At NDC Oslo, Sean Trelford did a lightning talk on composing 3D objects using F# and OpenGL. Oh, and he’s 8 years old. Sean (and his dad, Phil) talk to Jon about learning coding with Small Basic and F#, and how it’s fun to learn coding by building video games.
Download / Listen: Herding Code 213: Sean Trelford on Composing 3D Objects with F# and OpenGL
This week we’ve also got a full transcript (thanks to Damian Guard!).
Download / Listen: Herding Code 212: Steve Sanderson on Web Development in 2020
Jon: Hello and welcome to Herding Code. I am sitting here at NDC speaking with Steven Sanderson or Steve Sanderson, sor ry.
Steve: Either’s fine with me.
Steve: That is right – I was trying to predict the future of client-side web application development. I don’t know how accurate my predictions will be but some of them are fairly safe bets like we’re going to start using ES 2015/2016 stuff pretty soon and then there’s a whole raft of other features coming towards us.
Jon: Ok. So that was actually the first time I’ve seen ES 2015 and 2016. I think I’ve heard in the past ES 6 and 7.
Steve: Yeah, it’s just a bit of new marketing really. The folks behind the standards there have basically committed to bringing out a new update every year. So we’ve got this annual cycle rather than up until know it’s been every five years or every ten years in one case. So given that it’s going to be annual it it sort of makes sense to give the name a year.
Jon: Right, yeah, definitely. Kind of like Visual Studio has done.
Jon: So what are some great features there in 2015/2016?
Steve: Oh, yeah, I think that might have been the case.
Jon: Can I start using those features? I know there’s some poly-fills and transpilers or whatever.
Steve: Yeah, I’d say if you want to start using ES 2015 today it’s really not as difficult as you might think. Assuming you want to target all browsers since, let’s say IE 9, then you can basically use almost all of the ES 2015 features. You just need to use a transpiler.
The one that everybody seems to be most into at the moment is called Babel (BAY-bel) or some people call it Babel (BAB-bel). I don’t know what the right pronunciation is.
Anyway it’s an open source project that will take your ES 2015 code and produce an ES 5 equivalent of it. It’s really fast, easy-to-setup and to be honest with you I can’t think of any good reason not to be doing that. If you’re not doing that you’re sort of just keeping yourself in the past really because this thing is a fully ratified standard now. We know this thing is definitely landing – all the browser makers are committed to bring this in. There isn’t really a good reason to not be using this today.
Jon: I’ve looked at using Typescript for that kind of class support in the past. Is there any kind of downside to continuing with that or are they similar?
Steve: No there’s certainly no downside to that. If you’re getting benefit out of Typescript then absolutely use it. Typescript in a way is a transpiler because it is taking some syntax that is a lot like ES 2015 – it just adds some additional features on top of that to do with strong typing. So if you’re getting some benefit out of that strong typing then yeah definitely use Typescript. On the other hand if you don’t want to use the strong typing then you’ll find that something like Babel will do the compilation, like an order of magnitude, faster.
Jon: So that’s kind of a no-brainer as far as a future to dig into. What else did you talk about that’s more forward looking?
Steve: I was also looking at web components which is sort of all tied up with ES 2015. It’s kind of a part of this package of things arriving at the moment but unlike that making that work across all browsers is not quite as guaranteed today. So the best known polyfill for web components is polymer.js but in terms of IE that’s only IE 11 onwards. But it’s a really good feature. Web components is a way of combining together a bunch of scripts and markup and styles to make a reusable package of UI features that you can put in your application and you can assign them to a custom element name so you can have something like sales-chart as an element and when that goes into your application your custom sales chart appears and it has all the behaviors your want. And it can be, to some extend, encapsulated from the rest of your page as well. So this is a feature called Shadow DOM and it’s a way of telling the browser that a certain element should be abstracted away as far the page that contains it is concerned. Code running outside it won’t see the elements inside. If, for example, you were using jQuery and you were using a selector and it happened to match something inside that component it won’t actually match it because it’s considered to be like a separate document. So you don’t get accidental leakages of behavior into your component or out of it – it just makes reuse easier.
Jon: And the same for stylesheets as well?
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. If you bring a stylesheet into your web component and it’s certainly going to apply inside that Shadow DOM root it won’t apply outside it.
