Fun and games (with rewritten rules) in Objective-C

An object-oriented programming environment is not a set of rules. Programs do not need to be constructed according to the rules supplied by the environment. An object-oriented environment includes tools for constructing new rules, and programs can use these to good effect. Let’s build multiple method inheritance for Objective-C, to see a new set of rules.

The goal

Given three classes, A, B, and C:

@interface A : NSObject

-(NSInteger)a;
-(NSInteger)double:(NSInteger)n;

@end

@implementation A

-(NSInteger)a { return [self double:6]; }

@end

@interface B : NSObject

-(NSInteger)b;

@end

@implementation B

-(NSInteger)b { return 30; }

@end

@interface C : NSObject

-c;

@end

@implementation C

-(NSInteger)double:(NSInteger)a
{
  return a*2;
}

-c { return @([self a] + [self b]); }

@end

We want to find the value of a C instance’s c property. That depends on its values of a and b, but that class doesn’t have those methods. We should add them.

int main(int argc, const char * argv[]) {
  @autoreleasepool {
    C *c = [C new];
    [c addSuperclass:[A class]];
    [c addSuperclass:[B class]];
    NSLog(@"The answer is %@", c.c);
  }
}

We want the following output:

2015-02-17 20:23:36.810 Mixins[59019:418112] The answer is 42

Find a method from any superclass

Clearly there’s some chicanery going on here. I’ve changed the rules: methods are no longer simply being looked up in a single class. My instance of C has three superclasses: A, B and NSObject.

@interface NSObject (Mixable)

- (void)addSuperclass:(Class)aSuperclass;

@end

@implementation NSObject (Mixable)

-superclasses
{
  return objc_getAssociatedObject(self, "superclasses");
}

- (void)addSuperclass:(Class)aSuperclass
{
  id superclasses = [self superclasses]?:@[];
  id newSupers = [superclasses arrayByAddingObject:aSuperclass];
  objc_setAssociatedObject(self, "superclasses", newSupers, OBJC_ASSOCIATION_RETAIN_NONATOMIC);
}

- (Class)superclassForSelector:(SEL)aSelector
{
  __block Class potentialSuperclass = Nil;
  [[self superclasses] enumerateObjectsUsingBlock:^(Class aClass, NSUInteger idx, BOOL *stop) {
    if ([aClass instancesRespondToSelector:aSelector])
    {
      potentialSuperclass = aClass;
      *stop = YES;
    }
  }];
  return potentialSuperclass;
}

- (NSMethodSignature *)original_methodSignatureForSelector:(SEL)aSelector
{
  NSMethodSignature *signature = [self original_methodSignatureForSelector:aSelector];
  if (signature)
  {
    return signature;
  }
  Class potentialSuperclass = [self superclassForSelector:aSelector];
  return [potentialSuperclass instanceMethodSignatureForSelector:aSelector];
}

- (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)anInvocation
{
  SEL aSelector = [anInvocation selector];
  Class potentialSuperclass = [self superclassForSelector:aSelector];
  [anInvocation invokeSuperImplementation:potentialSuperclass];
}

+ (void)load
{
  if (self == [NSObject class])
  {
    method_exchangeImplementations(class_getInstanceMethod(self, @selector(original_methodSignatureForSelector:)),
                                   class_getInstanceMethod(self, @selector(methodSignatureForSelector:)));
  }
}

@end

Now invoke that method.

When you write [super foo], the Objective-C runtime needs to send a message to your object but tell the resolution machinery to look at the superclass for the method implementation, not at the current class. It uses a function objc_msgSendSuper to do this. In this case, I don’t have the superclass: I have a superclass, one of potentially many. So what I need to do is more general than what messaging super does.

Luckily for me, objc_msgSendSuper is already sufficiently general. It receives a pointer to self, just like the usual objc_msgSend, but in addition it receives a pointer to the class to be used as the superclass. By controlling that class pointer, I can tell the system which superclass to use.

A category on NSInvocation calls objc_msgSendSuper with the appropriate arguments to get the correct method from the correct class. But how can it call the function correctly? Objective-C messages could receive any number of arguments of any type, and return a value of any type. Constructing a function call when the parameters are discovered at runtime is the job of libffi, which is used here (not shown: a simple, if boring, map of Objective-C value encodings to libffi type descriptions).

@interface NSInvocation (SuperInvoke)

-(void)invokeSuperImplementation:(Class)superclass;

@end

@implementation NSInvocation (SuperInvoke)

- (BOOL)isVoidReturn
{
  return (strcmp([[self methodSignature] methodReturnType], "v") == 0);
}

-(void)invokeSuperImplementation:(Class)superclass
{
  NSMethodSignature *signature = [self methodSignature];
  if (superclass)
  {
    struct objc_super super_class = { .receiver = [self target],
      .super_class = superclass };
    struct objc_super *superPointer = &super_class;
    ffi_cif callInterface;
    NSUInteger argsCount = [signature numberOfArguments];
    ffi_type **args = malloc(sizeof(ffi_type *) * argsCount);
    for (int i = 0; i < argsCount; i++) {
      args[i] = [self ffiTypeForObjCType:[signature getArgumentTypeAtIndex:i]];
    }
    ffi_type *returnType;
    if ([self isVoidReturn]) {
      returnType = &ffi_type_void;
    }
    else {
      returnType = [self ffiTypeForObjCType:[signature methodReturnType]];
    }
    ffi_status status = ffi_prep_cif(&callInterface,
                                     FFI_DEFAULT_ABI,
                                     (unsigned int)[signature numberOfArguments],
                                     returnType,
                                     args);
    if (status != FFI_OK) {
      NSLog(@"I can't make an FFI frame");
      free(args);
      return;
    }

    void *argsBuffer = malloc([signature frameLength]);
    int cursor = 0;
    cursor += args[0]->size;
    void **values = malloc([signature numberOfArguments] * sizeof(void  *));
    values[0] = &superPointer;

    for (int i = 1; i < [signature numberOfArguments]; i++) {
      values[i] = (argsBuffer + cursor);
      [self getArgument:values[i] atIndex:i];
      cursor += args[i]->size;
    }
    if ([self isVoidReturn]) {
      ffi_call(&callInterface, objc_msgSendSuper, NULL, values);
    } else {
      void *result = malloc(returnType->size);
      ffi_call(&callInterface, objc_msgSendSuper, result, values);
      [self setReturnValue:result];
      free(result);
    }
    free(args);
    free(values);
    free(argsBuffer);
  }
}

