sentinel node trick: array/slist

  • eg: STL uses sentinel nodes. I believe container.end() returns that.
  • eg: c-string uses \0 as sentinel value.
  • eg: binary search needle can be too high and we have to test if the return value is a real element or the end-of-container, so it’s extremely useful to add another sentinel to guarantee a successful search

When solving timed coding questions on “clean” arrays, it can be useful to append a sentinel node. It can simplify some algorithms which take action after each segment.

P 90 [[Pearls]] introduced a loop coding idiom. Idiom is applicable whenever we loop over a container and have an early-exit “break”. Such a loop has exactly two [1] conditional tests per iteration, therefore can run faster if we combine the two into one conditional test. This is a small halo idiom for latency. But beyond latency, there are more interesting benefits such as cognitive complexity reduction.

For example, consider the business logic after reaching “normal” end of the container without hitting the early exit. Rarely can we “forget” this business logic and simply exit the function and rely on the implicit return. Instead, this normal-completion scenario requires careful handling and a cognitive burden. To remind myself, I often place a comment after end of the loop. (Python provides an Else clause for a for-loop.)

In some cases, the business logic after end of the loop is 2 pages away from the early-exit business logic, but they really should be in one module. I hate this situation so much that I always have set a flag and use a “break” so that the two routines are both written after end of the loop.

In all these scenarios, it’s often simpler to append an artificial sentinel element at end of the container!  The sentinel is guaranteed to hit the early-exit, so the loop would never exhaust all elements and complete normally. Therefore we can combine the two into one conditional test:)

I usually replace “break” with “exit”, further reducing the control-flow complexity. Such micro simplifications can pay huge dividends in high-pressure timed tests.

Right before the exit/break we may still need to handle normal-completion scenario by checking if we are at the sentinel. Interesting scenario. Now we can combine the logic of normal-completion vs early exit. In many cases, they are (nearly) identical, so we can express the logic in very structured code.

Whether they are identical or not, handling the two scenarios (early vs normal completion) in a centralized module is usually simpler and more structured, reducing the cognitive complexity.

[1] what if three tests (two breaks)? The mental burden is even worse. The sentinel could reduce it


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