What's That Noise?! [Ian Kallen's Weblog]

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20090227 Friday February 27, 2009

Code Is Social

Like many software developers, I confess that I have found myself on occasion coming back to old code that I wrote asking, "What was I thinking?" Where it's my code, this WWIT question doesn't happen very often these days but in general I can't count the number of times I've encountered and had to work on code that was not written to be read. I think sometimes programmers write terse code and regard its brevity as a badge of honor, "If I'm wizardly enough to write this, then only True Wizards will read it." Or maybe it's just laziness or hurriedness, these code mysteries are akin to omitting comments, API documentation and other communication artifacts. When I see non-descriptive variable names, gratuitous indirection, excessive right indenting, monkey patching or unnecessary cyclomatic complexity, it's almost anti-social behavior; it's a communication fail more than a functional one. Likewise, gratuitous verbosity stifles communication in the opposite manner; this isn't pre-school - grasp of the ABC's is assumed. So spelling out what code is doing in this belabored fashion is just silly:

# an array to collect permalinks
permalinks = []
# loop over the feed entries
for entry in feed.entries:
Whereas this is clear
# extract an array of permalinks from the feed entries
permalinks = [ entry.link for entry in feed.entries ]
OK, I'm assuming the reader knows what a Python list comprehension does. The first one is using a lot of vertical space to satisfy a very simple intent. I often find the opposite problem, excessive brevity, is authored by those enamored with their language's idioms. Software written with scripting languages often exhibit this; Perl is famous for expressiveness (I say this lovingly as a repentant x-Perl Wizard) but even the languages with adherents claiming their tongue is more "readable" have those same users donning wizard hats, trying to be clever. Ever tried to maintain Python code riddled with nested list comprehensions containing lambdas? Ruby, similar idiomatic norms abound, 'nuf said.

I've appreciated celebrations of wizardry (see A folding language) but there's more to wizardry than meta-programming and brevity. Coding like a wizard doesn't mean being so clever that only other wizards can collaborate. In my view, a true wizard has the wisdom to steer clear of verbose indulgences and terse spells; the wizard walks the middle path of clarity so that the code is not dumbed-down but the apprentice will grasp the intent. The wizard's code should read as poetry.

When code is unsocial (or anti-social), the quality suffers. Complex software needs a gene pool - lots of eyeballs, lots of variant perspectives and experiences. A small gene pool leads to in-bred ideas. Thus code from a lone wolf (even a kick-ass wolf) will usually be of lower quality than code developed by a plurality (unless its a plurality of novices, then all bets are off).

My plea to fellow crafters of bits: please code for clarity. Don't be so brief that your intentions are unclear. And don't be so garrulous that your intention is lost in the verbiage. Again, I'm not claiming innocence of these sins of code. But over the years I've become considerably more aware of the costs and benefits in the choices between brevity and verbosity. Perhaps clarity is in the eye of beholder or perhaps more narrowly, in the eye of the author. But I try to look at my own code objectively and ask, "If I don't see this code for six months and then come back to it to do some maintenance, will today's intent be clear?" I hope the code I write will be approachable by those who come behind me to work on it, especially if it's me lest I ask myself the WWIT question.

Sigh, I'm venting because I just got side tracked refactoring some program code (and its single test) that lacked clarity. Thanks for indulging me this far. I'm gonna go listen to some old Social Distortion now, have a great weekend!


( Feb 27 2009, 06:26:15 PM PST ) Permalink
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