How do you nurture your imagination?

Epistemic Status: Reverse engineered from my brain. I’m pretty sure this is how it works in general, but your mileage may vary.

Stephanie Hurlburt asked this question (“How do you nurture your imagination?”) on Twitter. I thought it was a great question and gave a bunch of answers, but I thought it would be worth on expanding further on the point.

What do I mean by nurturing your imagination?

Nurturing your imagination is mostly achieved as the result of two things:

  1. Nurturing yourself, by ensuring that you have the room and the support you need to thrive.
  2. Developing the skill of having ideas that you find interesting.

Most people’s answers seemed to me to be focused on the former. This is all very well, and it’s certainly a thing worth doing in and of itself, but without the latter it probably won’t do anything for your imagination, so I’m going to focus on the latter.

First let me spell out some things that are not included in this. It’s not the skill of having good ideas. That’s practicality. It’s also not the skill of having ideas that other people fine interesting. That’s taste.

Practicality and taste are both fine skills that it is very valuable to develop. I strongly encourage you to do so. I also strongly encourage you to treat them with caution while working on developing your imagination. They combine very well with imagination, and are a great guide to it, but when your senses of practicality and taste tell you that your ideas are not going to work or are going to bore other people, take a step back and say “OK, that’s fine, but lets see what happens anyway shall we?”

If it turns out those senses were right all along, that’s fine. Your goal here is explicitly to do things that you find interesting, so it’s OK if they don’t work out as long as you’ve learned something in the process.

How do you find interesting things?

A necessary precursor to being able to have ideas you find interesting is the ability to find things interesting.

If you do not have this ability, that’s not a lack of imagination, it’s much more likely to be fairly severe depression. No, seriously, it’s a symptom. I would very strongly encourage you to see someone about it if you’re not already, and I’m afraid I don’t have any very good advice for you beyond that.

Assuming that’s not you, pick anything that you find interesting and would like to work on. Some examples of things I personally find interesting:

Most of the advice in this piece comes from application to one or more of these.

One particular skill that is particularly useful here is to notice when you find things interesting, and start actively recording that. I use a mix of Twitter, my notebook blog, and a physical journal for recording things I find interesting.

What are ideas for?

In order to understand how to get better at having ideas, it’s helpful to understand why we want to have ideas at all. This may seem like a weird question to ask, but it’s actually quite an important one because most people are confused about the answer.

There are two big common misconceptions about ideas. The first is that they are the most important thing, and the second is that they are the least important thing. Both of these are badly wrong, but the truth is not so much in the middle as off to one side.

There’s a fantastic essay by Neil Gaiman that I’m going to completely disagree with in the next section called “Where do you get your ideas?“. I recommend reading it, but to quote the relevant bit to this section:

The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.

This is spot on. An idea on its own does nothing. Execution and actually doing the hard work are the most important thing in any creative endeavour.

Right up until the point where you get stuck, at which point the idea becomes everything. Ideas are the smallest part, but sometimes the smallest part is crucial.

And this, ultimately, is the main point of ideas: Ideas enable you to do the work.

Understanding this is crucial for working on the ability to have interesting ideas, because it points to a crucial feature: You can only work on the ability to have ideas through a process of doing things (an activity that can consist of just sitting down and thinking real hard if you like, but it’s helpful to have something external that pushes back on you. At the very least try to explain it to someone else by writing about it).

Where do ideas come from?

Neil Gaiman’s answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” is “I make them up. Out of my head”.

I would file this under “true but unhelpful”. It’s like answering “Where does bread come from?” with “the oven”. Yes, bread does come from an oven, but the explanation is missing one or two quite important precursor steps and won’t help you much if you want to make your own bread. The interesting fact is not that the bread came from the oven, but how the bread got to the point of being in the oven in the first place.

(I don’t think Neil Gaiman would really disagree with me on this. A lot of what I’m saying in this section is alluded to in his piece too)

Where do ideas come from? They come from the adjacent possible. This is a concept that originally came from biologist Stuart Kauffman and was popularised in the context of ideas by Steven Johnson in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” (which I haven’t actually read yet, though I’ve ordered a copy while writing this post and have read his “The Genius of the Tinkerer“, an essay adapted from it).

The adjacent possible is pretty much what it sounds like – the set of things that are currently possible when starting from what you already have.

Ideas build on existing knowledge, one step at a time. Einstein may have had an ah ha moment that lead to the theory of special relativity, and certainly his ability to do so was a testament to his intelligence and imagination, but a person in every way physically and intellectually identical to Einstein but born two thousand years earlier could never possibly have hoped to do it, because Einstein had two thousand years worth of ideas to build on and our hypothetical ur-Einstein did not.

The path from ur-Einstein to Einstein never strayed out of the adjacent possible, but each time humanity added to its collective knowledge the adjacent possible grew with it, and two thousand years of small, incremental steps took us from the point where even the paper that “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” was published on would have been a bold technological revolution, to the point where the concept of special relativity itself was part of the adjacent possible.

You probably won’t manage two thousand years of innovation all on your own, but the set of ideas you can have works much the same way, albeit on a smaller scale.

Your personal adjacent possible consists of roughly three things:

  1. Variations of things you already know (what happens if I do the thing but change this bit?).
  2. Previously untried combinations of things you already know.
  3. Things that you can find out from other people!

The third of course doesn’t really fall under the heading of “imagination”, but I think you’d be surprised how many “highly imaginative” people are just really good at asking the right people the right questions, and in cases where you actually need the ideas rather than are trying to work on the ability to generate them yourself, it’s often by far the best approach.

It’s also a great precursor for the other two. The reason all of this matters is as follows: If ideas come from the adjacent possible, and the adjacent possible accessible to you on your own is nothing but variation and recombination of things you already know, you can only have interesting ideas if you already know interesting things. You can get there the hard way if you want – starting from the basics and working outwards – but the more you learn the larger the scope of your own personal adjacent possible, and the more interesting things it will contain.

Personally I find the following are by far the most reliable ways of expanding the scope of the adjacent possible for me:

  1. Reading interesting books.
  2. Talking to interesting people.

Explaining the interesting books to the interesting people is often particularly effective.

How do you get ideas?

SpaceThe adjacent possible is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to spacethe adjacent possible.”

Douglas Adams, The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (lightly edited)

Ideas come from the adjacent possible, as we just established – you take something you know, you vary it, or you combine it with something else you know, and you’ve got a new idea. Easy, right?

The problem with this is as a strategy for generating interesting ideas is twofold:

  1. There are a lot of potential ideas reachable this way.
  2. Almost all of the them are boring.

It’s important to ensure that your adjacent possible contains interesting things, but regardless of how many interesting things it contains, most things it contains will be tedious garbage. That’s no indictment on you or your knowledge base, that’s just how the numbers pan out.

What you need is a way to navigate your way through the adjacent possible to find those interesting ideas.

