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.

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. 

How retrospectives ban shoes

At the end of each sprint, we hold a retrospective. The book “Agile Coaching” by Rachel Davies and Liz Sedley says:

An iteration retrospective should help the team explore the following:

  • What insights do they have from the last iteration?
  • What areas do they want to focus on improving?
  • What ideas can they act on in the next iteration?

Take this too literally, and you end up adding the thing next time that stops you getting wrong the mistake from this time. “That time, the explosive was hidden in a shoe, so let’s add shoes to the list of banned items.”

What if it was just a mistake? Do you need to change the way you do everything to fix a problem you encountered once?

Retrospectives need to take a longer-term view. How are we doing, and how specifically did that change this sprint? Do we need to change how we do all of our tasks because it didn’t work for that one task? How many hundreds of tasks has our process worked for?

I discussed this with Steven Baker who described a team where the retrospective facilitator kept a risk register across multiple sprints. Yes, this thing happened and it was bad, but how bad? How often has it happened before? How likely is it to happen again? How bad would it be if it does?

No True Humpty-Dumpty

Words change meaning.

Technical words change meaning.

Sometimes, you need to check out a specific commit of a word’s meaning from the version control, to add context to a statement.

“I’m talking about Open Source in its early meaning of Free Software without the confusion over Free, not its later meaning as an ethically empty publication of source code.”

“I mean Object-Oriented Programming as the loosely-defined bucket in which I can put all the ills of software that I’m claiming are solved by Haskell, not the earlier sense of modelling business processes in software with loosely-coupled active programs communicating by sending messages.”

“The word Agile here refers to the later sense of Agile where I run a waterfall with frequent checkpoints and get a certification from a project management institute.”

The problem is that doing so acts as a thought-terminating cliche to people who are not open to hearing a potentially valuable statement about Open Source, Object-Oriented Programming, or Agile development.

If your commit is too early in history, then you can easily be dismissed as etymologically fallacious, or as somebody who won’t accept progress and the glorious devaluation of the word you’re trying to use.

If your commit is too recent in history, then you can easily be dismissed as a Humpty-Dumptyist who’s trying to hide behind a highfalutin term that you have no right to use.

What I’ve come to realise is that my technique for dealing with people who use these rhetorical devices can be as simple as this: ignore them. If they do not want to hear, then I do not need to speak.

It’s about the thinking

At some point in the past, programmers used to recommend drawing flowcharts before you start coding. Then they recommended creating CRC cards, or acting through how the turtle will behave, or writing failing tests, or getting the types to match up, or designing contracts, or writing proofs, but the point is that in each case they’re there for eliciting thought before the code gets laid down.

None of these things is mutually exclusive, none of these things is the one true way, but the fact that they all isolate some part of solving the problem from some part of coding the solution is the telling point. The problem is not having the correct type system or test coverage or diagram format, the problem is trying to work in two (or more) levels of abstraction – the problem domain and the computer – at the same time.

There is no browser, only Zuul

My short-lived first plan for a career was in Physics. That’s what my first degree was in, but I graduated with the career goal “do something that isn’t a D.Phil. in Physics” in mind. I’d got on quite well with computers as a hobbyist, and the computing and electronics practicals in my course labs. A job as systems administrator for those very systems (a hotchpotch of NeXTSTEP, Solaris, OpenBSD, and Mac OS X) came up at the time that I graduated so I applied, got it, and became a computerer.

Along the way, I met people who thought that some people should not be computerers because their backgrounds were not exactly identical. The Google manager who could not believe that as an applicant for the lowest-grade QA role, I had not encountered the travelling salesman problem. The software engineer at Facebook who was incensed that someone applying to build a web application in PHP and Javascript did not know that there are eight bits in a byte (never mind that there aren’t, necessarily, eight bits in a byte). And now the random on Twitter who insists that people who don’t fully know browsers aren’t allowed to write web applications.

It’s easy to forget two things: the first is that at some point in the past, you didn’t know what you know now, but you learnt it because you were allowed to participate and were taught. Even if you think you were a self-learner, you had access to playground materials, books, tutorials, online documentation…and someone made those for you and allowed you to use them.

The second is what it was like not to know those things. I remember not understanding how OOP was anything more than putting dots in the name of your function, but now I understand it differently, and don’t know what the thing was that changed.

The second of these things shows how easy it is to be the gatekeeper. If you don’t remember what not understanding something was like, then maybe it came naturally, and if it isn’t coming naturally to someone else well maybe they just don’t get it. But the first shows that you didn’t get it, and yet here you are.

When faced with a gatekeeper, I usually react flippantly. Because of my Physics background, I explain, I know how quantum physics works, and how that enables semiconductors, and how to build a semiconductor transistor, then a NAND gate, then a processor, and basically what I’m saying is I don’t see how anyone who doesn’t know that stuff can claim to know computers at all.

But what I say to everyone else is “this stuff is really interesting, let me show it to you“.

Be the keymaster, not the gatekeeper.

To become a beginner, first become an expert

We have a whole load of practices in programming that only really work well if you’re already good at whatever the process is supposed to help with.

Scrum is a process improvement framework, but only if you already know how to do process improvement. If you don’t, then Scrum is just the baseline mini-waterfall process with a chance to air your dirty laundry every fortnight.

Agile is good at helping you embrace change, but only if you’re already good enough at managing change to understand which changes should be embraced.

#NoEstimates helps you avoid the overhead of estimates, but only if you’re already good enough at estimates to know that you always write user stories that take 0.5-2 days to implement.

TDD helps you design your APIs, but only if you’re already good enough at API design to understand things like dependency injection and loose coupling.

