Static Methods on Javascript Objects

I’m a big proponent of unit testing. This means that any code I can test, I do. When I work in the browser, however, it becomes more challenging to effectively unit test all of the code I write without spinning up an instance of PhantomJS. On top of that, most of the code I write in the browser, now, uses Angular as the underlying framework, which means my requirements are even more restricted since the go-to testing environment for Angular is Karma, which uses PhantomJS to satisfy Angular’s dependency on a live DOM.

When we consider testing requirements along with the desire to share code between Node and client-side Javascript, it becomes critically important to decouple our core functionality from the framework and environment it runs within. Although some projects can benefit from Browserify and Webpack, it is equally common for developers to fight against the build step which happens before running everything in the browser.

I have spent a fair amount of time off and on trying to find the best solution for each of these problems, which would solve all of them together. Ultimately, the solution came to me while working with Scala. In Scala, it is possible to define a class and an associated object. The object exposes functions as static methods on a namespace, while the class acts as an instantiable object which can be used in Classical OO applications.

A Basic Object

This inspired my thinking and I started looking at ways I could drop this same philosophy into Javascript. Ultimately, I landed on the concept of static functions on an object. In order to get some perspective on where this train of thought will take us, let’s take a look at a simple controller object like we might create in Angular.

This controller is actually pretty typical. There is a little bit of functionality which goes through and modifies the controller state. In order to properly test this behavior, we have to modify the controller state, then run each method and test that the mutation was correct. In a world where good functional practices are possible, this seems unnecessarily fiddly.

Moving to Static

If we rewrite this controller just a little bit, we can start separating behaviors and decouple the computational bits from the state mutation. This means the bulk of the work can be bundled up inside a pure function which is easy to test and think about. Once that is complete, the mutation behavior becomes trivial to test and reason about because it is merely setting a variable.

This change is important because we are actually modifying the base object which introduces functions which are not part of the instantiable object. Due to this, we can actually start moving the functionality out of the primary object scope altogether and, instead, only reveal the parts of our code which we really want to expose for use.

Full Extraction and Namespacing

Once we have extracted the base functionality, we can actually move all of our logic into a factory function. This will allow us to close over utility functions and reveal just the resulting composite functions which can be attached to our object just in time.

We can actually call our factory function within our tests to ensure the logic is correct, meanwhile, nothing is exposed to the outside world accidentally. This means we can attach these functions to the controller, if desired, just before we use them in our prototypal functions.

By attaching the functions as static methods, we give them a unique namespace, perform safe data hiding and ensure that our controller functions can refer to them without needing to be bound to a local context. This actually frees us quite a bit since much of the complexity related to Classical OO in Javascript is related to context switching depending on whether a function is called within the object scope or not.

I created a small utility to perform a no-frills merge of properties onto an object. This is only for illustration and would probably be best done with a reliable library like lodash or JFP. Let’s take a look at attaching our functions to our object for namespacing purposes.

We can see here the attachment of our functions is exclusively for the purpose of namespacing, much the same way we might see this in Scala or other functional language. Now that our functions are separated and declared within a factory function, we can actually work toward our second goal.

Externalizing Our Code

By separating our functionality, we can actually lift the entire factory function into a conditionally exported node module. On top of that, we get extra security because our factory function closes over our functions, making them completely inaccessible to tampering. This means, once our app is loaded in a browser, we get the same kind of separation from the world we normally see from an IIFE.

Moreover, because our code can be conditionally exported, we can require our behaviors directly and test them outside of the browser context. This means our tests will run faster and we don’t need to rely on as many, potentially flaky, integration tests. Here’s our final behavior code.

Summary

In the face of a new world for Javascript, it is important to capture every advantage we can in order to make our code clean, efficient and stable. By splitting our behaviors out of the strict confines of a framework structure and pulling them into a file for easy testing, we simplify the testing story and make it easier to share behavior between the browser and the server.

We can use simple patterns to build well defined, pure functions which give us a clear way to write and share code, while keeping it safe from attackers and stable for our users. The next time you find yourself working on a full-stack Javascript application, how are you going to split your app?

The Shodan Programmer (Reprise)

Quite some time ago, Michael O. Church wrote a blog post about the Shodan Programmer (beginning degree programmer, or journey beginning programmer). In this post he detailed a gradient system for identifying programmers with regard to skill, experience and knowledge. Two or three weeks ago, I discovered his post was either removed or his site had been deleted. I’m not entirely sure what led to his Shodan post going MIA, but it was an important idea in the greater discussion of progressing skill and ability.

The last remaining reference to his Dan idea is on a Quora post about the top 1% of programmers. In this post, the person posing the question was trying to find out how some of the greatest developers think and work in order to identify common habits of skilled and high-performing programmers.

With all of this in mind, I decided it is important to provide a new voice to the discussion about the Shodan Programmer. I believe that Church’s metaphor for describing programmer skill and ability holds up quite well against scrutiny. Ultimately, the idea is, programmers come in three broad-scope forms and the line is blurred when digging in and identifying when someone has moved from one part of the scale to another.

Where I currently work, we have three conceptual roles in which a developer falls: learner, contributor and mentor. Although this is, effectively, more closely related to the concept of apprentice, journeyman and master, it does line up, in part, with the greater idea Church presents in his Shodan Programmer post.

The Dan scale goes from 0.0 to 3.0 and, it could be said, this scale is logarithmic. The closer you get to the highest point, the harder it is to actually move the needle and the closer to 0 you are, the more likely you are to see large amounts of measurable improvement. This means it becomes increasingly more difficult to identify the gradation between two programmers with high proficiency.

Let’s have a glance at the three levels of the Dan.

Level 1 programmers, or Adders, are programmers who typically perform the bulk of the programming work in a software shop, solving common problems and interacting with systems. These programmers, given enough time, could eventually solve most problems which are necessary

Level 2 programmers, or Multipliers, are programmers who are capable, not only, of solving a problem, but are versed in higher-level ideas like architecture or library development and maintenance. Multipliers provide means to solve more general problems in order to reduce the amount of time spent solving the same problem over and over.

Level 3 programmers, or Global Multipliers, are programmers who tend to think beyond the scope of the immediate problem and look to solve large-scale problems. Although level 3 programmers can perform the tasks of level 1 and 2 programmers, they tend to take research positions and work on conceptual or innovative new technologies which proliferate through the entire community over time.

Level 1 Programmers

Level 1 programmers are what people would typically think of as entry- and mid-level programmers. These people are more focused on expanding their knowledge either through a learning program or day to day development projects which push their boundaries. Even programmers who have barely written their first Hello World program fall into Level 1, though they are usually not ready for production development for some time yet.

Church writes that a level 1 programmer is typically found on the scale between 0.0 and 1.4. If we were to consider the least experienced developer being hired as a junior or associate developer, we would likely be looking at developers who are at ~0.8 on the scale. Any programmer falling above 1.4 is starting to move into the realm of a Level 2 programmer.

We can see, of course, that this scale leaves a rather wide division between Level 1 and Level 2 since Level 2 actually begins well before a programmer actually reaches the 2.0 mark. It’s highly likely that someone who is working at a 1.2 level is probably starting to move into a mid-level programmer position and they are able to start looking at larger, more complex problems, though they are unlikely to be prepared to do architectural analysis

Church states that many programmers don’t progress beyond 1.2 because they stop actively investing in their own knowledge and education. It is common for someone to become comfortable with the technology stack and problem space they know and settle in.

Level 2

As you might imagine, a programmer who is at 1.5 is lumped into a Level 2 programmer. This does not mean that everyone who has reached level 1.5 is prepared to take on all tasks a Level 2.0 programmer would be able to accomplish, but they are starting to learn methods and techniques for tackling more challenging problems.

