Unionize Your Variables – An Introduction to Advanced Data Types in C

Programming C without variables is like, well, programming C without variables. They are so essential to the language that it doesn’t even require an analogy here. We can declare and use them as wildly as we please, but it often makes sense to have a little bit more structure, and combine data that belongs together in a common collection. Arrays are a good start to bundle data of the same type, especially when there is no specific meaning of the array’s index other than the value’s position, but as soon as you want a more meaningful association of each value, arrays will become limiting. And they’re useless if you want to combine different data types together. Luckily, C provides us with proper alternatives out of the box.

This write-up will introduce structures and unions in C, how to declare and use them, and how unions can be (ab)used as an alternative approach for pointer and bitwise operations.

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The Quest for Mice With Frickin’ Laser Beams (Pointed At Their Brains), Building A Laser Controller

The logo for the field is kind of cute though.
The logo for the field is kind of cute though.

[Scott Harden] is working on a research project involving optogenetics. From what we were able to piece together optogenetics is like this: someone genetically modifies a mouse to have cell behaviors which can activated by light sensitive proteins. The mice then have a frikin’ lasers mounted on their heads, but pointing inwards towards their brains not out towards Mr. Bond’s.

Naturally, to make any guesses about the resulting output behavior from the mouse the input light has to be very controlled and exact. [Scott] had a laser and he had a driver, but he didn’t have a controller to fire the pulses. To make things more difficult, the research was already underway and the controller had to be built

The expensive laser driver had a bizarre output of maybe positive 28 volts or, perhaps, negative 28 volts… at eight amps. It was an industry standard in a very small industry. He didn’t have a really good way to measure or verify this without either destroying his measuring equipment or the laser driver. So he decided to just build a voltage-agnostic input on his controller. As a bonus the opto-isolated input would protect the expensive controller.

The kind of travesty that can occur when [Stefan Kiese] doesn't have access to nice project boxes.
The kind of travesty that can occur when [Scott] doesn’t have access to nice project boxes.
The output is handled by an ATtiny85. He admits that a 555 circuit could generate the signal he needed, but to get a precision pulse it was easier to just hook up a microcontroller to a crystal and know that it’s 100% correct. Otherwise he’d have to spend all day with an oscilloscope fiddling with potentiometers. Only a few Hackaday readers relish the thought as a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

He packaged everything in a nice project box. He keeps them on hand to prevent him from building circuits on whatever he can find. Adding some tricks from the ham-radio hobby made the box look very professional. He was pleased and surprised to find that the box worked on his first try.

Code Craft: When #define is Considered Harmful

An icon of Computer Science, [Edsger Dijkstra], published a letter in the Communications of the Association of Computer Machinery (ACM) which the editor gave the title “Go To Statement Considered Harmful“. A rousing debate ensued. A similar criticism of macros, i.e. #define, in C/C++ may not rise to that level but they have their own problems.

Macros are part of the preprocessor for the C/C++ languages which manipulates the source code before the actual translation to machine code. But there are risks when macros generate source code. [Bjarne Stroustrup] in creating C++ worked to reduce the need and usage of the preprocessor, especially the use of macros. In his book, The C++ Programming Language he writes,

Don’t use them if you don’t have to. Almost every macro demonstrates a flaw in the programming language, in the program, or in the programmer.

As C retrofitted capabilities of C++, it also reduced the need for macros, thus improving that language.

With the Arduino using the GNU GCC compilers for C and C++ I want to show new coders a couple of places where the preprocessor can cause trouble for the unwary. I’ll demonstrate how to use language features to achieve the same results more cleanly and safely. Of course, all of this applies equally when you use any of these languages on other systems.

We’re only going to be looking at macros in this article but if you want to read more the details about them or the preprocessor see the GNU GCC Manual section on the preprocessor.

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