The Way of the Java/Introduction

The Way of the Java

The goal of this book, and this class, is to teach you to think like a computer scientist. I like the way computer scientists think because they combine some of the best features of Mathematics, Engineering, and Natural Science. Like mathematicians, computer scientists use formal languages to denote ideas (specifically computations). Like engineers, they design things, assembling components into systems and evaluating tradeoffs among alternatives. Like scientists, they observe the behavior of complex systems, form hypotheses, and test predictions.

The single most important skill for a computer scientist is problem-solving. By that I mean the ability to formulate problems, think creatively about solutions, and express a solution clearly and accurately. As it turns out, the process of learning to program is an excellent opportunity to practice problem-solving skills. That is why this chapter is called The way of the program.

On one level, you will be learning to program, which is a useful skill by itself. On another level you will use programming as a means to an end. As we go along, that end will become clearer.

What is a programming language? edit

The programming language you will be learning is Java, which is relatively new (Sun released the first version in May, 1995). Java is an example of a high-level language; other high-level languages you might have heard of are C, C++, Pascal, and FORTRAN.

As you might infer from the name high-level language, there are also low-level languages, sometimes referred to as machine language or assembly language. Loosely-speaking, computers can only execute programs written in low-level languages. Thus, programs written in a high-level language have to be translated before they can run. This translation takes some time, which is a small disadvantage of high-level languages.

But the advantages are enormous. First, it is much easier to program in a high-level language; by easier I mean that the program takes less time to write, it is shorter and easier to read, and it is more likely to be correct. Secondly, high-level languages are portable, meaning that they can run on different kinds of computers with few or no modifications. Low-level programs can only run on one kind of computer, and have to be rewritten to run on another.

Due to these advantages, almost all programs are written in high-level languages. Low-level languages are only used for a few special applications.

Compilation vs interpretation edit

There are two ways to translate a program; interpreting or compiling. An interpreter is a program that reads a high-level program and does what it says. In effect, it translates the program line-by-line, alternately reading lines and carrying out commands. Examples of interpreted languages are BASIC, Perl, and Python.

A compiler is a program that reads a high-level program and translates it all at once, before executing any of the commands. Often you compile the program as a separate step, and then execute the compiled code later. In this case, the high-level program is called the source code, and the translated program is called the executable.

As an example, suppose you write a program in C. You might use a text editor to write the program (a text editor is a simple word processor). When the program is finished, you might save it in a file named program.c, where program is an arbitrary name you make up, and the suffix .c is a convention that indicates that the file contains C source code.

Then, depending on what your programming environment is like, you might leave the text editor and run the compiler. The compiler would read your source code, translate it, and create a new file named program.o to contain the object code, or program.exe to contain the executable.

The Java platform edit

The Java language is unusual because it is both compiled and interpreted. Instead of translating Java programs into machine language, the Java compiler generates Java byte code. Byte code is easy (and fast) to interpret, like machine language, but it is also portable, like a high-level language. Thus, it is possible to compile a Java program on one machine, transfer the byte code to another machine over a network, and then interpret the byte code on the other machine. This ability is one of the advantages of Java over many other high-level languages.

Although this process may seem complicated, the good news is that in most programming environments (sometimes called development environments), these steps are automated for you. Usually you will only have to write a program and type a single command to compile and run it. On the other hand, it is useful to know what the steps are that are happening in the background, so that if something goes wrong you can figure out what it is.

What is a program? edit

A program's source code contains a sequence of instructions that specifies how to perform a computation. The computation might be something mathematical, like solving a system of equations or finding the roots of a polynomial, but it can also be a symbolic computation, like searching and replacing text in a document or (strangely enough) compiling a program.

The instructions (or commands, or statements) look different in different programming languages, but there are a few basic functions that appear in just about every language:

  • input—Get data from the keyboard, or a file, or some other device.
  • output—Display data on the screen or send data to a file or other device.
  • math—Perform basic mathematical operations like addition and multiplication.
  • testing—Check for certain conditions and execute the appropriate sequence of statements.
  • repetition—Perform some action repeatedly, usually with some variation.

Believe it or not, that is pretty much all there is to it. Every program you have ever used, no matter how complicated, is made up of functions that look more or less like these. Thus, one way to describe programming is the process of breaking a large, complex task up into smaller and smaller subtasks until eventually the subtasks are simple enough to be performed with one of these simple functions.

What is debugging? edit

Programming is a complex process, and since it is done by human beings, it often leads to errors. For whimsical reasons, programming errors are called bugs and the process of tracking them down and correcting them is called debugging.

