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So, there are a bunch of questions appearing asking is X evil, is Y evil.

My view is that there are no language constructs, algorithms or whatever which are evil, just ones which are badly used. Hell, if you look hard enough there are even valid uses of goto.

So does absolute evil, that is something which is utterly incompatible with best practice in all instances, exist in programming? And if so what is it? Or is it just bad programmers not knowing when something is appropriate?

Edit: To be clear, I'm not talking about things programmers do (such as not checking return codes or not using version control - they're choices made by bad programmers), I mean tools, languages, statements, whatever which are just bad...

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Null is evil! The Billion Dollar Mistake programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/22912/… –  Amir Rezaei Dec 21 '10 at 14:51
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@Amir Resaei, null is necessary if you cannot know the value at the time the reecord is inserted! The ways to gert around using nulls are far worse. –  HLGEM Dec 21 '10 at 14:53
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@HLGEM: Can you share how alternatives like Haskell's "Maybe" are "far worse"? –  LennyProgrammers Dec 21 '10 at 14:57
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200 rep cap per day is truly evil. –  user8685 Dec 21 '10 at 15:07
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@HLGEM: This might be true for current SQL-databases, i thought we were talking about programming languages. –  LennyProgrammers Dec 21 '10 at 15:27

40 Answers 40

up vote 47 down vote accepted
  1. Magic numbers.
  2. Implicitness is inherently evil, and here's the reason why:
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1. there are reason to have them. 2. Type inference in Haskell is a type of implicitness that I love. –  Matt Ellen Dec 21 '10 at 14:57
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+1 for magic numbers, bane of my life at a very big company. Also, "lost in the distant past" reasons for scaling by 1000 instead of 1024, leading to an enormous overhead in a critical loop that everyone was scared to eliminate because they didn't know what else would be affected. –  geekbrit Dec 21 '10 at 15:01
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Meh, implicitness is very neat sometimes. Explicitness is for assembly-programmers. –  Macke Dec 21 '10 at 18:57
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Re #2: I see what you did there...Sorry about the downvotes from people who I'm guessing didn't get the joke. –  Larry Coleman Dec 21 '10 at 19:05
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@Larry, I got the joke. I just disagree. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 21 '10 at 21:44

I'm tempted to say continuations, but I think the correct answer is that there is no objective, absolute evil in programming. On the other hand, even the best tools can be abused.

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I don't think continuations are evil, but I think plenty in the community might, given that any code written using them will automatically be "clever." –  Larry Coleman Dec 22 '10 at 10:59

So does absolute evil, that is something which is utterly incompatible with best practice in all instances, exist in programming?

Of course not. It's like asking if anything in my toolbox is evil. My hammer is a great "good" to me, unless my four year old gets her hands on it.

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Guns dont kill people, people kill people.

In the same way, dev-tools are not evil, the things programmers do with them could be.

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That's a great analogy. –  Maxim Zaslavsky Dec 21 '10 at 20:14
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Guns don't kill people. Bullets do. :) –  fennec Dec 22 '10 at 4:56
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Guns go a long way in helping people kill people. What’s worse, I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make: who ever claimed that dev-tools are evil?! There must be something clever in this answer since it got so many up-votes. But I completely fail to see it. –  Konrad Rudolph Dec 22 '10 at 11:22
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@fennec bullets don't kill people, people kill people. unless machines have finally become sentient, in which case, I'll be in my bunker. –  antony.trupe Dec 22 '10 at 16:04
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Guns don't kill people, rappers do. –  Jon Hopkins Dec 24 '10 at 9:51

There is no true evil in programming.

<rant>

The reason so many people think that there are evil things is that it is pounded into their heads when they first take their programming classes. "Don't use goto! Always normalize your databases! Never, ever use multiple inheritance!" These are hammered in because these "evil" practices are so easily abused, not because they are inherently bad. There are so few uses of them that you can get away with saying "never" at first. What is truly evil is saying, "There is no reason to consider anything that is not a 'best practice'", because there is always a place where that very way is perfect.

</rant>

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+1 - Best practice is a generalisation and for all generalisations there will be exceptions. –  Jon Hopkins Dec 21 '10 at 14:47
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++ I second your rant. Bravo! –  Mike Dunlavey Dec 21 '10 at 14:50
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+1: A while back, I added a new goto to some C code I was working on that already had a bunch of them. It was quicker than refactoring it. I told my wife, who's also a programmer, and she asked, "Honey, are you okay? Do you have a fever?" I'm currently working on some code where another guy wrote a C goto that jumps into the middle of a loop. I'd never write it myself, and I curse inwardly every time I see it, but it meets the ultimate test: it works. –  Bob Murphy Dec 21 '10 at 16:23
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+1 - I worked on some C code right out of school where "goto exit" or "goto error_exit" was used often. I have to say it made for cleaner looking code than, having multiple return statements. My motto is that everything has it's place. (even singletons ;-) ) –  eSniff Dec 22 '10 at 1:48
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@JonHopkins -- which is why I much prefer to talk of "good practices". –  Richard Dec 22 '10 at 9:43

No tool is inherently evil. Its existence may be utterly foolish for all but a single use case but that does not make it evil. It puts the onus of deciding the proper use on the programmer.

