Jeremy’s notes on fastai coding style

This is a brief discussion of fastai’s coding style, which is loosely informed by (a much diluted version of) the ideas developed over the last 60 continuous years of development in the APL / J / K programming communities, along with Jeremy’s personal experience contributing to programming language design and library development over the last 25 years. The style is particularly designed to be aligned with the needs of scientific programming and iterative, experimental development.

Everyone has strong opinions about coding style, except perhaps some very experienced coders, who have used many languages, who realize there’s lots of different perfectly acceptable approaches. The python community has particularly strongly held views, on the whole. I suspect this is related to Python being a language targeted at beginners, and therefore there are a lot of users with limited experience in other languages; however this is just a guess. Anyway, I don’t much mind what coding style you use when contributing to fastai, as long as:

  • You don’t change existing code to reduce its compliance with this style guide (especially: don’t use an automatic linter / formatter!)
  • You make some basic attempt to make your code not wildly different from the code that surrounds it.

Having said that, I do hope that you find the ideas in this style guide at least a little thought provoking, and that you consider adopting them to some extent when contributing to this library.

My personal approach to coding style is informed heavily by Iverson’s Turing Award (the “Nobel of computer science”) lecture of 1979, Notation as a Tool For Thought. If you can find the time, the paper is well worth reading and digesting carefully (it’s one of the most important papers in computer science history), representing the development of an idea that found its first expression in the release of APL in 1964. Iverson says:

The thesis of the present paper is that the advantages of executability and universality found in programming languages can be effectively combined, in a single coherent language, with the advantages offered by mathematical notation

One key idea in the paper is that “brevity facilitates reasoning”, which has been incorporated into various guidelines such as “shorten lines of communication”. This is sometimes incorrectly assumed to just mean ‘terseness’, but it is a much deeper idea, as described in this Hacker News thread. I can’t hope to summarize this thinking here, but I can point out a couple of key benefits:

  • It supports expository programming, particularly when combined with the use of Jupyter Notebook or a similar tool designed for experimentation
  • The most productive programmers I’m aware of in the world, such as the extraordinary Arthur Whitney often use this coding style (which may or may not be a coincidence!)

Style guide

Python has over time incorporated a number of ideas that make it more amenable to this form of programming, such as:

  • List, dictionary, generator, and set comprehensions
  • Lambda functions
  • Python 3.6 interpolated format strings
  • Numpy array-based programming.

Although Python will always be more verbose than many languages, by using these features liberally, along with some simple rules of thumb, we can aim to keep all the key ideas for one semantic concept in a single screen on code. This is one of my main goals when programming—I find it very hard to understand a concept if I have to jump around the place to put the bits together. (Or as Arthur Whitney says “I hate scrolling”!)

Symbol naming

  • Follow standard Python casing guidelines (CamelCase classes, under_score for most everything else).
  • In general, aim for what Perl designer Larry Wall describes as metaphorically as Huffman Coding:

In metaphorical honor of Huffman’s compression code that assigns smaller numbers of bits to more common bytes. In terms of syntax, it simply means that commonly used things should be shorter, but you shouldn’t waste short sequences on less common constructs.

  • A fairly complete list of abbreviations is in abbr.md; if you see anything missing, feel free to edit this file.
  • For example, that in computer vision code, where we say ‘size’ and ‘image’ all the time, we use shortened forms sz and img. Or in NLP code, we would say lm instead of ‘language model’
  • Use o for an object in a comprehension, i for an index, and k and v for a key and value in a dictionary comprehension.
  • Use x for a tensor input to an algorithm (e.g. layer, transform, etc), unless interoperating with a library where this isn’t the expected behavior (e.g. if writing a pytorch loss function, use input and target as is standard for that library).
  • Take a look at the naming conventions in the part of code you’re working on, and try to stick with them. E.g. in fastai.transforms you’ll see ‘det’ for ‘deterministic’, ‘tfm’ for ‘transform’, and ‘coord’ for coordinate.
  • Assume the coder has knowledge of the domain in which you’re working
    • For instance, use kl_divergence not kullback_leibler_divergence; or (like pytorch) use nll not negative_log_likelihood. If the coder doesn’t know these terms, they will need to look them up in the docs anyway and learn the concepts; if they do know the terms, the abbreviations will be well understood
    • When implementing a paper, aim to follow the paper’s nomenclature, unless it’s inconsistent with other widely-used conventions. E.g. conv1 not first_convolutional_layer

Although it’s hard to design a really compelling experiment for this kind of thing, there is some interesting research supporting the idea that overly long symbol names negatively impact code comprehension.

