Yesterday i was translating some code i wrote in R to C++. I had some calculation to do which required the list of index of the top n values in a list. Therefore what i needed was not a the list sorted itself or get a sorted copy of a given list, but actually the sorted order of the index into the actual array. To describe the problem, for example consider the following list:
arr = 20 50 40 80 10
The sorted (non-decreasing) ordering of the values is obviously
sorted_arr = 10 20 40 50 80
The sorted (non-decreasing) ordering of the index into the original array is (index starts at 1 in this example)
sorted_index_into_arr = 5 1 3 2 4
Therefore the smallest value in the list arr could be found by indexing into arr using the first value of sorted_index_into_arr, which stores the index of the array arr holding the smallest value.
arr[ sorted_index_into_arr ]
The sorted index ordering is very easy to get in languages like R and Octave or Matlab. For example in R we can do the following to get the sorted index order using the order function:
> arr <- c (20, 50, 40, 80, 10)
 20 50 40 80 10
> order (arr)
 5 1 3 2 4
In the case of Octave or Matlab you can get the index order using the sort function, which will return two lists (1xn matrix), the first list is the sorted array itself, and the next one is the sorted index order into the original array.
octave:1> a = [20 50 40 80 10]
20 50 40 80 10
octave:2> [sorted index] = sort (a)
10 20 40 50 80
5 1 3 2 4
Although these functional languages provides gives these features in C/C++ it is not immediately available using the builtin sort library functions. But the sorting routines accepts a function pointer to a comparison function, writing appropriate code for which will do the trick.