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Posts Tagged ‘identifier’

My R naming nemesis

December 17th, 2012 5 comments

When learning a new language I try to make an effort to write it like a native developer. R has one language feature that has been severely testing my desire to write like a native and this afternoon I realized that most of the people reading my code will also experience the same jarring sensation on encountering this construct, so I am not going to use it any more.

What is this language feature that induces a Stroop effect in my mind? It is the use of the period character as part of an identifier’s name (e.g., foo.bar). In almost all of the hundreds of thousands of lines of code I have read over the years this character is used as an operator, it selects a member/field of a struct/record. I’m sure that if I tried long enough and hard enough I could get used to using this character being part of an identifier; after a year or so writing Cobol I got used to the arithmetic minus character being permitted within identifiers (e.g., foo-bar), but that was 20 years ago and my neurons will probably take much longer to adapt this time around.

Most of the R I am writing will be distributed with my book Empirical software engineering with R and I think readers will experience the same jarring sensation I do (apart from those who have not yet been exposed to large amounts of non-R code). I have convinced myself that this is a good enough reason to give up trying to figure out how to use . in identifier name (I have been concocting all sorts of rules involving . being used to separate the primary part of the name and _ the secondary parts, e.g., total.red_light [yes, I should get out more often]; the underscore vs. camel case debate still erupts every now and again, let’s avoid creating more debate by introducing more choice).

Those R functions that include a . in their name will stand out from the crowd, [arm waving on] perhaps this will help differentiate them as ‘statistics stuff’[arm waving off]. There is always plan B if my unilateral naming decision looks too unilateral, a global renaming script.

Perhaps the use of periods in identifiers can be used as a test for being a native R developer. A simple timing test involving a sequence of characters appears on a screen with the developer having to respond as quickly as possible on the number of identifiers being displayed; I’m sure I would be much slower to give a ’1′ response to total.count than to total_count, displaying total count and total.count on twp separate lines and asking me to quickly specify which line contained the most identifiers would turn me into a nervous wreck. Responses from a dozen or so different sequences ought to be enough be able to distinguish Jonny foreigner from the natives.

I don’t have a problem with $, which R uses as the column/list item selection operator, a character permitted by some compilers for commonly used languages as part of an identifier. This is because I have not read lots of code containing this identifier naming usage.

For my previous book I did a survey of the linguistic and cognitive psychology issues involved in identifier naming. This did a good job of debunking existing ideas about what constitutes good naming practices, but did not come up with any concrete recommendations to replace them (nature abhors a vacuum and the existing pop psychology naming ideas remained).

These days people write PhDs on identifier naming issues (method names, (not yet completed) correlation with quality and code comprehension to name a few); there is even a subfield within this field, how best to split an identifier into its component parts (e.g., refPtr is probably an abbreviation of reference pointer).

Using identifier prefixes results in more developer errors

April 25th, 2012 1 comment

Human speech communication has to be processed in real time using a cpu with a very low clock rate (i.e., the human brain whose neurons fire at rates between 10-100 Hz). Biological evolution has mitigated the clock rate problem by producing a brain with parallel processing capabilities and cultural evolution has chipped in by organizing the information content of languages to take account of the brains strengths and weaknesses. Words provide a good example of the way information content can be structured to be handled by a very slow processor/memory system, e.g., 85% of English words start with a strong syllable (for more details search for initial in this detailed analysis of human word processing).

Given that the start of a word plays an important role as an information retrieval key we would expect the code reading performance of software developers to be affected by whether the identifiers they see all start with the same letter sequence or all started with different letter sequences. For instance, developers would be expected to make fewer errors or work quicker when reading the visually contiguous sequence consoleStr, startStr, memoryStr and lineStr, compared to say strConsole, strStart, strMemory and strLine.

An experiment I ran at the 2011 ACCU conference provided the first empirical evidence of the letter prefix effect that I am aware of. Subjects were asked to remember a list of four assignment statements, each having the form id=constant;, perform an unrelated task for a short period of time and then recall information about the previously seen constants (e.g., their value and which variable they were assigned to).