Level 2 programmers fall between 1.5 and 2.4 on the scale and perform a variety of tasks which might be considered too difficult, or too obscure for a Level 1 programmer. This does not imply any sort of superiority, however. More often reaching Level 2 is a product of independent learning, and industry experience. Level 2 programmers, typically, tap into knowledge which comes exclusively through time.

Church states that Level 2+ programmers can be identified through a variety of outlets such as library development or maintenance, speaking at conferences and mentorship. Due to the nature of their output, Level 2 programmers tend to multiply the efforts of a team rather than simply adding to it. This is where we can really see the difference between the Level 1 and Level 2 programmers.

Simply stated, by bringing Level 1 programmers onto a team the team is likely to benefit in an additive way. It is not uncommon to have a development team made up, exclusively, of Level 1 programmers, who produce working software. Typically, by introducing Level 2 programmers, the code quality will increase and the overall team will learn new skills and become a more effective team. This kind of improvement is greater than an additive effect, giving Level 2 programmers the Multiplier name.

The important aspect of a Multiplier is they provide large scale benefit to a company and are often as influential to an organization as a manager or executive. High-performing Multipliers not only raise the skill and ability of the people around them, but they steer projects clear of known pitfalls or dangers and empower the programmers they work with to take the software they touch to greater vistas.

Level 3

Church calls Level 3 programmers Global Multipliers, but it might be easier to envision them as theorists and researchers. These programmers are at 2.5 and above in the Dan gradient and it is highly unlikely anyone will actually reach 3.0, given the logarithmic nature of the scale.

Typically, Level 3 programmers work on bleeding edge projects and provide the technical and theoretical vision for the result. Level 3 developers are often found working in the R&D departments of large companies like Google, Microsoft or Apple or as high-paid, uniquely skilled contractors and trainers.

Level 3 programmers often have a deep understanding of more than just software development. They typically understand the deep underpinnings of computer science and mathematics. An academic equivalent would be a post-doctorate computer scientist leading research on a funded long-term project.

As with the gap between Level 1 and Level 2 programmers, a Level 3 programmer grows to their position through constant research, development and experience. Both Level 2 and Level 3 programmers have learned through a long process of failure and success. There is no simple path to reaching Level 3 and many programmers may never reach Level 3 simply because they lack the desire to put forth the tremendous amount of effort needed to increase their place on the scale by one or two tenths of a point.

Level Analysis

The way Church originally designed this scale, the intent was to identify appropriate skill level for people working in the industry and understand how people might attack a particular problem. Anyone who is at the whole number increments, e.g. 1.0 or 2.0, it is likely they would be able to solve 95% of the problems which could be identified at that skill level.

In other words, someone who is identified at a level of 2.0 would be able to successfully work on and solve 95% of Level 2 type problems. In much the same way, they are likely only going to be able to solve about 5% of Level 3 problems. This works the same way for someone at a level of 1.0, who would be able to solve 95% of Level 1 problems, but only 5% of Level 2 problems.

This means that for each point closer to the next level, a programmer would be able to solve a greater number of problems which would be distinct for that level. This kind of ability growth leads directly to the logarithmic nature of the graph.

Where this level designation comes in handy in day to day work is understanding the level of difficulty for a specific problem. If something is a straightforward coding problem which can be solved through a brute force approach, the problem is likely a level ~1.0 problem. On the other hand, if the problem is largely architectural or generic in nature it is probably more of a level ~2.0 problem.

By understanding where a developer currently falls on the scale will provide insight into the likelihood they will succeed at solving a problem on their own. In other words, if a developer is performing at level ~1.2, they will probably find a problem at level ~2.1 frustrating or inscrutable. On the other hand, they will also, likely, find a level ~0.3 problem trivial or boring.

This gives us a heuristic for maintaining developer engagement. Church claims that developers seeking a challenge perform best at about 65-75% above their skill level. This means we could expect a developer to exhibit moderate growth with a healthy mixture of problems which they consider “simple” for confidence, or 50% below their level, problems at +/-10% of their level and problems which are up to
50% above their level.

What it Means

Ultimately, this scale is not an indictment of anyone’s skill or ability regardless of where they are in their career. Regardless of whether you are just starting out, or you are a multi-decade veteran of the software industry, your place in the Dan is uniquely your own. Some people enjoy the act of writing code and will happily continue forward on that path, while others have ambitions of experience beyond where they are today. The choice is personal and it’s not one I would be comfortable guiding in any way.

Ideally, Church’s Dan should provide insight into the road a programmer could walk to achieve their desires and set a course for their career. Level 1.0 or 1.1 could realistically be reached in a couple of years and, perhaps, a year or so for a particularly dedicated developer. Church states that moving up the scale at 0.1 points per year after the first level is likely an aggressive schedule for many programmers. This means reaching level 2.0 will likely take a dedicated programmer 10 or 11 years on average, but might be achieved in about 8 for someone who is especially active in their research and experience.

I would suggest that the closer a programmer gets to 2.0, the slower the progress is going to feel simply because it takes more effort to cover the ground necessary for each tenth of a point. This is especially true since computer science is a field which is continually expanding and knowledge of topics continues to deepen year over year.

After reaching level 2.0, it could, realistically, take a lifetime to reach 2.5 or above. This is completely dependent upon the programmer and what their desires are. This does not necessarily mean reaching for the pinnacle is not a worthy goal outright. Instead what this means is each person will have to decide on their own whether they want to continue to climb, and what it will mean for their career.

In the end, this scale is simply a means for every person to understand where they currently are in their career, and provide a way to assess problems which will crop up while working on a particular project. In much the same way, revisiting this idea and the scale that comes with it has helped me to understand how to, both, pick appropriate level problems for people I work with as well as understand problems I have yet to face for myself.

In the end, I hope this has helped others to get a taste of the scale Church presented and, perhaps, draw a clearer line from where they are now to where they want to be. Everyone walks the path, the question is where does the journey ultimately lead?

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Intent: Why Types Are Important

A common complaint from both the Javascript religious and the newcomers alike is Javascript is tremendously difficult to debug when things go sideways. When a null or undefined reference is passed, the stack trace can be illuminating or it can be completely obscure. Couple this with the growing popularity to use anonymous functions assigned to variables in lieu of named functions and you have a recipe for tremendous difficulty.

In modern compiled languages like C# and Java or F# and Scala, there is an enforced, static type system in place which ensures values which would cause a malfunction are disallowed from function calls. This does not guarantee program correctness, but it does help eliminate strange errors.

Of course, the really important thing which comes from static typing is less about the compile-time checking as it is the integration of typed thinking into the entire development process. While developers working in statically typed languages are thinking about the logic for their programs, they are also considering the data types they are using to arrive at their results.

Revealing Intent

When a programming language provides type annotations, it means the programmer can declare what they intend the program to do up front. Most statically typed languages typically have an editor (or two) which provide insight into what the annotations say elsewhere in the codebase, possibly quite far from where the programmer is currently looking.

What these editors are really providing is a look into the intent of the work which was done before. I refer to this kind of behavior as revealing intent. By revealing intent to the programmer, they can make choices which simplify the work of understanding other objects, functions and behaviors.

Javascript, for better or worse, does not allow for revealing intent other than variable names. This means that either each variable name must contain information about its type so people can opt to conform to the expected types or, alternatively, misbehave and intentionally break the function being called. I am a noted fan of dynamic languages and like my functions free-flowing, but sometimes I long for a good, strong contract.

Let’s pick a simple function written in Javascript and see what our baseline is.