Layout

  • Code should be less wide than the number of characters that fill a standard modern small-ish screen (currently 1600x1200) at 14pt font size. That means around 160 characters. Following this rule will mean very few people will need to scroll sideways to see your code. (If they’re using a jupyter notebook theme that restricts their cell width, that’s on them to fix!)
  • One line of code should implement one complete idea, where possible
  • Generally therefore an if part and its 1-line statement should be on one line, using : to separate
  • Using the ternary operator x = y if a else b can help with this guideline
  • If a 1-line function body comfortably fits on the same line as the def section, feel free to put them together with :
  • If you’ve got a bunch of 1-line functions doing similar things, they don’t need a blank line between them
def det_lighting(b, c): return lambda x: lighting(x, b, c)
def det_rotate(deg): return lambda x: rotate_cv(x, deg)
def det_zoom(zoom): return lambda x: zoom_cv(x, zoom)
  • Aim to align statement parts that are conceptually similar. It allows the reader to quickly see how they’re different. E.g. in this code it’s immediately clear that the two parts call the same code with different parameter orders.
if self.store.stretch_dir==0: x = stretch_cv(x, self.store.stretch, 0)
else:                         x = stretch_cv(x, 0, self.store.stretch)
  • Put all your class member initializers together using destructuring assignment. When doing so, use no spaces after the commas, but spaces around the equals sign, so that it’s obvious where the LHS and RHS are.
self.sz,self.denorm,self.norm,self.sz_y = sz,denorm,normalizer,sz_y
  • Avoid using vertical space when possible, since vertical space means you can’t see everything at a glance. For instance, prefer importing multiple modules on one line.
import PIL, os, numpy as np, math, collections, threading
  • Indent with 4 spaces. (In hindsight I wish I’d picked 2 spaces, like Google’s style guide, but I don’t feel like going back and changing everything…)
  • When it comes to adding spaces around operators, try to follow notational conventions such that your code looks similar to domain specific notation. E.g. if using pathlib, don’t add spaces around / since that’s not how we write paths in a shell. In an equation, use spacing to lay out the separate parts of an equation so it’s as similar to regular math layout as you can.
  • Avoid trailing whitespace

Algorithms

  • fastai is designed to show off the best of what’s possible. So try to ensure that your implementation of an algorithm is at least as fast, accurate, and concise as other versions that exist (if they do), and use a profiler to check for hotspots and optimize them as appropriate (if the code takes more than a second to run in practice).
  • Try to ensure that your algorithm scales nicely; specifically, it should work in 16GB RAM on arbitrarily large datasets. That will generally mean using lazy data structures such as generators, and not pulling everything in to a list.
  • Add a comment that provides the equation number from the paper that you’re implementing in the appropriate part of the code.
  • Use numpy/pytorch broadcasting, not loops, where possible.
  • Use numpy/pytorch advanced indexing, not specialized indexing methods, where possible.
  • Don’t submit a PR that implements the latest hot paper until you’ve actually tried using it on a few datasets, compared it to existing approaches, and confirmed it’s actually useful in practice! Ideally, include a notebook as a gist link with your PR showing these results.

Other stuff

  • Feel free to assume the latest version of python and key libraries is installed. But do mention in the PR and docs if you’re relying on something that’s only a couple of months old (including recently fixed bugs). Don’t rely on any unreleased or beta versions however.
  • Avoid comments unless they are necessary to tell the reader why you’re doing something. To tell them how you’re doing it, use symbol names and clear expository code.
  • If you’re implementing a paper or following some other external document, include a link to it in your code.
  • If you’re using nearly all the stuff provided by a module, just import *. There’s no need to list all the things you are importing separately! To avoid exporting things which are really meant for internal use, define __all__. currently following the __all__ guideline, and welcome PRs to fix this.)
  • Assume the user has a modern editor or IDE and knows how to use it. E.g. if they want to browse the methods and classes, they can use code folding - they don’t need to rely on having two lines between classes. If they want to see the definition of a symbol they can jump to the reference/tag, then don’t need a list of imports at the top of the file. And so forth…
  • Don’t use an automatic linter like autopep8 or formatter like yapf. No automatic tool can lay out your code with the care and domain understanding that you can. And it’ll break all the care and domain understanding that previous contributors have used in that file!
  • Keep your PRs small, and for anything controversial or tricky discuss it on the forums first.

Documentation

  • Documentation largely goes in the notebooks in docs_src, which is used to create the HTML docs
  • In the code, add a one-line docstring which includes back-quoted references to the main params by name
  • The Python re module is a good role model for the documentation style we’re looking for.

FAQ

Why not use PEP 8?
I don't think it's ideal for the style of programming that we use, or for math-heavy code. If you've never used anything except PEP 8, here's a chance to experiment and learn something new!
My editor is complaining about PEP 8 violations in fastai; what should I do?
Pretty much all editors have the ability to disable linting for a project; figure out how to do that in your editor.
Are you worried that using a different style guide might put off new contributors?
Not really. We're really not that fussy about style, so we won't be rejecting PRs that aren't formatted according to this document. And whilst there are people around who are so closed-minded that they can't handle new things, they're certainly not the kind of people we want to be working with!