How do you do that?

Well, let me start by telling you what doesn’t work: Sitting down and trying to come up with an idea.

Coming up with an idea for the sake of coming up with an idea is hard and pointless, because ideas don’t do anything on their own. Instead, you come up with ideas by starting with something that needs an idea.

As per earlier, ideas are there to get you unstuck, so the way to come up with interesting ideas is to get stuck. Find a problem or a question that you think is interesting and you’re not sure how to solve, and try to solve it. If you succeed, try something harder – either vary the problem to make it harder if you still find it interesting, or try something new.

Ideally though, you won’t succeed. You will get stuck. Now stay there, because this is the point where ideas happen. You have a specific, concrete, problem that you are trying to solve, which vastly narrows down the area of the adjacent possible that you need to consider, and any idea you come up with to solve it will by definition be interesting because it helps you either solve or better understand an interesting problem.

I can heartily recommend this post by math with bad drawings talking to Andrew Wiles about this state if you want to learn more about being stuck, but broadly speaking my recommendations for once you’re in this state are:

  • Think of problems like it that you have solved. Why won’t the solutions you used then work? Can you modify them somehow?
  • Can you reduce it to a previously solved problem?
  • Once you’ve sunk a few hours into it, take a step back. Don’t force yourself to solve the problem now, but let a certain amount of background processing happen. Sleep on it, go for a walk, take a shower, etc.

Where do you find problems?

It’s helpful for this to have a good source of problems you find interesting. A lack of problems to tackle is definitely not something I experience (send help, please), and it will depend a lot on what you find interesting, so I’m maybe not the best person to answer this.

Some people find it useful to have seed problems, such as writing prompts or using exercises from mathematics textbooks. I don’t do this, although honestly I probably should

There are a few things that are reliable generators of problems in general:

  1. The idea of the adjacent possible applies to problems as well as solutions. Vary old problems to get new ones – e.g. can you solve this without the thing you used to solve this previously, can you explain your solution to a four year old, can you explain it in a tweet?
  2. When you’ve figured out a clever new trick or idea, “What can I apply this to?” is itself an interesting problem that is worth spending some time on.

How do you get better at this?

So coming up with interesting ideas is as “simple” as combining the following:

  1. Knowing interesting things to get you started.
  2. Working on hard interesting problems.

The former is “easy” – you just read lots about things you find interesting and talk to lots of people about it. I’m sure you have lots of free time in which to do this (you probably don’t, but unfortunately there’s not much that you can substitute for it other than do the same things but more slowly).

How do you get better at the latter?

Fortunately, there is a fully general system for getting better at things:

Find things that you can already do that are like the things that you can’t do. Analyse what the difference is, and then try variations where you change one thing about them to make them more like the thing you can’t do. Work on those variations until they are no longer hard.

There are absolutely interesting problems you know how to solve, you just have to remember that they’re interesting – it’s very easy to dismiss something you know how to do already as boring because you know how to do it, but once upon a time you learned how to do it, and that’s probably because it was interesting to you. Start there. Make the problems harder until you don’t know how to do them.

If that doesn’t work for you, learn something new. A different area of maths, a new poetic form. Try writing under a pseudonym with a different style from your own.

Whatever you end up trying, making sure it’s something you have fun doing. It’s OK to be frustrated, but you shouldn’t be bored, and it shouldn’t be painful. If you have to force yourself to do it, try something else instead.

After all, the key feature of this is to think of things you find interesting. If you’re not enjoying doing so, why even bother?

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You should be stockpiling food for Brexit

Intended Audience: People in the UK. If you are not in the UK this post is probably useless to you, though I suppose might be of academic interest.

Also this post assumes you have a reasonable degree of financial buffer to the point where spending a few hundred pounds now rather than later is not a great hardship (it does not assume that this is a small amount of money for you, only that you have it in savings and can move when you spend it around).

Epistemic Status: Fairly confident that you need to do this. Less confident in the specifics of my advice except in the sense that I am confident that following my advice will be dramatically better than doing nothing.

Attention Conservation Notice: If you’re already sold on stockpiling for Brexit, here’s the Amazon ideas list I put together based on my own planning. It’s fairly imperfect, but it’s better than doing nothing.

We’re now getting uncomfortably close to Brexit day. I do not know what is going to happen. I am hoping that there will be some only moderately awful resolution to it, but I am not optimistic on this front.

At any rate, even if we’re being optimistic, it is not implausible that we will crash out of the EU with no deal. Say, low single digit percentage chance. If that happens, the supply chain is going to be a mess for some months. Things will become substantially inconvenient to obtain – much of our supply chain is arranged on a just in time basis, in ways that are intimately dependent on international supplies, and with comparatively little warehousing in this country relative to demand.

That isn’t to say there would be no food. This isn’t a full on zombie apocalypse scenario. However, in this scenario we have to start planning on the assumption that you will go to the shops to get a thing and that thing won’t be there. This is very different from the world of easy abundance we currently live in where it’s considered a national crisis when it becomes a bit hard to find courgettes.

Another scenario is to consider is that if things get unpleasant, we’ll have a situation reminscient of the London riots – it’s not that you can’t leave the house, you’d just maybe… rather not1.

Additionally, even if things go less badly, transport and import logistics will become more complicated and more expensive, increasing the cost of food significantly.

Set against this is the fact that the cost of preparing for these scenarios is low, and in fact has something of a curb cut effect in that doing so actually makes your life somewhat easier – it’s useful to have a supply of staples available so that you don’t run out of things mid recipe, or for evenings where you can’t be bothered to go shopping, or many other things. It’s also typically cheaper to buy in bulk.

As a result, stockpiling a certain amount of food and other supplies is of relatively negligible cost if you can afford to pay more up front, and of extremely high benefit in a fairly plausible and imminent scenario. If you can do it, you should do it.

What to Stockpile

My general recommendation for food is to pick things that are high energy density, last well, and are tasty, but also to mostly buy things that you’ll happily get through in the hopefully more likely scenario that everything is mostly OK.

It’s also worth doing things like stocking up on frozen food as part of your normal shop (both veggies and meat that is suitable for home freezing if you eat meat), if you have the freezer capacity. The power will probably stay on, or at least be reliable enough that you can just keep your freezer shut when it’s off, and frozen is a great substitute or supplement for fresh food. I use a lot of it even during normal times and I can highly recommend it. You can and should also buy large bags of vegetables that store well – e.g. onions and potatoes will keep for a very long time if you have a cool, dry, place to store them.

Now would also be a good time to update your food storage options if they’re not already good – good tupperware, containers for dry food, etc. will make a large difference to how usable shopping in bulk is, and being able to store food once you’ve cooked it helps deal with an erratic food supply.

The need to stockpile doesn’t just apply to food: I think general household items items where you tend to get through them slowly are especially worth stockpiling. e.g. Soap (in all its forms) is also worth buying in bulk.

