Tag Archive for 'javascript'

JSConf 2012

This year JSConf was in Scottsdale Arizona, which provided some welcome relief from the cold, wet, Seattle winter/spring.


One of the biggest pieces of news was that Mozilla gave all attendees a Nexus S smartphone running a developer version of the Boot to Gecko (B2G) phone operating system. When I say developer, I mean, camera support was broken, things were crashing, that sort of thing. These phones were a big hit among the attendees. They contributed to knocking the conference wifi out temporarily, and I saw several groups of people who were working on projects for the phone. My experience at Google I/O had soured me on the idea of giving away free devices. In the case of Google I/O, device giveaways have become an expectation, and there is some proportion of people who sign up for that conference based on the hope of getting a free device. Still, Mozilla is going to need all the help that they can get, and people seemed to take the challenge to heart. I did find it interesting that the Mozilla folks were speaking of B2G as a great feature phone software stack. This is a realistic way of climbing up the stairs in the mobile phone market. It’s hard to imagine a real competitor to iOS and Android, but I’m glad to see an effort in this direction. There’s WebOS, Windows Phone 7, and B2G all using some variant of the open web stack. It seems like there ought to be some collaboration between B2G and WebOS’s Enyo framework.


There were a bunch of talks on the internals of Javascript Virtual Machines. From a computer science point of view, these talks are interesting. I heard a lot of these kinds of talks at PyCon and during my days at Sun. It seemed that most of the audience appreciated this material, so the selections were good. The part of this that I found disturbing is wrapped up in one of the questions, which was basically, how can we write our code to take advantage of how the VM works. Given the number of VM’s that Javascript code might execute on, this seems like a path fraught with peril.

Also on the language front, there was more representation from functional programming. There was a talk on Roy, and David Nolen gave a talk that was billed as being about Clojurescript, but was really more about having a sense of play regarding all this technical work. Closely related to the functional programming was GPU programming. Jarred Nichols talked about implementing a Javascript interpreter in OpenCL. Stephan Herhut from Intel talked about the RiverTrail parallel extensions to Javascript which do data parallel computing using operations taken from functional programming. The extensions compile to OpenCL, which I found interesting. I wonder how many more languages we’ll see compiling to OpenCL or partially compiling to OpenCL.

Paul Irish did a nice presentation on tools which gave a great overview of the state of the practice in the various areas related to web application development. There were several tools that I didn’t know about. The presentation is all HTML5 but has some very nice visuals and animation. I’d love to know the name of the package that he used.

Ever since Node.js came out, I’ve been enamored of the idea that you could share/move some amount of code back and forth between the client and the server, much as code used to move back in the days of NeWS. Yahoo’s Mojito is an investigation in this space. It relies heavily on YUI, which I haven’t used. I’m looking forward to looking into the code and seeing how it all fits together.

The team at Bitovi make a special lunchtime presentation about CanJS, which is another MVC framework for Javascript. CanJS is in the same space as backbone, knockout, and so forth. It’s claims to fame are reduction of certain kinds of memory leaks, size, and speed. From the benchmark slides it seems worth a look.


Dan Ingalls delivered the closing keynote on the first day. I met Dan briefly when I worked at Sun, and I was familiar with his work on the Lively Kernel. The Lively Kernel is the answer to the question “what if we tried to build Squeak Smalltalk in Javascript”. It is much more than a language, it is an environment for building programs and simulations. I’m of two minds about this work. On the one hand, there’s depression that we still haven’t managed to catch up to the work that Ingalls and his contemporaries pioneered 30 years ago, and that today’s practitioners are completely oblivious to this work (a comment on Twitter confused Lively with an advanced version of the NeXT Interface Builder — the causality is reversed). On the other hand, although the Lively Kernel is written in Javascript and runs in a browser, it’s not really connected to today’s world, and so it’s applicability to solving web problems is limited. Nonetheless, Ingalls received a well deserved standing ovation. He is among the pioneers of our field, and as his generation is starting to pass on, it feels good to be able to personally honor them for their contributions to the field.

I have no idea how Chris Williams convinced Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the first (Swedish) Pirate Party to come and speak at JSConf. The topic of his talk was the politics of the net generation. Falkvinge told the story of how he came to found the Pirate party in Sweden, and described the success that the party is having in Europe. He claimed that about every 40 years, we have a new key idea. Apparently the theme for the period which is now ending was sustainability, and the claim is that the theme for the next 40 years will be free speech and openness. He credits this theme with the rise of the various Pirate parties in Europe, pointing to the European protests around ACTA and the US protest around SOPA as additional corroborating evidence. Falkvinge claims that the Pirate party has widened the scope of politics and given young people a way to vote for the issues that they care about. I wish that something similar was happening in American politics.


As always, JSConf had a rich hallway/party track. I had lots of great conversations with people on topics including the Javascript API’s for Windows 8, the mismatch between many concurrency models and real shared memory hardware, and proper use and optimization of CSS. I think that facilitating the hallway track is one of the areas where JSConf excels. The venues are always nice, and this year there were hallway conversations, in pools, around campfires, as well as the usual hotel lobbies and restaraunts/bars/lounges. I was also happy to be able to introduce Matthew Podwysocki, who has been doing excellent work on RX.js, and David Nolen, who has been working on Clojurescript. I think that there can be some nice synergy between these two projects, and I’m eager to see if they agree.

