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Java Tech: Language Lessons

May 17, 2005


Lesson 1:
The poor performance of the string
Lesson 2:
Superclass constructors invoking
Lesson 3:
When assertions should not be used
Lesson 4:
Interfaces versus abstract classes
Lesson 5:
Those useful covariant return types
Lesson 6:
Don't forget the superclass
Lesson 7:
The compound assignment
operator surprise
Answers to Previous Homework

I first encountered Java in 1995. That language soon became my
favorite because of its elegance, its interesting language features
(e.g., interfaces, garbage collector, and threads), and its
similarity to C and C++ (I come from a C/C++ background).

This article shares with you some of the lessons I've learned
while working with Java. Several lessons point out problem areas to
avoid; all lessons offer advice on writing better code. I hope
you'll come away from this article with a greater understanding of
the Java language, an awareness of these problem areas, and
stronger Java coding skills.

Lesson 1: The poor performance of the string concatenation

Java programs should perform as well as is possible. But achieving
that goal is not always easy, especially if your source codes
contain frequent occurrences of Java's string concatenation
operator. Concatenating strings via Java's string concatenation
operator, especially within loops, can significantly impact the
performance of your programs. Check out the following code

[prettify]String s = "";

for (int i = 32; i < 128; i++)
     s = s + (char) i;

The code fragment employs a loop to initialize a string to those
characters with Unicode values ranging from 32 to 127 inclusive.
Each loop iteration uses the string concatenation and cast
operators to append the next character to the string. Using the
string concatenation operator in a loop to build a string is often
seen in C++. As with C++, the single loop looks OK from a
performance perspective: it seems to ensure that the runtime
performance is linear.

Or is that performance linear? Before that question can be
answered, we must examine the equivalent sequence of JVM bytecodes.
That sequence appears below:

[prettify] 0 ldc ""
 2 astore_1
 3 bipush 32
 5 istore_2
 6 iload_2
 7 sipush 128
10 if_icmpge 39
13 new java/lang/StringBuilder
16 dup
17 invokespecial java/lang/StringBuilder/<init>()V
20 aload_1
21 invokevirtual
24 iload_2
25 i2c
26 invokevirtual
29 invokevirtual
32 astore_1
33 iinc 2 1
36 goto 6
39 ...

The instructions at offsets 0 and 2 correspond to

String s
= "";
. The for loop begins at offset 3 and continues through
offset 36. Each for loop iteration creates a
StringBuilder object and invokes two of that object's
append() methods, to first append the characters in
the String to the StringBuilder and then
to append the next character to the StringBuilder. Finally, the
toString() method is called to convert the
StringBuilder back to a string. The following code
fragment shows what these instructions look like from a source code

[prettify]String s = "";

for (int i = 32; i < 128; i++)
     s = new StringBuilder ().append (s)
         .append ((char) i).toString ();

The code fragment above is what is really being generated when
you employ the string concatenation operator. Each loop iteration
creates a throwaway StringBuilder object and
explicitly invokes three of that object's methods. The
toString() method call creates a new
String object to hold the result. The original
String object is not used because String
is immutable.

We end up creating two objects and making three explicit method
calls for each string concatenation. Furthermore, additional method
calls happen behind the scenes. One of those method calls, which
occurs when we append the string to the StringBuilder, results in a
call to System.arraycopy(), to copy the
String's characters into the
StringBuilder's memory. This is tantamount to
embedding another for loop within the outer
for loop. Hence our performance changes from linear to

We can restore the performance to linear by eliminating the
method call that first appends the String to the
StringBuilder. We can also avoid creating the
String and StringBuilder objects during
each loop iteration (which reduces the probability of intermittent
garbage collections). The code fragment below reveals these

[prettify]StringBuilder sb = new StringBuilder ();

for (int i = 32; i < 128; i++)
     sb.append ((char) i);;

String s = sb.toString ();

Lesson: Do not use the string concatenation operator in
lengthy loops or other places where performance could suffer.

Lesson 2: Superclass constructors invoking overridable

Java's class inheritance mechanism is a powerful tool for
developing reusable code. If used incorrectly, however, this tool
leads to fragile software. An example of incorrect use: superclass
constructors invoking overridable methods.

The problem with a superclass constructor invoking an
overridable method, either directly or indirectly, is that the
superclass constructor runs before the subclass constructor. The
subclass's version of the overridable method will be invoked before
the subclass's constructor has been invoked. If the subclass's
overridable method depends upon the proper initialization of the
subclass (via the subclass constructor), the method will most
likely fail.

