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Posts Tagged ‘whitespace’

The Met Office ‘climategate’ Perl code

December 25th, 2009 3 comments

In response to the Climategate goings on the UK Meteorological Office has released a subset of its land surface climate station records and some code to process it. The code consists of 397 lines of Perl (station_gridder.perl and make_global_average_ts_ascii.perl).

At various times I have been asked to suggest which part of an application’s or product’s source code should be made available to a third party. The third party may have been interested in evaluating the quality, getting a feel for the complexity or felt that they ought at least be able to say they had seen some code. In these situations there is always a trade-off between impressing the customer (e.g., well structured code containing lots of comments) and not revealing too much (e.g., impenetrable code with no comments).

Have the Met Office released the code they have used over a period of time or have they release newly written code?

The source does not have the characteristics often seen in well worn, ‘old’, code. There is no revision history (that may be due to poor programming practices or may have been stripped off prior to release; I discuss pretty printing below), the visual layout is generally consistent (this may be because the same small group of people have worked on it over time), there are no obvious hacks used to get around previous design decisions that have changed and unscientifically it just feels to me like newly written code.

Was the original code written in another language (e.g., Fortran), perhaps as part of a larger program and been rewritten in Perl?

The code does not have a Fortran ‘accent’ to it. The code was written by people who are fluent in Perl; perhaps they do not know Fortran very well and were given time to craft something presentable, hence no Fortran accent.

Why have I been referring to the code authors, plural, when writing 397 lines is well within the capabilities of a competent developer working for a day (I bet the authors spent longer in meetings about this code than actually writing it)? Developers tend to have very fixed habits when it comes to bracketing statements with curly braces, there are those who always put the open brace at the end of the line and those who always put it on a newline. The Met Office code contains both usages, sometimes within the same subroutine. Also the use of whitespace around punctuators and operators does not follow a consistent pattern, which for me rules out the use of an automated pretty printer and kind of implies more than one person doing the editing. And why are some variables names capitalized and other not (the names in subroutine read_station are all lower case while the names in the surrounding subroutines are mostly upper case)? More than one author is the simplest answer.

One Perl usage caught my eye, the construct unless is rarely used and often recommended against. Without a lot more code being available for analysis there are no obviously conclusions to draw from this usage (apart from it being an indicator of somebody who knows Perl well, most mainstream languages do not support this construct and developers have to use a ‘positive’ construct containing a negated condition rather than a ‘negative’ construct containing a positive condition).

Parsing Fortran 95

December 20th, 2009 No comments

I have been looking at doing some dimensional analysis of the Climategate code and so needed a Fortran parser.

The last time I used Fortran in anger the modern compilers were claiming conformance to the 1977 standard and since then we have had Fortran 90 (with a minor revision in 95) and Fortran 03. I decided to take the opportunity to learn something about the new features by writing a Fortran parser that did not require a symbol table.

The Eli project had a Fortran 90 grammar that was close to having a form acceptable to bison and a few hours editing and debugging got me a grammar containing 6 shift/reduce conflicts and 1 reduce/reduce conflict. These conflicts looked like they could all be handled using glr parsing. The grammar contained 922 productions, somewhat large but I was only interested in actively making use of parts of it.

For my lexer I planned to cut and paste an existing C/C++/Java lexer I have used for many projects. Now this sounds like a fundamental mistake, these languages treat whitespace as being significant while Fortran does not. This important difference is illustrated by the well known situation where a Fortran lexer needs to lookahead in the character stream to decide whether the next token is the keyword do or the identifier do5i (if 1 is followed by a comma it must be a keyword):

      do 5 i = 1 , 10
      do 5 i = 1 . 10        ! assign 1.10 to do5i
5     continue

In my experience developers don’t break up literals or identifier names with whitespace and so I planned to mostly ignore the whitespace issue (it would simplify things if some adjacent keywords were merged to create a single keyword).

In Fortran the I/O is specified in the language syntax while in C like languages it is a runtime library call involving a string whose contents are interpreted at runtime. I decided to to ignore I/O statements by skipping to the end of line (Fortran is line oriented).

Then the number of keywords hit me, around 190. Even with the simplifications I had made writing a Fortran lexer looked like it would be a lot of work; some of the keywords only had this status when followed by a = and I kept uncovering new issues. Cutting and pasting somebody else’s lexer would probably also involve a lot of work.

I went back and looked at some of the Fortran front ends I had found on the Internet. The GNU Fortran front-end was a huge beast and would need serious cutting back to be of use. moware was written in Fortran and used the traditional six character abbreviated names seen in ‘old-style’ Fortran source and not a lot of commenting. The Eli project seemed a lot more interested in the formalism side of things and Fortran was just one of the languages they claimed to support.

The Open Fortran Parser looked very interesting. It was designed to be used as a parsing skeleton that could be used to produce tools that processed source and already contained hooks that output diagnostic output when each language production was reduced during a parse. Tests showed that it did a good job of parsing the source I had, although there was one vendor extension used quiet often (an not documented in their manual). The tool source, in Java, looked straightforward to follow and it was obvious where my code needed to be added. This tool was exactly what I needed :-)

Information content of expressions

December 11th, 2009 No comments

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.