Philosophy of coding. The name itself should make you a little suspicious. I mean, this is an engineering-ish endeavor. Some wacky postmodernist might get carried away and start talking about "The Semiotics of Analog Design", but nobody would take it very seriously. When you write code, it is essentially an act of creation, however, and there are a lot of assumptions that underlie that endeavor that it is nice to make explicit.

So this little rantish screed of a treatise will be dealing with two issues. First, various philosophies on how to code. Then I get into a rant about the assumptions that underlie most code. Obviously, the first is more applied and hands on, but many people have argued pretty cogently that the second is more important in the long term.

How to write good code

The only way to really know how to solve a problem correctly is to have already solved it in the past. Other engineering disciplines know this, and people build on each other's designs making only incremental improvements. The end product may look different, but it is all pretty traditional. A bridge is a bridge is a bridge. Software design is a little different, because software consists almost solely of ideas, so it is tempting to do the computing equivalent of "I'm entitled to my opinion", because you have valid reasons for that opinion. Unfortunately, many things are the way they are because they are the best solution. This is not always true, but when you find yourself taking the road less traveled, try to find out why it hasn't been taken before. It's quite possible that it was, and then it was abandoned for very good reasons. When coding, try to find out what others have done to solve a similar problem. If you see obvious flaws in their design that make it inapplicable to your situation, it is totally okay to bust out into new territory, but don't reinvent the wheel. In particular, when working with networks, don't reinvent TCP/IP. It's there, just use it. When working with displays, PLEASE don't reinvent X or windows messaging. They've both been done, and they both suck for completely different reasons. If you have a truly new and innovative idea, go for it. But be aware that it will make your life harder in every way, so know why you are doing it.

Speaking of difficult lives, if you don't stick to standards, your life will suck more. Seriously. It is often kind of a pain to make something standards-compliant, but once it is, if things don't work well with it, it is not your problem.. You've done your part. Standards exist for a reason, and they are usually designed by engineers for the good of everyone. To find out what's gone on in the world, you'll need to hook up with someone more experienced in a mentor-apprentice kind of way. Computer science may be high-falutin', but coding is like a really high paid vo-tech job. It's a craft, as well as a science, and getting the knack only comes with time, practice, and guidance.

How do you write something well, if you can't kind find another solution to study? Now we're talking philosophically. Some people, notably the waterfall design method people, say that you should carefully write lots and lots of design documents before you start. Other people, notably the Extreme Programming people, say that you should implement something crappy, and then use that knowledge to build something nice the second time. There is also a third camp, which is the Unix way - build lots of little modules, and make sure each module works, then combine them.1 In this, I have to side with the XP people. The only way to know what you need to write is to have already written one. Or, put more cynically, "plan to throw one away - you will anyway." This technique has the added benefit that you get to start hacking at a problem right away rather than doing tedious design, and when you get a steaming pile of crap that only mostly works, you can feel okay about throwing the crap out the window and starting afresh. Yes, you'll write code that isn't used. Yes, that can suck. But in the long run the system that comes out will be better and more fun to work with. If you really want to do some design up front, then go for the Unix method. Waterfall design is too painful to be fun, and when coding is fun, the end product is better.

Keep having fun. Some people really like writing device drivers. Some people like writing fractal generators. Do what you want to do, this is supposed to be fun, at least when it's not your job. And if it is your job, try to have fun then, too. The end product, as well as your quality of life, will be a lot better.

Speaking of making life better, one good way that you, as a coder, can make life better for those who want to use your program is to make it readable. Use comments, but more importantly use descriptive variable names and don't write obfuscated code. Never ever ever ever optimize your code. I promise that, unless you really know what you are doing, your "optimizations" will only make your code harder to read. Just follow the rules for optimization, and you'll be set.

Code for the ages. Code gets used. That's its nature, and the whole point of writing anything. Many of my professors were employed in aerospace in the early seventies, and the fact that the code they wrote is still being used in modern satellites freaks the hell out of them. They fully admit that what they wrote was a pile of crap, but it worked. If they had known it would be this used, they would have done it better. They would have made it extensible and readable. When you write code, you are essentially showing off your geek cred, so dress to impress.

Code and life, the universe, and everything

So, Donald Knuth covered this much better than I in a series of lectures entitled Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About. Go read them to muse on programming as an act of creation, and the idea of playing god in toy universes and creating and destroying self propagating patterns. I want to talk about code's relation to the world around us.

When you write code, there are a bunch of hidden assumptions underlying what you write. The biggest and best example of this is the internet. The protocols and architecture of the internet promote freedom and openness. This can also be observed by how difficult it is for people to secure their systems from breakin. The internet was not explicitly designed as this open architecture free-for-all of friendliness. The designers had specific goals about inter-domain routing, and robustness, and they wanted to make all the protocols relatively easy. They weren't worried about Intellectual property rights, they were worried about Internet Protocol stacks. But, because they were in an academic environment, they ended up making a system that was also very open to abuse in some specific ways from malicious users, because it was a scholastic culture of trust. Similarly, they never check whether a particular piece of data would be illegal to share, because the whole point of academia is knowledge sharing.

Unfortunately, code has irrevocably entered the mainstream. Everyone (of a certain socioeconomic status) has a computer, and everyone has heard about software piracy, hackers, cyber-whatever, and DDOS attacks. Everyone knows about bugs, and everyone is starting to have an opinion on cryptography and intellectual property. Thus, while code has not become political - very few people "code for democracy!" - it can impact politics and vice-versa. So, think about how you might give away the code. Think about giving it away for free. It is, after all, only ideas, and ideas are cheap. Or expensive. Or something. But whatever you decide, do it with open eyes. Consider your options. Read Code, and other laws of Cyberspace, and the GNU Manifesto. Read In the Beginning was the Command Line. Read stuff by Bill Joy, Ray Kurzweill, Cliff Stoll, and others. We've moved past the day where the geek world can do whatever it wants in a vacuum (if, indeed, those days ever existed). Do whatever you want, but make sure you realize the ramifications.

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  1. Thanks go out to Simpleton, for pointing out that I had neglected to mention this method.

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