The Parable of the Code Review

Last week’s events, with Linus Torvalds pledging to stop behaving like an asshole, instituting a code of conduct in Linux kernel development, and all but running off to join a monastery, have made a lot of waves. The last bastion of meritocracy has fallen! Linus, the man with five middle fingers on each hand, was going to save free software from ruin by tellin’ it like it is to all those writers of bad patches. Now he has gone over to the Dark Side, etc., etc.

There is one thing that struck me when reading the arguments last week, that I never realized before (as I guess I tend to avoid reading this type of material): the folks who argue against, are convinced that the inevitable end result of respectful behaviour is a weakening of technical skill in free software. I’ve read from many sources last week the “meritocracy or bust” argument that meritocracy means three things: the acceptance of patches on no other grounds than technical excellence, the promotion of no other than technically excellent people to maintainer positions within projects, and finally the freedom to disrespect people who are not technically excellent. As I understand these people’s arguments, the meritocracy system works, so removing any of these three pillars is therefore bound to produce worse results than meritocracy. Some go so far as to say that treating people respectfully, would mean taking technically excellent maintainers and replacing them with less proficient people chosen for how nice1 they are.

I never considered the motivations that way; maybe I didn’t give much thought to why on earth someone would argue in favour of behaving like an asshole. But it reminded me of a culture shift that happened a number of years ago, and that’s what this post is about.

Back in the bad old days…

It used to be that we didn’t have any code review in the free software world.

Well, of course we have always had code review; you would post patches to something like Bugzilla or a mailing list and the maintainer would review them and commit them, ask for a revision, or reject them (or, if the maintainer was Linus Torvalds, reject them and tell you to kill yourself.)

But maintainers just wrote patches and committed them, and didn’t have to review them! They were maintainers because we trusted them absolutely to write bug-free code, right?2 Sure, it may be that maintainers committed patches with mistakes sometimes, but those could hardly have been avoided. If you made avoidable mistakes in your patches, you didn’t get to be a maintainer, or if you did somehow get to be a maintainer then you were a bad one and you would probably run your project into the ground.

Somewhere along the line we got this idea that every patch should be reviewed, even if it was written by a maintainer. The reason is not because we want to enable maintainers who make mistakes all the time! Rather, because we recognize that even the most excellent maintainers do make mistakes, it’s just part of being human. And even if your patch doesn’t have a mistake, another pair of eyes can sometimes help you take it to the next level of elegance.

Some people complained: it’s bureaucratic! it’s for Agile weenies! really excellent developers will not tolerate it and will leave! etc. Some even still believe this. But even our tools have evolved over time to expect code review — you could argue that the foundational premise of the GitHub UI is code review! — and the perspective has shifted in our community so that code review is now a best practice, and what do you know, our code has gotten better, not worse. Maintainers who can’t handle having their code reviewed by others are rare these days.

By the way, it may not seem like such a big deal now that it’s been around for a while, but code review can be really threatening if you aren’t used to it. It’s not easy to watch your work be critiqued, and it brings out a fight-or-flight response in the best of us, until it becomes part of our routine. Even Albert Einstein famously wrote scornfully to a journal editor after a reviewer had pointed out a mistake in his paper, that he had sent the manuscript for publication, not for review.

And now imagine a future where we could say…

It used to be that we treated each other like crap in the free software world.

Well, of course we didn’t always treat each other like crap; you would submit patches and sometimes they would be gratefully accepted, but other times Linus Torvalds would tell you to kill yourself.

But maintainers did it all in the name of technical excellence! They were maintainers because we trusted them absolutely to be objective, right? Sure, it may be that patches by people who didn’t fit the “programmer” stereotype were flamed more often, and it may be that people got sick of the disrespect and left free software entirely, but the maintainers were purely objectively looking at technical excellence. If you weren’t purely objective, you didn’t get to be a maintainer, or if you somehow did get to be a maintainer then you were a bad one and you would probably run your project into the ground.

Somewhere along the line we got this idea that contributors should be treated with respect and not driven away from projects, even if the maintainer didn’t agree with their patches. The reason is not because we want to force maintainers to be less objective about technical excellence! Rather, because we recognize that even the most objective maintainers do suffer from biases, it’s just part of being human. And even if someone’s patch is objectively bad, treating them nonetheless with respect can help ensure they will stick around, contribute their perspectives which may be different from yours, and rise to a maintainer’s level of competence in the future.

