C++ references and inheritance

The last few days I’ve been hunting a bug in a C++ project I’ve been working on. This hunt again showed me how easily you can break C++ programs by accident (something that isn’t possibly in Java or C#). You need to completely understand the inner workings of C++ to avoid such pitfalls.

The whole problem was a result of me thinking that C++ references (&) are just pointers (*) that have some restrictions (e.g. they can’t be NULL). Wrong! What’s even worse: They’re sometimes just pointers with some restriction. This makes them work in some cases but fail in others.

Let me take you on my journey and you’ll hopefully avoid this (very subtle) mistake in your work.

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Die Geschichte der Programmiersprachen

Als Erweiterung zu meinem letzten Artikel über Programmiersprachen hier mal eine vollständige Liste:

A Brief, Incomplete, and Mostly Wrong History of Programming Languages

Meine Favoriten (in chronologischer Abfolge sind):

1940s – Various “computers” are “programmed” using direct wiring and switches. Engineers do this in order to avoid the tabs vs spaces debate.

1970 – Guy Steele and Gerald Sussman create Scheme. Their work leads to a series of “Lambda the Ultimate” papers culminating in “Lambda the Ultimate Kitchen Utensil.” This paper becomes the basis for a long running, but ultimately unsuccessful run of late night infomercials. Lambdas are relegated to relative obscurity until Java makes them popular by not having them.

1972 – Alain Colmerauer designs the logic language Prolog. His goal is to create a language with the intelligence of a two year old. He proves he has reached his goal by showing a Prolog session that says “No.” to every query.

1983 – Bjarne Stroustrup bolts everything he’s ever heard of onto C to create C++. The resulting language is so complex that programs must be sent to the future to be compiled by the Skynet artificial intelligence. Build times suffer. Skynet’s motives for performing the service remain unclear but spokespeople from the future say “there is nothing to be concerned about, baby,” in an Austrian accented monotones. There is some speculation that Skynet is nothing more than a pretentious buffer overrun.

1987 – Larry Wall falls asleep and hits Larry Wall’s forehead on the keyboard. Upon waking Larry Wall decides that the string of characters on Larry Wall’s monitor isn’t random but an example program in a programming language that God wants His prophet, Larry Wall, to design. Perl is born.

Creating an Application class in Mono for Android

Android provides an Application class.

Base class for those who need to maintain global application state.

Here’s how to create such a class in Mono for Android:

[Application]  // <-- Attribute required
class MyApp : Application {
  // Required constructor
  public MyApp(IntPtr javaReference, JniHandleOwnership transfer) 
    : base(javaReference, transfer) { }

  // Test method - not required
  public override void OnCreate() {

Note: There can only be one such class in an Android application.

Meaningful C++ error message

During my time as a student at the University of Stuttgart we had to learn the programming language Ada. Back then I was swearing about the compiler error message because they were totally meaningless (at least to me).

I am currently working on a C++ project and I have to say that C++ isn’t an inch better than Ada. Consider the following code:

#include <Windows.h>
namespace Geometry {
  class Polyline { };
using Geometry::Polyline;
namespace OtherNS {
  Polyline* get() {
    return NULL;

Trying to compile this code gives you the following error message (on Visual C++ 2010):

using_test.cpp(10): error C2143: syntax error : missing ';' before '*'
using_test.cpp(10): error C4430: missing type specifier - int assumed. Note: C++ does not support default-int
using_test.cpp(10): error C4430: missing type specifier - int assumed. Note: C++ does not support default-int

What? Syntax error? And then you start looking where you missed a ;.

The problem, however, is completely different. It’s because there is a function called Polyline() defined somewhere in Windows.h and now the compiler tries to use this function as return type instead of the class Polyline (but doesn’t say anything about that). <irony>This, of course, becomes totally clear just by reading this extremely meaningful error message.</irony> *sigh*

GCC isn’t better here (in case you were blindly blaming Microsoft for writing bad error messages):

error: ‘Polyline’ does not name a type

By the way, the problem can be solved by placing the using statement inside the OtherNS namespace.

C vs. C++

C makes it easy to shoot yourself in the foot; C++ makes it harder, but when you do, it blows away your whole leg.

— Bjarne Stroustrup, developer of the C++ programming language