100 Top Tips: Microsoft Excel
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03 July 2014
When I discovered Scratch, I was fascinated to see that the language enables you to put scripts on different sprites, or multiple scripts on the same sprite, that appear to execute at the same time. This is a bit like threading, an advanced programming technique that enables you (in very basic terms) to have different bits of a program executing in parallel (at the same time).
There is a special class of bug that emerges when you're dealing with parallel code, which is the race condition. This happens when two different bits of the program "race" to do something at the same time, and the programmer doesn't have control over which "wins".
For example, if I put all these scripts on the same sprite, what is the final value of the score variable?
It doesn't matter what your guess is, because there's no sure way of knowing how it will behave next time. It might change depending on what else is going on in the program, or a minor update to Scratch might change the synchronisation too. Logically, it's not something you can control. If you ask the program to do four things at the same time that don't make sense together, you risk getting unexpected results.
From my own quick and dirty experiments, it looks like the one that runs last (and ultimately sets the score) is the one you edit or move last. So if you, in the editor, drag the set score to 0 block and then click the green flag, the final value of score is 0. To get the value 8, drag the blocks in this order: set score to 0, set score to 5, change score by 2, change score by 1, and then click the green flag. I put all these scripts on the same sprite. When you have more than one sprite with conflicting scripts on it like this, sprites that were added to the program first have higher priority over the final result. So the cat seems to trump other sprites, for example. I ran my test in Scratch 2.0, but the results are different in Scratch 1.4, and might even be different for you running Scratch 2.0. And they might be different tomorrow for either of us. There's no reason why they have to stay the same.
That's a bit of a diversion because this information isn't really useful to you: for the program to make sense to others (an important part of programming), and to always run reliably (even if someone else moves a script), you need to avoid race conditions like this, not work around them.
It might seem like this is a bit of an artificial example (okay, it is), but similar problems can often occur when lots of scripts start when the green flag is clicked, or the background changes, or when there is a particular broadcast. There have been a couple of times I've experienced problems similar to this, including when writing Hangman for my book Scratch Programming in Easy Steps and the Shaun the Sheep Football game more recently.
There are a few strategies you can use to avoid race conditions:
Have you experienced bugs like this? How did you overcome them? Let me know in the comments below.
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Tips, tutorials and free book chapters for Scratch, a coding language widely used in schools.