A place to be (re)educated in Newspeak

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Truthiness Is Out There

For the past 5 years or so, I (like many others) have argued that Javascript is the assembly language of the internet platform. Over this period, some of the obstacles that limit the applicability of said platform have been slowly pushed aside. Things like client side storage, or decent performance.

However, Javascript remains a seriously limited language for platform implementation. Here are some of the problems.

Concurrency primitives. There aren’t any. Now I really should be thankful for that, as the last thing I want is another shared-state concurrency threading model a la Java. And yet, ingrate that I am, I remain dissatisfied. Yes, I can write my own scheduler to provide pseudo-concurrency, but there are no primitives that let me find out how much true concurrency is available and to let me use it. Nor is there any efficient way for me to preempt an activity.

This lack of appropriate primitives for platform construction is a recurring theme. Take serialization for example. If I need to write a serializer that can incrementally store and retrieve arbitrary objects (say, because I want to implement orthogonal persistence) , I hit difficulties with things like closures. A closure in Javascript is a black box. This makes sense most of the time - but not for the system designer. One wants mechanisms that permit manipulation of the structure of all program elements - closures, prototypes, what have you.

Of course, the challenge is to do this while preserving security. Not everyone should be able to do this - but a program should be able to do it on its own objects, for example.

Another, somewhat related, problem area is stack manipulation. I want to implement an efficient debugger with fix-and-continue debugging for example. Or resumable exceptions.

Weak pointers are another problem. For example, Newspeak mixins need to track all their invocations, so that when a mixin definition is modified, all classes derived from can be updated. You’d like to use a weak collection of these mixin invocations for that purpose.

I’ve never been happy with the approach that says that the only true encapsulation mechanism in the language is closures. I find that very low level. I want objects that can hide their internals directly (private members) - and of course, I want a mechanism to get around that in some ways, so I can program the system in itself (and write things like serialization).

I miss doesNotUnderstand:, which I can emulate by going through certain hoops. There is work going on to alleviate this with proxys but I don’t see them doing what I really want. I can however, use them to implement a mechanism that does.

All of this may be too much to ask of a language where false can sometimes be interpreted as true, and where equality is non-transitive. But it isn’t too much to ask for the backbone of internet programming.

Tangent: the occasional truthiness of false is a case study in the pitfalls of language design. It stems from the interaction of two bad decisions. First, we have the implicit coercion of any type to a boolean - a nasty C legacy. Then we have primitive types, which leads to (non-transparent) autoboxing. Since any object is truthy, and autoboxing false creates an object, you can end up with an automatic, hidden conversion that interprets false as true.

I know that there is a lot of ongoing work to resolve this on the ECMAScript standards committee, whose members seem well aware of many of these issues. The timeline for addressing these problems is however, rather depressing. Between the time it takes to revise a standard, and the time it takes for it to be implemented and widely adopted (so you can actually rely on it) we may see these things fixed by the early 2020s (I kid you not).

Will that make Javascript a language a human should program in? I doubt it, but that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to provide a foundation that will help in building more attractive languages on top of Javascript and the browser.

In this vein, work continues on Newspeak for the browser. We have a pretty solid Newspeak-to-Javascript compiler, though we still need to improve performance and add key platform functionality. At some point, I hope we can release this.

The vision for the Ministry of Truthiness goes beyond just a compiler of course - we want Hopscotch as well of course. Calling the DOM API from Newspeak is possible of course, but not really attractive. We also want the IDE in the browser as well. At least as much of it as possible - debugging might require using a browser extension or something due to the difficulties cited above.

Doing all this on top of Javascript has proven tedious and frustrating, and I hope things improve more quickly in the future; but we will get there in time.