Good programming practices (in any language)

Easy readability, ease of editing, and ease of re-usability are things to strive for in code you write in any language. Achieving that comes with practice, and taking careful note of the hallmarks of tidy, readable, easily editable, and easily re-usable code written by other people.

While I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to utmost diligence in applying good programming practices, I do strive to make readable and re-useable code (if only because it makes my own life a lot easier when I return to code I wrote a year earlier, and I try to figure out what it was doing).

In the basics_programming.R script that I make use of some good programming practices that ensure easy readability. For instance, code blocks that get executed within an if/then statement, for loops, or while loops are indented by a few spaces (usually two or three… be consistent in the number of indent spaces you use).  This makes it clear when reading the code which nested block of code you are looking at.   I strongly advise you to not use tabs to indent code.  To begin with, every piece of code I’ve ever had to modify that had tabs for indent also used spaces here and there for indentation, and it makes it a nightmare to edit and have the code remain easily readable. Also, if you have more than one or two nested blocks of code, using tabs moves the inner blocks too far over to make the code easily readable.

In the R script sir_agent_func.R I define a function.  Notice in the script that instead of putting all the function arguments on one long line, I do it like this:

SIR_agent = function(N         # population size
                    ,I_0       # initial number infected
                    ,S_0       # initial number susceptible
                    ,gamma     # recovery rate in days^{-1}
                    ,R0        # reproduction number
                    ,tbeg      # begin time of simulation
                    ,tend      # end time of simulation
                    ,delta_t=0 # time step (if 0, then dynamic time step is  implemented)

This line-by-line argument list makes it really easy to read the arguments (and allows inline descriptive comments).  It also makes it really easy to edit, because if you want to delete an argument, it is simple as deleting that line.  If you want to add an argument, add a line to the list.

Descriptive variable names are a good idea because they make it easier for someone else to follow your code, and/or make it easier to figure out what your own code did when you look at it 6 months after you wrote it.

Other good programming practices are to heavily comment code, with comment breaks that clearly delineate sections of code that do specific tasks (this makes code easy to read and follow).  I like to put such comments “in lights” (ie; I put a long line of comment characters both above and below the comment block, to make it stand out in the code).  If the comments are introducing a function, I will usually put two or three long lines of comment characters at the beginning of the comment block; it makes it clear and easy to see when paging through code where the functions are defined.

In-line comments are also very helpful to make it clear what particular lines of code are doing.

A good programming practice that makes code much easier to re-use is to never hard-code numbers in the program.  For instance, at the top of the basics_programming.R script I create a vector that is n=1000 elements long.  In the subsequent for loop, I don’t have

for (i in 1:1000){}

Instead I have

for (i in 1:n){}

This makes that code reusable as-is if I decide to use it to loop over the elements of a vector with a different length.  All I have to do is change n to the length of the new vector.  Another example of not hard-coding numbers is found in the code associated with the while loop example.

As an aside here, I should mention that in any programming language you should never hard-code the value of a constant like π (as was pointed out in basics.R, it is a built-in constant in R, so you don’t need to worry about this for R code).  In other languages, you should encode pi as pi=acos(-1.0), rather than something like pi=3.14159.  I once knew a physics research group that made the disastrous discovery that they had a typo in their hard-coded value of pi… they had to redo a whole bunch of work once the typo was discovered.

Notice in the script that I have a comment block at the top of basics_programming.R that explains what the script does, gives the date of creation and the name of the person who wrote the script (ie; me).  It also gives the contact info for the author of the script, and copyrights the script.  Every script or program you write should have that kind of boilerplate at the top (even if you think the program you are writing will only be used by you alone… you might unexpectedly end up sharing it with someone, and/or the boilerplate makes it clear that the program is *your* code, and that people just can’t pass it off as their own it if they come across it).   It also helps you keep track of when you wrote the program.