The best roundup of JSConf coverage appears to be on Lanyrd.

Clojure Conj 2011

Last week I was in Raleigh, attending the second Clojure/Conj. The last time that I attended a Lisp conference was the 1986 ACM Conference on Lisp and Functional Programming. I am a Lisp guy. I took the famed “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” course from Sussman and Abelson. I spent some time doing undergraduate research on Symbolics Lisp Machines. When Apple invested some energy into Dylan, I hoped that I’d be able to use a Lisp on a personal computer. Java pretty much ruined that. Over the years, I pretty much gave up on the idea of being able to use Lisp for my day to day work. So much so, that when I first heard Rich Hickey talk about Clojure, my reaction going in was unenthusiastic. By the end of Rich’s talk, he had my attention. Clojure has been doing some growing up since then, and I really wanted to attend last year’s Clojure/Conj, but wasn’t able to.

Almost all of my conversations at the conference involved the questions, “Why are you at Clojure/Conj” and “How did you get interested in Clojure”. I’ve answered the second question in the previous paragraph. The question of “why” boils down to three themes: Clojure itself, Data, and Clojurescript. I’m going to use these threes theme to report on the conference talks.

Clojure itself
Clojure is a Lisp dialect that runs on the JVM and has great interoperability with existing Java code. It has great support for functional programming, as well as several innovative features for dealing with concurrency.

Stuart Sierra started off with a talk that pointed out areas where people could learn beyond the books and online exercises that are available. In each of those areas, he also proposed projects that people could work on. One of the things that stood out for me was his use of the Clojure reader to deal with Java Resources. I always found Resources to be annoying, and the use of the Reader is a clever way to make them more palatable and useful.

Clojail is a system for executing Clojure code in a sandbox. The system is quite flexible and the applications aren’t just limited to security. I can imagine using clojail to implement something like the Sponsors described in the original Actor model. Anthony Grimes, one of the committers for clojail gave the presentation. He is 17 years old.

One thing that made me happy was to see the bridge building between the Scala and Clojure communities. Phil Bagwell, who pioneered many of the persistent data structures in Clojure is now at Typesafe, the Scala company. He came and gave a nice talk about Scala’s parallel collection classes. Perhaps these classes will one day find their way into Clojure Daniel Spiewak gave a very solid presentation on the computer science behind the persistent data structures in Clojure.

At many conferences a talk like Clojure on Android would be at the higher end. The technical level of the talks at the Conj was high enough to make the task of getting Clojure on Android seem mundane. This is to take nothing away from the very impressive work that has been done. There are some issues remaining like footprint and startup time, but it looks like some effort is going to happen at the Clojure core team level to make some of this possible. The thought of talking to a REPL running on a phone, or tablet is a tasty one.

Rich Hickey’s keynote reminded me very much of a Guido keynote at PyCon: a discussion of language issues that he was looking at, and a solicitation for discussion. Rich was very careful to say that the stuff he was discussing was not a roadmap, so I’ll repeat that disclaimer. Here are some of the items that stood out to me. Plans to allow multiple builds of Clojure – a regular version, a leaner deployment version, a really lean Android version, a super deluxe development/debugging version and so on. There is discussion about allowing the reader to be extensible, in order to allow new data types to be round tripped. I didn’t follow the history of ClojureScript, so it was useful to see that Rich is pretty committed to this idea, and that bits of technology might even be flowing “backward” from the ClojureScript compiler into Clojure on the JVM. I was also very interested on Rich’s view that the use of a logic system like that in core.logic would be a far better tool than a traditional type system. More on the logic system below.

The last talk of the conference was Sam Aaron’s talk on Overtone, which is a computer music system written in Clojure. The major point was that he used Clojure to define a language for describing computer music, much in the sam way that sheet music describes regular music. There was lots of cool music along the way, including a pretty good simulation of the sound portion of the THX commercial that often plays before movies. The description of that commercial fit in a single projected screen of code.


One thing that I’ve been looking at recently is exploratory environments for working with “federated” data. I’ve grown to dislike the term Big Data, because it’s come to mean almost nothing, however, the ship has already sailed on that one. Most people would be familiar with the idea of sitting down in front of their relational database SQL command prompts, and issuing ad-hoc queries. As the use of varied kinds of storage systems grows, we are losing that kind of interactive relationship with data. Some of the people in the Clojure community have built some interesting data systems, and Clojure is itself amenable to exploratory work with data, between it’s orientation around functional programming, and a development style oriented around a REPL.

David McNeil talked about Revelytix’s federated (among RDBMS and RDF triple store) SPARQL query engine. Their system uses s-expressions to represents the nodes in a graph of stream processing nodes. These expressions are then compiled down to a form that can be executed in parallel using the Java Fork/Join framework. The operators in the s-expessions are mirrors of built in Clojure sequence functions, and can use and be used in Clojure expressions. It’s not hard to imagine extending the set of federatable storage systems.