I've created a file-parsing example that illustrates this
problem. The example is based on two classes organized into a
superclass/subclass relationship: an abstract Parser
superclass and a non-abstract HTMLParser subclass.
Parser appears below:

[prettify]import java.util.*;

public abstract class Parser
   private String filename;

   private Vector results;

   public Parser (String filename)
      this.filename = filename;

      results = parse ();

   public String getFilename ()
      return filename;

   public Vector getParsedResults ()
      return results;

   protected abstract Vector parse ();

Parser provides a standard interface to various
kinds of parsers. After saving the name of the file to be parsed,
Parser's constructor invokes the protected
parse() method to carry out the parse. That method
returns a Vector that holds the parsed results. The
returned Vector is then saved for later access via

Now that we've seen Parser, let's examine

[prettify]import java.util.*;

public final class HTMLParser extends Parser
   private Vector results;

   public HTMLParser (String filename)
      super (filename);

      results = new Vector ();

   protected Vector parse ()
      System.out.println ("Parsing HTML file " + getFilename ());

      // Open file.

      // Perform the parse.

      // Close file.

      return results;

HTMLParser describes a parser dedicated to parsing
HTML files. To keep the example brief, I've omitted the actual
parsing logic. The constructor passes the file name to the
superclass and creates a Vector for holding parsed
results. The parse() method takes care of parsing.

Now that we've examined Parser and
HTMLParser, let's look at a main() method
for parsing an HTML file and outputting the parsed results:

[prettify]public static void main (String [] args)
   Parser p = new HTMLParser ("test.dat");

   Vector results = p.getParsedResults ();

   Enumeration e = results.elements ();

   while (e.hasMoreElements ())
      System.out.println (e.nextElement ());

After creating a Parser and performing the parse,
main() extracts the parsed results Vector
and accesses that Vector's Enumeration to
iterate over all result elements and output each element.

If you run main(), you observe a line of output that
identifies the file being parsed. This is as expected. But you also
observe a NullPointerException. This exception is
generated by results.elements() because
results is null. Why? HTMLParser's
parse() method is invoked before its constructor. When
parse() runs, the results
Vector has not yet been created.

The solution to the problem above is to refactor
Parser's constructor so that it doesn't invoke an
overridable method. The result of the refactoring appears

[prettify]import java.util.*;

public abstract class Parser
   private String filename;

   private Vector results;

   boolean cache = true;

   public Parser (String filename)
      this.filename = filename;

   public String getFilename ()
      return filename;

   public Vector getParsedResults ()
      if (cache)
          results = parse ();
          cache = false;
      return results;

   protected abstract Vector parse ();

The new Parser class invokes parse()
from within the getParsedResults() method, but only
the first time that method is called. Because the
HTMLParser constructor completes long before
getParsedResults() is called, parse()
returns the Vector created in
HTMLParser's constructor.

Lesson: Do not call overridable methods from superclass

Lesson 3: When assertions should not be used

Java 1.4 added an assertions capability to the language. The
assertions capability helps developers prove the correctness of
their code. For example, assertions are often used to verify that
local variables have been initialized correctly and that the
default case in a switch statement is never executed.

Some assertions are never appropriate. For example, it is not a
good idea to use assertions to validate a method's arguments.
Consider the sort() method below:

[prettify]static void sort (int [] x)
   assert x != null;

   for (int pass = 0; pass < x.length-1; pass++)
        for (int i = x.length-1; i > pass; i--)
             if (x [i] < x [pass])
                 int temp = x [i];
                 x [i] = x [pass];
                 x [pass] = temp;

The sort() method uses a bubble sort to sort the
contents of the integer array referenced by array reference
argument x. Prior to the sort,

assert x !=
verifies that x is not a
null reference.

The assertion above is problematic. Assertions must be enabled;
otherwise they are ignored at runtime. Equally important: a thrown
AssertionError hides the real problem (a null
reference passed as an argument value), which violates any contract
stating that sort() throws a
NullPointerException if an invalid argument value is

It is better to either not validate an argument, as in the
sort() method above (just document that a
NullPointerException occurs if a null argument is
passed), or include one or more if statements that validate
arguments and throw exceptions if those arguments are not valid.

[prettify]// The following method generates a positive
// random integer between 0 and limit-1 inclusive.
// @param limit one more than the largest integer
// that can be returned
// @throws IllegalArgumentException (when limit is
// less than or equal to 0)

static int random (int limit)
   if (limit <= 0)
       throw new IllegalArgumentException
                 ("limit <= 0");

   return (int) (Math.random () * limit);

Lesson: Do not use assertions to validate method
arguments. Use if statements that explicitly throw
exceptions if those arguments aren't valid.