Microservices help you isolate modules, but only if you’re already good enough at modularity not to get swamped in HTTP calls.

This is all very well for selling consultancy (“if your [agile] isn’t working, then you aren’t [agiling] hard enough, let me [agile] you some more”) but where’s the on-ramp?

machoo – Object-Oriented Programming in Object-Oriented Programming in the GNU HURD

For the last few weeks, my when-I-get-to-it project has been machoo, which is sort of an object-oriented system on the HURD but mostly an excuse to learn about how Mach messaging works.

I decided to build a Smalltalk-style “give me any old selector, and I’ll do something with it” messaging system on Mach, which is already a messaging system. I don’t yet know whether this is a good idea, but I like the design principle of highly loosely-coupled objects telling each other the names of the things to do.

The substrate for this system is MIG, the Mach Interface Generator. It takes descriptions of routines in an IDL that include the names of the supported routines and the argument names, types and return types. It’d certainly be possible to build each message I want to be able to send as a MIG routine, but then the client would have to import interfaces for every type it wanted to use: no bad thing, and many OO systems work that way, but not what I want.

MIG generates a ‘demuxer’ function that examines a message sent to a port, and dispatches it to a handler to the named routine. As an aside, it is highly likely that I’ve got one to many layers of indirection; that if I wrote my own function to take the place of the demuxer I could handle dispatch there without receiving arguments from a dispatcher to do more dispatch. OK, I could, but I don’t currently know how.

So what I ended up with is a two-level system, something like Smalltalk or ObjC. A “class” is a HURD translator registered on the filesystem, you send the zero-arguments message machoo_create_object to the class and get a send right to the new object. This is two-level in that if you need to initialise the object, you would then send an init message to the created object. Objects are messaged using the machoo_msg_send routine, which takes a string selector like Smalltalk.

There’s currently exactly one implementation of a class, a do-nothing null object class. It does the thing that I would extract out into a pattern for other classes: its response to a machoo_create_object message is to spawn a new thread to back the new object. So it’s like an Erlang-style system where each object has its own execution context, except that task switching is handled by the kernel rather than some virtual machine. All of the objects of a class are in a single task, and they are each on their own thread.

I still need to solve some problems, like how to return a reference to ‘this object’ from a message. I need to build more than one class of object, and extract out the common parts of class-ness so that a new class is only defined by its response to messages. So far this is proving to be an interesting and educational project.

Discovery

I think the last technical conference I attended was FOSDEM last year, and now I’m sat in the lobby of the Royal Library of Brussels working on a project that I want to take to some folks at this year’s FOSDEM, and checking the mailing lists of some projects I’m interested in to find meetups and relevant talks.

It’s been even longer since I spoke at a conference, I believe it would have been App Builders in 2016. When I left Facebook in 2015 with the view of taking a year out of software, I also ended up taking myself out of community membership and interaction. I felt like I didn’t know who I was, and wasn’t about to find out by continually defining myself in terms of other people.

I would have spoken at dotSwift in 2016, but personal life issues probably also related to not knowing who I was stopped me from doing that. In April, I went to Zurich and gave what would be my last talk as a programmer to anyone except immediate colleagues for over 18 months.

In the meantime, I explored bits of the software world outside of my immediate experience. I worked on a Qt app in high-performance computing, and I’m working on “full-stack” Javascript now.

[Full-stack Javascript is, of course, a lie, but I’d rather it keeps its current meaning as “the application bit of the stack in Javascript” than took a more correct sense.]

During this time, I found that I don’t mind so much what I’m working on: I have positive and negative opinions of all of it. I have lots of strong opinions, and lots of syntheses of other ideas, and need to be a member of a community that can share and critique these opinions, and extend and develop these syntheses.

Which is why, after a bit of social wilderness, I’m reflecting on this week’s first conference and planning my approach to the second.

An update on the HURD project

Last time, on Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers, I was building an object-oriented programming system on top of the HURD, and had realised that I needed to use its trivfs library for a sender to be able to discover an object to send messages to.

I got it working very quickly, but ended up shaving a yak due to my poor understanding of the HURD translator lifecycle which meant that I didn’t think I had got it working.

My goal was to build a translator that works like the Objective-C nil object: it accepts any message and responds by returning itself. Given that I’m building on the Mach ports abstraction, “itself” is defined as a port over which you can send messages to the same object.

If I returned an integer from the message, everything worked on both sides. However, just because a port name is an integer doesn’t mean that sending it as an int will work, just as opening a file in one process then sending the file descriptor as a number to another process wouldn’t let the receiving process access the file. I tried sending it as a mach_port_t, but got a lifecycle error: the client was told that the server had died.

On doing some reading, I discovered that the port had to be sent as a mach_port_send_t for send rights to be transferred to the client. Making that change, the message now fails with a type error.

An aside, here, on getting help with this problem. There is good documentation: the HURD source is easy to read and with helpful comments, they have good documentation including examples, the OSF documentation is very helpful, there are books from “back in the day” and videos with useful insights.

On the other hand, “help” is hard to come by. I eventually answered my own stack overflow question on the topic, having not received a reply on there, the HURD mailing list or their IRC channel. The videos described above come from FOSDEM and I’m heading out there next week, I’ll try to make some contacts in person and join their community that way.

OK, so back to the main issue, I now have a fix for my problem. Well, sort of, because now that I’m correctly sending a port with a send right I’m back to getting the lifecycle error.

My current plan is not to “fix” that, but to take it as a hint that I’m doing it wrong, and to design my system differently. Using the filesystem as a namespace to look up objects is good, but using the thing I receive as the object to message is a separate responsibility. I’m changing my approach so that the filesystem contains constructors, and they return not their own port but a port to something else that represents the instance they created.