Troubleshooters.Com Presents

Troubleshooting Professional Magazine

Volume 3, Issue 8, August 1999
Self-Documenting Code
Copyright (C) 1999 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

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Editors Desk

By Steve Litt
I heard from an old friend the other day. He's a programmer now. Seems these days every technology oriented person is pressed into duty whomping out code. Will it be good code? How is good code defined? Speed? Reliability? Small footprint? Reusability? Readability? Yes.

Let's talk about readability. I'm often brought in to help make the enhance or rewrite decision. The big factor -- readability. The client doesn't want to pay mega-hours just to decide which way to go. So a timely decision must be made, based on the existing code and the needed enhancements and bug fixes. If I can't quickly read the code well enough to understand the original programmer's design intent, I'll probably recommend rewrite and comment on the lack of that programmer's  readability.

In other words, a program can be very well designed from the machine point of view, and even from the human point of view. But if it does not clearly display that design, its usefullness is severely curtailed.

This issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine is devoted to code readability. With an ever greater proportion of functionality implemented in software, we Troubleshooters deserve readable code. So kick back, relax, and enjoy this issue of Troubleshooting Professional. Learn my thoughts on readability, and enhance them with your own habits and discoveries. And remember, if you're a Troubleshooter, Technologist, or free software user, this is your magazine. Enjoy!

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Code Readability Throughout the Ages

By Steve Litt
Well, at least throughout the ages when I was a programmer. So lets start with 1982. Culture Club topped the charts, I studied programming at Santa Monica College (SMC), the country was in a the grips of a short but nasty recession, and thousands of spaghetti programmers were being shown the door as their era ended.

I was taught the new methods from the start. Structured programming. Use comments often. Use modern languages like C whose compilers don't care what line or column the code appears in. Our instructors laughed at indentation dependent languages like RPG. Those were the way of the spaghetti specialist, not young turks like us.

Our instructors were split on the subject of Cobol. Yes, it had (at least in those days) no local variables, and it was indentation dependent, but it was "self documenting". What could be clearer than "move employee record to print line."? The school's elite looked down their nose at Cobol, that sissy language. I wasn't so sure. Self-documentation sure had its advantages. I became a professional C programmer in 1984 -- one of SMC's first students to do so. And the more I did C, the more I yearned for readability. I couldn't even work on stuff I'd written six months ago. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Commenting on My G-G-Generation

Above all, our instructors taught us to comment, comment, comment. The more comments the merrier. Comments every 5 lines were just fine. A thesis at the top of each subroutine was ideal. And of course every variable needed its own comment to the right of its declaration. We swaggered out of SMC into the job market, cocksure of our new methodologies. We were the new wave -- we knew it all.

And we rewrote, rewrote, rewrote. All that creeping crud made by the spaghetti swarm, we couldn't read it -- we replaced it. And because our design methodologies were much more scalable than spaghetti producing flow charts, we got the job done quickly. But somehow, our stuff wasn't much more readable than that of the flow chart fellows in the unemployment lines. My reaction: Comment even more. The late 80's and early 90's saw me producing programs that were 30% comments. I never saw the problem. After all, I was jumping around so much I didn't maintain my own code. That changed in the early 90's.

When you maintain commented code, you must change the code and the comments to match each other. Well actually, "must" is too strong a word. In hot deadline situations, many changed the code and left the comments alone. So when the next maintenance programmer came along, he was misled. Kludges followed kludges. Good software gone bad. I started commenting less.

There is None as Blind as He Who Will Not See

Come 1987 I was a manager. I reviewed the code of a junior programmer with a freshly minted BS in Computer Science degree . I was struck by the program's beauty and readability. The main routine was four subroutine calls, each of which was structured similar to the main routine. Written in Pascal, it read like English. But it had taken him forever to write the program -- that must be what happens when you go overboard on modularity and functional decomposition. And there was the efficiency problem.

