Pointers to Pointers to Pointers to …

This week both CS515 and CS520 covered how to use C++ and C, respectively, to do things involving data.

C++ is a super-set of C - that is, if a program is valid C code, it is also valid C++ code. Luckily, this means that many of the same concepts apply equally well to both classes footnote:[Which is why I’m writing about them together.]. The main concept this week is the idea of memory, and how things are laid out in memory.


Physically, a computer uses a big block of logic gates that can store some state representing a Boolean value. So the first logic gate might have a 0, the second a 1, the third another 0, and so on. Let’s imagine that we had this segment of memory:


What does this represent? Well, it might represent the number 65, expressed in base 2. It might represent the letter ‘A’. It might represent the number –191 represented in two’s-complement form. It might be part of a larger number. It could even be a gray-ish part of a pixel.

The meaning of the bits represented inside the computer depends on their interpretation. Which leads to a bunch of cool things, including:


A pointer is just a bit of memory which stores the location of something else in memory. So, for example, an int * footnote:[Pronounced ‘int pointer’.] in C means ‘a value which points to the location of an integer’. An int ** footnote:[Pronounced ‘int pointer pointer’] points to the location of an int *.

Why is this important? Because it provides a fast way for different parts of a program to communicate, as well as providing a way to refer to big structures in memory using only a single number. To understand how pointers help with that, let’s take a look at Casting.


Since 01000001 could mean either 65 or ‘A’, we can go back and forth between those two values not by changing the physical memory, but just by changing our interpretation of that memory. For example, 'A' + 1 == 'B'. We think of ‘A’ as a number (65), add 1 (66), and then think of the result as a letter (‘B’).

How is this relevant to pointers? Well, let’s imagine that we have an int *. Since an int * is just a number stored in memory (like everything is), we can do math on it. So lets take our pointer and add 1 to it. Now what? Now the pointer points to the next item in memory. footnote:[Well, actually to the next byte in memory. If your object is bigger than a byte, then you need to add more than one to the pointer to find the next one.] How cool is that?

We can use this ability to do math with pointers to create arrays. Just keep a pointer to the first item. Then, to look up the 3rd item, just add 2 to the pointer and look there. In fact, the syntax for accessing a particular item of an array (array[index]) is translated by the compiler into array + (index * size-of-an-item-in-the-array), because array is just a pointer.

So What?

So why is all this actually useful? That’s a good question, and one that I don’t have a complete answer for yet. What I have done so far, however, is write a program that can convert from UTF–8 to UTF–32 by reading in the UTF–8 file into memory, and then reinterpreting each of the letters as an item to write out in UTF–32, so that’s pretty neat.

I hope to see you next week for more computer science!