Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Why inheritance never made any sense

There are three different types of inheritance going on.

  1. Ontological inheritance is about specialisation: this thing is a specific variety of that thing (a football is a sphere and it has this radius)
  2. Abstract data type inheritance is about substitution: this thing behaves in all the ways that thing does and has this behaviour (this is the Liskov substitution principle)
  3. Implementation inheritance is about code sharing: this thing takes some of the properties of that thing and overrides or augments them in this way. The inheritance in my post On Inheritance is this type and only this type of inheritance.

These are three different, and frequently irreconcilable, relationships. Requiring any, or even all, of them, presents no difficulty. However, requiring one mechanism support any two or more of them is asking for trouble.

A common counterexample to OO inheritance is the relationship between a square and a rectangle. Geometrically, a square is a specialisation of a rectangle: every square is a rectangle, not every rectangle is a square. For all s in Squares, s is a Rectangle and width of s is equal to height of s. As a type, this relationship is reversed: you can use a rectangle everywhere you can use a square (by having a rectangle with the same width and height), but you cannot use a square everywhere you can use a rectangle (for example, you can’t give it a different width and height).

Notice that this is incompatibility between the inheritance directions of the geometric properties and the abstract data type properties of squares and rectangles; two dimensions which are completely unrelated to each other and indeed to any form of software implementation. We have so far said nothing about implementation inheritance, so haven’t even considered writing software.

Smalltalk and many later languages use single inheritance for implementation inheritance, because multiple inheritance is incompatible with the goal of implementation inheritance due to the diamond problem (traits provide a reliable way for the incompatibility to manifest, and leave resolution as an exercise to the reader). On the other hand, single inheritance is incompatible with ontological inheritance, as a square is both a rectangle and an equilateral polygon.

The Smalltalk blue book describes inheritance solely in terms of implementation inheritance:

A subclass specifies that its instances will be the same as instances of another class, called its superclass, except for the differences that are explicitly stated.

Notice what is missing: no mention that a subclass instance must be able to replace a superclass instance everywhere in a program; no mention that a subclass instance must satisfy all conceptual tests for an instance of its superclass.

Inheritance was never a problem: trying to use the same tree for three different concepts was the problem.

“Favour composition over inheritance” is basically giving up on implementation inheritance. We can’t work out how to make it work, so we’ll avoid it: get implementation sharing by delegation instead of by subclassing.

Eiffel, and particular disciplined approaches to using languages like Java, tighten up the “inheritance is subtyping” relationship by relaxing the “inheritance is re-use” relationship (if the same method appears twice in unrelated parts of the tree, you have to live with it, in order to retain the property that every subclass is a subtype of its parent). This is fine, as long as you don’t try to also model the problem domain using the inheritance tree, but much of the OO literature recommends that you do by talking about domain-driven design.

Traits approaches tighten up the “inheritance is specialisation” relationship by relaxing the “inheritance is re-use” relationship (if two super categories both provide the same property of an instance of a category, neither is provided and you have to write it yourself). This is fine, as long as you don’t try to also treat subclasses as covariant subtypes of their superclasses, but much of the OO literature recommends that you do by talking about Liskov Substitution Principle and how a type in a method signature means that type or any subclass.

What the literature should do, I believe, is say “here are the three types of inheritance, focus on any one of them at a time”. I also believe that the languages should support that (obviously Smalltalk, Ruby and friends do support that by not having any type constraints).

  • If I’m using inheritance as a code sharing tool, it should not be assumed that my subclasses are also subtypes.
  • If I am using subtypes to tighten up interface contracts, I should be not only allowed to mark a class anywhere in the tree as a subtype of another class anywhere in the tree, but required to do so: once again, it should not be assumed that my subclasses are also subtypes.
  • If I need to indicate conceptual specialisation via classes, this should also not be assumed to follow the inheritance tree. I should be not only allowed to mark a class anywhere in the tree as a subset of another class, but required to do so: once again, it should not be assumed that my subclasses are also specialisations.

Your domain model is not your object model. Your domain model is not your abstract data type model. Your object model is not your abstract data type model.

Now inheritance is easy again.

posted by Graham at 18:52  

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

In defense of `id`

Something you can’t see about my dotSwift talk on OOP in FP in Swift is that to make the conference more interesting while the AV was set up for the next speaker, Daniel Steinberg invited me over to a side table for a question and answer session. He had some great questions and I had some adequate answers; that is now lost to time.

One thing he asked was about how I do things differently when I’m working in Objective-C and in Swift, and I mentioned that I tend not to use the type system in ObjC and just call all of my variables id unless they are C types or the compiler asks otherwise. You can see an example of this in my UIKonf 1995 talk.

