Syntax vs semantics: what’s the difference?

This is a subject that many programmers get confused about.  The difference isn’t really a difficult concept, it’s just that it’s not explained to programmers very frequently.  Let’s consider a snippet of a poem by Jeff Harrison:

know-bodies, devoted we to under-do for you
every Sunday-day of dressy morning, black pond,
sky’s germs, chairs’ ponds – prove it, stain!
us, rain-free & orphaned, we’re living laboratories
This is from Dart Mummy & The Squashed Sphinx.  If you haven’t figured it out, this text is generated by a computer.  And it uses the same techniques that a lot of spammers use.  What’s most interesting about this is that it’s grammatically correct.  For instance, “prove it, stain!” is a perfectly valid English sentence.  The problem is just that it’s meaningless.  Thus, we can say that the above poem is syntactically correct but has no meaning semantically.
Programming languages are similar in concept.  Consider the following Python snippet:
The above code is obviously incorrect.  It uses variables that haven’t been declared yet.  Therefore, it is semantically incorrect.  But it is a syntactically valid Python program.
In the same manner, we can say that these two snippets of code are identical semantically although they definitely have very different syntax:
python
def f(x):
return x + 1
rawplus1.py hosted with ❤ by GitHub
ocaml
let f x = x + 1
rawplus1.ml hosted with ❤ by GitHub
Therefore, we can define these terms like this:
 * syntax – A set of rules for specifying a program
 * semantics – The meaning behind that program

Are you an Engineer or a Scientist?

I just got done reading an excellent article by Roman Snitko. I agree almost 100% with everything he says. However, I felt that the idea could have been developed and executed better. I’m not writing this because I feel that his original piece sucked. Rather I’m writing this because I like the idea he comes up with and want to see it have an impact. So here’s my shot.

(I should say that some of what I say might disagree with what Roman says. I did say almost 100%.)

The engineer

People tend to associate “engineers” with people who get things done and solve real-world problems. Thus, I feel that Roman’s “dudes” can be thought of as the engineers of the programming community. Engineers are the ones who want to make something and get it in peoples’ hands as quickly as possible. It just so happens that that product is a piece of software.

You can recognize an engineer because they’re usually saying things like “So what if it’s not perfect? It works!” or “That sounds like a great idea, but I don’t think we have time for it.”

The engineer’s biggest weakness is that they seem to not think about much past their current deadlines. Yes, it’s important to meet those deadlines. But you do plan on writing software after meeting those deadlines, don’t you? To make up for this, they must call upon the expertise of the scientist.

The scientist

The interesting thing is that almost every field of engineering has a corresponding field of science. Scientists are people who find better ways of doing things without necessarily considering their practicality. It’s fashionable to talk about how disconnected these types of people are from reality, but the truth of the matter is that engineers can’t do the things they can without scientists. Scientists are the ones who want to build great software. It just so happens that that software is also a product people will use.

You can recognize scientists because they’re usually saying things like “So what if it works? It’s an ugly hack!” or “Software schedules should reflect what needs to get done, not the other way around.”

You might have already guessed the scientist’s weakness: they tend to not get along with deadlines very well. To make up for this, they must call upon the abilities of an engineer who can transform their great ideas into reality.

So who’s right?

This way of looking at things is a bit of an oversimplification though. It’s really not that engineers don’t want to make a great piece of software or that scientists don’t want to make a great product. It’s really a matter of priority. Scientists would rather write a great piece of software than a product. Engineers would rather make a product than a great piece of software.

Unfortunately, both sides are a bit disconnected from reality. In the software world, a great product usually is a great piece of software. It’s also unfortunate that someone who can make both things happen is extremely rare if not nonexistent.

Thus, it is ideal for these two sides to be in a state of healthy conflict. They need to recognize that the other side has a point sometimes (as hard as that can be).

So which one are you? And how do you work with the other side?

