3 Laws of EnScript

The other day I stumbled across an old presentation (uploaded by Mark Morgan) that I'd created a few years ago. The presentation was my guide through a 1-3 day workshop/seminar that I led a few times for some clients, with time taken throughout for exploring example scripts and working in teams.

In the presentation, I make reference—with tongue firmly in my cheek—to "Stewart's 3 Fundamental Laws of EnScript." The three laws are:
  1. Data structures should almost always be composed [sic] from NodeClass.
  2. All simple objects are ref-counted, but only root NodeClass objects are ref-counted. NodeClass objects in a list or tree are not ref-counted. (link)
  3. Most of the EnScript classes are auto-generated by handlers from the EnCase view. WYSIWYG. (link)
I don't really explain these three laws in the presentation. Let me rectify that situation. Today, I'll cover the first law.

First Fundamental Law of EnScript
Data structures should almost always be derived from NodeClass

What this means:

class FooClass: NodeClass { // use NodeClass as parent of FooClass

  uint AnInt;

  FooClass(NodeClass parent = null):
    AnInt = 7


The important bits are in red. This defines our own class, FooClass, declares that it inherits from NodeClass, and defines a constructor for FooClass (you are, of course, free to define other constructors). The constructor takes a reference to another NodeClass object (parent), and calls the NodeClass constructor for the object in the constructor initializer list, passing in the parent reference.

What is NodeClass and why should our own classes inherit from it?

I'm glad you asked. NodeClass is the quintessence of EnCase, the manifestation of the central metaphor: everything in EnCase is a tree. (If you haven't noticed that before, look around; everything in EnCase is a tree.) To use some software development language from the GoF book, NodeClass represents the Composite Design Pattern.

NodeClass has a lot of methods, so let's focus on the important ones:

class NodeClass {

  NodeClass(parent = null); // Constructor

  NodeClass FirstChild();
  NodeClass LastChild();
  NodeClass Next();
  NodeClass Parent();


What this says is that a NodeClass object can access the first item in a child list, the last item in a child list, the next item in its own list, and its parent. A picture is helpful:

This picture shows an item in green, and how it relates to other NodeClass items in the same tree. Each NodeClass object has just enough data to form a tree, if we link them together. For example, let's consider things from the perspective of "First Child" in the picture above. We'll rename it "Item", rename the old "Item" to be "Parent", blank out the other labels, and make the old links dotted lines.

Essentially, NodeClass allows you to construct lists of lists. You can see in the second image that we can have another child list, and because of the Next and Parent links, it can be linked into the overall tree.

Almost all of the API classes in EnScript inherit from NodeClass. EntryClass, BookmarkClass, NameListClass, FileSignatureClass, etc.

So, why should my classes inherit from NodeClass?

For a few reasons:
  1. foreach() and forall() loops work with NodeClass. If you have multiple objects of your class, you can form them into a list using NodeClass (by passing in the parent to the constructor, or by calling Insert() on the parent) and then iterate over the loop using foreach(). You can be extra-fancy and create trees, too, and then iterate over every item in the tree using forall().
  2. Some user interface widgets only work with NodeClass. For example, ListEditClass, TreeEditClass, and TreeTableEditClass can only display objects which inherit from NodeClass.
  3. Properties only work with NodeClass. EnScript supports a limited form of reflection in a manner, somewhat similar to Python or Java. Given an object, foo, you can use the typeof() keyword to ask for a SymbolClass object that describes the class of foo. You can then ask the SymbolClass for all properties of foo, and PropertyClass::GetProperty() and PropertyClass::SetProperty() allow you to get and set, respectively, the underlying property values of foo. That is, you can access the data indirectly, without knowing what the class is or calling the property methods directly. This is great for writing your own object-relational mapper (ORM) like Ruby on Rails' ActiveRecord, auto-serializing data out to xml, and implementing a limited form of duck-typing.
This obviously isn't a complete introduction to EnScript, or even NodeClass, but I hope it clarifies the First Law. I'll post about the Second Law in the next few days.

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