Archive for August, 2010

Zero is a number

Friday, August 6th, 2010

I won’t bore you with the story of how long it took for people to recognize that zero is a number. Without zero it would be difficult to explain what is the value of, say, 3 minus 3; we’d be forced to say that it’s a “meaningless” expression. Funny huh? Yet some developers seem to be stuck to medieval thinking in this respect.

Have you ever seen code like this?

public List findAllEmployeesByDepartment(int departmentId) {
  String sql = "select * from employees where department_id = ?";
  ResultSet rs = select(sql, department_id);
  if (rs.size() == 0) {
    return null;
  } else {
    // ... convert the recordset to a List and return it

This developer seems to think that an empty List is not a regular list, so he thinks he should return a special value like null to signal that the query returned no values. This is totally unnecessary. No, I take it back: this is totally wrong. You are forcing all callers of findAllEmployeesByDepartment to check for null. Not only that; this code seem to say that it’s a totally unnatural and unexpected thing for this query to return no rows. Soon developers will forget to check for null, and the application will throw NullPointerExceptions.

A related example is:

Foo[] foos = ...;
if (foos.length > 0) {
  for (int i=0; i < foos.length; i++) {
    // do something with foo[i]

Here the developer thinks that they have to treat the case of an empty array separately. In fact the IF is totally unnecessary. If the array is empty, the loop would execute zero times anyway. Java (and C) arrays use asymmetric bounds, which make it easier to write code that does not need to treat a zero-size interval as a special case.

In conclusion: empty collections are perfectly valid collections, and empty arrays are perfectly valid arrays. It’s a good idea to write code that doesn’t treat “zero” as a special case.

This post is part of a series on development fundamentals.