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Here is a piece of C++ code that shows some very peculiar performance. For some strange reason, sorting the data miraculously speeds up the code by almost 6x:

#include <algorithm>
#include <ctime>
#include <iostream>

int main()
    // Generate data
    const unsigned arraySize = 32768;
    int data[arraySize];

    for (unsigned c = 0; c < arraySize; ++c)
        data[c] = std::rand() % 256;

    // !!! With this, the next loop runs faster
    std::sort(data, data + arraySize);

    // Test
    clock_t start = clock();
    long long sum = 0;

    for (unsigned i = 0; i < 100000; ++i)
        // Primary loop
        for (unsigned c = 0; c < arraySize; ++c)
            if (data[c] >= 128)
                sum += data[c];

    double elapsedTime = static_cast<double>(clock() - start) / CLOCKS_PER_SEC;

    std::cout << elapsedTime << std::endl;
    std::cout << "sum = " << sum << std::endl;
  • Without std::sort(data, data + arraySize);, the code runs in 11.54 seconds.
  • With the sorted data, the code runs in 1.93 seconds.

Initially I thought this might be just a language or compiler anomaly. So I tried it in Java:

import java.util.Arrays;
import java.util.Random;

public class Main
    public static void main(String[] args)
        // Generate data
        int arraySize = 32768;
        int data[] = new int[arraySize];

        Random rnd = new Random(0);
        for (int c = 0; c < arraySize; ++c)
            data[c] = rnd.nextInt() % 256;

        // !!! With this, the next loop runs faster

        // Test
        long start = System.nanoTime();
        long sum = 0;

        for (int i = 0; i < 100000; ++i)
            // Primary loop
            for (int c = 0; c < arraySize; ++c)
                if (data[c] >= 128)
                    sum += data[c];

        System.out.println((System.nanoTime() - start) / 1000000000.0);
        System.out.println("sum = " + sum);

with a similar but less extreme result.

My first thought was that sorting brings the data into cache, but my next thought was how silly that is because the array was just generated.

What is going on? Why is a sorted array faster than an unsorted array? The code is summing up some independent terms, the order should not matter.

Answered By: Mysticial ( 6432)

You are the victim of branch prediction fail.

What is Branch Prediction?

Consider a railroad junction:

Image by Mecanismo, from Wikimedia Commons:

Now for the sake of argument, suppose this is back in the 1800s - before long distance or radio communication.

You are the operator of a junction and you hear a train coming. You have no idea which way it will go. You stop the train to ask the captain which direction he wants. And then you set the switch appropriately.

Trains are heavy and have a lot of momentum. So they take forever to start up and slow down.

Is there a better way? You guess which direction the train will go!

  • If you guessed right, it continues on.
  • If you guessed wrong, the captain will stop, back up, and yell at you to flip the switch. Then it can restart down the other path.

If you guess right every time, the train will never have to stop.
If you guess wrong too often, the train will spend a lot of time stopping, backing up, and restarting.

Consider an if-statement: At the processor level, it is a branch instruction:

enter image description here

You are a processor and you see a branch. You have no idea which way it will go. What do you do? You halt execution and wait until the previous instructions are complete. Then you continue down the correct path.

Modern processors are complicated and have long pipelines. So they take forever to "warm up" and "slow down".

Is there a better way? You guess which direction the branch will go!

  • If you guessed right, you continue executing.
  • If you guessed wrong, you need to flush the pipeline and roll back to the branch. Then you can restart down the other path.

If you guess right every time, the execution will never have to stop.
If you guess wrong too often, you spend a lot of time stalling, rolling back, and restarting.

This is branch prediction. I admit it's not the best analogy since the train could just signal the direction with a flag. But in computers, the processor doesn't know which direction a branch will go until the last moment.

So how would you strategically guess to minimize the number of times that the train must back up and go down the other path? You look at the past history! If the train goes left 99% of the time, then you guess left. If it alternates, then you alternate your guesses. If it goes one way every 3 times, you guess the same...

In other words, you try to identify a pattern and follow it. This is more or less how branch predictors work.