During recall subjects saw a list of five identifiers and one of the questions asked was which identifier was not in the previously seen list? When the list of identifiers started with different letters (e.g., cat, mat, hat, pat and bat) the error rate was 2.6% and when the identifiers all started with the same letter (e.g., pin, pat, pod, peg, and pen) the error rate was 5.9% (the standard deviation was 4.5% and 6.8% respectively, but ANOVA p-value was 0.038). Having identifiers share the same initial letter appears to double the error rate.

This looks like great news; empirical evidence of software developer behavior following the predictions of a model of human human speech/reading processing. A similar experiment was run in 2006, this asked subjects to remember a list of three assignment statements and they had to select the ‘not seen’ identifier from a list of four possibilities. An analysis of the results did not find any statistically significant difference in performance for the same/different first letter manipulation.

The 2011/2006 experiments throw up lots of questions, including: does the sharing a prefix only make a difference to performance when there are four or more identifiers, how does the error rate change as the number of identifiers increases, how does the error rate change as the number of letters in the identifier change, would the effect be seen for a list of three identifiers if there was a longer period between seeing the information and having to recall it, would the effect be greater if the shared prefix contained more than one letter?

Don’t expect answers to appear quickly. Experimenting using people as subjects is a slow, labour intensive process and software developers don’t always answer the question that you think they are answering. If anybody is interested in replicating the 2011 experiment the tools needed to generate the question sheets are available for download.

For many years I have strongly recommended that developers don’t prefix a set of identifiers sharing some attribute with a common letter sequence (its great to finally have some experimental backup, however small). If it is considered important that an attribute be visible in an identifiers spelling put it at the end of the identifier.

See you all at the ACCU conference tomorrow and don’t forget to bring a pen/pencil. I have only printed 40 experiment booklets, first come first served.

The complexity of three assignment statements

April 15th, 2009 No comments

Once I got into researching my book on C I was surprised at how few experiments had been run using professional software developers. I knew a number of people on the Association of C and C++ Users committee, in particular the then chair Francis Glassborow, and suggested that they ought to let me run an experiment at the 2003 ACCU conference. They agreed and I have been running an experiment every year since.

Before the 2003 conference I had never run an experiment that had people as subjects. I knew that if I wanted to obtain a meaningful result the number of factors that could vary had to be limited to as few as possible. I picked a topic which has probably been the subject of more experiments that any other topics, short term memory. The experimental design asked subjects to remember a list of three assignment statements (e.g., X = 5;), perform an unrelated task that was likely to occupy them for 10 seconds or so, and then recognize the variables they had previously seen within a list and recall the numeric value assigned to each variable.

I knew all about the factors that influenced memory performance for lists of words: word frequency, word-length, phonological similarity, how chunking was often used to help store/recall information and more. My variable names were carefully chosen to balance all of these effects and the information content of the three assignments required slightly more short term memory storage than subjects were likely to have.

The results showed none of the effects that I was expecting. Had I found evidence that a professional software developer’s brain really did operate differently than other peoples’ or was something wrong with my experiment? I tried again two years later (I ran a non-memory experiment the following year while I mulled over my failure) and this time a chance conversation with one of the subjects after the experiment uncovered one factor I had not controlled for.

Software developers are problem solvers (well at least the good ones are) and I had presented them with a problem; how to remember information that appeared to require more storage than available in their short term memories and accurately recall it shortly afterwards. The obvious solution was to reduce the amount of information that needed to be stored by simply remembering the first letter of every variable (which one of the effects I was controlling for had insured was unique) not the complete variable name.

I ran another experiment the following year and still did not obtain the expected results. What was I missing now? I don’t know and in 2008 I ran a non-memory based experiment. I still have no idea what techniques my subjects are using to remember information about three assignment statements that are preventing me getting the results I expect.

