is a bad art competition and an educational tool all together. Every month, we will release a new coding challenge. Participants have one month to compose and submit the worst working implementation to the challenge that they can devise. Our judges will review all submissions on the snark mailing list, and select a winner or two. Winners get the privilege of having their code used to compose a full teardown article describing why the code is so bad, and how the submission exemplifies what not to do.

From the above you will hopefully have an idea of what sort of "bad" the judges will be looking for. We realise this is somewhat subjective, and that's why we're using human judges and not metrics. This isn't an obfuscation or golf competition; you won't win just by using an esoteric programming language. Write a solution that solves the problem, and is correct from the point of view of functionality, something your worst self or most incompetent junior co-worker might conceivably have written. If you can combine together so many real malpractices that your submission is exaggeratedly, comically bad, that's great. If your submission is just unintelligible line noise, we're not interested.

All submissions must contain a statement that the code is your own work (groups are ok!) and placing the code under either CC0, CC-BY, or CC-BY-SA. Submissions are by email to Attaching each source file is preferred, but tarballs or git URLs will also be accepted (especially when directory structure matters). Submissions may be in any programming language that can be compiled or interpreted on a Debian Stable system.

January Teardown: Bowling

It’s time to announce the winner for January’s challenge and do some teardown!

There’s still a short amount of time left to send in your submissions for February’s challenge, so get on that quick!

Winner, in Haskell, by Jonathan Lamothe

You may want to pull up the full source so you can follow along.

Syntax that technically works

A lot of what makes this code bad is not being idiomatic for the language or problem, starting even with basic syntax choices. The syntax for a Haskell conditional looks like:

if condition then
	first expression
	second expression

and a function application looks like:

function arg1 arg2

The submission author choose to write:

if (length (args) == 0)
		first expression
		second expression

The extra parentheses just add visual noise, and in this case it feels like they were added to make the syntax more resemble a “C family” if statement and procedure call. This “can it look slightly more like C” continues with other functions:

check_loop (1, length (args), args)

This code first constructs a tuple and then passes only one argument, consisting of that tuple, to the function. There is no benefit (in this code) to constructing a data structure that is then immediately destructured again, and again this appears to be done in order to move the syntax in an unhelpful way towards a different family’s syntax. If enough of these changes were present (using braces instead of layout, using check_loop(1, length(args), args) instead of spaces everywhere, etc) one might argue that this could be useful if the target audience were C-family programmers. But here it is just enough to make the Haskell harder for Haskellers to read, but no easier for a C-family programmer to read.

When all you have is a hammer…

Every single line of code in this program (except the import statements and top-level function names, I suppose) is inside a do notation block. “Do notation” is a syntactic sugar that Haskell provides for building operations that rely heavily on data dependencies or evaluation order in a way that will feel more natural to those familiar with imperative code. Due to another design flaw discussed below, every function in this submission also returns an IO action that can instruct the runtime to do some side-effecting actions, despite the only externally visible effects of the whole program being a single print statement (found in main) and the final exit code.

This extreme over-use of a particular syntactic mode leads to several strange patterns. The most classic of this is the “single line do”, like so:

if (length (args) == 0)
	then do
		exitWith (ExitFailure 3)

This is exactly equivalent to:

if (length (args) == 0)
		exitWith (ExitFailure 3)

The submission also frequently introduces variables thus:

next_i <- return (i + 1)

Which is equivalent to the more idiomatic:

let next_i = i + 1

Combining this pattern of using do notation blindly with structuring the whole program using if...then...else results in this:

check_loop (i, len, args) = do
	if (length (args) >= i)
		then do
			make_num (args !! (i - 1))
			next_i <- return (i + 1)
			check_loop (next_i, length (args), args)
		else do
			return ()

Which is equivalent to:

check_loop (i, len, args) =
	when (length args >= i) $ do
		make_num (args !! (i - 1))
		check_loop (i + 1, length (args), args)

The pointless step

That check_loop function is short, but chock-full of bad code. Code doesn’t have to be plentiful to be terrible! First of all, if you look at it you’ll see that the len pseudo-argument is never used. Instead, the function re-computes length args whenever it needs it, including for the recursive call to set len again!

This function is also trying very hard to have the semantics of a C-style for loop over an array. However, args is not an array but a linked list, making the indexing operator (!!) quite inefficient and not recommended for common use. Furthermore, the index operator will terminate the program with an error if the index is out-of-bounds. The function checks for that, but a mistake in that check could result in a crashing program.

While it wants the semantics of a C-style for loop, this function also wants i to start at 1 instead of 0. !! expects indexes to start at 0, so the function has to adjust for that reality – a reality that would actually be more expected by most readers.

