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Posted at 2012-12-14 14:38 | RSS feed (Full text feed) | Blog Index
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Friday Q&A 2012-12-14: Objective-C Pitfalls
by Mike Ash  

Objective-C is a powerful and extremely useful language, but it's also a bit dangerous. For today's article, my colleague Chris Denter suggested that I talk about pitfalls in Objective-C and Cocoa, inspired by Cay S. Horstmann's article on C++ pitfalls.

I'll use the same definition as Horstmann: a pitfall is code that compiles, links, runs, but doesn't do what you might expect it to. He provides this example, which is just as problematic in Objective-C as it is in C++:

    if (-0.5 <= x <= 0.5) return 0;

A naive reading of this code would be that it checks to see whether x is in the range [-0.5, 0.5]. However, that's not the case. Instead, the comparison gets evaluated like this:

    if ((-0.5 <= x) <= 0.5)

In C, the value of a comparison expression is an int, either 0 or 1, a legacy from when C had no built-in boolean type. It is that 0 or 1, not the value of x, that is compared with 0.5. In effect, the second comparison works as an extremely weirdly phrased negation operator, such that the if statement's body will execute if and only if x is less than -0.5.

Nil Comparison
Objective-C is highly unusual in that sending messages to nil does nothing and simply returns 0. In nearly every other language you're likely to encounter, the equivalent is either prohibited by the type system or produces a runtime error. This can be both good and bad. Given the subject of the article, we'll concentrate on the bad.

First, let's look at equality testing:

    [nil isEqual: @"string"]

Messaging nil returns 0, which in this case is equivalent to NO. That happens to be the correct answer here, so we're off to a good start! However, consider this:

    [nil isEqual: nil]

This also returns NO. It doesn't matter that the argument is the exact same value. The argument's value doesn't matter at all, because messages to nil always return 0 no matter what. So going by isEqual:, nil never equals anything, including itself. Mostly right, but not always.

Finally, consider one more permutation with nil:

    [@"string" isEqual: nil]

What does this do? Well, we can't be sure. It may return NO. It may throw an exception. It may simply crash. Passing nil to a method that doesn't explicitly say it's allowed is a bad idea, and isEqual: doesn't say that it accepts nil.

Many Cocoa classes also include a compare: method. This takes another object of the same class and returns either NSOrderedAscending, NSOrderedSame, or NSOrderedDescending, to indicate less than, equal, or greater than.

What happens if we compare with nil?

    [nil compare: nil]

This returns 0, which happens to be equal to NSOrderedSame. Unlike isEqual:, compare: thinks nil equals nil. Handy! However:

    [nil compare: @"string"]

This also returns NSOrderedSame, which is definitely the wrong answer. compare: will consider nil to be equal to anything and everything.

Finally, just like isEqual:, passing nil as the parameter is a bad idea:

    [@"string" compare: nil]

In short, be careful with nil and comparisons. It really just doesn't work right. If there's any chance your code will encounter nil, you must check for and handle it separately before you start doing isEqual: or compare:.

You write a little class to contain some data. You have multiple equivalent instances of this class, so you implement isEqual: so that those instances will be treated as equal. Then you start adding your objects to an NSSet and things start behaving strangely. The set claims to hold multiple objects after you just added one. It can't find stuff you just added. It may even crash or corrupt memory.

This can happen if you implement isEqual: but don't implement hash. A lot of Cocoa code requires that if two objects compare as equal, they will also have the same hash. If you only override isEqual:, you violate that requirement. Any time you override isEqual:, always override hash at the same time. For more information, see my article on Implementing Equality and Hashing.

Imagine you're writing some unit tests. You have a method that's supposed to return an array containing a single object, so you write a test to verify that:

    STAssertEqualObjects([obj method], @[ @"expected" ], @"Didn't get the expected array");

This uses the new literals syntax to keep things short. Nice, right?

Now we have another method that returns two objects, so we write a test for that:

    STAssertEqualObjects([obj methodTwo], @[ @"expected1", @"expected2" ], @"Didn't get the expected array");

Suddenly, the code fails to compile and produces completely bizarre errors. What's going on?

