Bad practices in Fortran legacy code

I have my fair experience with legacy Fortran code, and still I can’t wrap my head around some practices, in particular when it comes to understand the logic behind some decision. Here I am giving you a list of the freak show I personally witnessed, describing why it’s bad, and how to do it in the correct way.

Useless names for variables

Quick! what do you think a variable called “izpxh” contains ? I’ll tell you at the end of the section.

If you call a variable “a” it does not really transmit a lot about it. calling it “hamiltonian” or “hamil” would have helped a bit at least to understand what’s going on. If it’s too long to type, it means that you are using the wrong editor. Vim, for example, has a nice autocompletion feature. You may object that “back then” we wrote code with cat redirected to file, and that’s fine, but the time you save typing is then wasted remembering what that variable contains. You are doing a dictionary lookup in your brain every time you meet a symbol that is not directly meaningful, mentally converting “a” into “hamiltonian” every time. This is exhausting, and adds an additional layer of complexity to an already overloaded brain which is trying to understand what’s going on algorithmically. Remember, a brain can only deal with seven things at a time. Finally, when you pass the code to someone else, you

Are you really saving time in the end ?

By the way, “izpxh” contains true if an atom is an hydrogen, false otherwise. What’s wrong with “isHydrogen” ?

To conclude: Use meaningful variable names

Recycling variables to contain something completely different

Another bad habit is to recycle variable names. If calling something “a” wasn’t bad enough, what’s better to have “a” containing something in one part of the code, and something of a completely different nature later on? Congratulations, now not only you force yourself to do a dictionary lookup in your brain for the symbol, you also have to remember in which part of the code you are. Double trouble! This practice arises from the desire of recycling (thus saving) allocated memory. You can’t rename a symbol associated to a given memory space unless you use pointers, which is a F90 feature, but you can achieve the same in F77 with UNIONS.

In addition to this, often the same name is preserved in subroutines arguments, where the name can be changed without any issue to a more proper meaning. Say you have a variable “a” that contained the position, and after some operation “a” contains the speed. Then you call a routine “kin(a,m)” which computes the kinetic energy. The routine kin is defined as such

subroutine kin(a,m)

Why keep “a” as dummy argument just because the caller had “a” ? Why not take the chance of using a meaningful name within the routine, with

subroutine kin(speed, mass)

The worst case arises when a meaningful variable name (e.g. hamiltonian) is used to contain the hamiltonian, and later on is used to contain something else of similar structure (e.g. the overlap). This does not help in understanding the algorithm.

To conclude: Don’t recycle variables. If you have to save memory, minimize the damage, but the real question is “do you really have to save memory? today?”

Routines that do too much (and are misnamed)

If a routine is called “mulliken”, it is expect it to compute the mulliken charges, not the mulliken charges and the total charge and the dipole, and the norm of the dipole, *and *write this information on a file. Such routine not only cuts through the mathematical board, but also the computer science board, doing computation and input/output at the same time.  This has the following results

The objection at this point normally is “but calling a routine is expensive!” No it’s not. Calling a routine is not expensive, unless it’s proven that it is. Show me a profiler clearly indicating your code is slower due to excessive routine calls, and we’ll talk about it. Until then, you should not care. Calling a small routine may even cost zero, because the compiler might be smart enough to inline it automatically.

To conclude: routines should do one thing and one thing only, and should be named clearly

A single routine, 1000 lines long

Connected to the above issue, you also have the case where a single routine must do a lot of stuff in order to achieve a single result. Normally, this routine is chunked into pieces using comments, like this

   ! doing foo
   lots of code
   ! doing bar
   more code

The major drawbacks of this behavior are

If a part of the code is worth of a short comment explaining what it does, it is also worth extracting into a separate routine with a meaningful name out of a condensed form of the comment.

To conclude: Routines should not be more than two pages long. If you have more than that, chunk them into properly named subroutines and call them.

The “if” soup

Excessive indentation of if conditions is detrimental to readability and control. Most of the time you can rearrange the code

Pages and pages of likely outdated comments

The more you comment, the more likely is that the code will not be up to date with the comments. Comments don’t run, code does. Be extremely wary of comments containing lengthy explanations or ASCII art. They are the ones most likely to become outdated, because they require a higher effort to keep up-to-date. The fact that comments don’t run implies there’s no penalty for the programmer not keeping them up-to-date.

To conclude: keep your comments to a an essential minimum.

Be wise in commenting what is needed

Comments should detail things that are not evident from the code itself. If you use a hack to work around an issue, write a comment. If you use a special algorithm to solve a problem, comments with a reference to a proper external resource (e.g. a book, google keyword or scientific paper) if a more throughout explanation is needed. If you implement a specific equation from a methodology, it may help to write a comment where this equation is (the paper, and the equation number).

Incorrect or lacking indentation, bad formatting

Proper code formatting is important. It hints at what’s going on. Screwing up indentation can lead to nasty bugs. Code without any indentation becomes extremely hard to read because the visual cues of which parts of the code are dependent on the conditions of other parts are lost. These visual clues are not only important for understanding the code, but also for other, higher level inspection tasks: heavily indented areas of the code hint at possible areas that might be extracted, or a reformulation of the logic to reduce indentation. Observing the code shape (for example, pasting it in a word processor and reducing the font size to unreadable) gives you important clues about the structure, organization and overall quality of the code.

Spaces and empty lines are another important clue

It does not make sense to pass a vector and the length of the vector as independent parameters to a routine. If you need the vector, pass the vector. If you need the length, pass just the length. If you need both, pass the vector and have the length calculated internally. Having these two info passed independently when they are, in fact, highly related, is asking for trouble.

Using the wrong name for a given entity

Collating arrays (and not marking the meaning of indexes)

Routine comments about running info

Comparing floats

Changing the loop variable inside the loop

Giving log messages semantic meaning

Making log messages meaningful for further parsing makes the output very fragile.

Magic numbers

If you have magic integers that have a special meaning, give them a name as parameters. If I see this

method = 2

I get absolutely no information about it until I meet this

if (method == 1) then
    call doMethodTrivial()
else if (method == 2) then
    call doMethodLessTrivial()
else if (method == 3) then
    call doMethodComplex()
endif

This makes me angry for two reasons. The first reason is that I don’t know what that number means. The fact that the variable is called “method” may hint that is a method selection, but it may be a plain integer that is used as such, like in an exponent. The second reason is that it pretends I remember what each number means every time I meet it around in the program, while at the moment the only thing that hints at the meaning of each number is the logic of that if. Suppose that earlier on I found this

if (method == 1) then
    mmParam=3.2
else if (method == 2) then
    mmParam=3.4
else if (method == 3) then
    mmParam=3.0
endif

now do you know what each number means?

Advanced languages such as C (yeah, advanced) has a nifty feature called enum. Fortran does not, but you can sort of work around it, at the very minimum declaring a bunch of parameters

integer, parameter :: METHOD_TYPE_TRIVIAL = 1
integer, parameter :: METHOD_TYPE_LESS_TRIVIAL = 2
integer, parameter :: METHOD_TYPE_COMPLEX = 3

so you can actually use these variables, making clear what you mean

if (method == METHOD_TYPE_TRIVIAL) then
    mmParam=3.2
else if (method == METHOD_TYPE_LESS_TRIVIAL) then
    mmParam=3.4
else if (method == METHOD_TYPE_COMPLEX) then
    mmParam=3.0
endif

Overuse of OOP when a simple function would suffice