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Observable attributes which adapt based upon their dependencies so we avoid unecessary updates
 Project Readme


Observable ruby objects which fire change notifications whilst automatically tracking their own dependencies.


Imagine an app that shows a name badge. People have a first and last name and, where I live, the last name is normally their family name. In some circumstances you refer to a person by their first name alone, in other circumstances you want both their first and last name to be displayed. For the purposes of the example, we also want our name badge to automatically update whenever someone's name changes, or if we switch between "full-name" and "first-name-only" mode.

Firstly, we define our first name and last name attributes, plus an additional attribute, show_full_name, for our "mode".

Then we define a computed attribute, display_name, which formats the name according to the current mode.

Finally, we define an observer (our "name badge") that simply writes the display_name to the console.

When we update the values stored in those various attributes, our "name badge" redraws itself when it has to but does nothing if it does not need to change.

# Define the basic attributes
first_name = Signal.text_attribute "Alice"
last_name = Signal.text_attribute "Aardvark"
show_full_name = Signal.boolean_attribute true

# Define the composite attribute
display_name = Signal.compute do
  show_full_name.get ?  "#{first_name.get} #{last_name.get}" : first_name.get

# Define the output that the end-user will see
Signal.observe do
  puts "My name is #{display_name.get}"
# => My name is Alice Aardvark

show_full_name.set false
# => My name is Alice
last_name.set "Anteater"
# no output
show_full_name.set true
# => My name is Alice Anteater

# Perform a batch update, with no notifications until the batch is completed
Signal.update do
  first_name.set "Anthony"
  # no output
  show_full_name.set false
  # no output
# => My name is Anthony
show_full_name.set true
# => My name is Anthony Anteater


The Observer pattern is a fundamental building block in object-oriented programming. It allows objects to communicate with each other without them having to have a hard-dependency on each other, which leads to looser coupled, more flexible code.

If you've used element.addEventListener() when building a web-page, then you're using the observer pattern. You're observing (in DOM-terms, "listening" to) the element and when it needs to notify you, your event handler is triggered. The element itself knows nothing about your javascript code, it just knows to notify its listeners at the appropriate times.

Ruby has an in-built Observable module that works exactly the same way. Using our earlier example, we could define Observable first name, last name and mode attributes that push notifications out to our name-badge whenever they change.

However, there are two issues with this simple way of doing things.

Firstly, when it comes to "composite" attributes, built out of multiple other attributes (like display_name), we need to add the notification handling in for all the attributes that we depend on. This means writing a load of boilerplate observer code. Which is tedious as well as making things harder to understand - there is simply more code to read and digest.

Aside: the browser DOM handles this difficulty by "bubbling" events up through the page. The original update may happen to an input element nested deep within a form element, but you could attach an event listener to the top-level document in order to respond to that change. While this works, it means your event handlers are not located near the source of those events which can make it harder to understand what's going on. The event handlers now have to examine their properties in order to figure out what they are actually responding to.

Secondly, each these observers is a potential memory leak. The observables have to maintain lists of observers, which are kept alive even if the user-interface component (or whatever) that is doing the observing goes out of scope.

Introducing Signals

There is a pattern, being popularised in "reactive" javascript, known as "signals", that we can use to deal with this.

A simple observable "pushes" notifications out to observers. But a signalling observable has a "push-pull" interaction with its observers.

The observer itself is not attached to a single observable, as you would do with a traditional event listener or ruby observable. Instead, while the observer is being built, it pushes itself into every observable it comes across. Later, when any of those observables are updated, the observables push notifications back out to the observers. And during those updates, the observables pull themselves out of their existing observers, then push themselves back into their current observers as and when they meet them.

This method (which, admittedly, is much harder to describe and to understand when reading the library code) has some distinct advantages:

  • When looking at composite attributes which depend upon multiple observables, a single observer can handle them all without manually having to add multiple event handlers in to our code
  • As the dependencies are discovered at the time that the observer is being built or at the time the observer is being updated, if those dependencies change, they are automatically removed or added as required
  • As dependencies get removed automatically, we no longer maintain those hanging references, meaning memory will be cleaned up and garbage collected

Looking back at the example code above, you can see that our display_name attribute has either two or three dependencies. It depends on show_full_name and first_name and it may also depend on last_name (if show_full_name is true). We then add in our "name badge", using the StandardProcedure::Signal.observe call. This depends on display_name and prints to the console every time display_name changes.

So, when the observer is built, it prints "My name is Alice Aardvark".

We then set show_full_name to false. display_name depends on show_full_name, so is updated. And when display_name is updated, our "name badge" observer is also updated, printing "My name is Alice".

