Monday, May 8, 2023

More C learning: Variadic Functions

This happens to me more often than I like to admit: there's a bit of programming magic that I don't understand, and almost never need to use, so I refuse to learn the method behind the magic. And on the rare occasions that I do need to use it, I copy-and-tweak some existing code. I know I'm not alone in this tendency.

The advantage is that I save a little time by not learning the method behind the magic.

The disadvantages are legion. Copy-and-tweak without understanding leads to bugs, some obvious, others not so much. Even the obvious bugs can take more time to track down and fix than it would have taken to just learn the magic in the first place.

Such was the case over the weekend when I wanted to write a printf-like function with added value (prepend a timestamp to the output). I knew that variadic functions existed, complete with the "..." in the formal parameter list and the "va_list", "va_start", etc. But I never learned it well enough to understand what is going on with them. So when I wanted variadic function A to call variadic function B which then calls vprintf, I could not get it working right.

Ugh. Guess I have to learn something.

And guess what. It took almost no time to understand, especially with the help of the comp.lang.c FAQ site. Specifically, Question 15.12: "How can I write a function which takes a variable number of arguments and passes them to some other function (which takes a variable number of arguments)?" Spoiler: you can't. Which makes sense when you think about how parameters are passed to a function. The longer answer: there's a reason for the "leading-v" versions of the printf family of functions. And the magic is not as magical as I imagined. All I needed to do is create my own non-variadic "leading-v" version of my function B which my variadic function A could call, passing in a va_list. See cprt_ts_printf().

This post is only partly about variadic functions; it's also about the reluctance to learn something new. Why would an engineer do that? I could explain it in terms of schedule pressure and the urge to make visible progress ("stop thinking and start typing!"), but I think there's something deeper going on. Laziness? Fear of the unknown? I don't know, but I wish I didn't suffer from it.

By the way, that comp.lang.c FAQ has a ton of good content. Good thing to browse if you're still writing in C.