In [30]:
from IPython.display import Image
import os
import sys
import glob
import operator as op
import itertools as it
from functools import reduce, partial
import numpy as np
import pandas as pd
from pandas import DataFrame, Series
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import seaborn as sns
sns.set_context("notebook", font_scale=1.5)
%matplotlib inline

Compiled vs Interpreted Languages

We have been working with Python in this course, and you have likely used R in other coursework. Python and R are examples of ‘interpreted’ languages. In both cases, we begin with a text file (ASCII text!). To understand the distinction, we have to understand how a text program is processed into something a machine can understand.

The following is lifted from

Compilation process

Compilation process

The above chart is for a C compiler, but essentially the same process must be followed to take any text program in any language and make it executable on a computer. The difference between an interpreted language and a compiled language is when the steps occur. When working in C (or any other compiled language), a source text is processed into an executable file. That executable file is then available for use. When working in a scripted or interpreted language such as python or R, the entire process is repeated whenever the code is ‘executed’.

Now, you might be thinking - that sounds rather inefficient! And it is. But this inefficiency allows for a great deal of flexibility. For example:

In [76]:
def multiply(A,b):
def add_stuff(A,b):
In [77]:
array([[2, 2],
       [6, 4]])
In [33]:
In [34]:
In [35]:
A="hello world! "
b="hello A. How are you?"
'hello world! hello A. How are you?'

The above defined ‘multiply’ and ‘add_stuff’ functions simply take two objects. Python doesn’t care what type those objects are. If there is a binary operator ‘*’ for two objects passed to multiply, python will use it and return the result. The same applies to ‘add_stuff’ and ‘+’. As we can see in the last example - this works even for strings!

This cannot be done in C. That is because at ‘compile time’, the compiler needs to know exactly what objects A and b are. Python compiles ‘on the fly’, so we can pass whatever we like to our functions (so long as the operation makes sense.)

The difference between interpretation and compilation is important - and it should inform our programming. The reason that for loops are so inefficient in python is that the interpreter must compile each step. The ‘vectorized’ versions simply call compiled code. There is a for loop - but it is in the C code that python (and R) functions are written in.

Important Definitions

Header files

A header file is a text file that contains information about functions and variables that the program may use. For example, a header file might contain the line:

double do_stuff(int i, double a);

This tells the compiler that the program will call a function by the name of ‘do_stuff’, which takes as arguments an integer and a double, and returns a double. Note that the header file does not contain the body of the function.

The header file is ‘included’ in the main source file (i.e. the .c file) via the command

# include “my_header.h”

Implementation files

Now, you might be wondering, where is the code that defines what the function actually does? Well, that is generally in another file (a .c file). The file contents might look something like:

double do_stuff(int i, double a){        return i*a; }



Driver file or Main program file

In [36]:
def fib(n):
    a, b = 0,  1
    for i in range(n):
        a, b = a+b, a
    return a
In [37]:

Header file

In [38]:
%%file fib.h

double fib(int n);
Overwriting fib.h

Implementation file

In [39]:
%%file fib.c

double fib(int n) {
    double a = 0, b = 1;
    for (int i=0; i<n; i++) {
        double tmp = b;
        b = a;
        a += tmp;
    return a;
Overwriting fib.c

Driver program

In [40]:
%%file main.c
#include <stdio.h> // for printf()
#include <stdlib.h> // for atoi())
#include "fib.h" // for fib()

int main(int argc, char* argv[]) {
    int n = atoi(argv[1]);
    printf("%f", fib(n));

Overwriting main.c


In [41]:
%%file Makefile


fib: main.o fib.o
     $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -o fib main.o fib.o

main.o: main.c fib.h
     $(CC) $(CFAGS) -c main.c

fib.o: fib.c
     $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -c fib.c

     rm -f *.o
Overwriting Makefile


In [42]:
! make
clang  -c main.c
clang -Wall -c fib.c
clang -Wall -o fib main.o fib.o

Run executable file

In [43]:
! ./fib 100
C Basics

Types in C

The basic types are very simple - use int, float and double for numbers. In general, avoid float for plain C code as its lack of precision may bite you unless you are writing CUDA code. Strings are quite nasty to use in C - I would suggest doing all your string processing in Python ...