Some people complained: it’s dishonest! it’s for politically correct weenies! really excellent developers will not tolerate it and will leave! etc. Some even still believe this. But the perspective has shifted in our community so that respect is now a best practice, and what do you know, our code (and our communities) have gotten better, not worse. Maintainers who can’t handle treating people respectfully are rare these days.

By the way, it may not seem like such a big deal now that it’s been around for a while, but confronting and acknowledging your own biases can be really threatening if you aren’t used to it… I think by now you get the idea.

Conclusion, and a note for the choir

I generally try not to preach to the choir anymore, and leave that instead to others. So if you are in the choir, you are not the audience for this post. I’m hoping, possibly vainly, that this actually might convince someone to think differently about meritocracy, and consider this a bug report.

But here’s a small note for us in the choir: I believe we are not doing ourselves any favours by framing respectful behaviour as the opposite of meritocracy, and I think that’s part of why the pro-disrespect camp have such a strong reaction against it. I understand why the jargon developed that way: those driven away by the current, flawed, implementation of meritocracy are understandably sick of hearing about how meritocracy works so well, and the term itself has become a bit poisoned.

If anything, we are simply trying to fix a bug in meritocracy3, so that we get an environment where we really do get the code written by the most technically excellent people, including those who in the current system get driven away by abusive language and behaviour.


[1] To be clear, I strive to be both nice and technically excellent, and the number of times I’ve been forced to make a tradeoff between those two things is literally zero. But that’s really the whole point of this essay

[2] A remnant of these bad old days of absolute trust in maintainers, that still persists in GNOME to this day, is that committer privileges are for the whole GNOME project. I can literally commit anything I like, to any repository in gitlab.gnome.org/GNOME, even repositories that I have no idea what they do, or are written in a programming language that I don’t know!

[3] A point made eloquently by Matthew Garrett several years ago

Advertisements

JavaScript news from GNOME 3.30

JavaScript news from GNOME 3.30

Welcome back to the latest news on GJS, the Javascript engine that powers GNOME Shell, Endless OS, and many GNOME apps.

I haven’t done one of these posts for several versions now, but I think it’s a good tradition to continue. GNOME 3.30 has been released for several weeks now, and while writing this post I just released the first bugfix update, GJS 1.54.1. Here’s what’s new!

If you prefer to watch videos rather than read, see my GUADEC talk on the subject.

JavaScript upgrade!

GJS is based on SpiderMonkey, which is the name of the JavaScript engine from Mozilla Firefox. We now use the version of SpiderMonkey from Firefox 60. (The way it goes is that we upgrade whenever Firefox makes an extended support release (ESR), which happens about once a year.)

This brings a few language improvements: not as many as in 2017 when we zipped through a backlog of four ESRs in one year, but here’s a short list:

  • Asynchronous iterators (for await (... in ...))
  • Rest operator in object destructuring (var {a, b, ...cd} = ...)
  • Spread operator in object literals (obj3 = {...obj1, ...obj2})
  • Anonymous catch (catch {...} instead of catch (e) {...})
  • Promise.prototype.finally()

There are also some removals from the language, of Mozilla-specific extensions that never made it into the web standards.

  • Conditional catch (catch (e if ...))
  • For-each-in loops (for each (... in ...))
  • Legacy lambda syntax (function (x) x * x)
  • Legacy iterator protocol
  • Array and generator comprehensions ([for (x of iterable) expr(x)])

Hopefully you weren’t using any of these, because they will not even parse anymore! I wrote a tool called moz60tool that will scan your source files and hopefully flag any uses of the removed syntax. It’s also available as a shell extension by Andy Holmes.’

person using black blood pressure monitor

Time for your code to get a checkup… Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

ByteArray

A special note about ByteArray: the SpiderMonkey upgrade made it necessary to rewrite the ByteArray class, since support for intercepting property accesses in C++-native JS objects was removed, and that was what ByteArray used internally to implement expressions like bytearray[5].

The replacement API I think would have made performance worse, and ByteArray is pretty performance critical; so I took the opportunity to replace ByteArray with JavaScript’s built-in Uint8Array. (Uint8Array didn’t exist when GJS was invented.) For this, I implemented a feature in SpiderMonkey that allows you to store a GBytes inside a JavaScript ArrayBuffer object.

