Understanding a change often requires understanding how the code behaves

March 3, 2019

Yesterday I wrote about how really understanding diffs requires knowing their context too. An additional part of the problem is that you can't understand most changes in isolation, just as a change. To actually understand a change, you usually need to be able to compare the before and after behavior of the code, and in order to do that you must understand (or work out) what that behavior is.

This is a big part of why you have to reconstruct those before and after versions of the code in your head as you're reading a diff. You need the ability to think 'okay, the old version does X and the new version does Y', and to do that you usually have to put the change into its context and then understand that context.

When you're familiar with the codebase, you generally already know how either the old version or the new version behaves in addition to having a mental image of the code itself. I suspect that this makes it much easier to both construct a mental image of the other side of the change and then understand what it does, and obviously you're already starting from a state where you know one side so you only need to do half the work.

(I might have thought to put this into yesterday's entry if I had written it at a different time. There's a story there, but that's for another entry.)

Sidebar: One trap in understanding changes is non-local effects

One bane of understanding changes even when you understand the code is that some changes can have non-local effects that aren't obvious. This spooky action at a distance often comes about because of either programming language behavior or subtle API changes (including especially implicit APIs in how one part of the code knows about how another part behaves). One famous example of this is an innocent looking change to the Linux kernel that caused a security issue, where adding a variable initialization silently removed a NULL check.

Of course this is nothing too novel. Removing spooky action at a distance in general is a big thrust of modern programming languages, because we've learned that it's dangerous basically all of the time.

Written on 03 March 2019.
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Last modified: Sun Mar 3 15:44:03 2019
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