The real magic happens now, when we update last_name to "Anteater".

display_name no longer depends on last_name, so even though last_name has changed from "Aardvark" to "Anteater", display_name is not updated. That in turn means the name-badge is not updated and nothing is output to the console.

In the next step, we set show_full_name back to true. This updates display_name which rebuilds its own dependencies and starts observing last_name again. That in turn notifiies our observer which prints "My name is Alice Anteater" to the console.

Of course, this is a trivial example, but you can see that, when you have a complex set of dependencies, any one of which could be updated at any time, the signal pattern means everything can be kept in sync, with a minimum number of screen redraws (or network messages or however else changes are managed within the application).

Finally, note that all this effectively comes for free, with no additional complexity in your client code. No more writing masses of listeners for each and every object in your system, or relying on events "bubbling" up from deeply nested components up to where you need to respond.


All this is handled for you by the interaction between the StandardProcedure::Signal and StandardProcedure::Signal::Observable modules and the StandardProcedure::Signal::Observer class. You never deal with StandardProcedure::Signal::Observers directly, as the StandardProcedure::Signal module will build one when you call StandardProcedure::Signal.observe.

In addition, there is a concrete implementation of the StandardProcedure::Signal::Observable module that you can use directly. A StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute is an observable that stores any arbitrary object and notifies its observers when it is updated. There are also subclasses of attribute that automatically perform type-conversions for you (text, integer, float, date, time, boolean).

And StandardProcedure::Signal.compute allows you to build composite observables which depend on multiple other observables.

@my_object = Signal.attribute
@my_text = Signal.text_attribute "The total is: "
@a = Signal.integer_attribute 1
@b = Signal.integer_attribute 2
@sum = Signal.compute { @a.get + @b.get }
Signal.observe do
  puts "#{@my_text.get} #{@sum.get}"

To access the values stored in an attribute, you can call StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute#get. This is aliased as both StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute#read and StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute#call (which means you can use the short-hand @my_attribute.() as well). However, calling StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute#get also incurs the overhead of setting up observers for the attribute, so if you just want to peek at the value without worrying about changes, you can call StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute#peek.

To place a value into an attribute you call StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute#set, aliased as StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute#write.


Because StandardProcedure::Signal.observe and StandardProcedure::Signal::Attribute are quite long names, you can include the StandardProcedure::Signal module into your own classes. And the module has also been extended into the standard Ruby Signal so you can refer to them as Signal.observe, Signal.compute and so on.

Triggering updates

It's important to note that most observables only trigger updates when the set method is called with a new value. This means that, in most cases, you cannot mutate a value stored in an observable. Instead, you should replace the value by calling set.

For example:

# This will not trigger any updates
@attribute = Signal.text_attribute "hello"

# This will trigger updates
@attribute = Signal.text_attribute "hello"
@attribute.set @attribute.get.upcase

If necessary, you can manually trigger updates on an observable.

# Manually trigger updates
@attribute = Signal.text_attribute "hello"

However, there are two mutable attributes that you can use - attribute::Array and attribute::Hash.

These are partial implementations of the ruby Array and Hash classes that are convenience wrappers when it comes to updates. They implement Enumerable, so you can use each, map and your other favourites, plus they include a subset of the mutation methods to make it easier to manipulate the contents without repeatedly copying, changing and then setting your attributes contents.

# Non-mutable array attribute 
@array = [1, 2, 3]
@attribute = Signal.array_attribute @array 
@new_array = @array.dup 
@new_array.push 4
@attribute.set @new_array

# Mutable array attribute
@array = [1, 2, 3]
@attribute = Signal.array_attribute @array 
@attribute << 4

# Non-mutable hash attribute 
@hash = { key1: "value1", key2: "value2" }
@attribute = Signal.attribute @hash 
@new_hash = @hash.dup 
@new_hash[:key3] = "value3"
@attribute.set @new_hash

# Mutable hash attribute
@hash = { key1: "value1", key2: "value2" }
@attribute = Signal.array_attribute @hash
@attribute[:key3] = "value3"


Install the gem and add to the application's Gemfile by executing:

$ bundle add standard-procedure-signal

If bundler is not being used to manage dependencies, install the gem by executing:

$ gem install standard-procedure-signal


require "standard_procedure/signal"


The gem uses rspec for testing.

bundle exec rake spec will run the specs in the traditional ruby environment.

bundle exec rake opal_spec will run the specs in Opal. This starts a web-server, listening on port 3000. To view the test results, navigate to http://localhost:3000/


Bug reports and pull requests are welcome on GitHub at This project is intended to be a safe, welcoming space for collaboration, and contributors are expected to adhere to the code of conduct.

Code of Conduct

Everyone interacting in the Signal project's codebases, issue trackers, chat rooms and mailing lists is expected to follow the code of conduct.