Perhaps those researchers out there that claim to understand the processes involved in comprehending a complete function definition can help me out by explaining the mental processes involved in remembering information about three assignment statements.

The probability of encountering a given variable

January 26th, 2009 No comments

If I am reading through the body of a function, what is the probability of a particular variable being the next one I encounter? A good approximation can be calculated as follows: Count the number of occurrences of all variables in the function definition up to the current point and work out the percentage occurrence for each of them, the probability of a particular variable being seen next is approximately equal to its previously seen percentage. The following graph is the evidence I give for this approximation.
Id's per function
The graph shows a count of the number of C function definitions containing identifiers that are referenced a given number of times, e.g., if the identifier x is referenced five times in one function definition and ten times in another the function definition counts for five and ten are both incremented by one. That one axis is logarithmic and the bullets and crosses form almost straight lines hints that a Zipf-like distribution is involved.

There are many processes that will generate a Zipf distribution, but the one that interests me here is the process where the probability of the next occurrence of an event occurring is proportional to the probability of it having previously occurred (this includes some probability of a new event occurring; follow the link to Simon’s 1955 paper).

One can think of the value (i.e., information) held in a variable as having a given importance and it is to be expected that more important information is more likely to be operated on than less important information. This model appeals to me. Another process that will generate this distribution is that of Monkeys typing away on keyboards and while I think source code contains lots of random elements I don’t think it is that random.

The important concept here is operated on. In x := x + 1; variable x is incremented and the language used requires (or allowed) that the identifier x occur twice. In C this operation would only require one occurrence of x when expressed using the common idiom x++;. The number of occurrences of a variable needed to perform an operation on it, in a given languages, will influence the shape of the graph based on an occurrence count.

One graph does not provide conclusive evidence, but other measurements also produce straightish lines. The fact that the first few entries do not form part of an upward trend is not a problem, these variables are only accessed a few times and so might be expected to have a large deviation.

More sophisticated measurements are needed to count operations on a variable, as opposed to occurrences of it. For instance, few languages (any?) contain an indirection assignment operator (e.g., writing x ->= next; instead of x = x -> next;) and this would need to be adjusted for in a more sophisticated counting algorithm. It will also be necessary to separate out the effects of global variables, function calls and the multiple components involved in a member selection, etc.

Update: A more detailed analysis is now available.

Incorrect spelling

January 11th, 2009 No comments

While even a mediocre identifier name can provide useful information to a reader of the source a poorly chosen name can create confusion and require extra effort to remember. An author’s good intent can be spoiled by spelling mistakes, which are likely to be common if the developer is not a native speaker of the English (or whatever natural language is applicable).

Identifiers have characteristics which make them difficult targets for traditional spell checking algorithms; they often contain specialized words, dictionary words may be abbreviated in some way (making phonetic techniques impossible) and there is unlikely to be any reliable surrounding context.

Identifiers share many of the characteristics of search engine queries, they contain a small number of words that don’t fit together into a syntactically correct sentence and any surrounding context (e.g., previous queries or other identifiers) cannot be trusted. However, search engines have their logs of millions of previous search queries to fall back on, enabling them to suggest (often remarkably accurate) alternatives to non-dictionary words, specialist domains and recently coined terms. Because developers don’t receive any feedback on their spelling mistakes revision control systems are unlikely to contain any relevant information that can be mined.

One solution is for source code editors to require authors to fully specify all of the words used in an identifier when it is declared; spell checking and suitable abbreviation rules being applied at this point. Subsequent uses of the identifier can be input using the abbreviated form. This approach could considerably improve consistency of identifier usage across a project’s source code (it could also flag attempts to use both orderings of a word pair, e.g., number count and count number). The word abbreviation mapping could be stored (perhaps in a comment at the end of the source) for use by other tools and personalized developer preferences stored in a local configuration file. It is time for source code editors to start taking a more active role in helping developers write readable code.