C Plus Minus

While consuming Handmade Hero and coding furiously to keep up with Casy Muratori I discovered the joy of programming in a language that I deeply understand. This is not one of those new trendy programming languages that tries to be type-safe without explicit types or functional without being confusing. And yet all the new hot/cool programming languages are based on this ur-language. Swift, TypeScript, Go, C++14, and Java 8 are all “c-like” languages and the original “c-like” language is a lingo that we used to call C+- (C Plus Minus).

I probably like C because it was the first non-toy programming language that I used to program a real personal computer. In the late 1980s all the home computers came with BASIC (which is best SHOUTED in CAPS). But once I got a true personal computer, a Macintosh 512Ke, that could run real applications I had to buy a real programming language to write those real applications. For a couple of months that real language was Pascal… but C rapidly took over. By the time I got to Apple in the early 1990s C++ was about to push C out of the way as the hot new programmer’s tool.

We have this same problem today. There is always another more productive, safer, more readable programming language around the corner. If you code on the backend for a living you’re probably thinking about Go or Rust. If you code on the front side you’re ditiching CoffeeScript for TypeScript or just sticking with JavaScript until the next version, ECMA Script 6, shows up in your minimum target browser.

But I’ve been traveling back in time and happily coding away with access to pointers and pointer arithmetic, pound defines, and user designed types. It’s not plain vanilla C because like Cory, I’m compiling my code with a modern C++ compiler. I’m just not using 90% of C++’s features. Back in the 1980/90s we call this language C+-. Back then only some of the C++ standard had been implemented in our compliers. We had classes but not multiple inheritance. (Later we learned that multiple inheritance was bad or at least poor taste so not having access to it was ok.) We only had public and private members. (Protected members aren’t actually useful unless you’re working on a big team or writing a framework. We were writing small apps in small teams.) We had to allocate memory on the heap and dispose of it. So we allocated most of what we needed up front and sub-allocated it. We didn’t have garbage collection, we didn’t even know about garbage collection, so we couldn’t feel bad. We felt powerful.

Now that I’ve been writing in C+- for a few weeks I feel like Superman–Or maybe Batman–Your pick. I have just a few tools in my tool belt but I know how to use them. In the modern world Swift 3.o is thinking of getting rid of the ++ operator and the for(;;){} loop. I use those language features every day, usually together: for(i = 0; i < count; i++) {}. I am told these things are ugly. They seem like familiar old friends to me!

One thing I really like is that I can access a value and increment a pointer with one pretty little expression: *pointer++. I like thinking in bytes and bits and memory addresses. And I like how fast my little programs run and how small their file sizes are.

I know I should not like all these things. Raw access to memory is dangerous. &-ing and |-ing bits is probably dangerous too. My state is not safely closured and side-effects abound. But modern C++ compilers and tools like GCC and Clang do a pretty good job of catching memory access errors these days. It was much more dangerous back in 1986 back when I first started.

Maybe I’m just nostalgic. But while you are learning Swift or TypeScript to write web and mobile apps the operating system your computer runs (Mac OS X, Windows, Linux) was written in C+-. The web browser (Safari, Firefox, or Chrome) that renders your HTML, CSS, and JS was written in C+-. That awesome AAA game and Node.JS were written in C+-. (Some parts C, some parts C++ and some parts Assembly as needed.)

C+- is the Fight Club of computer languages: Nobody talks about it, it doesn’t have official status, and groups of self organizing coders beat each other up with it every day.

2 replies on “C Plus Minus”

  1. Hi,
    well I know that this is of the last year, i’ve been looking for some article or something about C+- but, was hard, and then a friend found this for me.
    My Question is, where I can learn the basics of c+-, I’ve been programming in Python, ANSI C, and C# for a while, but never heard about this until I found it as subject of my future Master (college, of Spain).

    Would be nice. To have some basics.

  2. Emmanuel, C+- is an unofficial style of coding. It’s what experienced production programmers have learned how to do to deliver code in a world of C-based OS APIs with C and C++. So you are right! It would be great to have a book on subject. I don’t think anyone is going to write that book. I suggest you start with C and read some of the old classic like C Traps and Pitfalls and the rest mentioned here: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/562303/the-definitive-c-book-guide-and-list Then add C++ features as needed. Stay away from multiple inheritance and other so-called “advanced features” of C++ until you can figure out which ones you really need.

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