Flapjax Templates

The response to the template language in Flapjax has been mixed, to say the least. The most common complaint is that they mix content with style. True — this can be done with our templates. But nothing stops a developer from putting CSS in the HTML directly. Nothing except good sense, that is.

In response to a recent post on our discussion group for Flapjax, I wrote about this briefly:

…the only compiler specific syntax is the templates: curly-bang — {!, !} and triple-stick — |||. But these are parsed out of HTML PCDATA and attribute nodes, so a JavaScript/Flapjax programmer needn’t consider them. We introduced the syntax as a way to reduce the clutter of “insertDomB” and “insertValueB” calls. For example, the template language is:

It's been {! currentSeconds ||| (loading...) !} seconds since the beginning of 1970, and it's all been downhill.

while we must write the following without it:


It's been (loading...) seconds ... .

This can become a huge mess, so the templates simplify it. We wouldn't want to encourage doing all of your computation in the display layer! I'd compare it to Smarty or JSP -- while you can include complex computations in the tags, it's meant only to ease the interface between models in code and presentations on screen.

I think that soundly characterizes the template language. Shriram wants that in the tutorial, so that'll show up there eventually. (Some people take classes during the semester, but the Flapjax team has much more important things to do. Or so we're told.) But it would be a big mistake to see Flapjax as providing just that -- the functional reactivity is the interesting bit.


Tonight we're presenting the language to the undergraduates in the DUG; there's an exciting contest announcement coming up, as well. Who has time for midterms?

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?

JavaScript “Protection”

The NeoSmart files has a brief commentary on the feasability of encoding schemes like PHPEnkoder.

On one side, his argument is pretty strong. Any spammer could use Greasemonkey to drive harvesting — complete DOM, complete JavaScript. But there are two points I disagree with him about.

First, he mentions that

JavaScript was never meant to be used as a heavy cavalry, a knight in shining armor, or else a bit of code that can may be used to do anything – because its not.

On the one hand, this has historical precedence. For example, much of the damage done by COBOL was due to its abuse. It was a small scripting language that exploded. But it’s also a bit senslesss. COBOL was crippled on day one. Syntactically and semantically, I mean. JavaScript, with its anonymous functions and prototype object system, remains state-of-the-art today. Just because JavaScript was a glue-script language when it was born doesn’t mean it can’t be useful now as a general-purpose language. Or should ML only be used to write theorem provers? Should Smalltalk only be used to teach children? JavaScript is not Tcl, and it’s not Perl. JavaScript has some great features, a light syntax, and a huge user base. While it’s true that browser incompatabilities are a problem, toolkits seem to have dealt with this well.

But I’m not going to argue languages with someone who prefers VBScript to JavaScript. The important thing is that I think he missed an important capability of the Hivelogic algorithm, something that makes it much more powerful than it seems.

PHPEnkoder is just a port of a very creative piece of software, the Hivelogic Enkoder. The original Enkoder takes a string and encodes it by, say, swapping every other letter. It then tacks on some JavaScript to swap them back. This is already a pretty strong system. But then it goes on and encodes that JavaScript, building up a tower of encoded scripts. An evaluation loop calls eval, iteratively decoding until the bottom document.write is reached and the text is displayed.

What’s so special about that? Well, we can build a tower as high as we like. We can make it arbitrarily computationally intensive to decode the e-mail. Half a second? Easy, give it forty or fifty encodings. Five seconds? Sure. These “computational micropayments” can be worthwhile for a user to pay, but a spammer? Decode one, sure. Decode fifty? That’s nearly five minutes to get fifty e-mail addresses. How many of those people really need a bigger penis?

I don’t much like that future, though. Even if it’s a link a user can click to wait a minute for the e-mail address, that’s not ideal. NeoSmart is right, much of the problem can and should be solved server side. The only client side solution that will ever work will require human language: posting e-mail addresses as puns, jokes, tricks, songs. The only way to escape our symbol-processing machines is to abuse symbols: I’m Mike, and I hang out with hatted weasels! My plugin, PHPEnkoder, also spends a lot of time at the weasels’ place.

But I haven’t seemed to need either of those solutions, as I still haven’t received any spam at the addresses I’ve posted here — encoded, of course.

PHPEnkoder 1.1

Yaniv encouraged me to add some basic <noscript> functionality to PHPEnkoder, so I threw it in — along with a few bugfixes. The message for non-JavaScript-capable clients is configurable, and it optionally applies to RSS.

Get it while it’s hot!