Sure, we displaced the spaghetti guys in the marketplace, but not before they subtly indoctrinated us. That indoctrination -- write efficient code. Oh sure, we knew to trade some efficiency to substitute subroutine calls for gotos, but we didn't want too many levels of subroutine calls. There's speed and stack to consider.

I told the junior programmer he'd need to be less a artist and more productionist and efficiency expert if he wanted to make it in our shop. I soon moved on, never again seeing the junior programmer or his beautifully crafted code, which I (wrongly) associated with non-productivity. It would be years before I really appreciated what that programmer had done.

You Never Talk To Me Any More

As I maintained more and more of my super-commented code, My mistake became obvious. No matter how hard I tried, code and comment went out of sync. First just a little, then a lot, then enough to cause departure from the intended design. So I commented less. Much less. And I tried to make the code itself do the talking.

Hungary for that Readability

A co-worker introduced me to Hungarian variable naming. Wow! Finally a self-documenting system. First since Cobol. I jumped on the Hungarian bandwagon. For those lucky enough to avoid Microsoft code (Hungarian was named after a Microsoft programmer originating from Hungary), here's the executive summary. Every variable name has a prefix, telling: There were other details I never knew or long since forgot. You could make up your own types for structs you created, or for other purposes. The idea was you'd never again unwittingly pass an int to a routine requiring an string. If you want to see the ultimate in Hungarian naming, look in any documentation of the Windows API. Every var is prepended with stuff like "lpstr".

Hungarian was nice while I was in that shop, because everyone was using it. But I used it less and less after leaving that shop because it didn't deliver the promised readability. And you shouldn't use global vars (g) anyway. And the world was turning away from strongly typed languages...

The Snake You Hate To Love

I hated Python the minute I saw it. Like the RPG my now-retired instructors had snickered at, it was indentation dependent. Instead of using begin and end braces to delineate statements subservient to if, else, while and the like, it used indentation. Yuck!

I'd heard such great things about Python -- why had Guido Van Rossem given it this syntax straight out of the Disco era? But I wanted to see what all my friends were raving about, so I took a few hours coding Python. And after 3 hours I realized, "Man, that's readable!".

Remember all those brace placement feuds that made Windows/Linux look like a friendly chat? Gone! Remember that turkey maintenance programmer who screwed up the indentation, followed by yet another turkey maintenance programmer who believed the design to be represented by the indentation, moved the braces and messed up the program? Gone. With the "compiler" enforcing indentation, what you see is what you get. (and where do you want to go today?:-).

If some foolish maintenance programmer messes up your Python indentation, chances are it will immediately error out, giving a line number. But even if he's unlucky enough to have exdented the final subordinate statement, the wrong answers will quickly let him know there's a problem, and he'll go back to the last area he worked on and find it. And if you're *really* concerned that someone will delete an indent and create a hard to find problem, a single comment saying

    # end of if x < 1
will alert all but the densest maintainers to what's going on. And if you *ULTIMATELY* want to enforce the intended indentation, have the final statement be a call to thisIsTheEndOfTheBlock(), a do-nothing routine taking one argument -- an argument declared in the block that will abort with a NameError out if not earlier declared within the block :-)

To Know You is to Love You

Within four hours I knew Python was the language I had always hoped for. I love it for its flaws like weak type checking and indentation sensitivity. But that's not really on topic.

It's the Readability, Stupid!

What Python taught me is that the best documentation is that enforced by the compiler. I took a long walk in the Florida sunshine, contemplating how that fact could be extended. Variables. Name them well and they tell a story. And if they're named right, the maintenance programmer will use them, instead of inventing parallel ones. What about subroutine names? They're compiler enforcible (at least matching the call to the declaration). Use  enough of them, and the entire program becomes a comment. A COMPILER ENFORCED COMMENT.

Just like the beautiful program the junior programmer showed me so many years before. The one I criticized him for. The one where the guy had subroutines just to execute one statement. Nahh, I couldn't advocate that, could I?