The result is not 100% backwards compatible. Some functions now return a Uint8Array object instead of a ByteArray and there’s not really a way around that. The two are not really unifiable; Uint8Array’s length is immutable, for one thing. If you want the old behaviour back, you can call new ByteArray.ByteArray() on the returned Uint8Array and all the rest of your code should work as before. However, the legacy ByteArray will have worse performance than the Uint8Array, so instead you should port your code.

Technical Preview: Async Operations

The subject of Avi Zajac’s summer internship was integrating Promises and async functions with GIO’s asynchronous operations. That is, instead of this,

file.load_contents_async(null, (obj, res) => {
    const [, contentsBytes, etag] = obj.load_contents_finish(res);
    print(ByteArray.toString(contentsBytes));
});

you should be able to do this:

file.load_contents_async(null)
.then((contentsBytes, etag) => print(ByteArray.toString(contentsBytes)));

or this:

const [contentsBytes, etag] = await file.load_contents_async(null);
print(ByteArray.toString(contentsBytes));

If you don’t pass in a callback to the operation, it assumes you want a Promise instead of a callback, and will return one so that you can call .then() on it, or use it in an await expression.

This feature is a technology preview in GNOME 3.30 meaning, you must opt in for each method that you want to use it with. Opt in by executing this code at the startup of your program:

Gio._promisify(classPrototype, asyncMethodName, finishMethodName);

This is made a bit extra complicated for file operations, because Gio.File is actually an interface, not a class, and because of a bug where JS methods on interface prototypes are ignored. We also provide a workaround API for this, which unfortunately only works on local (disk) files. So the call to enable the above load_contents_async() code would look like this:

Gio._promisify(Gio._LocalFilePrototype, 'load_contents_async', 'load_contents_finish');

And, of course, if you are using an older GNOME version than 3.30 but you still want to use this feature, you can just copy the Promisify code into your own program, if the license is suitable. I’ve already been writing some code for Endless Hack in this way and it is so convenient that I never want to go back.

Debugger

At long last, there is a debugger. Run it with gjs -d yourscript.js!

The debugger commands should be familiar if you’ve ever used GDB. It is a bit bare-bones right now; if you want to help improve it, I’ve opened issues #207 and #208 for some improvements that shouldn’t be too hard to do.

The debugger is based on Jorendb, a toy debugger by Jason Orendorff which is included in the SpiderMonkey source repository as an example of the Debugger API.

Performance improvements

We’ve made some good improvements in performance, which should be especially apparent in GNOME Shell. The biggest improvement is the Big Hammer patch by Georges Stavracas, which should stop your GNOME Shell session from holding on to hundreds of megabytes at a time. It’s a mitigation of the Tardy Sweep problem which is explained in detail by Georges here. Unfortunately, it makes a tradeoff of worse CPU usage in exchange for better memory usage. We are still trying to find a more permanent solution. Carlos Garnacho also made some further improvements to this patch during the 3.30 cycle.

The other prominent improvement is better memory usage for GObjects in general. A typical GNOME Shell run contains thousands or maybe ten-thousands of GObjects, so shaving even a few bytes off per object has a noticeable effect. Carlos Garnacho started some work in this direction and I continued it. In the end we went from 128 bytes per GObject to 88 bytes. In both cases there is an extra 32 byte penalty if the object has any state set on it from JavaScript code. With these changes, GNOME Shell uses several tens of megabytes less memory before you even do anything.

I have opened two issues for further investigation, #175 and #176. These are two likely avenues to reduce the memory usage even more, and it would be great if someone were interested to work on them. If they are successful, it’s likely we could get the memory usage down to 56 bytes per GObject, and eliminate the extra 32 byte penalty.

celine-nadon-694931-unsplash.jpg

Eventually we will get to that “well-oiled machine” state… Photo by Celine Nadon on Unsplash

Developer Experience

I keep insisting it’s no coincidence, that as soon as we switched to GitLab we started seeing an uptick in contributors whom we hadn’t seen before. This trend has continued: we merged patches from 22 active contributors to GJS in this cycle, up from 13 last time.

Claudio André landed many improvements to the GitLab CI. For one thing, the program is now built and tested on more platforms and using more compile options. He also spent a lot of effort ensuring that the most common failures will fail quickly, so that developers get feedback quickly.

From my side, the maintainer tasks have gotten a lot simpler with GitLab. When I review a merge request, I can leave the questions of “does it build?” and “are all the semicolons there?” to the CI, and concentrate on the more important questions of “is this a feature we want?” and “is it implemented in the best way?” The thumbs-up votey things on issues and merge requests also provide a bit of an indication of what people would most like to see worked on, although I am not really using these systematically yet.