Lesson 4: Interfaces versus abstract classes

I'm often asked all kinds of questions about the Java language.
Many of those questions have to do with Java's interfaces and
abstract classes' language features. One commonly asked question:
"Because interfaces and abstract classes each make it possible
to define a type that permits multiple implementations, when should
an interface be used and when should an abstract class be
The answer to this question requires an understanding of
each language feature's advantages.

Interfaces are more flexible than abstract classes. An
interface-defined type can be implemented by any class in a class
hierarchy, by implementing the interface. In contrast, an abstract-class-defined type can be implemented only by classes that subclass
the abstract class. This flexibility of interfaces is beneficial in
many ways. One example is the

Interfaces promote mixins (types that a class can
implement in addition to its primary type). Java's class libraries
contain many examples of mixin interfaces. One of those examples:
java.awt.image.ImageObserver. That interface makes it
possible for objects (such as objects whose classes subclass
java.awt.Component) to receive image update
notifications as images load. Other examples of mixin interfaces
include java.lang.Comparable and Those mixin interfaces introduce
natural ordering and serialization to implementing classes.
Abstract classes cannot be used to promote mixins because a class
cannot have more than one superclass. Where in the class hierarchy
would the mixin be placed?

Abstract classes evolve more easily than interfaces. To add a
new method to an abstract class (in some future release of that
class), simply provide a concrete method with a reasonable default
implementation. Contrast this with interfaces. If you add a new
method to an interface, classes that rely on the interface will
break when recompiled, because they are missing the new method
(unless that method happens to coincide with a method that already
exists in the class).

Along with the ease of their evolution, abstract classes capture the
essence of rigid class hierarchies through partial implementation
while preventing the creation of meaningless objects. For example,
placing an abstract Account class at the top of a
hierarchy of bank account classes captures the essence of what it
means to be an account while preventing the creation of meaningless
Account objects. In contrast,
SavingsAccount and CheckingAccount
subclass objects are meaningful.

Lesson: Use interfaces for flexibility. Use abstract
classes for ease of evolution or to capture the essence of rigid
class hierarchies while avoiding the creation of objects that mean

Lesson 5: Those useful covariant return types

The J2SE 5.0

presents seven new language features: generics,
static imports, annotations, typesafe enums, an enhanced for loop,
autoboxing/unboxing, and varargs. It might surprise you to learn
that an eighth language feature was added to J2SE 5.0 but is not
mentioned in the documentation (at least I could not find a mention
of this feature): covariant return types.

Covariant return types let you override a superclass method with
a return type that subtypes the superclass method's return type. To
understand this language feature, let's look at an example:

[prettify]class Parent
   Parent foo ()
      System.out.println ("Parent foo() called");
      return this;

class Child extends Parent
   Parent foo ()
      System.out.println ("Child foo() called");
      return this;

The code fragment above illustrates the pre-J2SE 5.0 way to
override a method: each class's foo() method has the
same return type. If we want to invoke Child's
foo() method and assign the return value to a
Child variable, we must employ a cast, as the following
code fragment reveals:

[prettify]Child c = (Child) new Child ().foo ();

The code fragment above must downcast foo()'s
Parent return type to Child prior to the
assignment. This seems so unnecessary because the type of
this in Child's foo() method
is Child. But since we are forced to upcast that type
to Parent upon return from the method, we must
downcast from Parent back to Child before

Not only does upcasting/downcasting return types muddy source
code, there exists the possibility of type safety violations that
result in a ClassCastException if we employ the wrong
cast when downcasting.

J2SE 5.0 does away with this nonsense via covariant return
types. Change the return type of Child's
foo() method from Parent to
Child and the upcasting and downcasting goes away. The
new Child class appears below:

[prettify]class Child extends Parent
   Child foo ()
      System.out.println ("Child foo() called");
      return this;

We can now invoke Child c = new Child ().foo ();
without the need to first upcast foo()'s
this reference to Parent (via the
Parent return type) and then downcast that reference
back to Child (via the (Child) cast). The
covariant return types language feature has enabled source code
clarity and type safety.

Covariant return types are useful in the context of cloning. For
example, the code fragment below illustrates how pre-J2SE 5.0 code
overrode Object's clone() method.

[prettify]public class SomeClass
   public Object clone ()
      //  ...

   public static void main (String [] args)
      SomeClass sc = new SomeClass ();
      SomeClass clone = (SomeClass) sc.clone ();

In the bad old days, it was necessary to keep
clone()'s return type set to Object, and
implement an appropriate downcast after invoking
clone() and before assigning the cloned object
reference to the appropriate variable. Once again, source code
clarity and type safety were compromised.