@end

Conclusion

You’ve seen this conclusion before: blah blah awesome power of the runtime. It doesn’t just let you do expressive things in the Objective-C game, it lets you define a better game.

Objective-Curry

Sadly it’s not called Schoenfinkeling, but that’s the name of the
person who noticed that there’s no reason to ever have a function with
more than one argument. What you think is a function with two
arguments is actually a function with one argument that returns a
function with one argument, this second function closing over the
first argument and acting perhaps on both.

This is, of course, famed for its application (pardon the pun) to Object-Oriented
Programming. We can take a class like this:

@interface NamePrinter : Curryable

- (void)printFirstName:(NSString *)first surname:(NSString *)last;
- (void)printFirstName:(NSString *)first age:(NSInteger)age;
- (void)printFirstName:(NSString *)first middle:(NSString *)middle surname:(NSString *)last;

@end

and use it like this:

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
  @autoreleasepool {
    id printer = [[NamePrinter new] autorelease];
    id curried = [printer printFirstName:@"Graham"];
    [curried surname:@"Lee"];
    [curried surname:@"Greene"];
    [curried surname:@"Garden"];
    [curried age:18];

    id alex = [printer printFirstName:@"Alexander"];
    id alexG = [alex middle:@"Graham"];
    [alexG surname:@"Bell"];
  }
}

(your compiler probably complains at this point that it doesn’t know
what you’re up to. Of course, you know better.)

We’ll get results like this:

2015-02-13 00:57:57.421 CurrySauce[41877:134228] Graham Lee
2015-02-13 00:57:57.421 CurrySauce[41877:134228] Graham Greene
2015-02-13 00:57:57.421 CurrySauce[41877:134228] Graham Garden
2015-02-13 00:57:57.422 CurrySauce[41877:134228] Graham is 18 years old
2015-02-13 00:57:57.422 CurrySauce[41877:134228] Alexander Graham Bell

OK, we don’t actually get that for free. There’s some secret sauce I
haven’t shown you: secret curry sauce.

Here be dragons

As with
all the best bits of Objective-C,
you need to turn off the automatic reference counting to do what
follows (you’ll have already seen a call to -autorelease above). ARC
works wonders when you try to write Java in Objective-C, give or take
the strong-weak-strong tango. It isn’t so helpful when you try to
write Objective-C in Objective-C.

Partial application

The NamePrinter class knows that you might call it with a partial
application, so it checks whether the selector you sent in your
message matches the prefix of any method it knows. If it does, and the
return type and argument types in this prefix can be uniquely
determined, then it creates a proxy to listen for the rest of the
application.

The restrictions on types are there due to the way that Objective-C
deals with C types in message sending. It’d be a lot easier to do this
in Ruby or Smalltalk, where everything is an object reference: as
Objective-C needs to deal with C types of different sizes, you must be
able to construct a single invocation from the prefix selector.

int argumentsForSelector(SEL aSelector)
{
  const char *name = sel_getName(aSelector);
  int count = 0;
  while(*name != '\0') {
    if (*name++ == ':') {
      count++;
    }
  }
  return count;
}

@implementation Curryable

- (NSMethodSignature *)methodSignatureForSelector:(SEL)aSelector
{
  NSMethodSignature *superSignature = [super methodSignatureForSelector:aSelector];
  if (superSignature) {
    return superSignature;
  }
  NSString *thisSelectorName = NSStringFromSelector(aSelector);
  NSMutableSet *signatures = [NSMutableSet set];
  int argCount = argumentsForSelector(aSelector);
  Class currentClass = [self class];
  while (currentClass != Nil) {
    unsigned int methodCount = 0;
    Method *methodList = class_copyMethodList(currentClass, &methodCount);
    for (int i = 0; i < methodCount; i++) {
      Method method = methodList[i];
      SEL anotherSelector = method_getName(method);
      NSString *selectorName = NSStringFromSelector(anotherSelector);
      if ([selectorName hasPrefix:thisSelectorName]) {
        NSMethodSignature *fullSignature = [self methodSignatureForSelector:anotherSelector];
        NSMutableString *constructedTypeSignature = [[@"@@:" mutableCopy] autorelease];
        for (int j = 2; j < argCount + 2; j++) {
          [constructedTypeSignature appendString:@([fullSignature getArgumentTypeAtIndex:j])];
        }
        [signatures addObject:[[constructedTypeSignature copy] autorelease]];
      }
    }
    free(methodList);
    currentClass = class_getSuperclass(currentClass);
  }
  if ([signatures count] != 1) {
    NSLog(@"curried selector does not uniquely match the type of any full selector prefix");
    return nil;
  }
  return [NSMethodSignature signatureWithObjCTypes:[[signatures anyObject] UTF8String]];
}

- (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)anInvocation
{
  id curry = [CurrySauce curryTarget:self invocation:anInvocation];
  [anInvocation setReturnValue:&curry];
}

@end

All of that, just to return a proxy object.

