Vincent Gable’s Blog

July 19, 2010

#define String

When I need a string-constant, I #define it, instead of doing the “right” thing and using an extern const NSString * variable.

UPDATE 2010-07-20

Thanks to Elfred Pagen for pointing out that you should always put () around your macros. Wrong: #define A_STRING @"hello"

instead use (), even when you don’t think you have to:

#define A_STRING (@"hello")

This prevents accidental string concatenation. In C, string-literals separated only by whitespace are implicitly concatenated. It’s the same with Objective-C string literals. This feature lets you break long strings up into several lines, so NSString *x = @"A long string!" can be rewritten:

NSString *x =
	@"A long"
	@" string!";

Unfortunately, this seldom-used feature can backfire in unexpected ways. Consider making an array of two strings:

#define X @"ex"
#define P @"plain"
a = [NSArray arrayWithObjects:X

That looks right, but I forgot a “,” after X, so after string-concatenation, a is ['explain'], not ['ex','plain'].

Moral of the story: you can never have too many ()’s in macros.

And, now, back to why I use #define

It’s less code

Using an extern variable means declaring it in a header, and defining it in some implementation file. But a macro is just one line in a header.

It’s faster to lookup

Because there’s only the definition of a macro, Open Quickly/command-double-clicking a macro always jumps to the definition, so you can see what it’s value is in one step. Generally Xcode jumps to a symbol’s declaration first, and then it’s definition, making it slower to lookup the value of a const symbol.

It’s still type safe

An @"NSString literal" has type information, so mistakes like,

#define X (@"immutable string")
NSMutableString *y = X;
[y appendString:@"z"];

still generate warnings.

It lets the compiler check format-strings

Xcode can catch errors like “[NSString stringWithFormat:@"reading garbage since there's no argument: %s"]“, if you let it. Unfortunately, the Objective-C compiler isn’t smart enough to check [NSString stringWithFormat:externConstString,x,y,z]; because it doesn’t know what an extern variable contains until link-time. But preprocessor macros are evaluated early enough in the build process that that the compiler can check their values.

It can’t be changed at runtime

It’s possible to change the value of const variables through pointers, like so:

const NSString* const s = @"initial";
NSString **hack = &s;
*hack = @"changed!";
NSLog(s);//prints "changed!"

Yes this is pathological code, but I’ve seen it happen (I’m looking at you AddressBook.framework!)

Of course, you can re-#define a preprocessor-symbol, so macros aren’t a panacea for pathological constant-changing code. (Nothing is!) But they push the pathology into compile time, and common wisdom is that it’s easier to debug compile-time problems, so that’s a Good Thing. You may disagree there, and you may be right! All I can say for sure is that in my experience, I’ve had bugs from const values changing at runtime, but no bugs from re-#define-ed constants (yet).


Preprocessor macros are damnably dangerous in C. Generally you should avoid them. But for NSString* constants in applications, I think they’re easier, and arguably less error prone. So go ahead and #define YOUR_STRING_CONSTANTS (@"like this").

July 8, 2010

NSDictionary Copies It’s Keys

Filed under: Bug Bite,Cocoa,iPhone,MacOSX,Objective-C,Programming | , , ,
― Vincent Gable on July 8, 2010

An NSDictionary will retain it’s objects, and copy it’s keys.

Here are some effects this has had on code I’ve worked on.

  • Sometimes you get the same object you put in, sometimes not.
    Immutable objects are optimized to return themselves as a copy. (But with some exceptions!). So the following code:

    	NSDictionary *d = [NSDictionary dictionaryWithObject:@"object" forKey:originalKey];
    	for(id aKey in d)
    		if(aKey == originalKey)
    			NSLog(@"Found the original key!");

    Might print “Found the original key!”, and might not, depending on how [originalKey copy] is implemented. For this reason, never use pointer-equality when comparing keys.