The Rise of SYDNI, or YAGNI is Only About Problems, Not Solutions

I’ve got a new programming methodology to propose. I call it SYDNI
(Sometimes You Do Need It). It is a response to the problems that I
see with YAGNI. In fairness, I don’t dislike YAGNI. In fact, I agree
with it 100% (well, maybe 95%). But to truly appreciate it, you need
a bit of context.

On YAGNI

I’ve almost started thinking of YAGNI almost as a recursive way of
thinking. That is to say that I’ve begun to think of YAGNI as being
something that uses itself to implement itself. Allow me to explain.

What is YAGNI?

YAGNI stands for “you ain’t gonna need it.” I don’t want to make this post
an in-depth discussion of what YAGNI actually is, so click the
Wikipedia link if you aren’t familiar with YAGNI. The important thing
to take away from reading about YAGNI is that it’s saying that you
shouldn’t implement functionality if you don’t need it.

What YAGNI ISN’T

YAGNI sounds like a pretty straightforward way of thinking. And in a
lot of ways it is. But it’s more nuanced than one may think at first.
The “recursive” element of YAGNI that I speak of above is that YAGNI
(in my opinion) is a very specific solution to a very specific
problem, and that problem is over-engineering.

And YAGNI does its job well (especially in the context of Test Driven
Development). I tend to find myself throwing out a lot less code when
using YAGNI.

A lot of people take YAGNI to mean that the simplest solution is
always the best. That isn’t the case. Or at a very minimum, that
shouldn’t be the case. There’s a key thing about simplicity
that should be understood: it’s defined by the problem, not the
solution. This is key to understanding why YAGNI is so useful. Once
you’ve gotten to the point of choosing a solution, YAGNI is no help to
you. Thus, you have to use YAGNI to choose problems, not solutions.

You’re not in school anymore

In school, things are always so simple. You’re assigned a problem.
And you’re given a grade based on how well you solved that problem.
The real world is more complex.

You see, people too often forget that software developers don’t just
define solutions to problems. After all, aren’t all feature requests
nothing more than a statement of a problem? And isn’t choosing
software features a decision about what problems you will solve?

However, once you’ve chosen a problem to solve, there’s still the
issue of how to solve it.

Sometimes You Do Need It

In solving a problem, YAGNI’s usefulness starts to fade. It does have
some importance. You do have to make sure your solution is solving
the problem you set out to solve. However, beyond that, YAGNI just
doesn’t apply. In fact, it is likely harmful. That’s where SYDNI
comes in. Although SYDNI’s name is something of a jab at YAGNI, the
principle itself isn’t. Instead, SYDNI can be thought of as a
complement to YAGNI. A yin to YAGNI’s yang (alliteration for the
win).

Oftentimes, thoughts may enter your head that start with something
like “we’ll never need…” or “this will never have to…”. This kind
of thinking is helpful when choosing the problem to solve. However,
it’s destructive when choosing a solution. In a couple of years,
there is only one thing that will be certain about the software you’re
writing: it will be different. And it will be different in ways you
can’t have predicted or imagined. If you’re using YAGNI
appropriately, you’re choosing the easiest problems to solve.
However, at least a few of these problems come out of left field.

Therefore, I would put SYDNI this way: ideally, a piece of software
will be no more simple or complex than the problem it is trying to
solve. Therefore, there is danger not only in solutions that are
overly complicated, but there is also danger in solutions that are
overly simple.

This leads to another conclusion: if SYDNI is followed appropriately,
the complexity of your source code is a direct measure of how complex
the problems it is solving are. The reverse is true as well. The
complexity of the problems you’re solving is a direct measure of how
complex your source code will be.

But I don’t live in an ideal world!

The key hole in SYDNI is the word “ideally”. Unfortunately, some
problems just don’t have perfectly compatible solutions. Therefore, a
key decision to be made is whether it is better to err on the side of
over-engineering or under-engineering a solution. We are now delving
into the realm of many disputes between programmers. Many people
(mis)educated on the arts of YAGNI will say that it is always better
to tend towards under-engineering. If this were true, YAGNI wouldn’t
be as useful to as many people as it has been.

