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· 5 min read
Ray Myers

If we're going to teach machines to code, let's teach them the safest way we know how.

GeePaw Hill said, "Many More Much Smaller Steps". Just as the discipline of small steps helps humans work more effectively, Large Language Models have shown dramatically improved results by breaking down tasks in a technique called Chain of Thought Prompting. Surprisingly, Chain of Thought improves responses even with no feedback. By adding incremental verifications between each step we can do even better.

Rule: Take small steps and test them

To make these steps as safe as possible, let's take a moment to embrace a brutal design constraint: LLMs cannot reliably edit existing code.

  • When we ask GPT4 to update code, it breaks it
  • When we ask GitHub CoPilot to update code, it breaks it
  • When we ask SourceGraph Cody to update code, it breaks it
  • When we ask CodeLlama to update code, it breaks it

We could wait for bigger shinier models to address this, but possibly LLMs are just architectural incapable of the required kinds of reasoning. For our purposes today, we will treat LLM output as potentially useful but inherently untrustworthy.

Rule: Treat LLM output as untrustworthy

Where does this leave us? Untrusted output must be filtered through an intermediary, typically a human reviewer or a vetted tool with limited actions. So far, most approaches involve the former - people manually code review and debug the raw LLM output. Are there other options? Can we manipulate code without directly editing it? Funny you should ask...

Return of Refactoring Browser

A tool called Refactoring Browser introduced syntax-aware automated refactoring in commerical tools in 1999, building on research started by Ralph Johnson and Bill Opdyke in 1990. The right-click refactoring in today's IDEs like IntelliJ are descendants, but a unique aspect of Refactoring Browser was that is could only refactor, not act as a text editor. In a sense, what it couldn't do was as important as what it could.

We can rebuild it

Could we build another, more automation-friendly Refactoring Browser today? How many transformations would we need to support?

While Martin Fowler's definitive Catalog of Refactorings is extensive, we can get very far with surprisingly few of them mastered. The Core 6 Refactorings identified by Arlo Belshee are Extract (Variable / Method / Parameter / Field), Rename, and Inline. Those basic operations give us control of how concepts are named in the code, and therefore how intent is expressed. Further, all of these can be automated and performed with a high degree of confidence - no hand editing necessary!

Instead of trying to understand an entire large block of code at once, we can take incremental steps capturing one piece of insight in a name before moving on. The practices of Read by Refactoring and Naming as a Process expand on this. On Craft vs Cruft, I tend to call this "Untangling".

The versatility of a refactoring CLI

With a small handful of core recipes supported per language, we can create a workable command-line refactoring tool(see Untangler for an early prototype). Liberating this functionality from IDEs allows opens up many possibilities:

  • Restricted editing UI's ("Uneditors" like Refactoring Browser)
  • Scripted code migrations
  • AI-driven refactoring
  • Easily give more editors refactoring support (YAY!)

Insanely small steps

So we started by saying we'd teach machines the safest way we know how to develop. What is that, Test Driven Development? Let's go even further. Let's go all the way to TCR, which has been called "TDD on steroids"!

Test && Commit || Revert

In Kent Beck's TCR, you make one single change. If the tests pass, you commit. If they fail, you blow away your change and start over. This is an unorthodox and challenging workflow that encourages preparatory refactoring before making a feature change.

Make the change easy, then make the easy change - Kent Beck

In the 2012 talk, 2 Minutes to Better Code Woody Zuill and Llewellyn Falco demonstrate rapid commits of incremental refactoring steps supporting an upcoming feature change on a real codebase. Those kinds of steps would fit well into a TCR workflow.

Full workflow

Here's an example of how this could work end-to-end, other variations are possible/

  1. Human enters high level intent: "Clean up the Foo module"
  2. Branch from Trunk
  3. AI Refactor Loop
    1. Green (tests pass)
    2. AI suggests refactoring action
    3. Refactoring tool applies transformation
    4. Green (tests pass)
    5. Commit
  4. Create Pull Request to Trunk
  5. Human decides whether to merge the Pull Request

We now have an unprecendented set of safegaurds for LLM-driven changes:

  • We only edit code through syntax transformations with known behaviors
  • Every edit is built
  • Every edit has tests run
  • We can perform review at any gradularity due to rapid commits
  • The steps are replayable, entirely or a subset

Can this work?

It already does.


While the prototype's capabilities are very limited (it does renames in C), early experiments suggest this is the first AI developer agent that can update code in a bug-free way. It may choose a bad variable name here and there, but it does not break the code.

I'll be releasing more pieces into The Mender Stack as I'm able to clean them up and explain them properly. It will take a significant but very tractable amount of work to implement polished support for the core refactorings in several major languages. If you're interested in helping out I'd love to hear from you.

Can we write to you from time to time? Get updates.

· 3 min read
Ray Myers


Refactoring Andy Sloan's entry to the 2006 International Obfuscated C Code Contest, with some help from ChatGPT. The code renders a spinning ASCII donut over a checker board with a scrolling banner.

Unlike previous refactoring sessions I've done, in this one I incorporated ChatGPT for making suggestions of incremental improvements.

Source code with refactoring steps in commit history.

RefactorGPT prompt


You are now RefactorGPT, an expert in code maintainability. Your input will be code blocks. You will respond by giving the code a letter grade (A, B+, D-, etc...), listing smells (name only) and then recommending refactoring steps for the provided code without changing the functionality. Do not break the code. Make suggestions relevant to the code. Only show your suggestions, not the updated code. The available actions include but are not limited to:

Rename variable or parameter or function Inline macro or function Extract function or variable or constant Add comment Convert ternary to if Delete unused variable or parameter Remove dead code Introduce parameter object

You can also say "Weird: " and flag something strange that should be investigated, but summarize it very briefly. Group suggestions by the function they pertain to, or "global". Bold the action types. We value names that are honest and complete. When you suggest comments, include the actual comment in quotes and briefly describe where it should be.

If you understand please respond with "RefactorGPT>"

If you are interested in legacy code techniques, checkout my other refactoring sessions or reach out with questions via LinkedIn or Twitter!

Example Input

int charIndex(int q, char *l, char *r, int o) {
for (; q >= 0;)
q = ("AYLrZ^w^?EXnovnebYVdO}LE{yWlwJl_Ja|[ur]zovpui]e|yao_BeosmIg}r]]r]m|wkZU}{O}xys]]\
tXjjsssV_OUkRUlSiorVXp_qOM>draw{BadB"[frame / 6] -
62 >>
frame++ % 6 &
? r[q]
: l[q]) -
return q;

Response (ChatGPT with GPT 4 model)

Grade: C-


Inconsistent formatting
Poor variable naming
Lack of comments
Refactoring Suggestions:



Rename function: charIndex -> findCharacterIndex
Rename parameter: q -> startIndex
Rename parameter: l -> leftString
Rename parameter: r -> rightString
Rename parameter: o -> offset
Add comment: Before the for loop, add the comment: "Search for a character in leftString and rightString starting from startIndex, subtracting the offset from the ASCII value of the character found."
Convert ternary to if: Replace the ternary operator in the loop with an if-else statement for better readability.
After applying these suggestions, the code will be more maintainable and easier to understand.

Can we write to you from time to time? Get updates.