Finish the application

This proxy also responds to unknown selectors, by trying to tack
them onto the end of the partially-applied selector. If that works,
and it ends up with a selector that the target recognises, then it
constructs the combined invocation, copies the arguments from the two
partial invocations, and invokes it on the target. If the combined
selector is supposed to return something then this proxy unpacks the
return value and puts it into the invocation it received, to ensure
that the caller picks it up.

SEL concatenateSelectors(SEL firstSelector, SEL secondSelector)
{
  NSString *firstPart = NSStringFromSelector(firstSelector);
  NSString *selectorName = [firstPart stringByAppendingString:NSStringFromSelector(secondSelector)];
  return NSSelectorFromString(selectorName);
}

@implementation CurrySauce
{
  id target;
  NSInvocation *invocation;
}

-initWithTarget:object invocation:(NSInvocation *)partialApplication
{
  target = [object retain];
  invocation = [partialApplication retain];
  return self;
}

+curryTarget:object invocation:(NSInvocation *)partialApplication
{
  return [[[self alloc] initWithTarget:object invocation:partialApplication] autorelease];
}

- (NSMethodSignature *)methodSignatureForSelector:(SEL)aSelector
{
  //special case for respondsToSelector
  if (aSelector == @selector(respondsToSelector:)) {
    return [target methodSignatureForSelector:aSelector];
  }
  SEL combinedSelector = concatenateSelectors([invocation selector], aSelector);
  NSMethodSignature *combinedSignature = [target methodSignatureForSelector:combinedSelector];
  if (combinedSignature != nil) {
    NSMutableString *completionType = [NSMutableString stringWithFormat:@"%s@:",[combinedSignature methodReturnType]];
    for (int i = argumentsForSelector([invocation selector]) + 2; i < argumentsForSelector(combinedSelector) + 2; i++) {
      [completionType appendFormat:@"%s",[combinedSignature getArgumentTypeAtIndex:i]];
    }
    return [NSMethodSignature signatureWithObjCTypes:[completionType UTF8String]];
  } else {
    return nil;
  }
}

- (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)anInvocation
{
  if ([anInvocation selector] == @selector(respondsToSelector:)) {
    [anInvocation invokeWithTarget:target];
    return;
  }
  SEL realSelector = concatenateSelectors([invocation selector], [anInvocation selector]);
  NSMethodSignature *signature = [target methodSignatureForSelector:realSelector];
  NSInvocation *combined = [NSInvocation invocationWithMethodSignature:signature];
  int argumentToSet = 2;
  void *argBuffer = malloc([[invocation methodSignature] frameLength]);
  for (int i = 2; i < [[invocation methodSignature] numberOfArguments]; i++) {
    [invocation getArgument:argBuffer atIndex:i];
    [combined setArgument:argBuffer atIndex:argumentToSet++];
  }
  free(argBuffer);
  argBuffer = malloc([[anInvocation methodSignature] frameLength]);
  for (int i = 2; i < [[anInvocation methodSignature] numberOfArguments]; i++) {
    [anInvocation getArgument:argBuffer atIndex:i];
    [combined setArgument:argBuffer atIndex:argumentToSet++];
  }
  free(argBuffer);

  [combined setTarget:target];
  [combined setSelector:realSelector];
  [combined invoke];
  if (strcmp([[combined methodSignature] methodReturnType], "v")) {
    void *returnBuffer = malloc([[combined methodSignature] methodReturnLength]);
    [combined getReturnValue:returnBuffer];
    [anInvocation setReturnValue:returnBuffer];
    free(returnBuffer);
  }
}

- (void)dealloc
{
  [target release];
  [invocation release];
  [super dealloc];
}

@end

Conclusion

Blah blah awesome power of the runtime, I suppose. It’s pretty cool
that you can do this sort of thing in 150 lines of ObjC. I doubt many
people would want to use it for reals though.

A subtle [mis]understanding of monads

As I said when talking about Learning Phases, one of the things that happens when I’m trying to learn a new thing is that I build an analogy in terms of something I do understand. This can be dangerous when the analogy is wrong. I’m currently hanging on to the analogy that follows, so I’m publishing it as a straw man argument in the hope that those with more experience than me can critique it and help improve my understanding.

Proposition: Monads are what objects are supposed to look like

Throw away everything you know about Object-Oriented programming, particularly if you know Objective-C, Java, C++ or C#. Now go and read the first edition (the straightforward one, not the detective-novel second edition) of Object-Oriented Software Construction by Bertrand Meyer. You’ll find the principle of Command-Query Separation, that an object’s interface should provide distinct facilities for manipulating and investigating that object. Consider an object as an enclosed module analogous to an electronic circuit[*], with switches you can flip and lights you can observe. Watching a light shouldn’t also have the effect of flipping a switch, and you shouldn’t have to flip a switch in order to watch a light.

How could a language support that principle? Clearly imperative programming is too general, as it lets me mix commands and queries in the same place. What I need is an operation that lets me bind sequential commands together, taking an object in state a and a function that turns state a into state b and creating an object in state b. I also need an operation that lets me run a query, taking an object in state a and returning a value corresponding to a. Given those, and assuming the single responsibility principle has driven me to the point where my object does one thing and can be represented by a single command and query, then the interface on my object is complete.

Interestingly and usefully, except in the (common-ish) special case where my object needs to talk to the world, objects defined in this way are completely understandable mechanistically. The same sequence of commands applied to the same constructor will always yield the same value on query.

But that is, I think, what Monads are supposed to be: things that bind commands into sequences and allow inspection at points in the sequence. As stated in this post’s preamble, I’m not fully confident of this, and may be over-applying an analogy to replace a thing I don’t understand with the comfort of the thing I do. I’d be interested in hearing informed critique on the argument.