Even more unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” answer of
whether it is better to over-engineer or under-engineer. It is highly
situational and care must be taken to arrive at the appropriate
solution. If you don’t believe me, consider the following two
questions:

  1. Which life support machine would you rather be hooked up to?
    •  A machine whose software developers always did the simplest thing possible
    •  A machine whose software developers went out of their way to anticipate possible problems and planned for each of them
  2. Which one-page web app do you feel would be easiest to maintain?
    • An application that is implemented as two or three source files and a few database tables
    • An application with a highly normalized database, highly modular source, and great flexibility

 

I should hope that the answer to number 1 is obvious. And why it is
the correct answer should also be obvious: if you missed a particular
contingency, people can die. Thus, it makes sense to err on the side
of over-engineering.

But number 2 is a little bit less obvious (and maybe more debatable).
However, I would err on the side of under-engineering. After all, no
matter what changes come up, a one-page web app is still a one-page
web app. The worst case is that the app would be rewritten from
scratch. That’s not to say that you need to throw caution into the
wind and ignore normal good practice. Rather, it’s saying that it’s
not really a good idea to stress much over how maintainable that
application is.

Therefore, when deciding on a solution, there are two things that need
to be decided upon beforehand:

1. How complex the problem is.
2. Whether under-engineering is more harmful than over-engineering.

Once you get those two things squared away, it should be easy to get
an idea of how complex the solution should be.

The devil’s in the details

There are two schools of thought in the programming world:

  1. Explicit is better than implicit (configuration over convention)
  2. A developer should only have to program the unconventional aspects of a program (convention over configuration).

We’ll call #1 the Python school and #2 the Ruby school. In fact, I
would argue that this is an issue that’s at the core of whether code
is considered “Pythonic” or “Rubyic” (I doubt the last one is a word).

So which school of thought is right? I personally think they both
are. It doesn’t really take a whole lot to demonstrate that the
Python school of thought isn’t always right. Think about it. Did you
know that the Python runtime has a component that goes around deleting
objects from memory totally implicitly? How unpythonic is that?

The Ruby school of thought takes a bit more work though. After all,
if it’s unconventional, why should you have to configure it? Of
course, the problem here is in defining “conventional”. What’s
conventional to me is likely unconventional to others. And what’s
conventional to others could be unconventional to me.

I wish I had more advice on how to reconcile these two schools of
thought. The truth is that I struggle with them daily. But I think
having an intuition about this is the dividing line between
“experienced programmer” and “newb”. After all, if programming were
merely about “make everything explicit” or “make everything implicit”,
any idiot could do it.

I think this is also the core skill for writing readable code. You
need to determine what details are relevant to each piece of code.
Whatever the case, you need to make a conscious decision as to what
details shine through and what details you obscure. Because if these
things happen on accident, they’re almost guaranteed to be wrong.

My five rules for writing good code

I just came across a blog post that outlines 5 rules for writing good code.  I agree with them for the most part.  But this subject is extremely subjective and will vary from person to person.  Therefore, I’d like to write up my own rules for writing good code.

Keep it simple

This is the YAGNI rule.
There are often times when we want to try to solve problems we don’t have.  You must resist this urge.  It’s far easier to make simple code more complex than the other way around.  This is usually more of a challenge than it looks.  It’s a sign of good code that you constantly find yourself saying “any idiot could have put this together”.  Reality is that idiots only write simple code when the problem is easy or when they get lucky.

…but not simplistic

You can call this the SYDNI rule.
Albert Einstein said it best when he said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  I’ve seen too many “simple” hacks that ended up causing more of a maintenance problem than it would have been just to write something more complex.  As good a thing as simplicity is, you need to be realistic.  Don’t try to make a simple solution match a complex problem.

Abstraction is your friend

So what do you do in those situations where you need to use a complex solution?  Do you give up all hope and just write some horrible piece of crap?  No, you find a way to make that complexity easier to manage.  This is where abstraction comes in handy.
For instance, Lisp introduced the concept that “it’s all data”. This makes it easier to understand things.  If you want to know what something is, you already know that it’s data of some kind.  What is a function?  Data.  What is a list?  Data.  What is code?  Data.  This has a profound effect upon your ability to understand things.

