When I was visiting MPI-M earlier this month, I blogged about the difficulty of documenting climate models. The problem is particularly pertinent to questions of model validity and reproducibility, because the code itself is the result of a series of methodological choices by the climate scientists, which are entrenched in their design choices, and eventually become inscrutable. And when the code gets old, we lose access to these decisions. I suggested we need a kind of literate programming, which sprinkles the code among the relevant human representations (typically bits of physics, formulas, numerical algorithms, published papers), so that the emphasis is on explaining what the code does, rather than preparing it for a compiler to digest.

The problem with literate programming (at least in the way it was conceived) is that it requires programmers to give up using the program code as their organising principle, and maybe to give up traditional programming languages altogether. But there’s a much simpler way to achieve the same effect. It’s to provide an organising structure for existing programming languages and tools, but which mixes in non-code objects in an intuitive way. Imagine you had an infinitely large sheet of paper, and could zoom in and out, and scroll in any direction. Your chunks of code are laid out on the paper, in an spatial arrangement that means something to you, such that the layout helps you navigate. Bits of documentation, published papers, design notes, data files, parameterization schemes, etc can be placed on the sheet, near to the code that they are relevant to. When you zoom in on a chunk of code, the sheet becomes a code editor; when you zoom in on a set of math formulae, it becomes a LaTeX editor, and when you zoom in on a document it becomes a word processor.

Well, Code Canvas, a tool under development in Rob Deline‘s group at Microsoft Research does most of this already. The code is laid out as though it was one big UML diagram, but as you zoom in you move fluidly into a code editor. The whole thing appeals to me because I’m a spatial thinker. Traditional IDEs drive me crazy, because they separate the navigation views from the code, and force me to jump from one pane to another to navigate. In the process, they hide the inherent structure of a large code base, and constrain me to see only a small chunk at a time. Which means these tools create an artificial separation between higher level views (e.g. UML diagrams) and the code itself, sidelining the diagrammatic representations. I really like the idea of moving seamlessly back and forth between the big picture views and actual chunks of code.

Code Canvas is still an early prototype, and doesn’t yet have the ability to mix in other forms of documentation (e.g. LaTeX) on the sheet (or at least not in any demo Microsoft are willing to show off), but the potential is there. I’d like to explore how we take an idea like this an customize it for scientific code development, where there is less of a strict separation of code and data than in other forms of programming, and where the link to published papers and draft reports is important. The infinitely zoomable paper could provide an intuitive unifying tool to bring all these different types of object together in one place, to be managed as a set. And the use of spatial memory to help navigate will be helpful, when the set of things gets big.

I’m also interested in exploring the idea of using this metaphor for activities that don’t involve coding – for example complex decision-support for sustainability, where you need to move between spreadsheets, graphs & charts, models runs, and so on. I would lay out the basic decision task as a graph on the sheet, with sources of evidence connecting into the decision steps where they are needed. The sources of evidence could be text, graphs, spreadsheet models, live datafeeds, etc. And as you zoom in over each type of object, the sheet turns into the appropriate editor. As you zoom out, you get to see how the sources of evidence contribute to the decision-making task. Hmmm. Need a name for this idea. How about DecisionCanvas?

Update: Greg also pointed me to CodeBubbles and Intentional Software


  1. How about “an extensible programming system”? :-)

  2. I worked for a while on large ontologies, and one of the lessons I learned there was not everyone needs the ‘birds eye view’ approach (overview;zoom and filter; details on demand). The people who actually edited these things everyday only really cared about the details part. Like literate programming: who is the audience? Most developers don’t see the payoff. Maybe Javadoc annotations are as much as we can expect.

    As an aside, you really ought to post this stuff to FriendFeed. It is a great venue for discussing these issues.

    P.S. As you are on sabbatical, can we expect you to be coding in Fortran soon?

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