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December 10, 2008

Filed under: tech»coding

DOM and Gloom

Against my better judgement, I've started working with JavaScript at work. It's a huge mistake, because learning new technical skills in a department that's weak in them is suspiciously like forming a debilitating drug habit: first you're just creating some tabs, then you work out how to stripe alternating rows in financial tables, and before you know it you've been assigned to build a searchable front-end for the video database. I specifically wanted to not be a programmer when I went into higher education, and look where that got me. But there doesn't seem to be any way around it, particularly after learning Flash--and Flash was itself unavoidable, since I strongly believe in using the right medium for the message, and CQ.com's messages happen to be very data-heavy and in need of visualization.

In any case, I'm conflicted. I actually really like JavaScript solely as a language. When I go to write something quickly in Visual Basic or Python now, I find myself missing features like dynamic objects (where objects can add properties and methods during runtime), long lambda functions (which are created in the middle of other code, for things like callbacks), and first-class functions (not everything has to be wrapped in a class, and functions can be passed around as objects). I feel like I finally get why people are so enthusiastic about LISP and Scheme, where a lot of these features originated: it makes for a very expressive, flexible language.

But using JavaScript means writing for the web browser, which means writing for the Document Object Model (DOM), which is a dreadful affair. I apologize for writing that, since it's rehashing something that everyone knows, but it's absolutely true. Even using a library like JQuery, thus eliminating some of the frustration of cross-browser incompatibility, cannot make this enjoyable. It's all the pain of writing a web page, compounded by rewriting it dynamically through a set of clumsy, half-blind interfaces, hopefully without breaking anything beyond recognition. JQuery doesn't solve that problem. It makes it slightly less annoying, at the cost of forcing coders to type "$()" about a million times, at which point I might as well be using LISP anyway.

In order to see how nice JavaScript could be, I think you have to write something in ActionScript, where an actual API library is provided for things like UI elements, file access, events, and graphics. Freed from having to use the HTML DOM as a layer for presentation and interaction (something for which it was arguably never designed), it's actually possible to get into a rhythm and discover the good parts of JavaScript/ActionScript/ECMAScript. It's a real wake-up call--with the downside that it makes going back to the browser even more depressing.

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