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Brute Force Debugging
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Brute force is an often-overlooked approach to debugging software problems. By brute force, I m referring to a technique that might be tedious, arduous, and time-consuming, but that it is guaranteed to solve the problem. Which specific
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23. Debugging
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techniques are guaranteed to solve a problem are context dependent, but here are some general candidates: Perform a full design and/or code review on the broken code Throw away the section of code and redesign/recode it from scratch Throw away the whole program and redesign/recode it from scratch Compile code with full debugging information Compile code at pickiest warning level and fix all the picky compiler warnings Strap on a unit test harness and test the new code in isolation Create an automated test suite and run it all night Step through a big loop in the debugger manually until you get to the error condition Instrument the code with print, display, or other logging statements Replicate the end-user s full machine configuration Integrate new code in small pieces, fully testing each piece as its integrated
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Set a maximum time for quick and dirty debugging For each brute force technique, your reaction might very well be, I can t do that; it s too much work! The point is that it s only too much work if it takes more time than what I call quick and dirty debugging. It s always tempting to try for a quick guess rather than systematically instrumenting the code and giving the defect no place to hide. The gambler in each of us would rather use a risky approach that might find the defect in five minutes than the surefire approach that will find the defect in half an hour. The risk is that, if the fiveminute approach doesn t work, you get stubborn. Finding the defect the easy way becomes a matter of principle, and hours pass unproductively, as do days, weeks, months, ... How often have you spent two hours debugging code that took only 30 minutes to write That s a bad distribution of labor, and you would have been better off simply to rewrite the code than to debug bad code.
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When you decide to go for the quick victory, set a maximum time limit for trying the quick way. If you go past the time limit, resign yourself to the idea that the defect is going to be harder to diagnose than you originally thought, and flush it out the hard way. This approach allows you to get the easy defects right away and the hard defects after a bit longer.
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Make a list of brute force techniques Before you begin debugging a difficult error, ask yourself, If I get stuck debugging this problem, is there some way that I am guaranteed to be able to fix
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23. Debugging
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the problem If you can identify at least one brute force technique that will fix the problem including rewriting the code in question it s less likely that you ll waste hours or days when there s a quicker alternative.
Syntax Errors
Syntax-error problems are going the way of the woolly mammoth and the sabertoothed tiger. Compilers are getting better at diagnostic messages, and the days when you had to spend two hours finding a misplaced semicolon in a Pascal listing are almost gone. Here s a list of guidelines you can use to hasten the extinction of this endangered species:
Don t trust line numbers in compiler messages When your compiler reports a mysterious syntax error, look immediately before and immediately after the error the compiler could have misunderstood the problem or simply have poor diagnostics. Once you find the real defect, try to determine the reason the compiler put the message on the wrong statement. Understanding your compiler better can help you find future defects. Don t trust compiler messages Compilers try to tell you exactly what s wrong, but compilers are dissembling little rascals, and you often have to read between the lines to know what one really means. For example, in UNIX C, you can get a message that says floating exception for an integer divide-by-0. With C++ s Standard Template Library, you can get a pair of error messages: the first message is the real error in the use of the STL; the second message is a message from the compiler saying, Error message too long for printer to print; message truncated. You can probably come up with many examples of your own. Don t trust the compiler s second message Some compilers are better than others at detecting multiple errors. Some compilers get so excited after detecting the first error that they become giddy and overconfident; they prattle on with dozens of error messages that don t mean anything. Other compilers are more levelheaded, and although they must feel a sense of accomplishment when they detect an error, they refrain from spewing out inaccurate messages. If you can t quickly find the source of the second or third error message, don t worry about it. Fix the first one and recompile. Divide and conquer The idea of dividing the program into sections to help detect defects works especially well for syntax errors. If you have a troublesome syntax error, remove part of the code and compile again. You ll either get no error (because the error s in the part you removed), get the same error (meaning you need to remove a
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