Definitely stock up on toilet paper. It’s one of those things that is currently trivial to obtain, and would be a literal pain in the ass to run out of. Apparently ours is mostly imported, or at least the raw materials of it are, and there isn’t a lot of local storage of it due to how bulky it is2, so it’s worth making sure you don’t run out.

It’s also very worth getting a buffer of any medicines you find essential (useful tip: The USA will happily sell you bottles of 1000 pills of ibuprofen. They’re great. If you’re visiting there or know anyone who is, bring some back. While you’re there, pick up some Naproxen, because we’ve got a national shortage even pre Brexit). If you have periods, ensuring you have an adequate supply of whatever you use to manage those is similarly important (I had overlooked this point until a friend reminded me of it). If you happen to get some of your regularly used medications from the internet now would be a very good time to put in an order. If you have prescriptions that need refilling, it might be worth talking to your GP about getting an extra month’s supply. Whether or not this works is a bit hit and miss unfortunately – if you have restricted or dangerous drugs, or an uncooperative GP, it might be an option. I don’t have any good advice at that point, sorry.

Birth control, condoms, etc. are also worth stocking up on. A lot of people have lives that assume easy access to these things, and it’s worth buffering against that not being the case.

Toiletries in general are worth making sure you have a decent buffer of – it’s really annoying to be out of tooth paste, and can have a disproportionately large impact on your mental and physical well being for how easy it is to safeguard against.

It’s also good to have spares of things that are likely to break. Extra USB cables, bike inner tubes, a spare can opener (although I tend to just buy ring pull cans) etc.

I’ve put together an Amazon idea list for this if you want a decent starting point based on my own planning.

Note that this does use my affiliate link – feel free to change it over to Smile if you want to give money to someone who isn’t me instead.

The food contents of that list are heavily biased towards things that are staples for my diet because I know which ones are good – I think these are all great things to have and I’d recommend them, but I’d also recommend stocking up on anything that you consider to be staples. Pasta, flour, etc. are all worth getting in large quantities if those are things you eat (I can’t eat wheat), as are things like sauces, jams, etc. It may also be worth getting powdered milk, but I don’t know what to recommend on that front. It’s also worth making sure you stock up on any spices that you use regularly and are running low on – they’re almost all imported and being able to make food tasty.

Some of the other items on the list are more suggestions for you to substitute your own version of it. e.g there’s gin on the list, because if this goes as badly as I expect then I’m really going to need a drink, but if you don’t like gin you should feel free to substitute your own spirits of choice. Similarly, the brands of toiletries on there are my own preferred ones. Yours may be diffferent.

Are you feeling lucky?

The basic logic of stockpiling for Brexit is that low but non-negligible probability but high consequence events are worth doing reasonable things to hedge against. I think stockpiling food, medicines, and anything you would normally regularly use, is a no brainer. Beyond that, it depends a bit on what you mean by “non-negligible probability”, “reasonable things”, and “high consequence”, and as a result you have to decide what your appetite for risk is, and what scenarios you could easily weather out without doing much preparation.

The outside scenarios all hinge on reliability of water, power, and internet, and other services that are essential for day to day life. Many of these may be disrupted due to shortages, import delays, and essential personnel either deciding to or being forced to leave. I think major issues with any of these are significantly less likely than problems with the food supply, but I don’t actually know enough to gauge how unlikely they are, and feel like it’s worth at least investing a little bit of effort into considering the problem.

There are a few mildly paranoid items on the Amazon list that are only useful in these scenarios. You may or may not want them depending on how you feel about risk and what your budget is.

I think water is probably worth preparing for a bit, which is why there are water purification tablets on the list. You probably won’t need water purification tablets. However the water supply chain actually involves a lot of chemical treatment that may be in short supply post-Brexit, so again it’s not totally implausible, and they’re incredibly cheap, last forever, and take up basically no room3. Set against this, not having access to clean drinking water is incredibly bad. The purification tablets seem like a safe bet to me.

The first aid kit and USB lantern are probably not necessary for Brexit per se, but they’re both compact and very useful to have around the house anyway. The power bank is useful to have in general and there are plausible-ish scenarios where you might have working mobile phone signal but erratic access power (e.g. if you have to travel).

The multivitamins are almost certainly useless (multivitamins definitely don’t work if your diet is adequate, and I’m not very clear how well they work if it’s not), but if there’s a shortage of fresh food I’m certainly going to start taking them.

The maps… well, I’m not going to claim that in 2019 it’s remotely useful to have a physical map given that Google maps exists, but knowing where things are is an incredibly important piece of information, and while I’m not expecting internet access to go down, I will feel more comfortable knowing that I can find my way around if it does.

Another thing that is probably not necessary but is of negligible cost and may be very valuable if things go poorly is cash. Cash is likely to be of use even if everything falls apart. I don’t really expect card payments to stop working, but there’s almost no downsides to just making sure you have say £100-200 available in cash instead of in your bank account as long as you have somewhere that is remotely safe to keep it.

An example of something that I’ve decided doesn’t match my risk profile is whether it’s worth getting a camping stove or similar. I just have no use case for one outside of Brexit and don’t think it’s worth the cost and space given that – I have a barbeque and I’ll stock up on fuel for that a bit, and much of the food I’ve got prepared can be eaten raw in a pinch (the rice and beans being the main ones that can’t). If you are otherwise inclined towards having a small camping stove and have been thinking about getting one, now would probably be a good time, and if you have one then it would be worth stocking up on some extra fuel. In general, if you like camping there are a bunch of other things it might make sense to get – e.g. a water filtration system, a solar powered phone charger. I’m not currently planning to get these things because they’d be a pure loss for me in the more likely scenario that things just go a bit badly.

When, How, How Much

When should you do all this? Now. If not now, certainly before the beginning of March.

We are getting extremely close to the point where it would be too late, and there will be a lot of panic buying at the last minute unless things get resolved much sooner than I expect. Buying now ensures that you will have things in plenty of time, and that when people panic buy the supplies available will have had time to adjust to demand. It helps you and others.

How can you fit it all? I’ve included plastic storage boxes in the Amazon list. They’re great and very stackable. I have a stack of them in my bedroom, and you can fit a lot of stuff in a surprisingly small space that way. It’s not super convenient for regular access, but for this use case that’s fine. I also have a bunch of cans under my bed

How much? I could probably feed myself for about three months on what I have alone, although I’d be a bit bored of it by then. I think this is a reasonable amount, but more generally I think you should stockpile as much as you feasibly can.

Don’t make your life substantially worse by doing so – stay within reasonable financial and storage budgets – but beyond that there’s really no such thing as too much as long as it’s food that will keep for a while (at least six months, ideally a year). Even if it’s more than you personally need, there will always be others around you who have not stockpiled – either because they could not afford to, or because they gambled and lost. If you can afford to stockpile, I think there’s a certain moral obligation to help those around you who can’t, which makes it very hard to have too much.