There are a few different kinds of errors that can occur in a program, and it is useful to distinguish between them in order to track them down more quickly.

Compile-time errors edit

The compiler can only translate a program if the program is syntactically correct; otherwise, the compilation fails and you will not be able to run your program. Syntax refers to the structure of your program and the rules about that structure.

Syntax edit

For example, in English, a sentence must begin with a capital letter and end with a period. this sentence contains a syntax error. So does this one

For most readers, a few syntax errors are not a significant problem, which is why we can read the poetry of E. E. Cummings without spewing error messages.

Compilers are not so forgiving. If there is a single syntax error anywhere in your program, the compiler will print an error message and quit, and you will not be able to run your program.

To make matters worse, there are more syntax rules in Java than there are in English, and the error messages you get from the compiler are often not very helpful. During the first few weeks of your programming career, you will probably spend a lot of time tracking down syntax errors. As you gain experience, though, you will make fewer errors and find them faster.

Run-time errors edit

The second type of error is a run-time error, so-called because the error does not appear until you run the program. In Java, run-time errors occur when the interpreter is running the byte code and something goes wrong.

The good news for now is that Java tends to be a safe language, which means that run-time errors are rare, especially for the simple sorts of programs we will be writing for the next few weeks.

Later on in the semester, you will probably start to see more run-time errors, especially when we start talking about objects and references (Chapter objects).

In Java, run-time errors are called exceptions, and in most environments they appear as windows or dialog boxes that contain information about what happened and what the program was doing when it happened. This information is useful for debugging.

Logic errors and semantics edit

The third type of error is the logical or semantic error. If there is a logical error in your program, it will compile and run successfully, in the sense that the computer will not generate any error messages, but it will not do the right thing. It will do something else. Specifically, it will do what you told it to do.

The problem is that the program you wrote is not the program you wanted to write. The meaning of the program (its semantics) is wrong. Identifying logical errors can be tricky, since it requires you to work backwards by looking at the output of the program and trying to figure out what it is doing.

Experimental debugging edit

One of the most important skills you will acquire in this class is debugging. Although it can be frustrating, debugging is one of the most intellectually rich, challenging, and interesting parts of programming.

In some ways debugging is like detective work. You are confronted with clues and you have to infer the processes and events that lead to the results you see.

Debugging is also like an experimental science. Once you have an idea what is going wrong, you modify your program and try again. If your hypothesis was correct, then you can predict the result of the modification, and you take a step closer to a working program. If your hypothesis was wrong, you have to come up with a new one. As Sherlock Holmes pointed out, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (from A. Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four).

Holmes, Sherlock
Doyle, Arthur Conan

For some people, programming and debugging are the same thing. That is, programming is the process of gradually debugging a program until it does what you want. The idea is that you should always start with a working program that does something, and make small modifications, debugging them as you go, so that you always have a working program.

For example, Linux is an operating system that contains thousands of lines of code, but it started out as a simple program Linus Torvalds used to explore the Intel 80386 chip. According to Larry Greenfield, “One of Linus's earlier projects was a program that would switch between printing AAAA and BBBB. This later evolved to Linux” (from The Linux Users' Guide Beta Version 1).

In later chapters I will make more suggestions about debugging and other programming practices.

Formal languages vs. natural languages edit

Natural languages are the languages that people speak, like English, Spanish, and French. They were not designed by people (although people try to impose some order on them); they evolved naturally.

Formal languages are languages that are designed by people for specific applications. For example, the notation that mathematicians use is a formal language that is particularly good at denoting relationships among numbers and symbols. Chemists use a formal language to represent the chemical structure of molecules. Likewise, programming languages are formal languages that have been designed to express computations.

When you read a sentence in English or a statement in a formal language, you have to figure out what the structure of the sentence is (although in a natural language you do this subconsciously). This process is called parsing.

For example, when you hear the sentence, “The other shoe fell,” you understand that “the other shoe” is the subject and “fell” is the verb. Once you have parsed a sentence, you can figure out what it means, that is, the semantics of the sentence. Assuming that you know what a shoe is, and what it means to fall, you will understand the general implication of this sentence.

Although formal and natural languages have many features in common(tokens, structure, syntax and semantics, etc.), there are many differences:

  • ambiguity Natural languages are full of ambiguity, which people deal with by using contextual clues and other information. Formal languages are designed to be nearly or completely unambiguous, which means that any statement has exactly one meaning, regardless of context.
  • redundancy In order to make up for ambiguity and reduce misunderstandings, natural languages employ lots of redundancy. As a result, they are often verbose. Formal languages are less redundant and more concise.
  • literalness Natural languages are full of idiom and metaphor. If I say, “The other shoe fell,” there is probably no shoe and nothing falling. Formal languages mean exactly what they say.

