Readability !== Comprehension: CoffeeScript Case

I am not exactly a Javascript guy, though I acknowledge the power and need for JS in today's web environment. It seems that the CoffeeScript (CS) language, which acts as a pre-processor to JS, gains some popularity in the industry.

CS removes most of the symbols like the braces and semicolons and adds whitespaces like Python; so much that it is possible to write almost complete English sentences (long one-liners) which will be processed into tens of lines of JS code.

While searching for information on CS, I've stumbled upon an interesting criticism here by Ryan Florence, which got me thinking.

While I am a fan of syntactic-sugars in my languages and powerful data operators like the generators and list-comprehensions, I found myself agreeing with many of the criticisms int the article. Especially the ideas that readability and comprehension are different things; and the fact that the symbols are faster than words.

I wouldn't declare CoffeeScript as a bad language to use based on this criticism though since most of the criticized points are optional in it; and I like coding in Python which shares many of those features. But the general idea of the power of the symbols seems to be a good one to meditate on. Maybe Python had got rid of its 'readable' syntax in favor of more symbolism while keeping its great syntactic-sugaring and crazy data operations, it would be an even better language for me :).

Alright, so this example is from the article....Which is more comprehensible?

if (five && six && seven) doStuff();
doSomething() if five and six and seven
Another one:
wash plate, brush, sink for key, plate of dishes when plate.dirty if meal.status is 'done'
That backwards 'if' statements and the use of 'and's 'or's etc. cannot be good for fast comprehension and debugging.

One of the comments (by James Treworgy) made total sense for me:

"Actually this is the thing that has kept me away from CS more than anything else. Comparison operators are at the root of mathematical equations which are the essence of computer programming: if x = y then .... Removing the visual cue seems pointless as best. It's less terse, and it confuses literals, variables, operators, and reserved words. 
Serious programmers go to a great deal of effort to identify and implement consistent patterns in their code to make it easily comprehensible. We use capital letters to mean specific things, and we use operators and braces and parenthesis to clearly define the intent of a given expression. At the essence of CS is a desire to make code read like English. 
But English is not code. It lacks adequate syntax to clearly express the kinds of things we express in code. Would a mathematician want his integral symbols replaced with the words "integral of" or his ^ notation replaced with "to the power of "? 
Doing that would only benefit people who aren't mathematicians. Likewise, I think trying to make computer code "readable" really means "make it readable to people who aren't comfortable with the language of computers." What is more readable to someone who doesn't feel comfortable with "!==" is less readable to someone who works with it every minute of every day."
Hmmm, interesting food for thought for me concerning the meaning of coding and the relationship of the coder with the code itself.

1 comment:

  1. "doSomething() if five and six and seven"

    That is enough to put me off entirely. It feels wrong, and it takes extra effort to mentally parse. In the Javascript example I see the condition first and can decide if I need to look at the call. In the CS case I see the call and then have to check if there are any conditions before deciding whether to check it out.