A good name will shine forever

Naming things is supposedly one of the two hard things in Computer Science. Here are some tips on naming for programmers.

Getters

In the Java world property accessors are traditionally prefixed with “get” and “set”, the Java bean convention:

person.getFirstName()

Code becomes more pleasant to read if you omit the “get” prefix:

person.firstName()

Of course, you can do this only if you don’t use a framework that depends on the convention to recognize properties via reflection (like some OR mappers, for example).

What about setters? I rarely write setters anymore. If you design your classes as immutable types you don’t need setters. Even if your class has mutable state you probably want to control this state via methods more specific to the domain of the problem. Also, the more you apply the tell, don’t ask principle the less you will find the need for getters.

Brevity vs. verbosity

There were times when it was common to see mass variable declarations like the following at the beginning of a function:

int i, j, k, l, m, n;
float a, b, c, u, v, x, y, z;

Fortunately, times have changed for the better, and most programmers are aware that descriptive naming is important. However, some programmers do over-compensate. Length of an identifier is not a virtue by itself.

The Objective-C Cocoa framework is famous for overly long method names:

[array objectAtIndex:index]

Parts of Objective-C were inspired by Smalltalk. But in Smalltalk the same method is called at:

[array at:index]

This is a reasonably sufficient name for such a common functionality in programming.

Here’s another example: If the concept of a measurement station is very prevalent in the domain of your project then it’s ok to call instances just station instead of measurementStation if it’s the only kind of station in the domain.

Yes, the IDE does auto-complete long names. However, readability of the code decreases if the reader has to scan the same long-winded names over and over again:

MeasurementStation measurementStation = new MeasurementStation();
Measurement measurement = measurementStation.startMeasurement();

Often you can find names that are more to the point than longer descriptions, e.g. acquire instead of takeOwnershipOf. (source)

Hungarian notation and friends

The famous Hungarian notation is no longer in widespread use. However, there are variations of it that I would recommend against as well for the sake of readability. For example, bookList or bookArray can be simply books. Another variation would be conventions like myField or m_field for member variables. If you need these notations to determine the origin of a variable, then your scopes are probably too big, i.e. your methods, functions or classes are too long. Additionally, IDEs and editors for programmers can highlight these different scopes anyway. Other examples for unnecessary Hungarian-style notation are IFoo for interfaces, EFoo for enums or the infamous FooImpl.

Screaming constants

There is really no need for constants and enum values to constantly SCREAM at you and other readers. This SCREAMING_CASE convention has its origin in C, where constants used to be defined as macros when the const keyword wasn’t introduced yet, and it later found its way into other programming language ecosystems. Names for constants and enum values are not more important than other identifiers and don’t have to be spelled differently. Try it, you will enjoy the newfound silence in your code.

Conclusion

These are some tips to improve readability of code through better names. Some of these tips go against traditional conventions, so you should discuss them with your team before applying them. Consistency within an existing code base can definitely be more important. But if you have the freedom you should definitely give them a try.

Displaying numbers in tables

Many software applications have to display series of numbers, for example statistical information, measurement values or financial data. Of course there are many ways to visualize values graphically with charts, but sometimes the user wants to see the actual values as numbers. The typical layout method to display numbers are tables.

Here are some guidelines you should follow when you have to display numbers in a table.

Integer numbers

Right aligned integer numbers

Right-aligned integer numbers

Integer numbers that are shown in a table column should be right-aligned, because the orders of magnitude of a number’s digits increase from right to left. Additionally you should choose a font with fixed-width digits for numbers. This ensures that digits with the same orders of magnitude line up. Thus the numbers can be compared more easily. The font itself doesn’t have to be a fixed-width font in general. Some proportional fonts with variable widths for letters have fixed-widths for digits, called tabular figures.

Non-integer numbers

Aligned with decimal points

Aligned with decimal points

Non-integer numbers with decimal points should be aligned with their decimal points. The reason is the same as above: digits with the same orders of magnitude should line up. This can be a bit more effort to implement in your application than mere right-alignment, because components such as UI widgets or HTML tables usually don’t directly support this form of alignment.

