Callback Method Support for Java 2+

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One of the things I really miss when programming in Java is function callbacks. One situation where the need for these kept presenting itself was in recursively processing hierarchies where you want to perform some specific action for each item. Like walking a directory tree, or processing a data structure. The minimalist inside me hated to have to define an interface and then an implementation for each specific case.

One day, I found myself wondering, “Why not?” We have method pointers - the Method object. With optimizing JIT compilers, reflective invocation really doesn’t carry a huge performance penalty anymore. And besides next to, say, copying a file from one location to another, the cost of the reflected method invocation pales into insignificance.

As I thought more about it, I realized that a callback in the OOP paradigm requires binding an object and a method together - enter the Callback object.

How It Works

We have a principle class named Callback with a nested class named WithParms. The API which needs the callback will take a Callback object as a parameter and, if neccessary, create a Callback.WithParms as a method variable. Since a great many of the applications of this object will be recursive, this works very cleanly.

With performance still a high priority to me, I didn’t want to be required to create a throwaway object array to hold the parameters for every invocation - after all in a large data structure there could be thousands of elements, and in a message processing scenario we could end up processing thousands of data structures a second.

In order to be threadsafe the parameter array needs to exist uniquely for each invocation of the API method, and for efficiency the same one should be used for every invocation of the callback; I needed a second object which would be cheap to create in order to bind the callback with a parameter array for invocation. But, in some scenarios, the invoker would already have a the parameter array for other reasons. For these two reasons, the parameter array did not belong in the Callback object. Also the choice of invocation (passing the parameters as an array or as individual objects) belongs in the hands of the API using the callback enabling it to use whichever invocation is best suited to its inner workings.

The WithParms nested class, then, is optional and serves two purposes, it contains the parameter object array needed for the callback invocations, and it provides 10 overloaded invoke() methods (with from 1 to 10 parameters) which load the parameter array and then invoke the callback target.

What follows is an example using a callback to process the files in a directory tree. This is an initial validation pass which just counts the files to process and ensure none exceed a predetermined maximum size. In this case we just create the callback inline with the API invocation. However, we reflect the target method out as a static value so that the reflection is not done every time.

static private final Method             COUNT =Callback.getMethod(Xxx.class,"callback_count",true,File.class,File.class);


IoUtil.processDirectory(root,new Callback(this,COUNT),selector);


private void callback_count(File dir, File fil) {
    if(fil!=null) {                                                                             // file is null for processing a directory
        if(fil.length()>fileSizeLimit) {
            throw new Abort("Failed","File size exceeds maximum of "+TextUtil.formatNumber(fileSizeLimit)+" bytes: "+fil);


 * Process a directory using callbacks.  To interrupt, the callback must throw an (unchecked) exception.
 * Subdirectories are processed only if the selector is null or selects the directories, and are done
 * after the files in any given directory.  When the callback is invoked for a directory, the file
 * argument is null;
 * <p>
 * The callback signature is:
 * <pre>    void callback(File dir, File ent);</pre>
 * <p>
 * @return          The number of files processed.
static public int processDirectory(File dir, Callback cbk, FileSelector sel) {
    return _processDirectory(dir,new Callback.WithParms(cbk,2),sel);

static private int _processDirectory(File dir, Callback.WithParms cbk, FileSelector sel) {
    int                                 cnt=0;

    if(!dir.isDirectory()) {
        if(sel==null || sel.accept(dir)) { cbk.invoke(dir.getParent(),dir); cnt++; }
    else {

        File[] lst=(sel==null ? dir.listFiles() : dir.listFiles(sel));
        if(lst!=null) {
            for(int xa=0; xa<lst.length; xa++) {
                File ent=lst[xa];
                if(!ent.isDirectory()) {
            for(int xa=0; xa<lst.length; xa++) {
                File ent=lst[xa];
                if(ent!=null) { cnt+=_processDirectory(ent,cbk,sel); }
    return cnt;

This example illustrates the beauty of this approach - the application specific logic is abstracted into the callback, and the drudgery of recursively walking a directory tree is tucked nicely away in a completely reusable static utility method. And we don’t have to repeatedly pay the price of defining and implementing an interface for every new use. Of course, the argument for an interface is that it is far more explicit about what to implement (it’s enforced, not simply documented) - but in practice I have not found it to be a problem to get the callback definition right.

Defining and implementing an interface is not really so bad (unless you’re distributing applets, as I am, where avoiding creating extra classes actually matters), but where this really shines is when you have multiple callbacks in a single class. Not only is being forced to push them each into a separate inner class added overhead in the deployed application, but it’s downright tedious to program and all that boiler-plate code is really just “noise”.

Consider our example. The actual program performs two passes through the tree, one to preprocess the files, and a second to the heavy lifting. Using a callback was not only leaner and less tedious, but it kept the real work being done on the directory tree closer to the related code surrounding it. In another program I have a data structure which is progressively processed over multiple passes - that class has 8 callbacks.

(As an aside, I name my callback methods with the prefix “callback_” because it makes them obviously a callback, and because my obfuscator can then be easily configured to retain them unobfuscated, which is necessary since they are reflected by name).

Get The Source

The source compiles to Java 5, but only minor changes are required to target Java 4 or earlier.