Our function could add two numbers, but it could also be called upon to do other things the name does not specifically call out. AddJS could concatenate strings, coerce numbers to strings or act upon functions, objects and many other data types. Clearly this is not what we intended.

Microsoft designed a language called TypeScript which transpiles to Javascript and includes features from ES Next as well as a quasi-static type system. The type system in TypeScript is a step in the right direction when types are used, but there are still some problems. Let’s have a look at our function rewritten in TypeScript.

Our new add function declares it takes two numbers and returns a number. This is really handy when we are exposing a function as an API to the rest of the world because other programmers can then capture this type information as they program and use it to make their calls conform to the expectation declared in the type contract…

Unless they aren’t using Typescript in the rest of their application.

Typescript really only solves the problem if someone has bought into the entire ecosystem and uses modules which exclusively have TypeScript annotations attached or a TypeScript Definition file. Atop all of this anyone who wants to access these annotations will need to use an editor which supports that kind of behavior.

A Type By Any Other Name…

As functional programming continues to gain traction, patterns like function currying become more common in codebases. This means we now have functions which could return other functions (higher-order functions) which run 2 or more layers deep. This kind of behavior can be demonstrated by a small rewrite of our add function.

With this setup in vanilla Javascript, we have really challenged the next programmer to try and decode our intent if they aren’t familiar with a currying pattern. Due to the lack of types and intent declaration in Javascript, this function, for as simple as it is, tells us almost nothing about intent since even the input variables are separated across different functions and the result is the product of a closure.

If we were working in Scala we would get intent and behavior bundled in, possibly, too terse a form. Nonetheless, the full intent of our behavior is described by the following line of code.

This function definition actually declares not only data types for the function, but how they interact. We could almost say add moves out of the range of function definition and into a type definition on its own. That is, however, a little more esoteric than we need to be.

Of course, moving back to TypeScript, we can see where data types, function definitions and intent start to fall apart. Although data types are declared and displayed, it is difficult to write a curried function in a way that is both clear and declarative of intent. Let’s have a look at our curriedAdd function in TypeScript.

That’s kind of like a punch to the eyeball, isn’t it?

Tying Intent and Implementation

At the end of the day, the challenge we keep coming up against is the fact that our intent is either declared, vaguely, in code and lost before execution, or it is not declared at all. Really, though, data types are not intent. This is one of the biggest problems we have.

Although programming deals in data and behavior, the problem we have introduced is we have become obsessed with the data types and we have forgotten that they are only meaningful within the context of behavior.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at a way to add a little metadata to our function in order to communicate information to programmers who use our API in the future. I also introduced a small library called Signet, which helps to simplify the process of attaching metadata so we don’t have to litter our code with a bunch of Object.append calls.

By using the language we introduced in Typed Thinking, we can actually get a full declaration around our function and add meaning and context to our API in general. Let’s try applying our full type, declaring intent, to our vanilla JS implementation of curriedAdd.

This definition helps us to fully understand what curriedAdd will do. When we get back our final function, we can query the signature from anywhere in our code, including execution time, and get a full report back on what our function will do. Let’s take a look.

This is a simple riff on the previous post since we already knew this was possible. Where our simple type language becomes useful is when we start working with curriedAdd. Instead of getting back an untyped function, which gives us no more information than we ever had before, we have a fully parsed AST which comes along for the ride with our function. This means we will actually get all of our other types for free all the way through our entire execution path. Let’s have a look at what happens when we call curriedAdd with a single value and check the signature.

This means our initial type declaration actually allows us to understand the return types without any further declaration anywhere else!

Our enforced type declaration has given us a way to communicate our intent to anyone interacting with our code whether we are available to answer questions or not. This type assignment reveals intent and helps to make library APIs and code in other files easier to work with.

On top of the ability to clearly identify intent and keeping our APIs static and safe, we still get to keep the dynamic nature of Javascript and all of the convenience that comes with it anywhere we are using local functions. This blended static/dynamic coding allows us to quickly and easily iterate on implementation details within a module or namespace while keeping the actual interface well-defined for the external user!

Summary

Languages and the way they manage types can be a really divisive topic, but with the flexibility built into Javascript, we can actually manage types on a case by case basis and surgically insert requirements without having to tie our hands elsewhere in our code.

Although TypeScript is a popular solution for trying to get a handle on the declaration of intent throughout our codebase, it starts to fray at the edges with advanced techniques, making it unsuitable for the move toward a more functional style of programming.

In the end, enforcing a type on our API endpoints with a strong, lightweight library like Signet gives us the right blend of enforced static typing where we need it and a fully dynamic environment when we want it. This seems like the only sane direction to go when working in a language as rich and flexible as Javascript. Go declare your intent and make people awesome.

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Unit Testing Express Routing

If you are unit testing your code, and you should be, then it is likely you have encountered certain patterns which make testing more difficult. One of the patterns which pops up often is centered around Express.js routes. Although the router has a nice, simple API to code against, the actual testing of the route action code can be a little challenging if you aren’t used to using tools such as mocks, fakes and stubs.

Today we are going to explore using the Mockery library and an express router fake module to simplify the process of reaching into our modules and getting ahold of the route actions we provide to express for the sake of testing and ensuring program correctness.

The Libraries

The post today will make use of Mocha, Mockery and Express Route Fake. The first two you may have heard of, the last you likely have not. Let’s walk the list and get a handle on what each of these tools does for us at a high level.

Mocha

If you have done any TDD or unit testing in Javascript and especially in Node, you have likely already encountered Mocha. Mocha is a popular BDD tool for testing Javascript. We will have examples of what test code in Mocha looks like later.

Mockery

Mockery is a tool for manipulating packages and modules which are required within script files for Node. Although Mockery is quite useful for breaking tight coupling, it is not as well known as Mocha. Unit testing scripts which are tightly coupled through require statements is challenging since there is no clean way to inject a dependency into a dependency chain without a third party tool. Mockery is key to getting good tests around Express route actions as we will see.

Express Route Fake

Express Route Fake is a module I wrote to emulate behavior we use at Hunter to gain access to our route actions as we get tests written around our code. The core idea of Express Route Fake is to substitute the fake module in for Express in order to capture references to the actions which are assigned to different routes. We will explore this shortly.

Registering Replacements with Mockery

I am assuming you are already familiar with a testing framework, so I am not going to cover the basics of using Mocha. Instead we are going to start off looking at how to register a faked module with Mockery so we can break a dependency in Node.

Mockery actually manipulates the Node module cache and updates it with code of our choosing. This gives us the ability, at test time, to dig in and create a fake chunk of code which we control so we can ensure our tests actually send and receive the right output without doing dangerous things like interacting with a network connection or a database. We want the scope of our unit tests to be as tight as is reasonable so we can ensure the code under test actually performs the correct action every time.

This kind of guarantee around tests is called determinism. Deterministic tests are tests which, when provided a single input, always return the same output. Ideally any interactions which would break the determinism of our functionality should be stripped away and replaced with code which always does the same thing. This gives us guarantees and makes it easier to identify and test a variety of different cases. Let’s have a look at an example of breaking a dependency with Mockery and replacing the code with something else.

The beforeEach block sets up a fake MySQL module with a query method which immediately calls a passed callback. Mocking MySQL does two things for us. First it removes the asynchronous behavior which comes from interacting with a database, ensuring all of our tests run inside the event loop. The second thing this does for us is it allows us to provide a guarantee that the results passed back from our MySQL fake are always the same. This means we don’t have to set up and tear down an actual database instance. We can simply test the code we care about and assume the database library does what it is supposed to.

