Ruby User's Guide

Object-oriented thinking

Object oriented is a catchy phrase. To call anything object oriented can make you sound pretty smart. Ruby claims to be an object oriented scripting language; but what exactly does "object oriented" mean?

There have been a variety of answers to that question, all of which probably boil down to about the same thing. Rather than sum it too quickly, let's think for a moment about the traditional programming paradigm.

Traditionally, a programming problem is attacked by coming up with some kinds of data representations, and procedures that operate on that data. Under this model, data is inert, passive, and helpless; it sits at the complete mercy of a large procedural body, which is active, logical, and all-powerful.

The problem with this approach is that programs are written by programmers, who are only human and can only keep so much detail clear in their heads at any one time. As a project gets larger, its procedural core grows to the point where it is difficult to remember how the whole thing works. Minor lapses of thinking and typographical errors become more likely to result in well-concealed bugs. Complex and unintended interactions begin to emerge within the procedural core, and maintaining it becomes like trying to carry around an angry squid without letting any tentacles touch your face. There are guidelines for programming that can help to minimize and localize bugs within this traditional paradigm, but there is a better solution that involves fundamentally changing the way we work.

What object-oriented programming does is to let us delegate most of the mundane and repetitive logical work to the data itself; it changes our concept of data from passive to active. Put another way,

What is described above as a "machine" may be very simple or complex on the inside; we can't tell from the outside, and we don't allow ourselves to open the machine up (except when we are absolutely sure something is wrong with its design), so we are required to do things like flip the switches and read the dials to interact with the data. Once the machine is built, we don't want to have to think about how it operates.

You might think we are just making more work for ourselves, but this approach tends to do a nice job of preventing all kinds of things from going wrong.

Let's start with a example that is too simple to be of practical value, but should illustrate at least part of the concept. Your car has a tripmeter. Its job is to keep track of the distance the car has travelled since the last time its reset button was pushed. How would we model this in a programming language? In C, the tripmeter would just be a numeric variable, possibly of type float. The program would manipulate that variable by increasing its value in small increments, with occasional resets to zero when appropriate. What's wrong with that? A bug in the program could assign a bogus value to the variable, for any number of unexpected reasons. Anyone who has programmed in C knows what it is like to spend hours or days tracking down such a bug whose cause seems absurdly simple once it has been found. (The moment of finding the bug is commonly indicated by the sound of a loud slap to the forehead.)

The same problem would be attacked from a much different angle in an object-oriented context. The first thing a programmer asks when designing the tripmeter is not "which of the familiar data types comes closest to resembling this thing?" but "how exactly is this thing supposed to act?" The difference winds up being a profound one. It is necessary to spend a little bit of time deciding exactly what an odometer is for, and how the outside world expects to interact with it. We decide to build a little machine with controls that allow us to increment it, reset it, read its value, and nothing else.

We don't provide a way for a tripmeter to be assigned arbitrary values; why? because we all know tripmeters don't work that way. There are only a few things you should be able to do with a tripmeter, and those are all we allow. Thus, if something else in the program mistakenly tries to place some other value (say, the target temperature of the vehicle's climate control) into the tripmeter, there is an immediate indication of what went wrong. We are told when running the program (or possibly while compiling, depending on the nature of the language) that we are not allowed to assign arbitrary values to Tripmeter objects. The message might not be exactly that clear, but it will be reasonably close to that. It doesn't prevent the error, does it? But it quickly points us in the direction of the cause. This is only one of several ways in which OO programming can save a lot of wasted time.

We commonly take one step of abstraction above this, because it turns out to be as easy to build a factory that makes machines as it is to make an individual machine. We aren't likely to build a single tripmeter directly; rather, we arrange for any number of tripmeters to be built from a single pattern. The pattern (or if you like, the tripmeter factory) corresponds to what we call a class, and an individual tripmeter generated from the pattern (or made by the factory) corresponds to an object. Most OO languages require a class to be defined before we can have a new kind of object, but ruby does not.

It's worth noting here that the use of an OO language will not enforce proper OO design. Indeed it is possible in any language to write code that is unclear, sloppy, ill-conceived, buggy, and wobbly all over. What ruby does for you (as opposed, especially, to C++) is to make the practice of OO programming feel natural enough that even when you are working on a small scale you don't feel a necessity to resort to ugly code to save effort. We will be discussing the ways in which ruby accomplishes that admirable goal as this guide progresses; the next topic will be the "switches and dials" (object methods) and from there we'll move on to the "factories" (classes). Are you still with us?

Copyright (c) 2005 Mark Slagell

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