The “worst case” scenario for stockpiling too much is that we end up deciding that Brexit is a silly idea and stay in the EU after all, at which point this is all entirely unneccessary. I wish I could say that I thought this was likely, but it sure would be nice. In that unlikely scenario I recommend we all throw giant no-Brexit parties to reduce our stockpiled food supplies down to more manageable levels


Does this whole post sound overly paranoid? It would have to me a few months ago, but unfortunately now I’m feeling it’s just sensibly cautious. If anything I’m starting to feeling that not stockpiling when you could be is a bit reckless.

With any luck, we’ll look back on it in a few months and go “Ha ha remember when we thought prepping was necessary? I’m glad we were wrong.”, but that will be an incorrect conclusion: As I outlined in this post, the reason to stockpile is not that we expect it to be necessary, but because the cost of doing so and being wrong is much lower than the cost of not doing so and being right, and the chances of needing to are probably low but definitely not negligible. This is not a plan to make because we expect to need it (that plan would be much more in depth), but one to hedge against an outside possibility.

Even so, the fact that it has come to this is a national embarassment and a tragedy, and I am so far beyond angry about it that I’ve wrapped around into numb.

I can’t do anything about that. but I can plan for and manage how the situation affects me and those around me. You can do the same, and I would highly recommend that you do.

Further Reading

Here are some other people’s suggestions if you want to hear other people saying broadly similar things and/or get recipe suggestions:

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Conferences Should Publish Menus

When organising conferences and other events, you often end up feeding people. This is a surprisingly fraught endeavour, but one that can be made less so with this one entirely sensible trick: Publish a menu in advance, ideally with an ingredients list.

Doing so gives people a much better understanding of whether they’re going to be able to eat anything at your event1, or whether they need to bring their own food.

People are complicated to feed. Many of us have dietary requirements of varying degrees of specificity, and many of those requirements are borderline incompatible. As a result, trying to cater for everyone’s preferences in a large group of people is legitimately hard.

People with complicated dietary requirements are used to this, but the ambiguity is a source of considerable annoyance – it’s fine bringing your own food, but it would be nice to know if you have to bring your own food. Having this information in advance is very life improving, and is significantly lower effort for venues to provide than trying to cater for everyone would be.

In addition, there is a significant curb cut effect – even people who are well catered for will find this information life improving, because they will spend less time hunting for the one or two things they can eat, and will have a better idea of what to expect in advance – this will significantly cut down on wait times and generally improve the dining experience.

You should do this even if you think you are doing a very good job of catering for a wide variety of dietary requirements, because the reality of the range of possible dietary requirements is inevitably much larger than you think it is. e.g. I can’t eat raw onion, lamb, or broccoli, and I bet those are not things you have taken into account in your planning. By publishing information about what food you are providing, you allow people who are experts in their own dietary requirements to make that judgement.

This does not, of course, mean that once you have published these menus your obligations are done. Most people are not that hard to cater for, and yet are still reliably badly served. There is definitely low hanging fruit that it is worth any event of a sufficient size (say 20+ people) catering for by default – e.g. providing a vegan and gluten free option (a more specific example of low hanging fruit is to serve actual fruit in breaks as well as just pastries) is not that hard and will help a lot of people – but even if you decide not to do that you can still publish the menu and at least make that visible to the people it affects.

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Notes on Test-Case Reduction

Attention Conservation Notice: Niche, somewhat poorly organised.

Epistemic Status: Reasonably confident that following this advice is better than trying to figure things out on your own, as it’s the distillation of about four years of work in the subject, but much of it is unvalidated and individual bits may be suboptimal.

There’s a lot of knowledge in my head about test-case reduction that doesn’t as far as I know exist anywhere else, as well as plenty that exists in maybe two or three other people’s heads but isn’t written down anywhere. I thought I would write some of it down.

What is test-case reduction?

Test-case reduction is the process of taking some value (a test case, usually represented as a sequence of bytes, though in property-based testing land it can be an arbitrary value) that demonstrates some property of interest (usually that it triggers a bug in some program) and turning it into a smaller and simpler test case with the same property.

This is boring to do by hand, so we generally want to have tools that do this for us – test-case reducers. When I say test-case reduction in this post I will generally mean this form of automated test-case reduction done by such a reducer.

Test-case reduction is sometimes called test-case minimization, or shrinking. I prefer the test-case reduction terminology and will use that in this post, but they’re all the same thing.

Generally speaking test-case reduction is black box. You have some oracle function that e.g. runs the software and sees if it crashes and returns yes or no. You may understand the format of the test cases (e.g. C-Reduce and Conjecture’s shrinker are the two most sophisticated test-case reducers I know of and they both make extensive use of the fact that they can understand the format), and you may have a little visibility of what the oracle is doing (Conjecture tracks the API the oracle uses to access the data and uses that to guide the reduction), but you definitely don’t have anything like a detailed understanding of the grammar that leads to the property of interest.

Why do we want to do test-case reduction? Roughly three reasons:

  1. Smaller examples are nicer for everyone concerned, computer and human alike. They run faster, are easier to read, and if you need to report them as upstream bugs probably don’t have any incriminating data about your internal software and IP.
  2. Test-case reduction helps to normalize bugs – if you have a thousand bug reports then you don’t really want to triage that. Many of those bugs will become the same after reduction, reducing your workload
  3. The knowledge that a test-case is reduced tells you what is essential about it. Although it may not be the smallest value that demonstrates the bug, every feature of it is in some way essential – you can’t just delete a bit and expect it to work. This significantly aids the developer in localizing the fault.

A fourth reason that I think is underexplored is that test-case reduction is really good at finding bugs. I’d like to do some more work on this, and have found at least one probably-security bug in a widely deployed piece of software through this (I reported it upstream years ago and it’s fixed in the latest version, but I won’t say what). I’ll ignore this use case for now, as it’s a bit non-central – generally reducers work well for this when they’re failing to achieve the actual desired goal of test-case reduction.

Importantly, none of these reasons require the reducer to do a perfect job – for the third one it has to do a comprehensible job (i.e. you only know what details are essential if you know what details the reducer can remove), but beyond that every little bit helps – a reducer that is not very good is still better than nothing, and incremental improvements to the reducer will result in incrementally better results.

This is good, because doing test-case reduction perfectly is basically impossible. Because of the black-box nature of the problem, almost all test-case reduction problems can only be solved perfectly with an exponential search.

Instead essentially every test-case reducer is based on a form of local search – rather than trying to construct a minimal example from scratch, we make simplifying transformations to the known initial example that try to make it smaller and simpler. We stop either when the user gets bored or when no further transformations work.

