Refactoring using mathematical properties of min

Today I refactored a small piece of code.


$coupon_amount = self::get_coupon_prop( $coupon, 'amount' ) - $already_applied_coupons;

if ( isset( WC()->cart ) ) {
	$coupon_amount = min( WC()->cart->subtotal - $already_applied_coupons, $coupon_amount );

if ( $coupon_amount < 0 ) {
	return $discount;


$coupon_amount = self::get_coupon_prop( $coupon, 'amount' );

if ( isset( WC()->cart ) ) {
	$coupon_amount = min( WC()->cart->subtotal, $coupon_amount );

$coupon_amount -= $already_applied_coupons;

if ( $coupon_amount < 0 ) {
	return $discount;

This was intuitive to me, but I wanted to prove that it really does the same thing. For that, we need to use the property min(a - c, b - c) = min(a, b) - c.

The usual definition for min is:
min(a, b) =  \left\{  	\begin{array}{ll}  		a,  & \mbox{if } a < b \\  		b,  & \mbox otherwise  	\end{array}  \right.

Now we can use proof by cases to prove our property which will allow us to confidently refactor our code. There are two cases we can assume:

1. Case a - c > b - c:
In this case, min(a - c, b - c) = b - c, and since from a - c > b - c we can conclude that a > b, then min(a, b) = b.
So, we have that b - c = b - c, which proves this case.

2. Case a - c \le b - c:
In this case, min(a - c, b - c) = a - c, and since from a - c < b - c we can conclude that a < b, then min(a, b) = a.
So, we have that a - c = a - c, which proves this case.

Thus, the property min(a - c, b - c) = min(a, b) - c is proven. 🙂

There are also some other properties like min(a, a) = a and min(a, b) = min(b, a) but you can try doing these yourself. Stuff with max is proven analogously.


Dafny – programming language for formal specifications

Dafny is an imperative compiled language that supports formal specification through preconditions, postconditions, loop invariants.

I found out about it from The Great Theorem Prover Showdown, while reading Hacker News one day.

It only seems to target C#, but can automatically prove properties about functions nevertheless.

I finished Dafny Tutorial and it was pretty straight-forward. The tutorial should be easy to follow for anyone with basic knowledge with the C programming language (and mathematical logic). The examples for the Dafny tutorial can be ran from the browser so you do not have to install it locally to go through it.

The reason why I like this programming language is because it seems much simpler than e.g. Coq or Idris that are based on dependent types / Calculus of Constructions (however, note that it still shares some stuff such as algebraic data types, or inductive types).

The tutorial starts with functions, pre-post conditions and assertions, and then proceeds with loop invariants. It proves basic properties for abs/max, etc.

For example, abs takes an integer and produces an integer greater than or equal to zero. Here’s the proof for that:

method Abs(x: int) returns (y: int)
   ensures 0 <= y
   y := 0;

With ensures we set the post-conditions (alternatively, requires is for pre-conditions). Pretty simple and neat, right? 🙂

Like pre- and postconditions, an invariant is a property that is preserved for each execution of the loop. Here’s an example for an invariant:

method m(n: nat)
   var i := 0;
   while i < n
      invariant 0 <= i
      i := i + 1;

However if you go through the tutorial you will see by the exercises that the challenge in picking a good loop invariant is finding one that is preserved with each loop execution, but also one that lets you prove what you need.

Finally, example for quantifiers:

method m()
   assert forall k :: k < k + 1;

The tutorial takes only a couple of hours to finish, and for anyone interested in programming languages like this I highly recommend you go through it 🙂

The conclusion paragraph of the tutorial states it well:

Even if you do not use Dafny regularly, the idea of writing down exactly what it is that the code does is a precise way, and using this to prove code correct is a useful skill. Invariants, pre- and post conditions, and annotations are useful in debugging code, and also as documentation for future developers. When modifying or adding to a codebase, they confirm that the guarantees of existing code are not broken. They also ensure that APIs are used correctly, by formalizing behavior and requirements and enforcing correct usage. Reasoning from invariants, considering pre- and postconditions, and writing assertions to check assumptions are all general computer science skills that will benefit you no matter what language you work in.