Most applications have well-behaved branches. So modern branch predictors will typically achieve >90% hit rates. But when faced with unpredictable branches with no recognizable patterns, branch predictors are virtually useless.

Further Reading:

As hinted from above, the culprit is this if-statement:

if (data[c] >= 128)
    sum += data[c];

Notice that the data is evenly distributed between 0 and 255. When the data is sorted, roughly the first half of the iterations will not enter the if-statement. After that, they will all enter the if-statement.

This is very friendly to the branch predictor since the branch consecutively goes the same direction many times. Even a simple saturating counter will correctly predict the branch except for the few iterations after it switches direction.

Quick visualization:

T = branch taken
N = branch not taken

data[] = 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ... 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, ... 250, 251, 252, ...
branch = N  N  N  N  N  ...   N    N    T    T    T  ...   T    T    T  ...

       = NNNNNNNNNNNN ... NNNNNNNTTTTTTTTT ... TTTTTTTTTT  (easy to predict)

However, when the data is completely random, the branch predictor is rendered useless because it can't predict random data. Thus there will probably be around 50% misprediction. (no better than random guessing)

data[] = 226, 185, 125, 158, 198, 144, 217, 79, 202, 118,  14, 150, 177, 182, 133, ...
branch =   T,   T,   N,   T,   T,   T,   T,  N,   T,   N,   N,   T,   T,   T,   N  ...

       = TTNTTTTNTNNTTTN ...   (completely random - hard to predict)

So what can be done?

If the compiler isn't able to optimize the branch into a conditional move, you can try some hacks if you are willing to sacrifice readability for performance.


if (data[c] >= 128)
    sum += data[c];


int t = (data[c] - 128) >> 31;
sum += ~t & data[c];

This eliminates the branch and replaces it with some bitwise operations.

(Note that this hack is not strictly equivalent to the original if-statement. But in this case, it's valid for all the input values of data[].)

Benchmarks: Core i7 920 @ 3.5 GHz

C++ - Visual Studio 2010 - x64 Release

//  Branch - Random
seconds = 11.777

//  Branch - Sorted
seconds = 2.352

//  Branchless - Random
seconds = 2.564

//  Branchless - Sorted
seconds = 2.587

Java - Netbeans 7.1.1 JDK 7 - x64

//  Branch - Random
seconds = 10.93293813

//  Branch - Sorted
seconds = 5.643797077

//  Branchless - Random
seconds = 3.113581453

//  Branchless - Sorted
seconds = 3.186068823


  • With the Branch: There is a huge difference between the sorted and unsorted data.
  • With the Hack: There is no difference between sorted and unsorted data.
  • In the C++ case, the hack is actually a tad slower than with the branch when the data is sorted.

A general rule of thumb is to avoid data-dependent branching in critical loops. (such as in this example)

Update :

  • GCC 4.6.1 with -O3 or -ftree-vectorize on x64 is able to generate a conditional move. So there is no difference between the sorted and unsorted data - both are fast.

  • VC++ 2010 is unable to generate conditional moves for this branch even under /Ox.

  • Intel Compiler 11 does something miraculous. It interchanges the two loops, thereby hoisting the unpredictable branch to the outer loop. So not only is it immune the mispredictions, it is also twice as fast as whatever VC++ and GCC can generate! In other words, ICC took advantage of the test-loop to defeat the benchmark...

  • If you give the Intel Compiler the branchless code, it just out-right vectorizes it... and is just as fast as with the branch (with the loop interchange).

This goes to show that even mature modern compilers can vary wildly in their ability to optimize code...

Michiel de Mare

Form based authentication for websites

We believe that Stack Overflow should not just be a resource for very specific technical questions, but also for general guidelines on how to solve variations on common problems. "Form based authentication for websites" should be a fine topic for such an experiment.

It should include topics such as:

  • How to log in
  • How to remain logged in
  • How to store passwords
  • Using secret questions
  • Forgotten password functionality
  • OpenID
  • "Remember me" checkbox
  • Browser autocompletion of usernames and passwords
  • Secret URLs (public URLs protected by digest)
  • Checking password strength
  • E-mail validation
  • and much more ...

