Clarity vs. code reuse/generality

kj at
Fri Jul 3 10:05:08 EDT 2009

I'm will be teaching a programming class to novices, and I've run
into a clear conflict between two of the principles I'd like to
teach: code clarity vs. code reuse.  I'd love your opinion about

The context is the concept of a binary search.  In one of their
homeworks, my students will have two occasions to use a binary
search.  This seemed like a perfect opportunity to illustrate the
idea of abstracting commonalities of code into a re-usable function.
So I thought that I'd code a helper function, called _binary_search,
that took five parameters: a lower limit, an upper limit, a
one-parameter function, a target value, and a tolerance (epsilon).
It returns the value of the parameter for which the value of the
passed function is within the tolerance of the target value.

This seemed straightforward enough, until I realized that, to be
useful to my students in their homework, this _binary_search function
had to handle the case in which the passed function was monotonically
decreasing in the specified interval...

The implementation is still very simple, but maybe not very clear,
particularly to programming novices (docstring omitted):

def _binary_search(lo, hi, func, target, epsilon):
    assert lo < hi
    assert epsilon > 0
    sense = cmp(func(hi), func(lo))
    if sense == 0:
        return None
    target_plus = sense * target + epsilon
    target_minus = sense * target - epsilon
    while True:
        param = (lo + hi) * 0.5
        value = sense * func(param)
        if value > target_plus:
            hi = param
        elif value < target_minus:
            lo = param
            return param

	if lo == hi:
	    return None

My question is: is the business with sense and cmp too "clever"?

Here's the rub: the code above is more general (hence more reusable)
by virtue of this trick with the sense parameter, but it is also
a bit harder to understand.

This not an unusual situation.  I find that the processing of
abstracting out common logic often results in code that is harder
to read, at least for the uninitiated...

I'd love to know your opinions on this.



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