Refactoring Towards Language

By Marcel Weiher

When implementing MVC in iOS and macOS, one common pattern is to use NSNotification to implement the notification that the model has changed and the view should redraw itself. This is a good pattern, as that is how MVC is intended to work, but it does lead to quite a bit of boilerplate in this incarnation.

Specifically, you typically have some version of the following code in one of the initialisation methods of your ViewController, which play the MVC role of the View in Cocoa and Cocoa Touch.

- (void)viewDidLoad
{ ... [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector:@selector(modelDidChange:) name:MPWAppNotificationModelDidChange object:nil]; ...

Refactor I

That's all good, except that you tend to repeat that code in every single ViewController, and there are usually quite a few of them. So one way of avoiding all that duplication is to refactor by extracting the duplicated functionality into a method.
- (void)subscribeToModelDidChangeNotification
{ [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector:@selector(modelDidChange:) name:MPWAppNotificationModelDidChange object:nil];
} - (void)unsubscribeFromModelDidChangeNotification
{ [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] removeObserver:self name:MPWAppNotificationModelDidChange object:nil];
} - (void)subscribeToModelWasDeletedNotification
{ [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector:@selector(modelDidChange:) name:MPWAppNotificationModelWasDeleted object:nil];
} - (void)unsubscribeFromModelWasDeletedNotification
{ [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] removeObserver:self name:MPWAppNotificationModelWasDeleted object:nil];

Refactor II

The interesting thing that happens when you remove duplication is that it will often reveal more duplication. In particular, if you look at more of these, you will notice that the method bodies are largely identical. You always send a message to the defaultCenter of the NSNotificationCenter class, you pretty much always add yourself as the Observer, and I've rarely seen the object: parameter used. The only things that vary are the selector to send and the name of the notification.
 [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector: <some selector> name: <some notification> object:nil]; 
So yet another classic case for refactoring by extracting a helper method that encapsulates the things that do not change and takes the things that do vary as arguments.
-(void)subscribeToNotification:(NSString *)notificationName usingSelector:(SEL)selectorName
{ [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector:selectorName name:notificationName object:nil];
We can also apply the same refactoring to unsubscribing.
-(void)unsubscribeFromNotification:(NSString *)notificationName
{ [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] removeObserver:self name:notificationName object:nil];
With the parameters extracted, our helper methods simplify to the following.
- (void)subscribeToModelDidChangeNotification
{ [self subscribeToNotification: MPWAppNotificationModelDidChange usingSelector:@selector(modelDidChange:)];
} - (void)unsubscribeFromModelDidChangeNotification
{ [self unsubscribeFromNotification: MPWAppNotificationModelDidChange];
} - (void)subscribeToModelWasDeletedNotification
{ [self subscribeToNotification: MPWAppNotificationModelWasDeleted usingSelector:@selector(modelDidChange:)];
} - (void)unsubscribeFromModelWasDeletedNotification
{ [self unsubscribeFromNotification: MPWAppNotificationModelWasDeleted];

Refactor III

As happens very often when you extract code and remove duplication we discover more duplication that was previously somewhat hidden, for example because code that was too far away to really notice the duplication is now close enough together to make it more obvious. Specifically: we always define the same methods: subscribeTo<notification> and unsubscribeFrom<notification>. We also repeat the notification name in each of the method names, and also in each of the method bodies (with different prefixes/suffixes).
- (void)subscribeTo<notification-name>Notification
{ [self subscribeToNotification: MPWAppNotification<notification-name> usingSelector:@selector(<notification-selector>:)];
} - (void)unsubscribeFrom<notification-name>Notification
{ [self unsubscribeFromNotification: MPWAppNotification<notification-name>];
- (void)<notification-selector>:(NSNotification *)notification
Up to this point, we managed to achieve our goals using plain refactoring techniques. Often, that is enough, and it’s generally a good idea to stop there, because beyond lies metaprogramming, which tends to make the code significantly more obscure. In Objective-C, we generally have runtime tricks and macro-programming using the C pre-processor (well: and code generation). In this case, I decided to give the C preprocessor a try, because I wanted things done at compile-time and the problem was parametrising parts of identifiers, i.e. string processing.

Doing some pattern matching, we have two actual “parameters", the “base” of the notification name ( for example ‘ModelDidChange’ or ‘ModelWasDeleted’ ) and the name of the method to call. So we create a Macro that takes these parameters and applies them to a template of the methods we need:

#define SUBSCRIBE_UNSUBSCRIBE_WITHMETHODNAME( name , notification, theMessage ) \
- (void)subscribeTo##name \
{\ [self subscribeToNotification:notification usingSelector:@selector(theMessage:)];\
- (void)unsubscribeFrom##name \
{\ [self unsubscribeFromNotification:notification];\
-(void)theMessage:(NSNotification *)notification\
}\ #define SUBSCRIBE_UNSUBSCRIBE( commonName, theMessage ) SUBSCRIBE_UNSUBSCRIBE_WITHMETHODNAME( commonName##Notification, MPWAppNotification##commonName , theMessage )
The first macro has three arguments, a version of the notification name suitable for adding to the method names, the full notification name and the message name. The ‘##’ is the token pasting operator, which allows us to create new lexical tokens out of existing ones. We “need” it in this case because we have commonality we want to express that is on a sub-token, sub-identifier level.

