my reviewers:

You’ve done an excellent job with the animated shapes/callouts throughout the module. They really help me to follow along with the narrative explanations. [Peer Review]

The content is logically organized and chunked into bite-size clips. I also like your mix of slides and demos. [Peer Review]

This is an excellent challenge to the viewer to spot the bug in the code. [Peer Review]

Overall, a strong module that will be well-received by an intermediate audience. The explanations are clear and the concepts build on each other, making it easy to follow along. Keep up the great work! [Peer Review]

Raw owning pointers are radioactive!

Thank You

Writing and producing this course has been an interesting journey and a rewarding experience for me. There are several people who worked with me during this journey and with their contributions helped me producing this quality course. I’d like to thank my ASM (former Editor) Beth Gerard-Hess, my Production Editor Austin Crawford, my Curriculum Director Tod Gentille, my reviewers (both QA and peer), and all the Pluralsight persons who worked on this course project. Thanks also to Stephan T. Lavavej for interesting e-mail conversations that provided good food for thought.

I hope you will enjoy this new course on Practical C++14 and C++17 Features: Happy learning! 😊

 

Subtle Bug When Converting Strings to Lowercase

Suppose that you want to convert a std::string object to lowercase.

The first thing you would do is probably searching the std::string documentation for a convenient easy simple method named to_lower, or something like that. Unfortunately, there’s nothing like that.

So, you might start developing your own “to_lower” function. A typical implementation I’ve seen of such custom function goes something like this: For each character in the input string, convert it to lowercase invoking std::tolower. In fact, there’s even this sample code on cppreference.com:

// From http://en.cppreference.com/w/cpp/string/byte/tolower

std::string str_tolower(std::string s) {
    std::transform(s.begin(), s.end(), s.begin(), 
                   [](unsigned char c) { return std::tolower(c); }
                  );
    return s;
}

Well, if you try this code with something like str_tolower(“Connie”), everything seems to work fine, and you get “connie” as expected.

Now, since C++ folks like storing UTF-8-encoded text in std::string objects, in some large code base someone happily takes the aforementioned str_tolower function, and invokes it with their lovely UTF-8 strings. Fun ensured! …Well, actually, bugs ensured.

So, the problem is that str_tolower, under the hood, calls std::tolower on each char in the input string. While this works fine for pure ASCII strings like “Connie”, such code is a bug farm for UTF-8 strings. In fact, UTF-8 is a variable-width character encoding. So, there are some Unicode “characters” (code points) that are encoded in UTF-8 using one byte, while other characters are encoded using two bytes, and so on, up to four bytes. The poor std::tolower has no clue of such UTF-8 encoding features, so it innocently spits out wrong results, char by char.

For example, I tried invoking the above function on “PERCHÉ” (the last character is the Unicode U+00C9 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER E WITH ACUTE, encoded in UTF-8 as the two-byte sequence 0xC3 0x89), and the result I got was “perchÉ” instead of the expected “perché” (é is Unicode U+00E9, LATIN SMALL LETTER E WITH ACUTE). So, the pure ASCII characters in the input string were all correctly converted to lowercase, but the final non-ASCII character wasn’t.

Actually, it’s not the std::tolower function: It’s that this function was misused, invoking it in a way that the function was not designed for.

This is one of the perils of taking std::string-based C++ code that initially worked with ASCII strings, and thoughtlessly reuse it for UTF-8-encoded text.

In fact, we saw a very similar bug in a previous blog post.

So, how can you fix that problem? Well, a portable way is using the ICU library with its icu::UnicodeString class and its toLower method.

On the other hand, if you are writing Windows-specific C++ code, you can use the LcMapStringEx API. Note that this function uses the UTF-16 encoding (as almost all Windows Unicode APIs do). So, if you have UTF-8-encoded text stored in std::string objects, you first have to convert it from UTF-8 to UTF-16, then invoke the aforementioned API, and finally convert the UTF-16-encoded result back to UTF-8. For these UTF-8/UTF-16 conversions, you may find my MSDN Magazine article on “Unicode Encoding Conversions with STL Strings and Win32 APIs” interesting.

 

Maps with Case Insensitive String Keys

How to implement a map with case insensitive string keys? If you use the standard std::map associative container with std::string or std::wstring as key types, you get a case sensitive comparison by default.

If you take a look at std::map documentation, you’ll see that in addition to the key type and value type, there’s also a third template parameter that you can plug into std::map: it’s a comparison function object to sort the keys. The default option for this comparison function is std::less<Key>.