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Perhaps I can flip the question around, and ask if there is anything in programming that is absolutely and perfectly good? If you can't think of one thing (I know I can't), then the concept of evil is also just as muddy.

There are common behaviors that lead to mistakes, misunderstandings, and other general confusion--but to say that language feature X is inherently evil is to admit that you really don't understand the purpose of feature X.

There are common behaviors that can save a lot of heartache and avoid some misunderstandings--but to say that language feature Y is inherently good is to admit that you don't fully understand all the implications of using feature Y.

We are a people of finite understanding, and strong opinions--a dangerous combination. Hyperbole is just a way of expressing our opinions, exagerating facts until they become fiction.

Nevertheless, if I can avoid behaviors that lead to problems and pursue behaviors that avoid them, I just might be a bit more productive. At the end of the day that's what it's all about.

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is anything in programming absolutely and perfectly good? Clear, well written documentation? –  James Dec 21 '10 at 22:22
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@James Clear, well-written documentation is often used for an excuse of unreadable code, and can become shackles that needs to be maintained together with the code if it's overdone. Clear, well-written, but completely outdated documentation can also become pure evil. –  Eugene Yokota Dec 21 '10 at 22:49

Today's evil was yesterdays perfect. It's evolution.

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GOTO is an anti-example of this, are are magic numbers. –  James Dec 21 '10 at 22:23

Everything that happens to work just by accident is inherently evil.

Let's consider the following C program, which happens to actually work on my machine, using default compiler options:

#include <stdio.h>
int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
   char string[10];
   int y;
   for (y=0; y<10; string[12]++) {
      printf("%d\n", y);   
   }
}

Nothing, really nothing could ever excuse the way this program increments the loop counter. It's just a undefined effect that happens to do the right thing on my machine, my compiler, my default options.

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I think this is more inherently wrong than it is inherently evil. –  Lawrence Dol Dec 21 '10 at 18:55
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Mel would be proud. –  Barry Brown Dec 21 '10 at 22:12

Not to be too serious, but ...

We have very myopic views of "evil". People who kill lots of other people are evil. People who steal from others are evil. Every nation (that I know of) has some evil in their past. Some would like to deny it.

Is there evil in programming? We innocent programmers might like to think "not really". However, once I had a conversation with the inventor of a widely-used hierarchical database, on this very subject. Want to know who was one of the best customers? The secret police of Communist Poland.

Is there evil in the world now? You bet. And are they using programmers? You bet.

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Possibly a more evil variant of evil than I was thinking. By comparison with the secret police we're really just talking naughty. –  Jon Hopkins Dec 21 '10 at 16:56

Is anything in programming truly evil? I mean tools, languages, statements, whatever

Nothing on that list is evil. Here is why.

Humans were created as beings with a free will. They may use their powers to go into the dark side or embrace the light side. This choice defines what comes out of their hands.

Now, those tools and frameworks were created by benevolent people who were genuinely trying to make things somehow better with a good will. Consequently, their creations (either successful or not is irrelevant) do not bear the imprint of evil. At the least they are neutral, but not malicious.

Then those tools come into the hands of other individuals. And whatever they do with them depends on those people. Even a debugger could be turned into an evil instrument in the hands of a hacker trying to remove the serial number check in some software.

But it does not redefine in any way the characteristic of the tool. They are all good. Some are more useful, some less. Some dangerous, some less. But still, they are all good and quite useful in certain scenarios.

And if a programmer by a mistake misuses a tool and causes damage, the tool does not become evil. It's just a programmer mistake, lack of knowledge, ignorance, whatever. But without any evil intent.

Bottom line is, all tools are good. We must love them all.

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I am your father –  flamingpenguin Dec 22 '10 at 16:13

Null is the root of Evil!

Null References, The Billion Dollar Mistake

The Billion Dollar Mistake: I call it my billion-dollar mistake. It was the invention of the null reference in 1965. At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object oriented language (ALGOL W). My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler. But I couldn't resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty years. In recent years, a number of program analysers like PREfix and PREfast in Microsoft have been used to check references, and give warnings if there is a risk they may be non-null. More recent programming languages like Spec# have introduced declarations for non-null references. This is the solution, which I rejected in 1965. C.A.R. Hoare, 2009

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There's no objective absolute evil.

The problem with things like GOTO is that it's awfully hard to USE it in a way that's not nasty. Enough so that it's hard for me sitting right here now to think of an example of GOTO that isn't code smell. But I'm willing to accept that there might be such uses, and that the problem isn't the tool itself but rather the likelihood of its abuse.

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I think skinning, auto-updaters that perpetually sit in the systray, applications that hijack file associations and other system settings, are straight evil.

Along with flash-only websites.

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so, you're telling me Adobe is evil? –  David Murdoch Dec 21 '10 at 18:38
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@David: What, you didn't already know that? –  Mason Wheeler Dec 21 '10 at 18:47
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Worst culprit for file association hijacking is QuickTime I would say. –  Orbling Dec 21 '10 at 23:15
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I'm coming to the conclusion that pretty much anything that Adobe and Apple do is evil. –  Brian Knoblauch Jul 17 '12 at 12:41

Some programming instructions / style / conventions are very often misused to make terrible, evil if you will code, but in the hands of a master programmer they can be used in a very elegant fashion, good if you will.

On the other hand I know of nothing that can prevent incompetent or inexperienced programmers from from producing bad, evil if you will code even with the best tools, languages, and so on.

By avoiding often misused elements, such as goto, the hope is that mediocre programmers can avoid the evil and perhaps make it somewhat easier to write good code.

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Code in your native language (not English), write documentation in your native language. And then outsource the project to an Indian company.

That's evil for you!

P.S.: For the record, it happened, and the Indians didn't find it very funny.

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Maybe they should have conducted business in such a way that they understood that before they took on the project... –  Merlyn Morgan-Graham Dec 22 '10 at 1:01

Is anything in programming truly evil?

Absolutely. Failure to use your brain and think about what you're doing and why you're doing it is the root of all programming evil.

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+1. But s/think about/understand the implications of/ and this would be even better. –  Richard Dec 22 '10 at 9:44

Programming, per se, I think, is not inherently evil. However, programming is very often a social activity, and disrespecting those around you can be very evil. People often forget that most code is going to be shared with others; mostly read, sometimes written too. Be it open source, a product that a company is releasing, or a small piece of patching up a consultant is hired for, programs are going to be read.

That's half the reason why so many "considered harmful" articles exist, or why people say "never". Making life difficult for others is the very root of all evil. Isn't it?

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Nothing is really evil not even weapons, yet we sometimes consider them as such. However with weapons we usually have a certain level of respect, we are very much aware of their danger and use them with caution; however there are still people too stupid to use them.

The same applies to any tool, the more difficult the consequences of abusing those tools are, the more likely people are abusing them.

In programming everything is more or less virtual, a program is a representation of our thought process and the long term consequences of not understanding something entirely or getting it slightly wrong are a lot harder to determine, then the immediate danger of death we are faced with when handling a gun.

This makes the tools we use and have at our disposal a lot harder to use but it also gives us an easy way to measure the skill of a programmer. The knowledge of when and how to use the tools you have is crucial to become a good programmer. You can always play it safe by restricting the set of tools but just to the guy to whom everything looks like a nail, eventually you will encounter something that no amount of hitting will fix.

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Empty generic exception handlers i.e. :

catch(Exception ex)
{
}

I don't doubt that someone can give me a valid use case - but, to be honest, its going to be seriously creative... and at the very least you need an explanation.

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+1 I was going to add this if someone else hadn't –  Conrad Frix Dec 21 '10 at 22:22
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Really? "I don't care if this fails or not" is never valid, not in any possible context? Not everything done needs to be guaranteed to succeed or fail, especially in small throwaway utilities. Another case where not thinking first is the real evil. –  SilverbackNet Dec 21 '10 at 23:02
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I see that in legacy code All. The. Time. What's worse is that people question me when I change it. –  George Stocker Dec 22 '10 at 2:01
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I add a email notification in it first that sends me a "empty catch block hit" type exception, and release it to prod so I can see WHY that catch is actually there, and under what conditions it's being it. Then I fix it. –  CaffGeek Dec 22 '10 at 5:35
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I would vote for checked exceptions in Java :D –  Nils Dec 22 '10 at 21:05

Well, I thought Microsoft is/was considered evil and now recently Oracle is the most evil thing in the world.

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The only thing 'evil' is thinking that certain programming things are 'evil'. Various approaches - use this technique, dont use that statement, use this methodology, dont use that language, use this 'best practice', etc - are opinions.

Unfortunately, too many developers mistake opinions for objective truth.

I cringe every time I see a question on here such as 'why is [x] considered evil?'.

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Easy, IBM Rational ClearCase is an atrocity.

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Everything has it's own valid use, or it wouldn't be implemented. Things are called evil because people do not use it in a safe or proper manner. Consider this...

Is a sword evil? Nope. Just because someone may try to use a sword in a hospital does not mean it is evil. Is a can opener evil? Nope.

Everything has it's proper use. Hence, no evil.

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So does absolute evil, that is something which is utterly incompatible with best practice in all instances, exist in programming? And if so what is it?

Yes; the standard C library function gets(). It's evil enough that the C standards committee has officially deprecated it, and it is expected to be gone from the next version of the standard. The mayhem caused by that one library call is scarier than the prospect of breaking 30+ years' worth of legacy code -- that's how evil it is.

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gets() takes a single argument, which is the address of a buffer. Characters are read from standard input into the buffer until a newline is seen. Because all it receives is the address of the buffer, gets() has no idea how big the buffer is. If the buffer is sized for 10 characters and the input stream contains 100, those extra 90 characters are written to the memory immediately following the buffer, potentially clobbering the stack. As a result, it's a favored malware exploit. It is unsafe and insecure by design. –  John Bode Dec 22 '10 at 15:28

Though any tool can be used for good and evil, some tools are evil because they often surprise programmers who don't use them frequently.

I consider the unsigned right shift operator (>>>) in Java evil (surprisingly improper) when working with integers that are shorter than 32 bit.

Say you have a byte b with value -1.

byte b = -1;  // binary: 1111 1111

The unsigned right shift operator shifts zeroes into the leftmost bits. So one assumes a shift by 7 to result in 1.

b >>>= 7;  // binary: 0000 0001 ?

But instead this operation does nothing at all. b is still -1.

Even all of the following 25 shifts do nothing:

byte b = -1;
for (int i = 0; i < 25; ++i) {
    b >>>= i;
    System.out.println(b); // always outputs -1
}

This happens because b>>>=7 roughly translates to

                                  1111 1111

1) the byte gets widened to a 32 bit int to make shifting possible
    1111 1111 1111 1111 1111 1111 1111 1111

2) the shift happens
    0000 0001 1111 1111 1111 1111 1111 1111

3) the resulting int gets narrowed to a byte again
                                  1111 1111

You would have to replace

b >>>= i;

by

b = (b & 0xFF) >>> (i % 8);     // >> would also work this time

to make it work as 'expected'.

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i dont know java but why is this evil? are you saying it should only be used on ints and byte isnt an int? I find >>> a but weird since i know it as D's unsigned shift right which should not result in a -1. –  acidzombie24 Dec 21 '10 at 21:52

I know i said i wouldnt make a post but i'll write one answer. As much as everyone else says no there are no evils i'll say yes there are some absolute evils

Setjmp/LongJmp is pure evil.

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+1 I have yet to see a proper use case for Setjmp/LongJmp. –  Oliver Weiler Dec 22 '10 at 1:26
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try/finally/catch+throw are implemented via Setjmp+LongJmp. –  comonad Dec 22 '10 at 10:41
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SetJmp+LongJmp can be used to realize CPS (Continuation passing style) via Tail Calls using languages/compilers without PTC (Proper tail calls). It is an optimized version of trampolining.see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tail_call#Through_trampolining and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuation#Kinds_of_continuations –  comonad Dec 24 '10 at 9:19
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Even more evil than setjmp/longjmp is using setjmp/longjmp to implement a poor man's super lightweight threading library (as I've seen done way back in the DOS days). Delightfully evil code! :-) –  Brian Knoblauch Jul 17 '12 at 12:45

I'm surprised no one has floated Globals as a true evil. No better way to be programming in an environment about which you have no idea of the parameters and virtually no control over what happens to them. Chaos! I have a strict ban on the use of global variables in all of my coding.

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Find me a non-trivial application that doesn't have globals. Oh they're wrapped up and neater and protected and in a class and in a framework and generally better... but if there's just one for the application its a pretty much global. Where the issue is is with use of inappropriately scoped variables. –  Murph Dec 22 '10 at 9:23
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Global variables don't deserve such a bad reputation. Like @Murph said, some things are global. The file system is global (all processes use the same); your process is global to all the threads; the memory is global (another process can use up your memory and crash you while he safely use memory parachute); the user himself is global (think in terms of UI design). It's not wrong to model something inherently global as global variables -- or Singleton, or Service Locator or maybe Registry. –  kizzx2 Dec 22 '10 at 18:09

Yes, there is plenty of evil to be had. For example:

Type1 variable1 = function12()
variable5 = variable1.myMethod(variable1+aGlobal);
variable2.otherMethod(anotherGlobal);
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Copy-paste code.

If you don't itch when you are doing that, you are not a real programmer.

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Implicit in the answer: all real programmers have made copypasta anyway, so they know how it feels... –  comingstorm Feb 10 '12 at 19:23

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