It should not include things like:

  • roles and authorization
  • HTTP basic authentication

Please help us by

  1. Suggesting subtopics
  2. Submitting good articles about this subject
  3. Editing the official answer
Answered By: Jens Roland ( 1215)

PART I: How To Log In

  1. As a rule, CAPTCHAs should be a last resort. They tend to be annoying, often aren't human-solvable, most of them are ineffective against bots, all of them are ineffective against cheap third-world labor (according to OWASP, the current sweatshop rate is $12 per 500 tests), and some implementations are technically illegal in some countries (see link number 1 from the MUST-READ list). If you must use a CAPTCHA, use reCAPTCHA, since it is OCR-hard by definition (since it uses already OCR-misclassified book scans).

  2. It is possible to prevent browsers from storing/retrieving a password with the autocomplete tag for forms/input fields. However in the real world, your customers will have many accounts on different systems; it compromises their security if they use the same password for every site. Can you expect them to remember different passwords for every site? There are some good password managers out there, however there are also bad ones - which will become a target for attackers.

  3. The only (currently practical) way to protect against login interception (packet sniffing) during login is by using a certificate-based encryption scheme (for example, SSL) or a proven & tested challenge-response scheme (for example, the Diffie-Hellman-based SRP). Any other method can be easily circumvented by an eavesdropping attacker. On that note: hashing the password client-side (for example, with JavaScript) is useless unless it is combined with one of the above - that is, either securing the line with strong encryption or using a tried-and-tested challenge-response mechanism (if you don't know what that is, just know that it is one of the most difficult to prove, most difficult to design, and most difficult to implement concepts in digital security). Hashing the password is effective against password disclosure, but not against replay attacks, Man-In-The-Middle attacks / hijackings, or brute-force attacks (since we are handing the attacker both username, salt and hashed password).

  4. After sending the authentication tokens, the system needs a way to remember that you have been authenticated - this fact should only ever be stored serverside in the session data. A cookie can be used to reference the session data. Wherever possible, the cookie should have the secure and HTTP Only flags set when sent to the browser. The httponly flag provides some protection against the cookie being read by a XSS attack. The secure flag ensures that the cookie is only sent back via HTTPS, and therefore protects against network sniffing attacks. The value of the cookie should not be predictable. Where a cookie referencing a non-existent session is presented, its value should be replaced immediately to prevent session fixation.

PART II: How To Remain Logged In - The Infamous "Remember Me" Checkbox

Persistent Login Cookies ("remember me" functionality) are a danger zone; on the one hand, they are entirely as safe as conventional logins when users understand how to handle them; and on the other hand, they are an enormous security risk in the hands of most users, who use them on public computers, forget to log out, don't know what cookies are or how to delete them, etc.

Personally, I want my persistent logins for the web sites I visit on a regular basis, but I know how to handle them safely. If you are positive that your users know the same, you can use persistent logins with a clean conscience. If not - well, then you're more like me; subscribing to the philosophy that users who are careless with their login credentials brought it upon themselves if they get hacked. It's not like we go to our user's houses and tear off all those facepalm-inducing Post-It notes with passwords they have lined up on the edge of their monitors, either. If people are idiots, then let them eat idiot cake.

Of course, some systems can't afford to have any accounts hacked; for such systems, there is no way you can justify having persistent logins.

If you DO decide to implement persistent login cookies, this is how you do it:

  1. First, follow Charles Miller's 'Best Practices' article Do not get tempted to follow the 'Improved' Best Practices linked at the end of his article. Sadly, the 'improvements' to the scheme are easily thwarted (all an attacker has to do when stealing the 'improved' cookie is remember to delete the old one. This will require the legitimate user to re-login, creating a new series identifier and leaving the stolen one valid).

  2. And DO NOT STORE THE PERSISTENT LOGIN COOKIE (TOKEN) IN YOUR DATABASE, ONLY A HASH OF IT! The login token is Password Equivalent, so if an attacker got his hands on your database, he/she could use the tokens to log in to any account, just as if they were cleartext login-password combinations. Therefore, use strong salted hashing (bcrypt / phpass) when storing persistent login tokens.

PART III: Using Secret Questions

Don't. Never ever use 'secret questions'. Read the paper from link number 5 from the MUST-READ list. You can ask Sarah Palin about that one, after her Yahoo! email account got hacked during the presidential campaign because the answer to her 'security' question was... (wait for it) ... "Wasilla High School"!

Even with user-specified questions, it is highly likely that most users will choose either:

  • A 'standard' secret question like mother's maiden name or favourite pet

  • A simple piece of trivia that anyone could lift from their blog, LinkedIn profile, or similar

  • Any question that is easier to answer than guessing their password. Which, for any decent password, is every question conceivable.

In conclusion, security questions are inherently insecure in all their forms and variations, and should never be employed in an authentication scheme for any reason.

A secondary question is often considered as adequate for fulfilling a requirement for two-factor authentication. While capturing some of the response via clicks rather than typing in theory provides protection against keylogger attacks, it is still just an extension to the password mechanism - and when users are presented with a text box instead of drop-downs on a phishing site, they rarely perceive this as abnormal. Note that you may be able to fulfill your two-factor obligations by using a long-lasting cookie (granted on submission of multiple authentication questions) in place of a security question asked each and every time - but at the expense of user convenience.

The only reason anyone still uses security questions by choice is that is saves the cost of a few support calls from users who can't remember their email passwords to get to their reactivation codes. At the expense of security and Sara Palin's reputation, that is. Worth it? You be the judge.

PART IV: Forgotten Password Functionality

I already mentioned why you should never use security questions for handling forgotten/lost user passwords. There are at least two more all-too-common pitfalls to avoid in this field:

  1. Don't RESET user's passwords no matter what - 'reset' passwords are harder for the user to remember, which means he/she MUST either change it OR write it down - say, on a bright yellow Post-It on the edge of his monitor. Instead, just let users pick a new one right away - which is what they want to do anyway.

  2. Always hash the lost password code/token in the database. AGAIN, this code is another example of a Password Equivalent, so it MUST be hashed in case an attacker got his hands on your database. When a lost password code is requested, send the plaintext code to the user's email address, then hash it, save the hash in your database -- and throw away the original. Just like a password or a persistent login token.

A final note: always make sure your interface for entering the 'lost password code' is at least as secure as your login form itself, or an attacker will simply use this to gain access instead. Making sure you generate very long 'lost password codes' (for example, 16 case sensitive alphanumeric characters) is a good start, but consider adding the same throttling that you do for logins.

PART V: Checking Password Strength

First, you'll want to read this small article for a reality check: The 500 most common passwords

Okay, so maybe the list isn't the canonical list of most common passwords on any system anywhere ever, but it's a good indication of how poorly people will choose their passwords when there is no enforced policy in place. Plus, the list looks frighteningly close to home when you compare it to the publicly available analyses of 40.000+ recently stolen MySpace passwords.

Well, enough MySpace-bashing for now. Moving on..

So: With no minimum password strength requirements, 2% of users use one of the top 20 most common passwords. Meaning: if an attacker gets just 20 attempts, 1 in 50 accounts on your website will be crackable.

Thwarting this requires calculating the entropy of a password and then applying a threshold. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication 800-63 has a set of very good suggestions. That, when combined with a dictionary and keyboard layout analysis (for example, 'qwertyuiop' is a bad password), can reject 99% of all poorly selected passwords at a level of 18 bits of entropy. Simply calculating password strength and showing a visual strength meter to a user is insufficient. Unless it is enforced, users will ignore it.

PART VI: Much More - Or: Preventing Rapid-Fire Login Attempts

First, have a look at the numbers: Password Recovery Speeds - How long will your password stand up

If you don't have the time to look through the tables in that link, here's the gist of them:

  1. It takes virtually no time to crack a weak password, even if you're cracking it with an abacus

  2. It takes virtually no time to crack an alphanumeric 9-character password, if it is case insensitive

  3. It takes virtually no time to crack an intricate, symbols-and-letters-and-numbers, upper-and-lowercase password, if it is less than 8 characters long (a desktop PC can search the entire keyspace up to 7 characters in a matter of days or even hours)

  4. It would, however, take an inordinate amount of time to crack even a 6-character password, if you were limited to one attempt per second!

So what can we learn from these numbers? Well, lots, but we can focus on the most important part: the fact that preventing large numbers of rapid-fire successive login attempts (ie. the brute force attack) really isn't that difficult. But preventing it right isn't as easy as it seems.

Generally speaking, you have three choices that are all effective against brute-force attacks (and dictionary attacks, but since you are already employing a strong passwords policy, they shouldn't be an issue):

  • Present a CAPTCHA after N failed attempts (annoying as hell and often ineffective -- but I'm repeating myself here)

  • Locking accounts and requiring email verification after N failed attempts (this is a DoS attack waiting to happen)

  • And finally, login throttling: that is, setting a time delay between attempts after N failed attempts (yes, DoS attacks are still possible, but at least they are far less likely and a lot more complicated to pull off).

Best practice #1: A short time delay that increases with the number of failed attempts, like:

  • 1 failed attempt = no delay
  • 2 failed attempts = 2 sec delay
  • 3 failed attempts = 4 sec delay
  • 4 failed attempts = 8 sec delay
  • 5 failed attempts = 16 sec delay
  • etc.

DoS attacking this scheme would be very impractical, but on the other hand, potentially devastating, since the delay increases exponentially. A DoS attack lasting a few days could suspend the user for weeks.

To clarify: The delay is not a delay before returning the response to the browser. It is more like a timeout or refractory period during which login attempts to a specific account or from a specific IP address will not be accepted or evaluated at all. That is, correct credentials will not return in a successful login, and incorrect credentials will not trigger a delay increase.

Best practice #2: A medium length time delay that goes into effect after N failed attempts, like:

  • 1-4 failed attempts = no delay
  • 5 failed attempts = 15-30 min delay

DoS attacking this scheme would be quite impractical, but certainly doable. Also, it might be relevant to note that such a long delay can be very annoying for a legitimate user. Forgetful users will dislike you.

Best practice #3: Combining the two approaches - either a fixed, short time delay that goes into effect after N failed attempts, like:

  • 1-4 failed attempts = no delay
  • 5+ failed attempts = 20 sec delay

Or, an increasing delay with a fixed upper bound, like:

  • 1 failed attempt = 5 sec delay
  • 2 failed attempts = 15 sec delay
  • 3+ failed attempts = 45 sec delay

This final scheme was taken from the OWASP best-practices suggestions (link 1 from the MUST-READ list), and should be considered best practice, even if it is admittedly on the restrictive side.

As a rule of thumb however, I would say: the stronger your password policy is, the less you have to bug users with delays. If you require strong (case-sensitive alphanumerics + required numbers and symbols) 9+ character passwords, you could give the users 2-4 non-delayed password attempts before activating the throttling.

DoS attacking this final login throttling scheme would be very impractical. And as a final touch, always allow persistent (cookie) logins (and/or a CAPTCHA-verified login form) to pass through, so legitimate users won't even be delayed while the attack is in progress. That way, the very impractical DoS attack becomes an extremely impractical attack.

Additionally, it makes sense to do more aggressive throttling on admin accounts, since those are the most attractive entry points

PART VII: Distributed Brute Force Attacks

Just as an aside, more advanced attackers will try to circumvent login throttling by 'spreading their activities':

  • Distributing the attempts on a botnet to prevent IP address flagging

  • Rather than picking one user and trying the 50.000 most common passwords (which they can't, because of our throttling), they will pick THE most common password and try it against 50.000 users instead. That way, not only do they get around maximum-attempts measures like CAPTCHAs and login throttling, their chance of success increases as well, since the number 1 most common password is far more likely than number 49.995

  • Spacing the login requests for each user account, say, 30 seconds apart, to sneak under the radar

Here, the best practice would be logging the number of failed logins, system-wide, and using a running average of your site's bad-login frequency as the basis for an upper limit that you then impose on all users.

Too abstract? Let me rephrase:

Say your site has had an average of 120 bad logins per day over the past 3 months. Using that (running average), your system might set the global limit to 3 times that -- ie. 360 failed attempts over a 24 hour period. Then, if the total number of failed attempts across all accounts exceeds that number within one day (or even better, monitor the rate of acceleration and trigger on a calculated treshold), it activates system-wide login throttling - meaning short delays for ALL users (still, with the exception of cookie logins and/or backup CAPTCHA logins).

I also posted a question with more details and a really good discussion of how to avoid tricky pitfals in fending off distributed brute force attacks

PART VIII: Two-Factor Authentication and Authentication Providers

Credentials can be compromised, whether by exploits, passwords being written down and lost, laptops with keys being stolen, or users entering logins into phishing sites. Logins can be protected with two-factor authentication, which use out-of-band factors such as single-use codes received from a phone call, SMS message, or dongle. Several providers offer two-factor authentication services.

Authentication can be completely delegated to a single-sign-on service such as OAuth, OpenID or Persona (nee BrowserID), where another provider handles collecting credentials. This pushes the problem to a trusted third party. Twitter is an example of an OAuth provider, while Facebook provides a similar proprietary solution.

MUST-READ LINKS About Web Authentication

Yesterday I was pairing the socks from the clean laundry, and figured out the way I was doing it is not very efficient. I was doing a naive search — picking one sock and "iterating" the pile in order to find its pair. This requires iterating over n/2 * n/4 = n2/8 socks on average.

As a computer scientist I was thinking what I could do? Sorting (according to size/color/...) of course came into mind to achieve an O(NlogN) solution.

Hashing or other not-in-place solutions are not an option, because I am not able to duplicate my socks (though it could be nice if I could).

So, the question is basically:

Given a pile of n pairs of socks, containing 2n elements (assume each sock has exactly one matching pair), what is the best way to pair them up efficiently with up to logarithmic extra space? (I believe I can remember that amount of info if needed.)

I will appreciate an answer that addresses the following aspects:

  • A general theoretical solution for a huge number of socks.
  • The actual number of socks is not that large, I don't believe me and my spouse have more than 30 pairs. (And it is fairly easy to distinguish between my socks and hers, can this be utilized as well?)
  • Is it equivalent to the element distinctness problem?
Answered By: usr ( 613)

Sorting solutions have been proposed but sorting is a little too much: We don't need order, we just need equality groups.

So hashing would be enough (and faster).

  1. For each color of socks, form a pile. Iterate over all socks in your input basket and distribute them onto the color piles.
  2. Iterate over each pile and distribute it by some other metric (e.g. pattern) into a second set of piles
  3. Recursively apply this scheme until you have distributed all socks onto very small piles that you can visually process immediately

This kind of recursive hash partitioning is actually being done by SQL Server when it needs to hash join or hash aggregate over huge data sets. It distributes its build input stream into many partitions which are independent. This scheme scales to arbitrary amounts of data and multiple CPUs linearly.

You don't need recursive partitioning if you can find a distribution key (hash key) that provides enough buckets that each bucket is small enough to be processed very quickly. Unfortunately, I don't think socks have such a property.

If each sock had an integer called "PairID" one could easily distribute them into 10 buckets according to PairID % 10 (the last digit).

The best real-world partitioning I can think of is creating a rectangle of piles: one dimension is color, the other is pattern. Why a rectangle? Because we need O(1) random-access to piles. (A 3D cuboid would also work, but that is not very practical.)


What about parallelism? Can multiple humans match the socks faster?

  1. The simplest parallization strategy is to have multiple workers take from the input basket and put the socks onto the piles. This only scales up so much - imagine 100 people fighting over 10 piles. The synchronization costs (manifesting themselves as hand-collisions and human communication) destroy efficiency and speed-up (see the Universal Scalability Law!).
  2. It scales nearly indefinitely if each worker has its own set of piles. Workers can then take from the input basket big chunks of socks (very little contention as they are doing it rarely) and they do not need to sync when distributing the socks at all (because they have thread-local piles). At the end all workers need to union their pile-sets. I believe that can be done in O(log (worker count * piles per worker)) if the workers form an aggregation tree.

