Clarity vs. code reuse/generality

pdpi pdpinheiro at
Tue Jul 7 14:01:33 EDT 2009

On Jul 7, 2:16 am, Steven D'Aprano <st... at REMOVE-THIS-> wrote:
> On Mon, 06 Jul 2009 16:43:43 +0100, Tim Rowe wrote:
> > 2009/7/4 kj <no.em... at>:
> >> Precisely.  As I've stated elsewhere, this is an internal helper
> >> function, to be called only a few times under very well-specified
> >> conditions.  The assert statements checks that these conditions are as
> >> intended.  I.e. they are checks against the module writer's programming
> >> errors.
> > Good for you. I'm convinced that you have used the assertion
> > appropriately, and the fact that so many here are unable to see that
> > looks to me like a good case for teaching the right use of assertions.
> > For what it's worth, I read assertions at the beginning of a procedure
> > as part of the specification of the procedure, and I use them there in
> > order to document the procedure. An assertion in that position is for me
> > a statement to the user of the procedure "it's your responsibility to
> > make sure that you never call this procedure in such a way as to violate
> > these conditions". They're part of a contract, as somebody (maybe you)
> > pointed out.
> > As somebody who works in the safety-critical domain, it's refreshing to
> > see somebody teaching students to think about the circumstances in which
> > a procedure can legitimately be called. The hostility you've received to
> > that idea is saddening, and indicative of why there's so much buggy
> > software out there.
> LOL.
> Maybe the reason for "so much buggy software" is that people
> inappropriately use assert, thus changing the behaviour of code depending
> on whether it is run with the -O flag or not.
> I don't know what "hostility" you're seeing. The only hostility I'm
> seeing is from the OP, which is bizarre considering that he asked for
> advice and we gave it. What I see is a bunch of people concerned that the
> OP is teaching novices a bad habit, namely, using assert for error
> checking. He claims -- angrily and over and over again -- that in his
> code, the assertions should never fail. Great. Good for him for knowing
> when to use assert. (...)

But he doesn't.

He asserts:
    assert lo < hi
but then compares:
    sense = cmp(func(hi), func(lo))

sense can't ever be anything other than 1. I actually find it amusing
that this threat got to 50 posts of raving discussion about assertions
without anyone spotting that.

Personally, I think the code is an unreadable mess, but that's mostly
because of all the micro optimizations, not the generality of it.
Here's my unoptimized, but still equally generic, version:

def _binary_search(lo, hi, func, target, epsilon):
    sense = cmp(func(hi), func(lo))
    if sense == 0:
        return None
    guess = (lo + hi) / 2.
    while abs(func(guess) - target) > epsilon:
        guess = (lo + hi) / 2.
        if func(guess) > target:
            hi = guess
        elif func(guess) < target:
            lo = guess
        elif lo == hi:
            return None
    return guess

This is a newbie course, right? A while True loop might be faster, but
it's all sorts of wrong for teaching newbies. Likewise, calculating a
midpoint as mid = (hi + lo) * .5 is an aberration in a beginner
environment. You want your students asking why you're calculating an
average, not asking why you're multiplying by 0.5. In the same vein, I
have no words for your target_plus/target_minus cleverness.

The right way to go about it, IMO, is to give them my version, let
them digest it, make all the necessary changes to it to turn it into
your (faster) version. Present benchmarks for both, then let the
readability/performance trade-off sink in. What you achieve with this
exercise is that, instead of making your students think "I have to
read that crud!?", they'll respect that ugly code is often the result
of eking out every last drop of performance from a program as you
possibly can.

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