What's going on is that STAssertEqualObjects is a macro. Macros are expanded by the preprocessor, and the preprocessor is an ancient and fairly dumb program that doesn't know anything about modern Objective-C syntax, or for that matter modern C syntax. The preprocessor splits macro arguments on commas. It's smart enough to know that parentheses can nest, so this is seen as three arguments:

    Macro(a, (b, c), d)

Where the first argument is a, the second is (b, c), and the third is d. However, the preprocessor has no idea that it should do the same thing for [] and {}. With the above macro, the preprocessor sees four arguments:

This results in completely mangled code that not only doesn't compile, but confuses the compiler beyond the ability to provide understandable diagnostics. The solution is easy, once you know what the problem is. Just parenthesize the literal so the preprocessor treats it as one argument:

    STAssertEqualObjects([obj methodTwo], (@[ @"expected1", @"expected2" ]), @"Didn't get the expected array");

Unit tests are where I've run into this most frequently, but it can pop up any time there's a macro. Objective-C literals will fall victim, as will C compound literals. Blocks can also be problematic if you use the comma operator within them, which is rare but legal. You can see that Apple thought about this problem with their Block_copy and Block_release macros in /usr/include/Block.h:

    #define Block_copy(...) ((__typeof(__VA_ARGS__))_Block_copy((const void *)(__VA_ARGS__)))
    #define Block_release(...) _Block_release((const void *)(__VA_ARGS__))

These macros conceptually take a single argument, but they're declared to take variable arguments to avoid this problem. By taking ... and using __VA_ARGS__ to refer to "the argument", multiple "arguments" with commas are reproduced in the macro's output. You can take the same approach to make your own macros safe from this problem, although it only works on the last argument of a multi-argument macro.

Property Synthesis
Take the following class:

    @interface MyClass : NSObject {
        NSString *_myIvar;

    @property (copy) NSString *myIvar;


    @implementation MyClass

    @synthesize myIvar;


Nothing wrong with this, right? The ivar declaration and @synthesize are a little redundant in this modern age, but do no harm.

Unfortunately, this code will silently ignore _myIvar and synthesize a new variable called myIvar, without the leading underscore. If you have code that uses the ivar directly, it will see a different value from code that uses the property. Confusion!

The rules for @synthesize variable names are a little weird. If you specify a variable name with @synthesize myIvar = _myIvar;, then of course it uses whatever you specify. If you leave out the variable name, then it synthesizes a variable with the same name as the property. If you leave out @synthesize altogether, then it synthesizes a variable with the same name as the property, but with a leading underscore.

Unless you need to support 32-bit Mac, your best bet these days is to just avoid explicitly declaring backing ivars for properties. Let @synthesize create the variable, and if you get the name wrong, you'll get a nice compiler error instead of mysterious behavior.

Interrupted System Calls
Cocoa code usually sticks to higher level constructs, but sometimes it's useful to drop down a bit and do some POSIX. For example, this code will write some data to a file descriptor:

    int fd;
    NSData *data = ...;

    const char *cursor = [data bytes];
    NSUInteger remaining = [data length];

    while(remaining > 0) {
        ssize_t result = write(fd, cursor, remaining);
        if(result < 0)
            NSLog(@"Failed to write data: %s (%d)", strerror(errno), errno);
        remaining -= result;
        cursor += result;

However, this can fail, and it will fail strangely and intermittently. POSIX calls like this can be interrupted by signals. Even harmless signals handled elsewhere in the app like SIGCHLD or SIGINFO can cause this. SIGCHLD can occur if you're using NSTask or are otherwise working with subprocesses. When write is interrupted by a signal, it returns -1 and sets errno to EINTR to indicate that the call was interrupted. The above code treats all errors as fatal and will bail out, even though the call just needs to be tried again. The correct code checks for that separately and just retries the call:

    while(remaining > 0) {
        ssize_t result = write(fd, cursor, remaining);
        if(result < 0 && errno == EINTR)
        else if(result < 0)
            NSLog(@"Failed to write data: %s (%d)", strerror(errno), errno);
        remaining -= result;
        cursor += result;

String Lengths
The same string, represented differently, can have different lengths. This is a relatively common but incorrect pattern:

    write(fd, [string UTF8String], [string length]);

The problem is that NSString computes length in terms of UTF-16 code units, while write wants a count of bytes. While the two numbers are equal when the string only contains ASCII (which is why people so frequently get away with writing this incorrect code), they're no longer equal once the string contains non-ASCII characters such as accented characters. Always compute the length of the same representation you're manipulating:

    const char *cStr = [string UTF8String];
    write(fd, cStr, strlen(cStr));

Casting to BOOL
Take this bit of code that just checks to see whether an object pointer is nil:

    - (BOOL)hasObject
        return (BOOL)_object;

This works... usually. However, roughly 6% of the time, it will return NO even though _object is not nil. What gives?

The BOOL type is, unfortunately, not a boolean. Here's how it's defined:

    typedef signed char BOOL;

This is another bit of unfortunate legacy from the days when C had no boolean type. Cocoa predates C99's _Bool, so it defines its "boolean" type as a signed char, which is just an 8-bit integer. When you cast a pointer to an integer, you just get the numeric value of that pointer. When you cast a pointer to a small integer, you just get the numeric value of the lower bits of that pointer. When the pointer looks like this:


The BOOL gets this:


This is not 0, meaning that it evaluates as true, so what's the problem? The problem is when the pointer looks like this:


Then the BOOL gets this:


This is 0, also known as NO, even though the pointer wasn't nil. Oops!

