Monday, April 4, 2011


Reviewing papers for an upcoming conference reminded me how difficult it is to communicate when technical terms lose their meaning. "Object-oriented" is frequently thrown around without so much as a wink or a nod—much less a citation to indicate what someone actually means.

In CS222: Advanced Programming, I have my students read a segment from the first chapter of Holub on Patterns: Learning Design Patterns by Looking at Code. This is one of my favorite books on design patterns and on design in general. Holub adopts a pedagogically sound perspective: rather than present the patterns in isolation as in the Gang of Four book (a manner in which they never occur "in the wild"), he demonstrates the patterns as collaborating parts of a system design. Additionally, the first two chapters of the book provide an excellent introduction to the field of patterns and object-oriented design. On pages 13-14, Holub provides a set of heuristics that can be used to determine if a system is, in fact, object-oriented at all. Directly quoting:

  • Objects are defined by "contract." They don't violate their contracts.
  • All data is private. Period. (This rule applies to all implementation details, not just the data.)
  • It must be possible to make any change to the way an object is implemented, no matter how significant that change, by modifying the single class that defines that object.
  • "Get" and "set" functions are evil when used blindly (when they're just elaborate ways to make the data public).
Note that he does not say that these are sufficient for good object-oriented design, but rather that a design that does not satisfy all of these is not an object-oriented design. Holub asserts very clearly that this is not a value judgement: OO is not better than procedural. His point is that when he says "object-oriented," he wants to make it very clear what he is talking about. By his definition, almost all ostensibly object-oriented systems that I have seen are actually hybrid designs.

I find Holub's zeal appealing because he leaves no room for guesswork. You can agree with him or disagree with him, but there is no ambiguity in his statement, and it is sufficient foundation for him to build the remainder of the book. Let's not forget the lesson of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

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