Distrusting Experts

“You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it.”
— anon

I recently wrote a post about Scott Meyers, one of my programming heroes. The one I’m writing about today ranks even higher: Michael Abrash. For decades, I have admired his ability to craft awesome, non-obvious, super-tight code. But he’s not just an excellent performance programmer; he is also an execellent writer and storyteller.

It’s no coincidence that he’s also the author of one of my favorite programming books: “ZEN of Code Optimization” [1]. Released in 1994, it predates the Internet age (lo and behold, it comes with a 3.5″ floppy disk), but most of the content is timeless advice for every developer who cares about performance. (We all should. Michael’s rule #1: “From the user’s perspective, performance is fundamental”.)

In chapter 10, “Patient Coding, Faster Code”, he explains that just doing micro optimizations (or recoding in assembly language) usually doesn’t cut it; all you end up with is “fast slow code”. For best results, you need key insights; that is, view the problem from a different angle and use an offbeat approach to solve it.

He presents the venerable “greatest common divisor of two given numbers” problem as a case in point. After toying with a brute-force approach (incrementing a variable and checking if it divides both numbers) he employs Euclid’s key insight, which improves the run-time by orders of magnitude:

gcd(int1, int2) ≡ gcd(int2, int1 % int2)

Or in plain English: the GCD of a larger positive integer ‘int1’ and a smaller positive integer ‘int2’ is the same as the GCD of ‘int2’ and the remainder of ‘int1’ divided by ‘int2’.

This is his original code:

Needless to say, being that assembly wizard that he is, he goes on and reimplements this routine in assembly language to make it even faster. But as for C, this is probably as fast as it can get. Or is it?

I’ve used this code blindly and almost literally for many, many years. After all, it’s from Michael Abrash, and to me, his code has always been beyond any doubt. Definitely not the right attitude, but let me explain.

I’m a big fan of code katas, little exercises that you do (and redo time and again, sometimes in different programming languages) to flex your programming muscle. I don’t know why, but when I did the GCD code kata this time, I stopped and scratched my head. What the heck is this int swapping business about? Why is this code necessary, as the comment says?

Just for the fun of it, I took it out and reran the unit tests — they all passed.

Actually, it’s not that hard to see why it’s not necessary. Let’s assume ‘int1’ is 366 and ‘int2’ is 60. Since ‘int1’ is greater than ‘int2’, no swapping is necessary. Within the ‘for’ loop, the variables take on the following values:

iteration temp int1 int2 return
1 366 % 60 60 6
2 60 % 6 60 6 6

Now if ‘int1’ is 60 and ‘int2’ is 366, the code as it is would swap their values, but let’s pretend there was no swapping code:

iteration temp int1 int2 return
1 60 % 366 366 60
2 366 % 60 60 6
3 60 % 6 60 6 6

Aha! There is one more iteration and this additional iteration (actually the very first iteration) swaps ‘int1’ and ‘int2’. The ‘for’ loop by itself takes care of rearranging the arguments, there is no need for the extra swap test at the beginning of the ‘gcd’ routine. I was puzzled. Is it really possible that I have discovered redundant code in Michael Abrash’s sacred code? I felt quite uneasy because I wanted my hero to be infallible.

A couple of days ago, I sent him an email about my findings. His reply was short and to the point:

“Believe me, I never claimed to be immune to cycle-wasting! And anyway, There Ain’t No Such Thing As The Fastest Code :)”

There you have it. It’s that simple. I found unnecessary code in a 20+ years old routine. That’s what I call delayed gratification!

The basic problem was that I blindly trusted what I saw, probably because it came from an expert. However, nobody is perfect, every once in a while even the best make blunders. Have a flexible mind, assume nothing and question everything — this is the right attitude for every software developer and proclaimed in many of Michael’s writings [2].

[1] “ZEN of Code Optimization” is available online as part I of “Michael Abrash’s Graphics Programming Black Book, Special Edition”.

[2] Some years ago, I gave a presentation titled “The Art of Writing Efficient Software”. It includes a lot of Michael Abrash’s advice plus more. Check it out here. I truly believe that efficiency is still (and forever will be) of utmost importance for end users.