C Switch for Non-Integers

In C, and thus Objective-C, a switch statement only works with integers, and the case labels all need to be constant.  Strings seem like a natural thing to switch on, especially for command line interfaces.  Unfortunately, they cannot be reduced to integer constants, so we cannot use them.  Now that we have blocks in the language, we can create a dictionary where we associate any object, such as an NSString, with a block, and call the selected block after a simple dictionary lookup.

The syntax

//get a string from standard input
char str[256];
fgets(str, 256, stdin);
*(char *)memchr(str, '\n', 256) = '';

JPSwitch([NSString stringWithUTF8String:str]) {
	JPCase(@"option one"):
		NSLog(@"the first posibility was selected");

	JPStringCase(Do Non-NSString objects work?):
		NSLog(@"Yes, technically any object would work as a key,"
		  @"and anything else would work with an NSValue wrapper");

		NSLog(@"None of the possiblities were selected.  Oh noes!");
} JPSwitchEnd;

Due to the unordered nature of a dictionary, there is no (simple) way to enable fall-through, so control-flow breaks immediately upon a subsequent case statement, eliminating the need for the break keyword.  More than that however, I view the lack of a break keyword as a net positive because they usually simply require extra typing, creating a reduction of code density, compared to the relative few of times fall-through functionality is necessary.

The JPSwitchEnd macro and its exact usage is something I agonized for a while over, as it would be much more C-like if the switch statement ended at the closing brace.  The main point of interest was the semicolon’s inclusion or exclusion from the macro, but ultimately I decided on its exclusion so that the JPSwitch statement would look closer to the C do…while statement, instead of a dangling reminder of an ugly macro.

The Macro Hackery

Peeling back the layers, here is what the JPSwitch statement above would look without macros:

__JPSwitch([NSString stringWithUTF8String:str], ^{
}, @"option one", ^{ JPSwitchCase:
	 NSLog(@"the first posibility was selected");
}, @"Do Non-NSString objects work?", ^{ JPSwitchCase:
	 NSLog(@"Yes, technically any object would work as a key,"
	       @"and anything else would work with an NSValue wrapper");
}, &JPSwitchDefaultCaseIndicator, ^{ JPSwitchCase:
	 NSLog(@"None of the possiblities were selected.  Oh noes!");
} , &JPSwitchTermationIndicator);

as you can see, the macros just barely cover a variadic function, which does the real work.  Before we delve into that function, a few things to note which may be non-obvious:

The empty block that is the second parameter to __JPSwitch is there so that the first case (“option one”) will not have any errors upon the closing brace that it begins with.  Because we want the control flow of the previous case to break upon the following case, it is vital that we include this all on one line, hence in one macro, hence the closing brace (for all other cases).

Another thing to note is the JPSwitchCase label which precedes every case; this is so we can have the colon after the (macros) of the case labels, but serves no actual purpose.  They do not conflict with each other because they are in separate blocks.

Lastly, note the &JPSwitchDefaultCaseIndicator and &JPSwitchTerminationIndicator.  Variadic functions need a sentinel value to signal the end of their parameter list, but typically NULL (which is the same as nil) is the colloquial sentinel for pointer types.  Because methods often return nil when unable to return a valid object, it is possible that a case label object may be nil.  (In order to make __JPSwitch nil safe, we will ignore nil case labels and their blocks.)  The reason the NULL constant is used, however, is because it is guaranteed that no actual object (in the C sense of the word) can occupy the space pointed to by NULL, and therefore it can never accidentally equal a valid pointer.  With this in mind, it is easy to create a pointer sentinel value: just allocate global dummy memory and use its pointer, that way no valid object’s pointer can compare equal to it.  Thinking myself rather clever, I used this approach for the default case label as well.

The result:

extern char JPSwitchTermationIndicator;
extern char JPSwitchDefaultCaseIndicator;

void __JPSwitch(id selector, ...);
#define JPSwitch(selector)	__JPSwitch(selector, ^
#define JPCase(obj)		}, obj, ^{ JPSwitchCase
#define JPStringCase(str)	JPCase(@#str) //Preprocessor stringification
#define JPDefaultCase		}, &JPSwitchDefaultCaseIndicator, ^{ JPSwitchCase
#define JPSwitchEnd		, &JPSwitchTermationIndicator)


The majority of its workings having been exposed already, there is one last intricacy of __JPSwitch.  I mentioned above that it used a dictionary; it does not, however, use an NSDictionary.  While it could be using a C++ std::map, I chose to keep this purely Objective-C, although if I hadn’t I would be making use of the templating in std::map for the case label object, making it compatible with any object, C, Objective-C, or C++.  Instead, I used NSMapTable.  The reason I chose it over NSDictionary is that NSMapTable is more than happy to accept arbitrary pointers, but more importantly not retain them.  This is significant because when you retain a block, you copy it, which can be expensive.  This way, you have very little overhead for unused code.  While the rest should be left as an exercise  for the reader, it’s on my github, so I’ll post it here as well:

#import "JPSwitch.h"

char JPSwitchTermationIndicator, JPSwitchDefaultCaseIndicator;

void __JPSwitch(id selector, ...) {
	va_list args;
	va_start(args, selector);

	id caseLabel;
	void(^defaultCaseBlock)() = nil;

	va_arg(args, void(^)());	//Eat empty first block

	NSMapTable *allCases = [NSMapTable mapTableWithWeakToWeakObjects];
	while ((caseLabel = va_arg(args, id)) != (void *)&JPSwitchTermationIndicator) {
		caseBlock = va_arg(args, id);
		if (caseLabel == (void *)&JPSwitchDefaultCaseIndicator) {
			defaultCaseBlock = caseBlock;
		} else if (caseLabel != nil) {
			[allCases setObject:caseBlock forKey:caseLabel];

	caseBlock = (void(^)())[allCases objectForKey:selector] ?: defaultCaseBlock;
	if (caseBlock) caseBlock();


So now you can use a switch statement over any Objective-C object, including NSStrings.  Additionally, you can switch with anything else by wrapping it in an NSValue.  I think this could be best used in parsing and especially in command line interfaces.

