Nov 9

Via Lambda the Ultimate I came across an interesting article On data abstraction, revisited by William Cook, written for OOPSLA’09. It carefully dissects abstract data types from objects. All theoretical considerations aside that distinguish ADTs and objects, there is one common characteristics given by Cook: you can’t inspect the concrete representation of the data you’re abstracting. This is in itself interesting and reminded me of two rather practical things.

First of all, I was reminded of a section in Bob Martins Clean code development which discussed the idea that you should on the one hand follow the rule “Tell, don’t ask” and on the other hand have data access objects that don’t have much, if any behaviour besides providing data. This is obviously directly related to Cooks article: if you want data abstraction, you shouldn’t really provide any way to allow other objects/methods to access the internal representation. This somewhat also forbids getters as this is likely to lead to leaky abstraction, since more often than not programmers simply return the value of some data field, directly exposing the representation chosen. Now, please note that this does not necessarily follow from Cooks article, as it is possible to design getters in such a way that you can return whatever you want for a getter method, i.e., you can return a desired return type or an object satisfying a particular interface. For me, the relevant point here is the way of thinking about the kind of object at hand: do I want some behaviour (aka Cooks objects) or do I want a data sink. In the former case, and in line with what is suggested in the clean code book, it is arguably the best way to tell the object to do what is necessary rather than to inspect (get) the data it holds and do it externally in some other object/method. But even in the latter case, I think it is important to give great attention to hiding the internal representation from external access and to only allow very focussed access to the data itself. It could and has been argued that restricting the access to the stored data via getter methods is tedious (see e.g. the discussion in getters/setters/fuxors) and that allowing public access to members is allright, but looking at the issue from a data abstraction point of view it simply boils down to the question whether you want or need data abstraction or not.

Second, I’ve recently seen these two postings on the merits of the Zope Component Architecture: The emperors new clothes and the reply The success of the ZCA. Malthe asks why one should use the ZCA to override the use of a particular implementation with another instead of using some kind of reloading (or rather says that the latter is the preferrable approach). Relating this to Cooks article, Malthe could be paraphrased roughly as: we have ADTs all over the place and we only should allow only one implementation per ADT (this is what the type system would guarantee in other systems). If you want another implementation (of some interface, as Cook shows for his objects), you should reload the object defintion with the one you want. The use of the ZCA, however, is directly related to the very idea of object oriented programming in the way Cook defines it: you only have interfaces that are the relevant defining characteristics of objects (values) and hence, the use of the ZCA is the way to deal with multiple implentations in Zope (or Python). For me, all I can say is that I’m happy that the ZCA and hence the ability to easily intermingle multiple implementations is there (then again, with me reading computer science theoretic articles I’m arguably not of the angry web designer type whose benefit Malthe is arguing for).

There is another, more puzzling aspect of the article to me. After some considerations, I have to conclude that of all OO languages I happen to know, it’s really only Java that seems to be object oriented in Cooks view of the world. This is because in Java, you can define a method to return objects satisfying an interface. In addition, in dynamically typed languages like Python, Ruby, or CLOS, you could try to come away with duck typing, but it’s arguably only Python which tries to take it to the heart (for instance in CLOS, most values you’re gonna deal with are non-CLOS values and you even have an ETYPECASE statement, which is a switch-statement on type distinction). Funny enough, Cook finishes his Smalltalk analysis with the statement that “one conclusion you could draw from this analysis is that the untyped lambda calculus was the first object-oriented language”. But besides the point how some language is “more OO” than another, there is also to the point that in order to program truly object-oriented, you shouldn’t (and in Cooks world really can’t) rely on type checks, because the whole point of using objects as data abstraction is to rely on behaviour.

Posted by Holger Schauer

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