This Ain't The Summer Of Love

The hardest habits to break are the ones that once made sense. I would never make a subroutine to execute a single statement. The spaghetti chefs were before my time, but I worked with enough of them to subconsciously pick up some of their habits. One habit was "count those machine cycles, watch that stack". Made a lot of sense when Gracie Slick sang free in Golden Gate Park.  But it makes absolutely no sense today. Twelve levels of subroutine calls may be a little inefficient, but it's downright svelte compared to the corpulance of the average "development environment" produced program.

Imagine a program taking a person's first and last names as the second and third command line arguments. Which statement is easier reading?

print sys.argv[3]
print getLastname()
Of course, to use the latter there must be code like this somewhere:
def getLastname():
   return sys.argv[3]
But by the time you get to that point, the source of the last name is a mere implementation detail. The point is, the programmer has documented his design intent.

But at what cost? Golly gee, the machine cycles, the stack!

If you're using Perl or Python, chances are performance isn't your priority anyway, so who cares. Performance people like C and C++. And in those languages you can make getLastname() a macro. Have your cake and eat it too. It compiles to argv[3], but the source reads getLastname().

This really starts gaining power when using objects to represent the state of a thing:

print employee.getLastname(), employee.getEmployeeNumber()
print lawyer.getLastname(), lawyer.getPhone(), lawyer.getDegree()
print defendent.getLastname(), defendent.getLastConvictionDate()

But Wait, There's More

And if you order this self-documentation methodology today, you get, at no extra cost:

A design methodology!

That's right. If you order our compiler enforced self documentation methodology, we'll throw in, absolutely free, a design methodology. Want a simple example?

We all know you should never sit down and just start typing a program. Right? You diagram it, or use an outline processor, or use case tools, or whatever. But what if your code looks like English:


def main():
   (age,firstname,lastname,gender) = getCommandLineArguments()
   if correctDemographics(age,gender):

def getCommandLineArguments():
   return (eval(sys.argv[1]), sys.argv[2], sys.argv[3], sys.argv[4])

def correctDemographics(age, gender):
   if  20 <= age < 30 and gender == "male":

def sendSalesLetter(age,firstname,lastname,gender):
   printSalutation(gender, lastname)
   printBody(gender, firstname, lastname)
Of course you need to code the three routines called in sendSalesLetter, and at the very bottom you need a call to main(). But you get the picture. To a certain extent you can type in your design document, which has English like readability. The design doc is also your code. But wait. What about  OOP?   Same thing. Each object is an actor in a script, so name all the leading men and ladies in the main routine. Name them descriptive names -- job titles if you will. Each of their method names exactly describes a single behavior. Then the main routine becomes a script narrating how they all interact with each other. Hardly any syntax -- anyone can understand it, and everyone knows the design intent. Supporting actors might be similarly declared in the bodies or methods of the main actors, and likewise their interactions are narrated, and so forth.

How is This Different From the Self Documentation of Hungarian or Cobol?

First, this method of self-documentation will work beautifully with Cobol programs, and it will work just fine with Hungarian variables too, as long as the programmer doesn't skimp on descriptive names to compensate for the prefix typing.

Let's look at Cobol. It's self-documenting at a computer instruction level, but not *necessarily* at a conceptual level. That wordiness:

move employee-record to printline
is really not a whole lot more descriptive, for somebody knowing both languages, than
memcpy(printline, employee_record, sizeof(employee_record));
printline[sizeof(employee_record)] = '\0';
They both describe what's occuring on an instruction level, but say nothing about what's happening on a purpose level. I've seen many Cobol programs comprised of a bunch of highly readable instructions, which when taken as a whole, seem meaningless.

Orthodox use of Hungarian merely guarantees that wrong types won't be assigned or passed, but does nothing toward revealing the underlying design.

