Paul Barry

In Search Of Sharper Tools

July 21, 2009

After reading the comments in my last post, one thing I realized that I neglected to do is define what I mean by metaprogramming. Rubyists probably already know what I mean, but people coming from other programming languages might have different ideas about what I mean by metaprogramming.

I’ve actually mentioned this in a few talks I’ve given about Ruby. I don’t really like the word Metaprogramming, it’s a little bit nebulous. I think a better term is dynamic code generation. I like that term because I think most programmers will have a pretty good mental model of what I am talking about when I say that. There are several features of Ruby that when combined together allow you to do almost anything to bend the language to your will. To understand how to do that, I recommend reading the book Metaprogramming Ruby, which is in beta right now.

I’ll give a short, real world example of what I’m talking about. I’m working on a Rails app that uses a database that has bit field columns. I want to treat the boolean flags in the bit field as though they are regular boolean attributes throughout my code. So I wrote a Ruby gem has-bit-field, which generates all the methods necessary to work with the bit field columns. You define what is in the bit field in the most clear, simple, elegant way possible by just stating which column has the bit field and then what attributes should be generated for each bit:

class Person < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_bit_field :bit_field, :likes_ice_cream, :plays_golf, :watches_tv, :reads_books

This is the kind of abstraction that the metaprogramming capabilities of Ruby afford you. I threw this together, with tests, in an hour or so. Can you imagine the amount of nonsense you would have to go through in Java to create an abstraction equivalent to this?

This type of abstraction is what I think makes Ruby a great language, but I realize you are definitely walking a fine line with this kind of thing. It’s possible for this sort of thing to go wrong quickly. The first way these things go wrong is when the abstraction is not intuitive and not documented. First of all, a good abstraction should be almost intuitive, requiring other programmers to be able to guess what is does. This is commonly referred to as the Principal of Least Surprise. This doesn’t mean that you are excused from providing some sort of documentation explaining how it works, especially for more complex abstractions.

The reason why it’s important that the abstraction is clear is that most of the time the code that defines the abstraction is dense at best, and downright ugly at worst. This isn’t a problem specific to Ruby, as anyone who has worked with Lisp macros can attest to. But in the end I’d rather have a small chunk of code that is tested and documented that I don’t really need to look at that enables me to make the code where the business logic is defined as clear as possible. If other programmers are constantly having to dive into the guts of the definition of these abstractions just to understand how the code works, you have officially created a mess. And this is no ordinary mess, this is meta-spaghetti, and is a mess on an order of magnitude not possible in statically typed languages.

So does this mean you shouldn’t use Ruby? Not at all, and I think Glenn Vanderburg sums it up best:

Weak developers will move heaven and earth to do the wrong thing. You can’t limit the damage they do by locking up the sharp tools. They’ll just swing the blunt tools harder.

I think developers often associate “blunt tools” with static typing, because really they associate static typing with Java. I’m not sure that static typing is in fact a blunt tool. If static typing means I can’t create these kinds of abstractions, then yes, it’s a blunt tool. But can you do this kind of thing with Scala Compiler Plugins? How about with Template Haskell? What about with MetaOCaml? If you can, are those tools then sharper than Ruby? Or is there a way to define abstractions like these without metaprogramming at all?