Not the other monads

When Alan Kay said that objects are monads, he was talking about Leibniz monads as previously discussed on this blog.

[*] An analogy already present in the proceedings of _that_ 1968 NATO conference, and drawn to extremes by Brad Cox in Object-Oriented Programming: An Evolutionary Approach.

Update

The discussion among my monadically-inclined friends on Facebook indicates that this analogy is incomplete. Yes, monads can be used like that, but they need not be used like that. Counter-examples included the reverse state monad in which state flows backwards, and the TARDIS monad in which state can flow in both directions.

Object-Oriented Programming in 1714

Here are some excerpts from Leibniz’s La Monadologie (specifically from Daniel Garber and Roger Arlew’s English translation in Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays).

THE MONAD, which we shall discuss here, is nothing but a simple substance that enters into composites – simple, that is, without parts.

Thus, one can say that monads can only begin or end all at once, that is, they can only begin by creation and end by annihilation, whereas composites begin or end through their parts.

The monads have no windows through which something can enter or leave. […] Thus, neither substance nor accident can enter a monad from without.

From this we see that if, in our perceptions, we had nothing distinct or, so to speak, in relief and stronger in flavour, we would always be in a stupor. And this is the state of bare monads.

Thus we attribute action to a monad insofar as it has distinct perceptions, and passion, insofar as it has confused perceptions.

But in simple substances the influence of one monad over another can only be ideal, and can only produce its effect through God’s intervention, when in the ideas of God a monad rightly demands that God take it into account in regulating the others from the beginning of things. For, since a created monad cannot have an internal physical influence upon another, this is the only way in which one can depend on another.

But natural machines, that is, living bodies, are still machines in their least parts, to infinity.

And the author of nature has been able to practice this divine and infinitely marvellous art, because each portion of matter is not only divisible to infinity, as the ancients have recognized, but is also actually subdivided without end, each part divided into parts having some motion of their own;

This we see that each living body has a dominant entelechy, which in the animal is the soul; but the limbs of this living body are full of other living beings, plants, animals, each of which also has its entelechy, or its dominant soul.

That’s a small fraction of the complete essay but it’s clear from these extracts that Leibniz saw both the benefit and the drawback to Object-Oriented Programming, and that they were one and the same.

Objects are indivisible atoms, which cannot mess with each other’s insides nor have their own insides messed with. Rather, they have independent existences, unless one of them sends a message to another via the universal actor willing the two into some correlation.

Something appears to be an object in the first instance, because it is an indivisible thing with its own whole definition and purpose. It is actually both a composite, that can be subdivided into other objects with their own definitions and purposes; and it is a component that contributes toward a larger object that has its own definition and purpose.

Scale-variant analogies can get us out of the problem with the object-as-monad. One that has previously been well-explored is Brad Cox’s Software IC, which sees the object take up a position at only one level of abstraction:

  • Component => C instruction.
  • Integrated Circuit => Objective-C Object.
  • Circuit Board => Package or architectural layer.
  • Electronic System => Application.

One that I haven’t yet investigated is the cellular biology analogy introduced by Alan Kay (who also introduced the object-as-monad analogy). He talked about the object as a cell (particularly as a small component of a larger system that has a well-defined boundary across which limited communication occurs), but we can also think about the implications of larger scale order:

  • Cell => Object.
  • Organ => Object.
  • Organism => Object.
  • Society => Object.
  • Population => Object.
  • Biome => Object.

And, as Leibniz said, it’s objects all the way in the other direction: organelles are monads too.

Reversing the polarity of the message flow

On receiving a message with a parameter, sometimes an object just reverses the sense of what just happened and sends another message to the parameter object with itself as the parameter of this message. That’s a pretty hard sentence to read, but I couldn’t work out how to rewrite it, so here’s an example. A Smalltalk class might have a method like this:

Object>>#printOn:
printOn:aStream
  "Append to the argument, aStream, a sequence of characters
  that describes the receiver."
  |description|
  description := self description.
  aStream nextPutAll:description.

I would do this as a matter of design: I can make it clear that I’m messaging one object and using another simply in a supporting role. It takes this:

foo doTheThing.
aStream nextPutAll:foo description.

and turns it into this:

foo doTheThing;
    printOn:aStream.

In Objective-C, this pattern has an additional use due to the nil sink for messages. Imagine formatting a string and appending the result to another string, but if the initial string is nil then you don’t want to add anything. It might look like this:

if (emailText) {
  NSString *quotedString = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"> %@", emailText];
  [output appendString:quotedString];
}

because I don’t want the phrase > (null) to appear in the output. But, with a bit of category magic, we can avoid the condition and make it clear that the email text is the important object.

[[emailText quote] appendTo:output];

I haven’t just hidden the conditional; it never appears. If emailText is nil then all the other messages will just get dropped, so neither quote nor appendTo: need to test for nil.

Sometimes, the messages are just flowing the wrong way, and clarity can be gained by reversing the polarity.

[Update: oops! I had read Kent Beck’s “Smalltalk Best Practice Patterns”, and apparently absorbed his Reversing Method pattern. This post is basically a discussion of that pattern, and credit should go to Kent for originally creating it. My addition is the Objective-C specific nil sink extension. Sorry, Kent.]

The Humpty-Dumpty Guide to OOP

Everybody knows that the best way to sound intellectual and demonstrate the superiority of your approach to that thing you do is to wrap it in a fancy-schmancy noun term. This works particularly well with a term that can be expressed as a three-letter acronym, or TLA. In programming we have a whole raft of different [A-Z]DD disciplines, the UML, CRC, and your DBA probably does SQL. It also explains why functional programming has taken so many decades to take hold: FP is 33% less appealing as a mere acronym of two letters (or ATL).

