Day 19 – Abstraction and why it’s good

Some people are a bit afraid of the word “abstract”, because they’ve heard math teachers say it, and also, abstract art freaks them out. But abstraction is a fine and useful thing, and not so complicated. As programmers, we use it every day in different forms. The term is from Latin and means “to withdraw from” or “to pull away from”, and what we’re pulling away from is the specifics so we can focus on the big picture. That’s often mighty useful.

Here are a few examples:


If your computer only knew how to handle one specific number at a time, it’d be an abacus. Pretty early on, the programmer guild figured out it made a lot of sense to talk about the memory address of a value, and let that address contain whatever it pleased. They abstracted away from the value, and thus made the program more general.

As time passed, addresses were replaced by names, mostly as a convenience. Some people found it a good idea to give their variables descriptive names, as opposed to things like $grbldf.


Code re-use. We hear so much about it in the OO circles, but it holds equally well for subroutines. You write your code once, and then call it from all over the place. Convenient.

But, as I point out in an announcement pretending to be a computer science professor from an alternate timeline, there’s also the secondary benefit of giving your chunk of code a good mnemonic name, because that act in a sense improves the programming language itself. You’re giving yourself new verbs to program with.

This is especially true in Perl 6, because subroutines are lexically scoped (as opposed to Perl 5) and thus you can easily put a subroutine inside another routine. I use it when writing a Connect 4 game, for example.

Packages and modules

In Perl, packages don’t do much. They pull things together and keep them there. In a sense, what they abstract away is a set of subroutines from the rest of the world.

Perl 5 delivers its whole OO functionality through packages and a bit of dispatch magic on the side. It’s quite a feat, actually, but sometimes a bit too minimal. Moose fixes many of those early issues by providing a full-featured object system. Perl 6 lets packages go back to just being collections of subroutines, but provides a few dedicated abstractions for OO, a kind of built-in Moose. Which brings us to…


Object-orientation means a lot of different things to different people. To some, it’s the notion of an object, a piece of memory with a given set of operations and a given set of states. In a sense, we’re again in the business of extending the language like with did with subroutines. But this time we’re building new nouns rather than new verbs. One moment the language doesn’t know about a Customer object type; the next, it does.

To others, object-orientation means keeping the operations public and the states private. They refer to this division as encapsulation, because the object is like a little capsule, protecting your data from the big bad world. This is also a kind of abstraction, built on the idea that the rest of the world shouldn’t need to care about the internals of your objects, because some day you may want to refactor them. Don’t talk to the brain, talk to the hand; do your thing through the published operations of the object.


But class-based OO with inheritance will take you only so far. In the past 10 years or so, people have become increasingly aware of the limitations of inheritance-based class hierarchies. Often there are concerns which cut completely across a conventional inheritance hierarchy.

This is where roles come in; they allow you to apply behaviors in little cute packages here and there, without being tied up by a tree-like structure. In a post about roles I explore how this helps write better programs. But really the best example nowadays is probably the Rakudo compiler and its extensive use of roles; jnthn has been writing about that in an earlier advent post.

If classes abstract away complete sets of behaviors, roles abstract away partial sets of behaviors, or responsibilities.

You can even do so at runtime, using mixins, which are roles that you add to an object as the program executes. Objects changing type during runtime sounds magic almost to the point of recklessness; but it’s all done in a very straightforward manner using anonymous subclasses.


Sometimes you want extra control over how the object system itself works. The object system in Perl 6, through one of those neat bite-your-own-tail tricks, is written using itself, and is completely modifiable in terms of itself. Basically, a bunch of the complexity has been removed by not having a separate hidden, unreachable system to handle the intricacies of the object system. Instead, there’s a visible API for interacting with the object system.

And, when we feel like it, we can invent new and exotic varieties of object systems. Or just tweak the existing one to our fancy.


On the way up the abstraction ladder, we’ve abstracted away bigger and bigger chunks of code: values, code, routines, behaviors, responsibilities and object systems. Now we reach the top, and there we find macros. Ah, macros, these magical, inscrutable beasts. What do macros abstract away?


Well, that’s rather disappointing, isn’t it? Didn’t we already abstract away code with subroutines? Yes, we did. But it turns out there’s so much code in a program that sometimes, it needs to be abstracted away on several levels!

Subroutines abstract away code that can then run in several different ways. You call the routine with other values, and it behaves differently. Macros abstract away code that can then be compiled in several different ways. You write a macro with other values, and it gets compiled into different code, which can then in turn run differently.

Essentially, macros give you a hook into the compiler to help you shape and guide what code it emits during the compilation itself. In a sense, you’re abstracting certain parts of the compilation process, the parsing and the syntax manipulation and the code generation. Again, you’re shaping the language — but this time not inventing new nouns or verbs, but whole ways of expressing yourself.

Macros come in two broad types: textual (a la C) and syntax tree (a la Lisp). The textual ones have a number of known issues stemming from the fact that they’re essentially a big imprecise search-and-replace on your code. The syntax tree ones are hailed as the best thing about Lisp, because it allows Lisp programs to grow and adapt to the needs of the programmer, by inventing new ways of expressing yourself.

Perl 6, being Perl 6, specifies both textual macros and syntax tree macros. I’m currently working on a grant to bring syntax macros to Rakudo Perl 6. There’s a branch where I’m hammering out the syntax and semantics of macros. It’s fun work, and made much more feasible by the past year’s improvements to Rakudo itself.

In conclusion

As an application grows and becomes more complex, it needs more rungs of the abstraction ladder to rest on. It needs more levels of abstraction with which to draw away the specifics and focus on the generalities.

Perl 6 is a new Perl, distinct from Perl 5. Its most distinguishing trait is perhaps that it has more rungs on the abstraction ladder to help you write code that’s more to the point. I like that.