However, you can implement it by using a font with tabular figures and then right-pad the numbers with spaces. Each of these spaces must have the same width as a digit, of course. This is the case with a fixed-width font, but there is also a special Unicode character for this purpose that can be used with proportional fonts and tabular figures: it’s called figure space and has the Unicode code point U+2007.

Arbitrary 2D curves with Highcharts

Highcharts is a versatile JavaScript charting library for the web. The library supports all kinds of charts: scatter plots, line charts, area chart, bar charts, pie charts and more.

A data series of type line or spline connects the points in the order of the x-axis when rendered. It is possible to invert the axes by setting the property inverted: true in the chart options.

var chart = $('#chart').highcharts({
  chart: {
    inverted: true
  },
  series: [{
    name: 'Example',
    type: 'line',
    data: [
      {x: 10, y: 50},
      {x: 20, y: 56.5},
      {x: 30, y: 46.5},
      // ...
    ]
  }]
});

line-chart-inverted

Connecting points in an arbitrary order

Connecting the points in an arbitrary order, however, is not supported by default. I couldn’t find a Highcharts plugin which supports this either, so I implemented a solution by modifying the getGraphPath function of the series object:

var series = $('#chart').highcharts().series[0];
var oldGetGraphPath = series.getGraphPath;
Object.getPrototypeOf(series).getGraphPath = function(points, nullsAsZeroes, connectCliffs) {
  points = points || this.points;
  points.sort(function(a, b) {
    return a.sortIndex - b.sortIndex;
  });
  return oldGetGraphPath.call(this, points, nullsAsZeroes, connectCliffs);
};

The new function sorts the points by a new property called sortIndex before the line path of the chart gets rendered. This new property must be assigned to each point object of the series data:

series.setData([
  {x: 10, y: 50, sortIndex: 1},
  {x: 20, y: 56.5, sortIndex: 2},
  {x: 30, y: 46.5, sortIndex: 3},
  // ...
], true);

Now we can render charts with points connected in an arbitrary order like this:

A line chart with points connected in arbitrary order

A line chart with points connected in arbitrary order

The migration path for Java applets

Java applets have been a deprecated technology for a while. It has become increasingly difficult to run Java applets in modern browsers. Browser vendors are phasing out support for browser plugins based on the Netscape Plugin API (NPAPI) such as the Java plugin, which is required to run applets in the browser. Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome already have stopped supporting NPAPI plugins, Mozilla Firefox will stop supporting it at the end of 2016. This effectively means that Java applets will be dead by the end of the year.

However, it does not necessarily mean that Java applet based projects and code bases, which can’t be easily rewritten to use other technologies such as HTML5, have to become useless. Oracle recommends the migration of Java applets to Java Web Start applications. This is a viable option if the application is not required to be run embedded within a web page.

To convert an applet to a standalone Web Start application you put the applet’s content into a frame and call the code of the former applet’s init() and start() from the main() method of the main class.

Java Web Start applications are launched via the Java Network Launching Protocol (JNLP). This involves the deployment of an XML file on the web server with a “.jnlp” file extension and content type “application/x-java-jnlp-file”. This file can be linked on a web page and looks like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<jnlp spec="1.0+" codebase="http://example.org/demo/" href="demoproject.jnlp">
 <information>
  <title>Webstart Demo Project</title>
  <vendor>Softwareschneiderei GmbH</vendor>
  <homepage>http://www.softwareschneiderei.de</homepage>
  <offline-allowed/>
 </information>
 <resources>
  <j2se version="1.7+" href="http://java.sun.com/products/autodl/j2se"/>
  <jar href="demo-project.jar" main="true"/>
  <jar href="additional.jar"/>
 </resources>
 <application-desc name="My Project" main-class="com.schneide.demo.WebStartMain">
 </application-desc>
 <security>
  <all-permissions/>
 </security>
 <update check="always"/>
</jnlp>

The JNLP file describes among other things the required dependencies such as the JAR files in the resources block, the main class and the security permissions.