We have some improvements soon to be deployed to DevDocs, and GJS Guide, a site explaining some of the more basic GJS concepts. Both of these were the subject of Evan Welsh’s summer internship. Evan did a lot of work in upstream DevDocs, porting it from the current unsupported CoffeeScript version to a more modern web development stack, which will hopefully be merged upstream eventually.

mountains nature arrow guide

It’s about time we had a signpost to point the way in GJS. Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

We also have an auto formatter for C++ code, so if you contribute code, it’s easier to avoid your branches failing CI due to linter errors. You can set it up so that it will correct your code style every time you commit; there are instructions in the Hacking file. It uses Marco Barisione’s clang-format-hooks. The process isn’t infallible, though: the CI job uses cpplint and the auto formatter uses clang-format, and the two are not 100% compatible.

There are a few miscellaneous nice things that Claudio made. The test coverage report for the master branch is automatically published on every push. And if you want to try out the latest GJS interpreter in a Flatpak, you can manually trigger the “flatpak” CI job and download one.

What’s coming in 3.32

There are a number of efforts already underway in the 3.32 cycle.

ES6 modules should be able to land! This is an often requested feature and John Renner has a mostly-working implementation already. You can follow along on the merge request.

Avi Zajac is working on the full version of the async Promises feature, both the gobject-introspection and GJS parts, which will make it no longer opt-in; Promises will “just work” with all GIO-based async operations.

Also related to async and promises, Florian Müllner is working on a new API that will simplify calling DBus interfaces using some of the new ES6 features we have gained in recent releases.

I hope to land Giovanni Campagna’s old “argument cache” patch set, which looks like it will speed up calls from JS into C by quite a lot. Apparently there is a similar argument cache in PyGObject.

Finally, and this will be the subject of a separate blog post coming soon, I think we have a plausible solution to the Tardy Sweep problem! I’m really excited to write about this, as the solution is really ingenious (I can say that, because I did not think of it myself…)

Contributors

Thanks to everyone who participated to bring GJS to GNOME 3.30: Andy Holmes, Avi Zajac, Carlos Garnacho, Christopher Wheeldon, Claudio André, Cosimo Cecchi, Emmanuele Bassi, Evan Welsh, Florian Müllner, Georges Basile Stavracas Neto, James Cowgill, Jason Hicks, Karen Medina, Ole Jørgen Brønner, pixunil, Seth Woodworth, Simon McVittie, Tomasz Miąsko, and William Barath.

As well, this release incorporated some old patches that people contributed in the past, even up to 10 years ago, that were never merged because they needed some tweaks here or there. Thanks to those people for participating in the past, and I’m glad we were finally able to land your contributions: Giovanni Campagna, Jesus Bermudez Velazquez, Sam Spilsbury, and Tommi Komulainen.

GUADEC 2018 Reminiscences

This year’s GUADEC in Almería, Spain, was over two months ago, and so here is a long overdue post about it. It was so long ago that I might as well call it a reminiscence! This will be a different kind of post than the ones I’ve done in past years, as plenty of other bloggers have already posted summaries about the talks.

Board of Directors

I didn’t even get to see that many talks anyway, as this was my first GUADEC after being elected to the GNOME Foundation board of directors and I found myself doing a lot of running around to complete things. The board has to prepare for a number of meetings including the GNOME Foundation’s Annual General Meeting that’s always held at GUADEC, and so there was plenty of preparation to be done.

So, except for a few sessions, I mainly followed the “hallway track” this year.

It’s an exciting time to be on the board; it’s been in the news recently that the GNOME Foundation has received two substantial donations, and is hiring some new roles. If you want more information and background, Rosanna Yuen, director of operations, explains all about it in this GUADEC talk.

Interns

Somehow I found myself mentoring two interns this summer, Avi Zajac and Evan Welsh, and both of them were able to attend GUADEC. (I co-mentored Evan with my coworker Manuel Quiñones, who unfortunately could not be there.) I had not done a good job introducing them to each other, but they connected with each other and realized that they were both working with me! If you haven’t already, make sure to read Avi’s blog post and Evan’s blog post for their perspectives on how it went. I was glad to have both of them there and really enjoyed meeting up in person.