This is the Summer of Code

Code seems to be making a comeback. Years of "non-coding drag and drop" development environments have done little for productivity, but cost a fortune in software and training. Java, Perl, Python, TCL/TK and GNU C and C++ are increasingly building the infrastructure of the 'net, and it's only a matter of time before "the enterprise" gets the message. And when they do, self-documenting code will be a powerful portfolio piece. And of course, you can make your drag and drop "code" self-documenting too.

Gracie Slick is an old lady, Culture Club is a speck on music history's dustheap, and text format source code is now catching its second wind.

By Steve Litt
You've noticed the June and July Troubleshooting Professional Magazines have been split into separate single-article .htm files, complete with next and previous links at the top and bottom of the article. I did that to conserve bandwidth, on the theory that most visitors are not reading every article.

I still author the mag as a single web page. But when I'm all done, I can run Perl program on the single file to create the individual ones, create the table of contents, and create all the forward and back links. I simply need to make sure that every article starts with an <H1> style title preceded by an anchor beginning with an underscore. The script takes care of everything else.

I wipped out this script in about 12 hours. I never intended it to be a showpiece. But I think it's a (small sized) example of the self-documentation methodologies I've previously discussed:
#!/usr/bin/perl -w
# by Steve Litt. Public domain. First published 7/26/1999.

use strict;

sub read_source_file
  my($fname) = "";
  $fname = $_[0];

  open(MYINPUTFILE, "<" . $fname) or die "Could not open " . $fname;
  my(@lines) = <MYINPUTFILE>;
sub make_contents_string
  my(@tags) = @{$_[0]};
  my(@titles) = @{$_[1]};
  my($contents) = "<center><b><font size=+3>CONTENTS</font></b></center><p><b><ul>\n";

  foreach $tag (@tags)
    $title = shift(@titles);
    if($tag =~ m/^_/)
      $contents = $contents . "<li><a href=\"$tag.htm\">" . $title ."</li>\n";
  $contents = $contents . "</ul></b><p>\n";  

sub get_issue_title
  my($page) = $_[0];
  $page =~ m/<title>(.*?)<\/title>/si;
  my($rtrn) = $1;
sub fill_article_lists
  my($oldpage) = $_[0];
  my(@tags, @titles, @starts, @lengths);  # LOCAL VERSIONS OF PASSED BACK ARGS
  my($prevStart) = 0;
  my($ss) = 0;

  push(@tags, "%startdoc");
  push(@titles, "STARTDOC");
  push(@starts, 0);
  while($oldpage =~ m/(<h1>[\n\w]*?<a NAME=")([_%].+?)("><\/a>)(.+?)(<\/h1>)/sg)
    if(!defined($1)) {last;}
    $start = pos($oldpage) - length($1) - length($2) - length($3) - length($4) - length($5);
    push(@tags, $2);
    push(@titles, $4);
    push(@starts, $start);
    push(@lengths, $start - $prevStart);
    $prevStart = $start;

  $oldpage =~ m/<\/body>/sig;
  $start = pos($oldpage);
  push(@lengths, $start - $prevStart);

  push(@tags, "%enddoc");
  push(@titles, "ENDDOC");
  push(@starts, $start);
  push(@lengths, length($oldpage) + 1 - $start);

  @{$_[1]} = @tags;
  @{$_[2]} = @titles;
  @{$_[3]} = @starts;
  @{$_[4]} = @lengths;