Jon: And I believe you mentioned polymer.js is the polyfill for that?
Steve: Yeah, it’s the best known polyfill but Polymer is only the way of doing something like web components. If you’re going to use something like React or Knockout or Angular any of those kinds of things they’ve all got their own kind of concept of reusable components with custom elements so if you’re using any of those things you probably can pretty much do this anyway in a fairly cross-browser way.
Jon: Right. Ok. So then what other features did you cover?
Steve: I was interested in the upcoming await/async support.
Steve: I might do sometimes. Whereas as any C# programmer knows with await and async keywords you can write your code as if it was synchronous.
Jon: It’s so obvious what’s going to happen.
Steve: You can’t get that wrong really. That’s part of the ES 2016 proposal and if you want to do that today you can either use Babel which will transpile async/await just directly or you can use the generators feature which is in ES 2015. Slightly different syntax but it gives you the ability to do something almost exactly the same.
Jon: Can you explain generators a bit?
Steve: A generator for a C# programmer is exactly like the yield keyword that came in with C# 2. So you can have a function that returns an infinite number of values. Like every time that you ask it for the next value it will give you the next thing and it will never stop doing that. That’s yield in C# and generators in ES 2015 do the same thing. So you can have a function and you put a little asterisk after the keyword function to say that it’s a generator and then inside there you can have yield, return, whatever. You can do that inside a while(true) loop or something like that and then the thing that calls it will receive each of these values.
Jon: Do I just throw away promises now?
Steve: No, you still need to use promises. The way you can use this to make promises feel synchronous is by having some other that invokes your generator that gets back the sequence of values. Each time it gets back a value it will say "well what kind of thing is this? If it’s a promise then I’m going wait for that promise to complete before I ask you for the next value." And so, if you are yielding a series of promises in effect it’s like your promises are being called sequentially one after the other. Which is why your code ends up looking synchronous. It’s not very easy to understand verbally but when you see it written down it’s quite straight-forward and nice.
Jon: So then there was Emscripten?
Steve: So yeah, that’s all about performance really. And you can kind of do it today you know. We’ve got Emscripten today, you can compile pretty much arbitrary C code. You can get your asm.js – it will be very very fast in Firefox – the only browser that supports it today but other browser makers have committed to implementing that to. I know IE certainly has, I don’t know about all of them. I’m pretty sure they don’t really have a lot of choice these days.
Jon: Ok. I believe you had tons of great demos during your talk – this was one where you said it basically very difficult to get a demo working for it. Was it that one?
Jon: Okay. Wow. So next there was shared array buffer.
Jon: It’s interesting we were talking to Damian Edwards yesterday about some of the server work that they’re doing optimizing serving ASP.NET 5 and that was something they ran into on the server side was this kind of shared buffer and passing and minimizing the transitions and all that kind of stuff.
Steve: It’s funny isn’t it. On one side of the industry we’ve got the move towards functional programming and no shared state and at the other end you’ve got this need for exploiting all the core of many core processors with as little amount of overhead as possible where you do need to mutate shared state. So we’re kind of straddling these two competing goals there and for certain applications like, for example, high performance games or something like that the shared state parallelism is clearly winning and other things like certain types of business applications functional programming seems to deliver much higher benefits than that.
Jon: Okay. I remember one of the other ones that I was actually really excited about because I’d looked at before and meant to play with and hadn’t yet was Grid Style Sheets.
Steve: Oh yeah, yeah. So that’s funny. The first thing to know about Grid Style Sheets is that it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with grids. It’s a company called TheGrid which, you know, is a cool name for a company but it’s a little confusing when you make a product called Grid Style Sheets. Anyway the idea with Grid Style Sheets is to kind of break free from all the layout limitations of regular CSS. Any web developer in the world has struggled with making things get vertically centered or shrink-wrapping to their content. You know, that kind of thing. It’s embarrassingly difficult for us, even when we consult on some of the hardest problems in the world, we can’t make something centered inside something else.
Jon: And it’s funny because you feel like I can describe the problem. I want this to be here and this to always be here but never bigger than the parent. Or whatever, right?
