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Information content of expressions

Software developers read source code to obtain information. How might the information content of source code be quantified?

Both of the following functions assign the same value to x and if that is the only information a reader of that code is interested in, then the information content of both assignment statements could be said to be the same.

int foo(void)
{
x = 5;
...
}
 
int bar(void)
{
x = 2 + 3;
...

A reader seeking deeper understanding of the above code would ask why the value 5 is built from two values in bar. One reason might be that the author of the function wanted to explicitly call out background information about how the value 5 was derived (this is often done using symbolic names, but the use of literals themselves is sometimes encountered). Perhaps the author of foo did not see the need to expose this information or perhaps the shared value is purely coincidental.

If the two representations denote the same quantity doesn’t the second have a greater information content for a reader seeking deeper understanding?

In the following example:

... x + y & z ...
 
...
 
... num_red + num_white & lower_bits ...

an experienced developer with a knowledge of English is likely to interpret the expression as adding the number of occurrences of two quantities and using bit-wise AND to extract the lower bits. For some readers the second expression has a higher information content. Would use of the names number_of_red further increase the information content?

In the following example the first expression has not added any information that was not already present in the first expression above (except perhaps that the author was not certain of the precedence or perhaps did not expect subsequent readers to be certain).

... ( x + y ) & z ...
 
...
 
... x + ( y & z ) ...

The second expression uses parenthesis to achieve an operand/operator binding that is different from the default. Has this changed the information content of the expression?

There is experimental evidence that developers extract information from the names of variables to help them make decisions about operator precedence. To me the name all_32_bits_one suggests a sequence of bits and I would expect such a representation to be associated with the bit-wise AND operator, not binary plus. With no knowledge of the relative precedence of the two operators in the following expression the name of the middle operand would cause me to misinterpret the code. Does this change the information content of the expression? Does knowledge of the experimental evidence and the correct operator precedence change the information content (i.e., there is a potential fault in the code because the author may have assumed the incorrect precedence)?

... num_red + all_32_bits_one & sign_bit ...

There is experimental evidence that people use the amount of whitespace appearing between operands and their operators to visually highlight operator precedence

The relative quantities of whitespace used in the following two expressions appear to tell very different stories. Do the two expressions have a different information content?

... x  +  y & z ...
 
...
 
... x + y  &  z ...

The idea of measuring the information content of source code is very enticing. However, an accurate measure requires knowledge of the kind of information a reader is trying to obtain and of information that already exists in their brain.

Another question is the easy with which information can be extracted from code. Something that might be labeled as readability, except that readability has connotations of there being an abundant supply of information to extract.

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fifty − = 58