Jezen Thomas

Jezen Thomas

CTO & Co-Founder at Supercede. Haskell programmer. Writing about business and software engineering. Working from anywhere.

How Many Levels Of JavaScript Are You On?

There’s a short comic floating around the Twitterverse that pokes fun at Functional Programming nerds. It’s often on my mind because I find it absolutely hilarious. It’s a subtle, subversive, and surreal kind of comedy. I can’t exactly explain why I find it so funny, but I do.

Like so much great comedy, it illuminates some aspect of our culture that needs to be addressed, or at least taken less seriously. Haskellers have a reputation for indulging in the use of esoteric language; monad, endofunctor, zygomorphism, etc.

While Haskell nerdery is ripe for mocking, it isn’t alone. JavaScript by comparison is a seemingly bottomless pit of comedy fodder, but not quite in the same way. The culture around Haskell is a bunch of good ideas, taken a bit too seriously. The culture around JavaScript is that of starting with some dangerous ideas, and piling on layer after layer of external fixes to make the language work properly.

Come with me on a journey.

JavaScript doesn’t gives us a proper standard library, so we’ll add in a utility library like Underscore.js so we can do a bunch of list processing.

Oh, it turns out all of Underscore.js’ function arguments are backwards, so using these functions the way they’re intended is now kind of awkward. I guess we can switch that out for Ramda.js or something.

Immutable data sounds far less complicated than keeping track of where state might change. Luckily, there’s a library for that too. Let’s just cross our fingers and hope that everyone on the team uses the immutable data structure library and not the programming language by itself.

I want to express what kind of data should be flowing in and out of all my little functions without having to write a million isolated tests. I guess I could use something like JSDoc and add a comment to the top of each function specifying the names and types of each parameter. I’ll have to trust myself to just be really careful that the documentation and the actual type signatures don’t go out of sync.

How about those pesky colleagues of mine though? Those kids are always meddling with my work; never bothering to update my precious documentation comments. What about some gradual type system like Facebook’s Flow? Ok, so it’s not totally reliable. And sure, it doesn’t enforce any kind of rigour — you can explicitly annotate any function to take anything as an argument, and return an anything.

Speaking of pesky colleagues: what about all those formatting errors that make it into code review? We’ll need to add linting to our build system. Wait…

A build system! Of course we’ll need one of those. I think Make works well enough, but, ah… Oh dear. It seems one of my more impressionable colleagues has been convinced by a curly-haired San Francisco man that JavaScript is everything, now and forever. So, which of those highly complex and excrutiatingly verbose JavaScript build systems shall we choose? Hmm…

Our build system will also be good for compiling — or is it transpiling? — our JavaScript-from-the-future into a language understood by the browsers of today. Using a language that compiles to JavaScript would be an unnecessary complication. We should just use plain JavaScript. With added compilation.

We still haven’t gotten around to picking a DOM-diffing library or a Functional Reactive Programming state store, but there’s only so much that can be done in a day.

That’s enough poking fun at JavaScript for now. What I do find genuinely interesting is that a lot of these tools are namedropped in programming discourse, in a sort of “my dad can beat up your dad” fashion.

This isn’t exclusive to JavaScript, or even programmers at all. This was standard practice for musicians back when I was one full-time. You could say you’re quite keen on Neil Peart, and I would enthusiastically recite the names of drummers who can and do make Peart look like a shaven ape, violently flailing in the tupperware section of a supermarket aisle.

If it weren’t already clear, I also find it interesting that so many developers would rather start with a broken thing and gradually try to improve it, than to start with a good thing (Elm, PureScript, ClojureScript, literally anything but JavaScript), and just enjoy the benefits of improved performance, fewer (or a total absence of) runtime errors, a sane dependency system, a standard library that actually helps you do your job, etc.

Are you still using MooTools? You are like a little baby. Watch this. Spread operator. Destructuring assignment.

How many levels of JavaScript are you on. My dude?