Heroku’s Mark McGranaghan talked about viewing logs data. What he really meant was viewing log data as akin to a native data type on Clojure and being able to use Clojure’s built in functions on log data in a natural way. Heroku has built a system call Pulse which takes this view. I particularly liked the small functions that he defined for expressing the intervals for recomputing statistics. It’s the cleanest formulation of that kind of thing that I’ve seen, and it’s enabled by his thesis view and Clojure.

Nathan Marz has been doing some great work at BackType and now Twitter. At StrangeLoop he open sourced Storm, a set of general primitives for doing realtime computation. At the Conj, he was talking about Cascalog, which is a Clojure DSL for Hadoop. Both Cascalog and Storm are in use at Twitter. Cascalog is inspired by Datalog and targets the same space as Pig. Cascalog has the full power of Clojure available to it, as well as the power of Datalog. It’s a little unclear to me exactly how much of Datalog is supported, but this is a powerful idea. Imagine combining the best of Cascalog and the Revelytix system. The source code to Marz’s examples is on Github.

Clojure has a logic programming library, core.logic which is based on the miniKanren system developed at Indiana University by Daniel Friedman, William Byrd, and Oleg Kiselyov. Ambrose Bonnaire-Sergeant presented an excellent tutorial on logic programming in general, and miniKanren in particular. David Nolen talked about predicate dispatching, a much more general way of doing method dispatch, and talked about his plans to tie that together with core.logic. The surprise highlight in this area was that Dan Friedman and William Byrd came to the conference and did a BOF on miniKanren and their constraint extensions to miniKanren. The BOF was surprisingly well attended (over 60 people), due in part to Ambrose’s excellent talk earlier that day. A key philosophical point about miniKanren is that there is a straight forward mechanical conversion from a functional program to logical/relational (miniKanren) program. This looks very promising, and it has me thinking about mashups of miniKanren (core.logic) and Datalog (cascalog). Professor Friedman and his students have done some very important work in the Scheme area over the years, and it was a great experience to meet him and spend some time over dinner. After dinner, we were sitting in the hotel lobby, and David Nolen was walking Friedman and Byrd through the implementation of core.logic, which was ported from the Scheme version of miniKanren, and then optimized for Clojure. There was a free flow of ideas back and forth, and it was a great example of a collaboration between academia and practice (it’s hard to say industry because Nolen and company are doing this in their free time). This is one of the things that I’ve always hoped for around open source, and it was nice to see such a concrete example. MiniKanren is described in Byrd’s PhD dissertation, and in the book “The Reasoned Schemer“.


ClojureScript is a Clojure compiler which emits Javascript, which is then run though Google’s Closure compiler. I’ve been doing some prototyping work using Node.js and HTML/Javascript, so ClojureScript looks kind of interesting, particularly because it is good at some the data intensive stuff that Javascript is so laborious at. There were three ClojureScript sessions. Chris Houser took us on a deep dive of the compiler, Kevin Lynagh show us some basic applications of ClojureScript in the browser, and David Nolen did a BOF where he showed off the browser connected REPL for Javascript. ClojureScript is still in its infancy, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Once David gets the constraint version of core.logic working in ClojureScript, it should get a lot more interesting.


The thing that stood out to me about the Clojure community was the presence of the “young Jedi”, Anthony Grimes, and Ambrose Bonnaire-Sergeant. Both of them were able to attend their first Clojure/Conj (Anthony’s was last year) due to fundraising campaign initiated by Chas Emerick. Anthony is 17, and Ambrose has not yet graduated from college. Both of them are lead developers on highly technical projects within the Clojure community, and both did a great job of speaking in front of 300+ people who were mostly older than them. When I worked at OSAF, I worked with Stuart Parmenter, who started working in open source when he was 14. It’s great to work with these young, very gifted people, and I love seeing the community welcome and make a space for them.

The flip side of this is that like many open source, programming language oriented conferences, there were very few women in attendance. Perhaps the Clojure community could take a page from the very successful work that my friend Sarah Allen has done on RailsBridge.

Learning More

O’Reilly has finally recanted and is doing a Lisp book. Clojure Programming should be done soon, and Manning has Clojure in Action and The Joy of Clojure. If you are looking for an interactive way of learning Clojure, there is Try Clojure. Those looking to sharpen their Clojure skills can look at the Clojure Koans and 4Clojure .

The speaker slides from the Clojure/Conj 2011 are available on GitHub.

Update: corrected the name of Indiana University – thanks to Lindsey Kuper

Update: linked to a more up to date Overtone repository – thanks to Sam Aaron

NodeConf 2011

Although I was definitely interested in JSConf (writeup), Nodeconf was the part of the week that I was really looking forward to. I’ve written a few small prototypes using Node and some networking / web swiss army knife code, so I was really curious to see what people are doing with Node, whether they were running into the same issues that I was, and overall just get a sense of the community.


Ryan Dahl’s keynote covered the plans for the next version of Node. The next release is focused on Windows, and the majority of the time was spent on the details of how one might implement Node on Windows. Since I’m not a Windows user, that means an entire release with nothing for me (besides bug fixes). At the same time, Ryan acknowledged the need for some kind of multiple Node on a single machine facility, which would appear in a subsequent. I can see the wisdom of making sure that the Windows implementation works well before tackling clustering or whatever it ends up being called. This is the third time I’ve heard Ryan speak, and this week is the first time I’ve spent any time talking with him directly. Despite all the hype swirling around Node, Ryan is quiet, humble, and focused on making a really good piece of software.

