Making Code Reasonable

Written by Eric Rasmussen on August 28, 2013.

By day I spend most of my time working with object oriented languages such as Python and Javascript, and I have identified two boundless sources of frustration:

  1. It’s very difficult to reason about the code
  2. Test suites are insufficient for building code confidence

To the first point, I think Joel Spolsky puts it best: “It’s harder to read code than to write it.”1

This is especially true in languages where anything can happen at any time. Let’s take a look at a small Python snippet:

import foo

def bar(baz, quux):
    x = baz.do_something()
    y = quux.do_something_else()
    return x + y

In the absence of meaningful variable names and documentation, what can we assert about this example?

Unfortunately, very little. Let’s look at an annotated version to see why:

# imports can have side effects, like writing to files or launching missiles
import foo

def bar(baz, quux):
    # baz can be *any* object and may not have a do_something() method
    x = baz.do_something()
    # quux can be *any* object and may not be able to do_something_else()
    y = quux.do_something_else()
    # the plus operator can be overloaded and could do something unpredictable
    # or fail outright
    return x + y

And that’s only scratching the surface. It’s entirely possible that baz and quux are modifying some shared state, and if we don’t call them in order, we’ll face imminent meltdown. Maybe one of the methods has an obscure condition that tells it to return a string every second Tuesday, but integers the rest of the time.

Feel free to ponder additional unforeseen problems: bar called with one or more None arguments or the wrong number of arguments, methods on baz or quux hitting the file system, modifying a database, raising exceptions or abruptly terminating your program, etc. Considering all the possibilities and trying to account for them is an exercise in madness-inducing futility.

In 2006 Tim Sweeney of Epic Games gave a talk on the future of game development2, in one slide demonstrating all the possible runtime failures in a C# snippet:

This brings us back to the original point: it’s often easier to write code than read it, because reading it communicates so very little about what it actually does or what may go wrong when it runs. Many of us have been bitten before by fragile code with subtle dependencies, shared global state, and worse. Even many popular open source libraries occasionally engage in bouts of inspired insanity.

Mitigating the unknowns

These problems are not unique to Python, but in the Python community we try to compensate for them in various common ways:

  1. Meaningful variable names
  2. Documenting expected inputs, outputs, and possible exceptions
  3. Conventions/idioms that are recognizable to other Python programmers
  4. Linters
  5. IDEs/code intelligence
  6. Test suites

And that brings us full circle back to pet peeve #2: although I am very ardent about writing tests, thinking about them too deeply is terrifying. Once you start to consider reducing dependencies in units of code, defensive coding practices, and covering all possible inputs and outputs, it becomes clear that you can’t. Going down the rabbit hole only helps you discover more and more potential points of failure.

Which all leads us to the number one way programmers address these issues in imperative languages: Optimism.

In the face of limitless and uncontrollable chaos, what else can we do but ignore it and march on with the best of intentions? Test suites give us a way to mitigate the most common issues (along with aiding longterm maintenance and helping to prevent regressions), but they can only do so much to give us confidence that our code is correct.

Alone in my ivory tower

The astute among you may call attention to all of the high quality imperative code out there. The well-managed projects that survive day after day of grueling production use, realizing the dream of extensibility with new features and rapid but stable development cycles. If this code is really so fragile, then how is it people can Get Things DoneTM?

Certainly you can write robust code in many languages, despite the limitations and potential failings I’ve pointed out. But it’s also undeniable that these issues manifest in the form of subtle bugs, libraries that interact in confusing and unexpected ways, and a whole lot of headaches in trying to reconcile bad behavior.

To make it worse, the argument that this approach is “practical” or “real world scale” is often used to dismiss the idea that other paradigms can achieve a greater level of safety in a comparable amount of code.

I’m tempted to call this the Java Effect, in honor of all those poor souls who associate static typing with Java’s poor implementation of types. Writing types should not be a hindrance or a chore that leads to vast swaths of boilerplate and redundancy, but a way to be more expressive and accurate in the code you write. Assuming one bad experience with static typing is representative of all static typing is like assuming every implementation of OO is the same.

“Oh, you write ruby? I don’t OO because java.”

Safety first

I want to write code that people would rather read and use than rewrite. There are many barriers to achieving that goal that extend well beyond the scope of the current discussion, but portions of it are within our reach.

Let’s revisit the earlier Python example with a similar example, this time in Haskell:

import Foo

bar :: Baz -> Quux -> Int
bar baz quux = doSomething baz + doSomethingElse quux

We can see immediately that in comparison, Haskell code scales horizontally whereas Python scales vertically. But even more important: we know that there are no effectful computations. No state will be harmed during the execution of this function.

The type signature not only conveys information, but also forms a proposition: given a Baz and a Quux, we can prove that the function bar will produce an Int.3

Digging deeper, we can even infer that doSomething has the type Baz -> Int, and doSomethingElse has the type Quux -> Int.

We’ve learned these things by examining only the types, and with a sufficiently advanced type system like Haskell’s, we can distinguish between pure and effectful computations based on the type signature alone. If bar had the capability to engage in IO, it would be reflected in its return type.

There are some properties that are difficult or impossible to enforce at the type level4, so even in this model there is still room for testing as a way to gain confidence in our code. Typically, however, the tests will focus on establishing and attempting to enforce the properties we expect the code to have. This lets us throw barrels full of randomly generated data at our functions instead of having to contrive a handful of unit test cases that might seem really cool at the time, but ultimately give a false sense of security.

Tell me more about these… types

There are actually several languages that offer nice type systems, including SML, OCaml, and Scala. But since I’m the most familiar with Haskell, I’ll go ahead and recommend you start here:

There’s also no dearth of blog posts and tutorials aimed at programmers coming from specific languages or paradigms. Try searching “haskell for <insert language here> programmers” to discover your personalized copy today.

But even though we have these great resources for learning the Haskell language, many of them don’t discuss how to build a Haskell application from start to finish, including build files, tests, documentation, and code layout.

I am working on a small command-line application to demonstrate many of these ideas and serve as a relatively straightforward but complete example. The goal will be to make it illustrative and add comments and annotations to reflect on possible alternative approaches, which is often an impractical level of documentation for programs intended to be used by people to do things.

The project will also favor code confidence over code conciseness or code celerity5. All the while still making a working, and, dare I say it, reasonable application. Stay tuned!

Update: 9/25/2013

The command-line example program is now available: hsmemoryquiz

And I cover the motivation and benefits in detail in the new post Striving for Correctness.

1. From Things You Should Never Do, Part I

2.Links to Tim Sweeney’s excellent presentation available in PPT and PDF

3. With some caveats. See the Haskell Wiki page on types as propositions (and more).

4. Excepting the capabilities of dependently typed languages

5. Believe it or not, that’s not the first time I’ve used celerity in a sentence

Tagged: code, haskell, soapbox