Paper of the Week: Open, extensible object models

David Albert

This is part of our “Paper of the Week” series. For more info, check out our introductory blog post.

This week’s paper is Open, extensible object models by Ian Piumarta and Alessandro Warth and published in 2008 in the book Self-Sustaining Systems.

This paper describes a small, flexible object model that implements method lookup using a prototype-like system similar to JavaScript. It’s more interesting than it sounds though: method lookup itself is defined in terms of sending messages to objects, so you can change how method lookup works without having to change the underlying implementation. This means that you can implement prototypes, classes, multiple inheritance, traits, and anything else you can dream up, in one program without digging into the internals of the language.

What makes this even cooler is how small it is. To support all this, you only need three object types and five methods, making this as close to a Maxwell’s equations for objects as I’ve seen. There’s even a standalone implementation in 230 lines of C at the end of the paper.

Here’s the abstract:

Programming languages often hide their implementation at a level of abstraction that is inaccessible to programmers. Decisions and tradeoffs made by the language designer at this level (single vs. multiple inheritance, mixins vs. Traits, dynamic dispatch vs. static case analysis, etc.) cannot be repaired easily by the programmer when they prove inconvenient or inadequate. The artificial distinction between implementation language and end-user language can be eliminated by implementing the language using only end-user objects and messages, making the implementation accessible for arbitrary modification by programmers. We show that three object types and five methods are sufficient to bootstrap an extensible object model and messaging semantics that are described entirely in terms of those same objects and messages. Raising the implementation to the programmers’ level lets them design and control their own implementation mechanisms in which to express concise solutions and frees the original language designer from ever having to say “I’m sorry.”

Read Along

Read Along is a way for you to participate in Paper of the Week. All you have to do is read the paper, make something small in response (code or prose), and email us a link to what you made by noon Eastern Time next Monday.

This week, Thomas Smith submitted a partial implementation of Rob Pike’s Structural Regular Expressions. Thanks, Thomas!

Happy reading!