The Law of Demeter is a well-known software design principle for reducing coupling between collaborating objects. However, because the law exists in many forms, it often means different things to different people. As far as laws go, Demeter has been flexible in practice, which has lead to some interesting evolutions in its application over time. In this article, I will discuss an interpretation of the law that is quite literally out of this world.

An introduction to Smyth’s Law of Demeter

David Smyth, a scientist who worked on various Mars missions for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, came up with this seemingly innocuous definition of the Law of Demeter:

A method can act only upon the message arguments and the state of the receiving object.

On the surface, this formulation is essentially the object form of the Law of Demeter stated in much less formal terms. However, Smyth’s law is different in the way in which he interprets it: he assumes that the Law of Demeter implies that methods should not have return values. This small twist causes the law to have a much deeper effect than its originators had anticipated.

Before we discuss the implications of building systems entirely out of methods without return values, it is important to understand why Smyth assumed that value-returning methods were forbidden in the first place. To explore that point, consider the following trivial example:

class Person < ActiveRecord::Base
  def self.in_postal_area(zipcode)
    where(:zipcode => zipcode)  

The Person.in_postal_area method does not violate the Law of Demeter itself, as it is nothing more than a simple delegation mechanism that passes the zipcode parameter to a lower-level function on the same object. But because it returns a value, this function makes it easy for its callers to violate the Law of Demeter, as shown here:

class UnsolicitedMailer < ActionMailer::Base
  def spam_postal_area(zipcode)
    people = Person.in_postal_area(zipcode)

    emails = { |e| }

    mail(:to => emails, :subject => "Offer for you!")

Because the value returned by Person.in_postal_area is neither a direct part of the UnsolicitedMailer object nor a parameter of the spam_postal_area method, sending messages to it results in a Demeter violation. Depending on the project’s requirements, breaking the law in this fashion could be reasonable, but it is a code smell to watch out for.

In the context of the typical Ruby project, methods that return values are common because the convenience of implementing things this way often outweighs the cost of doing so. However, whenever you take this approach, you make two fundamental assumptions that those who write code for Mars rovers cannot: that your value-returning methods will respond in a reasonable amount of time, and that they will not fail in all sorts of complicated ways.

Although these basic assumptions often apply to the bulk of what we do, even those of us who aren’t rocket scientists occasionally need to work on projects for which temporal coupling is considered harmful and robust failure handling is essential. In such scenarios, it is worth considering what Smyth’s interpretation of the Law of Demeter (LoD) has to offer.

The implications of Smyth’s Law of Demeter

Smyth’s unique interpretation of how to apply LoD eventually caught the eye of Karl Lieberherr, a member of the Demeter project who published some of the earliest papers on the topic. Lieberherr took an interest in Smyth’s approach because it was clearly different than what the Demeter researchers had intended—yet potentially useful. A correspondence between the two led Smyth to share his thoughts about what his definition of LoD brings to the table. His six key points from the original discussion are listed in an abridged form here:

There are actually several wonderful properties that fall out 
from this definition of LoD:

     A method can act only upon the message arguments and the
     existing state of the receiving object.

1. Method bodies tend to be very close to straight-line code. Very
   simple logic, very low complexity.

2. There must be no return values; if there are, the sender of the message
   is not obeying the law.

3. There cannot be tight synchronization, as the sender cannot tell whether
   the message is acted on or not within any "small" period of time
   (perhaps the objects collaborate with a two-way protocol and the
   sender can eventually detect a timeout).

4. Because there are no return values, the objects need to be
   "responsible" objects: they need to handle both nominal and
   foreseeable off-nominal cases. This requirement has the wonderful effect of
   localizing failure handling within the object that has the
   best visibility and understanding of whatever went wrong.
   It also dramatically reduces the complexity of protocols and


5. The law requires an object to subscribe to information so that it has
   what it needs whenever it gets a message. Thus lazy
   evaluation can't be used. Although this requirement may seem like an 
   inefficiency, it becomes one in practice only if the objects don't have 
   concise responsibilities. In such a case, efficiency of communication
   bandwidth isn't the real problem.


