Breaking Out of the Familiarity Model
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James Iry recently blogged
on code density and tries to find out the meaning of "dense code". As
an example he took upon the topic of regular expressions, which despite
being dense are not frowned upon in coding and hardly get replaced for
making the code fragment more readable.
So the question is what makes code dense so that it's not acceptable to programmers and they complain about it's incomprehensibility ?
Later in the blog post James himself identifies unfamiliarity as one of the culprits. People don't complain about regexes since they are familiar with them, but will surely complain of something else which they are not familiar with.
Almost during the same time Ola Bini blogged about expressiveness in programming language syntax. He mentions that a well designed syntax should help programmers *read* the code easily. But he also questions about the target programmers ..
who is this person reading ? It makes a huge difference if we’re trying to design something that should be easy to read for a novice or we’re trying to design a syntax that makes it easier for an expert to understand what’s going on.
Once again we get into this territory of familiarity and mental model. An expressive piece of code becomes readable only to a person who is familiar with the underlying model. In my programming career I have come across this dichotomy a number of times where programmers complain of something being too dense the moment it crosses the threshold of his familiarity level. I have seen developers taking every pain to understand the nuances of a Spring XML configuration. Or who have spent zillions of hours mastering the whole bunch of performance tuning Hibernate with stuffs like query cache configuration. Believe me it's not simple with tonnes of corner cases to take care of and even today I am not sure if it can be achieved in a deterministic way for all kinds of data models. But these same developers complain when they are faced with maintaining code that needs a basic understanding of functional programming, set theory or algebraic data types. I think it's purely because these form outside the limits of their familiarity model.
For a programmer who is not familiar with higher order functions, combinators like map, fold or filter will look too dense. So when you say map (+1) [1..5], the code fragment looks much less comprehensible to him than his familar variant of using an imperative mutated-indexed for-loop. To the unfamiliar the functional variant appears dense, to the expert it becomes succinct.
One of the challenges that I face today is to make programmers believe that learning new stuff will only help them think better. It's not mandatory that they will need all of these tools as part of their day job. But broadening your mental model can only help your thought process to leverage a wider playground. Maybe in our part of the world big companies give no incentive to transform yourself from a billable offshore resource to a thinking programmer. But you really need to transcend the limits of your familiarity model in order to appreciate code which experts certify as succinct.
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