I argue (back in 2018, at dotSwift, in the bit that was videoed) that all objects have the same type. Just as I can define the “type” Set through its function signature:

typealias Set<T> = (T) -> Bool

so I can define the “type” object through its function signature. An object – any object – is a function that responds to messages by turning selectors into methods:

typealias Object = (Selector) -> IMP

Now if all objects have the same type, why would I want to use different types for different objects?

Of course, there are reasons to want to refine the definition of an object from “any object” to “an object like this”, but these refinements are inaccessible using Objective-C’s type system (or Java’s, or Swift’s, or most other programming languages). Any object responds to any message, but for the most part they respond by doing whatever the default error-raising behaviour is which is not particularly interesting and doesn’t solve your customer’s problem. So what we want to be able to say is “this object is one that responds to a particular collection of messages in a way that is what I need here”.

We have two tools available to us, and neither gives us an answer to that question. The first is the protocol (or Java interface): we can say “this object is one that has implementations of methods for a particular collection of messages”. That’s not the same as the question we want to answer – it says nothing about whether the object responds in the ways we want. It’s also not generally the correct answer – an object that has the methods we want and behaves in the expected way but that didn’t have the protocol conformance recorded at compile time (even if it conformsToProtocol: at run time) does not satisfy the compiler type check for protocol conformance.

Even less generally useful is using the class name as the type. Classes are ways to say “here is a collection of objects that all have common behaviour and data”; well for starters I don’t care about the data, but also just because those objects have the properties I want, doesn’t mean that others outside that place in the inheritance tree don’t.

I also can’t rely on subtypes behaving as I need, but the compiler type checker will pretend that if I asked for an instance of one class, and got an instance of a subclass, then I got the thing I wanted. Inheritance, in many languages including Objective-C, Java and similar, is a way to borrow behaviour from one class in another class. If we also want refinement from inheritance we have to add a bunch of rules that almost every programming language not named after the designer of the Garabit Viaduct does not support.

So there are three imprecise ways to ask for objects by behaviour in Objective-C, and I choose the one with the least typing. Even once you amortise the cost of this blog post.

posted by Graham at 21:37  

Thursday, March 1, 2018

On Inheritance

I recently had the chance to give my OOP-in-FP-in-Swift talk again in NSLondon, and was asked how to build inheritance in that object system. It’s a great question, I gave what I hope was a good answer, and it’s worth some more thought and a more coherent response.

Firstly, let’s look at the type signature for an object in this system:

typealias Object = (Selector) -> IMP

A Selector is the name of a method, and an IMP is a function1 implementing that method. But an Object is nothing more or less than a function that maps names of methods to implementations of methods. And that’s incredibly powerful, for two reasons.

Reason one: Inheritance is whatever you want it to be.

You are responsible for writing the code to look up methods, which means you get to choose how it works. If you don’t like inheritance at all, then you’re golden: each object knows its own methods and nothing else.

If you like Javascript or Self or Io, then if your object doesn’t have a method then it can send itself a proto message, and ask that object what method to use.

If you like Smalltalk or ObjC or Ruby, then you can create an object called a Class that creates objects that look up methods by asking the class what methods to use. If the class doesn’t know, then it can ask its superclass.

If you like multiple inheritance, then give an object a list of classes/prototypes instead of a single one.

If you’ve got some other idea, build it! Maybe you always thought classification should be based on higher-order logic; well here’s your chance.

(By the way, if you want to do this, you would be well-off defining a convention where methods all take a parameter that can be bound to the receiver: call it this or self for example. Then when you’re deep in inheritance-land, but you want to send a message to self, you still have a reference to it.)

Reason two: Inheritance is whatever you want it to be at each point.

A failing common to all of the object systems named above (as a reminder, that’s Javascript, Self, Io, Smalltalk, ObjC, Ruby) is that they force you to work with a single object paradigm. If these things naturally follow a singly-inherited classification scheme, but those things can be better described as deviations from a common prototype, well, sorry, but you’ve got to pick one and contort it to fit both situations.

If an object is any arbitrary code that finds a method, then you can build whichever model is most appropriate at the point of use. You can mix and match. The core philosophy at a code level is that objects are just loosely-coupled functions. From a conceptual level that’s incredibly powerful: such loose coupling means that you aren’t forced to make assumptions about how objects are constructed, or glued together. You just use them.


  1. actually a closure, which is even more useful, but that’s not important right now. 

posted by Graham at 21:06  

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