For all the tutorial exercises, you can check out my Dafny Git repository.

Why Dependent Types matter

tl;dr: With respect to expressive power in logic, Dependent Types matter because they allow us to express universal and existential quantification.

Most programming languages (Python, JavaScript) have the power to express propositional logic. For example, you can express AND, NOT, OR in Python, JavaScript or any other mainstream programming language. See my previous post Hierarchy of logical systems for more details on various logical systems.

However, if we are interested in mathematical proofs (and software correctness built upon those), then we need to work with higher order logic where we have the notion of universal (forall) and existential (exists) quantificators.

So, what are Dependent Types? Wikipedia formally defines them as:

Loosely speaking, dependent types are similar to the type of an indexed family of sets. More formally, given a type A:U in a universe of types U, one may have a family of types B:A->U, which assigns to each term a:A a type B(a):U. We say that the type B(a) varies with a.

This definition allows us to map (transform) terms to types, thus bringing closer the notion of values and types.

Let’s have a look at an Idris example of dependent types:

f : Nat -> Type
f Z = Bool
f x = String

As a result:

Idris> f 0
Bool : Type
Idris> f 1
String : Type
Idris> f 2
String : Type

Python example of “dependent types”:

def f(x):
	if x == 0:
		return bool
		return str

As a result:

>>> f(0)
<type 'bool'>
>>> f(1)
<type 'str'>
>>> f(2)
<type 'str'>

So we seem to be able to encode those in Python as well. But, there is no compile-step in Python to let us know that the types flow correctly.

So we can’t really take advantage of having the programming language do all the necessary logical checks for us in order to form a notion of mathematical proof.

Where Idris really shines is in the following example:

f : {a : Nat} -> GT a 0 -> String
f {a} proof_that_a_gt_zero = "It is type safe that " ++ (show a) ++ " is greater than zero!"

produce_necessary_proof : (a : Nat) -> LTE 1 (S a)
produce_necessary_proof a = (LTESucc {left=Z} {right=a}) (LTEZero {right=a})

safe : Nat -> String
safe Z     = "Whoops!"
safe (S x) = f (produce_necessary_proof x)

Let’s try to understand this example by breaking it up.

1. LTESucc and LTEZero is a constructor for the data type LTE. A few examples for LTEZero:

LTEZero : LTE 0 0
Idris> LTEZero {right = 1}
LTEZero : LTE 0 1
Idris> LTEZero {right = 2}
LTEZero : LTE 0 2

LTESucc allows us to say that if we have a proof of LTE a b then we can construct a proof of LTE (a + 1) (b + 1):

Idris> :t LTESucc
LTESucc : LTE left right -> LTE (S left) (S right)

GT a 0 is just a friendly wrapper around LTE 1 a.

2. Let’s try to explain what f, produce_necessary_proof and safe do.
So f is a function that takes any natural number greater than zero, and a proof that it is greater than zero, and outputs a string for it.

It’s like saying, mathematically, that forall x in N, x > 0 -> “It is type safe that {x} is greater than zero!”. We can see how close these relationships are represented.

So to produce the proof that a natural number is greater than zero (LTE 1 x), we implement produce_necessary_proof. Examples:

Idris> produce_necessary_proof 0
LTESucc LTEZero : LTE 1 1
Idris> produce_necessary_proof 1
LTESucc LTEZero : LTE 1 2
Idris> produce_necessary_proof 2
LTESucc LTEZero : LTE 1 3

safe then just combines f with produce_necessary_proof.

3. Compile-time checks that f only accepts a natural number greater than zero. While this is a purely mathematical example, we can also do industry examples…

Now, given all of the above, we can’t really do that in Python (or most mainstream languages) and have the compiler do all the checks for us and produce proofs for them 🙂