Structs are sort of like classes in Python

struct point {
    double x;
    double y;
    double z;

struct point p1 = {.x = 1, .y = 2, .z = 3};
struct point p2 = {1, 2, 3};
struct point p3;
p3.x = 1;
p3.y = 2;
p3.z = 3;

You can define your own types using typedef -.e.g.

#include <stdio.h>
struct point {
    double x;
    double y;
    double z;

typedef struct point point;

int main() {
    point p = {1, 2, 3};
    printf("%.2f, %.2f, %.2f", p.x, p.y, p.z);


Most of the operators in C are the same in Python, but an important difference is the increment/decrement operator. That is

int c = 10;
c++; // same as c = c + 1, i.e., c is now 11
c--; // same as c = c - 1, i.e.. c is now 10 again

There are two forms of the increment operator - postfix c++ and prefix ++c. Both increment the variable, but in an expression, the postfix version returns the value before the increment and the prefix returns the value after the increment.

In [44]:
%%file increment.c
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main()
    int x = 3, y;
    y = x++; // x is incremented and y takes the value of x before incrementation
    printf("x = %d, y = %d\n", x, y);
    y = ++x; // x is incremented and y takes the value of x after incrementation
    printf("x = %d, y = %d\n", x, y);
Writing increment.c
In [45]:

clang -Wall increment.c -o increment
x = 4, y = 3
x = 5, y = 5

The ternary operator expr = condition ? expr1 : expr2 allows an if-else statement to be put in a single line. In English, this says that if condition is True, expr1 is assigned to expr, otherwise expr2 is assigned to expr. We used it in the tutorial code to print a comma between elements in a list unless the element was the last one, in which case we printed a new line ‘’.

Note: There is a similar ternary construct in Python expr = expr1 if condition else epxr2.

Control of program flow

Very similar to Python or R. The examples below should be self-explanatory.

// Interpretation of grades by Asian parent
if (grade == 'A') {
} else if (grade == 'B') {
} else if (grade == 'C') {
} else if (grade == 'D') {
} else {
    printf("Missing child report filed with local police\n")
// Looping variants

// the for loop in C consists of the keyword if followed
// (initializing statement; loop condition statement; loop update statement)
// followed by the body of the loop in curly braces
int arr[3] = {1, 2, 3};
for (int i=0; i<sizeof(arr)/sizeof(arr[0]); i++) {
    printf("%d\n", i);

int i = 3;
while (i > 0) {

int i = 3;
do {
} while (i > 0);

Arrays and pointers

If you know the size of the arrays at initialization (i.e. when the program is first run), you can usually get away with the use of fixed size arrays for which C will automatically manage memory for you.

int len = 3;

// Giving an explicit size
double xs[len];
for (int i=0; i<len; i++) {
    xs[i] = 0.0;

// C can infer size if initializer is given
double ys[] = {1, 2, 3};

Otherwise, we have to manage memory ourselves using pointers. Basically, memory in C can be automatic, static or dynamic. Variables in automatic memory are managed by the computer, when it goes out of scope, the variable disappears. Static variables essentially live forever. Dynamic memory is allocated in the stack, and you manage its lifetime.

Mini-glossary: * scope: Where a variable is visible - basically C variables have block scope - variables either live within a pair of curly braces (including variables in parentheses just before block such as function arguments and the counter in a for loop), or they are visible throughout the file. * stack: Computer memory is divided into a stack (small) and a heap (big). Automatic variables are put on the stack; dynamic variables are put in the heap. Hence if you have a very large array, you would use dynamic memory allocation even if you know its size at initialization.

Any variable in memory has an address represented as a 64-bit integer in most operating systems. A pointer is basically an integer containing the address of a block of memory. This is what is returned by functions such as malloc. In C, a pointer is denoted by ‘*’. However, the ‘*‘ notation is confusing because its interpretation depends on whenever you are using it in a declaration or not. In a declaration

int *p = malloc(sizeof(int)); // p is a pointer to an integer
*p = 5; // *p is an integer

To get the actual address value, we can use the & address operator. This is often used so that a function can alter the value of an argument passed in (e.g. see address.c below).

