Variables are not boxes

One of the common metaphors taught in intro computer science courses is that a variable is a similar to a box. Just as you can use a box to store something, you can use a variable to store a value. This metaphor is useful for introducing the concept of variables, but it is a very flawed metaphor. What makes it particularly bad is that holding onto this metaphor can be limiting when a student starts to go even slightly beyond the beginner stage.

In the good old days of down-to-the-hardware procedural programming, a variable really was a box: it was in essence a memory location. The fact is, those days are mostly beyond us, unless you use C/C++ or Assembler as your main programming language.  In fact, it is much more likely that you are using some sort of object-oriented language as your main language. With object orientation, the box metaphor doesn’t work. Why? Because of references.

With an object-oriented language, a variable is actually a reference. The object that you seem to be storing in a variable doesn’t actually get put into your variable box. The variable just ‘refers’ to the object. You can get to it through the variable, but it isn’t stored there. Consider the following (in Python):

foo = SomeClass()
bar = foo

Thinking of variables as boxes leads to confusion: how do you put one thing into two different boxes? Or does it just get magically duplicated? Add to that the fact that you’ll see that whatever you do to foo also gets done to bar.

A far more appropriate metaphor in this case is to think of foo and bar as names for the new SomeClass object. The new object is created and you choose to use it by the name foo. But then you decide also want to call it bar. How do you that? Well the only way to get it is through the name foo. Thus ‘bar = foo’ says ‘find whatever object has the name foo and then give it the name bar as well’. After that, giving either bar or foo another value, means that something else has the name foo or bar.

Though this metaphor does seem like a better one, it’s important to realize that the metaphor is deeply involved with the concepts of object orientation and doesn’t work perfectly. Consider the following:

foo = 1
bar = foo
bar += 1

The box metaphor fails because even though integers in Python are objects, bar and foo won’t refer to the same object. When dealing with simple integers like this, it’s actually the box metaphor that works. bar = foo copies whatever was in box foo and puts it in box bar.

So the question is what are variables? I would argue that the correct metaphor is context-sensitive. If you’re in a object-oriented environment, thinking of them as just names for independent objects will make your life much easier (and help prevent bugs arising from incorrect use of reference properties). But when you’re doing simple number crunching, the box does the job. But before you pick the metaphor you use, invest some time in learning about your language/framework and what metaphor suits is best.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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