Important items to note about the code in the beforeEach and afterEach blocks: Mockery takes a certain amount of work to get working. The enable call in beforeEach starts Mockery working in memory and tells it not to post warning messages every time it does something. It is safe to assume, if you see the results you want, that Mockery is working. The code in afterEach returns the cache back to its original state, leaving everything clean for the following test.

Faking Router For Great Good

Now that we have looked a little bit at how Mockery works, we are ready to start digging into what we really care about. Let’s start testing our Express route actions. The first thing we should look at is a little bit of example Express routing code. Below is a simple route example which just receives a request and then responds with 200 and a little message. It’s not exciting code, but we can actually test it.

We can see a few things here which will be really important to get the tests right. First, Router is a factory function. This means anything that is going to stand in for express will have to implement this correctly. The next thing we know is, the router object which is returned has methods on it like ‘get.’ We will want our fake object to replicate this as well. Now is probably a good time to take a look at the source code for Express Route Fake.

Express Route Fake is a small module which packs a pretty massive punch. Everything is set up for us to quickly capture and test our route actions. The very first thing we have is a cache object which will store key/value pairs so we can request whichever function we want to test easily.

After the cache object we have a simple function which captures the route method, the route path and the route action. This function is the real workhorse of the entire module. Every route call will go through this one function and be stored in our cache. It is critical to understand that all of the methods, paths and actions will be captured and related so we can test them later.

Finally we have the Router factory fake, getRouteAction and reset functions. Reset is exactly what one might expect, it resets the cache to empty so the entire process can be repeated without starting with a dirty object. getRouteAction performs two critical activities. First, it verifies the route exists and throws an error if it doesn’t. Secondly, it passes back the route action so we can test the function outside of the express framework.

A side note on the getRouteAction error behavior; it is important and useful to get clear errors from our fake in this case. Over time my team has run into confusing situations because our implementation was home-grown and does not throw useful errors. This means we get an error stating “undefined is not a function” which does not really tell us what is wrong. By getting an error which informs you the route doesn’t exist, you can immediately verify whether the route is being created correctly and not need to troubleshoot your tests.

Putting the Setup Together

Now that we have the tools and have taken a look at them, let’s start constructing what our tests would look like. We know Mockery is going to substitute in our fake module and we also know that Express Route Fake will capture the actions. All we really need to do is a little setup to get things rolling.

In our setup we have a little bit of extra setup. Since Node and Express interact with the http module through request and response objects (typically called req and res respectively), we will need to create objects we can pass through and use as well. Considering the calls we are making on res, I just included the bare minimum functionality to actually test our route action: status, send and end.

Please note we are actually requiring the module under test AFTER we perform our Mockery setup. It’s really important to do this, otherwise Node will provide the actual Express module and our fake code won’t be used.

Now that we have our code set up and ready to go, let’s take a look at what our tests look like.

We can see that actually testing the actions, now, has become three simple lines of Javascript. What is happening in each of these tests is, our module is registering actions against routes, which are stored by our Express Route Fake module. Once the test starts, we simply ask for the function and execute it as if it were called by Express because of an HTTP request. We pass in our fake objects and capture the result of our action behavior. This allows us to see directly inside of our method and test the interesting parts, throwing away the stuff that would be, otherwise, obscured by frameworks, libraries and Node itself.

A second, important item to note is that we get extra guarantees around our route paths. If someone were to come along and change the path in our module, but not update the tests, or vice versa, we would get immediate feedback since getRouteAction would throw an error telling us the path does not exist. That’s a whole lot of security for a little bit of up-front work!

Summing Up

Today, wee looked at how to use just a couple of modules to insert a fake for Express and get better tests around our code. By using Mockery and Express Route Fake, you can capture route actions and get them under test. Moreover, you can do this while only writing code that is specific to the tests you are writing.

As you write more tests, it might become useful to create a factory for creating custom request and response objects which would simplify the test code even more. Of course, with all of this abstraction it does become more challenging to see what is happening under the covers. Ultimately, this kind of tradeoff can be useful in situations like this where repeated code is more of a liability than a help.

The next time you sit down to create new functionality and wire it into an Express route, consider starting off with Mockery and Express Route Fake. They will simplify the tests you need to write and limit the amount of code you have to change in order to get tests in place. Happy coding!

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Typed Thinking in Javascript

Javascript is a dynamically typed language. I suspect this is not news to anyone reading this. The reason this is important, however, is I have heard people say Javascript is untyped. This statement is most definitely false. Javascript has and supports types, it simply does not actively expose this to the world at large.

Javascript is in good company when it comes to dynamically typed languages. Python and Ruby are also popular languages which are dynamically typed. Other venerable languages which are dynamically typed include Clojure, Elixir, Io and Racket. People coming from statically typed languages often say that Javascript’s dynamic typing is a hindrance to good programming. I disagree. Bad programming is a hindrance to good programming. I feel programmers coming from the languages listed above would probably agree.

What’s the Difference?

Several popular languages today, including C#, Java and C++, are statically typed. This means the programmer declares the values they plan on using to accomplish a task when they define a method. There are distinct benefits to this kind of programming, specifically, the compiler can quickly determine whether a method call is valid. This kind of validation is useful and can prove a good tool for programmers, no doubt.

As you can see above, everything is explicitly annotated with a type definition. This kind of annotation is effectively a note to anyone who reads this code, including the compiler, et al, that this function behaves this way. Unfortunately, this convenience comes with a price. Suppose you wanted an add function for any sort of number including mixed arguments…

Modern improvements on type values has helped improve this problem (don’t shoot me, Java people), but it becomes obvious rather quickly that having restricted type flexibility means there is a lot more work which must be done to accomplish a seemingly simple task. We have to make a trade to get this compile-time help from the language.

Dynamic typing, on the other hand, does not have this restriction. In Javascript (or Python, Clojure, etc.) no type annotation is needed. This means the language will perform what is called type inference to do the right thing. Languages like Python or Clojure are less forgiving if types don’t line up correctly. If, for instance, you attempted to add a number and an array in either of these languages, an error would occur and everything would go downhill from there.

Javascript works a little harder to do the right thing; perhaps a little too hard. In a strange twist of fate I, once, attempted to demonstrate that Javascript would throw an error when trying to add a string and a function. Instead I got a string containing the original string, and the source code for the function. Suffice to say, this is not what I expected.

Nevertheless, this kind of type management is both the weakness and the strength of a dynamically typed language. Rather than having to spend time really thinking about strings, ints, doubles, bools and so on, you can spend more time thinking about the way your program works…

Until it doesn’t.

Correctness and Types in a Dynamic World

One of the most important things to consider in Javascript is intent. Although the kinds of strange things can be accomplished by applying common actions to unexpected values can be entertaining, it is not particularly helpful when attempting to write a correct program.

Correctness in programming is when a program performs the expected action and, within the domain of acceptable values, returns the correct output. In other words, an adder would be incorrect if it always returned 9, regardless of the input; an adder which always returned a valid sum would be considered correct.

By considering correctness, we must consider input and output types. Let’s keep using our add function because it’s easy to understand. Above, when we discussed types annotations, we looked at an add function in Java. We said that the input values a and b were both integers and the output is an integer. This forces the idea of correctness upon our function which, actually, could be defined as correct in a broader sense. What if, instead of declaring all of the different types and overloading the function again and again, we made up a new type. Let’s call this type Addable. Suppose we had an addable type in Java and could rewrite our function accordingly:

We can actually define a notation which will help us to understand the correct input/output values of our function. We can say add has a function signature which looks like this: Addable, Addable => Addable. In other words, our function takes two Addable values and returns a new, Addable, value. All of this is true and we could test this function via various methods to prove the specific addition behavior is correct.

