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Book Review: Elemental Design Patterns 129 129

jkauzlar writes "Believe it or not, it's been 18 years since Design Patterns by Gamma, et al, first began to hit the desks of programmers world-wide. This was a work of undeniable influence and usefulness, but there is criticism however that pattern-abuse has lead to over-architected software. This failure is perhaps due to wide-spread use of patterns as templates instead of understanding their underlying 'grammar' of this language such that it may be applied gracefully to the problem at hand. What's been missing until now is a sufficiently authoritative study of design patterns at this 'grammatical' level of abstraction. Jason McC. Smith, through a surprisingly captivating series of analytic twists and turns, has developed a theory of Elemental Design Patterns that may yet rejuvenate this aging topic." Keep reading for the rest of Joe's review.
Elemental Design Patterns
author Jason McC. Smith
pages 368
publisher Addison-Wesley Professional
rating 9/10
reviewer Joe Kauzlarich
ISBN 978-0321711922
summary Software Design
Much as developing a large taxonomy of star-types in astronomy lead to and enabled theories of star formation, or a classification of organic life lead to studies of genetics, it makes sense that the large volumes of collected object-oriented design patterns should somehow lead to a generic understanding of them. Smith actually approached this in an attempt to solve a very practical problem: given the variety of ways a particular pattern can be implemented, how can one be recognized programmatically with a degree of certainty?

What's most fascinating about Elemental Design Patterns is the analysis performed in working out a solution to the question of how a pattern may be defined in a way that's language-agnostic and flexible to differing implementations. This was a success: his resulting pattern recognition tool even found unintentional usages of well-known design patterns in a large legacy code base, which could then be refactored from the ugly 'accidental usage' to transform apparent chaos into maintainable order.

The basic idea is that every pattern is composed of elemental patterns. For example, the 'Factory Method' pattern may be decomposed into four EDPs (elemental design patterns): 'Create Object', 'Fulfill Method', 'Conglomeration' and 'Retrieve'. The 'Pattern Instance Notation', introduced in this book, and which serves as an extension to UML, helps visualize the relationships between the four sub-patterns and the larger pattern. No doubt readers will find the notation useful in their own work.

This premise's success or failure hinges on two questions: are the set of patterns really elemental? and can the set of patterns be complete? Oddly, the patterns listed in the book are NOT complete: "this book touches on only one-quarter, at best, of the possible EDPs that exist" (p. 107). The fact that this book (which defines 16 patterns in depth) is only the beginning of a project is not well-communicated. Those who might benefit from a complete listing of EDPs (i.e. analysis tool makers) might be puzzled at how to immediately put this book to use if it's not complete. After all, Smith insists in the Preface that "this book is meant to be used." To me, this implies it should serve as more than a basis for research or design-skills edification.

As for them being elemental, in the sense that all possible 'macro-patterns' may be built from them, Smith backs up this claim with the help of a mathematical formal system called rho-calculus, which is introduced in some depth in the appendix, but avoided in the body of the text for readability's sake. Readers wanting a full mathematical treatment are referred to Smith's Ph.D thesis.

What makes the book worth reading and re-reading is in the methods employed to analytically derive EDPs. As dull as I probably make it sound, Smith gives the entertaining first half of the book an almost 'novelistic', first-person quality in which the reader is engaged to experience Smith's insights first-hand. In a sense, the EDPs are 'unfolded' from simple concepts like the degrees of method or object similarity in a method-call relationship.

Understanding this point is important to understanding EDPs: a method call is not just a method call from a 'micro-patterns' perspective. Calling a very different method on the same object is semantically distinct from calling a very similar method on a very different object. The first is described by the EDP 'Conglomeration' (breaking larger tasks into subtasks); the second, by the EDP 'Redirection' (redirecting a process to another object). Of course, the terms 'similar' and 'different' are fuzzy qualifiers to programmers and there's bound to be some debate on how these terms are applied. Smith, in order to make this distinction, puts faith in the developer's ability to name classes and methods. But anyway, such 'semantic' relationships are the real building-blocks of the higher-level patterns. Once other object-oriented principles are considered, like inheritance, the EDP list grows.

The importance of Elemental Design Patterns from a designer's perspective should now be more clear. I kept stressing the word 'semantic' in the last paragraph because what this book strives to do is provide a *language* for describing object-oriented structure that, first of all, doesn't rely on the OO language itself (C++, Smalltalk, Java, Javascript, etc), and more notably, which takes into account the designer's purpose for employing simple devices like method calls and class extension. As I said earlier, a method call is not just a method call. There may be a dozen or so 'structural' reasons to call a method, and each reason is given it's own 'word' (i.e. EDP) in Smith's language. It stands to reason that a designer with a firmer grasp on his own intentions is a more effective designer.

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Book Review: Elemental Design Patterns

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  • What we need... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jholyhead (2505574) on Monday June 04, 2012 @05:02PM (#40213559) a book that assumes you know all of the GoF patterns and gives a list of times when you shouldn't use each one.

    Most people's beef with design patterns is that inexperienced coders sit down and think 'what pattern could I apply to this problem?' or 'how can I change my problem to fit a pattern?' instead of 'what pattern, if any would make this code easier to understand and maintain in the long term?'.

Nothing is rich but the inexhaustible wealth of nature. She shows us only surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson