Programming really is a language

But if you understand three words, you will be able to hold a good conversation with your computer! These three words are if, for, and while. If you have some previous experience with writing code, you can skim through this lesson and the next.

One great way to make your code robust is to keep it very simple, and one great way to keep your code very simple is to recognize that often, we want to do one of three things: do one thing if something happens (if), do one thing to a series of things (for), or do one thing until something happens (while). These three possibilities define what we call the control flow, or the flow of execution. In the current lesson, we will focus on understanding the if statement.

After this lesson, you will be able to …

Tossing coins and planning trips

Let’s imagine a situation where we have a coin, and we can toss this coin. One output of this observation is whether the coin landed on its head, or on its tail. We can express the outcome of coin toss as a statement: “it is true that the coin landed on its head”, or “it is not true that the coin landed on its head”.

This is not how we would think about the outcome as humans. It would be more natural to say “head” or “tail”. But expressing things as true or not true (which we call false) is much more easier for computers to understand. A great deal of programming is finding out ways to reduce the outcomes to true/false statements.

In fact, there is a name for this type of data: Boolean. In the Boolean world, things are either true, or false, and we decide accordingly. Very often, we think in Boolean terms without noticing it! For example, when wondering if it is faster to go to work by bus, or by bike, we are expressing in our own way the question of “going to work by bus is faster than by bike, true or false?”.

And then, we will of course take a decision based on the outcome of this question. “If it is faster to go by bike, then I will go by bike”.

Have you noticed that the word if appeared a lot in the past few sentences? It is because if is the first way to control the flow of execution. It is one of the words that many programming languages already know (we call these keywords), and it lets us decide what to do when confronted with alternative choices.

Let’s say I am sitting in my office, and I need to attend a meeting on the other side of campus. After looking at the itinerary, I can either bike (4 minutes) or walk (13 minutes). To decide what to do, I can ask the following question to my computer:

walking takes 13 minutes
biking takes 4 minutes
if (walking is faster than biking)
    tell me to walk

This block above is called pseudocode. It is a way to start expressing our ideas in a language we can understand, but that resembles what the computer speaks. We will write quite a lot of it.

Now, let’s give this a try - before you do, what do you think will happen?

time_by_foot = 13
time_by_bike = 4
if time_by_foot < time_by_bike
    println("You should walk")

Uh, weird! Nothing happened.

Let’s think about why. We asked the computer to compare the time by foot and the time by bike; if the time by foot is shorter, then we print a line (println) telling us to walk. But we know that the time by foot is not shorter, and so does the computer. And for this reason, whatever is between if and end is not executed. Testing that conditions are met are one way to save time – we do not want to run operations that are not useful.

In the above example, we gave no alternative to the computer. To decide between two (or more) things to do, we need to use if's frequent partner: else. Let’s try again:

time_by_foot = 13
time_by_bike = 4
if time_by_foot < time_by_bike
    println("You should walk")
    println("You should bike")
You should bike

This time, we get the right output: You should bike. This brings a very important point: we need to be explicit; when talking with humans, we can understand (or guess) what the alternative choice is. Computers have no such abilities: everything that happens is the outcome of things we (or others) have written in the code.

In practice, we will want to make decisions based on several factors. This is a thing at which Boolean values excel: we can perform operations on them. The most common ones are not, or, and and.

The not operation is, quite literaly, the opposite of a statement. For example, if we state “it is true that the coin landed on its head”, then not this statement is “it is not true that the coin landed on its head”, which is the same thing as “it is false than the coin landed on its head”.

Most programming languages use !x to mean not x. If we run the code below, what you do think will happen?


Adding ! in front of a statement will return the other Boolean value.

Boolean values can also be combined. Coming back to deciding on a mode of transportation: the same trip by subway would take 8 minutes. Biking is still faster, but what if it is raining? We can add a rule, to say:

if it rains
    take the subway
    if the subway is faster than biking
        take the subway
        take the bike

This block above is called a nested statement. We start with an if, and then within it, have another if. This is not too bad, but increasing the nestedness of statements is a very effective way of having too much complexity! And too much complexity is, in turn, a great way to introduce mistakes that are hard to understand. This is, generally, the opposite of what we want to do.

So we can re-word this expression slightly:

if (the subway is faster than the bike) or (it rains)
    take the subway
    take the bike

There is a new word here: or. The or operator will look at both statements (Is the subway faster? Is it raining?), and return true if either of them is true. Let’s have a look:

println("true or false:\t", true || false)
println("false or false:\t", false || false)
println("false or true:\t", false || true)
println("true or true:\t", true || true)
true or false:	true
false or false:	false
false or true:	true
true or true:	true

Most programming languages will use || or or or | to write the or operation. We can now fine tune our code, to decide between the subway and the bike, as a function of the weather. Run the cell below: what do you expect?

time_by_subway = 8
time_by_bike = 4
rain = true

if (time_by_subway < time_by_bike) | rain
    println("You should take the subway")
    println("You should bike")
You should take the subway

Because it rains (rain = true), our code is correctly telling us to take the subway.

Who'll stop the rain?

Now, what would you change to make it stop raining? And what do you expect to see as an output?

At this point, it is important to note that there are many, many ways to write the same code. Maybe you would like to ask the question “Is it not raining?” instead, or decide which mode of transporation takes the longest time. As long as they give the correct answer, all of these formulations are valid. The important thing is that they let you write code that is easy to read, and easy to understand.

What if nested statements are easier to understand for you? Well, this is fine. The most important thing is to write code that prevents you from making mistakes. If you are more confident in your nested statements, then use them!

Before we move on, there is a final operation on Booleans we need to discuss: and. Most programming languages will use & or && or and to describe it. The and operation will look at both statements, and return true only if both are true:

println("true and false:\t", true && false)
println("false and false:\t", false && false)
println("false and true:\t", false && true)
println("true and true:\t", true && true)
true and false:	false
false and false:	false
false and true:	false
true and true:	true

So far, we have learned about Boolean values, and the if operation. Using if is a way to look at a statement, and do different things when it is true or false. In a lot of cases, we want to also perform operations on a large number of elements. To do so, we will use the second word: for. But because it is a confusing one, we will do so in the next lesson.