programming

I have seen many arguments for and against using a debugger. Here is a post against debuggers1. I believe it ends up feeling wrong by using appeal to authority and comparing debuggers with print statements/functions even after ending things like this:

I don’t want to be misunderstood, however. We need to use tools, better tools… so that we can program ever more sophisticated software. However, running through the code line-by-line checking the values of your variables is no way to scale up in complexity and it encourages the wrong kind of designs.

The above statement is pretty reasonable, but we also see the following statement.

The author of Python, Guido van Rossum has been quoted as saying that uses print statements for 90% of his debugging.

You either need to check a point error, or you don't. If yes, then print is still a debugger. Granted there are better ways to ensure code quality so that no random point errors occur but I don't get why people talk about differences in situations where the comparands are fundamentally the same. Well, unless we are just talking about very specific tools like, say, Python's pdb vs Python's print.

Debugger is not a certain tool, it's a class covering various abstractions of the break, step, continue cycle. Used in the wrong place, they are not worse than prints.

What concerns me however is that these clichés propagate very easily and people stop giving respect to the context, environment and various use cases that programming as an act lies in.

While I understand the concern of knowing what you are writing2, at times I also worry that we overdo this to a level of stigma against program inspection. From what I have personally felt, working mostly with dynamic languages with good REPLs, an inspection tool is just an extension of your perceptions and that only helps in exploration. There are whole languages, and beautiful languages, built around the idea of exploration in live systems. And debuggers are inspection tools. Consider Emacs. After days of up time, I regularly am in situations where I don't know everything about the machine state. Add to this the fact that Emacs Lisp is a dynamic language, throwing a bunch of expected string, got null type errors. Recently I have been just putting in edebug over things that fail and come to understand so much more about everything that goes around the whole event. What had stopped me from using edebug earlier were similar statements which made me confident that I should be able to solve the problem with just prints, without respecting the philosophy of the system I am working with. In fact, the original title for this post (which was started as a draft long before) was 'Don't waste your time, just use a debugger'.

Whatever I said still doesn't excuse bad code/design. But I do believe in an untelling of such modi operandi. Specially when programming is picked up by a lot of people without going through a formal education3. There are systems where the workflow very much involves understanding everything and following a rigid program-compile-test, program-compile-test cycle. Also there are critical systems where even without understanding everything, the same level of quality needs to be ensured. But there is so much more to programming than just safety and structure and reliability and everything useful. There are experiments, there is dynamism, there is uncertainty, there is collaboration, there are hacks and there is fun.

## Footnotes:

1

His blog is a nice follow by the way

2

I really do

3

Not really saying that formal education is required, just using the phrase as a proxy for more complete understanding