There are a bunch of issues with this approach. First, it is pretty unreadable. You need to terminate every line with backslashes because Macro definitions can only be on a single logical line, the backslashes continue the logical line over physical lines. Dealing with compiler errors and warnings is rather tricky, because the error will be with the result of the macro expansion, which the error message will usually not contain. (You can tell the compiler to run just the pre-processor and give you the result, in case you need to debug and can’t do the macro expansion in your head…). Finally, you cannot search for the tokens that get generated by the pre-processor. So for example no command-clicking, and you have to be careful if you ever change one of the notification names. The advantage is that you get a representation that succinctly states what you want to accomplish, without any duplicated boilerplate. No duplication also means no chance to get those duplicates wrong: the first few code samples in this post actually contain an error. (MPWAppNotificationModelWasDeleted also sends the modelDidChange: message instead of its own modelWasDeleted:) This error, almost certainly a copy-and-paste bug, was actually in the original code and had gone unnoticed for months until I tried to remove that duplication.

I don't know about you, but my eyes just glaze over when scanning large swathes of mostly duplicated code.

Anyway, with the Macros, our help methods are now defined as follows:

SUBSCRIBE_UNSUBSCRIBE( ModelDidChange, modelDidChange )
SUBSCRIBE_UNSUBSCRIBE( ModelWasDeleted, modelWasDeleted ) SUBSCRIBE_UNSUBSCRIBE( ActivityCountDidChange, activityCountDidChange )
SUBSCRIBE_UNSUBSCRIBE( ObjectIdDidChange, objectIdDidChange )
SUBSCRIBE_UNSUBSCRIBE( UserDidLogin, userDidLogin )
Note that previously we showed just two notifications, now we are showing all five, which would have been quite unwieldy before.

Refactor IV

As is typical when you remove duplication, you notice more duplication, because stuff is closer together: the two parameters are almost identical, except for capitalisation. This doesn't have to be the case, but it is a good convention to have. Alas, the pre-processor can’t change the capitalisation of strings so we are stuck.

To recap, this was a process of detecting duplication, removing that duplication using available mechanisms and then detecting more duplication, over several iterations. What then usually happens is that you either manage to remove all the duplication, or you notice that you cannot reduce duplication any further. Not being able to remove duplication typically means that you have reached limitations of your language, with metaprogramming facilities allowing you to push those limitations at least a little, and sometimes quite a bit.

This particular exploration relied on a somewhat formulaic use of NSNotificationCenter, one that always matches a notification with the same message. Since messages are already late-bound, this doesn't really present much of a restriction and seems a useful simplification, and it is a simplification that I've seen used widely in practice. The other pattern is that specific classes typically observe notifications for essentially their entire lifetime, meaning that the ability to dynamically turn notifications on and off is often not needed.

If we imagine language support for notifications (the implicit invocation architectural style), we would probably like to be able to declare notifications, declare that a class listens to a specific notification and and check conformance. This would make usage even more convenient than the macros we refactored to, while at the same time addressing the problems of the macro solution.

And of course that is what Notification Protocols became: a slight misappropriation of Objective-C and Swift Protocols to get something that is extremely close to actual language support. I can now actually declare my notifications as almost a programming-language thing (at least better than a string), and also specify the relationship between a message and that notification, which otherwise is purely lost in convention:

@protocol ModelDidChange <MPWNotificationProtocol> -(void)modelDidChange:(NSNotifiction*)notification; @end
I can also easily and declaratively specify that a particular class listens to a notification:
@interface NotifiedView:NSView <ModelDidChange> @end
Not only does this remove the problems with the Macro approach, unreadability and untraceability, it is actually quite a bit better than the approach without Macros, all while being at least as compact. Last not least, notification sending is not just compact, but also obvious and at least somewhat compiler-checked:
[@protocol(ModelDidChange) notify];
This is very, very close to native language support, due to some lucky coincidences and the wise decision to make Protocols first class objects in Objective-C. It also does not match the flexibility of the NSNotificationCenter APIs, but I doubt whether that additional flexibility is actually used/useful.

Had I not experimented with removing duplication, and iterated on removing duplication, I never would have come to the point where notification protocols became an obvious solution. And now that I have notification protocols, I also have a good idea what actual language support should look like, because I've been using something pretty close.

So for me, plain old refactoring, different kinds of metaprogramming and language support all live on a continuum of improving expressiveness, and all are, or at least should be part of our feedback loops. How can we improve our language so we don't need metaprogramming for common use cases? How can we improve our metaprogramming facilities so they are sufficient and we don't feel a need for replacing them with actual language support? How can we do both, turn things that currently require metaprogramming look more like plain base-level programming while making it integrate better than metaprogramming solutions?

That, Detective, is the right question. Program terminated

As always, comments welcome here and on HN