Ruby and Human Compilers

Ruby and Human Compilers

Paul Pagel

September 26, 2006

In Paul Graham’s Book, Hackers and Painters, he talks about patterns and Human Compilers. I started to think about how some traditional Object-Oriented patterns are implemented in different languages. What problems do these patterns solve?

Paul Graham’s human compiler is an interesting concept I would like to explore more with relation to Ruby, which is what I have been working in lately. The object-oriented design patterns I have been taught are intended for one reason, to increase productivity.

These patterns produce well decoupled, easily testable, clean, and reused code that makes it easier for developers to extend and maintain an application. It is the mind of the developer that produces this compiler to be able to read and interpret these patterns to perform workflow optimizations.

When I see a pattern in the code, I can easily navigate the implementation and the problem that it is solving. I can hold the entire context in my mind to work on that piece of code. This human compiler is what allows me to move quickly through an unfamiliar piece of code.

Moving to dynamic languages, I see the context I need shrinking in the traditional way, holding onto patterns. So I started to wonder, could we build patterns into the language better, or eliminate the need for them? Are the GOF patterns mostly just a method of satisfying our human compiler for statically typed languages?

I have suspicions that moving to Ruby from C++/C#/Java will eliminate the need for many of the design patterns we have coveted in those languages. I would like to explore a few of them to prove this thesis.

I want to look at the patterns that have helped make testing/design/decoupling better and see how they are different in Ruby. Also, how can we transfer the values behind those patterns? The patterns were all based on good decisions, and can we learn anything from them or should we throw away the thought process that made them necessary?

Lets start by taking the most commonly used pattern, Abstract Server. Writing in C#, I need to create interfaces to make sure I don’t violate the Interface Segregation Principle and depend on concrete classes.

This becomes a big deal in a statically typed language because you don’t want to have to depend on a specific type. However, in Ruby, you respond to messages of a class, which don’t care what type the return values are.

Also, because it is a compiled language, you don’t want to have to recompile the clients of a class just because the implementation changes. In fact, in Ruby, the Interface-Segregation violation goes away since there is no need for explicit interfaces to abstract, rather every class becomes an interface for itself.

Have you ever been working on a Java/C++/ C# project and noticed an inheritance hierarchy that makes you twinge? Statically typed languages abuse inheritance by definition. Why do you need interfaces? Shouldn’t an abstraction be one of behavior?

In Ruby, you send messages to objects, which is the same type of firewall, as each object acts as its own interface. However, since an inheritance tree got there, you need to decouple it since it is growing large and not maintainable.

Or have you seen interfaces placed in front of a class for the sole value of abstraction. A good example of this I have seen is with Views in the Model/View/Presenter pattern. Something that looked like this:

public interface ISomeView
public class SomeView : ISomeView
{//some implementation}

This uses the philosophy that the Views need to be decoupled from the Presenters. This is true, but the point of decoupled is missed. Decoupling is a method of using firewalls to hide the implementation of code from its clients (Abstract Server). How does this degenerate do this? It doesn’t.

I have seen projects where inheritance is used liberally and there are interfaces for everything. I have also seen projects where inheritance is used conservatively and composition is used for everything, to prevent the formation of highly coupled inheritance trees. Finding the proper balance in static languages is difficult, but it is also a problem that should not exist.

In Ruby, inheritance is used on a YAGNI basis, as you only use it in the clearest of cases. It makes inheritance a tool to be used rather than monitored for abuses.

In Ruby, you only inherit through necessity of behavior rather than clarity for form. Inheritance in most static languages is used as a tool for design patterns to make the code easier to read/work on/maintain for the developers.

This is unnecessary in Ruby since it is built into the language. Ruby does it instead of your human compiler. Writing beautiful code in Java meant making the code clean and decoupled. Inheritance is no longer needed to do that in Ruby, as it only serves a utilitarian purpose.

Form is just as important in Ruby as it is in static languages, it is just expressed without using features meant to serve efficiency purposes.

Paul Pagel

Chairman, Founder, and President

Paul Pagel founded 8th Light in 2006, and has been a driving force in the software development community ever since. He has grown 8th Light from a small consultancy into a brand that is recognized by software developers worldwide.