When your term is sufficiently arcane or abstract, you don’t even need to actually do the three-letter nouny thing. Just tell people that what you’re doing is the three-letter nouny thing, and let everybody fill in the gaps. In fact, they’ll probably agree that not only are you doing that thing but then so are they. Soon, everybody will be doing the nouny thing.

So it goes with Object-Oriented Programming. We can construct all sorts of definitions for Object-Oriented Programming the term, so that everybody can get in on this highfalutin concept without having to do anything. The best time to arrange for this wide collection of meanings is as early as possible. Let’s look at August 1981.

1. It’s all about messages.

The Smalltalk-80 system represents the current state of the object-oriented point of view as it has been reduced to practice by the Xerox Learning Research Group. The Smalltalk-80 system is composed of objects that interact only by sending and receiving messages. The programmer implements a system by describing messages to be sent and describing what happens when messages are received.

(“The Smalltalk-80 System”, Dave Robson and Adele Goldberg, BYTE Volume 6 Number 8 p.36)

2. Except when it’s not.

SIMULA allows users to create object-oriented systems, but uses the standard data/ procedure-oriented ALGOL language to provide numbers, booleans, basic data structures, and control structures.

(op. cit.)

3. Or maybe it is.

Instead of two types of entity that represent information and its manipulation independently, an object-oriented system has a single type of entity, the object,
that represents both. Like pieces of data, objects can be manipulated. However, like procedures, objects describe manipulation as well. Information is manipulated by sending a message to the object representing the information.

(“Object-Oriented Software Systems”, Dave Robson, BYTE Volume 6 Number 8 p.78)

4. Actually, maybe it means whatever you want it to mean.

The words “object-oriented” mean different things to different people. Although the definition given in this article may exclude systems that should rightfully be called object-oriented, it is a useful abstraction of the idea behind many software systems.

(op. cit., p.74)

5. But it definitely means garbage collection.

To be truly “object-oriented”, a computer system must provide automatic storage management.

(“Design Principles Behind Smalltalk”, Dan Ingalls, BYTE Volume 6 Number 8 p.289)

6. And definitely (this time, maybe) means message-sending.

This suggests a third principle for object-oriented design:

Messages: Computing should be viewed as an intrinsic capability of objects that can be uniformly invoked by sending messages.

[…]In most computer systems, the compiler figures out what kind of number it is and generates code to add 5 to it. This is not good enough for an object-oriented system because the exact kind of number cannot be determined by the compiler[…]

(op. cit., p.290)

7. This message-sending capability must be exposed to the UI.

An enabling condition for adequate flexibility of a user interface can be stated as an object-oriented principle:

Reactive Principle: Every component accessible to the user should be able to present itself in a meaningful way for observation and manipulation.

(op. cit., p.296)

[note: reactive programming woo]

So, you know what? Whatever you’re doing, it’s probably object-oriented. And whenever I say object-oriented, it may possibly mean whatever your meaning is.

Contractually-obligated testing

About a billion years ago, Bertrand Meyer (he of Open-Closed Principle fame) introduced a programming language called Eiffel. It had a feature called Design by Contract, that let you define constraints that your program had to adhere to in execution. Like you can convince C compilers to emit checks for rules like integer underflow everywhere in your code, except you can write your own rules.

To see what that’s like, here’s a little Objective-C (I suppose I could use Eiffel, as Eiffel Studio is in homebrew, but I didn’t). Here’s my untested, un-contractual Objective-C Stack class.

@interface Stack : NSObject

- (void)push:(id)object;
- (id)pop;

@property (nonatomic, readonly) NSInteger count;

@end

static const int kMaximumStackSize = 4;

@implementation Stack
{
    __strong id buffer[4];
    NSInteger _count;
}

- (void)push:(id)object
{
    buffer[_count++] = object;
}

- (id)pop
{
    id object = buffer[--_count];
    buffer[_count] = nil;
    return object;
}

@end

Seems pretty legit. But I’ll write out the contract, the rules to which this class will adhere provided its users do too. Firstly, some invariants: the count will never go below 0 or above the maximum number of objects. Objective-C doesn’t actually have any syntax for this like Eiffel, so this looks just a little bit messy.

@interface Stack : ContractObject

- (void)push:(id)object;
- (id)pop;

@property (nonatomic, readonly) NSInteger count;

@end

static const int kMaximumStackSize = 4;

@implementation Stack
{
    __strong id buffer[4];
    NSInteger _count;
}

- (NSDictionary *)contract
{
    NSPredicate *countBoundaries = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat: @"count BETWEEN %@",
                                    @[@0, @(kMaximumStackSize)]];
    NSMutableDictionary *contract = [@{@"invariant" : countBoundaries} mutableCopy];
    [contract addEntriesFromDictionary:[super contract]];
    return contract;
}

- (void)in_push:(id)object
{
    buffer[_count++] = object;
}

- (id)in_pop
{
    id object = buffer[--_count];
    buffer[_count] = nil;
    return object;
}

@end

I said the count must never go outside of this range. In fact, the invariant must only hold before and after calls to public methods: it’s allowed to be broken during the execution. If you’re wondering how this interacts with threading: confine ALL the things!. Anyway, let’s see whether the contract is adhered to.