The main purpose of this pseudo-loop seems to be to call make_num on every element. It does not use or return the values from make_num however, so what could be the purpose of calling it?

make_num (string) = do
	case (string) of
		"0" -> return (0)
		"1" -> return (1)
		"2" -> return (2)
		"3" -> return (3)
		"4" -> return (4)
		"5" -> return (5)
		"6" -> return (6)
		"7" -> return (7)
		"8" -> return (8)
		"9" -> return (9)
		"10" -> return (10)
		_ -> exitWith (ExitFailure 1)

Since the return value is ignored, only the last line matters. check_loop’s whole purpose is to exit the program with the “input tried to knock down too many pins” exit code if any argument is anything other than a number 0-10. However, the rest of the program also uses make_num on arguments as it goes, so even that is not a useful result! Removing check_loop from this program would not change the behaviour of the program at all, and might even make it slightly faster. At very least it should have been:

rolls <- mapM make_num args

With rolls used to prevent needing to call make_num again in the future.

When in doubt, exit

The problem of scoring bowling has many cases in which input is considered invalid for one reason or another, and Haskell has many useful tools for expressing this. What tool does the author use?

		exitWith (ExitFailure 1)

The main reason this whole program produces IO actions is so that at any moment, failure can be represented by an immediate call to exit the process with the correct error code. Even the codes themselves aren’t DRY! Magic numbers, hard-coded into a side-effecting statement among otherwise pure computation, are littered throughout this submission. For example, the rewrite of check_loop done above can be re-done to move the possible side effect to main thus:

case mapM readMaybe args of
	Just rolls | all (<= 10) rolls -> ...
	_ -> exitWith (ExitFailure 1)

This rewrite also allows us to re-use parts of the ecosystem and get rid of make_num entirely.

The terrible variable names

x_string <- return (args !! (i - 1))
x <- make_num (x_string)
y_string <- return (args !! (i - 2))
y <- make_num (y_string)
z <- return (x + y)

The main body of the problem solution is full of variables named x, y, and z; sometimes name shadowing an earlier variable with the same terrible name, and not always using the same letter for the same purpose!

Haskellers sometimes get accused of this generally, but it usually comes from writing a function that is so generic that nothing useful is known about the contents of the variable, such as:

mymap _ [] = []
mymap f (x:xs) = f x : mymap xs

One could write:

mymap _ [] = []
mymap a_function (element_of_list : rest_of_list) = a_function element_of_list : mymap rest_of_list

But since nothing useful is known about the function, elements, or list, the longer names actually obscure the shape.

In the submission code, much is known about the contents of these values! For example, the x above is the number of pins knocked down by this throw. pinsKnockedDown is infinitely better than x!

The cascade

if (i > length (args))
	then do
		exitWith (ExitFailure 3)
	else do
		if (x > 10)
			then do
				exitWith (ExitFailure 1)
			else do
				if (second_throw)
					then do
						if (z > 10)
							then do
								exitWith (ExitFailure 1)
							else do
								if (z == 10)
									then do
										if (length (args) < i + 1)
											then do
												exitWith (ExitFailure 3)

As our judge with the least Haskell experience said: “You don’t have to know anything about Haskell to know this code is bad.”

The most obvious way to avoid this mess is so obvious the author couldn’t help but hint at it in the code itself:

if second_throw
else -- 1st throw

if (x == 10)
else -- not strike

One could keep the thoughtless spine of conditionals intact and improve readability immensely simply by breaking this up into multiple functions:

if second_throw then the_second_throw else the_first_throw
the_first_throw = ... if (x == 10) then strike else ...
the_second_throw = ... if (x == 10) then strike else ...
strike = ...

Many of the conditions also simply check an edge case and exit. While this is not a good way to model the problem, even leaving that alone it could be cleaner as:

when (i > length args) $ exit (ExitFailure 3)
when (x > 10) $ exit (ExitFailure 1)

This function also has to duplicate many checks because it is written with many cases that look ahead. Instead of evaluating the current throw or frame, and passing any context about bonus point or bonus throw conditions forward to the next recursive call, a frame with a bonus on the next throw will include the points from that throw right away. This means the code could not easily be repurposed to score incomplete games, and also requires checking that some or all of the next frame is valid in order to score this one. When recursing, of course, the next frame also validates itself, so the program validates many throws multiple times.


While the cascade is the most striking thing when first opening this code, it manages to pack examples of many other bad practises as well. Think you can do worse? Submissions for February’s challenge are still open, and a March challenge will be going up soon!