How often does this happen? There are 256 possible values in the BOOL, only one of which is NO, so we'd naively expect it to happen about 1/256 of the time. However, Objective-C objects are allocated aligned, normally to 16 bytes. This means that the bottom four bits of the pointer are always zero (something that tagged pointers takes advantage of) and there are only four bits of freedom in the resulting BOOL. The odds of getting all zeroes there are about 1/16, or about 6%.

To safely implement this method, perform an explicit comparison against nil:

    - (BOOL)hasObject
        return _object != nil;

If you want to get clever and unreadable, you can also use the ! operator twice. This !! construct is sometimes referred to as C's "convert to boolean" operator, although it's just built from parts:

    - (BOOL)hasObject
        return !!_object;

The first ! produces 1 or 0 depending on whether _object is nil, but backwards. The second ! then puts it right, resulting in 1 if _object is not nil, and 0 if it is.

You should probably stick to the != nil version.

Missing Method Argument
Let's say you're implementing a table view data source. You add this to your class's methods:

    - (id)tableView:(NSTableView *) objectValueForTableColumn:(NSTableColumn *)aTableColumn row:(NSInteger)rowIndex
        return [dataArray objectAtIndex: rowIndex];

Then you run your app and NSTableView complains that you haven't implemented this method. But it's right there!

As usual, the computer is correct. The computer is your friend.

Look closer. The first parameter is missing. Why does this even compile?

It turns out that Objective-C allows empty selector segments. The above does not declare a method named tableView:objectValueForTableColumn:row: with a missing argument name. It declares a method named tableView::row:, and the first argument is named objectValueForTableColumn. This is a particularly nasty way to typo the name of a method, and if you do it in a context where the compiler can't warn you about the missing method, you may be trying to debug it for a long time.

Objective-C and Cocoa have plenty of pitfalls ready to trap the unwary programmer. The above is just a sampling. However, it's a good list of things to be careful of.

That's it for today! Check back next time for more wacky advice. Friday Q&A is driven by user ideas, in case you didn't already know, so until next time, please send in your ideas for articles!

Did you enjoy this article? I'm selling a whole book full of them. It's available for iBooks and Kindle, plus a direct download in PDF and ePub format. It's also available in paper for the old-fashioned. Click here for more information.


Raphael at 2012-12-14 15:42:40:
What has always bothered me about the - (const char *)UTF8String method of NSString is that it needs to calculate the number of bytes that the string will take in UTF-8 but there is no way to get that information out of there so you need to call strlen, which calculates the same information again, again taking a time of O(n).

A method like - (const char *)UTF8String returnedBytes:(* int)byteCount would be very helpful. You could then rewrite your example as follows:

int byteCount;
const char *cStr = [string UTF8String returnedBytes:&byteCount];
write(fd, cStr, byteCount);

MWS at 2012-12-14 16:53:07:
Here's a nice one that happened to me the other day:

NSMutableArray * result;

[result addObject:someObject];
//... add a bunch of objects

return [NSArray arrayWithArray:result];

Which returns an empty array. :(

bealex at 2012-12-14 17:02:00:
I personally hate unsigned ints in length and count. (Yes, I know, I'm from Java world, but does that matter?) Every now and then I create some loop like "i > 0; i--" and if "i" happens to be unsigned, it blows up with nasty errors.

mikeash at 2012-12-14 17:05:06:
Raphael: This is what the -dataUsingEncoding: method is for. It gives you a NSData object which encapsulates both the bytes and the length.

bealex: The problem only happens if you write i >= 0, and any decent C compiler will warn you that the comparison is always true if you have warnings turned up to decent levels.

BDB at 2012-12-14 18:41:12:
A note: your solution for EINTR could cause some oddities if a signal handler is blocking SIGTERM, SIGQUIT, etc to do cleanup.

E.G. If you are in a loop reading/writing gigs of data your app could stay alive well past the intended short cleanup delay. You'd have to watch a flag set by the signal handler to exit the I/O loop for a complete solution.

Jeff Johnson at 2012-12-14 19:10:30:
Actually, -isEqual: is documented as accepting nil, although unfortunately that documentation is not in the NSObject protocol reference. "However, for backward compatibility, isEqual: methods of the Cocoa frameworks do accept nil, returning NO."

