Burn Rate

Think The Worst: The Value of Pessimism

Pessimism is a severely underrated quality of good programmers. It’s easy to write code that works when everything goes well. It’s profoundly hard to write code that doesn’t screw everything up when something goes wrong.

Part of this difficulty is technical: Software at scale is a series of components that are connected in various, complicated ways. One component failing can cascade, creating subtle issues that are hard to diagnose. Sometimes the issue isn’t even in the components, but how they’re connected and configured. Dan Luu talks about configuration issues here.

Part of this difficulty is psychological: People don’t like thinking about errors and unhappy paths. Developers ride off the validation of code that compiles, that passes all the tests, that works. Thinking about errors goes against that. At an individual level this can mean a developer willfully ignoring the unhappy path. At a team level this can mean shutting down or ignoring pessimistic developers. At an org level this can manifest as a lack of resources allocated towards contingencies.

How can we solve these difficulties? Become a pessimist! Albeit one with tact. Nobody likes an Eeyore bemoaning that everything will go wrong. People are naturally prickly when it comes to discussing their code failing. Try to communicate your pessimism tactfully and in small quantities.

This won’t be a full guide to pessimistic programming. There’s quite a few aspects that either I don’t know enough about, or don’t feel like discussing. Always try to be learning more about potential problems that can arise.

Input and Output

Whenever you write a function, you should always scrutinize your arguments as much as possible. Can they be null? What values are valid? When could an invalid value be passed in? What should happen in that case? What is valid output?

For instance, let’s take a super simple function in C:

   int get(int* arr, int n) {
      return arr[n];
   }

Okay okay there’s some obvious issues here. We don’t know how big the array is so n could easily be bigger than the length. Let’s write a little more robust one:

   int get(int* arr, int len, int n) {
     if (n < len && n >= 0) {
       return arr[n];
     }
     return -1;
   }

The function checks if the index is in the bounds of the array. If it is, it returns the element, otherwise it returns -1.

What could go wrong? A lot actually. Let’s go through the issues.

  • arr is null/not a valid pointer

Classic but bites everybody. Always include a null check!

   int get(int* arr, int len, int n) {
     if (n < len && n >= 0 && arr != null) {
       return arr[n];
     }
     return -1;
   }
  • What if arr is allowed to have negative values? -1 is a valid value

Good point! We’ll need to do some more bookkeeping. For now let’s imagine we do some proper C error handling with goto or errno. I’ll leave that to the reader.

  • What if arr[n] doesn’t have anything in it! What will it return?

Another good point myself. If we’re good C citizens, we’ve allocated arr with calloc or it’s statically allocated. If we’re not, it’s been allocated with good ol’ malloc and therefore may have old data in it. arr[n] could return anything.

There’s almost certainly other issues. What about portability? Integer overflow?

Error Handling

Okay okay using C is cheating. Let’s use something more civilized like Java. Let’s say we’re designing a TodoList app that fetches your tasks from a database.

List<Task> getTasks(User user) {
  String GET_TASKS_QUERY = String.format(
    "SELECT * FROM tasks WHERE user_id = %s",
    user.id
  );
  List<Task> tasks = execute(GET_TASKS_QUERY);
  return tasks;
}

Looks pretty good right? If you’ve been paying attention the answer should be NO. What if user is null? What about if there’s no tasks? What if the id is invalid? What if we can’t connect to the database?

All of these questions involve error states: user is null, tasks are empty, id is invalid. From there, we need to figure out the potential ways of handling these various states.

For instance, if user is null, perhaps we should throw an exception. Except…then from a user-facing perspective the app will just crash. Exceptions are great for programmers who are used to reading stack traces. Not so much for users. Maybe then we shouldn’t throw an exception but surface an error message in the app. Maybe we should direct the user to a registration screen.

These are all valid options, but it wholly depends on a few conditions. For instance, let’s take two getUser functions:

User getUser(String username, String password) {
  String hashedPassword = hashPassword(password);
  String GET_USER_QUERY = String.format("SELECT * FROM users" +
                                        "WHERE username = %s AND password = %s",
										username, hashedPassword);
  User user = execute(GET_USER_QUERY);
  return user
}

And

User getUser(String username, String password) {
  String hashedPassword = hashPassword(password);
  String GET_USER_QUERY = String.format("SELECT * FROM users" +
                                        "WHERE username = %s AND password = %s",
										username, hashedPassword);
  User user = execute(GET_USER_QUERY);
  if (user != null) {
    return user
  } else {
    throw new UserException("User not found");
  }
}

In the first case, if we call getUser and pass the result into our getTasks function, our user could be null for perfectly normal reasons: the password is incorrect, or maybe the user doesn’t exist. In the second case, the user cannot be undefined. If it is, we throw an error.

