The phrase beauty is in the eye of the beholder is often used to describe the wide variety of peoples' opinions of what is beautiful. Although this phrase is commonly used in describing different perceptions on the appearance of a particular person, it definitely fits the concept of beautiful code. In this blog posting, I'll look at how some of the subtleties surrounding the rather subjective measurement of human beauty apply to the equally subjective measurement of code beauty.
It is nearly impossible to quantify whether a given individual is beautiful or not for a wide variety of reasons. Does "beautiful" refer only to physical appearance or does it include personality, intelligence, communication skills, social graces, and so forth? Is beauty an absolute or is it more relative (rather than saying someone is beautiful and someone else is not beautiful, is it easier to say the first someone is more beautiful than the next someone)? The aspects of a person's appearance that are important to one person's perception of beauty may not be as important to another person's perception of beauty. All of these considerations impact our ability to gauge code beauty as well.
The Beauty Spectrum
When it comes to deciding whether a person is beautiful or not, there seems to be a spectrum of people. On one end, there are individuals who nearly everyone would agree are beautiful. For example, I don't think many people disagreed when Michelle Pfeiffer was named one of the 50 most beautiful people in the 1990 People Magazine edition. On the other end, there are a few individuals who almost nobody would argue are beautiful. Most people are somewhere in between where there is a split of opinion on whether or not they are beautiful.
Code beauty works in the same way. There are some samples of code that nearly every developer would agree are beautiful (as far as code goes), there are samples of code that developers would nearly unanimously agree are anything but beautiful, and there is a lot of code in between in which developers will disagree on whether that code is beautiful or not. Because so much code falls somewhere on the spectrum other than the extremes (obvious beauty or obvious ugliness), it can be difficult to get agreement on what constitutes code beauty in these cases.
I see examples of this disagreement about code beauty on almost a daily basis. I find myself increasingly fond of less code and approaches such as Java's ternary operator. I see beauty in conciseness. However, I know several experienced Java developers that loath the ternary operator. I noticed in the JRuby Code Conventions that there is an emphatic note: "Do not, never, I repeat, never, use something like 'if (expr == true)'." Although I generally agree with this, I know people who honestly prefer the explicit true or false comparison.
Then of course, as one of many other examples, there is the whole issue of where to place the curly braces (or even if we should have curly braces at all). There is also the debate over level of commenting. Some think no comments make the most beautiful code, others think very verbose commenting is gorgeous, and many others are somewhere in between. For me, I like concise code, significant white space, carefully chosen comments, highly descriptive method names, and so forth. However, I know many respected developers who have differences of opinion on each of these attributes of code beauty.
Even my own sense of code beauty has changed over the years. When I first read about the enhanced for loop that was anticipated for J2SE 5, I did not particularly like how the code looked. However, it has grown on me and I really, really like the conciseness of that loop and wish that it could be used for an even wider set of iterations. Similarly, I used to be one of those who detested the ternary operator, though I deeply appreciate it in the right context now.
With so many different ideas of what is beautiful and even our own changing ideas of what is beautiful, it is difficult to classify many pieces of code as beautiful or not beautiful in any absolute sense of the word.
Code Beauty is More than Skin Deep?
When I was in high school, my mom and I had very different ideas of what made a girl beautiful. I nearly completely focused on physical looks while my mom was more interested in trying to get me interested in girls who had more than just good looks. I have since learned that beauty really is more than just the outside appearance (although it still includes it along with the other aspects).
Code works the same way. The best code cannot make up for poor design. In fact, many argue that "beautiful code" really does not pertain to the superficial appearance of code and instead really references deeper things like good design, loose coupling, modularity, and so forth. One of the several authors of Beautiful Code has also pointed out (related to recursion specifically) that beautiful code can sometimes actually be less efficient or even not work as well as less beautiful code. Jonathan Edwards has pointed out something that I have experienced myself: like physical beauty, code/design beauty is often marred by life as realities, compromises, and special cases creep in.
Can Code Really Be Beautiful?
In Code Isn't Beautiful, Jeff Atwood argues that code is not beautiful. He has a point. It is difficult to argue that code can be "beautiful" in the same sense as a sunset, a snow-covered mountain top, an ocean or beach, a tropical paradise, and so forth.
As discussed in the spectrum topic above, I definitely believe that some code is more beautiful than other code. However, I try not to get too worked up about striving for "beauty" at all costs because working and useful code can only be beautiful to a point. Code is not only about art and beauty; it is also about functionality.
Proponents of certain languages or frameworks will often tout the beauty of that language or framework. Unless there is significant explanation of why and what is so beautiful about it, I generally dismiss these types of statements as irrelevant. Without further explanation, to say "that particular code is beautiful" is akin to saying "I personally think that particular code is beautiful." That's fine, but that doesn't mean that others, including those who will be maintaining that code, feel the same way. After all, code beauty, like all types of beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.