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Thinking in Patterns with Java, Revision 0.6

©2001 by Bruce Eckel

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This is a book about design that I have been working on for years, basically ever since I first started trying to read Design Patterns (Gamma, Helm, Johnson & Vlissides, Addison-Wesley, 1995), commonly referred to as the Gang of Four[1] or just GoF).

There is a chapter on design patterns in the first edition of Thinking in C++, which has evolved in Volume 2 of the second edition of Thinking in C++, and you’ll also find a chapter on patterns in the first edition of Thinking in Java (I took it out of the second edition because that book was getting too big, and also because I had decided to write this book).

This is not an introductory book. I am assuming that you have worked your way through Thinking in Java or an equivalent text before coming to this book.

In addition, I assume you have more than just a grasp of the syntax of Java. You should have a good understanding of objects and what they’re about, including polymorphism. Again, these are topics covered in Thinking in Java.

On the other hand, by going through this book you’re going to learn a lot about object-oriented programming by seeing objects used in many different situations. If your knowledge of objects is rudimentary, it will get much stronger in the process of understanding the designs in this book.

The Y2K syndrome

In a book that has “problem-solving techniques” in its subtitle, it’s worth mentioning one of the biggest pitfalls in programming: premature optimization. Every time I bring this concept forward, virtually everyone agrees to it. Also, everyone seems to reserve in their own mind a special case “except for this thing that I happen to know is a particular problem.”

The reason I call this the Y2K syndrome has to do with that special knowledge. Computers are a mystery to most people, so when someone announced that those silly computer programmers had forgotten to put in enough digits to hold dates past the year 1999, then suddenly everyone became a computer expert – “these things aren’t so difficult after all, if I can see such an obvious problem.” For example, my background was originally in computer engineering, and I started out by programming embedded systems. As a result, I know that many embedded systems have no idea what the date or time is, and even if they do that data often isn’t used in any important calculations. And yet I was told in no uncertain terms that all the embedded systems were going to crash on January 1, 2000. As far as I can tell the only memory that was lost on that particular date was that of the people who were predicting doom – it’s as if they had never said any of that stuff.

The point is that it’s very easy to fall into a habit of thinking that the particular algorithm or piece of code that you happen to partly or thoroughly understand is naturally going to be the bottleneck in your system, simply because you can imagine what’s going on in that piece of code and so you think that it must somehow be much less efficient than all the other pieces of code that you don’t know about. But unless you’ve run actual tests, typically with a profiler, you can’t really know what’s going on. And even if you are right, that a piece of code is very inefficient, remember that most programs spend something like 90% of their time in less than 10% of the code in the program, so unless the piece of code you’re thinking about happens to fall into that 10% it isn’t going to be important.

I believe it was Edsger Dijkstra who said “premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

Context and composition

One of the terms you will see used over and over in design patterns literature is context. In fact, one common definition of a design pattern is “a solution to a problem in a context.” The GoF patterns often have a “context object” that the client programmer interacts with. At one point it occurred to me that such objects seemed to dominate the landscape of many patterns, and so I began asking what they were about.

The context object often acts as a little façade to hide the complexity of the rest of the pattern, and in addition it will often be the controller that manages the operation of the pattern. Initially, it seemed to me that these were not really essential to the implementation, use and understanding of the pattern. However, I remembered one of the more dramatic statements made in the GoF: “prefer composition to inheritance.” The context object allows you to use the pattern in a composition, and that may be it’s primary value.

A word about checked exceptions

1) The great value of exceptions is the unification of error reporting: a standard mechanism by which to report errors, rather than the popourri of ignorable approaches that we had in C (and thus, C++, which only adds exceptions to the mix, and doesn't make it the exclusive approach). The big advantage Java has over C++ is that exceptions are the only way to report errors.

2) "Ignorable" in the previous paragraph is the other issue. The theory is that if the compiler forces the programmer to either handle the exception or pass it on in an exception specification, then the programmer's attention will always be brought back to the possibility of errors and they will thus properly take care of them. I think the problem is that this is an untested assumption we're making as language designers that falls into the field of psychology. My theory is that when someone is trying to do something and you are constantly prodding them with annoyances, they will use the quickest device available to make those annoyances go away so they can get their thing done, perhaps assuming they'll go back and take out the device later. I discovered I had done this in the first edition of Thinking in Java:

} catch (SomeKindOfException e) {}

And then more or less forgot it until the rewrite. How many people thought this was a good example and followed it? Martin Fowler began seeing the same kind of code, and realized people were stubbing out exceptions and then they were disappearing. The overhead of checked exceptions was having the opposite effect of what was intended, something that can happen when you experiment (and I now believe that checked exceptions were an experiment based on what someone thought was a good idea, and which I believed was a good idea until recently).

When I started using Python, all the exceptions appeared, none were accidentally "disappeared." If you *want* to catch an exception, you can, but you aren't forced to write reams of code all the time just to be passing the exceptions around. They go up to where you want to catch them, or they go all the way out if you forget (and thus they remind you) but they don't vanish, which is the worst of all possible cases. I now believe that checked exceptions encourage people to make them vanish. Plus they make much less readable code.

In the end, I think we must realize the experimental nature of exceptions and look at them carefully before assuming that everything about exceptions in Java are good. I believe that having a single mechanism for handling errors is excellent, and I believe that using a separate channel (the exception handling mechanism) for moving the exceptions around is good. But I do remember one of the early arguments for exception handling in C++ was that it would allow the programmer to separate the sections of code where you just wanted to get work done from the sections where you handled errors, and it seems to me that checked exceptions do not do this; instead, they tend to intrude (a lot) into your "normal working code" and thus are a step backwards. My experience with Python exceptions supports this, and unless I get turned around on this issue I intend to put a lot more RuntimeExceptions into my Java code.

[1] This is a tongue-in-cheek reference to an event in China after the death of Mao-Tze Tung, when four persons including Mao’s widow made a power play, and were demonized by the Chinese Communist Party under that name.

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Last Update:09/08/2001