6. Because tight synchronization is out of the picture, the responsible
   objects should be goal oriented. A goal is different from a method
   in that a goal is pursued over some expanse of time and does not
   seem instantaneous. By thinking of goals rather than discrete
   actions, people can derive solutions that don't require tight
   temporal coupling. This sounds like hand waving, and it is—but
   seven years of doing it shows that it really does work.

These are deep claims, but the remainder of the discussion between Smyth and Lieberherr did not elaborate much further on them. However, it is fascinating to imagine the kind of programming style that Smyth is advocating here: it boils down to a highly robust form of responsibility-driven development with concurrent (and potentially distributed) objects that communicate almost exclusively via callback mechanisms. If Smyth were not an established scientist working on some of the world’s most challenging problems, it would almost seem as if he were playing object-oriented buzzword bingo.

Although I don’t know nearly enough about any of these ideas to speak authoritatively on them, I think that they form a great starting point for a very interesting conversation. However, if you’re like me, you would benefit from having these ideas brought back down to earth a bit. With that in mind, I’ve put together a little example program that will hopefully help you do exactly that.

Smyth’s Law of Demeter in practice

Software design principles can be interesting to study in the abstract, but there is no substitute for trying them out in concrete applications. If you can find a project that is a natural fit for the technique you are trying to investigate, even the most simple toy application will teach you more than pure thought experiments ever could.

Smyth’s approach to the Law of Demeter originated from his work on software for Mars rovers, an environment where tight temporal coupling and a lack of robust interactions between distributed systems can cause serious problems. Because it takes about 14 minutes for light to travel between Earth and Mars, even the most trivial system interactions require careful design consideration. With so much room for things to go wrong, a programming style that claims to make it easier to manage these kinds of problems definitely sounds promising.

Of course, you don’t need to land robots on Mars to encounter these kind of challenges. I can easily imagine things such as payment processing systems and remote system administration toolchains having a good degree of overlap with the issues that Smyth’s LoD is meant to address. Still, those problems are not nearly as exciting as driving a remote control car around on a different planet. Knowing that, I decided to test Smyth’s ideas by building a very unrealistic Mars rover simulation. The video below shows me interacting with it over IRC:

In the video, the communications delay is set at only a couple of seconds, but it can be set arbitrarily high, which makes it possible to simulate the full 14- minute-plus delay between Earth and Mars. No matter what the delay is set at, the rover queues up commands as they come in and sends its responses one at a time as its tasks are completed. The entire simulator is only a couple of pages of code. It consists of the following objects and responsibilities:

As I implemented this system, I took care to abide by Smyth’s recommendation that methods not return meaningful values. Although I wasn’t so pedantic as to explicitly return nil from each function, I treated them as void functions internally, so none of the simulator’s features depend on the return value of the methods I implemented. To see the effect this approach had on overall system design, we can trace a command’s execution from end to end while paying attention to what is going on under the hood.

I’d like to walk you through how SNAPSHOT works, simply because it has the largest number of moving parts to it. As you saw in the video, SNAPSHOT is used to get back a 5x5 ASCII “picture” of the area around the rover, which can be used to aid navigation. In the following example, @ is the rover, - represents empty spaces, and X represents boulders:

20:35|  seacreature| !SNAPSHOT
20:35|  roboseacreature| X - - X -
20:35|  roboseacreature| X X - X X
20:35|  roboseacreature| - X @ X X
20:35|  roboseacreature| - - X X -
20:35|  roboseacreature| - - - - -

As you may have already guessed, the user interface for this project is IRC-based, which is a convenient (if ugly) medium for experimenting with asynchronous communications. A bot that is responsible for running the simulation monitors the channel for commands, which can be any message that starts with an exclamation point. When these messages are detected, they are passed on a MissionControl object for processing. The callback that monitors the channel and passes messages along to that object is shown here:

bot.on(:message, /\A!(.*)/) do |m, command|

The MissionControl object is nothing more than a bridge between the UI and a Radio object, so the send_command method passes the command along without modification:

module SpaceExplorer
  class MissionControl
    def send_command(command)

The Radio instance that @radio_link points to holds a reference to a Rover object, which is where the SNAPSHOT command will be processed. Before it gets there, Radio#transmit enforces a transmission delay through the use of a very coarse-grained timer mechanism:

module SpaceExplorer
  class Radio
    def transmit(command)
      raise "Target not defined" unless defined?(@target) do
        start_time =

        sleep 1 while - start_time < @delay


It’s important to point out here that Radio#transmit is designed to work with an arbitrary delay, so it isn’t practical for it to block execution and return a value. Instead, it spins off a background thread that will eventually call the receive_command callback method on its @target object, which in this case is a Rover instance.