This new Addable type is effectively what we get in Javascript with the type “number.” We know that any number can be added to any number, so whether one number is an integer and another is a floating point value, we know they can still be added together. This means we can actually go so far as to eliminate the type annotations altogether and simply write our function as follows:

Of course, the problem we face here is there is no annotation to tell the next programmer what types a and b should be. Moreover, Javascript is quite forgiving and will allow a programmer to pass anything in which might be usable with a “+” operator. There are solutions to each of these, though we will only look at solutions for telling the next programmer what we intended.

Ad Hoc Properties to the Rescue

Under the hood, Javascript shares some really interesting characteristics with Smalltalk. Specifically, everything in Javascript, when managed within the runtime, is an object. This means we can do all kinds of neat things with functions, like assign properties.

What this means is we can actually do something real about making our programming intentions more clear. What if we took our add function and assigned an ad hoc property to the Function object instance called “signature?” By creating a property which declared what the function should do we get two benefits. First, anyone reading the source can immediately see what we meant to do and, second, we can actually create an artifact in our code which can be called upon elsewhere to get immediate feedback on what our behavior should look like. Here’s an example:

Now, looking at our code we can see what add does. It takes two numbers and returns a number. We can use this same property to our advantage elsewhere in our code. If we were planning to use add and wanted to see what the expected input and output are, we can simply output the signature. Here’s how we could do that:

Now we know! Better yet, if add was somewhere deep in a third-party library, we wouldn’t have to dig through third-party code to understand what the contract for add might be.

Thinking Types

The really important idea here is, even if they aren’t expressed in code, types live within everything we do in Javascript. As we develop software, it becomes really easy to simply not think about what a function signature looks like and call it with whatever we have, hoping it does what we expect.

Programming this way is dangerous and can lead to bugs which are hard to triage and fix. Instead of using the spray and pray approach, it is helpful to understand, more fully, what you intend to do and work with the types which are intended in a functions activity.

What this means to the dynamic programmer is, we have to be more vigilant, more cautious and more prepared while solving a problem than someone working with a statically typed, explicitly annotated language.

There are two ideas we must always keep in mind when programming, the goal of a correct program and what we must do to get there. The first idea is related to the company goal related to whatever problem we are actually trying to solve. The second idea encompasses types and actions almost exclusively.

Summary

Regardless of the typing mechanism for the chosen language with which we solve a problem, types are part of the solution. Javascript does not express the value and function types explicitly in the source code, but the types we use are equally important to anything used in a statically typed language.

We can solve the problem of expressing our function signature through using comments or adding a property which can be read and understood by other programmers. This will help alleviate the challenges which arise from misunderstanding source code.

Finally, as we work we must always be aware of the types we are interacting with and how they lead to the solution for whichever problem we are solving at the time. Instead of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, let’s work carefully and with intent to write correct, valid programs.

P.S. If you don’t want to remember all of the metadata stuff you have to do, check out signet.

Objects Are Still Shared State

Dear programmers coming from Classical Object Oriented programming, please stop thinking that encapsulation of variables eliminates the “globalness” of your variable. It’s a hard truth, but you had to hear it from someone; you have a problem. Consider this an intervention.

I had a conversation a couple months ago where I looked at some code a senior developer had written and asked, “why are you using a global variable?” The response I got was “it’s the exposing module pattern, so it’s local and encapsulated. It’s not global.” The variable was a cache object exposed outside of the module; and it was global anyway.

When I say global, it is not about whether the entire program, or the entire world, can access your value, it’s about how your variable gets managed and modified. Really, the problematic aspect of a global variable comes from the fact that global variables, in many popular languages, represent shared, mutable state.

Consider a world where every variable is actually immutable, i.e. once you create a variable, you can’t change the value. In this particular case, a global variable is really nothing more than a globally readable value. You can’t write to it, so you can’t impact the rest of the running program. Is that global variable actually a problem? Decidedly less so, that’s for sure.

Mutating Object State

Let’s take a look at a very simple, though rather common, example of the way variables are often managed inside objects.

There are two things wrong with this if value is actually important to the internal state of the object. First, since Javascript does not support private variables (explicitly, but we’ll come back to that), then this suffers from the Indecent Exposure code smell. Essentially, anyone in the world can directly access and modify the internal state of this object. That’s bad news.

The second issue with this object is the getter actually modifies the internal value of our object and returns a representation of the previous object state. Effectively, our getter is modifying the internal state of the object and lying to us about it.

Before you proclaim “I never do that! How very dare you,” keep in mind that this pattern shows up all the time. Popular frameworks like Angular and Ember actually encourage this kind of thing through the controller pattern. This is a sneaky trap that is hard to avoid.

Although we can’t quickly resolve the code smell, let’s take a look at a remedy for the lie that is our “get” method name.

Now we understand and declare what the method does. For some people this is enough and we need to go no further. I, on the other hand, feel this is still rather suspect and would prefer to see a cleaner, more elegant construction.

Separate The Activity

The issue I draw with our updated object is, we have one method which does all the things. This is a really bad idea since it really doesn’t protect the programmer from a micro-god function. (Hey, You can have micro-frameworks and micro-services.) Effectively we have fixed the naming problem, but we haven’t actually resolved the smelly code which lives within our method.

Typically I prefer a single function which will return the current state of affairs and other function, if you MUST, which modifies the internal state. This kind of separation of concerns actually helps to keep object state sane and useful. If not for the exposed internal value of the object, we would be on our way to saner code.

We can see this code actually separates the functionality and has the lovely side effect of making the code more readable. If I were working in a project using an MVC paradigm, I would call this good and move on. We have separated the behaviors and tried to keep everything clean, tidy and meaningful. Our view would be able to access the values it needs and we keep our state management safe from accidental update.

Turn Up The Encapsulation

From here we can start looking at working on our fine detail. Up to now, we have accepted that our internal values are exposed and available for the world to manipulate, AKA Indecent Exposure. It’s time to fix that little bit of nastiness and make our object water- and tamper-proof.

The only way to actually protect a variable from external access in Javascript is through closures. Since functions are objects and objects are built atop function constructors, we can perform a little scope management surgery and make our object really safe and secure. Let’s take a look and see what we can do to lock things down.

This code does a little fiddling around with scope by partially applying the object’s internal state to our get and set functions. This protects our variable from being accessed by the outside world, but allows our get and update methods to access our value freely. When your data must be locked away, this will get you there.

Our Code Goes to 11

In order to finish up this journey, it seemed only right to create a completely pure, immutable object just to see where it would lead us. If we were to really go all the way, we would need to do a little more work to ensure everything still worked as we would expect.

We know the variable “value” maintains a count for some reason, so it will be important to ensure value is always an integer. We also want to make sure the get method always gives the current count. Finally, update should do just that: update the count value. What does it mean to make an update if everything is immutable? Let’s have a look and find out.

This is just chock full pure functions and added behavior. With all of that added behavior, we get something magical. Instead of having an object which is mutable and, ultimately, somewhat unpredictable and hard to test, we end up with an object which has the following properties:

  • Immutable
  • Contains pure methods
  • Has a single, pure, static method
  • Is compositionally built
  • Updates through new object construction

This whole object construction could lead us down many discussions which would get into types, values, mutability, function composition and more. For now, it will suffice to say, this kind of development creates the ideal situation for developing safely and really turns our code up to 11.

The numbers all go to 11.

Summing Up

Although we got a little spacey at the end, the important thing to take away from this whole thing is, any time an object is built and modifies its own state through method calls, the methods are actually relying on shared, mutable state.

