October Teardown: Pig Latin

It’s time to announce the winner for October’s challenge and do some teardown!

There’s still a short amount of time left to send in your submissions for November’s challenge, so get on that quick!

Honourable Mentions

We’re only picking one winner for this teardown, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t several wonderfully bad submissions to choose from. Some of our favourites that didn’t quite win include:

Winner, in C: Finn Alexander O’Leary

You may want to pull up the full source so you can follow along.

Whose Boolean is it Anyway?

This submission includes three different ways of handling boolean values, with one being the actually standard way supported by the language. As you open the code the most obvious lines at the top are:

#define True "true"
#define False "false"

While it is unlikely anyone would ever actually write these lines, they serve as a humorous exaggeration of things people really do write.

The standard values for booleans in C have always been 1 and 0. C99 and up add true and false keywords as well. Ignoring the standard idioms of your language to “improve readability” actually does the opposite. Even if 1 and 0 are not obviously boolean values to a new programmer, or someone new to C, renaming them obscures meaning from anyone who knows how to read C code. This will include you later. That’s not to say one must always blindly follow idioms, but departing from how the language is normally written needs a very good reason, or else you make it harder to understand what is going on.

Partly because of the nature of these constants, there are also a few related anti-patterns on display. Including:

if (ISVOWEL(S)) { return True; }
else if (S == 'y' && !ISVOWEL(S1)) { return True; }
else if (S == 'x' && S1 == 'r') { return True; }

return False;


if (strcmp(True, isvowelay(S[0], S[1])) == 0)

Both of these common anti-patterns show a lack of understanding of what a boolean value is. While both are actually necessary in this case, because the values are actually strings, they intentionally parallel unnecessary verbosity when using regular boolean values in any language. A boolean value already holds the concept of “true” or “false”, and so can be returned directly. An if already evaluates based on a boolean value, and so comparison to a boolean constant is redundant. The natural rewriting of the above would be:

ISVOWEL(S) || (S == 'y' && !ISVOWEL(S1)) || (S == 'x' && S1 == 'r')


if (isvowelay(S[0], S[1]))

To make things even more confusing, normal C comparisons such as S == 'x' do not return the custom strings-as-booleans values, so there are two sets of conceptual booleans at play in these lines. Even worse, later in the program there is a procedure that returns either 1 for “true” or -1 for “false”, requiring a programmer reading this code to understand three different ways of encoding the same information.

Types are for losers

struct __attribute__((packed)) thingimajigie {
	char **start;
	char *end;
} word_thingies[256];

This line contains a GNU C extension and thus the whole program is not actually standard C and may not compile or work as expected on some compilers. So, what is the reason this extension is needed?

void *S = &(word_thingies[i]);
S -= (sizeof(char**)+sizeof(char*));

Because pointers are so common in C, arithmetic on pointers is specifically defined to be type-dependant. So the above is actually equivalent to this:

struct thingimajigie *S = word_thingies + i;
S -= 1;

But in an amazingly bad way. First of all, sizeof(char**)+sizeof(char*) assumes that the members of the struct will always have exactly these types. To avoid this kind of brittle assumption, C code will normally use a pattern more like sizeof(S->start)+sizeof(S->end). That, however, still assumes that the struct will always have exactly those two members. It further assumes that the size of the struct is exactly the sum of the sizes of its members, which C does not promise to us. That is the reason for the use of the language extension. This code has been rendered non-portable only so that a worse way of determining the struct size can be used. Of course the right way would be to use sizeof(*S), or better yet to use a variable with the correct type as above.

Using void here also requires many casts in the body:

((struct thingimajigie *)S)->start = &(*A)[i];
((struct thingimajigie *)S)->end = malloc(_strlen((*A)[i])+1);
memset((((struct thingimajigie *)S)->end), 'A', _strlen((*A)[i]));
*((char*)((struct thingimajigie *)S)->end+strlen((*A)[i])) = '\0';


unsigned char i = ((2)<<6);
do {
} while(i--);

Also known as:

int i;
for(i = 128; i > 0; i--) {

Using an obfuscating expression like 2 << 6 is hiding the fact that this is actually the wrong number. The loop is iterating down over an array of size 256 (or 2 << 7) and so an off-by-one bug in this expression is cutting off half the array.

Beyond the number being obfuscated and wrong, using a do...while loop for successive iteration of this type obscures the purpose of the loop. A for loop doesn’t exist because one cannot do something without it, but rather as an idiom to signal to the reader what kind of loop this is. Once again, ignoring the idioms of the language may seem clever, but without very good reason make it harder for anyone familiar with the language to discern your intent.

Further, the code is actually:

do {
	if(i < charie) {

Meaning that the constant is not even necessary, and could be:

for(i = charie - 1; i > 0; i--)

Related is this strange choice:

int _strlen(char *s)
	return (s ? strlen(s) : 0);

The author introduces a small wrapper around a common standard library procedure to guard against NULL pointers with particular behaviour. However, this is so uncommon that even the author themself often forgets to use this version, and calls the standard library directly instead, even on the same value that they later pass to this wrapper. It seems that the pointers passed to this wrapper are, in fact, never NULL and so the wrapper only exists as a bad form of defensive programming. If the pointer ever were to be NULL would the 0 return value here even be correct? Any of the code in question would segfault in that case anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.


/* KITTEN <-> CAT <-> CONCATENATE... it's a bad joke don't @ me */
#define KITTEN(a, b) a # b
#define BALL_OF_STRING(a,b) a ## b
#define DEFISCHARACTER(string) size_t BALL_OF_STRING(is, string) (int c) { return (c == KITTEN(, string)[0] || tolower(c) == KITTEN(, string)[0]) ? 1 : 0; }

This code is so bad that even in a submission to a bad code contest, it has a comment apologizing.

