Avoid Direct Access Of Members

In many places I have seen the following.

    public void doSomething() {
        this.member_ = "Some value";

When there is already a getter/setter for this member. This causes problems while extending the functionality of the class. Therefore, when you have to access a member variable, do the following.

    public void doSomething() {
        setMember("Some value");

This enables the inherited classes to override the "setMember" and do some additional tasks. Also, this way some additional checks can be easily added later without breaking the existing code.

-- vhi

What about AspectJ (AspectJay), where you can override even this.member = "Some Value"

DoTheSimplestThingThatCouldPossiblyWork: unless you are having problems with cross-cutting concerns, AspectJ is a lot of work for something that is handled nicely by inheritance.

DoTheSimplestThingThatCouldPossiblyWork: Having the code in a class depend on the class' own implementation strategy is not that bad of a CodeSmell. Just go ahead and use the member variables until such a time as you find that you need to redesign the implementation, then change all member access to accessor functions.

Anyway, AccessorsAreEvil. ;->

The SelfLanguage does not expose member variables (slots) to the programmer. All access to slots is done through accessors. Declaring a slot defines the accessors in some implementation-dependent manner. E.g. declaring a slot called "slot" would define a getter called "slot" and a setter called "slot: new_value".

RubyLanguage has something similar with its accessors, but also allows direct member access from within the object.

Using your own variables (outside of accessors) is one thing. Using your parent class' variables is truly evil.

I spent four days once (intermittently, in between doing real work) tracking down a bug that was driving me nuts. A member variable kept getting changed in the production system, and I couldn't see how. Putting a breakpoint at the setter didn't show me anything unexpected. A line-by-line inspection of the code didn't help me either. Then, all of a sudden, I noticed that the variable wasn't declared as private, but as protected. When I changed this, my jaw dropped as the approximately 500 compile errors this caused creeped out of the woodwork (about 120 of these were value changing!)

Sometimes, good coding habits (like making your non-final variables private) can really leave you blindsided to the evil practices that others use.

You can discover all sorts of interesting things about a program by simply commenting out a variable...

One could argue that Java is a flawed language and ideally one should be able to hide the distinction between changing variables and using an accessor. This can simplify syntax and allow one to swap one for the other. If an accessor is simply a formal wrapper around a variable, then by itself it's not providing any value and is just repetitious bloat that hogs eye real-estate. It only provides value if we LATER want to add more processing or control. Thus, it's more logical to start out with direct variables, but change them to accessors later if and when needed. But with Java you'd have to change the interface to do this. In a "proper" language, you wouldn't: you could switch to accesors from variables without changing existing calling code. A side-effect of this is that you wouldn't be able to tell whether it's a direct reference or an accessor by looking at the call interface alone, unless perhaps you make it "read-only" or add parameters. (Somewhere there is a related existing topic on this.)

But if one is stuck with a language that forces an external extinction, like Java, I would suggest leaving variables "naked" if there will be relatively few users (other classes) of the class and these associations will be relatively stable. If, however, there will be a lot of using classes and/or the associations change fairly often, then go ahead and wrap them in accessors up front. -t


Take a look at C#'s Properties, and please reflect on whether your advice is based on good practice or your personal preference. There are good reasons -- that you've not mentioned -- not to do what you suggest.

Let's stick with Java for now. I'll come back to C# later. Per Java, it's to avoid bloat. One only should create such bloat if the cost of change is great enough to justify it. Bloat creates risk by confusing and/or distracting "the eye", but visiting many callers to convert direct attributes to accessors when later needed also creates risk (and work). Thus, there is a balancing point of risk. If you only are likely to have a few and stable callers, then the bloat doesn't prevent enough risk & rework to justify it's own risk (by being bloat). Granted, I have no formal studies on confusion/distraction caused by bloat, and these are based on my personal observations of my own work and others'.

General illustration of trade-offs:

Scenario A: 2 Callers

Scenario B: 40 Callers

Different people may assign different values to the 1) cost of bloat (see FastEyes), 2) the probability that we'll later need accessors, and 3) the cost of changing the interface (and changing the callers). But do notice the "c * 40" (c times 40) in B.1. It's probably a high total by most scenarios (readers applying their estimated costs). If we don't wrap and have few callers (A.1), then the cost of changing the interface is relatively low, and arguably lower than the cost of bloat (A.2). I believe most would agree under that scenario it's probably a good idea to wrap, but the "best" choice in scenario A is probably subject to heavy debate, based on estimations of one's own WetWare and/or that of typical developers in their shop. It's roughly a wash by my estimate, leaning toward A.1 in the name of YagNi. Related: DecisionMathAndYagni, SimulationOfTheFuture.

Do you feel that's a balanced assessment? The only reason you mention to avoid direct access of member variables is that the interface might change.

I am not following. Please elaborate, perhaps with a specific example.

It's not an issue of a specific example, but of the fact that your scenarios are focused almost entirely on "bloat" and "visual complexity". There are good reasons to avoid direct access of member variables, such as to increase encapsulation and reduce coupling. Why do you not mention these?

"Coupling" is an ill-defined concept, and encapsulation for encapsulation's sake is a waste of code. I am not suggesting that one don't wrap/hide variables, but rather only do it WHEN there is known and existing reason, or if there is likely to be one in the future. Thus, I am not arguing against encapsulation in general. It's a matter of if and when to encapsulate. I'm not a YagNi purist in that I append "likely to need" in my criteria versus "until actually needed" in pure YagNi.

Coupling is a very well-defined ComputerScience/SoftwareEngineering concept. Coupling exists wherever there is a dependency such that altering A affects B. In that case, we say that A and B are coupled. Where coupling is necessary, we try to group it together whenever possible. That's cohesion. To reduce accidental or intentional (but unnecessary) coupling between defined units of cohesive code, we use encapsulation. Your argument appears to be based on the presumption that code will be static and neither re-used nor modified, and is simple enough that accidental coupling is unlikely.

Also, lack of encapsulation can create "accidents", but so can bloated code. If the accidents caused by bloat exceed those caused by lack of encapsulation, then encapsulation is not giving us a net benefit. Bloat can also slow general productivity by making more code to read and change.

What is "encapsulation for encapsulation's sake"? Isn't encapsulation for reducing coupling and increasing cohesion?

It depends. See above.

Encapsulation always reduces coupling and increases cohesion. What you appear to believe "depends" is whether it's worth the additional code of get/set/etc. or not.

Without a clear definition/metric of "coupling" and "cohesion", I cannot confirm nor deny that claim. But this is NOT the topic to define/debate coupling and cohesion, as a reminder.

I've given a clear definition of CouplingAndCohesion. They are abstract and often qualitative (though specific quantitative metrics may be defined for specific cases, but not in general), but that doesn't mean they're vague.

If there are no consensus numeric or Boolean metrics for it, or a definition clear enough to lead to that, then it's "vague" in my book. The existing proposals have too much dependency on damned English, and we know how that turns out.

Many things have no established numeric or boolean metric, and yet they're clear enough to make decisions. For example, "programming language" has no established metric, and yet millions of people use them and create them every day.

CategoryJava, CategoryInterface

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