This approach dates back to Delta Debugging from Hildebrant and Zeller’s classic paper on delta debugging, Simplifying and Isolating Failure-Inducing Input. Delta-debugging takes test cases that are a sequence of some form and tries to find a test case that is one-minimal – i.e. such that removing any single element of the sequence loses you the property of interest. It has a bunch of optimisations on top of the naive greedy algorithm, but I think these are mostly the wrong optimisations. The sequence reducer we use in Hypothesis that I’ll talk a little bit about later shares almost nothing in common with delta debugging other than the basic greedy algorithm.

Due to this lineage, Regehr et al. in the C-Reduce paper “Test-Case Reduction for C Compiler Bugs” refer to these local search based approaches as generalised delta debugging. I’m just going to refer to them as local search.

All of the best reducers are highly specialised to a particular category of test case, with a lot of elaborate local search procedures designed to work around particular difficulties. Writing such a reducer is inevitably a lot of work, but even simple reducers can be worthwhile. In this post I hope to give you some general lessons that will help you either work on an existing reducer or write your own simple ones (I don’t especially encourage you to write your own complicated one, though I’d love to hear about it if you do).

Good Oracles are Hard to Find

The oracle for a test-case reduction problem is the predicate that takes a test case and determines if it is interesting or not. Writing an effective oracle is surprisingly tricky due to two basic problems: Test-case validity and slippage.

The test-case validity problem is when you have some oracle whose domain doesn’t contain all of the values that the reducer might want to try, and its behaviour is incorrect outside of that domain. For example, suppose you had a test that compiles a program with multiple different optimisation levels and asserts the outputs of running the compiled programs are all the same. This is a perfectly good oracle function, but a C program that it accepts only corresponds to a compiler bug if it does not execute any undefined behaviour. Thus when doing reduction you might start with a legimate bug but turn it into a C program that executes undefined behaviour and thus still satisfies the oracle but is no longer a bug. You could mitigate this by using a semantics checking interpreter that first checks if the program executes any undefined behaviour, but that’s expensive.

The problem of slippage is when your oracle function is too broad and thus captures bugs that are not the ones you intended. Suppose your oracle just checked if the program crashes. In the course of reduction you might find an entirely different (possibly easier to trigger) crash and move to that one instead.

There are a number of mitigation strategies I use for this in Hypothesis. The main ones are the following:

  1. The oracle functions we use are always “An exception of this type is thrown from this line”. This is reasonably robust to slippage.
  2. Because of how we apply test-case reduction, any reduced example is one that could have been generated, so we can only reduce to invalid examples if we could have generated invalid examples in the first place. This makes it much easier for users to fix their tests by adding preconditions when this happens.
  3. We record all successful reductions and when we rerun the test we replay those reductions first. This means that if we slipped to a different bug or an invalid test at some point and that has been fixed (either by fixing the bug or the test), we don’t lose our previous work – we just resume from the point at which the slippage occurred.

Because of this I’m going to ignore these problems for the rest of this post and just assume that the oracle function is fixed and known good.

Reduction Orders

An approach that is slightly idiosyncratic to me is that I like to make sure I have a reduction order – some total order over the test cases such that given any two distinct test cases we consider the smaller value in this order to be better than the other.

It’s more normal for this to be a preorder, where two distinct values can be either unrelated or equally good. The most common choice for this preorder is just that you measure the size of the test case in some way and always prefer smaller test cases.

Some reducers (e.g. QuickCheck) do not have any defined order at all. I think this makes it hard to reason about the reducer and easy to introduce bugs when writing it, so I dislike this.

The reason I prefer to have a total order is that it makes it much easier to determine when a test-case reducer is making progress, and it is helpful for the purposes of test-case normalization because it means that any oracle has a canonical best solution (the minimal test case satisfying the oracle) so perfect normalization is possible at least in principle even if we can’t necessarily find it.

The order I almost always use for test cases represented as sequences of bytes is the shortlex order. There are specific reasons that this is a good choice for Hypothesis, but I think it works pretty reasonably in general – certainly you want to always prefer shorter test cases, and among test cases of the same size having a reasonably local and easy to reason about order matters more than what that order actually is.

As Alex Groce points out in the comments, TSTL also effectively uses the shortlex order for its normalization, and the proof of termination in “One Test to Rule Them All” relies on this. In the papers terminology the two concepts are split, with reduction referring to reducing the length and normalization referring to canonicalization operations that decrease the test-case lexicographically while keeping the length fixed. I tend not to separate the two and refer to the whole process as test-case reduction, as they tend to be very intertwined (especially with Hypothesis’s autopruning, which I will explain below, which means that even operations that look like “pure normalization” can have dramatic effects on the size of the test case).

Caching and Canonicalization

Oracle functions are often expensive, and natural ways of writing test-case reducers will often try invoking it with the same value over and over again. It can be very useful to cache the oracle function to reduce the cost of re-execution. Almost all test-case reducers do this except for ones based on QuickCheck’s approach which sadly can’t due to limitations of the API and its generality (essentially the problem is that you can generate and reduce values which you can’t compare for equality).

As well as all the usual difficulties around caching and invalidation (Hypothesis currently ignores these by just not invalidating the cache during reduction, but I need to fix this), there are a number of things that are peculiar to test-case reduction that are worth noting here.

The first is that if you can assume that your reducer is greedy in that it only ever considers values which are smaller than the best test case you’ve seen so far, you don’t actually need to cache things, you just need to record whether you’ve seen them at all – you can assume that if you’ve seen a value before and it’s not your current best value then it must not be interesting. This allows you to use a more efficient data structure like a bloom filter. This can be very helpful if your test cases are large or you try a lot of them during reduction. theft is the only implementation I’m aware of that does this. You could adapt this to non-greedy reducers by having two levels of caching: One that contains all known good examples, and a bloom filter for all known bad examples. I’ve never seen this done but it would probably work well.

The second thing you can do is canonicalization. You may have access to e.g. a formatter that will transform your test case into a canonical form (of course, the formatting might itself break the property. This implicitly turns your oracle into the oracle “the formatted version of this satsisfies the original oracle”, but that’s probably fine). You can now do the calculation in two stages: First look up your test case in the cache. If you get a cache miss, canonicalize it and look that up in the cache. If that’s still a cache miss, run the oracle. Either way, update the cache entry for both the original and canonicalized form. I’m not sure if anyone does this – I’ve done it in some experimental reducers, and Hypothesis does something like it but a bit more complicated (canonicalization happens as a side effect of test execution, so it can’t run it without executing the test, but does update the cache with the canonical version as well as the non-canonical one) – but it works pretty well.

Keeping Track of the Best Example

The way I design reducers is that there is a single object that manages the state of reduction. It exposes a function, say test_oracle, which handles the caching as above.

What it also does is that whenever it runs the actual oracle and the result is interesting, if the test case in question is better than the best it’s seen so far, it updates its best known example. This is part of why having a defined reduction order is helpful.

The reason this is useful is because it is often helpful to make decisions based on the result of the oracle function (e.g. for adaptive searches). It can be an annoying amount of book-keeping to make sure you keep everything updated correctly, and this nicely automates that.

