Post-Object-Oriented Design

In the beginning, came the so-called “procedural” style. Data was data, and behavior, implemented as procedure, were separate things. Object-oriented design is the idea to bundle data and behavior into a single thing, usually called “classes”. In return for having to tie the two together, the thought went, we would get polymorphism.

Polymorphism is pretty neat. We send different objects the same message, for example, “turn yourself into a string”, and they respond appropriately — each according to their uniquely defined behavior.

But what if we could separate the data and beahvior, and still get polymorphism? This is the idea behind post-object-oriented design.

In Python, we achieve this with two external packages. One is the “attr” package. This package allows a useful way to define bundles of data, that still exhibit the minimum amount of behavior we do want: initialization, string representation, hashing and more.

The other is the “singledispatch” package (available as functools.singledispatch in Python 3.4+).

import attr
import singledispatch

In order to be specific, we imagine a simple protocol. The low-level details of the protocol do not concern us, but we assume some lower-level parsing allows us to communicate in dictionaries back and forth (perhaps serialized/deserialized using JSON).

Our protocol is one to send changes to a map. The only two messages are “set”, to set a key to a given value, and “delete”, to delete a key.

messages = (
{
    'type': 'set',
    'key': 'language',
    'value': 'python'
},
{
    'type': 'delete',
    'key': 'human'
}
)

We want to represent those as attr-based classes.

@attr.s
class Set(object):
    key = attr.ib()
    value = attr.ib()

@attr.s
class Delete(object):
    key = attr.ib()
print(Set(key='language', value='python'))
print(Delete(key='human'))
Set(key='language', value='python')
Delete(key='human')

When incoming dictionaries arrive, we want to convert them to the logical classes. This code could not be simpler, in this example. (The reason is mostly because the protocol is simple.)

def from_dict(dct):
    tp = dct.pop('type')
    name_to_klass = dict(set=Set, delete=Delete)
    try:
        klass = name_to_klass[tp]
    except KeyError:
        raise ValueError('unknown type', tp)
    return klass(**dct)

Note how we take advantage of the fact that attr-based classes accept correctly-named keyword arguments.

from_dict(dict(type='set', key='name', value='myname')), from_dict(dict(type='delete', key='data'))
(Set(key='name', value='myname'), Delete(key='data'))

But this was easy! There was no need for polymorphism: we always get one type in (dictionaries), and we consult a mapping to decide which type to produce.

However, for serialization, we do need polymorphism. Enter our second tool — the singledispatch package. The default function is equivalent to a method defined on “object”: the ultimate super-class. Since we do not want to serialize generic objects, our default implementation errors out.

@singledispatch.singledispatch
def to_dict(obj):
    raise TypeError("cannot serialize", obj)

Now, we implement the actual serializers. The names of the functions are not important. To emphasize they should not be used directly, we make them “private” by prepending an underscore.

@to_dict.register(Set)
def _to_dict_set(st):
    return dict(type='set', key=st.key, value=st.value)

@to_dict.register(Delete)
def _to_dict_delete(dlt):
    return dict(type='delete', key=dlt.key)

Indeed, we do not call them directly.

print(to_dict(Set(key='k', value='v')))
print(to_dict(Delete(key='kk')))
{'type': 'set', 'value': 'v', 'key': 'k'}
{'type': 'delete', 'key': 'kk'}

However, arbitrary objects cannot be serialized.

try:
    to_dict(object())
except TypeError as e:
    print e
('cannot serialize', <object object at 0x7fbdb254ac60>)

Now that the structure of adding such an “external method” has been shown, another example can be given: “act on”: applying the changes requested to an in-memory map.

@singledispatch.singledispatch
def act_on(command, d):
    raise TypeError("Cannot act on", command)

@act_on.register(Set)
def act_on_set(st, d):
    d[st.key] = st.value

@act_on.register(Delete)
def act_on_delete(dlt, d):
    del d[dlt.key]

d = {}
act_on(Set(key='name', value='woohoo'), d)
print("After setting")
print(d)
act_on(Delete(key='name'), d)
print("After deleting")
print(d)
After setting
{'name': 'woohoo'}
After deleting
{}

In this case, we kept the functionality “near” the code. However, note that the functionality could be implemented in a different module: these functions, even though they are polymorphic, follow Python namespace rules. This is useful: several different modules could implement “act_on”: for example, an in-memory map (as we defined above), a module using Redis or a module using a SQL database.

Actual methods are not completely obsolete. It would still be best to make methods do anything that would require private attribute access. In simple cases, as above, there is no difference between the public interface and the public implementation.

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