  • Mutable objects make bad keys. If x is a mutable NSObject, [x copy] is an immutable copy of x, at that point in time. Any changes to x are not reflected in the copy. For example,
    	[dict setObject:x forKey:key];
    	//...code that changes key, but not dict
    	assert([[dict objectForKey:key] isEqual:x]); //fails!

    Because the copy is an immutable object, it will blow up if you try to mutate it.

    	NSMutableString *key = //something...
    	[dict setObject:x forKey:key];
    	for(NSMutableString *aKey in dict)
    		[aKey appendString:@"2"]; //Error, aKey isn't mutable, even though key is!
  • View objects make bad keys. Views have state related to the screen: their frame, position in the view hierarchy, animation layers, etc. When you copy a view object, the copy won’t (always) be isEqual: to the original, because it’s not on the screen in exactly the same way.
  • Your classes must support NSCopying to be used as a key in an NSDictionary, you can’t just implement -hash and -isEqual: in your custom classes.

Of course, this isn’t a complete list of every way key-copying can trip you up. But if you understand what copy means in Cocoa, and remember how NSDictionary works, you’ll be able to avoid or quickly solve any issues.

How to Document Such Behavior Better Than Apple Did

Given what we know about NSDictionary, what’s wrong with the following snippit from NSDictionary.h?

@interface NSMutableDictionary : NSDictionary
- (void)setObject:(id)anObject forKey:(id)aKey;

Answer: aKey needs to implement NSCopying, so it should be of type (id<NSCopying>) instead of type (id). That way, the header is self-documenting, and, if like most smart programmers, you’re using autocomplete to type out Cocoa’s long method names, the auto-completed template will be self-documenting too.

June 14, 2010

Ask F-Script!

Filed under: Cocoa,iPhone,MacOSX,Objective-C,Programming | , , , , , ,
― Vincent Gable on June 14, 2010

F-Script is an amazingly useful tool for answering quick API
questions, like “What happens if I pass in nil“. I use it several times a week. For verifying corner-cases, F-Script is faster than google, stackoverflow, or reading header files. Just type in a questionable expression and instantly see what happens.

There’s a good tutorial to get you started quickly. I’m not going to reproduce it here, so if any of these examples aren’t clear, go read it.

Example: NSMutableArray

Objective-C had historically poor support for exceptions, and the Foundation/Cocoa libraries are pretty inconsistent about using them. For example, trying to add nil to an array throws an exception, but trying to remove nil from an array has no effect. Here’s how I used F-Script to verify that,

> a := NSMutableArray array

> a addObject:nil
NSInvalidArgumentException: *** -[NSCFArray insertObject:atIndex:]: attempt to insert nil

> a addObject:'foo'

> a
NSCFArray {'foo'}

> a removeObject:nil

> a
NSCFArray {'foo'}

If you’re not impressed, I understand. Static text really can’t convey the power of an interactive console. Sure, the F-Script syntax is marginally more concise than writing the equivalent code in Objective-C, but not enough that it matters. What matters is the interactivity, I got my answer as soon as I hit return. No waiting on the compiler. No switching between the program and Xcode. Immediate feedback.

You might prefer to use python as a Cocoa console. That’s cool! I prefer F-Script because it’s closer to Objective-C, but any tool with a REPL console works. If you have a favorite, please leave a comment!

REPL consoles for exploring Objective-C on a Mac:

June 2, 2010

NSHomeDirectory() is a Bad Thing

Filed under: Announcement,Cocoa,iPhone,MacOSX,Objective-C,Programming | , ,
― Vincent Gable on June 2, 2010

Code that uses NSHomeDirectory() is probably doing The Wrong Thing. It’s not appropriate to clutter up the user’s home directory — internal application-data should be stored in the Application Support directory (or a temporary file if it’s transient). So I can’t think of a good reason to get the path to the user’s home directory. Every use of NSHomeDirectory() I’ve seen is spamming the home directory, or getting a subdirectory in a brittle way.