This is also useful because (especially if you save it externally somewhere – Hypothesis has an example database, file-based reducers might have a copy on disk or something) it means that your reducer is automatically an anytime algorithm – that is, you can interrupt it at any point and get its current best answer rather than losing all your work.

Cost of Reduction

The cost measure I tend to design around is the number of oracle invocations. This is an extremely crude measure and I ignore it where useful to do so.

The only actual cost that matters is of course wall clock runtime. The problem with this is that it tends to be almost entirely dependent on the vagaries of the oracle function – it could have essentially arbitrary complexity (exactly the same reducer will have very different timing profiles if the oracle is quadratic vs linear), or you could be regularly hitting a timeout bug that you aren’t interested in, or just about anything else. It’s a black box, it can do whatever it wants.

The most common thing that you see in practice is that the oracle gets much faster when the reducer has been running for a while, because it tends to be very fast to run small examples and very slow to run large examples, even if smaller changes don’t necessarily have as predictable effects. As a result, I tend to design reducers to actually prioritise progress over performance. e.g. the sequence reducer that we use in Hypothesis can technically make up to twice as many oracle calls as an alternative design in some circumstances, but has a huge benefit of avoiding stalls – long periods where many oracle invocations are made and none of them return true so the reducer fails to make any progress.

An additional benefit of making progress is that it tends to make future attempts to reduce cheaper – e.g. if you’ve successfully deleted some data, the test case is now smaller, so there are fewer transformations you need to make.

A minor side benefit of prioritising progress is that it makes the reducer’s progress much more fun to watch.

Reduction Passes

Most non-trivial reducers are organised into reduction passes. A reduction pass is basically just a specialized reducer that does one sort of operation – e.g. you might have a reduction pass that deletes values, and a separate reduction pass that moves them around.

There’s nothing logically special about reduction passes – they’re just functions – but they do seem to be a common and useful way of organising test-case reducers.

The big question when you organise your reducer this way then becomes: What order do you run the reduction passes in?

Generally the goal is that by the end of the reduction process you want your best test case to be a fixed point of every reduction pass – none of them can make progress – but that gives you a lot of freedom about which to run when, and that seems to make a huge difference for a couple of reasons:

  1. Some reduction passes are much more expensive than others (e.g. constant time vs linear vs quadratic), so it makes sense to run them once the example is already small.
  2. Often one pass will unlock another, allowing a previously stuck pass to make progress.
  3. Some passes will substantially increase the cache hit rate on later runs, which can have a large performance impact.

Current pass ordering schemes are a bit ad hoc and not very well justified. I’m not sure anyone really knows how to do this well, including me. This is a good area for research (which I’m doing some of).

That being said I’m reasonably sure the following things are true:

  1. You should run at least some other passes before you rerun a pass – a pass that has just run is much less likely to make good progress the second time you run it.
  2. It’s worth having a pass that is primarily designed to promote cache hits run fairly early on (e.g. Hypothesis has an alphabet_minimize reduction pass, which tries to bulk replace all bytes of the same value with smaller ones, for this purpose).
  3. It can be worth deprioritising passes that don’t seem to do anything useful.
  4. You should try to put off running quadratic or worse passes for as long as you possibly can (Ideally don’t have them at all or, if you do, do whatever you can to get the constant factors way down). They are often best treated as “emergency passes” that only run when all of the fast passes get stuck.
  5. In general it is worth running passes which will reduce the size of the test case before passes that won’t, and among those passes you should generally prefer to run cheaper ones earlier.

Reduction Pass Design

The way I write them, a reduction pass is basically just a function that takes a starting test case and calls the oracle function with a number of other test cases (reductions). After that the best one will have been updated, or it won’t and thus the pass is currently at a fixed point.

The questions worth asking about a reduction pass are then basically:

  1. What reductions does it try when…
    • The pass fails to reduce the current best test case?
    • The pass successfully reduces the current best test case?
  2. What order does it try them in?

The answer to these questions matters a lot – the reductions you try have a big impact on the cost of reduction and the quality of the final result, and the order can have a big impact on progress (and thus implicitly on the cost of reduction. Where it affects the quality of the result it’s usually by accident).

The question of what reductions to try depends a lot on what you’re trying to do, but generally speaking I find it’s best to make reduction passes that try at most an \(O(1)\) number of big changes (e.g. replacing a number with \(0\)) and at most \(O(n)\) small changes (e.g. trying subtracting one from every number, deleting every element).

The reason the questions of which operations to run differs based on whether the pass successfully reduces if you’ve successfully reduced then you know the pass will be run again before the reducer stops, so you can rely on that next run for ensuring any properties you wanted the pass to ensure. Thus you have a fair bit of freedom to do whatever you want, and can skip things that seem unlikely to work. The book-keeping doesn’t have to be too precise.

One useful rule of thumb is that when you have successfully reduced something you should try other similar reductions before moving on to the next thing. In particular it is useful to run adaptive algorithms – ones which try to turn small reductions into much larger ones. e.g. when you successfully delete something, try deleting progressively larger regions around it using an exponential probe and binary search. This can often replace \(O(n)\) oracle invocations with only \(O(\log(n))\).

One big advantage of this approach of avoiding big operations but using adaptive versions of small operations is that you get most of the benefits of large operations but don’t have to pay their cost. In the case where no or few reductions are possible, delta debugging will make up to twice as many calls as a more naive greedy algorithm, while the adaptive algorithm will make exactly the same number.

It should be noted that the opposite is also true when delta debugging makes progress – the adaptive algorithm may make twice as many calls for some easy to reduce examples. The difference is that both it and delta debugging are only making \(O(\log(n)\) calls in this case, so the slow down is less noticeable. It’s also not hard to create examples that are pathological for either algorithm, but the common case is the more interesting one, and in general it seems to be common that delta debugging quickly slows down compared to the adaptive or greedy algorithms.

The question of what order to run operations in is tricky and probably deserves its own entire article, but a short version:

  • It’s often a good idea to run the reductions in a random order. The reason for this is that it gets a good trade off between progress and cost – larger reductions are great for reducing cost but they often don’t work. Smaller reductions are more likely to work but if you only make small reductions you’ll take forever to progress.
  • When you do make progress you should try to avoid doing things that look too much like things you’ve already tried this pass. e.g. a common mistake is that when trying to delete elements from a sequence you start again at the beginning when you’ve deleted one. This is a great way to turn a linear time pass into a quadratic time one.
  • In general it is better to run dissimilar operations next to eachother. For example in a quadratic pass that tries each pair of indices it is better to run in order (0, 1), (1, 2), …, (0, 2), (1, 3), … than it is to run as (0, 1), (0, 2), …, (1, 2), (1, 3), …. The latter order is much more likely to make progress early on because it spreads out each index across the whole iteration so you don’t get long stalls where one index just doesn’t work at all.