In [46]:
%%file pointers.c
#include <stdio.h>

int main()
    int i = 2;
    int j = 3;
    int *p;
    int *q;
    *p = i;
    q = &j;
    printf("p  = %p\n", p);
    printf("*p = %d\n", *p);
    printf("&p = %p\n", &p);
    printf("q  = %p\n", q);
    printf("*q = %d\n", *q);
    printf("&q = %p\n", &q);
Writing pointers.c
In [47]:

#clang -Wall -Wno-uninitialized pointers.c -o pointers
In [48]:
%%file address.c
#include <stdio.h>

void change_arg(int *p) {
    *p *= 2;
int main()
    int x = 5;
    printf("%d\n", x);
Writing address.c
In [49]:

clang -Wall address.c -o address

Pointer arithmetic

If we want to store a whole sequence of ints, we can do so by simply allocating more memory:

int *ps = malloc(5 * sizeof(int)); // ps is a pointer to an integer
for (int i=0; i<5; i++) {
    ps[i] = i;

The computer will find enough space in the heap to store 5 consecutive integers in a contiguous way. Since C arrays are all fo the same type, this allows us to do pointer arithmetic - i.e. the pointer ps is the same as &ps[0] and ps + 2 is the same as &ps[2]. An example at this point is helpful.

In [50]:
%%file pointers2.c
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main()
    int *ps = malloc(5 * sizeof(int));
    for (int i =0; i < 5; i++) {
        ps[i] = i + 10;

    printf("%d, %d\n", *ps, ps[0]); // remmeber that *ptr is just a regular variable outside of a declaration, in this case, an int
    printf("%d, %d\n", *(ps+2), ps[2]);
    printf("%d, %d\n", *(ps+4), *(&ps[4])); // * and & are inverses
Overwriting pointers2.c
In [51]:

clang -Wall pointers2.c -o pointers2
10, 10
12, 12
14, 14

An array name is actually just a constant pointer to the address of the beginning of the array. Hence, we can dereference an array name just like a pointer. We can also do pointer arithmetic with array names - this leads to the following legal but weird syntax:

arr[i] = *(arr + i) = i[arr]
In [52]:
%%file array_pointer.c
#include <stdio.h>

int main()
    int arr[] = {1, 2, 3};
    printf("%d\t%d\t%d\t%d\t%d\t%d\n", *arr, arr[0], 0[arr], *(arr + 2), arr[2], 2[arr]);
Writing array_pointer.c
In [53]:

clang -Wall array_pointer.c -o array_pointer
1       1       1       3       3       3

Different kinds of nothing: There is a special null pointer indicated by the keyword NULL that points to nothing. It is typically used for pointer comparisons, since NULL pointers are guaranteed to compare as not equal to any other pointer (including another NULL). In particular, it is often used as a sentinel value to mark the end of a list. In contrast a void pointer (void *) points to a memory location whose type is not declared. It is used in C for generic operations - for example, malloc returns a void pointer. To totally confuse the beginning C student, there is also the NUL keyword, which refers to the '\0' character used to terminate C strings. NUL and NULL are totally different beasts.

Deciphering pointer idioms: A common C idiom that you should get used to is *q++ = *p++ where p and q are both pointers. In English, this says

  • *q = *p (copy the variable pointed to by p into the variable pointed to by q)
  • increment q
  • increment p
In [54]:
%%file pointers3.c
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main()
    // example 1
    typedef char* string;
    char *s[] = {"mary ", "had ", "a ", "little ", "lamb", NULL};
    for (char **sp = s; *sp != NULL; sp++) {
        printf("%s", *sp);