Guillermo Rauch talked about Socket.io, giving an overview of features and talking about what is coming next. Realtime apps and devices are a big part of my interest in Node, and Socket.io is providing an important piece of functionality towards that goal.

Henrik Joreteg’s talk was about Building Realtime Single Page applications, again in the sweet spot of my interest in Node. Henrik has built a framework called Capsule which combines Socket.io and Backbone.js to do real time synchronization of model states between the client and server. I’m not sure I believe the scalability story as far as the single root model, but there’s definitely some interesting stuff in there.

Brendan Eich talked about Mozilla’s SpiderNode project, where they’ve taken Mozilla’s SpiderMonkey Javascript Engine and implemented V8′s API around it as a veneer (V8Monkey) and then plugged that into Node. There are lots of reasons why this might be interesting. Brendan listed some of the reasons in his post. For me, it means a chance to see how some proposed JS.Next features might ease some of the pain of writing large programs in a completely callback oriented style. The generator examples Brendan showed are interesting, and I’d be interested in seeing some larger examples. Pythonistas will rightly claim that the combination of generators and callbacks is a been there / done that idea, but I am happy to see some recognition that callbacks cause pain. There are some other benefits of SpiderMonkey in Node such as access to a new debugging API that is in the works, and (at the moment) the ability to switch runtimes between V8 and SpiderMonkey via a command line switch. I would be fine if Mozilla decided to really take a run at making a “production quality” SpiderNode. Things are still early during this cycle of server side JavaScript, and I think we should be encouraging experimentation rather than consolidation.

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most during my brief time with Node is npm, the package management system. npm went 1.0 shortly before NodeConf, so Isaac Schleuter, the primary author of npm, described the changes. When I started using Node I knew that big changes were in the works for npm, so I was using a mix of npm managed packages and linking stuff into the Node search path directly. Now I’m using npm. When I work in Python I’m always using a virtualenv and pip, but I don’t like the fact that those two systems are loosely coupled. I find that npm is doing exactly what I want and I’m both happy and impressed.

I’ve been using Matt Ranney’s node_redis in several of my projects, it has been a good piece of code, so I was interested to hear what he had to say about debugging large node clusters. Most of what he described was pretty standard stuff for working in clustered environments. He did present a trick for using the REPL on a remote system to aid in debugging, but this is a trick that other dynamic language communities have been doing for some time.

Felix Geisendorfer’s talk was titled “How to test Asynchronous Code”. Unfortunately his main points were 1. No I/O (which takes out the asynchrony 2. TDD and 3. Discipline. He admitted in his talk that he was really advocating unit testing and mocking. While this is good and useful, it’s not really serious testing against the asynchronous aspects of the code, and I don’t really know of any way to do good testing of the non-determinism introduced by asynchrony. Felix released several pieces of code, including a test framework, a test runner, and some faking/mocking code.

Charlie Robbins from Nodejitsu talked about Node.js in production, and described some techniques that Nodejitsu uses to manage their hosted Node environment. Many of these techniques are embodied in Haibu, which is the system that Nodejitsu uses to manage their installation. Charlie pushed the button to publish the github repository for Haibu at the end of his talk.

Issues with Node

The last talk of the day was a panel of various Node committers and relevant folks from the broader Node community depending on the question. There were two of the audience questions that I wanted to cover.

The first was what kind of applications is Node.js not good for. The consensus of the panel was you wouldn’t want to use Node for applications involving lots of numeric computation, especially decimal or floating point, and that longer running computations were a bad fit as well. Several people also said that databases (as in implementing a database) were a problem space that Node would be bad at. Despite the hype surrounding Node on Twitter and in the blogosphere, I think that the core members of the Node community are pretty realistic about what Node is good for an where it could be usefully applied.

The second issue had to do with Joyent’s publication of a trademark policy for Node. One of the big Node events in the last year was Joyent’s hiring of Ryan Dahl, and subsequently a few other Node contributors. Joyent is basing its Platform as a Service offering on Node, and is mixing its Node committers with some top notch systems people who used to be at Sun, including some of the founding members of the DTrace team. Joyent has also taken over “ownership” of the Node.js codebase from Ryan Dahl, and that, in combination with the trademark policy is causing concern in the broader Node community.

All things being equal, I would prefer to see Node.js in the hands of a foundation. At the same time, I understand Joyent’s desire to try and make money from Node. I know a number of people at Joyent personally, and I have no reason to suspect their motives. However, with the backdrop of Oracle’s acquisition of Sun, and the way that Oracle is handling Sun’s open source projects, I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to have questions about Joyent or any other company “owning” an open source project. Let’s look at the ways that an open source project is controlled. There’s 1) licensing 2) intellectual property/patents 3) trademarks 4) governance. Now, taking them one at a time:

