guided by generics
guided by generics
July 23, 2016

Let's make the compiler work for us, yo.

So, elevator pitch, we're gunna get the Java compiler to enforce the state of our program.

Say we had, I don't know, a ThingBuilder. It builds a Thing. You probably figured that out. You've got a good and pretty head on those shoulders of yours. It looks like this (the ThingBuilder, not your head):

class ThingBuilder {
	int foo;
	boolean bar;
	String baz;

	ThingBuilder setFoo(int foo) {
		this.foo = foo;
		return this;
	}

	ThingBuilder setBar(boolean bar) {
		this.bar = bar;
		return this;
	}

	ThingBuilder setBaz(String baz) {
		this.baz = baz;
		return this;
	}

	Thing build() {
		return new Thing(foo, bar, baz);
	}
} 

Pretty straightforward, I hope. Set up a bunch of state, then act on it.

But, like, I'm a forgetful guy. What if I forget to set some state? Like, say I never call setBar? Dang yo, absolute tragedy. If only there was some way to save us from such a terrible calamity.

In statically-typed languages that don't live in a self-indulgent land of make believe, you have something like Java's generics - some kind of type-level parameterization. This is programming at the compiler level, rather than runtime.

Can we use that? Get our bro the compiler to give us a hand here? Well, yeah, duh, of course we can, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this blog.

type tutelage

Okay, super quick refresher on Java's generics. A List<E> is a generic List type parameterized by E. We could have, for example, a List<String> or a List<Bucket> or whatever.

There's a special type parameter, ?. It's a complete unknown. A List<?>, for example, is a List of some unknowable type.

Another thing! Unlike, say, C++, in Java, generics are erased. That means a List<SweetPotato> is the same type at run time as a List<Yam>, namely, a plain ol' List. The compiler will prevent you from accidentally mixing different parameterized types up, but they're actually the same thing and you could, for example, forcibly cast between one to another.

got my bracket

Anyway, the idea's pretty simple, I think. We use type parameters as flags to describe the state of our builder. A field is either set or not; the type parameter signals which. We can only build with the builder when it's in a valid state.

We have a type parameter for each field in our builder, so our ThingBuilder from before is going to look something like this:

class ThingBuilder<Foo,Bar,Baz> {
	int foo;
	boolean bar;
	String baz;

	// ...
} 

At first, none of the fields have been set. We'll indicate unset fields by using ? for the type parameter. So, our initial ThingBuilder will look like this:

ThingBuilder<?,?,?> builder = ThingBuilder.create();

Now, whenever a field is set, we'll indicate that by settings its type parameter to some other type, say, Object. The setFoo method, for example, becomes this:

ThingBuilder<Object,Bar,Baz> setFoo(int foo) {
	this.foo = foo;
	return (ThingBuilder<Object,Bar,Baz>) this;
}

Notice that we force Foo to Object, leaving Bar and Baz unchanged. When we call it, the type parameter gets set:

ThingBuilder<Object,?,?> updatedBuilder = builder
						.setFoo(1);

Cool, right? Updating a type parameter at a time, we can tell at the compiler-level what fields have been set. But how do we use that?

We're going to have to move things around just a little but, I think. At least, I haven't thought of a way around it. We pull the build method out into a static method that'll take the builder as a parameter. Not just any builder though; by constraining the type parameters, it'll only take a fully set, legit builder. Get your eyes on this:

static Thing build(ThingBuilder<Object,Object,Object> builder) {
	// ...
}

Check it, right. The type parameters specify Object. ? ain't gunna cut it. We don't want no scrub. This, for example, won't compile:

ThingBuilder<?,?,?> builder = ThingBuilder.create();
ThingBuilder.build(builder);

After we set the fields, though? No problemo:

ThingBuilder<Object,Object,Object> builder = ThingBuilder.created()
	.setFoo(1)
	.setBar(true)
	.setBaz("hey!");
ThingBuilder.build(builder);

Boom! Speaking in the language of generics, we convince the compiler to check our code for us. (This, by the way, is the penniless man's dependent types)

Is it worth it? Probably not, it's a lot of extra code! Is it cool? Not really, most of your coworkers would just be confused and angry if you actually did this! But did I write a blog about it? You betcha!