Software has two ingredients: opinions and logic (=programming). The second ingredient is rare and is typically replaced by the first.
I blog about code correctness, maintainability, testability, and functional programming.
This blog does not represent views or opinions of my employer.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Imperative curlies 5: good conditionals

Continuation of my previous bashing of curlies.

In the previous posts I have proposed 2 rules: eliminated the curiels for better code and shorten the distance between curlies for better code. This post adds the following rule (3): go an extra mile in eliminating the curlies and cool stuff will happen.

If and switch statements are examples of curlies. I still have hard time wrapping my mind around conditional statements in programming. When are they bad and when they are OK?

Side Note:  Conditional statements in imperative and functional worlds are very different beasts.  For example, Java if-else statement is all about conditional side-effects.  In pure functional programming, if-else statement cannot have side-effects and it is really a function returning values. Clearly, functional ifs are more likable.

If statements have been considered villains for a very, very long time. For example, the Visitor Design Pattern has been advocated as an OO alternative to if/switch statements. The worst offenders are the pieces of code with nested if statements which split imperative logic into logical branches and smaller branches and smaller branches… Code like this is where bugs like to thrive, good test coverage is hard or impossible to achieve, the interaction between different conditions is hard to analyze. Code like this typically implies bad design. We used to call such design procedural and lacking Object Orientation. I believe it is this type of code that gave if/switch statements bad name. But are conditional statements evil PERIOD, or is it how we use them that makes them the bad guys?

Many conditional statements are declarative in nature. The concept of pattern matching is fundamental to functional programming. Similarly to for loops they are sometimes simply unavoidable. A good example is specifying boundary conditions: think of differential equations in math, or a typical recursive function definition. Here is an example, Fibonacci sequence is de-facto the hello-world of recursive functions:

fib(0) = 0
fib(1) = 1
fib(n) = fib(n-1) + fib(n-2) for n=2,3,…

If you wanted to define this sequence in Java you would write something like this (Java):
1: int fib(int n){
2:      switch(n) {
3:          case 0: 
4:          case 1: return n;
5:          default: return fib(n-1) + fib(n-2);
6:      }
7: }     
Who cares about Fibonacci numbers? Will I use it on my next programming project? I doubt that I will. The point is, however, that problems in real life have boundary conditions, is handling nulls a boundary condition? Fibonacci numbers are just a good example of boundary condition and recursion all in one.

Instead of looking at memorization or numeric optimization aspects, I will approach the fib sequence from the point of view of curlies: I will try to remove them.

So how can this be done? Is there a way to define fibs without the boundary conditions? One way is to try to replace the recursive definition with a formula (a closed form expression) (if there is one). In the case of fibs there is the Binet formula and more. So if you go this route you will rub your elbows with things like golden ratio end up studying Da Vinci’s work, ancient philosophy and look at flowers. All very cool stuff! Replacing declarative definition of fib with Binet formula (maybe not super computer friendly, but still) gets rid of the curlies and introduces some cool albeit old science!

I came across another way of approaching fib sequence (or similar recursive) problems. Imagine the impossible: computer program understanding the concept of an infinite sequence. Let’s make it even better, in this utopia world you can define infinite sequences recursively! You may want to define fib sequence by saying that it is a sequence which starts with 0 and it is followed by 1 and it is followed by sequence composed by adding corresponding elements of shifted fib sequence (recursive itself) to the left by 2 positions to shifted fib sequence (recursive itself) to the left by one position. So before the impossible dream evaporates in a puff of smoke let me write the SCALA code (example found in Wampler/Payne Programming Scala book):
1: val fib: Stream[Int] = 
2:     Stream.cons(0, 
3:        Stream.cons(1, 
4:  => pair._1 + pair._2)))
6: fib.take(7).print  //prints: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, empty
Notice that the conditional statements and curlies have disappeared and we have introduced some deep programming concepts at the same time. It seems like cool stuff happens when curlies disappear!

Short explanation of what this code does: lazy evaluated Streams are infinite sequences in SCALA. The infinity does not come into play because the sequence is not evaluated until needed (take() call). Sequences are like linked lists so they have head and tail. Stream.cons(a, b) returns a stream starting at a and b being a tail. Zip is a functional concept of combining 2 sequences into one sequence of pairs (2 first elements, 2 second elements, etc). SCALA can be even less verbose (from SCALADoc):
1: val fib: Stream[Int] = 0 #:: 1 #:: 
2: => pair._1 + pair._2)
There is also a quick ‘Am I an imperative programmer’ self-test here: 
We have defined fib(n: Int) without using ‘n’. Test question: Do you have a problem with this?

The point of all of this nonsense if that conditional statements are part of life and have to be a part of my programs. This does not mean I will not try to avoid them. Only, there is no universal solution, no magic pill. Binet’s formula works for Fibonacci numbers but will not help me in writing null pointer exception free code without if statements. For this I may end up using other tricks like SCALAs Options concept, JavaScript && or Groovy ? or maybe even decide to learn what a monad is. Going extra mile in removing the curlies will force a deeper understating of how to write beautiful programs into me.

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