  1. Licensing – Node.JS is licensed under the MIT license. There are no viral/reciprocal terms to prevent forking (or taking a fork private). Unfortunately, there are no patent provisions in the MIT license. This applies to #2 below. The MIT license is one of the most liberal licenses around – it’s hard to see anything nefarious in its selection, and forking as a nuclear option in the case of bad behavior by Joyent or an acquirer is not a problem. This is the same whether Node is at a foundation or at Joyent.
  2. Intellectual Property – Code which is contributed to Node is governed by the Node Contributor License Agreement, which appears to be partially derived from the Apache Individual and Corporate Contributor license agreements (Joyent’s provision of an on-line form is something that I wish the ASF would adopt – we are living in the 21st century after all). Contributed IP is licensed to Node, but the copyright is not assigned as in the case of the FSF. Since all contributors retain their rights to their contributions, the IP should be clean. The only hitch would be if Joyent’s contributions were not licensed back on these terms as well, but given the use of the MIT license for the entire codebase, I don’ think that’s the case. As far as I can tell, there isn’t much difference between having Node at a foundation or having it at Joyent.
  3. Trademark – Trademark law is misunderstood by lots of people, and the decision to obtain a trademark can be a controversial one for an open source project. Whether or not Node.js should have been trademarked is a separate discussion. Given that there will be a trademark for Node.js, what is the difference between having Node at a foundation or at Joyent? Trademark law says that you have to defend your trademark or risk losing it. That applies to foundations as well as for profit companies. The ASF has sent cease and desist letters to companies which are misusing Apache trademarks. The requirement to defend the mark does not change between a non-profit and a for-profit. Joyent’s policy is actually more liberal than the ASF trademark policy. The only difference between a foundation and a company would be the decision to provide a license for use of the trademark as opposed to disallowing a use altogether. If a company or other organization is misusing the Node.js trademark, they will have to either obtain a license or stop using the mark. That’s the same regardless of who owns the mark. What may be different is whether or not a license is granted or usage is forbidden. In the event of acquisition by a company unfriendly to the community, the community would lose the trademarks – see the Hudson/Jenkins situation to see what that scenario looks like.   
  4. Governance – Node.js is run on a “benevolent dictator for life” model of governance. Python and Perl are examples of community/foundation based open source projects which have this model of governance. The risk here is that Ryan Dahl is an employee of Joyent, and could be instructed to do things a certain way, which I consider unlikely. I suppose that a foundation you could try to write additional policy about removal of the dictator in catastrophic scenarios, but I’m not aware of any projects that have such a policy. The threat of forking is the other balance to a dictator gone rogue, and aside from the loss of the trademark, there are no substantial roadblocks to a fork if one became necessary.

To riff on the 2010 Web 2.0 Summit, these are the four “points of control” for open source projects. As I said, my first choice would have been a foundation, and for now I can live with the situation as it is, but I am also not a startup trying to use the Node name to help gain visibility.

Final thoughts

On the whole, I was really pleased with Nodeconf. I did pick up some useful information, but more importantly I got some sense of the community / ecosystem, which is really important. While the core engine of Node.js is important, it’s the growth and flourishing of the community and ecosystem that matter the most. As with most things Node, we are still in the early days but thing seem promising.

The best collections of JSConf/NodeConf slides seem to be in gists rather than Lanyrd, so here’s a link to the most up to date one that I could find.

Update: corrected misspelling of Henrik Joreteg’s name. And incorrectly calling Matt Ranney Mark.

JSConf 2011

Last year when I attended JSConf I had some ideas about the importance of Javascript. I was concerned in a generic way about building “richer” applications in the browser and Javascript’s role in building those applications. Additionally, I was interested in the possibility of using Javascript on the server, and was starting to learn about Node.js.

A year later, I have some more refined ideas. The fragmentation of mobile platforms means that open web technologies are the only way to deliver applications across the spectrum of telephones, tables, televisions and what have you, without incurring the pain of multi platform development. The types of applications that are most interesting to me are highly interactive with low latency user interfaces – note that I am intentionally avoiding the use of the word “native”. Demand for these applications is going to raise the bar on the skill sets of web developers. I think that we will see more applications where the bulk of the interface and logic are in the browser, and where the server becomes a REST API endpoint. The architecture of “New Twitter” is in this vein. API endpoints have far less of a need for HTML templating and server side MVC frameworks. But those low latency applications are going mean that servers are doing more asynchronous delivery of data, whether that is via existing Comet like techniques or via Websockets (once it finally stabilizes). Backend systems are going to partition into parts that do asynchronous delivery of data, and other parts which run highly computationally intensive jobs.

I’ll save the discussion of the server parts for my Nodeconf writeup, but now I’m ready to report on JSConf.


Here are some of the talks that I found interesting or entertaining.

Former OSAF colleague Adam Christian talked about Jellyfish, which is a tool for executing Javascript in a variety of environments from Node to desktop browsers to mobile browsers. One great application for Jellyfish is testing, and Jellyfish sprang out of the work that Adam and others did on Windmill.

It’s been a while since I looked at Bespin/Skywriter/Ace, and I was pleased to see that it seems to be progressing quite nicely. I particularly liked the Github support.

I enjoyed Mary Rose Cook’s account of how writing a 2D platform game using Javascript cause her to have a falling in love like experience with programming. It’s nice to be reminded of the sheer fun and art of making something using code.

Unfortunately I missed Andrew Dupont’s talk on extending built-ins. The talk was widely acclaimed on Twitter, and fortunately the slides are available. More on this (perhaps) once I get some time to read the slide deck.

