Write Small Functions Using Examples

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We would like to write code that is correct, and have evidence on hand that it is correct. It can help with both issues is to think about the "size" of a functions. Not in the sense of the amount of code that implements a function, although that is interesting, but rather the size of the mathematical function that our code manifests.
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We would like to write code that is correct, and have evidence on hand that it is correct. It can help with both issues is to think about the "size" of a functions. Not in the sense of the amount of code that implements a function — although that is interesting — but rather the size of the mathematical function that our code manifests.
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For example, in the game of Go there is a condition called ''atari'' in which a player's stones may be captured by their opponent. The rule is that a stone with two or more free spaces adjacent to it (these are called ''liberties'') is not in atari. While it can be surprisingly tricky to count how many liberties a stone has, once we know that working out if the stone is in atari is easy. We might begin by writing a function (in pseudo–code) like this:
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For example, in the game of Go there is a condition called ''atari'' in which a player's stones may be captured by their opponent: A stone with two or more free spaces adjacent to it (called ''liberties'') is not in atari. It can be tricky to count how many liberties a stone has, but determining atari is easy if that is known. We might begin by writing a function like this:
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boolean atari (int libertyCount)
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boolean atari(int libertyCount)
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if libertyCount < 2
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libertyCount < 2
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true
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false
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It might not look it, but this function is pretty huge. A mathematical function can be understood as a set, specifically some subset of the Cartesian product of all the sets that are its domain and range. Here the domain is the set of all <code>int</code> values and the range is the set of all <code>boolean</code> values. If these were the same size as in Java then there would be <code>2L * (Integer.MAX_VALUE + (-1L * Integer.MIN_VALUE) + 1L)</code> or 8,589,934,592 members of the set <code>int * boolean</code>. To produce evidence that this function as written is correct then in principle we would need to create checked examples for all 4.3&times;10<sup>9</sup> possible invocations. The function <code>atari</code> as written is trivial, but because the function it models is so big it would be very hard to produce strong evidence that it is correct. This is the essence of the claim that test cannot prove the absence of bugs.
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This is larger than it looks. A mathematical function can be understood as a set, some subset of the Cartesian product of the sets that are its domain (here, <code>int</code>) and range (here, <code>boolean</code>). If those sets of values were the same size as in Java then there would be <code>2L*(Integer.MAX_VALUE+(-1L*Integer.MIN_VALUE)+1L)</code> or 8,589,934,592 members in the set <code>int</code>&times;<code>boolean</code>. Half of these are members of the subset that is our function, so to provide complete evidence that our function is correct we would need to check around 4.3&times;10<sup>9</sup> examples.
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Tests can demonstrate the presence of features, though. But still we have this issue of size.
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This is the essence of the claim that test cannot prove the absence of bugs. Tests can demonstrate the presence of features, though. But still we have this issue of size.
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The problem domain helps us out. The nature of Go means that number of liberties is not any <code>int</code>, but exactly one of {1,2,3,4}. So we could alternatively write:
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The problem domain helps us out. The nature of Go means that number of liberties of a stone is not any <code>int</code>, but exactly one of {1,2,3,4}. So we could alternatively write:
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LibertyCount = {1,2,3,4}
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LibertyCount = {1,2,3,4}
boolean atari(LibertyCount libertyCount)
boolean atari(LibertyCount libertyCount)
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if libertyCount < 2
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libertyCount == 1
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true
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false
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This is much more tractable: The function computed is now a set with at most eight members. In fact, four checked examples would constitute evidence of complete certainty that the function is correct. This is one reason why it's a good idea to use types closely related to the problem domain to write programs, rather than native types. Using domain–inspired types can often make our functions much smaller. One way to find out what those types should be is to find the examples to check in problem domain terms, before writing the function.
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This is much more tractable, the function is computed is now a set with at most 8 members. In fact, 4 checked examples would constitute evidence of complete certainty that the function is correct.
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by [[Keith Braithwaite]]
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This work is licensed under a
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[http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/ Creative Commons Attribution 3]
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Back to [[97 Things Every Programmer Should Know]] home page

Current revision

We would like to write code that is correct, and have evidence on hand that it is correct. It can help with both issues is to think about the "size" of a functions. Not in the sense of the amount of code that implements a function — although that is interesting — but rather the size of the mathematical function that our code manifests.

For example, in the game of Go there is a condition called atari in which a player's stones may be captured by their opponent: A stone with two or more free spaces adjacent to it (called liberties) is not in atari. It can be tricky to count how many liberties a stone has, but determining atari is easy if that is known. We might begin by writing a function like this:

boolean atari(int libertyCount)
    libertyCount < 2

This is larger than it looks. A mathematical function can be understood as a set, some subset of the Cartesian product of the sets that are its domain (here, int) and range (here, boolean). If those sets of values were the same size as in Java then there would be 2L*(Integer.MAX_VALUE+(-1L*Integer.MIN_VALUE)+1L) or 8,589,934,592 members in the set int×boolean. Half of these are members of the subset that is our function, so to provide complete evidence that our function is correct we would need to check around 4.3×109 examples.

This is the essence of the claim that test cannot prove the absence of bugs. Tests can demonstrate the presence of features, though. But still we have this issue of size.

The problem domain helps us out. The nature of Go means that number of liberties of a stone is not any int, but exactly one of {1,2,3,4}. So we could alternatively write:

LibertyCount = {1,2,3,4} 
boolean atari(LibertyCount libertyCount)
    libertyCount == 1

This is much more tractable: The function computed is now a set with at most eight members. In fact, four checked examples would constitute evidence of complete certainty that the function is correct. This is one reason why it's a good idea to use types closely related to the problem domain to write programs, rather than native types. Using domain–inspired types can often make our functions much smaller. One way to find out what those types should be is to find the examples to check in problem domain terms, before writing the function.

by Keith Braithwaite

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3


Back to 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know home page

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