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
    @autoreleasepool {
        Stack *stack = [Stack new];
        for (int i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
            [stack push:@(i)];
            NSLog(@"stack size: %ld", (long)[stack count]);
        }
    }
}

2014-08-11 22:41:48.074 ContractStack[2295:507] stack size: 1
2014-08-11 22:41:48.076 ContractStack[2295:507] stack size: 2
2014-08-11 22:41:48.076 ContractStack[2295:507] stack size: 3
2014-08-11 22:41:48.076 ContractStack[2295:507] stack size: 4
2014-08-11 22:41:48.076 ContractStack[2295:507] *** Assertion failure in -[Stack forwardInvocation:], ContractStack.m:40
2014-08-11 22:41:48.077 ContractStack[2295:507] *** Terminating app due to uncaught exception 'NSInternalInconsistencyException',
 reason: 'invariant count BETWEEN {0, 4} violated after call to push:'

Erm, oops. OK, this looks pretty useful. I’ll add another clause: the caller isn’t allowed to call -pop unless there are objects on the stack.

- (NSDictionary *)contract
{
    NSPredicate *countBoundaries = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat: @"count BETWEEN %@",
                                    @[@0, @(kMaximumStackSize)]];
    NSPredicate *containsObjects = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat: @"count > 0"];
    NSMutableDictionary *contract = [@{@"invariant" : countBoundaries,
             @"pre_pop" : containsObjects} mutableCopy];
    [contract addEntriesFromDictionary:[super contract]];
    return contract;
}

So I’m not allowed to hold it wrong in this way, either?

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
    @autoreleasepool {
        Stack *stack = [Stack new];
        id foo = [stack pop];
    }
}

2014-08-11 22:46:12.473 ContractStack[2386:507] *** Assertion failure in -[Stack forwardInvocation:], ContractStack.m:35
2014-08-11 22:46:12.475 ContractStack[2386:507] *** Terminating app due to uncaught exception 'NSInternalInconsistencyException',
 reason: 'precondition count > 0 violated before call to pop'

No, good. Having a contract is a bit like having unit tests, except that the unit tests are always running whenever your object is being used. Try out Eiffel; it’s pleasant to have real syntax for this, though really the Objective-C version isn’t so bad.

Finally, the contract is implemented by some simple message interception (try doing that in your favourite modern programming language of choice, non-Rubyists!).

@interface ContractObject : NSObject
- (NSDictionary *)contract;
@end

static SEL internalSelector(SEL aSelector);

@implementation ContractObject

- (NSDictionary *)contract { return @{}; }

- (NSMethodSignature *)methodSignatureForSelector:(SEL)aSelector
{
    NSMethodSignature *sig = [super methodSignatureForSelector:aSelector];
    if (!sig) {
        sig = [super methodSignatureForSelector:internalSelector(aSelector)];
    }
    return sig;
}

- (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)inv
{
    SEL realSelector = internalSelector([inv selector]);
    if ([self respondsToSelector:realSelector]) {
        NSDictionary *contract = [self contract];
        NSPredicate *alwaysTrue = [NSPredicate predicateWithValue:YES];
        NSString *calledSelectorName = NSStringFromSelector([inv selector]);
        inv.selector = realSelector;
        NSPredicate *invariant = contract[@"invariant"]?:alwaysTrue;
        NSAssert([invariant evaluateWithObject:self],
            @"invariant %@ violated before call to %@", invariant, calledSelectorName);
        NSString *preconditionKey = [@"pre_" stringByAppendingString:calledSelectorName];
        NSPredicate *precondition = contract[preconditionKey]?:alwaysTrue;
        NSAssert([precondition evaluateWithObject:self],
            @"precondition %@ violated before call to %@", precondition, calledSelectorName);
        [inv invoke];
        NSString *postconditionKey = [@"post_" stringByAppendingString:calledSelectorName];
        NSPredicate *postcondition = contract[postconditionKey]?:alwaysTrue;
        NSAssert([postcondition evaluateWithObject:self],
            @"postcondition %@ violated after call to %@", postcondition, calledSelectorName);
        NSAssert([invariant evaluateWithObject:self],
            @"invariant %@ violated after call to %@", invariant, calledSelectorName);
    }
}

@end

SEL internalSelector(SEL aSelector)
{
    return NSSelectorFromString([@"in_" stringByAppendingString:NSStringFromSelector(aSelector)]);
}

I use mocks and I’m happy with that

Both Kent Beck and Martin Fowler have said that they don’t use mock objects in their test-driven development. I do. I use them mostly for the sense described first in my BNR blog post on Mock Objects, namely to stand in for a thing that can receive messages I want to send, but that does not yet exist.

If you look at the code in Test-Driven iOS Development, you’ll find that it uses plenty of test doubles but none of them is a mock object. What has changed in my worldview to move from not-mocking to mocking in that time?

The key information that gave me the insight was this message, pardon the pun! from Alan Kay on object-oriented programming:

The big idea is “messaging” – that is what the kernal[sic] of Smalltalk/Squeak
is all about (and it’s something that was never quite completed in our
Xerox PARC phase). The Japanese have a small word – ma – for “that which
is in between” – perhaps the nearest English equivalent is “interstitial”.
The key in making great and growable systems is much more to design how its
modules communicate rather than what their internal properties and
behaviors should be.

What I’m really trying to do is to define the network of objects connected by message sending, but the tool I have makes me think about objects and what they’re doing. To me, mock objects are the ability to subvert the tool, and force it to let me focus on the ma.

On too much and too little

In the following text, remember that words like me or I are to be construed in the broadest possible terms.

It’s easy to be comfortable with my current level of knowledge. Or perhaps it’s not the value, but the derivative of the value: the amount of investment I’m putting into learning a thing. Anyway, it’s easy to tell stories about why the way I’m doing it is the right, or at least a good, way to do it.

Take, for example, object-oriented design. We have words to describe insufficient object-oriented design. Spaghetti Code, or a Big Ball of Mud. Obviously these are things that I never succumb to, but other people do. So clearly (actually, not clearly at all, but that’s beside the point) there is some threshold level of design or analysis practice that represents an acceptable minimum. Whatever that value is, it’s less than the amount that I do.