A nicely illustrative (and well commented) example of all of these principles is Hypothesis’s sequence deletion algorithm.

Salient features are:

  • Indices are deleted in a random order.
  • When an index is deleted we try to binary search to expand this into an entire surrounding interval that can be deleted.
  • We never try to delete the same index more than once in a given run, even when we’ve made changes that would in principle allow it to be possible.

Another common pattern that is useful when doing this sort of thing is to loop over a varying list with an index into it. For example a simpler deletion algorithm would try deleting the element at index i and if that fails, increment i. In this loop either the index can increase or the length can decrease. If we never succeed, we’ve attempted to delete every element of the list. If we do succeed, we didn’t retry the elements earlier in the list but that’s OK because the pass will run again.

Stopping Conditions

Because a reducer’s task is essentially unbounded (strictly it is finite, but in practice the number of shorter smaller strings than a typical test case exceeds the number of atoms in the universe), one important design consideration is when to stop reducing – you can’t hope to stop reducing when you’ve got the optimal answer, because even when you have it you can’t verify that it’s optimal.

The natural stopping point for local search based approaches is that you stop when all of the reduction passes fail to make progress and you’re at a local minimum.

Other common stopping criteria are:

  • When the user tells you to stop (which is part of why the anytime nature of reduction is useful).
  • After you have performed N oracle invocations.
  • After some time limit has passed.
  • After you have successfully reduced the test case N times.

The latter condition is the one Hypothesis uses – after it has successfully reduced the test case 500 times it stops reduction. I think this approach originally comes from QuickCheck. It’s a slightly non-obvious condition but generally works pretty well. The reasoning is basically that if you’re making a lot of successful shrinks then the shrinks you’re making must be relatively small, which means you’re probably stuck in a zig zagging pattern (I’ll expand on these below) and could be here a while if you actually waited for the reducer to finish. Because in Hypothesis you will often have a user sitting there waiting on the end result, it’s better to terminate early.

It’s generally rare for Hypothesis to hit this limit in practice these days – the current pass selection is very good at adapting to the shape of the test case so tends to turn small shrinks into large shrinks unless it’s working on a very large test case. Generally when we find cases where it hits the limit we’ll fix the shrinker by adding or improving a reduction pass.

Having these early stopping conditions slightly ruins the utility of reduction for highlighting necessary features of the reduced test cases, because you no longer have the guarantee that the final test case is fully reduced, but is something of a necessary evil – it’s much better to return a suboptimal but still good result in a reasonable amount of time than it is to wait on getting a perfect result.

Better Reduction through (Bad) Parsing

A big obstacle to test-case reduction is that often the transformations you want to make don’t work not because of something related to the property of interest but because there’s some more basic validity constraint on the test cases you need. For example, suppose we were trying to delete a byte at a time using delta debugging or a sequence reducer like Hypothesis’s. This would work fine for some formats, but what if we were trying to reduce C or some other language where braces and brackets have to balance? We would never be able to remove those braces because you have to remove the balanced pair simultaneously.

Misherghi and Su pointed out in “HDD: Hierarchical Delta Debugging” that you can solve this problem if you have a formal grammar for the language of valid test cases, by using the grammar to suggest reductions. This observation is very sensible and reasonable and went on to have approximately zero users ever because it’s really annoying to get a good formal grammar for test cases and nobody ever bothered to do the work to make it usable. This may be changing as there is now picireny, which I haven’t tried but looks pretty good.

However there’s a much simpler variant of this, which starts from the observation that this works even if you don’t have a fully blown grammar for the format but just have some bad guesses about what it might look like.

For example, a classic observation is that delta debugging makes much more sense if you run it line oriented rather than byte oriented. You “parse” the file into a series of lines and then run the reducer on that sequence. You can do this just as well with any other separator you liked – spaces, arbitrary bytes, repeated tokens, etc. – and it works pretty well as a set of reduction passes.

You can also e.g. guess that it might be a brace oriented language and try balancing braces and see if it works. If it does, try doing what you would have done with a proper grammar (e.g. remove the contents of the braces, remove the entire region, just remove the braces and leave their contents intact).

I’ve yet to turn many of these observations into anything I’d consider a production ready test-case reducer, but I’ve done enough experimentation with them to know that they work pretty well. They’re not perfect – some formats are hard to reduce without knowing a fair bit about them – but they’re surprisingly good, particularly if you take a lot of different bad parses and use each of them as a separate pass.

More generally, a philosophy of taking a guess and see if it works seems to play out pretty well in test-case reduction, because the worst case scenario is that it doesn’t work and you wasted a bit of time, and often it’s possible to make quite good guesses.

Another advantage of the “bad parsing” approach is that you can often make changes that just happen to work but don’t necessarily correspond to grammatically sensible transformations.

This works particularly well if you have multiple different ways of parsing the data – e.g. Hypothesis has some reduction passes that work using the underlying token structure of its representation, and some that work on the higher level hierarchical structure. Many of the lexical reductions are boundary violating (e.g. Hypothesis can reduce the nested list \([[0, 1], [2, 3]]\) to \([[0, 1, 2, 3]]\) by deleting data in a region that cuts across a hierarchical boundary. Similarly you can imagine doing this on the text form by deleting the two innermost brackets which don’t correspond to a balanced pair). Switching between different viewpoints on how to parse the data gives you the ability to define fairly orthogonal reduction passes, each of which can perform transformations that the other would miss.

Misc Details

Here are some additional useful details that didn’t fit anywhere else.


A thing that has proven phenomenally useful in Hypothesis is autopruning. By the nature of the problem in Hypothesis, you can determine how much of the test case is used. This lets you replace any successful test case with a potentially much shorter prefix by pruning out the unused bits. This happens automatically whenever you call the test function.

I don’t know how broadly applicable this is. Certainly it’s easy to implement without that tracking – every time you successfully reduce the test case, try replacing it with a prefix – first delete the last byte and if that works try binary searching down to some shorter prefix. I suspect this is more useful in Hypothesis’s application than anywhere else though.

Pessimistic Concurrency

An approach I haven’t personally used yet but is found in Google Project Zero’s halfempty is pessimistic concurrency. C-Reduce uses a similar strategy.

Essentially the idea is to adopt a parallelisation strategy that assumes that the result of the oracle is almost always false. When you invoke the test oracle and miss the cache, rather than running the oracle then and there you just return false (i.e. pessimistically assume that the reduction didn’t work) and carry on. You then schedule the real oracle to run in parallel and if it happens to return true you either rerun the pass or restart the reduction process from that successful reduction.

I suspect this approach interacts badly with some of my opinions on reducer design – in particular what I actually observe when watching reduction run is not that success is unlikely but that there are long periods of mostly failure and modest periods of mostly success. I imagine one can adapt this to choose between sequential and parallel modes appropriately though.

I need to look into this area more. I haven’t so far because Python is terrible at concurrency so it hasn’t really been worth my while in Hypothesis, but I’m doing some experiments with a new file-based test case reducer where I’ll probably implement something like this.

Zig Zagging

This is an interesting thing I have observed happening. It’s reasonably well explained in this Hypothesis pull request.

The problem of zig zagging occurs when a small change unlocks a small change unlocks another small change etc. This is particularly pernicious when the small change is not one that changes the size of the example, because it can put you into exponential time failure modes.

The example in the issue is when you have a test that fails if and only if \(|m – n| \leq 1\). Each iteration of reduction will either reduce \(m\) or \(n\) by \(2\), and so you end up running a total of \(m + n\) reductions.

Hypothesis solves this by noticing when the example size isn’t changing and looking for the byte values that are changing and trying to lower them all simultaneously. It handles this case very well, but it’s not a fully general solution.


One of the big questions in test-case reduction is whether you want to backtrack – that is, rather than constantly be trying to reduce the current best example, is it sometimes worth restarting reduction from a larger starting point.

The reason this might be worth doing is that often larger examples are easier to reduce and will get you to a nicer local minimum. One example of backtracking might be running a formatter. For example, suppose you had a pass that could delete single lines, and you had the code ‘while(true){print(“hello”);}’ and wanted to reduce with respect to there being an infinite loop. Your line based reducer can’t do anything about this because it’s all on a single line and you have to retain the loop, but if a formatter ran and put the print in its own line then you’d have increased the size of the test case, but once you’ve run the line based pass you’ll have decreased it.

A classic approach here is related to the earlier observation about bad parsing and languages with braces, which is the use of topformflat to make files more amenable to delta debugging. topformflat doesn’t usually increase the size of the file, but it’s at best a lateral move.

C-Reduce currently uses these sorts of backtracking moves fairly extensively – it applies topformflat, but it also e.g. inlines function calls which may be a significant size increase.

At the moment Hypothesis does not do any sort of backtracking. I keep toying with the idea, but inevitably end up coming up with purely greedy approaches that solve the problem that I have at the time better than backtracking would. One of the big differences here though is that Hypothesis has to run in much shorter time periods than C-Reduce does, so frequently even if it would be worth adding in backtracking it may not be worth the extra wait for the user


This was mostly a grab bag of stuff, so I don’t know that I really have a conclusion, except that I think test-case reduction is really interesting and I wish more people worked on it, and I hope this post gave you some sense of why.

If you’d like to learn more, I’d recommend starting with the Conjectureshrinker from Hypothesis. You might also find it useful to look through the relevant issues and pull requests, which I try to make sure are well explained and often have good discussion and commentary.

This suggestion isn’t just personal bias – along with C-Reduce, Conjecture is easily in the top two most sophisticated examples of test-case reducers you’re likely to find (I genuinely can’t think of any other examples that come even close to being comparable). The two are quite different, and studying C-Reduce is also a worthwhile activity, but the advantages of starting with Hypothesis is that it’s much smaller, much better commented, not written in Perl, and that you will make me happy by doing so.

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Situated Software

Attention Conservation Notice: Sometimes I write about tech.

There’s a concept I’ve been using recently that I find quite helpful as a descriptive tool, which is the notion of software being situated.

Software which is situated is software which is highly specific to some particular context – e.g. a single person, a single task or category of task, a single computer. It is non-reusable outside of that context, and as a result it is able to make very in depth (and usually implicit) assumptions about reality.

This isn’t a binary. All software has a context, so no software is truly unsituated, but that context can be more or less specific. The question is not whether software is situated, but where and how strongly it is situated.

There are a number of interesting ways that software can be situated.

Hypothesis is not especially situated software (libraries tend not to be), but Hypothesis’s build system is very situated despite being designed to run on a variety of different computers and CI systems – it is adapted to a very specific task (running Hypothesis build tasks).

Another situated codebase I work on is the code that powers my notebook. This code is what Simon Tatham calls SymbiosisWare. Code that is part of the extended self rather than a distinct project in its own right (although jml has recently adapted the code for his own use. It’s important to remember that even situated software can be reused, it just requires adaptation to the new environment). In this case the context to which it is situated is that of a single person.

Another piece of situated software is the code that exists to manage experiments I run on my workstation, Szalinski. Szalinski is a bit of a beast of a machine and I use it to run experiments on test-case reduction, so there is a lot of code that is very specific to it and its storage environment. This code is mostly written so that it could be run on another machine with broadly similar configuration, but we’d almost certainly find a huge wealth of baked in assumptions by making it do so.

A fourth category of situated software is most software companies’ internal code (except the code for software that they’re actually shipping to end users, if there is any): Generally a lot of the individual applications are not that situated, because you’ve generalised them enough to make them run in dev, staging, and production, but there’s still a large ecosystem of glue and deployment code that is highly situated to a specific environment that is only found within the company.

Note that the same code base can contain a variety of code that is situated to a greater or lesser degree. Your junk drawer module is probably full of highly situated code even if the project it supports is not especially situated, and many highly situated codebases will contain nice well factored code that you could easily extract out into its own reusable library if you wanted to.

“Situated” is not a negative term. I like all three of the situated codebases I work on. The great thing about situated code is that it’s easy to create, and because you don’t have a huge range of use cases to consider it is also often very easy to modify. This can make it worthwhile to create highly situated code in cases where less situated code would be too high cost.

It’s not a positive term either. Situating software absolutely has its downsides.

The first is the nature of situation – if you have a highly specific context outside of which the code is not useful, then the code is not useful outside of that highly specific context! The Hypothesis build system is great. We keep thinking about turning it into a generic tool, but honestly that sounds exhausting so we never do. As a result Hypothesis’s build has some great functionality that nobody else gets to benefit from.

The second is that situated software can be difficult to get started with as a newcomer. It gains much of its power from being embedded in a particular context, but that context is often implicit to some large degree, which means that as a newcomer you essentially have to reverse engineer it. In the same way that you have to be embedded in the context to use the situated code, you have to be embedded in the context to even understand the situated code, and that comes with a certain amount of up front work. I’ve been seeing this in the context of getting some students up to scratch on Hypothesis internals – there’s a lot of highly situated code in the insides of the fuzzer, with all sorts of non-obvious baked in assumptions.

Despite not giving a way to describe the quality of the code, I still find it a very useful descriptive tool, partly because it lets you name and observe certain trade offs that might not otherwise be obvious.

In particular, knowing that situated code exists and is valid is important because it gives you permission to write situated code! There are many circumstances in which this is a useful thing to do and I think we resist doing it because it feels like we’d be writing bad code.

But code is only good or bad in context, and I think many of the things we would dismiss as bad practice are only bad in the context of reusability. Much of the code we feel guilty about, we shouldn’t, because it’s actually perfectly acceptable code, it’s just highly situated.

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