Thursday, December 03, 2009

Programmers - Poets or Mathematicians?

Programming software is much like writing a story. Any given story can be told in a near-infinite number of ways and those who practice the craft will spend just as much time, if not more, arguing over the style of a work, as if their subjective opinion can suddenly become objective fact. Usually this leads to a contest of "If you don't agree with me, I'll just keep talking until you see reason" or otherwise known as talking the subject to death.

I thought I'd shine some light on an example of this issue in programming. There is a never-ending debate in programming circles about the 'proper' way to write code that creates some true/false decision. Stackoverflow has a good example of this.

My personal pet peeve (petty but my teeth grind everytime I see it) is verbosely setting booleans, e.g.

bool isValid;
if (percentage >= 0 && percentage <= 100)
= true;
= false;

whats wrong with

bool isValid = percentage >= 0 && percentage <= 100;

It's soooooo much more succinct and easier on the eye

Even though the single line version isn't the most complex, different people read through code in different ways. A single expression can be easily parsed by people who have a math background or are experienced coders. That's not the point. The expanded version reads more like a sentence than a formula. It's easy to forget that there are plenty of coders without a background in math. It really comes back to the preferred style of the reader. Do they prefer reading expressions and formulae or something more like human speech.

Homer's The Illiad and The Oddessy are ancient works dedicated to expressions of speech. They were originally poems that were passed down in an oral tradition and meant to be sung instead of read.

Euclid's Elements is a work dedicated to expressions of logic. It covers objective proofs and unambiguous facts and is the beginning of the mathematical tradition, if you will, of rigorous scientific thinking.

The problem we face in software is code is a form of human expression, with all the imprecision that entails, attempting to communicate with the utterly logical CPU; programmers will be forever trying to translate "An Ode to the Machine" into the Pythagorean Theorem.
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  1. Anonymous12:21 PM

    Might "programming" be synonymous with "writing"? You can write a poem, but you can also write a logical paper. I believe programming is the same way. It's all in the programmer's intent.

  2. A good programmer will keep his "target audience" in mind. Most Developers remember to consider the machine, in that they set out to use memory efficiently, minimize I/O operations, etc. The Support Team who will support and maintain the program needs to be kept in mind as well. Depending on the types of people on the Support Team should have some bearing on the style employed by the programmer.


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