Literate programming to reduce errors

I had some errors in a recent blog post that might have been eliminated if I had programmatically generated the content of the post rather than writing it by hand.

I rewrote the example in this post in using org-mode. My org file looked like this:

    #+begin_src python :session :exports none
    lax_lat =   33.94
    lax_lon = -118.41
    iah_lat =   29.98
    iah_lon =  -95.34
    #+end_src

    Suppose we want to find how far a plane would travel 
    between Los Angeles (LAX) and Houston (IAH), 
    ...

    #+begin_src python :session :exports none
    a = round(90 - lax_lat, 2)
    b = round(90 - iah_lat, 2)
    #+end_src

    /a/ = src_python[:session :results raw]{f"90° – {lax_lat}° = {a}°"}

    and

    /b/ = src_python[:session :results raw]{f"90° – {iah_lat}° = {b}°"}

    ...

Here are some observations about the experience.

First of all, writing the post in org-mode was more work than writing it directly, pasting in computed values by hand, but presumably less error-prone. It would also be easier to update. If, for example, I realized that I had the wrong coordinates for one of the airports, I could update the coordinates in one location and everything else would be updated when I regenerated the page.

I don’t think this was the best application of org-mode. It’s easier to use org-mode like a notebook, in which case you’re not trying to hide the fact that you’re mixing code and prose. I wanted to insert computed values into the text without calling attention to the fact that the values were computed. This is fine when you mostly have a text document and you only want to insert a few computed values. When you’re doing more computing it becomes tedious to repeatedly write

    src_python[:session :results raw]{...}

to insert values. It might have been easier in this case to simply write a Python program that printed out the HTML source of the example.

There are a couple advantages to org-mode that weren’t relevant here. One is that the same org-mode file can be exported to multiple formats: HTML, LaTeX, ODT, etc. Here, however, I was only interested in exporting to HTML.

Another advantage of org-mode is the ability to mix multiple programming languages. Here I was using Python for everything, but org-mode will let you mix dozens of languages. You could compute one result in R, another result in Haskell, pass both results as arguments into some Java code, etc. You could also include data tables and diagrams in your org-mode file with your prose and code.

Literate programming

In general, keeping code and documentation together reduces errors. Literate programming may be more or less work, depending on the problem, but it reduces certain kinds of errors.

The example above is sorta bargain-basement literate programming. The code being developed was very simple, and not of interest beyond the article it was used in. Literate programming really shines when used to develop complex code, as in the book Physically Based Rendering. (Update: The third edition of this book is available online.)

When code requires a lot of explanation, literate programming can be very helpful. I did a project in psychoacoustics with literate programming a few years ago that would have been hard to do any other way. The project required a lot of reverse engineering and research. A line of code could easily require a couple paragraphs of explanation. Literate programming made the code development much easier because we could develop the documentation and code together, explaining things in the order most suited to the human reader, not to the compiler.

4 thoughts on “Literate programming to reduce errors

  1. I’ve been toying with a literate-programming solution for Markdown with Jupytext as an alternative to org-mode and org-babel. The reason for the alternative is collaboration: asking someone else to learn org-mode and Emacs just to collaborate on a notebook is too much, in my experience. If I’m working on my own and producing PDF or HTML for others, then org-mode is pretty good! Here is my toy solution: https://github.com/rebcabin/tangledown

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