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Readability: we know nothing

June 30th, 2011 5 comments

Readability is one of those terms that developers use and expect other developers to understand while at the same time being unable to define what it is or how it might be measured. I think all developers would agree that their own code is very readable; if only different developers stopped writing code in different ways the issue would go away :-)

Having written a book containing lots of material on cognitive psychology and how it might apply to programming, developers who have advanced beyond “Write code like me and it will be readable” sometimes ask for my perceived expert view on the subject. Unfortunately my expertise has only advanced to the stage of: 1) having a good idea of what research questions need to be addressed, 2) being able to point at experimental results showing that most claimed good readability tips are at best worthless or may even increase cognitive load during reading.

To a good approximation we know nothing about code readability. What questions need to answered to change this situation?

The first and most important readability question is: what is the purpose of looking at the code? Is the code being read to gain understanding (likely to involve ‘slow’ and deliberate behavior) or is the reader searching for some construct (likely to involve skimming; yes, slow and deliberate is more accurate but people make cost/benefit decisions when deciding which strategies to use. The factors involved in reader strategy selection is another important question)?

Next we need to ask what characteristics of developer performance are expected to change with different code organization/layouts. Are we interested in minimizing error, minimizing the time taken to achieve the readers purpose or something else?

What source code attributes play a significant role in readability? Possibilities include the order in which various constructs appear (e.g., should variable definitions appear at the start of a function or close to where they are first used), variable names and the position of tokens relative to each other when viewed by the reader.

Questions involving the relative position of tokens probably generates the greatest volume of discussion among developers. To what extent does visual organization of source code affect reader performance? Fluent reading requires a significant amount of practice, perhaps readable code is whatever developers have spent lots of time reading.

If there is some characteristic of the human visual system that generates a worthwhile benefit to splitting long lines so that a binary operator appears at the {end of the last}/{start of the next} line, will it apply the same way to all developers? We could end up developers having to configure their editor so it displays code in a form that matches the characteristics of their visual system.

How might these ‘visual’ questions be answered? I think that eye tracking will play a large role (“Eyetracking Web Usability” by Jakob Nielsen and Kara Pernice is a good read). At the moment there are technical/usability issues that make this kind of research very difficult. Eye trackers capable of continuously supporting enough resolution to know which character on the screen a developer is looking at (e.g., EyeLink 1000) require that the head be held in a fixed position, while those allowing completely free head movement (e.g., S2 Eye Tracker) don’t yet continuously support the required resolution.

Of course any theory derived from eye tracking experiments will still have to be validated by measuring developer performance on various code snippets.

Fibonacci and JIT compilers

June 18th, 2011 No comments

To maximize a compiler’s ability to generate high quality code many programming language standards do not specify the order in which the operands of a binary operator are evaluated. Most of the time the order of operand evaluation does not matter because all orders produce same final result. For instance in x + y the value of x may be obtained followed by obtaining the value of y and the two values added, alternatively the value of y may be obtained first followed by obtaining the value of x and the two values added; optimizers make use of local context information (e.g., holding one of the values in a register so it is immediately available for use in the evaluation of multiple instances of x) to work out which order produces the highest quality code.

If one of the operands is a function call that modifies the value of the other operand the result may depend on the order of evaluation. For instance, in:

int x;
 
int set_x(void)
{
x=1;
return 1;
}
 
int two_values(void)
{
x=0;
return x + set_x();
}

a left to right evaluation order of the return expression in two_values produces the value 1, while a right to left evaluation order produces the value 2. Every now and again developers accidentally write code that does something like this and are surprised to see program behavior change when they use different compiler options, a new version of the compiler or a different compiler (all things that can result in the order of evaluation changing for a given expression).

It is generally assumed that two calls to two_values within the same program will always produce the same answer, i.e., the decision on which order of evaluation to use is made at compile time and never changes while a program is running. Neither the C++ or C Standard requires that the evaluation order be fixed prior to program execution and use of a just-in-time compiler could result in the value returned by two_values alternating between 1 and 2. Some languages (e.g., Java) for which JIT compilers are expected to be used specify the exact order in which operands have to be evaluated.