Shared mutable state in an object really is just a micro-global and should be viewed as such. This means, any value which can be accessed and modified should be considered unsafe and untrustworthy. Untrustworthy data should never be viewed as the source of truth.

From here forward, if you start to add a variable to an object or module, ask yourself, does this really need to be global, or can I localize it? Perhaps you will find a better way to keep your code clean and easy to reason about.

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What is Functional Programming?

For the past couple of years I have been trying to put my finger on a crystalline idea which I could use to explain what functional programming is for someone who doesn’t understand. Along the way I have given lots of explanations, some were merely confusing and others were actually bad. My goal, with this post, is to give a clear, concise picture of what functional programming is really about.

It is common for a programmer, today, to have a good grasp on Classical Object Oriented programming. What this means, at the heart of it, is they understand managing objects through a class and inheritance system. I know I was taught a classical approach when I was in college and many programmers, even those who didn’t attend a formal, degree-granting institution experienced a similar path of education.

Functional programming has, in fact, been around quite a bit longer than object orientation of any kind, but it was largely either implemented in a language that was geared for research, or it was implemented in a college project (typically Lisp) to explore creating a programming language. Due to the academic nature of early functional languages, and the fact that programming, in the large, was something which was still in a discovery process, nobody tried to provide a small idea to state “this is what we are doing.”

With all of this in mind, it is useful to have a setup which will be accurate and, at the same time, descriptive to Classical OO people. I thought about how Scheme was introduced in “The Little Schemer,” and though there was no crystalline idea, the approach really helped to clarify what functional programming really is. With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the small idea.

Functional programming is made up of three parts:

  • Inquiry
  • Declaration
  • Abstraction

What I mean by this is, though functional programming contains ideas like closures, first class functions, higher-order functions and so on, that is not ACTUALLY what functional programming is. I feel that the person who wrote “The Little Schemer” (nee “The Little Lisper”) understood this clearly. Unfortunately, I have never seen this written anywhere.

The remainder of this post will be an inspection of this three-part idea and how we can look at Javascript and either see or build the pieces we need to make this idea clear.

Inquiry

The first concept in our list is the concept of inquiry. Another way we can say this is, we can ask questions. Conditional blocks are already designed around the idea we want to know if something is true or false, but we construct our conditions with (sometimes) cryptic operators which force people to think while they read the code instead of simply reading the code like English.

We can start by asking very core questions, which are handled by operators in Javascript. Checking the type of a variable in Javascript cloaked in operator soup which creates a long line which someone has to read later. It would be preferable if our expressions were closer to natural language. Here’s a way we can wrap our operator soup and be more expressive about the questions we are asking.

Although these functions are, potentially, a few more characters, they are much more transparent in their intent. By wrapping our operators, the code we write will actually state precisely what it does in English, making the time to understand a program shorter. Here’s taking this a step further:

By wrapping up the original operators in functions, we can actually build on top of them, creating new functions which also read clearly and add quite a bit more utility. One of my all-time favorites in this list is isArray, where we simply ask if our current value is an instance of the base Array object. This really beats the commonly suggested:

typeof value === ‘object’ && Object.prototype.toString.call(value) === ‘[object Array]’

Declaration

It could be said that asking questions is a special case of declaring intent, but I prefer to keep these separate because it helps shine a light on two different aspects of the programming process. Sometimes we want to ask questions, but, often, we really just want to get something done.

The act of getting something done is what I like to refer to as intent. When we create a function, called sum, which sums the numbers in an array, we are actually declaring, in code, that we want to add up a bunch of numbers. In much the same way, we might want all the even numbers from an array. This would lead us to creating a function called getEvens.

This kind of programming is typically referred to as declarative programming. Instead of writing out large blocks of conditions and sprawling loops, we can declare our intent and allow the underlying system to actually interpret our intent and perform the correct action. Let’s have a look at creating a few declarative functions.

Right now seems like a good time to point out, although we took a few extra characters to bundle up our operators in functions, the bodies of all our functions, including sum and filter, which would typically be loops wrapped in a conditional, are actually only a single, very short line. This brevity is NOT because the goal is to be terse, but rather because that is all it takes to express our intended behavior. All of the remaining braces, parentheses and operators are just cryptic language cruft we can abstract away.

Abstraction

Picking up right where we left off, abstraction is the final piece of the functional puzzle. So far we have seen functions floating free, detached from objects and made available just as they are. Abstraction is where we take those functions and really make them shine.

In functional languages, and languages which support functional programming, functions are first class. What this means is, a function is a free-standing entity which is handled as data. In Javascript, this is facilitated by the prototypal inheritance system which actually news up a function object and provides it free from the boilerplate and constraints which are put in place by Classical OO languages.

This first-class, data-centric behavior is what really makes abstractions strong in Javascript. In the declaration section above, we created a function called getEvens, I’ll paste the code below, so it’s handy.

I made sure to bring the isEven function along for the ride because it’s an important part of this puzzle. Inside the getEvens function, we call a method on the values array called “filter.” Filter is an example of what is referred to as a higher-order-function.

Higher-order functions are functions which take a function as an argument with the intent that the function is to be executed (as opposed to treated like a string or number). This means we can write highly abstract, very generic functions like reduce which provide a tremendous amount of power for our programming pleasure.

If we were to write filter ourselves it could look like the following:

That code might be a bit much to choke down, but the idea is we don’t actually have to see it. Fortunately Javascript already has filter already built in. With that in mind there is a real benefit that comes with abstractions like this.

If a generic function has a well defined contract, we can actually change the implementation under the hood. This idea can be seen in Classical OO programming as well, but rarely with the level of genericising we have here. We could write a new filter function which takes advantage of a multi-core processor. We could also use a distributed computing system to compute the result. Ultimately, as long as the function contract remains the same, the calling code will never know the difference!

The abstraction portion of functional programming is a rather expansive topic including higher-order functions, closures, metaprogramming, types and more, but even without digging into all of the various topics, we can see the abstraction model is something that definitely sets functional programming apart from Classical OO.

Summary

This has been a whirlwind survey of some of the bits and pieces of functional programming itself, but hopefully the core ideas of inquiry, declaration and abstraction have clarified what seems to be a rather murky discussion of what functional programming really is.

If there is anything I would like you to take away from this discussion today, it is the idea that the three ideas presented here, for as sparse as they are, actually provide the ability to do tremendously powerful programming, while providing the ability to make code clear and descriptive of intent.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg, but I hope this tickled something in your brain that made you want to go out and learn more. Until next time, happy coding!

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Pattern Matching in Javascript

For more than a year I have been considering the idea of pattern matching in Javascript. I know I am not the only one trying to solve this problem because there are a handful of resources where people have put together propositions for solutions, including a Sweet.js macro called Sparkler, and Bram Stein’s blog post and associated Github repo.

Although I really, really like the idea of a macro to handle pattern matching, I fear people will throw it out immediately since pattern matching by itself is already an, sadly, obscure topic. This means anything that requires a macro package will probably turn the general populace off, especially since I haven’t met anyone in my area who has heard of Sweet.js except me.

Although I like Bram’s approach to handling macros with a function library, it looks like he didn’t get a chance to make much headway. That’s really unfortunate since I think he was headed in a good, although kind of simple direction.

Before we go any further, it is important to discuss the idea of pattern matching for the uninitiated. Pattern matching is a functional means to quickly look at the shape and signature of data and make a programmatic decision based on what is there. In other words, pattern matching is like conditionals which have spent the last 10 years at the gym.

Imagine, if you will, conditional statements which looked like this:

Even this isn’t really powerful enough to truly capture what pattern matching does, but I think it gives a little insight. Nonetheless, if we had a construct which would give us the ability to match on an entire set of conditions within our data structures, the face of Javascript programming would be a very different place.