Steve: And that’s exactly what Grid Style Sheets does. It’s an example of a constraints-based layout engine and with a constraints layout engine you don’t necessarily care so much about hierarchy and padding and things like that you just make a rule that says something like "My popup menu needs to be left aligned with some other element and it needs to be vertically centered in a certain area and it needs to be big enough for it’s content" – that kind of thing. So it’s just a few constraints you give and then the constraints solver will choose the appropriate position for it. And it’s the same technique that’s used in some modern iOS applications. They’ve got a technology called Auto Layout and that allows iOS to have things like – you’ll see they’ve announced the Windows 8 style sidebar thing in iOS 9 I think. Well don’t Apple a good original idea that one. And the way applications can fit into arbitrary sized screens is by using technologies like Auto Layout where the developer just specifies a set of constraints and the operating system positions things. And Grid Style Sheets allows you to do precisely the same thing but on the web. It’s a cool, very cool technology. It’s a bit experimental at this stage, I don’t know of too many people really using it.
Steve: Absolutely. I think that the people building that would aspire to it one day maybe even being a native feature. So you have your style type equals text/gss instead of css and then you have this alternate syntax for defining layout. Which is a heck of a lot more expressive and straight forward than regular CSS in certain cases. It’s also got some really cool powerful features that have got no equivalent in CSS. For example, well a simple example is that it has variables. Now of course if you’re using SASS or LESS you know about variables but these are cool variables. They don’t just have a specific value they have a value where you can define some rules. Like you can say this variable is positive, this variable is less than 250 but you don’t say what actual value it is. The constraints optimizer will choose the value in order to satisfy all the other constraints. Also, it supports if/else conditions so you can say something like "if this element is bigger than a certain size then I want this layout otherwise some other layout which is like media queries but, you know media queries are limited to querying just the window width or some other basic thing like that. Whereas with GSS you can query absolutely arbitrary things and it’s evaluated at run-time so if you mutate the DOM over time then it will update its layout accordingly.
Jon: One really nice feature I liked about it too is that it animated between. And so, I watched as you resized the window and not only would it apply the constraints but it would like really nicely smoothly move to it.
Steve: Yeah, so that’s not actually a natively GSS feature. I just put a CSS transition rule in. So like transition * 1 second or something.
Jon: Smart, I like that!
Steve: So in an application when everything to just instantly snap to the correct position you wouldn’t have that rule but it’s quite sweet as you say to see things so of fluidly slide into their correct position. Which is dead easy because GSS internally is using position: absolute or something for everything so all your animations just work.
Jon: Now, because of things like that it might be difficult to use some GSS and some traditional CSS together.
Steve: Yeah, I’m sure that’s probably true. Yeah. I think there’s a lot of reasons why if you are adopting this you should expect to be in for a slightly bumpy ride. You will definitely be one of the first adopters in the world if you pick this up today. You’ll be the one that’s actually figuring out what the best practices are, what stuff does and doesn’t work that well so yeah I wasn’t standing up there trying to advocate that everyone should take this on today but if you’ve got an interesting little side project and you want to try out some really cutting-edge possible future thing then yeah it’s a really fun thing to play with.
Jon: And one thing too I was all excited about it and kind of sold on it and you explained too that it can be difficult to debug. If something’s not working it’s like actually solving a constraint and you don’t get that clear understanding of what I did wrong.
Steve: I could imagine some future tooling that shows you visually how things have been anchored and laid out. But at the moment it’s a bit like if you give it not quite enough information it will just make some decision that might completely bizare like it chooses to position an element off the screen or something like that and it may not be obvious until you really think very carefully why it’s done that.
Jon: Great, well this is fascinating. I’m looking forward to watching the video again and digging into some of this stuff. I understand you’ve got to run off and catch a plane.
Steve: Yes, that is true.
Jon: So thank-you very much for your time and was great talking to you.
While at NDC, Jon talks to James Mickens about his terrifying computer security keynote presentation.
TLDR you are doomed.
While at NDC Oslo, K Scott and Jon talked to Ian Cooper about Microservices and using the Brighter library for Command Dispatcher / Command Processor patterns.
Download / Listen: Herding Code 210: Ian Cooper on Microservices and the Brighter library
These show notes were contributed by Damien Guard. Thanks!