Both internships have finished up in the meantime. Evan’s website is viewable here, as well as some improvements to DevDocs which I hope to deploy soon. Avi’s project was released as a technical preview in GNOME 3.30 and will be covered in my next blog post.

JavaScript Talk

I gave one scheduled talk, on GJS and JavaScript, and one unscheduled talk, on Endless Code.

I will cover the material from the JavaScript talk in my next post about the new features in GJS, but for now I wanted to post the slides for everyone’s reference. The video of the talk is here.

Endless Hack Talk

I was voted into one of the conference’s open talk slots with a proposal to talk about Endless Code (since then, renamed to Endless Hack). This is a new (well, it was new at the time of the conference) project at Endless. It’s a continuation of this feature which (I didn’t work on, but) my coworkers demoed about two years ago:

The Endless Hack product generalizes this idea to the whole desktop. The idea is that you should be able to tinker with everything, and there’s a narrative that guides you along the way and teaches you programming concepts. It’s aimed at children and young teenagers. Although this product hasn’t been released yet, and although some of the source code is currently open it’s not in a finished or usable state yet, I did want to talk about it at GUADEC because I think the ability to learn by tinkering is an important part of the free software experience and a direct consequence of one of the Four Software Freedoms, and it’s something the GNOME community should be aware of.

We also made a survey asking people about their experience learning how to program, or not learning how to program, and it’s still open, because I did not do a very good job in the talk of publicizing the link! You can fill it out here.

I haven’t dared to watch the video of me talking completely unrehearsed, but you can watch it here if you want.

Unconference

I had high hopes for organizing a GJS unconference session like last year, but after a certain point I was just completely tired out. We did eventually have a GJS session that consisted of people hacking on their favourite thing. Happily, I was able to convince Georges Stavracas to fix a regression that was preventing GNOME Shell from starting. I got a chance to work with Meg Ford on testing with JavaScript, and I also got some work done on the GJS debugger, a new feature in GNOME 3.30. I will talk about all this and more in my next post!

We also used some of the unconference time for a kickoff session for the GNOME Developer Center. Bastian Ilsø is leading this initiative and has a lot of material for you to read on what’s happened in the meantime.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank the GNOME Foundation for making it possible for me to attend the conference and the board meetings.

Thank you to my coworker Lisette Silva for convincing me to submit the open talk and giving some last-minute feedback beforehand.

New Year, New Blogs

Here are three clear thinkers whose blogs I’ve enjoyed discovering over the past year. Maybe you might like them too.

Tech

Julia Evans takes a complicated topic that she’d like to learn about, and just… goes and learns about it. Then she posts her findings to her blog, written in a really accessible way. She does this mainly for technical topics, but sometimes also tech leadership skills.

Completely true to form, she’s currently on a sabbatical from her job to write a profiler for Ruby. At the time of this writing, she’s publishing a weekly post on what she learned each week doing this project.

She also produces zines: short, handwritten, comic-book style explanations of technical subjects. I managed to get my hands on a paper copy of So You Want To Be A Wizard, which is a collection of tips about building up your problem-solving skills as a software engineer. The zines are also available to read for free on her website.

Julia Evans’ writing style is really what I aspire to on this blog, I just never knew it before. She takes complicated topics and demystifies them, and reading about them really makes you feel like you too can get your head around difficult things if you can just conquer your hesitation and dive in.

Politics

Benjamin Studebaker is politically a lot farther to the left than I am, and actually has written a certain number of articles that I strongly disagree with. There’s nothing that’s not well-thought-out, though, and sometimes it’s good to read things you disagree with.

However, I’ve learned a few things from this blog. One is what he calls “the core left-wing premise”: People’s actions are shaped by conditions. In other words, the left-wing approach to fighting poverty is to ask the question “How can we change the conditions in our society to make it possible for poor people to have the opportunities they need?” whereas the right-wing approach is to ask “How can we make poor people take responsibility for themselves?”

The most thought-provoking thing I’ve read here is the need to apply the core left-wing premise consistently — even to realize that we need to change the systems in our society that cause people to find various -isms (such as racism) attractive, and the -ists themselves will follow, whereas an aggressive approach will only cause the -ists to entrench their views. In Benjamin Studebaker’s words:

[W]hen we tell racists to “educate themselves” we’re no different from the conservatives who tell the homeless guy they see on the corner to “get a job”.