Pattern matching is not just about reducing keystrokes, but it actually redefines what it means to actually describe and interact with your data altogether. It would do for data structures what regular expressions have done for string manipulation.

Pattern matching is the dream.

So, after doing a lot of thinking, I think I have settled on a means to give this dream the breath of life. Unfortunately, I believe it is unlikely that the path to data Nirvana will be easy. I have a suspicion, this is the same issue Bram encountered. Looking at the ~1400 lines of code that make up the Sparkler macro, pattern matching could be a tricky problem.

Function and Contract

I looked at the Sweet.js macro, Bram Stein’s early exploration and the match behavior in both Scala and Racket. I decided I needed something which felt like fluent Javascript instead of succumbing to the Racket nut which lives inside me, so I opted to avoid the hardcore Lisp syntax. Scala had a closer feel to what I wanted so I kept that in mind. Bram’s example felt close, but a little too muddy and the Sweet.js macro just felt a little too much like operators instead of functions. What I landed on was this, () => () => any; that is to say a function ($match) which returns a function (pattern assembly) which returns the final result of the pattern matching. Here’s an example of a simple exploration, drawing against Bram’s factorial implementation.

It’s easy to see the first call is just $match(n). This returns another function which takes a function as an argument; i.e. $match is a higher-order function which returns a higher order function, which takes a function as an argument, which then does stuff and returns a result. Another way of looking at this is $match is a function which chains to a function which is designed to perform pattern assembly. Once the pattern is assembled, everything is executed and we get a result.

Clear as mud?

Expanding the Concept

This small example seems pretty simple. Check for equality and if nothing works, then use the else clause. This is a little condition-block feeling, but I think people will understand the else clause better than anything else I might have put in there.

Anyway, digging in a little further, I wanted to also be able to quickly and easily match arrays, objects or other things as well. This simple equality checking was not enough, so I started expanding, moving into some sort of factory behavior to create matchers on the fly. This brought me to an example which was a little more interesting and a lot more complex.

Here I am returning a string based on the pattern of a pair (2-valued array) array being treated like a vector. If the first three patterns match, we get a string describing the axes the vector lives on. If the vector is not a pair, or it contains something other than numbers, I want to return a type error with a message explaining the provided vector was invalid.

This bit of logic is significantly more complex than our previous factorial example and leaves us in a place where the code is descriptive, but perhaps not as readable as we would like. Moreover, I thought about what I really want to be able to say and it made more sense to, perhaps, create something of a pattern matching DSL. (domain specific language)

Matching on a DSL

If I was going to invent any kind of simple language for expressing matching behaviors, I wanted it to be less cryptic than regular expressions, but I also wanted it to be terse enough that it didn’t become some giant, sprawling string someone would have to mentally parse to really understand what was happening. What I landed on was a simple near-Javascript expression of what the values should look like when they properly match our criteria. This turns our earlier expression into the following.

I reduced the type descriptor for brevity, opting for an angle-bracketed character. Now we can wrap up our expression in a single pattern call and get something the matcher can quickly and easily execute to verify whether the vector matches our requirements or not. This, however, also means I am responsible for generating an AST (abstract syntax tree) for these expressions. Of course, if I am going to do that, it would be best to create one by hand so I can see what I am actually contending with.

Matcher Abstract Syntax Tree

The AST for my matcher language would, ultimately, link in with an underlying state machine of some sort, but I won’t dig that deep right now. Nonetheless, what I ended up with, when constructing an AST is long, but relatively declarative. This means, I could, theoretically, start the entire process NOT at the language level, but instead at a place which people would more readily understand. Let’s have a look at the AST replacement for our matching behavior.

It’s long, and probably overkill for the problem presented here, but it gives us a real view into the guts of the problem and a way out of the mud. This is, also, unfortunately all I could pull together in time for this post, but I feel like we covered a tremendous amount of ground. I will continue to experiment with pattern matching and, perhaps, by next time we could even have a working object model to build our tree with. Until the next post, keep coding!

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Working with Strings and Regular Expressions

An exchange at work got me thinking this last week. Someone said “I really hate regex.” For those of you not in the loop on the lingo, regex means regular expressions. After a little prying, it turned out the reason they didn’t like regular expressions was really rooted in the fact that they didn’t have a chance to use them very often, so the concept is unfamiliar.

In this post I am not going to go into some of the more advanced parts of regular expressions because, a: they complicate things significantly and b: because I’m not experienced enough with them to give good guidance. Foundational regular expressions are still more than enough to discuss for a single blog post, nonetheless. For now, I am going to cover how to leverage a lot of power from a very small subset of the entire set of tools.

Along with this post I am also going to give screen casting another go and provide a bunch of examples in a video which, hopefully, will be a good supplement to the information I will present in my blog. In the video I am using approval testing to demonstrate the output from various regular expressions, which should make applying regex easier to do.

States and Strings

For the brave and the true, let’s start at the beginning. Regular expressions are a form of finite state machine with an accept state. What this means in English is, regular expressions go through a set of predefined states and, if enough of the characteristics are found in a string in the right order, then the pattern is considered a match.

A way to see this in action is the following:

We can see the pattern of characters in the first test string matches the pattern exactly. We expect this to pass. The second string also contains abb roughly in the middle. This means our pattern will also result in a match. The third string comes very close three times, but abb is not actually found anywhere in the entire string. Let’s take a look at the way the search is conducted in the second string since it is the more interesting of the passing two:

What this demonstration is showing is, the pattern matching mechanism starts verifying on a character and will continue to test until either a character does not pass one of the rules or a set of characters matches all of the rules and reaches what is referred to as an accept state. Regardless of how complex a regular expression ever gets, the underlying function always comes back to reaching an accept state or not. This means if something goes horribly awry and you can’t figure out what happened, simplify your expression and build piece by piece, extending the states in your pattern one by one until you get to the pattern you need.

Special Case Behaviors

Regular expressions come with a whole array of special case definitions and characters which match those cases. For now we are going to look at some of the simpler parts which you can use to make your pattern matching more expressive as you go.

The Optional Pattern

The first special case is the optional modifier, ‘?’. By adding a question mark after a character or expression, you can set a rule that the last part of the pattern was optional in nature and may or may not actually exist. A very common example for this is the American versus British spelling of color/colour. Here’s how it works:

Obviously, the last string doesn’t match a valid spelling of color for any English standard defined, so no matches are returned, i.e. the result of the match expression is null. We can also see that both color and colour are considered valid matches, which means match will return correctly matched strings in the matches array.

Testing for Any Character

Sometimes you are less certain about the particular character which you want to match. For instance, let’s suppose we want to find any word which starts with ca, but we don’t care what the last letter is. We can use the ‘.’ pattern to match any word of this form, even if they aren’t valid words. Here’s an example:

The last string actually demonstrates the problem we run up against with regular expressions of this type. Regular expressions are not particularly discriminatory. The only rules we provided were that there must be the characters c and a, followed by another character. “Occam’s” satisfies this just fine even though cam is in the middle of a string of characters.

Initial and Terminating Patterns

Next let’s have a look at two more modifying patterns. We can actually express position of a string by using ‘^’ and ‘$’. The ‘^’ pattern expresses that anything which follows that character must be positioned at the very beginning of the string. ‘$’ is the polar opposite, saying that the string must match and terminate at that point. These are probably easiest seen in action.

As you can see, pattern 1 only matched patterns which started with ca and pattern 2 only matched strings ending with ca followed by another character. This can be really handy for testing that a string either starts or ends with an expected value. The initializing and terminating patterns are also very useful in testing that a given string contains only characters which match an acceptable pattern. This is common for testing things like postal codes, phone numbers and email addresses.

