Flapjax

Since I got back from Israel, I’ve been working on a top secret project: a programming language for the Web. Well, for the Web 4.0 — we gave 3.0 a miss. The language is Flapjax. As you’ll note on the homepage linked above and on the Flapjax development blog, it’s multifaceted. I’ll mention the salient major features here.

The main feature is functional reactivity, found in flapjax.js. Functional reactive programming (FRP) has been around for a while in the Haskell community. The PhD lead on our project, Greg Cooper, wrote FrTime (read Father Time), which embeds FRP in Scheme.

To learn more about FRP, you might as well walk through our tutorial. It’s a callbackless world in which values vary over time and whole expressions are appropriately re-evaluated. For example, the text in a textbox can be computed with over time — no need to register callbacks for onfocus, onblur, onthis, or onthat.

In essence, FRP is a monad. But in practice, this means that FRP is a driver/callback manipulator and CPS-ed code. In FrTime, CPS-ing isn’t done directly, but instead all of the language’s primitives (+, cons, etc.) are lifted. In Flapjax, either the programmer does it manually or the compiler (my work) translates the code to CPS. There are arguments in either direction — the compiler’s aggressiveness can make it hard to use.

While on the topic of the compiler, we also introduced a templating language for in-lining Javascript/Flapjax in HTML elements and attributes. More on this and it’s utility later.

But the Web 4.0 has to subsume all of Web 2.0. Which is where the -jax morpheme comes in. Given a functionally reactive language, we can deal with values from a server — via AJAX — as they vary over time, without having to fight with request scheduling and callback handling, and so on. In a few dozen lines (and with a Flash proxy, written by Aleks Bromfield, to get around Javascript’s outmoded security model) you can hook up, say, Google Maps and Yahoo! Local. Seriously, we did that: Yaggle. So that’s pretty cool.

If AJAX without the callback mess wasn’t enough, we also wrote a generalized object store. It’s accessed via AJAX (really AJAJ, since we use JSON extensively), and was built to allow quick and easy sharing. We don’t have a demo as cool as Yaggle yet, but it’s certainly in the works.

So that’s it. Future blogging topics are: the templating syntax, compiler internals, client API internals, basic howtos. The whole project was immensely fun. Shriram got me on board by asking me what would happen if PL people actually got together and wrote something for real — that is, fully implemented an idea and sent it out at the world in a language the world can use. We both chuckled for a moment, thinking how funny it would be to actually apply PL. And then he pointed out that there’s nothing funny about that at all.


A quick addendum: Flapjax is an experiment. Shriram will kill me for saying this, but the truth has to get out: Flapjax is a functional programming language. You can’t write loops, you can’t write if — you can use fold and map and expression-if (also called ternary if: test ? consequent : alternate). Can the world handle it? We promise, fame, riches, glory, callback elimination — the stuff of dreams! …but at what cost? All hyperbole, of course. You can write loops and if statements and so on, but we require a separation of the functional, declarative Flapjax language and the procedural, imperative world of Javascript. The real question is: do programmers know the difference?

2 Comments

  1. Hello,

    I realise this is a very old post and such and such…

    > Shriram got me on board by asking me what would happen if PL people actually got together and wrote something for real — that is, fully implemented an idea and sent it out at the world in a language the world can use. We both chuckled for a moment, thinking how funny it would be to actually apply PL. And then he pointed out that there’s nothing funny about that at all.

    Why chuckle? I’m really interested in seeing smart math applied to everyday problems (that’s why I learn and apply it :)). Maybe we could live in a better world then.

  2. You’re right—there’s no reason to laugh. The situation isn’t as dire as some would make it out to be, though: Haskell, Scala, and PLT Scheme are examples of theory and practice meeting (in some proportion).

    Whenever I explain PL to people outside of computer science, they always assume that our study is comparative. It would be interesting if, for a change, we did do a comparative study. How do different abstractions and structures—of computation, of data, even of syntax—affect languages as real-world objects? I’m not interested in “power” or “expressiveness” per se, but rather how programming languages function socially.

    I haven’t liked what little of this sort of research I’ve seen, though. I’m not sure how we should approach this idea or who would be willing.

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