Media

Mike Caulfield has a blog that defies categorization. I’m calling it “media” because that seems to be the common thread. He writes a lot about one topic for a while, then moves on to another topic. (I’m actually cheating a bit because I got into this blog a few years ago when he was writing about Federated Wiki, then he moved on to the garden model versus the feed model, and on to shared resources. But it’s like a whole different blog every year!)

This past year he’s moved on to the topic of fact-checking and polarization on social media. It’s really worth going back and reading posts from the beginning of 2017, since there are too many good ones to put in just a list of highlights. The short of it is that he has written a lot about both the technical and social aspects about why ultra-polarized fake news is taking over social media platforms, why the companies behind these platforms have no incentive to change that, and the skills that we as consumers need to protect ourselves from falling into the fake news trap. One thing I especially appreciate is that he tries hard to be apolitical by including examples of fake news from all over the political spectrum.

He recently published a post of “Predictions for 2018” that in turn make me predict that his topic for 2018 will be clickbait content generated by machine learning algorithms…

Modern Javascript in GNOME – GUADEC 2017 talk

I gave a presentation at GUADEC 2017 this morning on modern Javascript in GNOME, the topic of the last few posts on this blog. As I promised during the talk, here are the slides. There is a beefy appendix after the questions slide, with details about all the new language features, that you are welcome to use as a reference.

Thanks to the GNOME Foundation for the travel sponsorship, to my employer Endless for paying for some of this work, and especially to Rob McQueen for the last-minute loan of a USB-C video adapter!

Official badge from the GUADEC website: "I'm going to The GNOME Conference GUADEC Manchester, United Kingdom"

Inventing GObject ES6 classes

Hello again! If you’re a GJS user, I’d like your opinion and ideas. After my last post where I talked about new features coming in GNOME 3.26 to GJS, GNOME’s Javascript engine, I’m happy to say that the patches are nearly ready to be landed. We just need to figure out how to build SpiderMonkey 52 consistently even though Mozilla hasn’t made an official standalone release of it yet.

A top view of a latte next to a notebook with a pen, with coffee beans strewed artfully around.

A better literal depiction of JAVA SCRIPT I could not ask for… (Public domain image courtesy of Engin_Akyurt)

As I reported last time:

After that is done, I will refactor GJS’s class system (Lang.Class and GObject.Class). I believe this needs to be done before GNOME 3.26. That’s because [we will] gain ES6 classes, and I want to avoid the situation where we have two competing, and possibly incompatible, ways to write classes.

That’s what I’m busy doing now, in the run-up to GUADEC later this month, and I wanted to think out loud in this blog post, and give GJS users a chance to comment.

First of all, the legacy Lang.Class classes will continue to work. You will be able to write ES6 classes that inherit from legacy classes, so you can start using ES6 classes without refactoring all of your code at once.

That was the good news, now the bad

However, there is not an obvious way to carry over the ability to create GObject classes and interfaces from legacy classes to ES6 classes. The main problem is that Lang.Class and its subclasses formed a metaclass framework. This was used to carry out certain activities at the time the class object itself was constructed, such as registering with the GType system.

ES6 classes don’t have a syntax for that, so we’ll have to get a bit creative. My goals are to invent something (1) that’s concise and pleasant to use, and (2) that doesn’t get in the way when classes gain more features in future ES releases; that is, not too magical. (Lang.Class is pretty magical, but then again, there wasn’t really an alternative at the time.)

Here is how the legacy classes worked, with illustrations of all the possible bells and whistles:

The metaclass magic in Lang.Class notices that the class extends GObject.Object, and redirects the construction of the class object to GObject.Class. There, the other magic properties such as Properties and Signals are processed and removed from the prototype, and it calls a C function to register the type with the GObject type system.

Without metaclasses, it’s not possible to automatically carry out magic like that at the time a class object is constructed. However, that is exactly the time when we need to register the type with GObject. So, you pretty much need to remember to call a function after the class declaration to do the registering.

The most straightforwardly translated (fictional) implementation might look something like this:

The fictional GObject.registerClass() function would take the role of the metaclass’s constructor.

This is a step backwards in a few ways compared to the legacy classes, and very unsatisfying. ES6 classes don’t yet have syntax for fields, only properties with getters, and the resulting static get syntax is quite unwieldy. Having to call the fictional registerClass() function separately from the class is unpleasant, because you can easily forget it.