    // example 2
    char *src = "abcde";
    char *dest = malloc(5); // char is always 1 byte by C99 definition

    char *p = src + 4;
    char *q = dest;
    while ((*q++ = *p--)); // put the string in src into dest in reverse order

    for (int i = 0; i < 5; i++) {
        printf("i = %d, src[i] = %c, dest[i] = %c\n", i, src[i], dest[i]);
Writing pointers3.c
In [55]:

clang -Wall pointers3.c -o pointers3
mary had a little lamb
i = 0, src[i] = a, dest[i] = e
i = 1, src[i] = b, dest[i] = d
i = 2, src[i] = c, dest[i] = c
i = 3, src[i] = d, dest[i] = b
i = 4, src[i] = e, dest[i] = a


In [56]:
%%file square.c
#include <stdio.h>

double square(double x)
    return x * x;

int main()
    double a = 3;
    printf("%f\n", square(a));
Writing square.c
In [57]:

clang -Wall square.c -o square

Function pointers

How to make a nice function pointer: Start with a regular function declaration func, for example, here func is a function that takes a pair of ints and returns an int

int func(int, int);

To turn it to a function pointer, just add a * and wrap in parenthesis like so

int (*func)(int, int);

Now func is a pointer to a function that takes a pair of ints and returns an int. Finally, add a typedef so that we can use func as a new type

typedef int (*func)(int, int);

which allows us to create arrays of function pointers, higher order functions etc as shown in the following example.

In [58]:
%%file square2.c
#include <stdio.h>
#include <math.h>

// Create a function pointer type that takes a double and returns a double
typedef double (*func)(double x);

// A higher order function that takes just such a function pointer
double apply(func f, double x)
    return f(x);

double square(double x)
    return x * x;

double cube(double x)
    return pow(x, 3);

int main()
    double a = 3;
    func fs[] = {square, cube, NULL};

    for (func *f=fs; *f; f++) {
        printf("%.1f\n", apply(*f, a));
Writing square2.c
In [59]:

clang -Wall -lm square2.c -o square2

Using make to compile C programs

As you have seen, the process of C program compilation can be quite messy, with all sorts of different compiler and linker flags to specify, libraries to add and so on. For this reason, most C programs are compiled using the make built tool that you are already familiar with. Here is a simple generic makefile that you can customize to compile your own programs adapted from the book 21st Century C by Ben Kelmens (O’Reilly Media).

  • TARGET: Typically the name of the executable
  • OBJECTS: The intermediate object files - typically there is one file.o for every file.c
  • CFLAGS: Compiler flags, e.g. -Wall (show all warnings), -g (add debug information), -O3 (use level 3 optimization). Also used to indicate paths to headers in non-standard locations, e.g. -I/opt/include
  • LDFLAGS: Linker flags, e.g. -lm (link against the libmath library). Also used to indicate path to libraries in non-standard locations, e.g. -L/opt/lib
  • CC: Compiler, e.g. gcc or clang or icc

In addition, there are traditional dummy flags * all: Builds all targets (for example, you may also have html and pdf targets that are optional) * clean: Remove intermediate and final products generated by the makefile

In [60]:
%%file makefile
CFLAGS = -g -Wall -O3
CC = c99


     rm $(TARGET) $(OBJECTS)

Writing makefile

Just fill in the blanks with whatever is appropriate for your program. Here is a simple example where the main file test_main.c uses a function from stuff.c with declarations in stuff.h and also depends on the libm C math library.

In [61]:
%%file stuff.h
#include <stdio.h>
#include <math.h>

void do_stuff();
Writing stuff.h
In [62]:
%%file stuff.c
#include "stuff.h"

void do_stuff() {
    printf("The square root of 2 is %.2f\n", sqrt(2));
Writing stuff.c
In [63]:
%%file test_make.c
#include "stuff.h"

int main()
Writing test_make.c
In [64]:
%%file makefile
TARGET = test_make
OBJECTS = stuff.o
CFLAGS = -g -Wall -O3
LDLIBS = -lm
CC = clang

all: $(TARGET)

     rm $(TARGET) $(OBJECTS)

Overwriting makefile
In [65]:
! make
clang -g -Wall -O3    -c -o stuff.o stuff.c
clang -g -Wall -O3     test_make.c stuff.o  -lm -o test_make
In [66]:
! ./test_make
The square root of 2 is 1.41
In [67]:
# Make is clever enough to recompile only what has been changed since the last time it was called
! make
make: Nothing to be done for `all'.
In [68]:
! make clean
rm test_make stuff.o
In [69]:
! make
clang -g -Wall -O3    -c -o stuff.o stuff.c
clang -g -Wall -O3     test_make.c stuff.o  -lm -o test_make


Debugging programs (understanding compiler warnings and errors)

Try to fix the following buggy program.