Mark Headd showed some cool telephony apps built using Node.js including simple control of a web browser via cell phone voice commands or text messages. The code that he used is available, and uses Asterisk, Tropos, Couchbase, and a few other pieces of technology.

Dethe Elze showed of Waterbear, which is a Scratch-like environment running in the browser. It’s not solely targeted at Javascript, which I have mixed feelings about. My girls have done a bunch of Scratch programming, so I am glad to see that environment coming to languages that are more widely used.

The big topics

There were four talks in the areas that am really concerned about, and I missed one of them, which was Rebecca Murphey’s talk on Modern Javascript, which appeared to be derived from some blog posts that she has written on the topic. I think that the problems she is pointing out – ability to modularize, dependency management, and intentional interoperability are going to be major impediments to building large applications in the browser, never mind on the server.

Dave Herman from Mozilla did a presentation on a module system for the next version of Javascript (which people refer to as JS.next). The design looks reasonable to me, and you can actually play with it in Narcissus, Mozilla’s meta circular Javascript interpreter, which is a testbed for JS.next ideas. One thing that’s possible with the design is to run different module environments in the same page, which Dave demonstrated by running Javascript, Coffeescript, and Scheme syntaxed code in different parts of a page.

The last two talks of the conference were also focused on the topic of JS.next.

Jeremy Askenas was scheduled to talk about Coffeescript, but he asked Brendan Eich to join him and talk about some of the new features that have been approved or proposed for JS.next. Many of these ideas look similar to ideas that are in Coffeescript. Jeremy then went on to try and explain what he’s trying to do in Coffeescript, and encouraged people to experiment with their own language extensions. He and Brendan are calling programs like the Coffeescript compiler, “transpilers” – compilers which compile into Javascript. I’ve written some Coffeescript code just to get a feel for it, and parts of the experience reminded me of the days when C++ programs went through CFront, which then translated them into C which was then compiled. I didn’t care for that experience then, and I didn’t care for it this time, although the fact that most of what Coffeescript does is pure syntax means that the generated code is easy to associate back to the original Coffeescript. There appears to be considerable angst around Coffeescript, at least in the Javascript community. Summarizing that angst and my own experience with Coffeescript is enough for a separate post. Instead I’ll just say that I like many of the language ideas in Coffeescript, but I’d prefer not to see Coffeescript code in libraries used by the general Javascript community. If individuals or organizations choose to adopt Coffeescript, that’s fine by me, but having Coffeescript go into the wild in library code means that pressure will build to adapt Javascript libraries to be Coffeescript friendly, which will be detrimental to efforts to move to JS.next.

The last talk was given by Alex Russell, and included a triple head fake where Alex was ostensibly to talk about feature detection, although only after a too long comedic delay involving Dojo project lead Pete Higgins. A few minutes into the content on feature detection, Alex “threw up his hands”, and pulled out the real topic of his talk, which is the work that he’s been doing on Traceur, which is Google’s transpiler for experimenting with JS.next features. Alex then left the stage and a member of the Traceur team gave the rest of the talk. I am all in favor of cleverness to make a talk interesting, but I would have to say that the triple head fake didn’t add anything to the presentation. Instead, it dissipated the energy from the Brendan / Jeremy talk, and used up time that could have been used to better motivate the technical details that were shown. The Traceur talk ended up being less energetic and less focused than the talk before it, which is a shame because the content was important. While improving the syntax of JS.next is important, it’s even more important to fix the problems that prevent large scale code reuse and interoperability. The examples being given in the Traceur talk were those kinds of examples, but they were buried by a lack of energy, and the display of the inner workings of the transpiler.

I am glad to see that the people working on JS.next are trying to implement their ideas to the point where they could be used in large Javascript programs. I would much rather that the ECMAScript committee had actual implementation reports to base their decisions on, rather than designing features on paper in a committee (update: I am not meaning to imply that TC39 is designing by committee — see the comment thread for more on that. ). It is going to be several more years before any of these features get standardized, so in the meantime we’ll be working with the Javascript that we have, or in some lucky cases, with the recently approved ECMAScript 5.

Final Thoughts

If your interests are different than mine, here is a list of pointers to all the slides (I hope someone will help these links make it onto the Lanyrd coverage page for JSConf 2011.

JSConf is very well organized, there are lots of social events, and there are lots of nice touches. I did feel that last year’s program was stronger than this years. There are lots of reasons for why this might be the case, including what happened in Javascript in 2010/11, who was able to submit a talk, a change in my focus and interests. Chris Williams has a very well reasoned description of how he selects speakers for JSConf. In general I really agree with what he’s trying to do. One thing that might help is to keep all the sessions to 30 minutes, which would allow more speakers, and also reduce the loss if a talk doesn’t live up to expectations.

On the whole, I definitely got a lot out the conference, and as far as I can tell if you want to know what is happening or about to happen in the Javascript world, JSConf is the place to be.

CouchCamp 2010

I spent a few days last week at CouchCamp, the first mass in-person gathering of the community around CouchDB. There were around 80 people from all over the world, which is pretty good turnout. The conference was largely in unconference format although there were some invited speakers, including myself.