sub hdr_string
  my($title, $issuetitle) = @_;
  "<!doctype html public \"-//w3c//dtd html 4.0 transitional//en\">\n" .
  "<html>\n" .
  "<head>\n" .
  "   <meta http-equiv=\"Content-Type\" content=\"text/html; charset=iso-8859-1\">\n" .
  "   <title>$title</title>\n" .
  "</head>\n" .
  "<body text=\"#000000\" bgcolor=\"#FFFFFF\" link=\"#0000EE\" vlink=\"#551A8B\" alink=\"#FF0000\">\n" .
  "\n" .
  "<center><font size=+2><b><a href=\"../../troubleshooters.htm\">Troubleshooters.Com</a> Presents</b></font></center><p>\n" .
  "<center><font size=+1><b><a href=\"index.htm\">$issuetitle</a></b></font>\n" .
  "<b><font size=-2></font></b>\n" .
  "<p><b><font size=-2>Copyright (C) 1999 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved.\n" .
  "Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual\n" .
  "use to Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. All rights reserved to the\n" .
  "copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain\n" .
  "free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided\n" .
  "\"As-Is\". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.</font></b></center>\n" .
sub write_article
  my($article)       = $_[0];
  my($ss)            = $_[1];
  my($issueTitle)    = $_[2];
  my($tag)           = $_[3];
  my(@tags)          = @{$_[4]};
  my(@titles)        = @{$_[5]};

  open(OUF, ">" . $tag . ".htm") or die "Can not write file for $tag";
  print OUF &hdr_string($titles[$ss], $issueTitle);

  print OUF "<center><table BORDER COLS=1 WIDTH=\"100%\" BGCOLOR=\"#FFCCCC\" ><tr><td><center><b><font size=-1>\n";
  if($ss <= 0)
    print OUF "<--";
  elsif(!($tags[$ss-1] =~ m/^_/))
    print OUF "<--";
    print OUF "<a href=\"$tags[$ss-1].htm\"><--$titles[$ss-1]</a>";
  print OUF "&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;|&nbsp;&nbsp;";
  print OUF "<a href=\"./index.htm\">Contents</a>";
  print OUF "&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;|&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;";  
  if($ss >= scalar(@tags))
    print OUF "-->";
  elsif(!($tags[$ss+1] =~ m/^_/))
    print OUF "-->";
    print OUF "<a href=\"$tags[$ss+1].htm\">$titles[$ss+1]--></a>";
  print OUF "</font></b></center></td></tr></table></center>\n";
  print OUF "$article\n";
  print OUF "<hr WIDTH=\"100%\"><b><ul>\n";

  if($ss >= scalar(@tags))
    print OUF "<li>Next article:</li>\n";
  elsif(!($tags[$ss+1] =~ m/^_/))
    print OUF "<li>Next article:</li>\n";
    print OUF "<li><a href=\"$tags[$ss+1].htm\">Next article: $titles[$ss+1]</a></li>\n";
  if($ss <= 0)
    print OUF "<li>Previous article:</li>\n";
  elsif(!($tags[$ss-1] =~ m/^_/))
    print OUF "<li>Previous article:</li>\n";
    print OUF "<li><a href=\"$tags[$ss-1].htm\">Previous article: $titles[$ss-1]</a></li>\n";
  print OUF "<li><a href=\"index.htm\">Magazine Contents</a></li>\n";
  print OUF "<li><font size=+1><a href=\"../../troubleshooters.htm\">Troubleshooters.Com</a></font></li>\n";
  print OUF "</ul></b>";

  print OUF "<\/body><\/html>\n";

sub writem
  my($page)       =   $_[0];
  my($infname)    =   $_[1];
  my($issueTitle) =   $_[2];
  my(@tags)       = @{$_[3]};
  my(@titles)     = @{$_[4]};
  my(@starts)     = @{$_[5]};
  my(@lengths)    = @{$_[6]};

  my($ss) = 0;

  open(MAIN, ">index.htm") or die "Cannot open index.htm";

  foreach $tag (@tags)
    my($article) = substr($page,$starts[$ss],$lengths[$ss]);
    if($tag =~ m/^_/)
    elsif($tag eq "%startdoc")
      print MAIN $article;
    elsif($tag eq "%contents")
      print MAIN &make_contents_string(\@tags, \@titles);
    elsif($tag eq "%enddoc")
      print MAIN "</body></html>\n";
      die "Cannot print undefined tag.";
    $ss = $ss + 1;

sub main()
  my($srcfile) = $ARGV[0];
  my(@tags, @titles, @starts, @lengths);
  my(@sourcelines) = &read_source_file($srcfile);
  if(!defined(@sourcelines)){die "Must have source file as single argument";}
  my($sourcepage) = join("", @sourcelines);