Interestingly there are also words to describe the over-application of object-oriented design. Architecture Astronauts, for example, are clearly people who do too much architecture (in the same way that NASA astronauts got carried away with flying and overdid it, I suppose). It’s so cold up in space that you’ll catch a fever, resulting in Death by UML Fever. Clearly I am only ever responsible for tropospheric architecture, thus we conclude that there is some acceptable maximum threshold for analysis and design too.

The really convenient thing is that my current work lies between these two limits. In fact, I’m comfortable in saying that it always has.

But wait. I also know that I’m supposed to hate the code that I wrote six months ago, probably because I wasn’t doing enough of whatever it is that I’m doing enough of now. But I don’t remember thinking six months ago that I was below the threshold for doing acceptable amounts of the stuff that I’m supposed to be doing. Could it be, perhaps, that the goalposts have conveniently moved in that time?

Of course they have. What’s acceptable to me now may not be in the future, either because I’ve learned to do more of it or because I’ve learned that I was overdoing it. The trick is not so much in recognising that, but in recognising that others who are doing more or less than me are not wrong, they could in fact be me at a different point on my timeline but with the benefit that they exist now so I can share my experiences with them and work things out together. Or they could be someone with a completely different set of experiences, which is even more exciting as I’ll have more stories to swap.

When it comes to techniques and devices for writing software, I tend to prefer overdoing things and then finding out which bits I don’t really need after all, rather than under-application. That’s obviously a much larger cognitive and conceptual burden, but it stems from the fact that I don’t think we really have any clear ideas on what works and what doesn’t. Not much in making software is ever shown to be wrong, but plenty of it is shown to be out of fashion.

Let me conclude by telling my own story of object-oriented design. It took me ages to learn object-oriented thinking. I learned the technology alright, and could make tools that used the Objective-C language and Foundation and AppKit, but didn’t really work out how to split my stuff up into objects. Not just for a while, but for years. A little while after that Death by UML Fever article was written, my employer sent me to Sun to attend their Object-Oriented Analysis and Design Using UML course.

That course in itself was a huge turning point. But just as beneficial was the few months afterward in which I would architecturamalise all the things, and my then-manager wisely left me to it. The office furniture was all covered with whiteboard material, and there soon wasn’t a bookshelf or cupboard in my area of the office that wasn’t covered with sequence diagrams, package diagrams, class diagrams, or whatever other diagrams. I probably would’ve covered the external walls, too, if it wasn’t for Enterprise Architect. You probably have opinions(TM) of both of the words in that product’s name. In fact I also used OmniGraffle, and dia (my laptop at the time was an iBook G4 running some flavour of Linux).

That period of UMLphoria gave me the first few hundred hours of deliberate practice. It let me see things that had been useful, and that had either helped me understand the problem or communicate about it with my peers. It also let me see the things that hadn’t been useful, that I’d constructed but then had no further purpose for. It let me not only dial back, but work out which things to dial back on.

I can’t imagine being able to replace that experience with reading web articles and Stack Overflow questions. Sure, there are plenty of opinions on things like OOA/D and UML on the web. Some of those opinions are even by people who have tried it. But going through that volume of material and sifting the experience-led advice from the iconoclasm or marketing fluff, deciding which viewpoints were relevant to my position: that’s all really hard. Harder, perhaps, than diving in and working slowly for a few months while I over-practice a skill.

Inside-Out Apps

This article is based on a talk I gave at mdevcon 2014. The talk also included a specific example to demonstrate the approach, but was otherwise a presentation of the following argument.

You probably read this blog because you write apps. Which is kind of cool, because I have been known to use apps. I’d be interested to hear what yours is about.

Not so fast! Let me make this clear first: I only buy page-based apps, they must use Core Data, and I automatically give one star to any app that uses storyboards.

OK, that didn’t sound like it made any sense. Nobody actually chooses which apps to buy based on what technologies or frameworks are used, they choose which apps to buy based on what problems those apps solve. On the experience they derive from using the software.

When we build our apps, the problem we’re solving and the experience we’re providing needs to be at the uppermost of our thoughts. You’re probably already used to doing this in designing an application: Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines describe the creation of an App Definition Statement to guide thinking about what goes into an app and how people will use it:

An app definition statement is a concise, concrete declaration of an app’s main purpose and its intended audience.

Create an app definition statement early in your development effort to help you turn an idea and a list of features into a coherent product that people want to own. Throughout development, use the definition statement to decide if potential features and behaviors make sense.

My suggestion is that you should use this idea to guide your app’s architecture and your class design too. Start from the problem, then work through solving that problem to building your application. I have two reasons: the first will help you, and the second will help me to help you.

The first reason is to promote a decoupling between the problem you’re trying to solve, the design you present for interacting with that solution, and the technologies you choose to implement the solution and its design. Your problem is not “I need a Master-Detail application”, which means that your solution may not be that. In fact, your problem is not that, and it may not make sense to present it that way. Or if it does now, it might not next week.

You see, designers are fickle beasts, and for all their feel-good bloviation about psychology and user experience, most are actually just operating on a combination of trend and whimsy. Last week’s refresh button is this week’s pull gesture is next week’s interaction-free event. Yesterday’s tab bar is today’s hamburger menu is tomorrow’s swipe-in drawer. Last decade’s mouse is this decade’s finger is next decade’s eye motion. Unless your problem is Corinthian leather, that’ll be gone soon. Whatever you’re doing for iOS 7 will change for iOS 8.

So it’s best to decouple your solution from your design, and the easiest way to do that is to solve the problem first and then design a presentation for it. Think about it. If you try to design a train timetable, then you’ll end up with a timetable that happens to contain train details. If you try to solve the problem “how do I know at what time to be on which platform to catch the train to London?”, then you might end up with a timetable, but you might not. And however the design of the solution changes, the problem itself will not: just as the problem of knowing where to catch a train has not changed in over a century.