For sample code that gets a directory robustly, using NSSearchPathForDirectoriesInDomains(), see Finding or creating the application support directory.

Because NSHomeDirectory() encourages so many bad practices, it should be deprecated.

Disabling NSHomeDirectory() in Your Projects

Add the following macro to your prefix file:

#define NSHomeDirectory() NSHomeDirectory_IS_DISCOURAGED_USE_NSSearchPathForDirectoriesInDomains_TO_GET_A_SUBDIRECTORY_OF_HOME

Then any use of NSHomeDirectory() will give the compiler error:

‘NSHomeDirectory_IS_DISCOURAGED_USE_NSSearchPathForDirectoriesInDomains_TO_GET_A_SUBDIRECTORY_OF_HOME’ undeclared (first use in this function)

Tell Me I’m Wrong

If you’ve seen a legitimate use of NSHomeDirectory() please leave a comment! Just because I can’t think of one doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

May 25, 2010

Write dealloc FIRST

Filed under: Bug Bite,Cocoa,Objective-C,Programming | , , ,
― Vincent Gable on May 25, 2010

As soon as you give a class a new instance variable (ivar), update the class’s dealloc method (and viewDidUnload, if the ivar is an IBOutlet) to clean up the ivar. Do this before you write the code using the new ivar. Here’s why:

Never Forget

You can’t forget to release an ivar, if the code that reaps it is in place before the code that creates it. Updating dealloc first means less memory leaks.

Even with an impossibly good testing protocol, that catches every memory leak, it’s faster to fix memory leaks before they happen than to track them down after the fact.

You Know More Than They Do

Sometimes there’s an important step that must be done when cleaning up an ivar. Maybe you need to set it’s delegate to nil, or unregister for a notification, or break a retain cycle. You know this when you setup the ivar. But your coworkers don’t know this a priori. When you checkin code that leaks or triggers an analyzer warning, they’ll want to fix it, and since they know less than you do about your code, they’re more likely to miss a crucial step. (Even if you work alone, remember Future You! In N weeks, Future You will have to deal with all the code Present You wrote today … and they’ll be in the same situation as any other co-worker, because they won’t remember everything Present You knows. )

May 24, 2010

Never Name a Variable “Index”

Filed under: Bug Bite,C++,Cocoa,Objective-C,Programming | ,
― Vincent Gable on May 24, 2010

Never name a variable index, especially in C.

Instead say what it indexes. For example, if it is used to index an array of Foo objects, call it fooArrayIndex, or currentFooIndex.

If the index variable is just used to enumerate over a collection of objects, (eg. for(int i = 0; i &lt arraySize; i++){…} ) then iterate smarter, using a simpler construct that doesn’t require declaring auxiliary variables. (Eg., in Objective-C use Fast Enumeration). It’s not always possible to do this, but it’s always a good idea to try.1

Why index is Especially Bad in C

The standard strings.h header declares a function named index, that finds the first occurrence of a charicter in a C-string. In practical terms every C program will have the index function declared everywhere.

But when a variable is declared with the name index it shadows the function – meaning the local variable named index takes over the name index, so the function can’t be called anymore:

char * world = index("Hello, World", 'W');
NSLog(@"'%s'", world);

Prints “‘World’”, but

int index = 0;
char * world = index("Hello, World", 'W');
NSLog(@"'%s'", world);

Won’t compile, because an int isn’t a function.

Obviously this is a problem for code that uses the index() function — but honestly modern code probably uses a safer, unicode-aware string parsing function instead. What’s given me the most trouble is that shadowing index makes the compiler give lots of bogus warnings, if you have the useful GCC_WARN_SHADOW warning turned on.

There are other good reasons as, specific to Objective-C, which Peter Hosey covers.

1If you really can’t think of a better name than “index”, I prefer the more terse i. It sucks, but at least it’s shorter. Brevity is a virtue.

