G.5. What's in an Object?

An object is (with rare exceptions) a data structure containing a bunch of attributes, each of which has a value, as well as a name that you use when you read or set the attribute's value. Some of the object's attributes are private, meaning you'll never see them documented because they're not for you to read or write; but most of the object's documented attributes are at least readable, and usually writeable, by you. Net::FTP objects are a bit thin on attributes, so we'll use objects from the class Business::US_Amort for this example. Business::US_Amort is a very simple class (available from CPAN) that I wrote for making calculations to do with loans (specifically, amortization, using U.S.-style algorithms).

An object of the class Business::US_Amort represents a loan with particular parameters, i.e., attributes. The most basic attributes of a "loan object" are its interest rate, its principal (how much money it's for), and its term (how long it'll take to repay). You need to set these attributes before anything else can be done with the object. The way to get at those attributes for loan objects is just like the way to get at attributes for any class's objects: through accessors. An accessor is simply any method that accesses (whether reading or writing, a.k.a. getting or putting) some attribute in the given object. Moreover, accessors are the only way that you can change an object's attributes. (If a module's documentation wants you to know about any other way, it'll tell you.)

Usually, for simplicity's sake, an accessor is named after the attribute it reads or writes. With Business::US_Amort objects, the accessors you need to use first are principal, interest_rate, and term. Then, with at least those attributes set, you can call the run method to figure out several things about the loan. Then you can call various accessors, like total_paid_toward_interest, to read the results:

use Business::US_Amort;
my $loan = Business::US_Amort->new;
# Set the necessary attributes:
$loan->term(20); # twenty years

# NOW we know enough to calculate:

# And see what came of that:
  "Total paid toward interest: A WHOPPING ",
  $loan->total_paid_interest, "!!\n";

This illustrates a convention that's common with accessors: calling the accessor with no arguments (as with $loan->total_paid_interest) usually means to read the value of that attribute, but providing a value (as with $loan->term(20)) means you want that attribute to be set to that value. This stands to reason: why would you be providing a value, if not to set the attribute to that value?

Although a loan's term, principal, and interest rates are all single numeric values, an object's values can be any kind of scalar, or an array, or even a hash. Moreover, an attribute's value(s) can be objects themselves. For example, consider MIDI files (as I wrote about in TPJ#13): a MIDI file usually consists of several tracks. A MIDI file is complex enough to merit being an object with attributes like its overall tempo, the file-format variant it's in, and the list of instrument tracks in the file. But tracks themselves are complex enough to be objects too, with attributes like their track-type, a list of MIDI commands if they're a MIDI track, or raw data if they're not. So I ended up writing the MIDI modules so that the "tracks" attribute of a MIDI::Opus object is an array of objects from the class MIDI::Track. This may seem like a runaround—you ask what's in one object, and get another object, or several! But in this case, it exactly reflects what the module is for—MIDI files contain MIDI tracks, which contain data.