Multiple Patterns

Where ‘?’ will make a pattern optional, there are broader reaching patterns like ‘*’ and ‘+’. The ‘*’ pattern means 0 or more matches of the previous character or pattern are acceptable. Similarly, the ‘+’ pattern means 1 or more matches of the previous character or pattern are acceptable.

With two pattern characters which are so close in meaning, it seems reasonable to ask why both? As it turns out, the case of 1 or more is common enough it is actually quite valuable to address that situation directly.

Any In Matching

The last pattern we are going to cover, quickly, is the match any in case specified as ‘[]’. Anything contained within the brackets will be used as an acceptable match. This means, if you have a very specific set of acceptable characters, it is easy to simply list them all and match against the definition. This is a common use case if numbers and letters are acceptable, but punctuation is not.

Since cabby and cantina both start with ca and contain only letters, they were proper matches for our pattern. Since candl’d (which is basically a nonsense spelling) has punctuation, it is not an acceptable match, so we get null as our match result.

Regex Flags

In Javascript (as well as Perl and potentially other languages) there are flags which accompany a regex search. Up to this point we have been, largely, looking at lower-case matches. In regular expressions, case matters. This means it is useful to be able to declare when case should or should not matter. For example Chris and chris are different strings, so a search for /chris/ won’t match Chris. That’s not helpful when case is unimportant. We can flag a pattern as case insensitive with ‘i’.

The search string remains the same, but by adding the ‘i’ flag, we increase the allowable characters in our search and broaden the results which are returned.

In much the same way ‘i’¬†allows us to broaden our search by ignoring case, the ‘g’ flag will tell the regular expression engine to find all matches instead of just the first. Let’s have a look at that as well.

As you can see, as we add flags to our search, the results expand to capture more cases and instances. This is especially helpful when trying to replace values or split strings on complex patterns.

Summary

Regular expressions are a fairly rich way to describe string patterns for performing all kinds of matching and checks. Along with matching and checks, regular expressions make it easy to perform complex find and replace operations and string tokenizing.

With particularly complex expressions, regex can look rather cryptic, but when small, focused checks and behaviors are being performed regular expressions can be a great benefit to the programmer for working with strings and reducing pain.

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Learning Javascript Differently

On Thursday and Friday I was at a convention called Agile Open San Diego. The core idea is people getting together and having two full days of water cooler discussions about agile development and leadership. It’s pretty cool and you should go to one near you. Anyway, something happened on Friday morning: I realized we need a new way of approaching language learning.

Currently there are a number of ways people can learn languages including classes, videos, code schools, code katas and more. The most important thing I have noticed is this: none of these really do a good job of building the language into your brain quickly or permanently.

I have watched people who are new at programming struggle through code katas after working through videos and online learning processes. I think it’s time for something different. Borrowing against the ideas of code cooking and the way martial arts are learned, I created the first form in a series of forms for Javascript learning.

What a Form Is

In in certain martial arts, a form (much like a kata) is a scripted set of motions which help to define a dictionary of movements the practitioner will use when sparring or in a fight situation. The form is important for developing muscle memory and deepening the mental relationship with the art.

When developing a relationship with a new language any experienced programmer picks a project to do which will force them to go through the motions of asking all the questions they need to ask to really understand how the new language ticks. This is the driving idea behind doing code katas. Katas force a programmer to look at the language they are working with and ask the same kinds of questions.

What if the new language is also the FIRST language?

A new programmer won’t necessarily even know the first questions to ask to get to the right questions. This is why katas help sharpen developers but don’t bring new developers up quickly. This is what a form will help to fix. Instead of placing a problem in front of a new developer, it places the code and asks them “what does this do?”

Here’s a quick start video I made to give a better idea:

Creating the First Form

In the language forms design I envisioned a total of (probably) six forms. Of course before there are six, there must be one. I wanted to emulate a system I already understood, which meant that the first form should be the gateway to greater understanding. I wanted to introduce some of the most common aspects of the language and use a problem which had a lot of room to grow.

Ideally, if the language student were to work through only first form, they would have enough knowledge of the language to start solving problems. The solutions may not be elegant and they would likely not seem refined to the veteran programmer, but solutions and doing are the path to greater understanding.

With all of this in mind, I chose a problem which covered interaction with vectors. Though this sounds pretty “mathy,” anyone who has completed an intermediate course in Algebra should be able to understand what is happening. Vectors represent just the right amount of leg room that the problem would be understandable by the accomplished first form student and had plenty to grow on for the third form student.

After choosing a problem that met my needs, I started creating the code. I want first form to represent the way someone would actually work through the problem in an agile environment. This means every step the student takes, there is a test to validate their progress. It becomes far less important for them to sit and scrutinize their code to make sure they got every character right on the first pass since the process is: read the test, write the code, run the code. If the code runs and it looks like what the golden example presents, it must be right. This gives students early comfort through TDD and small-step development.

Leveling

Something I personally have a terrible time with when I am trying to teach someone something is setting aside what I know. I want to give the student everything and have them see why I take such joy in what I do. It doesn’t ever work that way. Instead, I end up overloading them and they have trouble absorbing what I am trying to share.

Lynn Langit encourages the idea of leveling in her Teaching Kids Programming process. Leveling is the idea of presenting a simple idea that does one thing. Once the core idea is understood, then enhancing the idea with a greater concept, while reinforcing the original idea. All programming builds on more foundational concepts. This means that any topic can be taught through a leveling approach.

Language forms should work this way. The first form actually opens with a greeting. This mirrors the kung fu tradition of performing a greeting or salute to Buddha. The greeting is, essentially the foundational Hello World program, TDD style. We could call this a salute to the programming force, or something. I haven’t come up with a name yet, but it’s coming.

After the greeting, the very next thing first form does is it presents the concept of squaring a number. We don’t need to understand the entire process yet and the full problem is largely academic so the student can focus more on growing to solve the entire problem instead of trying to understand what it does. As we said before, katas are great for sharpening problem solving, this is all about developing a relationship with the language itself.

As we move through the process of solving the entire problem, the student will go through the process of small-step design, abstraction, TDD, conditionals, loops, variables, functions and so on. First form is a guided tour though the way a professional programmer works without the fear and intimidation that comes with getting thrown in with the sharks.

Later Forms

After the first form student has successfully grown to proficiency, they will need to move to the next form. Currently, only the first form is complete, but the second and third forms will actually make subsequent passes over the same code that was covered before. This process of enhancing existing code provides direct insight into identifying patterns, refactoring and smoothing out the edges on legacy systems.

Later forms will pull in concepts like closures, object orientation, higher order functions and so on. The process of creating custom types will be brought to the fore and, by the third form, the student will start learning ways to escape common pitfalls and smells by using well known patterns. They will be able to use what they have learned to improvise on solutions and find their way out of sticky situations.

Forms beyond the third are still in the embryonic stage in my mind, so they will come as I discover how to develop them. So far, I know they will likely not cover the same ground, but will, instead, dig into deeper topics like Gang of Four patterns, algorithms and data structures and greater language mastery. Understandably, not all students will want to go this far with a single language, but ideally, this would provide a means for the dedicated language student to open up greater discovery channels they can follow on their own.

In the end, all of the forms should create a comprehensive system for teaching language through immersion, muscle memory, leveling and, in the end, understanding. The forms are made, not to be done once, but to be repeated again and again to develop a comfort with the language without trying to force the student through solving puzzles and toy problems which they may not have the answers for yet.

Check out my progress creating Javascript forms on GitHub.

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