Bob leaned at the monitor. "Yeah, it's crashing at that
dump() statement," he said, scratching his nose.
"That's not possible."
"Sure it is, Junior." Bob was really starting to bug me. "All I do is get a brand new pointer from the factory, and dereference it when I pass it to you. If that pointer's null, 'course, you have a null reference. You should check for that."
"Uh, well," I faltered, less certain now. After all, I was just fresh out of school, and Bob had several years of experience. "I didn't think that was possible to see if a reference was null."
"All you do," Bob said, "is check the address of the reference. Like I said, you want to be safe, you should check for that..."
"No," the Guru's quiet voice startled us both. Once again, she had appeared at the right moment, and now stood behind us, an open tome in hand. "There is no need of such an abomination. The Standard teaches that it is not possible to have null references."
"But it is possible, dearie," Bob insisted. "We've just shown that. That's his problem."
I wanted to smack him. The Guru merely favored him with a chill glare. "No. You should check for that. Never dereference a null pointer. Change your code: If the pointer is null, do not call
helper(). Show me the working code this afternoon. Begone, you instrument of malformed programs," she waved him away.
Bob blinked. But she was the senior programmer on the team, so he shut up and left.
"My apprentice," she continued to me alone, "one of the major reasons to use a reference instead of a pointer is to free you from the burden of having to test to see if it refers to a valid object. The only way to create a null reference would be to dereference a null pointer -- an act clearly forbidden by the Holy Standard, well inside the realm of Undefined Behavior."
"Okay, but why tell only me? Why not tell Bob?"
She shook her head sadly. "This he knows. I cannot teach him; he is drawn to Undefined Behavior. My apprentice, beware the path to Undefined Behavior. Once you start down that path, it will dominate your life forever. It will consume your time, as you try to track down and fix problems."
I considered this. "Well," I asked, "what about accidentally creating an invalid reference? Say you pass an object to a function, and the object you pass goes out of scope before the function is finished with it. How do you guard against that?"
She shook her head. "You cannot. In this respect, references and pointers are very similar. Consider this parable." The Guru quickly scribbled out some code on my whiteboard:
f() quite clearly lives in infamy," she said, pushing a graying lock behind one ear, "as it returns a pointer to a local object that oversoon goes out of scope. Thus
main() points to an object that has been destroyed.
f1() does the best it can -- it checks for a null pointer. Some platforms also provide compiler-specific functions that can test whether a pointer points to a valid region of memory. However, such functions would still not detect the case that, inside
f1(), the variable
t does not point to a valid
T object. It is impossible for
f1() to be certain that
t is valid; therefore as the programmer writing
f1(), you must have faith. Faith that your fellow programmers will do everything in their power to provide you with a pointer to a valid object.
"Just as you must assume that a non-null pointer is valid, you must assume that a reference is valid. You must have faith in your fellow programmers."
"Even Bob?" I asked.
She nodded with an air of sadness, then drifted quietly away down the corridor, reading her tome.
- - - - -
"Did Bob last long?" Jeannine asked.
"Longer than he should have." I stopped smiling. "Our company also built software that got used in pacemakers. You know, the devices they used to put inside people's chests. One time he checked in a piece of code that didn't verify all its preconditions, and the code got out into production. And..."
Jeannine lifted an eyebrow.
I nodded soberly. "Bob finally did get another job, in retail sales. He can be glad it happened before the programmer liability laws." Then the damage control team relieved us, and we got ready to go on watch.
It was not the last time I would speak with Jeannine about the Guru, or about more pleasant things.