Besides the bad names, KITTEN is nonsense and is only ever used like KITTEN(, x) with no first argument at all. If you did pass a first argument, the result would be a syntax error.

The author has gotten distracted by the idea of a certain pattern—isa, ise, etc procedures for case-insensitive checking—and turned to macros to make generating them easier without stopping to think what the actual problem they are solving requires. Are they solving the problem of needing an isa procedure? Or are they rather solving the problem of needing a way to case-insensitively check for character equality, like so:

int ischar_ci(char x, char y) {
	return tolower(x) == tolower(y);

We use the generated procedures a bit lower down inside another macro:

char *isvowelay(char S, char S1) /* REMOVE: USE LIKE: S = isvowelay(string[0], string[1]); strcmp(S, "true");  */
	#define ISVOWEL(_) (isa(_) || ise(_) || isi(_) || iso(_) || isu(_))

struct capture isconsonant(char *string)
	else if (!ISVOWEL(string[0]) && string[1] == 'q' && string[2] == 'u') { 

The author introduces a macro that appears like it is meant to only be part of the isvowelay procedure, but that’s not how macros work, they operate before the C parser even runs, so cannot respect the C scopes. That turns out to be handy, because later on the macro is used in a different procedure. While any experienced C programmer who understands the preprocessor will know why this works, the way it’s written at best puts the macro definition in an inexplicably weird place, and at worst confuses the reader into thinking it works differently than it does.

There is also no reason at all for this to be a macro. It does not make use of any capability that a normal C procedure would not have.

What are pointers for, again?

static char ***A;
int main(int _, char **__)
	A = &__;

and also:

struct __attribute__((packed)) thingimajigie {
	char **start;
	char *end;
} word_thingies[256];
((struct thingimajigie *)S)->start = &(*A)[i];
((struct thingimajigie *)S)->end = malloc(_strlen((*A)[i])+1);

Glossing over the idiom-violation that is naming argc and argv as _ and __, why ***A? If you look through the code, you will find that A is always immediately dereferenced. So why the extra indirection? Well, one reason to take a pointer to a value instead of the value itself is that it prevents needing to copy the value. You can get at the value wherever it already exists in memory, and save the work of copying. This is a case of just blindly applying that rule. The same with **start, wouldn’t want to copy whatever (*A)[i] is!

This is what comes of taking performance advice without understanding why. Or really, doing anything in your code based only on a rule you heard and not understanding why. Taking the address in &__ is the same or more work as just copying its value, because the value of __ is already a pointer, so the amount of data to be copied (if that even proves necessary) is exactly the same in either case. The author even knows this, since they can clearly see the type char **__ just above.


void write_string(char *dest, char *src, struct capture c)
	strncpy(dest, src+c.i, c.j);

strncpy is one of those really dangerous library calls masquerading as a “safer one”. If the source string is longer than the given size, the result is not null-terminated, and thus is not a valid C string and all kinds of bad things are likely to happen. This helper neither checks the length, nor forces a null termination manually. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

This is just the most devious of the many unchecked assumptions throughout the program, including: that there will be no more than 256 words passed in, that all the globals are set up before any procedure is called, and that no word contains characters that might be interesting to a shell.

Last Minute Fix

if (_ > 0 && people_gave_one_argument_with_the_words_rather_than_giving_them_as_separate_arguments() > 0) {
	/* I never designed for this shit, only noticed when it came to the tests, so instead let's design around it */
	char *command = calloc(strlen(__[0]) + strlen(__[1]) + 2, sizeof(char));
	strcpy(command, __[0]);
	command[strlen(__[0])] = ' ';
	strcpy(command+1+strlen(__[0]), __[1]);
	// printf("command: %s\n", command);
	FILE *f = popen(command, "r");
	int i;
	do {
		fputc((i = fgetc(f)), stdout);
	} while (!feof(f) && i != '\n');
	return 0;

This is the true pride and glory of this submission. Having not read the tests before beginning, the author was faced with a solution that passed all but the last test. Rather than go back and design a solution that fits into the program, they thought of the cleverest way they could add the functionality for the new requirement as quickly as possible, so as to be done. This is the most real-world tech debt you will ever encounter. New requirement at the eleventh hour results in quick trip to the cleverness stores.

This code checks if the first argument is a phrase using the aptly named people_gave_one_argument_with_the_words_rather_than_giving_them_as_separate_arguments and then proceeds to shell out to run another copy of this same program, but with the words in the phrase each as a separate argument, essentially using the invocation semantics as a split-on-words parser.

This is another place the code becomes gratuitously non-portable, choosing to use the POSIX-only popen instead of the C-standard system library call. Using popen actually complicates the code, resulting in a quickly-written loop to read all output from the subprocess and output it again, rather than simply allowing the subprocess to inherit STDOUT.

Fun bits not worth writing paragraphs about

Terrible names


Comments that should have been removed

/* REMOVE: USE LIKE: S = isvowelay(string[0], string[1]); strcmp(S, "true");  */
/* printf("c.i: %d; c.j: %d\n", c.i, c.j); */
// printf("command: %s\n", command);
/* printf("%s %s %s\n", *word_thingies[i].start, isvowelay((*word_thingies[i].start)[0], (*word_thingies[i].start)[1]), word_thingies[i].end); */

Incomprehensible on its own

a.i = c.j;
a.j = strlen(S)-c.j;

b.i = 0;
b.j = c.j;

d.i = 0;
d.j = 3;


That’s the highlights from October. Think you can do worse? Submissions for November are still open, and a December challenge will be going up soon!