In [70]:
%%file buggy.c

# Create a function pointer type that takes a double and returns a double
double *func(double x);

# A higher order function that takes just such a function pointer
double apply(func f, double x)
    return f(x);

double square(double x)
    return x * x;

double cube(double x)
    return pow(3, x);

double mystery(double x)
    double y = 10;
    if (x < 10)
        x = square(x);
        x += y;
        x = cube(x);
    return x;

int main()
    double a = 3;
    func fs[] = {square, cube, mystery, NULL}

    for (func *f=fs, f != NULL, f++) {
        printf("%d\n", apply(f, a));
Writing buggy.c
In [71]:
! clang -g -Wall buggy.c -o buggy
buggy.c:2:3: error: invalid preprocessing directive
# Create a function pointer type that takes a double and returns a double
buggy.c:5:3: error: invalid preprocessing directive
# A higher order function that takes just such a function pointer
buggy.c:6:14: error: unknown type name 'func'
double apply(func f, double x)
buggy.c:18:12: warning: implicitly declaring library function 'pow' with type 'double (double, double)'
    return pow(3, x);
buggy.c:18:12: note: please include the header <math.h> or explicitly provide a declaration for 'pow'
buggy.c:35:9: error: expected ';' after expression
    func fs[] = {square, cube, mystery, NULL}
buggy.c:35:10: error: use of undeclared identifier 'fs'
    func fs[] = {square, cube, mystery, NULL}
buggy.c:35:13: error: expected expression
    func fs[] = {square, cube, mystery, NULL}
buggy.c:35:17: error: expected expression
    func fs[] = {square, cube, mystery, NULL}
buggy.c:35:5: warning: expression result unused [-Wunused-value]
    func fs[] = {square, cube, mystery, NULL}
2 warnings and 7 errors generated.

Why not C?

What other language has an annual Obfuscated Code Contest In particular, the following features of C are very conducive to writing unreadable code:

  • lax rules for identifiers (e.g. _o, _0, _O, O are all valid identifiers)
  • chars are bytes and pointers are integers
  • pointer arithmetic means that array[index] is the same as *(array+index) which is the same as index[array]!
  • lax formatting rules especially with respect to whitespace (or lack of it)
  • Use of the comma operator to combine multiple expressions together with the ?: operator
  • Recursive function calls - e.g. main calling main repeatedly is legal C

Here is one winning entry from the 2013 IOCCC entry that should warm the heart of statisticians - it displays sparklines (invented by Tufte).

main(a,b)char**b;{int c=1,d=c,e=a-d;for(;e;e--)_(e)<_(c)?c=e:_(e)>_(d)?d=e:7;
In [72]:

%%file sparkl.c
main(a,b)char**b;{int c=1,d=c,e=a-d;for(;e;e--)_(e)<_(c)?c=e:_(e)>_(d)?d=e:7;
Writing sparkl.c
In [73]:
! gcc -Wno-implicit-int -include stdio.h -include stdlib.h -D'_(x)=strtof(b[x],0)' sparkl.c -o sparkl
In [74]:
import numpy as np
print(' '.join(map(str, (100*np.sin(np.linspace(0, 8*np.pi, 30))).astype('int'))))
0 76 98 51 -31 -92 -88 -21 60 99 68 -10 -82 -96 -41 41 96 82 10 -68 -99 -60 21 88 92 31 -51 -98 -76 0
In [75]:

./sparkl 0 76 98 51 -31 -92 -88 -21 60 99 68 -10 -82 -96 -41 41 96 82 10 -68 -99 -60 21 88 92 31 -51 -98 -76 0

Learning Obfuscated C

If you have too much time on your hands and really want to know how not to write C code (unless you are crafting an entry for the IOCCC), I recommend this tutorial

In [ ]: