February 15, 2016

This post may not display 100% correct on your computer, some glyphs may be missing.

Intro

One time, during an interview I was asked:

Write a function that given a string input will output a reversed version of the input

“Simple enough”, I thought naively. So I very confidently wrote

I even took it to my shell and tested it…

I rule!

Right?

Not good enough

So this where maybe the prefix “naive_” makes sense for the gists up there. You see, the question is NOT “can you iterate over a string and generate a new one?”. What they wanted to see is if I knew how the language I chose (in this case, php) handles encodings. Because encodings are very important1.

Why am I naive?

Let’s start by looking at the request in parts.

"Write a function that given a string input will output a reversed version of the input"
 ------(1)-------      --------(2)---------      -----------------(3)------------------
  1. I must write 🤔
  2. I have one (1) input, and it’s of type string
  3. I have one (1) output, and it’s of type string, but it’s reversed

Seemingly I complied with everything.. Until I go and test the next code…

Broken characters. And in the last example we even get a DIFFERENT character? wtf?

What the hell is a “string” anyway?

If you’re a Comp Sci Major, you’d probably say “why, an array of char, of course 🤔🤓”. And yes, you’re right. Except no. Not in php, as in php it’s a scalar value, and if you don’t believe me then test it on your own using is_scalar function in php. However for this purpose, since we’re using $string{$i}2, then let’s say that it is.

I’m not going to get into what a char is at this point. But if you’re a Comp Sci Major you’ve probably heard someone say, at some point, “a char fits into a byte!”. This is not always true, but in php this is the case.

Let’s look at the following string.

$str = "Hello, my name is Carlos 🤔";

And let’s run some str functions over it, like strlen, substr, and str_split.

Before we get to any code, let’s think about what that output should be.

Let’s count chars…

echo strlen($str); // should be 26! count the characters yourself!

Let’s get that substr

echo substr($str, 18 /* start at C */, 8); // get 8 characters, so return "Carlos 🤔"

And let’s split that string into an array using str_split

print_r(str_split($str)); // should print something like ['H','e',...,'🤔']

Except that no.

Because when we run the code, our actual values are…

So what the hell is a char anyway?

Well, the code is not wrong, bro/sis. Because if it was, then geniuses like Sara Golemon would be out of a job. In fact, the code is doing exactly what you’re asking it to do. In all cases.

Indeed, in the context of php a char is a byte. And php is treating everything it sees inside that string as an array of char, and every position is being returned correctly.

But look at that last part of having ran the str_split. There’s four characters there (25-28) and I have no idea what that is. It should be 🤔. But it’s not. So let’s take my super haxxor powers and see what’s in there in the most haxxor format available: HEXADECIMAL. I shall then use my ol’ trusty bin2hex function.

We’re still wondering what the hell a string is. Why not just call it $bytes instead? Well, you should, if you were treating it as such. The problem is that it would look weird because those byte-wise functions almost all talk about str. But basically, again, this is for historical reasons. We tend to think of a string as some message that has a meaning. It’s not always the case. A string is an ordered array3 of whatever the underlying system considers a char. In php this turned out to be a byte, but in Java, or in any other language, this may not be the case.

Basically, a string is just a notation for a readable array of bytes in some form. It may be readable by humans, or it may be readable by machines. But it’s just ordered bytes. The actual meaning of those bytes is up to whatever encoding we’re working with.

Chars, Multibyte strings, and Grapheme clusters

So those last four bytes tell me something about a “f09fa494”, since I got no idea what that is, I google search it. It’s my favorite emoji! 🤔!

Back to char

So by now we know that php is not treating my favorite emoji like a single char (i.e.: a single byte). Along this post we’ve seen that adding it to strings is just giving us headaches. It’s not just this emoji, either, but characters contained in another one of my all time favorites: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻.

Let’s stop using the wrong words here…

One of my mistakes, and probably yours too, at some point, is when we start confusing notation. Let’s start to get some shit straight already. At least, again, in the context of php.

  • char: A byte, contains a number, interpreted by the machine according to some encoding.
  • string: An array of bytes.
  • encoding: A translation table4 that the machine uses to map numbers to glyphs.
  • glyphs: Combinations of lines, colors, and other artistic resources stored somewhere in your machine. Your brain sees them and makes an interpretation of it.

Back to reversing a string

So let’s go back to that simple, seemingly innocuous question that started this whole mess…

Write a function that given a string input will output a reversed version of the input

Tricky, tricky, tricky question.

So… what are we being asked here? I suppose that a regular interviewer would at the very least expect you to not return broken characters. Right? So let’s rephrase the question a little bit, because the way that it’s formulated is a bit tricky. Let’s be honest: we did reverse the string, as per the definition of a string as “an array of bytes”. If we reversed the array, then we reversed the string. But no, because it’s returning broken stuff, so let’s say the next thing:

Write a function that given a string input will output a reversed version of glyphs

That’s more like it! Getting to be a little bit clearer!

Multibyte strings

So am I to write, during an interview, a function that will somehow determine that I must grab a number of bytes from a string and place them all together at the front of the new string? Has php forsaken me? Does php NOT support emojis? Then how the hell does Facebook allow me to place the 2015 word of the year? “😂😂😂😂”

Fret not. PHP supports your emojis. In fact, since a string is an array of char, and therefore an array of bytes, then it supports any string, in any encoding. All you have to do is know what encoding you’re working with! This is paramount in any application you’re working. Know your encoding. Do it.

Most of the time your encoding will be the encoding defined in your system. You can go ahead and try this now in your favourite Linux distro, or OS X5, echo $LC_ALL. For me, it’s en_US.UTF-8, which unsurprisingly is what our previous Google search told us about 🤔 and “f09fa494”.

In PHP you can also do echo getenv('LC_ALL');

So, are we to an easier solution to the problem?

Yeah.

Enter Multibyte functions!

I did say that php will support any string in any encoding, but not right away. In that link you will see what encodings this list of functions will support.

Using those functions as a reference and with a very impatient mindset, I just do the ballsy thing and type out a new script, with two functions: one that is simple, using your good’ol str-based functions, and another one using our new friends the mb-based functions. I also make it a php cli script because I can…

And after running this on our favorite shell, we get the output:

Eureka!

Except no.

If you highlight the last line, you can see that it didn’t rotate the Swiss flag glyph and the Argentina flag glyph. It just returned this shit6

[R][A][H][C]

… frustrating, isn’t it? :D

Well, basically what happened is that the guys at Unicode didn’t want any fire coming the whole subject of “who has a flag, who doesn’t have a flag…”. So they came up with a clever way of staying out geopolitical issues. Basically, there are ways of representing flags according to their regional indicators. So CH is Switzerland, AR is Argentina, DE is Germany, and.. yeah, you get it. Country-ISO-2 codes. Clever guys, them guys at Unicode. They did a similar thing with emoji that vary in skin color, so you get [ClappingHands][SkinTone]… and bullets are dodged.

But it sucks, because now there’s a whole new range of glyphs I can’t reverse using my new mb-based functions!

Grapheme clusters

Ah yes, Comp Sci to the rescue! :D

So our family of mb functions isn’t going to cut it if we want to reverse glyphs out of our minds. This is because thinking about 🤔 and 🇨🇭 as being admitted by “multibyte” is wrong. Generally speaking, these form a part of a much larger, more complex group of glyphs represented by Grapheme clusters. In the reading resources I shall leave below, there’s an article that explains that UTF-8 is a “variable-byte encoding”. Meaning just that, actually… each glyph in the system is addressed by UTF-8 variably: it can be a single byte, or 3, or 4.

This is why UTF-8 became famous in the first place7, it successfully leveraged ASCII fanatics (looking at you, people from the US) with all of us foreigners with our á and ê and ç characters that confuse the living shit out of people who’ve never left their hometown of Sandy, Utah.

So just because we encountered these glyphs, doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped there. We can try to keep going. If we check mb_strlen for “🇨🇭”8, you’d see that the result is 2. This, again, is correct! But not really what we’re looking for, since to us, tiny dumb humans, this is a single glyph. If I hit delete, I want to hit it once and not twice. I expect software to work this way, and not confuse me.

So then, grapheme clusters, you say?

Finally a solution!

Again, the world is full of smart people, and they’ve done something for us already.

We got something implemented for us already… I could cry of excitement!

HOLD IT! First install the intl package as best as you can. For me it’s running brew install php70-intl. It takes a bit, because we’re dealing with dependencies, and dependencies suck.

And, at long last…

Lessons

I’ve learned that this simple, seemingly innocuous question is not a “stand up and solve it now”-style of question, but rather one that should yield a conversation with your potential employer. Ask them exactly what they mean, what they want, and let them know that you can hold your own when it comes to encodings :)

Reflecting upon it, I’ve seen many stacks using stantard str-based functions in low level layers, and that they may be potentially returning the wrong values. Think about it, I’ve been using emojis throughout this blog post because they’ve become so commonplace that we expect software to accept them, when they don’t we get pissed! At least I do! But the “problem” doesn’t limit itself to emojis. By ignoring these types of things, you’re making your software unusable to certain users, and in the end you’re losing money. Your product is less valuable than the one made by guys and gals who do support Japanese, Czech, Hungarian, etc, characters. Those who made that communication platform that supports emojis can now market their product with a bit more… pizzazz.

The problem is far, far more reaching than your code. You’ll encounter issues starting on your clients’ devices, then hitting your web servers, then your applications, then your storage layers… It’s a tremendous task, so keep that in mind next time someone sends you a funny pic on Whatsapp and you reply with a simple “😂😂😂”. Think about the genius work that it took before those three glyphs could show up on your screen and be sent to your mates :)

Considerations

  • Performance: It’s quite intuitive, but for the sake of completeness just skim over the file that implements grapheme-based functions. This means that you should not always use these, because they’re slower. Nor should you always use mb-based functions. Rather, think about the context of the code you’re writing, and think about what makes sense where.
  • i18n: If you want your software to be even mildly international, plan for these types of things!

And that’s it. We’re done, go ace, at least, this interview question. Or apply it in some context. Or drop me a line! I can’t guarantee that I’ll be available, or that I’ll ever answer, or that I’ll care, but I’ll appreciate it to some extent anyway.

Resources and more reading

Listening to…

¿Qué puedo hacer…? :)

Amendments

You can find any and all amendments to this post here.

Footnotes


  1. I interviewed for a Joel Spolsky-owned company. I totally bombed it and I knew it right there and then. They didn’t ask me this question, fyi :) He is, regardless, one of the most influential people on my reading lists, for both good and bad reasons. Clever guy, that Joel.

  2. This means that we can access a char of the string directly. This would be exactly like doing substr($string, $i, 1);

  3. I keep using “array” and not “list” because these are different data types, strictly speaking.

  4. I purposefully left out the topic of “code-points”, to not type this post forever. However, “code points” are an abstraction layer between a glyph and how it’s stored in memory. They are the most centric part of why Unicode is important. Before, if you read the resources, each glyph was assigned a number. This is not bad, but it limits the amount of glyphs to the maximum number you can hold in a single byte. Code points abstract this away, giving an assigned code point to each glyph, and letting the machine store that code point however it wants; in one byte, in two, in three… etc.

  5. Sorry, Windows, I’ll not attend to you for now.

  6. I had to type these out since they were pretty much invisible.

  7. You would know this already, if you had read that Joel Spolsky link I left above on character encodings.

  8. Even my vim editor is starting to choke at this point.