Now take a look at the code fragment below:

[prettify]public class SomeClass
   public SomeClass clone ()
      //  ...

   public static void main (String [] args)
      SomeClass sc = new SomeClass ();
      SomeClass clone = sc.clone ();

With J2SE 5.0, we can assign the appropriate
SomeClass return type to clone() and
eliminate the downcast when invoking that method.

Lesson: Use covariant return types to minimize upcasting
and downcasting.

Lesson 6: Don't forget the superclass

Forgetting about the superclass while writing a subclass is a
mistake commonly made by those new to Java's inheritance mechanism.
This forgetfulness can lead to incorrectly initialized objects or
objects whose methods don't work as intended. For example, let's
consider a simple hierarchy that consists of Point and
Circle classes, where Point superclasses
Circle. Below is the Point

[prettify]public class Point
   private int x, y;

   public Point ()

   public Point (int x, int y)
      this.x = x;
      this.y = y;

   public int getX ()
      return x;

   public int getY ()
      return y;

   public String toString ()
      return "Point: (" + x + ", " + y + ")";

Point is a simple class that describes a single
point. This class provides two constructors for creating an origin
point (0,0) or a point at any other location (x,y). Let's extend
Point to describe a circle. After all, a circle is
just a fat point (a point with a radius), isn't it? The
Circle class appears below:

[prettify]public class Circle extends Point
   private int radius;

   public Circle (int x, int y, int radius)
      this.radius = radius;

   public int getRadius ()
      return radius;

   public String toString ()
      return ": Circle (" + radius + ")";

Circle is problematic. Can you spot what's wrong
with that class? For starters, Circle's constructor
doesn't explicitly invoke Point(int x, int y) to save
its x and y arguments. Instead,
Circle's constructor implicitly invokes
Point's no-argument constructor, which does nothing.
As a result, Circle objects have no center other than
(0,0). Fix this problem by explicitly invoking the
x, int y)
constructor at the beginning of
Circle's constructor: super (x, y);.

The second problem occurs in Circle's
toString() method. That method is supposed to return a
string describing the circle's center coordinates and radius.
However, it returns a string containing only the value of the
radius. It does not include the center information returned from
Point's toString() method. Fix this
problem by prepending a super.toString () method call
to the returned string, as follows:

return super.toString ()
+ ": Circle (" + radius + ")";
. Don't forget to include the
super keyword, to invoke the superclass
toString() method; otherwise you'll end up with a
recursive loop that ultimately overflows the stack.

Although the example above is trivial, it nicely illustrates
problems that can happen when you forget about the superclass.
Let's examine a more practical example.

Several years ago, I was asked to build an AWT component to
bounce text off of the sides of a rectangle. I began this task by
subclassing the AWT's Canvas class and by implementing
a constructor that, among other things, invoked one of
Component's createImage() methods to
return an Image, and invoked getGraphics()
on that Image to return a graphics context. The idea
behind those method calls: prepare for double buffering, where all
drawing operations take place in the context of an offscreen buffer
and the contents of the buffer are drawn on the screen in one
operation, to eliminate screen flicker.

My constructor failed. A NullPointerException was
thrown when the constructor attempted to invoke
getGraphics() on the returned Image. Why?
The createImage() method returns null if the component
is not displayable (i.e., not connected to a native screen

An examination of the Component class revealed an
addNotify() method that makes a component displayable.
Thinking that this method would solve my problem, I overrode
addNotify() in my subclass, as follows:

[prettify]public void addNotify ()
   buffer = createImage (width, height);
   context = buffer.getGraphics ();

   // Other code.

Guess what happened? The createImage() method still
returned null, and the subsequent line of code threw a
NullPointerException. It was not until I studied
Component's addNotify() source code that
I discovered the solution: that method takes care of making the
component displayable and must be invoked prior to calling
createImage(). To solve the problem, I only had to
insert the super.addNotify() method call at the
beginning of the overridden addNotify() method.

Lesson: Don't forget the superclass while writing a

Lesson 7: The compound assignment operator surprise

Our final lesson might surprise you: x += y; is not
equivalent to x = x + y;. This is also true for the
other compound assignment operators and their more lengthy kin.
Consider the following code fragment:

[prettify]int i = 0;
float f = 1.0f;

i = i + f;
i += f;

When the compiler encounters i = i + f;, it spits
out a "possible loss of precision" error message. Adding a
floating-point value to an integer value results in a
floating-point sum. Converting that sum back to an integer causes
the fractional part to disappear. To eliminate the "possible loss
of precision" error message, you must cast the floating-point sum
to an integer, as follows: i = (int) (i + f);. This
tells the compiler that you know what you are doing.