What about the element distinctness problem? As the article states, the element distinctness problem can be solved in O(N). This is the same for the socks problem (also O(N), if you need only one distribution step (I proposed multiple steps only because humans are bad at calculations - one step is enough if you distribute on md5(color, length, pattern, ...), i.e. a perfect hash of all attributes)).

Clearly, one cannot go faster than O(N) so we have reached the optimal lower bound.

Although the outputs are not exactly the same (in one case, just a boolean. In the other case, the pairs of socks), the asymptotic complexities are the same.

What is, in your opinion, the most surprising, weird, strange or really "WTF" language feature you have encountered?

Please only one feature per answer.

Answered By: Edan Maor ( 1869)

In C, arrays can be indexed like so:


which is very common.

However, the lesser known form (which really does work!) is:


which means the same as the above.

Dan Williams

Personally I like this one:

alt text

P.S. Do not hotlink the cartoon without the site's permission please.

Answered By: Rick ( 1811)

Another one from xkcd Exploits of a Mom


When I teach introductory computer science courses, I like to lighten the mood with some humor. Having a sense of fun about the material makes it less frustrating and more memorable, and it's even motivating if the joke requires some technical understanding to 'get it'!

I'll start off with a couple of my favorites:

Q: How do you tell an introverted computer scientist from an extroverted computer scientist?

A: An extroverted computer scientist looks at your shoes when he talks to you.

And the classic:

Q: Why do programmers always mix up Halloween and Christmas?

A: Because Oct 31 == Dec 25!

I'm always looking for more of these, and I can't think of a better group of people to ask. What are your best programmer/computer science/programming jokes?

Answered By: Gulzar Nazim ( 1679)

A man flying in a hot air balloon suddenly realizes he’s lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts to get directions, "Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?"

The man below says: "Yes. You're in a hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field."

"You must work in Information Technology," says the balloonist.

"I do" replies the man. "How did you know?"

"Well," says the balloonist, "everything you have told me is technically correct, but It's of no use to anyone."

The man below replies, "You must work in management."

"I do," replies the balloonist, "But how'd you know?"*

"Well", says the man, "you don’t know where you are or where you’re going, but you expect me to be able to help. You’re in the same position you were before we met, but now it’s my fault."

There are some data structures around that are really useful but are unknown to most programmers. Which ones are they?

Everybody knows about linked lists, binary trees, and hashes, but what about Skip lists and Bloom filters for example. I would like to know more data structures that are not so common, but are worth knowing because they rely on great ideas and enrich a programmer's tool box.

PS: I am also interested in techniques like Dancing links which make clever use of properties of a common data structure.

EDIT: Please try to include links to pages describing the data structures in more detail. Also, try to add a couple of words on why a data structure is cool (as Jonas Kölker already pointed out). Also, try to provide one data-structure per answer. This will allow the better data structures to float to the top based on their votes alone.

Answered By: David Phillips ( 273)

Tries, also known as prefix-trees or crit-bit trees, have existed for over 40 years but are still relatively unknown. A very cool use of tries is described in "TRASH - A dynamic LC-trie and hash data structure", which combines a trie with a hash function.

Preferred Languages : C/C++, Java, and Ruby

I am looking for some helpful books/tutorials on how to write your own compiler simply for educational purposes. I am most familiar with C/C++, Java, and Ruby, so I prefer resources that involve one of those three, but any good resource is acceptable.

Answered By: Michael Stum ( 574)

Big List of Resources:

¶ Link to a PDF
$ Link to a printed book

I can't get my head around this, which is more random?



rand() * rand()

I´m finding it a real brain teaser, could you help me out?


Intuitively I know that the mathematical answer will be that they are equally random, but I can't help but think that if you "run the random number algorithm" twice when you multiply the two together you'll create something more random than just doing it once.