Neither of these is necessarily better. When we call the second getUser, we have to remember that it can throw an exception and handle it accordingly. Again, your users don’t expect a generic “Internal Server Error” when they put in the wrong password. Likewise when something actually goes wrong, there should be a way of distinguishing that from just a normal wrong password.

However the first case can cause programmer bugs because someone may call it assuming the user exists and end up with a NullPointerException.

Indeed, both options are flawed. In either case, we don’t distinguish between a user not existing and a user having an invalid password. This is a valid security concern but pragmatically, it’s generally fine to display different messages for invalid password versus no account and certainly more useable.

These are all considerations you should be thinking about while writing code. What can throw an exception? What should throw an exception? Who should catch it?

Pessimism in Programming Languages

One interesting example of pessimism is in programming languages. Specifically, let’s talk about Rust. I’m a huge fan of Rust. It’s a very well designed language with a lot of great features. One important quality that I value is that Rust is deeply pessimistic.

The best feature to explain this pessimism is null values. Rust has what’s called a non-nullable type system. In a non-nullable type system, null values are not allowed by default. For instance, Rust will not let you do:

let foo = null;

In fact, null doesn’t even exist! There is no such value that all types can be assigned to it.

Instead, if you want to have a value that may or may not exist, you can write it in an Option type. Option types can either be None or Some(T) where T is the type of your value.

let mut foo: Option<i32> = None;

foo = Some(10);

Why is this better? Well for one it means that if a value is not in an Option, you can use it with impunity. Pass it into functions; send it to space; no matter what, it’ll exist. The second benefit is that to use an Option value, you must handle the None case.

let foo = Some(10);
let bar = Some(20);

let baz = foo + bar // Won't work

That won’t work because to add the numbers, we need to ensure that they’re not None.

This may sound tedious, but it really isn’t. What this means is that we have to be pessimistic about certain values. For instance, take this get_user function:

fn get_user(username: String, password: String) -> Option<User>

What this expresses is that we’re passing in a username and password, both of which we know are not null and exist, but that we might get back a user, or we might not.

When we use this result, we have to handle the case where the user might not exist.

let user = get_user(username, password);
if let Some(user) = user {
  // If the user exists, yay! We keep going
} else {
  // Otherwise, we gotta do something
}

This extends to errors. Generally Rust does not have exceptions1. Instead, there is a type Result that returns either the value, Ok(T) or an error value Err(E). This allows you to express functions that can fail and give an error:

fn get_user(username: String, password: String) -> Result<User>

Now, when we call get_user, we know that it may return an error, but if it doesn’t, it must return a user.

Notice how we’ve encoded the two different Java getUser functions, but in a way where the caller knows what must happen and is forced to handle either the null user or the potential error.

What’s nice about this version is that once we’ve done these checks and handled the potential issues, we know that the values are good and won’t cause any additional problems.

Error Handling In Life

I wanna close out with one last usecase. I’ve noticed that some people don’t always think about potential issues in their life. Granted, there’s some issues one really shouldn’t worry about. Like, who would spend time worrying about a global pandemic. That wouldn’t happen.

ahem

But I digress. Pessimism is a good attribute in how you interact with others. While it’s wonderful to have strong convictions, you should always ask yourself the same question: What if I’m wrong?

You can argue about how Rust is the greatest programming language or how performance doesn’t matter, but every so often, you should ask yourself if you’re wrong.

Some people don’t like doing this because they’re afraid that if they realize that they’re wrong, that’s bad. I believe that you should realize you’re wrong all the time. That’s how you get better.

Likewise, people tend to assume that they’re on the right path in life. They assume that they’re in college doing x major and hanging out with these people and listening to this music. But what if they’re not? Try asking yourself that sometime. Are you on the right path? And if not, what is the right path?

This sounds scary. However to me, it also sounds exciting. It means that you can find yourself a better life.

Why not?

  1. Kinda. There’s panics, but those are rare and not recommended for most errors. 

This project is maintained by torchNYU