The JAR files must be placed relative to the URL of the “codebase” attribute. If the application requires all permissions like in the example above, all JAR files listed in the resources block must be signed with a certificate.

deployJava.js

The JNLP file can be linked directly in a web page and the Web Start application will be launched if Java is installed on the client operating system. Additionally, Oracle provides a JavaScript API called deployJava.js, which can be used to detect whether the required version of Java is installed on the client system and redirect the user to Oracle’s Java download page if not. It can even create an all-in-one launch button with a custom icon:

<script src="https://www.java.com/js/deployJava.js"></script>
<script>
  deployJava.launchButtonPNG = 'http://example.org/demo/launch.png';
  deployJava.createWebStartLaunchButton('http://example.org/demo/demoproject.jnlp', '1.7.0');
</script>

Conclusion

The Java applet technology has now reached its “end of life”, but valuable applet-based projects can be saved with relatively little effort by converting them to Web Start applications.

My favorite Unix tool

Awk is a little language designed for the processing of lines of text. It is available on every Unix (since V3) or Linux system. The name is an acronym of the names of its creators: Aho, Weinberger and Kernighan.

Since I spent a couple of minutes to learn awk I have found it quite useful during my daily work. It is my favorite tool in the base set of Unix tools due to its simplicity and versatility.

Typical use cases for awk scripts are log file analysis and the processing of character separated value (CSV) formats. Awk allows you to easily filter, transform and aggregate lines of text.

The idea of awk is very simple. An awk script consists of a number of patterns, each associated with a block of code that gets executed for an input line if the pattern matches:

pattern_1 {
    # code to execute if pattern matches line
}

pattern_2 {
    # code to execute if pattern matches line
}

# ...

pattern_n {
    # code to execute if pattern matches line
}

Patterns and blocks

The patterns are usually regular expressions:

/error|warning/ {
    # executed for each line, which contains
    # the word "error" or "warning"
}

/^Exception/ {
    # executed for each line starting
    # with "Exception"
}

There are some special patterns, namely the empty pattern, which matches every line …

{
    # executed for every line
}

… and the BEGIN and END patterns. Their blocks are executed before and after the processing of the input, respectively:

BEGIN {
    # executed before any input is processed,
    # often used to initialize variables
}

END {
    # executed after all input has been processed,
    # often used to output an aggregation of
    # collected values or a summary
}

Output and variables

The most common operation within a block is the print statement. The following awk script outputs each line containing the string “error”:

/error/ { print }

This is basically the functionality of the Unix grep command, which is filtering. It gets more interesting with variables. Awk provides a couple of useful built-in variables. Here are some of them:

  • $0 represents the entire current line
  • $1$n represent the 1…n-th field of the current line
  • NF holds the number of fields in the current line
  • NR holds the number of the current line (“record”)

By default awk interprets whitespace sequences (spaces and tabs) as field separators. However, this can be changed by setting the FS variable (“field separator”).

The following script outputs the second field for each line:

{ print $2 }

Input:

John 32 male
Jane 45 female
Richard 73 male

Output:

32
45
73

And this script calculates the sum and the average of the second fields:

{
    sum += $2
}

END {
    print "sum: " sum ", average: " sum/NR
}

Output:

sum: 150, average: 50

The language

The language that can be used within a block of code is based on C syntax without types and is very similar to JavaScript. All the familiar control structures like if/else, for, while, do and operators like =, ==, >, &&, ||, ++, +=, … are there.

Semicolons at the end of statements are optional, like in JavaScript. Comments start with a #, not with //.

Variables do not have to be declared before usage (no ‘var’ or type). You can simply assign a value to a variable and it comes into existence.

String concatenation does not have an explicit operator like “+”. Strings and variables are concatenated by placing them next to each other:

"Hello " name ", how are you?"
# This is wrong: "Hello" + name + ", how are you?"

print is a statement, not a function. Parentheses around its parameter list are optional.

Functions

Awk provides a small set of built-in functions. Some of them are:

length(string), substr(string, index, count), index(string, substring), tolower(string), toupper(string), match(string, regexp).

User-defined functions look like JavaScript functions:

function min(number1, number2) {
    if (number1 < number2) {
        return number1
    }
    return number2
}

In fact, JavaScript adopted the function keyword from awk. User-defined functions can be placed outside of pattern blocks.

