Puzzle #0: Call Sequence


Here’s a puzzle that should highlight a couple of interesting features in C++:

What is the output of the following program?

#include <iostream>;
using namespace std;

int main();

void term() {
    cout << "term()" << endl;
    main();
}

struct Positive {
    Positive(int i) {
        set_terminate(term);
        cout << "Positive::Positive(" << i << ")" << endl;
        if (i <= 0)
            throw main;
    }
};

Positive n(-1);

int main() {
    cout << "main()" << endl;
    Positive p(1);
}

If you just want the answer, you will find it at the bottom of this post. But first, I will go through the why.

Lines 1-2 are uninteresting. Lines 4-18 contain all the magic, but I’ll come back to those, I want to go through the program in chronological order as it is being executed. The entry point for this program is not main(), but rather the definition of Positive n(-1). This variable is global, and so will be initialized before main() is called. To initialize it, its constructor is called with i = -1, and so the real action starts on line 13.

On line 13, I use set_terminate() to set a termination handler. The termination handler will be called if a thrown exception is not handled. Otherwise, this statement has no visible immediate effect. We then encounter the first printout of this program, on line 14:

Positive::Positive(-1)

Our Positive class is however designed to only handle positive numbers, and throws on line 16. It is set to throw main, but this is really just a decoy. In C++, you can throw whatever you want, I happen to throw a function pointer to main(). In particular, this does not mean that main() is called.

The exception thrown on line 16 is never handled, and so the builtin terminate() calls the termination handler set_terminate(), which is defined on lines 6-9. Now we encounter our second printout:

term()

This is a straightforward cout on line 7. Then, we manually call main(). main is just a normal function, and even though it is special in that C++ will call it for you at startup, you are free to call it manually whenever you want. This is the third printout:

main()

main() then attempts to instantiate the local Positive object p(1). This calls the Positive constructor, which prints out

Positive::Positive(1)

This is a valid positive number, so no more exceptions are thrown. Control is returned to main(), which returns control to term(), which, being a termination handler, is not allowed to return, but still attempts to do so. I cannot find anything in the standard about what exactly is supposed to happen in this case, so I guess this is undefined behaviour. No matter what, returning doesn’t make any sense, as there is nowhere to return to. What happens on my system (gcc@linux) is program abortion with SIGABRT. What happens on yours?

Finally, the complete output of the program

$ ./outsidemain
Positive::Positive(-1)
term()
main()
Positive::Positive(1)
Aborted

This is probably not the most useful post I have written, but it highlights a few interesting points, and making a puzzle is always fun.

3 Responses to “Puzzle #0: Call Sequence”

  1. decltype Says:

    I think there are a few too many red herrings in this post :)

    The main function is not quite like any function, in that it cannot be _used_ in a program (for the ODR definition of “use”). Thus, you cannot call main directly, nor take its address (which happens when the function type is implicitly converted to a function pointer type in the throw-expression.

    So the answer is that the program is ill-formed :)

  2. panqnik Says:

    Hey there,
    Very useful post! I would like to invite you to visit my blog as well, and read my latest post about sequence points in C and C++.

    http://blog.panqnik.pl/dev/sequence-points-in-c-cpp/

    Best regards,
    panqnik


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