blog.absurd:li - press play on tape
February 22th 2010
Tagged javascript, coffeescript, ruby, jquery

Notes on CoffeeScript; a javascript replacement

This weekend I had the chance to work/play with CoffeeScript, a new language created by Jeremy Ashkenas.

I had been so desperate trying to get jquery.facelist by Ian Tearle do my evil bidding that I decided to scratch and rewrite it. After all, how complicated can things be, its just javascript, right? This was – in the past – a recipe for disaster. I would try a rewrite and end up with something as complicated as the original. And end up feeling worse about it, since this time it was my code.

A change of approach was in order. And since I am a fan of clever code generation, I decided to use CoffeeScript for my rewrite. Here’s some notes about this experiment.

Source to Source compilation

CoffeeScript installs with

  $ gem install coffee-script

Its executable coffee is a source to source compiler that turns CoffeeScript into perfectly valid and well formed Javascript. CoffeeScript is written in Ruby using a treetop parser.

Shorter than Javascript

The source code you write in CoffeeScript is considerably shorter than what you would write in Javascript. Languages either read like noise or they read like signal – and CoffeeScript is definitively signal. To me, Javascript has always seemed like just a tiny bit too complicated to properly remember – and what I wrote turned always out to be lacking in some area.

As an example, remember what you have to do to create your own namespace in Javascript? Yeah,

  (function() {
    // your isolated namespace here

does the job. CoffeeScript will do that for you, no syntax to learn. Turns out, you always want to do that anyway.

Or, another example. I always have to glance at a reference to remember how to do prototype based OOP in javascript. Not just because it is not class based, that part I’ve been able to wrap my head around by now. But because the syntax is so much like blessing references in Perl:

  Foo.prototype.my_method = function my_method() {
    return alert('hi');

What the fail. This is so much typing, it’s almost like Javascript is trying to look like Java. CoffeeScript makes this pleasant:

  Foo::my_method: ->

CoffeeScript doesn’t hide Javascript, it just makes it easy. (Here’s the rest of the introduction)

Writing correct Javascript

CoffeeScript also takes the pain out of writing correct Javascript. Maybe I am in this business for too long already, but I distinctly remember fighting with Internet Explorer (was it 4?) for hours on end over a misplaced semicolon. Generations of future programmers will be able to learn how not to do error reporting from that piece of crap. It just told you that you had an error in line XYZ, and whatever number X, Y and Z was, you could be sure that it was unrelated to the line the semicolon was missing in.

JSLint was an improvement. At least you could have some kind of feedback on your code before going into a frustration loop with IE. Mostly JSLint would tell you all the things that would trip up a browser and fixing its warnings could get you that far already.

CoffeeScript takes this one step further. Since its output passes JSLint without warnings, its like that red sports car – faster AND cooler. My experience with it says that when coffee compiles it, it probably runs. And since there is less noise to it, its easier to get right. No fiddling with bits of syntax, just writing code.

Plays well with others

Exhibit A: A piece of HAML code:

    .name John Doe
    .address Infinity Drive

Exhibit B: Sass

    color: #fff

And finally (maybe in that same HAML file, thanks to coffee-haml-filter):


My ruby liking soul is only slightly worried by the importance of indentation in these languages. Putting that aside, I can really enjoy all of them. (And no, don’t write all of your CoffeeScript inline with your haml!)

The Result

After several attempts, I have been able to complete a rewrite. The resulting code will now be used in the application I am building. You can look at it here: kschiess/jquery.objectlist.

The code I have written reads like a cross between Ruby, Smalltalk and Scheme. The methods have become really short, and some of the data is hidden as lambdas in hooks. CoffeeScript will allow to do all of this: Writing clean OO code, writing functional style and just writing idiomatic .. Javascript.

Writing this has felt good and really really funky. I have focused on the usability of the language in these notes, but I urge you to look at the introduction. CoffeeScript has

  • list comprehension
  • terse lambda syntax, with or without this binding
  • pattern matching
  • heck, even a small rake replacement!

Do check it out!