  &fill_article_lists($sourcepage, \@tags, \@titles, \@starts, \@lengths);

  my($issueTitle) = &get_issue_title($sourcepage);


Let's examine The first and fourth lines of main() document the command syntax. Basically the main routine says read the source file and mold into a string called $sourcepage. Fill the four article lists, get the issue title, then write the article pages. Subroutine writem() should have been called write_web_pages(). All in all a fine, self documenting main routine.

Routines read_source_file(), get_issue_title() and fill_article_lists() are pretty obvious (though the latter needs a few comments for complete readability). Poorly named writem() starts out readable, identifying its arguments and an output file, but gets a little hairy in the foreach $tag (@tags) loop. But it's not too bad, and at least identifies @tags as the controlling entity. writem() calls write_article() with six arguments.

All pretense of readability is dropped in write_article(). It does an admirable job identifying the arguments and opening the output file, but then descends into a conglomeration of code, which comments tell us perform three sequential tasks: 1)Create page top pointers, 2)Create the page itself, 3)Create page bottom pointers. Note that #2 is trivial. What I should have done is had #1 and #3 be subroutine calls print_page_top() and print_page_bottom() respectively. The problem is I didn't want to pass all those darn arguments again, and all those lists and subscripts were getting confusing.

In retrospect, of course, the solution was to encapsulate lists @tags, @titles, @starts, @lengths and subscript $ss into an object with a name like $articles. $articles might have methods like next(), previous(), tag(), title(), start(), length(), getSubscript(), setSubscript(). The constructor would take the main routine's $sourcepage as an argument and basically do the same parsing as the existing fill_article_lists(). Such a construction would have cut arguments passed to routines, and encouraged further functional decomposition, resulting in vastly improved readability approaching true self-documentation.

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

A Better Blacksmith Tool?

By Steve Litt
Aren't these tips a little late? After all, the days of monolithic blocks of code are gone. Now we drag, drop, and then code events. Right?

Everybody knows all real app dev is done with Delphi, Clarion, VB, Powerbuilder, JBuilder, Visual J++, PowerJ, Visual Fox and the like. These days we must have rapid development. Only the backward looking dinosaurs use text source code. These tips would have been useful in 1990, but they're a day late and a dollar short.

Well, except that they can be used in drag n drop RAD. Most of these RAD environments force you to design your program objects around screens. Ugh. (And thank you Powerbuilder and Clarion for not being like that). But even so, considering that every screen *should* have some function, correct naming of the screens and limitations of functionality will produce (drum roll please) self documenting code. And even in the most RADical RAD, you can design a complex object around a "hello world" style screen. So if you're a good designer, the tips outlined earlier in this Troubleshooting Professional Magazine issue produce self documenting RAD.

And then there's the fact that the fundamental premise of this article might be false. Is source code dead? Was Linux written in VB? Or even VC++ with MFC? Or even C++? Nope, C. C for the kernal, C for enhancements, C for drivers. But that's all systems programming. You can't do apps in code, right?

Try tcl/tk -- compare its productivity to VB. Don't like tcl's unusual syntax? Program in Python or Perl, and use their tk modules for screens. RAD code is not an oxymoron.

But certainly as Linux matures drag and drop environments will displace code. Right? Well, that's really two questions. Will drag and drop environments appear? Certainly. With free Python, Perl and GNU C, the d&d environment is a proprietorists last bastion of price gouging. Will d&d displace code? The Linux marketplace has a proven track record of knowing when the king has no clothes. Only time will tell.

And all of this may be a moot argument. Because Linux, with its no-hassle licensing, modularity, and wealth of utilities, just may tip the scales toward the software-manufacturing model the deified but not achieved the last fifteen years. Read on...

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

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