Command-line invocation

An awk script can be either read from a script file with the -f option:

$ awk -f myscript.awk data.txt

… or it can be supplied in-line within single quotes:

$ awk '{sum+=$2} END {print "sum: " sum " avg: " sum/NR}' data.txt

Conclusion

I hope this short introduction helped you add awk to your toolbox if you weren’t familiar with awk yet. Awk is a neat alternative to full-blown scripting languages like Python and Perl for simple text processing tasks.

ECMAScript 6 is coming

ECMAScript is the standardized specification of the scripting language that is the basis for JavaScript implementations in web browsers.

ECMAScript 5, which was released in 2009, is in widespread use today. Six years later in 2015 ECMAScript 6 was released, which introduced a lot of new features, especially additions to the syntax.

However, browser support for ES 6 needed some time to catch up.
If you look at the compatibility table for ES 6 support in modern browsers you can see that the current versions of the main browsers now support ES 6. This means that soon you will be able to write ES 6 code without the necessity of a ES6-to-ES5 cross-compiler like Babel.

The two features of ES 6 that will change the way JavaScript code will be written are in my opinion: the new class syntax and the new lambda syntax with lexical scope for ‘this’.

Class syntax

Up to now, if you wanted to define a new type with a constructor and methods on it, you would write something like this:

var MyClass = function(a, b) {
	this.a = a;
	this.b = b;
};
MyClass.prototype.methodA = function() {
	// ...
};
MyClass.prototype.methodB = function() {
	// ...
};
MyClass.prototype.methodC = function() {
	// ...
};

ES 6 introduces syntax support for this pattern with the class keyword, which makes class definitions shorter and more similar to class definitions in other object-oriented programming languages:

class MyClass {
	constructor(a, b) {
		this.a = a;
		this.b = b;
	}
	methodA() {
		// ...
	}
	methodB() {
		// ...
	}
	methodC() {
		// ...
	}
}

Arrow functions and lexical this

The biggest annoyance in JavaScript were the scoping rules of this. You always had to remember to rebind this if you wanted to use it inside an anonymous function:

var self = this;
this.numbers.forEach(function(n) {
    self.doSomething(n);
});

An alternative was to use the bind method on an anonymous function:

this.numbers.forEach(function(n) {
    this.doSomething(n);
}.bind(this));

ES 6 introduces a new syntax for lambdas via the “fat arrow” syntax:

this.numbers.forEach((n) => this.doSomething(n));

These arrow functions do not only preserve the binding of this but are also shorter. Especially if the function body consists of only a single expression. In this case the curly braces and and the return keyword can be omitted:

// ES 5
numbers.filter(function(n) { return isPrime(n); });
// ES 6
numbers.filter((n) => isPrime(n));

Wide-spread support for ECMAScript 6 is just around the corner, it’s time to familiarize yourself with it if you haven’t done so yet. A nice overview of the new features can be found at es6-features.org.

Monitoring data integrity with health checks

An important aspect for systems, which are backed by a database storage, is to maintain data integrity. Most relational databases offer the possibility to define constraints in order to maintain data integrity, usually referential integrity and entity integrity. Typical constraints are foreign key constraints, not-null constraints, unique constraints and primary key constraints.

SQL also provides the CHECK constraint, which allows you to specify a condition on each row in a table:

ALTER TABLE table_name ADD CONSTRAINT
   constraint_name CHECK ( predicate )

For example:

CHECK (AGE >= 18)

However, these check constraints are limited. They can’t be defined on views, they can’t refer to columns in other tables and they can’t include subqueries.

Health checks

In order to monitor data integrity on a higher level that is closer to the business rules of the domain, we have deployed a technique that we call health checks in some of our applications.

These health checks are database queries, which check that certain constraints are met in accordance with the business rules. The queries are usually designed to return an empty result set on success and to return the faulty data records otherwise.

The health checks are run periodically. For example, we use a Jenkins job to trigger the health checks of one of our web applications every couple of hours. In this case we don’t directly query the database, but the application does and returns the success or failure states of the health checks in the response of a HTTP GET request.

This way we can detect problems in the stored data in a timely manner and take countermeasures. Of course, if the application is bug free these health checks should never fail, and in fact they rarely do. We mostly use the health checks as an addition to regression tests after a bug fix, to ensure and monitor that the unwanted state in the data will never happen again in the future.