Another nasty bug — and an idea

I spent about two hours tracking down a DOM node sharing bug — nodes were being put into a new structure outside of the document before the salient data had been read out. While there was no information in these nodes, the lens system insisted that they still be there. (More on that — eventually.)

After finally tracking it down and writing a version of cloneNode that also copies event handlers, everything worked. Between this and the last prototype aliasing bug I had, I got an idea. A programmer could keep a “bug journal”, a list of bugs found and described first by their behavior, then by their solution (and, if those two aren’t descriptive enough, the underlying problem should be described as well). For example, two days ago I ran into my first genuine typing bug in JavaScript — a type checker would have rejected my program, and from the errors generated it wasn’t obvious where the problem was.

This practice could be useful in a few ways. First, the process of writing down the description can help the programmer find the solution. Tedious, but perhaps worthwhile. Surely some bugs would end up being described post facto, since it’s not worth the time when the fix is fairly clear. Second, the solution may add to a ‘bag of tricks’ at the programmer’s/team’s disposal. Third, the bug and solution tease out invariants in the program, and so the bug journal could be gleaned for inter-module and system-level documentation.

Fourth, and dearest to my heart, I think it’s an interesting way to evaluate programming languages. The bug log of a programmer writing an e-mail interface in Java and that of one writing such an interface in JavaScript would provide for some interesting contrasts. To provide more than anecdotal evidence, you’d need to use a much larger sample size of programmers and kinds of programs being written.

I think the bug journal would differ profoundly from examination of bug tracking logs. Only the truly mysterious bugs and the large, architectural shortcomings make it into the tracker. On a daily basis, programmers struggle with making buggy code workable — before it ever hits version control. So bug tracking logs can highlight difficulties in design and with the team, but a bug journal shows exactly what a programmer has to deal with.

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