The same problem that affects design-driven development also affects technology-driven development. This month you want to use Core Data. Then next month, you wish you hadn’t. The following month, you kind of want to again, then later you realise you needed a document database after all and go down that route. Solve the problem without depending on particular libraries, then changing libraries is no big deal, and neither is changing how you deal with those libraries.

It’s starting with the technology that leads to Massive View Controller. If you start by knowing that you need to glue some data to some view via a View Controller, then that’s what you end up with.

This problem is exacerbated, I believe, by a religious adherence to Model-View-Controller. My job here is not to destroy MVC, I am neither an iconoclast nor a sacrificer of sacred cattle. But when you get overly attached to MVC, then you look at every class you create and ask the question “is this a model, a view, or a controller?”. Because this question makes no sense, the answer doesn’t either: anything that isn’t evidently data or evidently graphics gets put into the amorphous “controller” collection, which eventually sucks your entire codebase into its innards like a black hole collapsing under its own weight.

Let’s stick with this “everything is MVC” difficulty for another paragraph, and possibly a bulleted list thereafter. Here are some helpful answers to the “which layer does this go in” questions:

  • does my Core Data stack belong in the model, the view, or the controller? No. Core Data is a persistence service, which your app can call on to save or retrieve data. Often the data will come from the model, but saving and retrieving that data is not itself part of your model.
  • does my networking code belong in the model, the view, or the controller? No. Networking is a communications service, which your app can call on to send or retrieve data. Often the data will come from the model, but sending and retrieving that data is not itself part of your model.
  • is Core Graphics part of the model, the view, or the controller? No. Core Graphics is a display primitive that helps objects represent themselves on the display. Often those objects will be views, but the means by which they represent themselves are part of an external service.

So building an app in a solution-first approach can help focus on what the app does, removing any unfortunate coupling between that and what the app looks like or what the app uses. That’s the bit that helps you. Now, about the other reason for doing this, the reason that makes it easier for me to help you.

When I come to look at your code, and this happens fairly often, I need to work out quickly what it does and what it should do, so that I can work out why there’s a difference between those two things and what I need to do about it. If your app is organised in such a way that I can see how each class contributes to the problem being solved, then I can readily tell where I go for everything I need. If, on the other hand, your project looks like this:

MVC organisation

Then the only thing I can tell is that your app is entirely interchangeable with every other app that claims to be nothing more than MVC. This includes every Rails app, ever. Here’s the thing. I know what MVC is, and how it works. I know what UIKit is, and why Apple thinks everything is a view controller. I get those things, your app doesn’t need to tell me those things again. It needs to reflect not the similarities, which I’ve seen every time I’ve launched Project Builder since around 2000, but the differences, which are the things that make your app special.

OK, so that’s the theory. We should start from the problem, and move to the solution, then adapt the solution onto the presentation and other technology we need to use to get a product we can sell this week. When the technologies and the presentations change, we can adapt onto those new things, to get the product we can sell next week, without having to worry about whether we broke solving the problem. But what’s the practice? How do we do that?

Start with the model.

Remember that, in Apple’s words:

model objects represent knowledge and expertise related to a specific problem domain

so solving the problem first means modelling the problem first. Now you can do this without regard to any particular libraries or technology, although it helps to pick a programming language so that you can actually write something down. In fact, you can start here:

Command line tool

A Foundation command-line tool has everything you need to solve your problem (in fact it contains a few more things than that, to make up for erstwhile deficiencies in the link editor, but we’ll ignore those things). It lets you make objects, and it lets you use all those boring things that were solved by computer scientists back in the 1760s like strings, collections and memory allocation.

So with a combination of the subset of Objective-C, the bits of Foundation that should really be in Foundation, and unit tests to drive the design of the solution, we can solve whatever problem it is that the app needs to solve. There’s just one difficulty, and that is that the problem is only solved for people who know how to send messages to objects. Now we can worry about those fast-moving targets of presentation and technology choice, knowing that the core of our app is a stable, well-tested collection of objects that solve our customers’ problem. We expose aspects of the solution by adapting them onto our choice of user interface, and similarly any other technology dependencies we need to introduce are held at arm’s length. We test that we integrate with them correctly, but not that using them ends up solving the problem.

If something must go, then we drop it, without worrying whether we’ve broken our ability to solve the problem. The libraries and frameworks are just services that we can switch between as we see fit. They help us solve our problem, which is to help everyone else to solve their problem.

And yes, when you come to build the user interface, then model-view-controller will be important. But only in adapting the solution onto the user interface, not as a strategy for stuffing an infinite number of coats onto three coat hooks.

References

None of the above is new, it’s just how Object-Oriented Programming is supposed to work. In the first part of my MVC series, I investigated Thing-Model-View-Editor and the progress from the “Thing” (a problem in the real world that must be solved) to a “Model” (a representation of that problem and its solution in the computer). That article relied on sources from Trygve Reenskaug, who described (in 1979) the process by which he moved from a Thing to a Model and then to a user interface.

In his 1992 book Object-Oriented Software Engineering: A Use-Case Driven Approach, Ivar Jacobson describes a formalised version of the same motion, based on documented use cases. Some teams replaced use cases with user stories, which look a lot like Reenskaug’s user goals:

An example: To get better control over my finances, I would need to set up a budget; to keep account
of all income and expenditure; and to keep a running comparison between budget and accounts.

Alastair Cockburn described the Ports and Adapters Architecture (earlier known as the hexagonal architecture) in which the application’s use cases (i.e. the ways in which it solves problems) are at the core, and everything else is kept at a distance through adapters which can easily be replaced.