May 19, 2010


Filed under: Cocoa,iPhone,MacOSX,Objective-C,Programming,Tips | , , ,
― Vincent Gable on May 19, 2010

How to remember Cocoa memory management:

Think NARC: “New Alloc Retain Copy”. If you are not doing any of those things, you don’t need to release.

–Andiih on Stack Overflow

Personally, I like to immediately autorelease anything I NARC-ed, on the same line. For example:

Foo* pityTheFoo = [[[Foo alloc] init] autorelease];

Admittedly, this makes for some ugly, bracey, lines. But I think it’s worth it, because you never having to worry about calling release if you also…

Use a @property (or Setter) Instead of retain

In other words I would write an init method that looked like:

- (id) init
	self = [super init];
	if (self) {
		_ivar = [[Foo alloc] init];
	return self;


- (id) init
	self = [super init];
	if (self) {
		self._ivar = [[[Foo alloc] init] autorelease];
	return self;

(Or [self setIvar:[[[Foo alloc] init] autorelease]]; if you are one of those folks who hate the dot-syntax.)

It’s debatable if using acessors in init and dealloc is a good idea. I even left a comment on that post arguing against it. But since then I’ve done a lot of reflection, and in my experience using a @property instead of an explicit release/= nil solves more problems then it causes. So I think it’s the best practice.

Even if you disagree with me on that point, if the only places you explicitly NARC objects are init, dealloc, and setX: methods then I think you’re doing the right thing.


The last piece of the memory-management puzzle are retain cycles. By far the best advice I’ve seen on them is Mike Ash’s article. Read it.

May 17, 2010

Don’t Check For nil in Your dealloc Methods

Filed under: Cocoa,Programming | , ,
― Vincent Gable on May 17, 2010

There’s no need to check if a variable is nil before release-ing it, because calling a method on a NULL variable is a no-op in Objective-C. And the runtime already has a super-fast check for this case.  So adding an extra if test into your code will probably slow things down.

Doing a pointless “ ==?nil”  test is bad for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s more code for no good reason. Even if it’s just one more line, It’s one more line to debug and test. It’s one more place where something could go wrong.

Secondly, it’s not idiomatic Cocoa-code, so it signals that something strange is going on. That’s a problem for whoever is reading the code, because they have to stop and look around more carefully to figure out why the pointless tests are happening.

In summary, do NOT do this:

- (void)dealloc;


if(baseImage) {

[baseImage release];

baseImage = nil;


[super dealloc];


Do this:

- (void)dealloc;


[baseImage release];

baseImage = nil;

[super dealloc];


April 29, 2010

What Am I About To Call?

Filed under: Cocoa,iPhone,MacOSX,Objective-C,Programming,Reverse Engineering,Tips | , ,
― Vincent Gable on April 29, 2010

Say you’re in gdb, and about to execute a call instruction for dyld_stub_objc_msgSend, how do you know what’s about to happen?

On i386

(gdb) x/s *(SEL*)($esp+4)

tells you the message that’s about to be sent.

(gdb) po *(id*)$esp

tells you the target object that’s about to get the message.

March 23, 2010

Cocoa Influenced The Gang of Four

Filed under: Cocoa,Design,Objective-C,Programming,Quotes | ,
― Vincent Gable on March 23, 2010

Next time you want to gloat about how seminal Cocoa is,

Erich Gamma: Yes, and it is funny that you mention the iPhone. The iPhone SDK is based on the NeXTStep object-oriented frameworks like the AppKit. It already existed when we wrote Design Patterns 15 years ago and was one source of inspiration. We actually refer to this framework in several of our patterns: Adapter, Bridge, Proxy, and Chain of Responsibility.

Richard: Which is a great example of the enduring nature of good design, and how it survives different technical manifestations.

Erich: Just as an aside, it is also easy to forget that we wrote design patterns before there was Java or C#.

Source: Design Patterns 15 Years Later: An Interview with Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, and Ralph Johnson

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