Thursday 27 March 2008

On readability -- Pure induction in action

Radical engineering principle: on readability


Engineering principles are true by good convention.


Optimal "readability" is readable _optimality_.


Never ever optimize. <*>

Do make code readable. <**>

Clean up the dark side. <***>

Readability before all. <****>

The only way to optimal code. <>


<*> Includes refactoring, the semantic side of optimization.

<**> Includes restructuring, the semantic side of readability.

<***> Includes comments, the dark side of readability.

<****> Includes the dark side of optimality.

<> Readability dis-including itself.


Optimization of a sub-optimal program (algorithm, system, product, procedure, argument) is a pointless hack that leads to solutions at local minima. Improvement of such local-minimal solutions is impractical, given that the underlying landscape is so redundancy-reduced as to result completely chaotic.

In practice, if a sub-optimal program gets optimized (once upon a time there was the blessed post-optimization-upon-need, nowadays we have optimization as an integral programming practice called refactoring and its cousin performance), any required improvement needs stepping back a number of iterations until another approach, more basic but broader enough for the extended problem, gets in sight. The more premature the optimizations, the more paralyzing the sub-optimized local-minimal results. And the iteration starts over...

To break the deadly cycle, just stop optimizing in any form, start instead striving for readability. To get a basic idea of readability, we can think of the optimal target as a program code that can be _read as easily_ by a professional in the field as something in between a technical article and a page of mathematics. That is, code must speak for itself!

[A side note to the casual reader: please don't get too strict on terminology, I'm using all terms in their _broader_ sense, so that, for instance, should you be a software engineer, where I say "coding", I actually mean any act of production, including all that there is from analysis to delivery. The same holds for other disciplines. The only restriction is maybe in that I try to stay within the bounds of "engineerings" and "applied sciences", although, sooner than later, we'll catch up with "social sciences"...]

That said, apart from avoiding the inconveniences of optimization (taken in its broadest and weakest sense), readability brings its own distinct advantage, indeed an exclusive property: readability and only readability leads to optimal programs. We still miss a formal proof, but this might be apparent if we think what an _optimal_ program is: on a side, readable entails manageable so much as the latter requires the first; on the other side, every _ideal_ relates to needs that, in any ultimate sense, are "human" and only "human". Indeed, "who" needs _what_?

[For example, say one is programming and keeps readability in mind.
That means:
1) writing code with readability in mind (rather than "writability");
2) designing a system under permanent (re)structuring, down from its very (im)permanent foundations;
3) keeping the whole environment always clean and tidy, as if important guests are to arrive at any moment soon (and that includes documentation; yes, please, if in doubt, just DROP IT ALL!!).
That leaves plenty of room for movement, and the code stays always around the optimal balance between minimality and continuous improvement.]

We can't predict the future, we make it: we are pure induction in action.

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