Abstract Data Types and OOP

I think most of us agree that Abstract Data Types are a good thing. We see the description, we hear about what problems they solve and we nod on in agreement. At least I do. And yet I keep forgetting to actually use them.

Recently I’ve had to or forced myself to write code in imperative and functional styles, in more than one language. As usual, some changes were needed but what was not so usual is that my refactoring was harder than it needed to be. The reason? I didn’t hide the details of how the data were represented. In one example I was parsing JSON in Emacs Lisp to enable IDE-like features in Emacs for C and C++ development. When I tried using it on a largish project at work, it was too slow to be usable. I was naively using assoc lists for JSON objects, and mostly only because it’s the default for the library I was using. A quick fix was to instead use hash tables, but it took me far longer to make that fix than it should have. I’d hard-coded the knowledge of the data being in assoc lists all over the place and even refactoring the unit tests was a pain.

I made a similar mistake again in Haskell. I was writing a networking protocol server and decided that I’d represent replies to requests as a list of (handle, reply) tuples. I haven’t made the refactoring I want to yet, and it won’t be as painful as the Elisp version, but I still hated myself a little bit for encoding that knowledge in the algorithms that were manipulating replies. What if (as I need to for performance) want to change it to a tree?

When I use OOP, or simply the fact that I’m attaching methods to structs and classes, this never seems to happen. There was nothing stopping me from doing the right thing when I made the above mistakes. It just doesn’t seem to happen when I’m writing methods for a class. That boxing up of code seems to make my code better. It just doesn’t seem to happen to me in C++ or D, but just dropping back to C causes me to write absurdities I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I think (and hope) I’ll be able to notice if I ever make this mistake again in other languages now that I’m aware of it. It’s still surprising to me how, after all these years, it’s still possible, and apparently even likely, for me to make mistakes that I’d call basic.


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