On the other hand, if we had decorators in the language we’d be able to make something much more satisfying. If you’re familiar with Python’s decorators, these are much the same thing: the decorator is a function which takes the object that it decorates as input, performs some action on the object, and returns it. There is a proposed decorator syntax for Javascript that allows you to decorate classes and class properties. This would be an example, with some more fictional API:

This is a lot more concise and natural, and the property decorators are similar to the equivalent in PyGObject, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist. Decorators are still only a proposal, and none of the major browser engines implement them yet. Nonetheless, we can take the above syntax as an inspiration, use a class expression, and move the registerClass() function around it and the GObject stuff outside of it:

Here, the body of the class is almost identical to what it would be with the decorator syntax. All the extra stuff for GObject is contained at the top of the class like it would be with the decorators. We don’t have the elegance of the property decorator, but this is quite an improvement on the first iteration. It’s not overly magical, it even acts like a decorator: it takes a class expression, and gives back a GObject-ized class. And when decorators eventually make it into standard Javascript, the basic idea is the same, so converting your code will be easy enough. (Or those who use transpiling tools can already go ahead and implement the decorator-based API.)

This is the best API I’ve been able to come up with so far. What do you think? Would you want to use it? Reply to this post or come talk to me in #javascript on GNOME IRC.

Next steps

Note first of all that none of this code exists yet. Depending on what feedback I get here, I hope to have a draft version working before GUADEC, and around the same time I’ll post a more detailed proposal to the javascript-list mailing list.

In addition, I will be speaking about this and more at GUADEC in my talk, “Modern Javascript in GNOME“. If you are attending, come talk to me there! Thanks to the GNOME Foundation for sponsoring my travel and accommodations.

Official badge from the GUADEC website: "I'm going to The GNOME Conference GUADEC Manchester, United Kingdom"

Javascript news from GNOME 3.24

Welcome back to the latest news on GJS, the Javascript engine that powers GNOME Shell, Endless OS, Polari, GNOME Documents, and many other apps.

GNOME 3.24 has been released for about three weeks now, and with it went GJS 1.48.0. Here’s what’s new!

Javascript upgrade!

First of all, we have a more modern Javascript engine. GJS is based on Mozilla’s SpiderMonkey, the same Javascript engine that runs in the Firefox browser. Back in GNOME 3.22, GJS was based on version 24, which was released in September 2013. Now we’ve moved to version 38, which although still old, was released almost two years later in May 2015.

(The number of each SpiderMonkey release increases by 7 each time, because they make a standalone SpiderMonkey release for each Extended Support Release of Firefox, which is one out of every 7. That’s why you might also hear them referred to as “ESR 38”, etc.)

This brings a lot of new Javascript language features with it. Here are some of the ones I’m most excited about.

Promises

Promises allow you to do asynchronous operations (like reading files, or waiting, or fetching things from the network) in a much more intuitive way. With Promises, the code reads from top to bottom as if it were synchronous, instead of from nested level to nested level (often called “callback hell“.)

Here’s an example, a Promises version of examples/gio-cat.js that’s included in GJS’s source distribution:

This is much longer than the original program, but only the lower part of the program is actually the equivalent of the old callback-based code. The top part would ideally be provided by GJS itself. I’m still figuring out what is the best API for wrapPromise but it’s definitely a candidate for including in a future version of GJS.

This code calls loadContents, prints the contents, and exits the main loop. If an exception is thrown anywhere in the chain before .catch, then the function provided to the catch call will log the error message. In any case, no matter whether the operation succeeded or not, the last then call will make sure the main loop exits.

Template literals

Template literals will change your life if you work with text in your GJS program. They are regular strings in backticks, with interpolation. Say goodbye to this:

const Format = imports.format;
String.prototype.format = Format.format;
log("%s, %s!".format(greeting, name));

Also say goodbye to this:

log(greeting + ", " + name + "!");

Instead, from now on you’ll do this:

log(`${greeting}, ${name}!`);

It’s a lot more readable and intuitive.