You can download the entire project here.


My Higher Order Message Implementation

Note: This is not an original idea of mine.  For a good explanation of what Higher Order Messaging is, see this paper.

The Idea

There are some great implementations of higher order messaging, but this is not one of them.  Instead, this is an implementation of a HigherOrderMessage object, which is designed with the goal of extensibility, by forgoing subclasses for blocks.  This is obviously very straight forward, with an external interface of just

+ (id)HOMWithGetSignatureForSelector:(NSMethodSignature *(^)(SEL selector))_sig
                             capture:(void (^)(NSInvocation *message))_forward

This way, we can put all of the higher order messaging logic in one place, allowing us to (for example) implement -[NSObject(HOM) ifResponds] in only 7 lines:

- (id)ifResponds {
	return [HigherOrderMessage HOMWithGetSignatureForSelector:^(SEL selector) {
		return [self methodSignatureForSelector:selector] ?: [NSMethodSignature signatureWithObjCTypes:"@@:"];
	} capture:^(NSInvocation *message) {
		[message invokeWithTarget:([self respondsToSelector:message.selector] ? self : nil)];

Note that for selectors which are not understood, if the calling function expects a non-object/pointer return type, this may produce undefined returns.  However, this post is about the HigherOrderMessage, so the details of various calling conventions will be left to others, except for this reminder that whenever we deal with NSMethodSignature and NSInvocation we need to pay extra close attention, as these are relatively fragile as Cocoa classes go (of no fault of their own).

The Implementation

At any rate, the implementation for this is extremely simple: create ivars for the two blocks, and call them in -methodSignatureForSelector: and -forwardInvocation: respectively.  First instinct is to put these in a subclass of NSProxy, considering that’s its raison d’être. However, NSProxy implements a number of methods which we would naturally prefer forwarded to our target, for example -class, to which NSProxy responds with its own subclass, as opposed to the class of the target.

Instead, we can easily implement our own root class, with only two things the language requires for all classes: have the first ivar be a Class, commonly named isa (for is-a, as in this object is-a whatever-class-this-first-ivar-is), and implement +initialize, because +initialize is called just before the first message is sent to an object of its class, and we therefore crash without it.  (note: class_createInstance and later object_dispose used in place of +alloc and -dealloc respectively are defined in <objc/runtime.h>, so you’ll need to #include it in HigherOrderMessage.m)

@interface HigherOrderMessage {
	Class isa;
	NSUInteger retainCount;

	NSMethodSignature *(^methodSignatureForSelector)(SEL selector);
	void (^forward)(NSInvocation *capture);
+ (id)HOMWithGetSignatureForSelector:(NSMethodSignature *(^)(SEL selector))_sig
			     capture:(void (^)(NSInvocation *message))_forward;
- (id)retain;
- (id)autorelease;
- (void)release;
+ (id)HOMWithGetSignatureForSelector:(NSMethodSignature *(^)(SEL selector))_sig
			     capture:(void (^)(NSInvocation *message))_forward
	HigherOrderMessage *message = class_createInstance(self, 0);
	if (message) {
		message->methodSignatureForSelector = [_sig copy];
		message->forward = [_forward copy];
		message->retainCount = 1;
	return [message autorelease];

- (NSMethodSignature *)methodSignatureForSelector:(SEL)aSelector {
	return methodSignatureForSelector(aSelector);

- (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)invocation {

+ (void)initialize {

Memory Management

One other thing NSProxy takes care of (also the main reason for choosing it over making a root class) is memory management: it implements +alloc, -retain, -release, -autorelease, and -dealloc.   These are not only easy to avoid/implement, but in the off chance that -dealloc is to be called directly by a client of a HigherOrderMessage, it would almost definitely be intended for the forwarding target, so by not using NSProxy, we can simply not implement -dealloc on HigherOrderMessage, and instead put the teardown logic in -release.  Indeed, this makes sense when we look at -dealloc as simply an override point called in the default -release implementation so that typically we do not have to override it.

We will use the __sync_add_and_fetch and __sync_sub_and_fetch functions for incrementing and decrementing the retainCount because they are GCC atomic builtins, making -retain and -release thread safe, as long as the memory management guide is adhered to.  Of course, in -release when the retain count hits zero but the object has not yet been disposed, if another thread calls -forwardInvocation: or -methodSignatureForSelector: it would cause a dereference of the then-deallocated block called in that method, and thus a crash.  There’s no point in trying to change this, as this is how Cocoa handles it, with the same problems.  However, the memory management guide says that no pointers should be left pointing at an object when it is destroyed, so no methods could be called on it, making this potential race condition theoretically impossible.

- (id)retain {
	__sync_add_and_fetch(&retainCount, 1);
	return self;

- (id)autorelease {
	[NSAutoreleasePool addObject:self];
	return self;

- (void)release {
	if (__sync_sub_and_fetch(&retainCount, 1) == 0) {
		[methodSignatureForSelector release];
		[forward release];



Higher Order Messaging is very cool, and very powerful, but one thing annoying about implementing it is the excessive use of subclasses in addition to NSObject/collection class categories, which breaks up the logic into  two places.  My particular implementation uses blocks, which in many ways can be used in place of Higher Order Messaging, to implement said higher order messaging, while alleviating the issues of separation of logic, and allowing it to be instead encapsulated in the implementation of the (category) method.

You can download the project at http://github.com/jaredp/jaredp.repo/tree/master/HigherOrderMessage/