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Posts Tagged ‘R whitespace’

Relative spacing of operands affects perception of operator precedence

January 22nd, 2012 1 comment

What I found most intriguing about Google Code Search (shutdown Nov 2011) was how quickly searches involving regular expressions returned matches. A few days ago Russ Cox, the implementor of Code Search not only explained how it worked but also released the source and some precompiled binaries. Google’s database of source code did not include the source of R, so I decided to install CodeSearch on my local machine and run some of my previous searches against the latest (v2.14.1) R source.

In 2007 I ran an experiment that showed developers made use of variable names when making binary operator precedence decisions. At about the same time two cognitive psychologists, David Landy and Robert Goldstone, were investigating the impact of spacing on operator precedence decisions (they found that readers showed a tendency to pair together the operands that were visibly closer to each other, e.g., a with b in a+b * c rather than b with c).

As somebody very interested in finding faults in code the psychologists research findings on spacing immediately suggested to me the possibility that ‘incorrectly’ spaced expressions were a sign of failure to write code that had the intended behavior. Feeding some rather complicated regular expressions into Google’s CodeSearch threw up a number of ‘incorrectly’ spaced expressions. However, this finding went no further than an interesting email exchange with Landy and Goldstone.

Time to find out whether there are any ‘incorrectly’ spaced expressions in the R source. cindex (the tool that builds the database used by csearch) took 3 seconds on a not very fast machine to process all of the R source (56M byte) and build the search database (10M byte; the Linux database is a factor of 5.5 smaller than the sources).

The search:

csearch "\w(\+|\-)\w +(\*|\/) +\w"

returned a few interesting matches:

...
modules/internet/nanohttp.c:       used += tv_save.tv_sec + 1e-6 * tv_save.tv_usec;
modules/lapack/dlapack0.f:     $          ( T*( ONE+SQRT( ONE+S / T ) ) ) )
modules/lapack/dlapack2.f:               S = Z( 3 )*( Z( 2 ) / ( T*( ONE+SQRT( ONE+S / T ) ) ) )
modules/lapack/dlapack4.f:     $          ( T*( ONE+SQRT( ONE+S / T ) ) ) )

There were around 15 matches of code like 1e-6 * var (because the pattern \w is for alphanumeric sequences and that is not a superset of the syntax of floating-point literals).

The subexpression ONE+S / T is just the sort of thing I was looking for. The three instances all involved code that processed tridiagonal matrices in various special cases. Google search combined with my knowledge of numerical analysis was not up to the task of figuring out whether the intended usage was (ONE+S)/T or ONE+(S/T).

Searches based on various other combination of operator pairs failed to match anything that looked suspicious.

There was an order of magnitude performance difference for csearch vs. grep -R -e (real 0m0.167s vs. real 0m2.208s). A very worthwhile improvement when searching much larger code bases with more complicated patterns.