So, if you provide a custom comparison object that ignores the key string case, you can have a map with case insensitive keys:

map<string, ValueType, StringIgnoreCaseLess> myMap;

Now, the question is: What would such comparison object look like?

A Failed Approach

An approach I saw sometimes (e.g. on StackOverflow) is to use std::lexicographical_compare, comparing the strings char-by-char, after invoking tolower on each char. Basically, the idea is to compare the lowercase versions of each corresponding characters in the input strings. The code from the aforementioned SO answer follows:

// Code from: https://stackoverflow.com/a/1801913/1629821

struct ci_less
{
  // case-independent (ci) compare_less binary function
  struct nocase_compare
  {
    bool operator() (const unsigned char& c1, const unsigned char& c2) const {
      return tolower (c1) < tolower (c2); 
    }
  };
  
  bool operator() (const std::string & s1, const std::string & s2) const {
    return std::lexicographical_compare 
        (s1.begin (), s1.end (),   // source range
         s2.begin (), s2.end (),   // dest range
         nocase_compare ());       // comparison
  }
};

The problem with this code is that it doesn’t work for international strings. In fact, while for a pure ASCII string like “Connie” you can use this technique to successfully compare “Connie” with “connie” or “CONNIE”, this won’t work for strings containing international characters.

For example, consider the Italian word “perché”. The last character in “perché” is U+00E9, i.e. the ‘LATIN SMALL LETTER E WITH ACUTE’, which is encoded in UTF-8 as the hex byte sequence 0xC3 0xA9. Its uppercase form is É U+00C9 (encoded in UTF-8 as 0xC3 0x89). So, let’s assume you use the UTF-8 encoding to store your international text in std::string objects. Well, invoking tolower char by char, as implemented in the aforementioned SO answer, will fail. In fact, tolower is unable to correctly process UTF-8 sequences (at least in the Microsoft VS2015 CRT implementation I used in my tests).

A Better Approach for International Text

So, how to fix that? Well, on Windows there’s a CompareStringEx API (available since Vista, according to the MSDN documentation) that seems to work, at least in my tests with some Italian text. You can call this API passing the NORM_IGNORECASE comparison flag.

As for most Windows APIs, the Unicode encoding used for text is UTF-16. So, let’s start writing a nice C++ wrapper around this CompareStringEx C-interface API. Let’s assume that we want to compare two UTF-16 wstrings, and that they are “ordinary” strings that don’t contain embedded NULs. A possible implementation for this C++ helper function follows:

// C++ wrapper around the Windows CompareStringEx C API
inline int CompareStringIgnoreCase(const std::wstring& s1, 
                                   const std::wstring& s2)
{
    // According to the MSDN documentation, the CompareStringEx function 
    // is optimized for NORM_IGNORECASE and string lengths specified as -1.

    return ::CompareStringEx(
        LOCALE_NAME_INVARIANT,
        NORM_IGNORECASE,
        s1.c_str(),
        -1,
        s2.c_str(),
        -1,
        nullptr,        // reserved
        nullptr,        // reserved
        0               // reserved
    );
}

Now, you can simply invoke this C++ helper function inside the comparison object that will be used with std::map:

// Comparison object for std::map, ignoring string case
struct StringIgnoreCaseLess
{
    bool operator()(const std::wstring& s1, const std::wstring& s2) const
    {
        // (s1 < s2) ignoring string case
        return CompareStringIgnoreCase(s1, s2) == CSTR_LESS_THAN;
    }
};

This basically implements the condition (s1 < s2) ignoring the string case.

And, finally, you can simply plug this comparison object into a std::map with UTF-16-encoded wstring keys:

map<wstring, ValueType, StringIgnoreCaseLess> myCaseInsensitiveStringMap;

Or, using the nice C++11 alias template feature:

template <typename ValueType>
using CaseInsensitiveStringMap = std::map<std::wstring, ValueType, 
                                          StringIgnoreCaseLess>;

// Simply use CaseInsensitiveStringMap<ValueType>

You can find some compilable C++ sample code on GitHub.

Note on UTF-8 String Keys

If you really want to use UTF-8-encoded std::string keys, then you have to add some code to the comparison object, to first convert the input strings from UTF-8 to UTF-16, and then invoke CompareStringEx for the UTF-16 text comparison.

If you are working on C++ code that is already Windows platform specific, I think that choosing the UTF-16 encoding to represent international text is more “natural” (and more efficient) than converting back and forth between UTF-8 and UTF-16.