The implementation of the Rover object is more interesting than the objects we’ve looked at so far because it implements the Actor model. Whenever Rover#receive_command is called, commands are not processed directly but are instead placed on a threadsafe queue that then gets acted upon in a first-come, first-serve basis. This approach allows the Rover to do its tasks sequentially while continuing to accept requests as they come in. To understand how that works, think about how SNAPSHOT gets handled by the following code:

require "thread"

module SpaceExplorer
  class Rover
    def initialize(world, radio_link)
      @world      = world
      @radio_link = radio_link

      @queue = { loop { process_command(@queue.pop) } }

    def receive_command(command)

    def process_command(command)
      case command
      when "PING"
      when "NORTH", "SOUTH", "EAST", "WEST"      
      when "SNAPSHOT"
        @world.snapshot { |text| @radio_link.transmit("\n#{text}") }
        # do nothing

When the receive_command callback is triggered by the Radio object, the method pushes that command onto a queue, which should happen nearly instantaneously in practice. At this point, the command has finished its outbound trip and is ready to be processed.

After the Rover object handles any tasks that were already queued up, SNAPSHOT is passed to the process_command method, where the following line gets executed:

@world.snapshot { |text| @radio_link.transmit("\n#{text}") }

This code looks a little weird because it isn’t immediately obvious why a block is being used here. Instead, we might expect the following code under ordinary circumstances:


However, taking this approach would be a subtle violation of Smyth’s LoD, because it would require World#snapshot to have a meaningful return value, introducing additional coupling. In this case, the coupling is temporal rather than structural, which makes it harder to spot.

The main difference between the two examples is that the latter has a strong connascence of timing and the former does not. In the value-returning example, if @world.snapshot were not simply generating a trivial ASCII diagram but actually controlling hardware on a Mars rover to take an image, we might expect it to take some amount of time to respond. If it were a large enough amount of time, it wouldn’t be practical to block while waiting for a response, so the call to RadioLink#transmit would need to be backgrounded. This would also be true for any caller that made use of World#snapshot.

By using a code block (which is really just a lightweight, anonymous callback mechanism), we can push the responsibility of whether to run the computations in a background thread into the World object, making that decision completely invisible to its callers. As an added bonus, World can also be more responsible about failure handling as well, because it decides if and when to execute the callback and how to handle unexpected situations.

In practical scenarios, the advantages and disadvantages of whether violate Smyth’s law would need to be weighed out, but in this case I’ve intentionally tried to apply it first and then attempt to justify it. For this particular example, I can see the approach as being worthwhile even if it makes for slightly more ugly code.

Of course, no attempt at purity is ultimately successful, and if you take a look at World#snapshot, you will see that this is where I finally throw Smyth’s LoD out the window for the sake of practicality. Feel free to focus on the structure of the code rather than the algorithm used to process the map, as that is what matters most in this article:

module SpaceExplorer
  class World
    DELTAS = (-2..2).to_a.product((-2..2).to_a)

    # ...

    def snapshot
      snapshot = do |rowD, colD|
        if colD == 0 && rowD == 0
          @data[@row + rowD][@col + colD]

      text = snapshot.each_slice(5).map { |e| e.join(" ") }.join("\n")

      yield text

Among other things, we see here the familiar chain of Enumerable methods slammed together, all of which return values that are not immediate parts of the World object:

text = snapshot.each_slice(5).map { |e| e.join(" ") }.join("\n")

Although I could probably have written some cumbersome adapters to make this code conform to Smyth’s LoD, I think that would be a wasteful attempt to follow the letter of the law rather than its spirit. This is especially true when you consider that Smyth and many other early adopters of the classical Law of Demeter were working in languages that had a clear separation between objects and data structures, so they would not necessarily have considered core structures to be “objects” in the proper sense. In Ruby, our core structures are full-blown objects, but that does not mean they need to follow the same rules as our domain objects.

