I wasn’t born a gifted programmer, I’m not sure I’m even one now, but I have grown a lot since I started. In this post I’m going to take code that I wrote years ago, tear it to pieces with criticism, and show how I’ve refactored it1. While doing this, I will point out what I did wrong. Hopefully, some of my readers who still use these bad practices will take heed and grow as I did.

I’m a fan of webcomics, they tell stories on an infinite canvas2. During freshman year of college, I studied abroad in England over winter break. It was fun, I got to be a tourist in a foreign country while seeing plays for college credit.3 The only downside was the shortage of free internet. When I got back to America, I decided I should write a program to download the entirety of my favorite webcomics onto my computer, so that if I was separated from the internet for too long, I could binge read their old story lines.

I ended up writing comic downloaders4 for Schlock Mercenary, XKCD, The Last Days of FOXHOUND, and Girl Genius. Each of them is a good webcomic that I guarantee you will enjoy5. The original classes can be found here, here, here, and here. Permalinks to the new heavily refactored versions can be found at here, here, here, and here. The old functions adequately, but it’s riddled with problems that I will present in list format6:

No Backup, no Version Control.

It’s easy when you’re first starting out to just have a folder on your computer full of code that you edit and run, to not make any backups except for copying a file and putting “.bak” on the end of its name, but you really shouldn’t do that. Hard drives are known to fail, laptops are a tempting target for thieves, and electronics don’t react well to the floods and fires that happen often enough that banks require people who get mortgages to be insured against them. It’s a miracle that this code survived on a desktop for two years, got transferred to my laptop over a USB, was put on an external hard drive, and was still intact years later when I decided to add all of my early coding to a GitHub repo. Nowadays, it’s stored on two of my laptops, an external hard drive, and an unknown number of GitHub servers. Any scenario that destroys it permanently borders on the apocalyptic. As an added benefit of putting your code on GitHub, you can edit code with more confidence knowing you can roll back any change that doesn’t work. You can also refactor your old code and then make a blog post highlighting everything that was wrong with the original.

Not in a Package.

This is a minor quibble, but is important when a project starts to grow beyond a certain point. It allows you to bring multiple components together without worrying about two classes having the same name.

Compiling with javac *.java, not mvn test.

This is another minor quibble, that only affects scalability. If you’re using javac *.java to compile a project, you necessarily have to put them in the same directory. This doesn’t play nice with the package system you should be using and makes your project a disorganized mess.

Using a Hard-to-Read Coding Style.

Here’s an excerpt from a helper class which fortunately does not exist anymore.

public static void getXKCD() throws Exception{
		int NewestComic =getNewestXKCDComic();
		for(int x=1;x<NewestComic+1;x++){
			String fileLoc=getXKCDFileLoc(getHTML(webpage+x));

If the lines bounce around on your screen, it’s because this code mixes spaces and tabs willy-nilly. In addition it leaves in commented out code, which should never be left in code when you’re done writing. As a third thing, it deliberately avoids using the spacebar in an attempt to make the code as compact as possible.

I don’t want to attract a tabs vs. spaces flame war, but mixing them upsets everyone. Many languages have official coding styles, Python has PEP-8, Golang has gofmt to do it for you, and Java has its official coding style right here. If you’re on a project, make sure to match the rest of the project, but otherwise think of the children and write legible code. Code which is formatted to reduce the number of lines it takes out, isn’t formatted at all, or is formatted inconsistently is a crime against our people.

Writing my own Code Instead of Using a Library.

I’m going to show you some code and I want you to take 20 seconds look over it and guess what you think it does.

 1 public static int dateAlgorithm(String date){
 2   //TODO Figure out how this works and add comments.
 3   int year =Integer.parseInt(date.substring(0,4));
 4   int month=Integer.parseInt(date.substring(4,6));
 5   int day  =Integer.parseInt(date.substring(6));
 6   int Y=year;
 7   if(month==1||month==2){
 8     Y=year-1;
 9   }
10   int d=day;
11   int m=((month+9)%12)+1;
12   int y=Integer.parseInt(Integer.toString(year).substring(2));
13   int c=Integer.parseInt(Integer.toString(year).substring(0,2));
14   return (int) ((d+(2.6*m-0.2)+(5*y/4)-(7*c/4))%7);
15 }

How was that? What if I told you it was the same as this one line.


That TODO that says “Figure out how this works and add comments” was in the original source, not something I added for your benefit.7

Replacing all of my date logic with functions from the standard library, not only made my code more readable, it also made my code shorter and more reliable. There’s also some manual processing of XKCD’s HTML in getNewestComic and getHTML which would be much more rugged if done with Jsoup, but that part is small enough that it would be overkill to port it.

In certain scenarios, implementing the inner workings of a function or library by yourself can be useful. These situations are either when you’re first trying to learn something or when you’re experienced enough that your code is on the cutting edge of implementations. The first scenario will happen a lot during your school’s actual classwork, but shouldn’t be brought into your personal projects. The second scenario will happen if you either go for a PhD or if you’re one of the first people to get your hands on an interesting piece of technology.

Not Using an Interface.

The broad overview of how to archive a webcomic is the same for all comics. You get the first comic, save it to a file, and then iterate to the next page until you get to the most recent one. Instead of each class implementing its own micro-optimized version of that, we can have a shared main method and then rely the individual classes only need to implement iterating of the comics and doing the precise name resolution.

No Unit Tests.

When I first made some changes to the XKCD downloader and tried testing it by rerunning it, I noticed something important. It didn’t work. Not at all. Turns out some changes had been made to the website, so that my method of parsing the html manually to find the img src’s didn’t work. Now that I have unit tests, any time I run mvn test it will take a millisecond or two and validate that my code still works. Next time my code stops working, I will know about it very quickly.

Poor Commenting.

My comic downloader code didn’t have this problem, but some code I wrote to implement a violation heap8 did and I’ve copied it below.

public ViolationNode deleteMin(){
    //Edge cases:
    //root has no children.
    //Make each of its subtrees a tree in h and remove from h the first root
    final ViolationNode oldRoot=root;
      //DESTRUCTIVELY, Create an array containing all nodes of the root list.
      ArrayList<ViolationNode> allNodes = new ArrayList<ViolationNode>();
      ViolationNode temp;
      for (ViolationNode walk = root; walk != root || allNodes.isEmpty();
          walk = temp) {
        temp=walk.right;//This is the most likely node to have a nullPointerException.
        walk.right = null;
      //Repeatedly 3-way-join trees of equal rank until no three trees of
      //the same rank remain.
      List<List<ViolationNode>> list = new ArrayList<List<ViolationNode>>();
      for(ViolationNode node:allNodes){
      //Get the nodes back out of the datastructure.
      /*Finally, the root with the new minimum value is moved to the first position in the root list.*/
    return oldRoot;

Given that a violation heap is a fancier version of a Fibonacci heap and a Fibonacci heap is already a tricky data structure, there’s no way to do a “straightforward” implementation of it. Instead of having long methods and trying to explain the method with in-line comments. We can break it down into pieces, each of which can be a method with a suitably descriptive name that the reader gets the gist. If they want to know more about a helper method they can go find it and read the javadoc comment on it. This is a much terser, yet much more readable refactoring.

   * Delete the minimum of the heap.
   * @return The deleted minimum.
  public ViolationNode deleteMin() {
    ViolationNode oldRoot = root;
    root = promoteRootsChildren();
    if (!isEmpty()) {
      List<ViolationNode> allNodes = splitRootList();
      RankList rankedList = new RankList(allNodes);
      root = rankedList.mergeIntoHeap();
      root = findNewMin();
    return oldRoot;

Another bad practice for commenting is to simply describe what the code does line-by-line in English, without any explanation of why they are doing that. For example:

public void decreaseKey(int n, ViolationNode x) {
      x.key -= n;//Subtract n from the key of x.
      if (x.onRootList()) {
        //If x is a root
        if (x.key < root.key) {
          //and its new value is smaller than the minimum, make it the root and stop.
          root = x;
      } else if (!x.isActive() || x.key < x.getParent().key) {
        //If x is an active node whose new value is not smaller than its parent, stop.

As an early programmer it can be tempting to write out a description of what your methods should do in a high-level version of pseudocode, go back and write actual code for your pseudocode, and leave the pseudocode as your “comments”. This speaks to a poor understanding of what good comments are useful for. Someone coming back later doesn’t need to know that this.flag & UPDATED_MASK computes the bitwise and of two numbers, they want to know why you’re checking if an object was recently updated. They’d prefer to figure that out without having to read the source for your methods, so they’d also like you to put that info in a format that javadoc can automatically extract.


So, if you’re a younger developer, perhaps one who started programming just a few years ago, these are the kinds of habits you should get out of to grow to the next level.


  1. In other words, a self-inflicted code-bashing.

  2. As an art term, the infinite canvas refers to the fact that webcomics can theoretically take up an infinite amount of space. A good and spoiler-heavy example is this Order of the Stick comic. They can also use code to be interactive or surprise the viewer with animation.

  3. Of course, we were expected to write a page on each of the plays we saw.

  4. As a legal side note, making private copies of copyrighted material for personal use is protected by fair use. Just don’t try selling your archives.

  5. Guarantee subject to the condition that you enjoy the kind of thing that I enjoy.

  6. I’d rather not describe this post as a listicle.

  7. For the record it was an implementation of this.

  8. Essentially, a fancy version of a Fibonacci heap.

Click here to suggest a topic through GitHub. If you don't have a GitHub, feel free to email me.