One possible way of finding out whether a JIT compiler is being used for your C/C++ program is to test the values returned by two calls to two_values. A JIT compiler may, but is not required, to return different values on each call. Of course a decide-prior-to-execution C/C++ compiler does have the option of optimizing the following function to return true or false on the basis that the standard permits this behavior, but I would be very surprised to see this occur in practice:

bool Schrödinger(void)
{
return two_values() == two_values();
}

The runtime variability offered by JIT compilers makes it possible to write a program whose output can be any value between 1 and F_n (the n‘th Fibonacci number, where n is read from the input):

#include <stdio.h>
 
int x;
 
int set_x(int ret_val)
{
x=1;
return ret_val;
}
 
int two_unspec(void)
{
x=0;
return x + set_x(1);
}
 
int add_zero(val)
{
x=0;
return val - x + set_x(0);
}
 
int fib(int fib_num)
{
if (fib_num > 3)
   return fib(fib_num-2) + add_zero(fib(fib_num-1));
else
   if (fib_num == 3)
      return two_unspec();
   else
      return 1;
}
 
int main(void)
{
int n;
 
scanf("%d", &n);
printf("Fibonacci %d = %d\n", n, filb(n));
}

The C-semantics tool will ‘execute’ this program and produce a list of the F_n possible outputs (a PhD project under active development; the upper limit is currently around the 6th Fibonacci number which requires 11 hours and produces a 50G log file).

A decide-prior-to-execution compiler has a maximum choice of four possible outputs for a given input value and for a given executable the output produced by different input values will be perfectly correlated.

Developers do not remember what code they have written

June 10th, 2011 No comments

The size distribution of software components used in building many programs appears to follow a power law. Some researchers have and continue to do little more than fit a straight line to their measurements, while those that have proposed a process driving the behavior (e.g., information content) continue to rely on plenty of arm waving.

I have a very simple, and surprising, explanation for component size distribution following power law-like behavior; when writing new code developers ignore the surrounding context. To be a little more mathematical, I believe code written by developers has the following two statistical properties:

  • nesting invariance. That is, the statistical characteristics of code sequences does not depend on how deeply nested the sequence is within if/for/while/switch statements,
  • independent of what went immediately before. That is the choice of what statement a developer writes next does not depend on the statements that precede it (alternatively there is no short range correlation).

Measurements of C source show that these two properties hold for some constructs in some circumstances (the measurements were originally made to serve a different purpose) and I have yet to see instances that significantly deviate from these properties.

How does writing code following these two properties generate a power law? The answer comes from the paper Power Laws for Monkeys Typing Randomly: The Case of Unequal Probabilities which proves that Zipf’s law like behavior (e.g., the frequency of any word used by some author is inversely proportional to its rank) would occur if the author were a monkey randomly typing on a keyboard.

To a good approximation every non-comment/blank line in a function body contains a single statement and statements do not often span multiple lines. We can view a function definition as being a sequence of statement kinds (e.g., each kind could be if/for/while/switch/assignment statement or an end-of-function terminator). The number of lines of code in a function is closely approximated by the length of this sequence.

The two statistical properties listed above allow us to treat the selection of which statement kind to write next in a function as mathematically equivalent to a monkey randomly typing on a keyboard. I am not suggesting that developers actually select statements at random, rather that the set of higher level requirements being turned into code are sufficiently different from each other that developers can and do write code having the properties listed.

Switching our unit of measurement from lines of code to number of tokens does not change much. Every statement has a few common forms that occur most of the time (e.g., most function calls contain no parameters and most assignment statements assign a scalar variable to another scalar variable) and there is a strong correlation between lines of code and token count.

What about object-oriented code, do developers follow the same pattern of behavior when creating classes? I am not aware of any set of measurements that might help answer this question, but there have been some measurements of Java that have power law-like behavior for some OO features.