I think it says a lot about the CouchDB community that they invited both Josh Berkus and Selena Deckelmann from Postgres to be speakers. The “NoSQL” space has become quite combative recently, so it is great to see that the CouchDB has connections to the Postgres community, and respect for the history and lessons that the Postgres folks have learned over the year. Josh’s talk on not reinventing the wheel was well received, and his discussion of Joins vs Mapreduce took me back to my days as a graduate student in databases. His talk made a great lead in for Selena’s talk on the nitty gritty details of MultiVersion Concurrency Control

There were lots of good discussions on issues related to security and CouchApps, but the discussion that got my attention the most was Max Ogden’s discussion on the work that he is doing to open up access to government data, particularly around the use of location information. He’s been using GeoCouch as the platform for this work. In the past I’ve written about the importance of a good platform for location apps, particularly in the context of GeoDjango. GeoCouch looks to be a very nice platform for location based applications. This is a very nice plus for the CouchDB community.

These days, it’s impossible to be at a conference that involves Javascript and not hear some buzz about Node.js. As expected, there was quite a bit of it, but it was interesting to talk to people about what they are doing with Node. Everything that I heard reinforces my gut feel that Node.js is going to be important.

I was one of the mentors for the CouchDB project when it came to the Apache Software Foundation, and I was asked to speak about community. The CouchDB community has accomplished a lot in the last few years, and is doing really well. I prepared a slide deck, but didn’t project it because my talk was the last talk of the conference, and we wanted to do it in the outside amphitheater. I also wanted to tune some of the sections of the talk to include things that I observed or was asked about during the conference. The biggest reason that I prepared slides was to show excerpts of Noah Slater’s CouchDB 1.0 retrospective e-mail. A lot of what I think about community is summarized well in Noah’s message, and the note summarizes the state of the community better than I could have done it myself. I hope that we’ll be hearing more testimonials like Noah’s in the years to come.


I spent the weekend in Washington, DC attending JSConf.US 2010. I wasn’t able to attend last year, due to scheduling conflicts. Javascript is a bit higher on my radar these days, so this was a good year to attend.

The program

The JSConf program was very high quality. Here are some of the talks that I found most interesting.

Yahoo’s Douglas Crockford was up first and describe Javascript as a “a functional language with dynamic objects and a familiar syntax”. He took a some time to discuss some of the features being considered for the next version of Javascript. Most of his talk was focused on the cross site scripting (XSS) problem. He believes the solving the XSS problem should be the top priority of the next version of Javascript, and he feels that this is so urgent that we ought to do a reset of HTML5 in order to focus on this problem. Crockford thinks that HTML5 is only going to make things worse, because it adds new features / complexity. He called out local storage as one feature that would introduce lots of opportunity for XSS exploits. I was very surprised to hear him advocating a security approach based on capabilities. He mentioned the Caja project and his own proposal at www.adsafe.org. He stated that “ECMAScript is being transformed into an Object Capability Language; the Browser must be transformed into an Object Capability system”. This was a very good talk, and it caused a swirl of conversation during the rest of the conference.

Jeremy Ashkenas talked about Coffeescript, which is a language that compiles into Javascript. It has a very functional flavor to it, which was interesting in light of Crockford’s description of Javascript. It also seemed to be influenced by some ideas from Python, at least syntactically. I really liked what I saw, but I’m wary of the fact that it compiles to Javascript. I am not bothered by languages that compile to JVM bytecode, but somehow that feels different to me than compiling to Javascript. I’m going to spend some time playing with it – maybe I’ll get over the compilation thing.

Gordon is a Flash runtime that is implemented in Javascript.   Tobias Schneider caused quite a stir with his talk. He showed several interesting demos of Gordon playing Flash files that were directly generated by tools in the Adobe toolset. Tobias was careful to say that he doesn’t yet implement all of flash, although he definitely wants to get full support for Flash 7 level features. It’s not clear how Gordon would handle newer versions of Flash, because of the differences beween Javascript and Actionscript. Bridging that gap is probably a whole lot of work.

Since 2008 I’ve had several opportunities to hear Erik Meijer talk about his work on Reactive Programming at Microsoft. He’s talked about this work in the context of AJAX, and a common example that he uses is autocompletion in the browser. Jeffrey Van Gogh came to JSConf to talk about RxJS , a library for Javascript which implements these ideas and provides a better experience for doing asynchronous programming, both on the client and server side. In his talk Jeffrey described RxJS bindings for Node.js.  I also met Matt Podwysocki, who I’ve been following on Twitter for some time. Matt has been writing a series of blog posts examining the Reactive Extensions. One hitch in all of this is that the licensing of RxJS is unclear. You can use RxJS in your programs and extend it but it’s not open source, and you can’t distribute RxJS code as part of an open source project. I’m interested in the ideas here, but I haven’t decided whether I am going to actually click on the license.

I dont’ remember the first time that I heard about SproutCore, but I really started paying attention to it when I saw Erich Ocean’s presentation at DjangoCon last year. The original speaker for SproutCore couldn’t make it, but Mike Ball and Evin Grano, two local members of the SproutCore community stepped in to give the talk. Their talk was heavy on demonstrations along with updates on various parts of SproutCore. They showed some very interesting UI’s that were built using SproutCore. The demo that really got my attention was related to the work on touch/multiouch interfaces. NPR had their iPad applications in the App Store on the iPad launch day. Mike and Evin showed a copy of the NPR application that had been built in 2 weeks using SproutCore. The SproutCore version can take advantage of hardware acceleration, and seemed both polished and responsive. Dion Almaer has a screenshot of the NPR app up at Ajaxian.