But no cast is necessary with i += f;. The compiler
doesn't issue an error message when it encounters that line. Why?
Section 15.26.2 of the Java Language Specification (consult the
Resources section for a link to the JLS) provides
an answer:

A compound assignment expression of the form E1 op=
is equivalent to E1 = (T)((E1) op (E2)), where
T is the type of E1, except that E1 is
evaluated only once.

Thus the compiler transforms i += f; into

i =
(int) (i + f);

I believe op= and its =op counterpart are not
equivalent, because you never supply a cast with op= (the
cast is internally generated by the compiler) and you must supply a
cast with =op whenever there is a potential loss of
precision. If you must supply a cast, you may be less likely to
introduce certain coding errors because you are forced to think
about what you are doing. But if you aren't required to supply a
cast, there is a greater potential for introducing bugs. Consider
the following code fragment:

[prettify]int accum = 0;
for (int i = 0; i < 10000; i++)
     accum += Math.random ();

System.out.println (accum / 10000);

The code fragment above tests the quality of the random number
generator used by Math.random(), which returns random
numbers between 0.0 (inclusive) and 1.0 (exclusive). The idea is to
average 10000 random numbers and see if the average lies around
0.5, which indicates a high-quality random number generator.

The code fragment outputs 0, which indicates a
pathologically bad generator; a tired developer might come to this
conclusion. Obviously, this is not the case. A close inspection of
the fragment coupled with an understanding of += reveals the true
problem--accum += Math.random (); never produces
a value other than 0:

  • accum's value (0) converts from an integer to a
    floating-point equivalent.
  • Math.random()'s return value (between 0.0 and 1.0)
    adds to the floating-point equivalent.
  • The sum (that lies between 0.0 and 1.0) casts to integer 0
    before storage.

These actions happen for every iteration. To overcome this
problem, change accum's type to

Lesson: Remember that compound assignment operators
automatically include cast operations in their behaviors.


I have learned many lessons while working with Java and shared
some of them with you in this article. What lessons have you
learned? I invite you to share them with myself and your fellow
readers in the talkbacks below.

I have some homework for you to accomplish:

  • Is it okay for the clone() method to invoke an
    overridable method?
  • Should interfaces be used to only export constants (i.e., no
    methods are part of such interfaces, only constants)? Although I
    didn't discuss constant interfaces in this article, think of it as
    another lesson that you should know.

Next time, Java Tech introduces you to the interactive Java
environment known as BlueJ.


Answers to Previous Homework

Java Tech article
presented you with some challenging homework
on JTwain and JTwainDemo. Let's revisit that homework and
investigate solutions.

  1. The first part of this series presented a JTwainDemo
    application. Convert that application's source code to equivalent
    applet source code. Test your JTwainDemo applet using the
    appletviewer tool found in the J2SE 5.0 SDK. Don't worry about
    making this applet work within a real web browser.

    The homework requires a reorganization of, to reflect an applet instead of an
    application. requires no changes. The
    homework also requires a policy file that grants permissions to the
    underlying Java interpreter so that the applet can invoke the Java
    Native Interface from appletviewer. Consult the
    Resources section for these files.

    Complete the steps below to build and run the JTwainDemo

    1. It is best to start with a directory that holds all files and
      subdirectories. Create a c:\JTwainDemo directory for
      this purpose.
    2. Copy the net directory and its subdirectories and
      files to c:\JTwainDemo. You will find a copy of these
      directories/files in this article's sample code file.
    3. Copy the,
      JTwainDemo.html,, and
      my.policy files to c:\JTwainDemo. You
      will find copies of these files in this article's sample code
    4. Copy the pre-built jtwain.dll file from the sample
      code file to your c:\windows or equivalent directory.
      This pre-built file is the DLL that you would have built in the
      first article of the TWAIN/SANE series.
    5. Assuming c:\JTwainDemo is the current directory,
      invoke javac to compile the applet and
      the associated JTwain library source files.
    6. Invoke
      to run the applet. The -J
      command-line option is used to pass arguments to the underlying
      Java interpreter. The
      argument tells the interpreter to replace the default security
      policy with the contents of my.policy. If you look at
      these contents, you'll see that they grant all permissions to the
      applet. For this example, it is OK to grant all permissions. But
      be careful about doing this with other applets--you do not
      want to expose your machine to malicious code that someone else
      might have written.
    7. If all goes well, appletviewer will display the same GUI as
      revealed in the first installment of the TWAIN/SANE

width="1" height="1" border="0" alt=" " />
Jeff Friesen is a freelance software developer and educator specializing in Java technology. Check out his site at
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