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After Almost 40 years, It’s Still Taking Us to School
Smalltalk is the first and still canonical object-oriented programming language. Alan Kay and other members of the Learning Research Group at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) developed Smalltalk in the 1970s. Smalltalk use decreased over the decades, but it’s gaining attention as developers struggling with increasingly complex code look to abandon procedural metaphors for simpler higher level metaphors. We can still learn from Smalltalk even if we don’t use it. (Though we should consider using it.)
When examining Smalltalk we find today’s “object-oriented” tools missed a few essential concepts when they adopted object-orientation. Sacrificing these concepts means developers lost some powerful programming metaphors.
OOP promises organization, simplicity, flexibility, and reusability, yet we often experience disorganized, tangled, inflexible, and duplicate code. Today’s popular multi-paradigm languages make it easier to write procedural code rather than object-oriented code.
Pure object-oriented programming allows building systems with less shared state, less unwanted coupling, and even less code. It reduces time developers need to understand and change code. Readable, decoupled, and testable code means moving fast without breaking things. Ultimately it saves time, and time is money. I like money. You like money too? We should hang out.
There Is No Spoon
Something learned early when studying OOP is to name classes as nouns or noun-phrases and name methods as verbs. It seems like too simple an idea to make better object-oriented designs, but it makes a big difference. In fact, there is reasonable evidence that adherence to this idea could make a design, and ignorance of it could break one. The evidence comes from my own experiences refactoring code as well as what I’ve recently learned while studying Smalltalk.
Naming has such an effect because better names reduce the context an object has, i.e., what an object is aware of versus what it needs awareness of to do its job. Removing unnecessary information raises the level of abstraction providing more opportunity for reuse and minimizes the chance that the message needs changing when requirements change.
A message name constrains the possible interpretations to some extent, which is good. This indicates what the program is doing when the object sends the message and hints to implementing objects the context in which they are operating. However, we should only constrain the meaning of a message as much as necessary and not so much to exclude other valid uses.
To summarize what I’ll be talking about: If an object sends a message that mentions any noun other than those that indicate the parameters it’s passing then there is likely added context and a case for renaming.
Notice I said “likely”. There’s no need to deal in absolutes (as only the Sith do). As I’ve learned more about programming, and life, I’ve learned that nothing is absolute. Everything is relative. You can find exceptions to every rule. Black and white are just acute versions gray.
Messages should only include nouns within their context because messages are ignorant of the things that respond to them and the inner parts of the things that respond to them.
If you remember the movie “The Matrix”*, there is the famous scene when Neo visits The Oracle and meets a boy who bends spoons with his mind. When Neo attempts this, the boy gives him a helpful tip:
Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth…there is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. -Spoon Boy, The Matrix movie
You know that hypnotic thinking that happens in the shower? I do that outside of the shower. I’m not just staring at the wall. That’s the story of why I’m calling this a shower idea (even though I didn’t think of this in the shower).
I’ll probably post more of these shower ideas in the future. I usually forget to write them down, but I’m going to stop doing that. These ideas aren’t groundbreaking. They’re just interesting food for thought.
“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
What have I learned about programming, and OOP in general?
One of the biggest eye-openers is very simple. An idea that can easily get lost when using high level languages or discussing the philosophy of what’s right and wrong in programming. It’s also lost on anyone who doesn’t study computer science in school and only programming (/raisehand). Just like we don’t consciously think about tying our shoes, we don’t always think about the intricate roots of programming when we’re doing it.
The idea is that math is the basis for programming, and follows much of the same rules of mathematics. Math and programming both share certain protocols for operating on data sets. Those protocols include things like inputs, outputs, domains, ranges, abstractions, and functions. I’m no math whiz, but I’ll do my best to explain what I mean. Continue reading