the problem with the professor's code

this is part of a series of posts i wrote for my software engineering course at university of texas.

the first project for my software engineering class at UT was to submit solutions for the collatz conjecture to a system called sphere which judges the output and ranks everyone's results. the project was focused more on good engineering practices like testing and documentation than the problem itself. i managed to get second place on the all-time best list for python 2.7, and the individual coming in first happens to be a current classmate.

the professor was kind enough to give us a skeleton of the project code, but he also asked us to use the exact set of functions he laid out. i thought this was unfortunate because the code he posted is not very good.

disclaimer: apologies for the flame-bait title. it's admittedly a cheap trick employed by poor writers to make an otherwise boring piece more interesting, and there's nothing different here. the professor is more intelligent than i am, and the course is among the best i've taken at UT. i'm guessing he authored the code in this manner out of pedagogical motivations since the average student is relatively new to programming most experienced with java.

let's consider the function used to read the input integer pairs:

def collatz_read (r, a) :
    """
    reads two ints into a[0] and a[1]
    r is a  reader
    a is an array of int
    return true if that succeeds, false otherwise
    """
    s = r.readline()
    if s == "" :
        return False
    l = s.split()
    a[0] = int(l[0])
    a[1] = int(l[1])
    assert a[0] > 0
    assert a[1] > 0
    return True

i believe this function fails in two main areas: the interface, and the coding style.

the interface

the function uses the return value to indicate whether there was output and the a parameter to store the output. there is no way of determining what is input or output by simply looking at the function signature, and i find it much more clear to follow the convention that function arguments are inputs and return values are outputs. the professor's approach is acceptable in a less expressive language like C or a language like C++ which allows const arguments to indicate inputs. but python is wonderfully expressive and it doesn't have const.

i believe the right tool for this job is a generator. generators (and python's iteration protocol) are powerfully composable concepts, and some of the best parts of the language. generators are important to python the way pipes are important to unix -- beyond their role as abstractions, they also inform the design and philosophy of the systems by encouraging small, reusable building blocks that form the foundation for larger systems. david beazely has an awesome peice on building systems with generators. you should stop reading this and go read that now. you should also appreciate how generators make it possible for peter norvig to write a spelling corrector in a mere 21 lines.

so if we re-write collatz_read with generators, parameters only for inputs, and the return value only for outputs, i think it would look more like:

def collatz_read(infile):
    """
    generate input pairs for the collatz problem from a readable file-like
    object that's formatted as specified here:
    http://www.spoj.com/problems/PROBTNPO/

    infile: readable file-like object
    returns: generator of arrays of int pairs
    """
    return filter(lambda i: len(i) == 2, (map(int, l.split()) for l in infile))

let's break that down:

this version is better because:

coding style

you might have noticed the professor's implementation has spaces before colons and after the function parameters list. additionally the file names (along with the other file names in the project) are capitalized. this is non-standard style, and it doesn't conform to PEP-8, the google python styleguide, the python standard libraries, or major community projects like django.

before you write me off as a whiny pedant, understand my motivations. this is not about nit-picking or my own pet preferences, this is about attention to detail and respecting the decisions of the community.

developers managing open source projects are very busy people. the first thing they'll notice in any patch you submit is whether it conforms to the style of the rest of the project. sure, the patch may be correct, but if it looks different it communicates that you can't be bothered to understand the community's preferences, so they'll probably have much less tolerance for your proposed changes.

this all may still seem like hair-splitting, but remember: it's about the community. the community behind a technology is often more influential in determining its success than the language's features and performance. one of your first steps in adopting any technology should be getting to know its community, which affects everything from how much you can improve things to what type of people will be attracted to your team.

recap

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