Thinking in terms of objects

An introduction to software design in terms of objects

 28 April 2018
  teaching

Writing software isn’t much different than describing a world. The world, where we live in, is a world, not the only one. With software, we could, theoretically speaking, describe our own world. If we don’t think about software, how would we describe that or another world? How would I build a fantasy world in a novel where my readers can relate to the world and be engaged?

By describing with our language. If there descriptions are a priori or a posteriori doesn’t really matter.

Using language to describe a world

I can claim the following

“Two plus three is five”

No senses are involved in this claim, and this is a tautology. (A = A, 2 + 3 = 5, the left-hand side of the equation is the right-hand side and the other way around.) This claim is a bit more difficult to put in terms of objects, because when we try to decronstruct the sentence, we can extract the following elements:

THe “operation” is something we can do with the “numbers”. I put operation between quotes because it denotes a property on the second word between quotes, “numbers”. Thus we can deduct the following object with properties:

Number {
    plus(Number other);
}

As we know, in any (modern) programming language, the concept of numbers is almost always defined for us. “Things” involving mathematics - or any a priori claim - are usually provided. In Ruby, numbers are first-class citizens meaning they are also objects - as they should be.

As a second example, I could also claim:

“A tree has a green leaf”

This clearly is a posteriori claim: to be able to verify its truthfulness, you’d have to see with your own eyes that the leaf is in fact green. A posteriori claims are much easier to convert into objects as we have implicitly learned our own language empirically.

So:

As soon as we encounter has a in a sentence, we know it means the left-hand side of the “has a” is the one receiving the property, and the right-hand side is the property we’re talking about.

”(A tree) HAS A (green leaf)”

Gives us:

Tree {
    green leaf
}

But what’s a green leaf?

Tree {
    Leaf {
        green
    }
}

“A tree has a green leaf” means “a tree has a leaf, and that leaf is green”. But what does “green” mean?

”(A tree) HAS A (leaf). (That leaf) HAS A (color), (That color) IS (green)”

So we’re missing a few properties that are hidden within the structure of our language!

Tree {
    Leaf {
        Color: green
    }
}

The schematic is confusing when we’re talking about “a tree has a green leaf” and “a Shrubbery has a brown leaf”. In that case we’d also need to define:

Shrubbery {
    Leaf {
        Color: brown
    }
}

, And those “Leaf” objects are one and the same: they describe a leaf that can have the property color. Of course, the leaves of the tree are not the same as the leaves on the shrubbery, but they both can be classified as “Leaf”. in context of shrubberies and trees, it’s obvious that we’re talking about leaves as organic material with a color that can wither.

Tree {
    leaf(green)
}

Shrubbery {
    leaf(brown)
}

Leaf {
    color
}

In fact, in my first claim, I can deduct the following: “numbers can be added up with each other” simplified to “numbers can be plussed with each other” and thus “(a Number) HAS A (plus another number)”.

Notice that, in a formal language such as a programming language, objects aren’t handled exactly the same as our syntactically correct speaking language:

Those implicit extra properties that we need, “color” and “character”, can be valid objects on their own.

Color {
    Redvalue
    Greenvalue
    Bluevalue
    Aphavalue
}

Character {
    Wellbeingness
    Laborwillingness
}

The pure color “green” could then be defined as Color(red: 0, green: max, blue: 0, alpha: max). There character “lazy” could then be defined as Character(Wellbeingness: ?, Laborwillingness: low). Notice the first property of the object “character”: it’s undefined. It’s there, but we don’t care if we’re talking about a lazy character. We do care about the red, blue and alpha values if we’re talking about pure green: otherwise a color wouldn’t be viewed as “green”.

Relationships in a world

When thinking in terms of objects, we’ve seen two major categories of partial sentences:

  1. X HAS-A Y
  2. X IS-A Y

1. Property acquisition

This should hopefully be clear by now after looking at the “a tree has a leaf” example, leaving behind the complexity of the color.

2. Property definition

Without directly using the technical term “inheritance”, “x is y” defines X in terms of Y. “green is a color”, or implicitly “the leaf is green”. Things can indeed build upon other things by defining subsets:

“a tree has a leaf”

combined with

“an oak is a tree”

means

“an oak has a leaf”

, since the oak is a tree. We can build a simple schematic of the oak like this:

Tree {
    leaf
}

Oak is-a Tree {
}

To avoid having to redefine the leaf as part of the oak, a keyword is used to denote the relationship between the oak and the tree. Once the assumption of the tree containing a leaf holds, we can safely conclude the oak also contains a leaf. In Java, “is-a” means extends and implements, in C# or C++ :.

Organic matter in our own world consists of other organic matter, that can be reduced to chemicals, that can be reduced to sub-atoms. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should introduce all those concepts in the world we’re building. Only introduce a concept if it has some meaning in your world. Are you going to do something with it? Will it be able to decide things on it’s own? Will it contain logic? If that is not the case, don’t bother.

Remember to make implicit concepts explicit. Don’t forget “color”!

In practice

The most challenging part about writing (software) is deconstructing the requirements in the above terms to be able to identify our much-needed objects. Let’s look at an example.ca

You’re creating a simple game in which a character (Mario) can move in a 2D world, collecting coins within a time limit. Mario moves in a level that has enemies and can die if he touches one.

Redefine that world in those sentences or acceptance criteria:

  1. Mario can move => Mario “has a” move()
  2. Moving can be done on the X or Y axis => move “needs a” X, Y
  3. Mario has a total score
  4. Mario can collect coins
  5. A coin has a static score
  6. The world has a time limit
  7. Enemies can move
  8. Mario can touch someone
  9. Enemies can touch someone
  10. Die is “game over”

Since Mario and the enemies share properties, it would be wise to reduce the clutter by defining both as a Player or moving object.

All these claims are true context of the Game or 2D World (we also might need those concepts as our base collection of objects). The fact that Mario can move has the same connotation that Mario has-a “move” property. We could define a third category of a sentence:

Move needs a X and Y (in order to “work”)

Mario can move, but won’t move without providing a direction. Since the world is a 2D world, there will be two (dimensions) times two (positive, negative) possibilities. Instead of saying “move needs a x”, one can also say “move has-a direction” that eliminates the need of a third keyword.

Now it’s your turn to come up with a schematic for the identified objects! Try not to over-analyze the criteria by building something too complex. It will grow - and shrink - in time.

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