Template literals can also cover more than one line, and they do real interpolation of expressions too, not just variable names:

const CSS = `
label {
    font-size: ${fontdesc.get_size()};
}`;

You can also “tag” templates which is out of scope of this blog post, but there is one built-in tag which serves the same purpose as r'' string literals do in Python:

String.raw`I'm writing some \LaTeX\ code here
and I \textbf{don't} want to deal with escaping it:
\[ E = mc^2 \]`

Generators

Generators are a great addition to the Javascript toolbox. They were actually already available in GJS, but only in Mozilla’s nonstandard extension form. They are introduced with the function* keyword instead of function, and they work a lot like Python’s generators. Here’s an example, implementing the xrange() function similar to the one in Python using a generator:

function* xrange(limit) {
    for(let count = 0; count < limit; count++)
        yield count;
}

The yield statement returns control back to the caller, while preserving the state of the generator until the next call. You can get all the values one by one, calling a generator’s next() method, but for...of loops will also deal with generators:

for (let ix of xrange(5))
    print(`Counting from 0 to 4: ${ix}`);

If you want to empty a generator into an array, you can also use the spread operator: [...xrange(5)] will give you an array of numbers from 0 to 4.

Here’s a more complicated example showing the yield* statement which allows you to compose more than one generator:

This code prints looks at the directory that it’s given, and prints all the files in it that are not themselves directories (the “leaf nodes”.) If one of the files is a directory, it will descend into that directory and repeat the process, thanks to yield*.

Want to know more?

Since there’s a lot more than I can cover in a comfortably readable blog post, I made a slide deck. I tried to put it together in such a way that you can use it as reference material.

For more information on all of these cool things, I highly recommend this “ES6 Explained” series of posts from the Mozilla Hacks blog. Some of these features, such as classes and modules, are still to come in GJS.

Maintainer life

The Javascript engine upgrade was the major feature, but I also spent some time on making things easier for myself as the maintainer. A well-tended garden will hopefully attract more gardeners. Happily, some other people joined in for this part.

I cleaned up the build system, using more modern and concise Autotools code. I also spent some time cleaning up compiler warnings, both on GCC and Clang. Now the build and test runs are faster, and the cleaner output makes it much easier to see when something goes wrong. I also made sure that GJS builds on macOS, or at least it did until my Apple hardware broke down. Chun-wei Fan made some improvements that ensure GJS builds on Windows with MSVC. Claudio André implemented continuous integration in a Docker container, with the intention to run it on Travis CI, but sadly we do not have permission to flip the bit to get Travis to build it.

Having written Jasmine GJS in order to bring some of that convenient unit testing technology from the Node world into GJS applications, I also wanted to use it for writing GJS’s own unit tests. I couldn’t use it directly because that would have been a circular dependency, of course, but I embedded a copy of upstream Jasmine plus a very stripped-down version of Jasmine GJS, and called it “Minijasmine”. It’s now a lot easier, and dare I say less of a drag, to write unit tests for GJS. Accordingly, we’ll now try to cover every bug fix with a regression test.

And I worked on getting the bug tracker down to a less daunting number of bugs. It was fun to make the bug chart in my last post, so here’s another one: this is the number of open bugs during the release cycle from 1.46.0 to 1.48.0.

Graphical report results

You can definitely see that November Bug Squash Month had an effect

Unfortunately the chart will not look like this again next time around. The big drop was me closing all the obsolete or already-fixed bugs during November Bug Squash Month. We are down from about 160 to about 100 bugs, but those were all the easy ones; there are only hard ones left now.

Thanks

Thanks to everyone who participated to bring GJS to GNOME 3.24: Chun-wei Fan, Claudio André, Florian Müllner, Alexander Larsson, Iain Lane, Jonh Wendell, and Lionel Landwerlin.

As well, this release incorporated a lot of patches that people contributed a long time ago, even up to 8 years, that for various reasons had not been reviewed yet. (Many from emeritus GJS maintainers!) Thanks to those people for participating in the past, and I’m glad we were able to finally bring your contributions into the project: Giovanni Campagna, Jasper St. Pierre, Sam Spilsbury, Havoc Pennington, Joe Shaw, Paolo Borelli, Shawn Walker, and Tim Lunn.

Luke Jones and Hussam Al-Tayeb identified a serious memory leak right before the final 1.48.0 release and without their contribution, it would have been a different and much sadder story. As it was, 1.48.0 still contained another serious bug that made GNOME Shell quite unusable for an unlucky few people. Thanks to Georges Stavracas for rewriting a happy ending for 1.48.2.

Special thanks to Cosimo Cecchi, for reviewing almost every single line of the code I wrote for this release: about 20000 lines, many of them boring and repetitive.

Thanks also to my employer Endless which sponsored most of the Javascript engine upgrade, and a good chunk of miscellaneous bug fixing time.

Looking forward

My next post will be about what’s to come in GJS for GNOME 3.26.