Follow guidelines

Jeff Atwood would call this following the instructions on the paint can.  We tend to sneer at the idea of “best practices”, but reality is that they’re necessary.  There are a lot of problems out there that people have already dealt with and solved.  Why waste time not learning from others’ mistakes.

…but don’t worship them

As the old cliche tells us, rules were made to be broken.  Some of the most well known design patterns break the guidelines and have some of the worst code smells.  In fact, sometimes the guidelines conflict with each other.  Thus, don’t blindly follow guidelines without knowing their purpose.  Instead, understand the rules, know when to follow them and when following them is the greater of two evils.

How to come up with good abstractions

The effective exploitation of his powers of abstraction must be regarded as one of the most vital activities of a competent programmer. -Dijkstra

Abstraction is something that every programmer uses, but few appreciate. In fact, there’s an architecture antipattern that discusses this. You can agree or disagree with the idea that 1 in 5 programmers understand abstraction, but it is my experience that few developers truly appreciate abstraction and can make good use of it. This is somewhat sad. While abstraction comes naturally to few programmers, it is something that every programmer can learn with some amount of effort.

So with that said, here are my (sometimes conflicting) guidelines for coming up with good abstractions.

  1. Trust your gut. Abstraction is more of an art than a science. If there were an objective, scientific method of coming up with good abstractions, programming would be a lot easier. Therefore, you need to forget everything your professors told you about not trusting your intuition. The goal of any abstraction is to make something easier to understand. Guess what abstractions are easiest to understand? The ones that are the most intuitive. Of these guidelines, this is the most important. When you’re in a situation where two guidelines conflict go with your first instinct.
  2. All abstractions leak. It’s worth reading Joel’s piece on leaky abstractions. This is an important thing to keep in mind. The most beautiful abstractions are the ones that are successful in spite of this. Unix is full of good examples. For instance, is anyone really naive enough to be convinced that everything really can be treated exactly the same as an honest-to-god file that resides on the hard disk? Sure, everything has the same interface as a file. But in all but the most trivial of cases, you’re going to need to know what the underlying thing you’re interfacing with is. For instance, with a socket, you may need to worry about if the socket is half-closed, totally closed, or open. If it’s a pipe, you need to realize that something on the other end might close the connection. And yet in spite of the leakiness, the “everything is a file” abstraction is probably the most important thing Unix ever did.
  3. Don’t trust black boxes. Whether it’s your abstraction or someone else’s, there’s a real danger of thinking of something as a magical black box that doesn’t need to be understood. This is dangerous because of guideline #2. When something doesn’t work right, you want to be prepared.
  4. …but don’t be too transparent. Of course, there’s a danger of going too far in the opposite direction. A completely transparent abstraction is useless; it’s not really an abstraction. A good abstraction should be translucent. You shouldn’t have to know all of the details all the time, but you should be able to figure them out easily.
  5. Elegance before comprehensiveness. Since we’ve already established in #2 that no abstraction works in all circumstances, you should abandon the idea of an all-encompassing abstraction. It’s better to have a small set of abstractions upon which higher-level abstractions can be built than to try and come up with one all-encompassing layer of abstraction.
  6. Abstraction doesn’t make your code simpler. Many peoples’ complaint against abstraction is that it makes your code more complex. In fact, they’re often correct. When you have the choice between abstraction and simplicity, always choose simplicity. Unfortunately simplicity isn’t always an option. Think of it this way: if you become sick, would you rather take medication that will cure the disease or treat the symptoms? Obviously, we’d rather make the disease go away if at all possible. But not all diseases are curable. In this case, the only thing you can do is treat the symptoms. This is essentially what abstractions do. They don’t make complex code simple. They do make complex code easier to wrap your head around though.

In the end, I can come up with nifty guidelines like this all day. But in the end, it’s most important to remember rule #1: trust your gut. Chances are that you’ll be better off than if you followed a checklist of guidelines.

What are some good abstractions that follow these guidelines? What are some that break them?