Raphaël is a Javascript toolkit for doing vector based drawing. It sits on top of either SVG or VML depending on what browser is being used. In the midst of all the hubub about Flash on Apple devices, Dmitry Baranovskiy, the author of Raphaël pointed out that Android devices don’t include SVG, and thus cannot run Raphaël. Apparently people think of Raphaël as something to be used for charts but Baranoskiy showed a number of more general usages of vector drawing that would be applicable to every day web applications.

Steve Souders works on web client performance at Google and has written several books about this topic. His presentation was a conglomeration of material from other talks that he has done. There were plenty of useful tidbits for those looking to improve the performance of their Javascript applications.

Billy Hoffman‘s talk on security was very sobering. While Crockford was warning about the dangers of XSS in the abstract, Hoffman presented us with many concrete examples of the ways that Javascript can be exploited to circumvent security measures. A simple example of this was a simple encoding of javascript code as whitespace, so that inspection of a page’s source code would show nothing out of the ordinary to either an uninformed human or to a security scanner.

In the past, Brendan Eich and I have had some conversations in the comments of my blog, but I don’t recall meeting him in person until this weekend. Chris Williams snuck Brendan into JSConf as a surprise for the attendees, and many people were excited to have him there. Brendan covered a number of the features being worked on for the ECMAScript Harmony project, and he feels that the outlook for Javascript as a language is improving. Someone did ask him about Crockford’s call to fix security, and Brendan replied that you can’t just stop and fix security once for all time, but that you need to fix things at various levels all the time. His position was that we need more automation that helps with security, and that the highest leverage places were in the compiler and VM.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the server-side Javascript space. Ever since the competition between Javascript engines heated up two years ago, I’ve been convinced that Javascript on the server could leverage these new Javascript engines and disrupt the PHP/Ruby/Python world. If you subscribe to that line of thinking, then Ryan Dahl’s Node.js is worth noting. Node uses V8 to provide a system to build asynchronous servers. It arrived in the scene last year, and has built up a sizable community despite the fact that It is changing extremely rapidly – Ryan said he would like to “stop breaking the API every day”. In his presentation Ryan showed some benchmarks of Node versus Tornado and nginx, and Node compared pretty favorably. It’s not as fast as nginx, but it’s not that much slower, and it was handily beating Tornado. He showed a case where Node was much slower because V8′s generational garbage collector moves objects in memory. In the example, node was being asked to serve up large files, but because of the issue with V8, it could only write to the result socket indirectly. Ryan added a non-moving Buffer type to Node, which then brought it back to being a close second behind nginx. I was pleased to see that Ryan is very realistic about where Node is at the moment. At one point he said that noone has really built anything on Node that isn’t a toy. If he gets his wish to stabilize the API for Node 0.2, I suspect that we’ll see that change.

Jed Schmidt is a human language translator for his day job. In his off hours he’s created fab.js a DSL for creating asynchronous web applications in Node. Fab is pretty interesting. It has a functional programming flavor to it. I’m interested in comparing it with the RxJS bindings for Node. It’s interesting to see ideas from functional programming (particularly functional reactive programming) percolating into the Javascript server side space. In some ways it’s not surprising, since the event driven style of Node (and Twisted and Tornado) basically forces programmers to write their programs in continuation passing style.

I didn’t get to see Jan Lehnardt’s talk on evently, which is another  interesting application of Javascript (via JQuery) on the server side. I need to make some time to go back and watch Chris Anderson’s screencast on it.

The conference

As far as the conference itself goes, JSConf was well organized, and attendees were well taken care of. The conference reminds me of PyCon in its early days, and that’s my favorite kind of conference to go to. There was very little marketing, lots of technical content, presented by the people that are actually doing the work. I heard lots of cross pollination of ideas in the conversations I participated in, and in conversations that I heard as I walked the halls. I especially liked the idea of “Track B” which was a track that got assembled just in time. It’s not quite the same thing as PyCon’s open spaces, but it was still quite good. Chris and Laura Williams deserve a big hat tip for doing this with a 10 person staff, while closing on a house and getting ready for their first child to arrive.

Last thoughts

The last two years have been very exciting in the Javascript space, and I expect to see things heating up quite a bit more in the next few years. In his closing remarks, Chris Williams noted that last year, there was a single server side Javascript presentation, and this year the content was split 50/50. This is an area that you ignore at your own risk.

Caja: Capability Javascript

Ben Laurie has posted some initial information about the Caja (Capability Javascript) project that he is leading at Google. The code is going to be open sourced under the Apache License (with Ben running it, that’s no surprise). Caja is based on the work that Ben did on CaPerl a few years back. I saw CaPerl when we were looking at how to improve Python security for Chandler Desktop. Ben was interested in doing some capability stuff for Python, but the stars never aligned for it to happen. I’m glad to see that his work will live on – it’s not like JavaScript couldn’t use some security help. People worried about yet another version of Java/ECMAScript should go read Ben’s post before they complain.