Rob Mayoff at 2012-12-14 22:20:25:
Some methods in Cocoa only work reliably for BOOL values of 0 and 1. See http://stackoverflow.com/questions/13750370/button-set-selected-via-bool/13750834#13750834 . So even if you get lucky and your pointer gets clipped to a non-zero value, it may still be treated incorrectly later.

Greg Parker at 2012-12-15 09:15:37:
Recent versions of clang warn about that "missing method argument" example. If you really want an unnamed method argument then the compiler will insist that you add some whitespace.

Raphael at 2012-12-15 12:01:40:
@mikeash: Yeah, I saw -dataUsingEncoding as well. How much overhead is there to using the NSData wrapper?

Also, regarding the “casting objects to BOOL” issue: does this pitfall still hold true when doing something like if(object) {…? I gather C uses int for the comparison happening in the if. What if pointers were longer than the standard int type, would that be a problem then? Are there any platforms where this is the case?

Grigory Entin at 2012-12-15 23:35:40:
I do believe that at least the latest versions of clang are able to complain about (BOOL)object. It does not look like a problem to me.

error: cast from pointer to smaller type 'BOOL' (aka 'signed char') loses information
        BOOL x = (BOOL)object;

mikeash at 2012-12-16 01:53:10:
Raphael: Object allocation is cheap. You have to allocate memory for the UTF-8 string regardless, so it's probably not much more. For if(object), it's fine. That's equivalent to != 0 which is the same as != NULL.

TDK at 2012-12-17 21:55:03:
Threaded code pitfalls should be an article all of its own, but here's one Objective-C makes trivial to typo or misunderstand.

- (NSString *)newString {
    __block NSString *returnString = nil;
    dispatch_async(dispatch_get_main_queue(), ^{
        returnString = [[NSString alloc] initWithFormat:@"Expensive String"];
    return returnString;

- When does -newString return? Almost immediately.
- When does returnString get initialized? Um, whenever.
- When does returnString get released? WAT

John Brewer at 2012-12-19 12:23:15:
Is EINTR handling an issue on iOS and modern MacOS? I was under the impression that BSD handled retries on signals automagically.

mikeash at 2012-12-19 23:53:44:
John Brewer: This is definitely something that happens, as running into it recently is what prompted me to add it to this list. It looks like it's configurable, and since it's global state, you can't rely on it being set to anything in particular unless you own everything in your process.

Sean M at 2012-12-22 02:03:28:
The fact that BOOL has 256 values is maddening. Regarding this, I would also suggest one never compare BOOL variables against YES. ie:

BOOL foo = ComputeSomething()
if (foo == YES)

Hopefully clang will warn on this one day: <http://llvm.org/PR9194>;. Until then, at least searching your codebase for "== YES" is not so hard.

jamie at 2012-12-23 18:22:00:
Is it possible to write your own user-created static checks rules for Clang/LLVM, without going down into the source or writing a plugin? Something simple like TDK's -- "never allow a function to return a __block type" or some such.

Ben at 2012-12-28 05:05:44:
@MWS - Technically you are returning an autoreleased array, not an empty one. If the method that called this one retains the array then it will not be collected when the run loop executes next (or whenever the containing autorelease pool is drained).

Stephen Lottermoser at 2013-01-04 00:32:40:
@Ben Isn't @MWS's real problem that he forgot to initialize the result array? NSMutableArray *result; would give a pointer filled with garbage instead of a valid mutable array object, so adding objects to it and the returning an autoreleased object would fail and most likely crash the app.

Sean M at 2013-01-04 15:44:04:
Stephen, under ARC, "NSMutableArray *result" doesn't give a pointer filled with a garbage address, it is initialized to nil.

Mark Aufflick at 2013-01-16 04:40:20:
I would say that:

[nil isEqual: nil] == NO

Is in fact exactly what I would expect, equating nil with an SQL-like concept of no/null value, and that a null value cannot equal anything, not even another null value.

Mark Aufflick at 2013-01-16 04:42:04:
Of course, if you happened to have a method called "isNotEqualTo:" then the behaviour would be problematic, and a good reason not to have a method that operates that way around!

Ben at 2013-01-23 18:31:02:
@Stephen - I assumed he left the initialization out for brevity (since it may be an ivar, extern, static, etc.) and was simply providing us the type.

It might be the case that result pointer will be garbage, but it might also be nil depending on how it is defined, luck, what type of build, etc.

This is the problem with pseudocode, there can be a number of "issues" that aren't really issues at all depending on if we have all the context or not. So we are all simultaneously correct and incorrect :)

Safewiper at 2014-11-13 01:01:34:
As a programmer familiar with C++, Java and Objective-C, I have to say OC seem much easier than the other two from the experience of novice developer. It's great to read in-depth analysis like this one.

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