Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Ruby Metaprogramming Spell Book

Here are all the spells from Metaprogramming Ruby, as link-friendly Gists.

March 2014 update: I updated this list to match the second edition of the book. I added three spells that are new to Ruby 2.x: Refinement, Refinement Wrapper and Prepended Wrapper. I also dropped a few spells that don't seem to be as relevant today as they used to be, at least in the context of this book: Argument Array, Named Arguments, Pattern Dispatch and Class Extension Mixin.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

RubyKaigi 2010

The scarily efficient organizers of RubyKaigi 2010 only took a few hours to publish the video of my talk on metaprogramming and the Ruby object model (slides and audio only).

Yesterday I also lived the Andy Warhol moment of my life when I signed the first hundred or so copies of Metaprogramming Ruby Japanese Edition together with translator Kado Masanori and Matz. I looked at the long line of people happily waiting half an hour to have their copy signed, and suddenly spending three years to write a book seemed like a perfectly rational thing to do.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Metaprogramming Ruby in Japanese is Out

This is selling great at RubyKaigi in Tsukuba. I'm a happy little author.

Big thanks to my translator, Kado Masanori, and my Japanese editor-in-Chief, Kahei Suzuki.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why Inheritance Sucks (in Ruby, at least)

[Update: Some readers went up in arms over this post, probably because the original title didn't specify which language I'm talking about. To clarify, I'm talking about inheritance in Ruby, compared to using modules, also in Ruby. My point here is that inheritance is an essential feature in C++/Java/C#, but not as much in Ruby. No, I'm not saying that Java should drop inheritance anytime soon.]

I came to Ruby from a static language background (C++, Java), and I had a hard time leaving my hold habits behind. In particular, as a Ruby beginner I tended to overuse inheritance. These days, I rarely use inheritance at all. Instead, I use modules. Let's look at the difference.

When you use inheritance, the superclass becomes an ancestor of the subclass. When you call a method, Ruby walks up the chain of ancestors until it finds the method. So, objects of the subclass also get the methods defined in the superclass.

When you use modules, the module also becomes an ancestor of the class, just like the superclass does:

When you call a method, Ruby still walks up the ancestors chain until it finds the method. The net effect is exactly the same as the picture above, except that Bird is now a module instead of a class. So, having a method in a superclass or having the same method in a module doesn't make much difference in practice.

However, modules are generally more flexible than superclasses. Modules can be managed at runtime, because include is just a regular method call, while superclasses are set in stone as you write your class definitions. Modules are much easier to use and test in isolation than tightly coupled hierarchy of classes. You can include as many modules as you like, while you can only have one superclass per class. And finally, when you get into advanced Ruby, modules give you much more flexibility than classes, so you can use modules to cast magic metaprogramming spells like Singleton Methods and Class Extensions.

If inheritance is so much worse than modules in Ruby, then why do languages like Java and C# rely on inheritance so much? There are two reasons why you use inheritance in these languages. The first reason is that you want to manage your methods - for example, re-use the same method in different subclasses. The second reason is because you want to upcast the type of a reference from a subclass to a superclass - that's the only way to get polimorphism in Java. The first reason is not as valid in Ruby, because you can just as well use modules to manage your methods. However, upcasting is more interesting.

Java is both compiled and statically typed, so the compiler can analyze your code and spot type-related mistakes. In particular, it can spot upcasting mistakes: if you have a method that takes Minerals, and you pass a Dog to the method, then the compiler will complain that a Dog is an Animal, not a Mineral, so you cannot upcast a Dog reference to a Mineral reference. In Ruby you don't declare your types, so you don't have upcasting at all. Even if you did have upcasting, you wouldn't have a compiler double-checking it. So you don't get the same advantages out of inheritance in Ruby compared to Java.

"Wait a minute," I hear you say. "Some of the limitations of inheritance are actually a good thing! Including multiple modules in Ruby is just like having multiple inheritance in C++, and multiple inheritance is a big mess. That's why Java and C# force you to inherit from a single class". This is the "diamond" problem that my original C++ mentor used to warn me about: if your class has two superclasses, and they both inherit from yet another superclass, then you get a diamond-shaped inheritance chain that can potentially be confusing. Wouldn't modules be a throwback to this kind of headaches?

In practice, however, Ruby modules tend to be more manageable than multiple superclasses. In Ruby, the chain of ancestors always follows a single path, where each module or class can only appear once - so you can't have diamond-shaped inheritance. If you understand how Ruby builds the chain of ancestors, you're never going to find yourself in an ambiguous situation where you don't know which method is called: simply enough, Ruby always calls the version of the method that's lower on the ancestors chain. (You can still get a clash if two separate modules reference instance variables with the same name, but that rarely happens in practice.) More crucially, the way you write code in Ruby is different from the way you write code in a static language. If you get used to crazy stuff like replacing methods with Monkeypatches, then there is no reason why you shouldn't get used to managing methods with modules.

I took literally years to get rid of my tendency to think in inheritance. Now I finally understand why large Ruby projects such as Rails barely use inheritance at all, and rely almost exclusively on modules.

Use inheritance sparingly.