For want of a rant

For my day job, I hack C++. A great many rants could begin this way, and after a week of long days debugging crashes in deployed software, I'm tempted to write one. Why do so many programmers insist on using a low-level language for everything, whether it's needed or not?

But you've heard that rant before, and maybe even written it yourself; you know how it goes. So I won't bother. Besides, I'm not sure I agree with it. It's easy to blame any problems with C++ on the language's low level, but is that really where they come from?

One of the crashes I encountered this week was a buffer overflow, due to careless use of strcat. A classic case of C++'s unsafe, low-level data structures, right? Except that C++ does have real strings, and there was no reason not to use them. We just didn't use the tools the language gave us.

Part of the application I deal with at work is in Java, and crashes in that part are never hard to debug, because they always come with handy stack traces. The problem with C++ isn't that it crashes - that could hardly be prevented. It's how little information it reports when it crashes. But this is not C++'s fault. The information (except for symbols) needed for a stack trace is already there in the crashing image; it's just not normally reported. One must go to the trouble of using a debugger to extract it. This is a place where a small change in an operating system could make a big difference in a language's usability. On a system which generated stack traces by default when native code crashed, C++ would not be nearly as hard to debug.

Of course C++ is unsafe, and therefore sometimes clobbers the necessary information (as it did in that buffer overflow). And its limited expressiveness often means more code and more bugs than in a higher-level language. But not all of its troubles are a result of low language level. And some of them aren't even its fault.

For my day job, I hack C++. And it's really frustrating. It doesn't even give me a good excuse for a rant!

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