Answered By: belisarius ( 1272)

Just a clarification

Although the previous answers are right whenever you try to spot the randomness of a pseudo-random variable or its multiplication, you should be aware that while Random() is usually uniformly distributed, Random() * Random() is not.


This is a uniform random distribution sample simulated through a pseudo-random variable:

Histogram of Random()

        BarChart[BinCounts[RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000], 0.01]]

While this is the distribution you get after multiplying two random variables:

Histogram of Random() * Random()

        BarChart[BinCounts[Table[RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000] * 
                                 RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000], {50000}], 0.01]]

So, both are “random”, but their distribution is very different.

Another example

While 2 * Random() is uniformly distributed:

Histogram of 2 * Random()

        BarChart[BinCounts[2 * RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000], 0.01]]

Random() + Random() is not!

Histogram of Random() + Random()

        BarChart[BinCounts[Table[RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000] + 
                                 RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000], {50000}], 0.01]]

The Central Limit Theorem

The Central Limit Theorem states that the sum of Random() tends to a normal distribution as terms increase.

With just four terms you get:

Histogram of Random() + Random() + Random() + Random()

BarChart[BinCounts[Table[RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000] + RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000] +
                   Table[RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000] + RandomReal[{0, 1}, 50000],

And here you can see the road from a uniform to a normal distribution by adding up 1, 2, 4, 6, 10 and 20 uniformly distributed random variables:

Histogram of different numbers of random variables added


A few credits

Thanks to Thomas Ahle for pointing out in the comments that the probability distributions shown in the last two images are known as the Irwin-Hall distribution

Thanks to Heike for her wonderful torn[] function

I'm looking for the coolest thing you can do in a few lines of simple code. I'm sure you can write a Mandelbrot set in Haskell in 15 lines but it's difficult to follow.

My goal is to inspire students that programming is cool.

We know that programming is cool because you can create anything you imagine - it's the ultimate creative outlet. I want to inspire these beginners and get them over as many early-learning humps as I can.

Now, my reasons are selfish. I'm teaching an Intro to Computing course to a group of 60 half-engineering, half business majors; all freshmen. They are the students who came from underprivileged High schools. From my past experience, the group is generally split as follows: a few rock-stars, some who try very hard and kind of get it, the few who try very hard and barely get it, and the few who don't care. I want to reach as many of these groups as effectively as I can. Here's an example of how I'd use a computer program to teach:

Here's an example of what I'm looking for: a 1-line VBS script to get your computer to talk to you:

CreateObject("sapi.spvoice").Speak InputBox("Enter your text","Talk it")

I could use this to demonstrate order of operations. I'd show the code, let them play with it, then explain that There's a lot going on in that line, but the computer can make sense of it, because it knows the rules. Then I'd show them something like this:

4(5*5) / 10 + 9(.25 + .75)

And you can see that first I need to do is (5*5). Then I can multiply for 4. And now I've created the Object. Dividing by 10 is the same as calling Speak - I can't Speak before I have an object, and I can't divide before I have 100. Then on the other side I first create an InputBox with some instructions for how to display it. When I hit enter on the input box it evaluates or "returns" whatever I entered. (Hint: 'oooooo' makes a funny sound) So when I say Speak, the right side is what to Speak. And I get that from the InputBox.

So when you do several things on a line, like:

x = 14 + y;

You need to be aware of the order of things. First we add 14 and y. Then we put the result (what it evaluates to, or returns) into x.

That's my goal, to have a bunch of these cool examples to demonstrate and teach the class while they have fun. I tried this example on my roommate and while I may not use this as the first lesson, she liked it and learned something.

Some cool mathematica programs that make beautiful graphs or shapes that are easy to understand would be good ideas and I'm going to look into those. Here are some complicated actionscript examples but that's a bit too advanced and I can't teach flash. What other ideas do you have?

Answered By: Espen Herseth Halvorsen ( 340)

Enter this code in your address bar (in your browser) and press enter. Then you can edit all the content of the webpage!

javascript:document.body.contentEditable='true'; document.designMode='on'; void 0

That is the coolest "one-liner" I know =)