People who grow up speaking a natural language (everyone) often have a hard time adjusting to formal languages. In some ways the difference between formal and natural language is like the difference between poetry and prose, but more so:

  • Poetry Words are used for their sounds as well as for their meaning, and the whole poem together creates an effect or emotional response. Ambiguity is not only common but often deliberate.
  • Prose The literal meaning of words is more important and the structure contributes more meaning. Prose is more amenable to analysis than poetry, but still often ambiguous.
  • Programs The meaning of a computer program is unambiguous and literal, and can be understood entirely by analysis of the tokens and structure.

Hints for reading programs edit

Here are some suggestions for reading programs (and other formal languages). First, remember that formal languages are much more dense than natural languages, so it takes longer to read them. Also, the structure is very important, so it is usually not a good idea to read from top to bottom, left to right. Instead, learn to parse the program in your head, identifying the tokens and interpreting the structure. Finally, remember that the details matter. Little things like spelling errors and bad punctuation, which you can get away with in natural languages, can make a big difference in a formal language.

The first program edit

Hello, world!

Traditionally the first program people write in a new language is called Hello, World. because all it does is print the words Hello, World. In Java, this program looks like this:

 class Hello
   // main: generate some simple output
   public static void main(String[] args) {
     System.out.println("Hello, world.");

Sometimes the quality of a programming language is judged by the simplicity of the Hello, World. program. By this standard, Java does not do very well. Even the simplest Java program contains a number of features that are hard to explain to beginning programmers. We are going to ignore a lot of them for now, but I will explain a few.

All programs are made up of class definitions, which have the form:

Classes edit

   public static void main(String[] args) {

Here CLASSNAME indicates an arbitrary name that you make up. The class name in the example is Hello.

main edit

In the second line, you should ignore the words public static void for now, but notice the word main. main is a special name that indicates the place in the program where execution begins. When the program runs, it starts by executing the first statement in main and it continues, in order, until it gets to the last statement, and then it quits.

print edit

There is no limit to the number of statements that can be in main, but the example contains only one. It is a print statement, meaning that it prints a message on the screen. It is a bit confusing that “print” sometimes means “display something on the screen,” and sometimes means “send something to the printer.” In this book I won't say much about sending things to the printer; we'll do all our printing on the screen.

The command that prints things on the screen is System.out.println, and the thing between the parentheses is the thing that will get printed. At the end of the statement there is a semi-colon (;), which is required at the end of every statement.

There are a few other things you should notice about the syntax of this program. First, Java uses squiggly-braces { and } to group things together (squiggly-braces are also known as curly braces). The outermost squiggly-braces (lines 1 and 8) contain the class definition, and the inner braces contain the definition of main.

comment edit

Also, notice that line 3 begins with //. This indicates that this line contains a comment, which is a bit of English text that you can put in the middle of a program, usually to explain what the program does. When the compiler sees a //, it ignores everything from there until the end of the line.

In the first lab you will compile and run this program, and also modify it in various ways in order to see what the syntax rules are, and to see what error messages the compiler generates when you violate one.

Glossary edit

  • problem-solving The process of formulating a problem, finding a solution, and expressing the solution.
  • high-level language A programming language like Java that is designed to be easy for humans to read and write.
  • low-level language A programming language that is designed to be easy for a computer to execute. Also called “machine language” or “assembly language.”
  • formal language Any of the languages people have designed for specific purposes, like representing mathematical ideas or computer programs. All programming languages are formal languages.
  • natural language Any of the languages people speak that have evolved naturally.
  • portability A property of a program that can run on more than one kind of computer.
  • interpret To execute a program in a high-level language by translating it one line at a time.
  • compile To translate a program in a high-level language into a low-level language, all at once, in preparation for later execution.
  • source code A program in a high-level language, before being compiled.
  • object code The output of the compiler, after translating the program.
  • executable Another name for object code that is ready to be executed.
  • byte code A special kind of object code used for Java programs. Byte code is similar to a low-level language, but it is portable, like a high-level language.
  • algorithm A general process for solving a category of problems.
  • bug An error in a program.
  • syntax The structure of a program.
  • semantics The meaning of a program.
  • parse To examine a program and analyze the syntactic structure.
  • syntax error An error in a program that makes it impossible to parse (and therefore impossible to compile).
  • exception An error in a program that makes it fail at run-time. Also called a run-time error.
  • logical error An error in a program that makes it do something other than what the programmer intended.
  • debugging The process of finding and removing any of the three kinds of errors.