Silence is Golden

Scientists love to write programs that are too chatty.

Chatty programs are eager to tell you what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. On the command line, this means you get a lot of output:

$ ./run-simulation.py input.dat output.dat
Science simulation by Peter Williams
Opening the input "input.dat" ...
... 300 items
Running simulation!
Step 1
DEBUG: n=12
Step 2
Step 3
Opening "output.dat" for writing ...
All done!
$

Contrast this with classic Unix tools, where silence implies success:

$ cp source.txt destination.txt
$

There are a lot of reasons why people write chatty programs: some good, some at least understandable. But I want to suggest that chattiness is something to be actively fought.

One concrete issue is that it’s hard to notice when chatty programs have problems. Showstopping errors are generally easy to pick out because they’ve, well, stopped the show, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed some important warning message because it got scrolled off the screen by a bunch of inane diagnostics. And beginning programmers — which is what most scientists are — generally have trouble writing error-handling code and often write programs that charge ahead past conditions that should be showstoppers.

Less concretely but just as importantly, chatter is distracting. When I’m using a computer, I’m trying to get stuff done, and I get more done when I’m not wasting time thinking about low-level details: I’m in a line of work where my attention is one of my most valuable resources. A chatty program is like a needy employee who can’t make progress without coming back to you over and over for handholding and reassurance. Just do what I asked and stop bothering me unless you run into a problem you can’t solve. When I need to move files around in the terminal, I can bang out commands and I just know that everything is OK because I’m not seeing any messages. I have to stop and read the output of my simulation to see if it went wrong.

My advice is look at every line your program prints and ask yourself, do I really care? Vital outputs should be respected by not being surrounded by chatter, or by being recorded to disk instead of left to scroll off the terminal screen. Diagnostics should be separate: either optional and off by default, or output in some secondary way so that the “main” output is clean. Always keep in mind that every unhelpful message is drawing your precious attention away from the important ones.

For the beginners out there, I’d argue that reducing chatter also helps build confidence. One tends to have this irrational fear that the program usually works but maybe this time it’s derailed in some crazy way and is producing garbage. Seeing the same output over and over again is reassuring. But take those training wheels off! If you’re seeing the same output over and over, by definition you’re not learning anything new. To be confident in quiet programs, you do have to evaluate which parts of your program are the most likely to go wrong, and you do need to get good at handling error conditions. These are vital skills for competent programming, and the faster you develop them, the better.