I would love it if you’d share a comment with your own thoughts about the philosophical divide between data structures and domain objects, and also encourage you to read this post from Bob Martin on the topic, but I won’t dwell on the point for now. We still have work to do!

With the output in hand, all that remains to be done is to ferry it back to the IRC channel that requested it. Looking back at the relevant portion of Rover#process_command, you can see that the yielded text from World#snapshot is passed on to another Radio object:

@world.snapshot { |text| @radio_link.transmit("\n#{text}") }

This Radio object holds a reference to the MissionControl object that sent the original SNAPSHOT command, and the path back to it is identical to the path the command took to get to the Rover object, just in reverse. I won’t explain that process again in detail, as all that really matters is that MissionControl#receive_command eventually gets run. This method is just as boring as the send_command method we looked at earlier, serving as a direct bridge to the UI. I’ve used a Cinch-based IRC bot in this example, but anything with a msg() method will do:

module SpaceExplorer
  class MissionControl
    # ...

    def receive_command(command)

At this point, a message is sent to the IRC channel and the out-and-back trip is completed. Despite being a fairly complicated feature, Smyth’s LoD was mostly followed throughout, and things got weird in only a few places. That said, if you have a devious mind, you are likely to have already realized that the relative simplicity of this code is deceptive, because there are so many places things can go wrong. Let’s talk a little more about that now.

GROUP PROJECT: Exploring our options for failure handling

Smyth’s Law of Demeter promises three main consequences: less complex method definitions, a decrease in temporal coupling, and a robust way of handling failures. Although the example I’ve been using provides some evidence for the first two claims, I intentionally avoided working on error handling to leave something for us to think through together.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to think about what can go wrong in this simulation and to come up with ways to handle those problems without violating Smyth’s LoD. Off the top of my head, I can think of several trivial problems that exist in this code, but I’m sure there are many other things that I haven’t considered.

If you want to start with some low-hanging fruit, think about what happens when an invalid command is sent, or what happens when the rover moves off the edge of the fixed-size map it is currently using. If you want to get fancy, think about whether the rover ought to have some safety mechanism that will prevent it from driving into boulders, which it is currently perfectly happy to do. Or, if you want to get creative, find your own way of breaking things, and feel free to ask me clarifying questions as you go.

Any level of participation is welcome, ranging from asking a “What if?” question after reading through the code a bit to grand-scale patches that make our clunky little rover bulletproof. As I said at the beginning of this article, my purpose in introducing Smyth’s LoD to you was to start a conversation, and I think this is a fun way to do exactly that.

The full source for the simulator is ready for you to tinker with, so go forth and break stuff!


Although I am fairly happy with how the simulator experiment turned out, it is hard to draw very many conclusions from it. In very small greenfield projects, it is hard to see how any design principle will ultimately influence the full software development lifecycle. That having been said, it did serve as a great testbed for exploring these ideas and can be a stepping stone toward trying these techniques in more practical settings.

I tend to think of software principles as being descriptive rather than prescriptive; they provide us with convenient labels for particular approaches to problems that already exist in the wild. If you’ve seen or worked on some code that reminds you of the ideas that Smyth’s Law of Demeter attempts to capture, I’d love to hear about it.

I’d also love to hear about whatever doubts have been nagging you as you worked your way through this article. Every software design strategy has its strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes we make the mistake of emphasizing the good parts while downplaying the bad parts, especially when we study new things. With that in mind, your curmudgeonly comments are most welcome, as they tend to bring some balance along with them.

NOTE: I owe a huge hat-tip to David Black, as he was the inspiration for this article. He and I were collaborating on a more traditional treatment of the Law of Demeter; we each found our own divergent ideas to investigate, but I definitely would not have written this article if he hadn’t shared his thoughtful explorations with me.