On boolean externalities

This week @avdi wrote a really interesting blog post in which he expounds the woe induced by trying to debug a stack of methods that return booleans to each other. I couldn’t get Disqus to load on the post itself, so my response is below. Go ahead and read Avdi’s article now; take your time, and think about what you would change in his code; I’ll wait here until you’re ready.

A lot of the comments on That Twitter suggest that this can be “fixed” by returning things that are more complex than simple booleans, including switching to a different language to make that easier. I think most of them are missing the point. I think this is a representation problem. Let me explain.

The code as it stands uses several booleans — I counted around six, and I suspect there are more in the code branches we weren’t shown. In order to figure out whether the user is allowed to view an episode, the code effectively rummages through the user’s past, looking for a confluence of events that combine together to give the user that permission. And so when the code doesn’t do what was expected, poor Avdi then has to do the same, only using the debugger or logging statements. The problem therefore, it seems to me, is that the current state of the user is only represented indirectly.

It seems to me that this code breaks the second rule of Simple Design, in that the domain is not represented faithfully by these booleans. I would be willing to bet that not every one of the 2n possible combinations of values of these booleans is possible. Indeed, it seems likely that there are only a handful of states in the lifecycle of a user. So to use a group of booleans to represent these states is to misrepresent the structure of the domain: The representation permits many more possibilities than can actually occur, and leaves the job of figuring out the current state to a bunch of other methods scattered through a couple of different objects. Another way to express this might be to say that the code shows Connascence of Meaning (or Algorithm), because numerous methods need to know something about how the user’s state is represented.

So my solution would be to create an explicit state transition model for users, and then to represent that in the code using a state field on the user. It would then be possible to produce errors such as “User X cannot do Y because s/he is in state Z”. It also opens up the possibility of using the State pattern, so that the user would hold a reference to an object representing its current state. Such an object might know how and when the user arrived in this state, and have code that validates the user’s state changes. It might even provide the valid onward transitions as, say, Command objects.

So that’s my approach, and I’ve been finding it more and more useful recently to solve modelling problems such as this. The question is: is this applicable in Avdi’s case; does the code we haven’t seen support this design…?

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3 thoughts on “On boolean externalities

  1. Pingback: Boolean Externalities | Virtuous Code

  2. This will definitely work for simple cases of boolean only conditions that are somehow triggered by some actions. What if time is the trigger, e.g. we want to limit some video by age. And a one-day-to-14 is waiting for a video to be unlocked, and we forgot to run update his state, and he’s fourteen for two hours now and we’re still hiding that violent refactoring video from him? What if we need ‘no more than x per day’?
    What if we no not want to disclose to the user why it’s hidden, e.g. User came from a parter link that doesn’t grant him free cookies, and we don’t want to list parter sites that will grant that.

  3. @philpirj Absolutely! There are plenty of conditions over and above the simple state of the user, and those would need to be handled by appropriate policy objects. But the code that @avdi showed us was almost entirely about the current state of the user.

    The State pattern isn’t a panacea, but it does help simplify many situations such as this. I agree there are many other rules we might layer on top, and I also think that explicitly modelling state is almost always a win.

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