Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ember.js is driving me crazy

For the past few months I've been working on a project with a fairly complex interactive web interface. This required me to venture into the wild and unpredictable jungle of Javascript development. I was totally unprepared for what I would find. Soon after starting the project it became clear that just using JQuery would not be sufficient for my project. I needed a higher level Javascript framework. After a doing a little research I settled on Ember.js.

The Zombie Code Apocalypse

Ember was definitely a big improvement over straight JQuery, and allowed me to get some fairly complex UI behavior working very quickly. But recently I've run into some problems. The other day I had a UI widget defined like this:

App.FooController = Ember.ObjectController.extend({
    // ...
});
App.FooView = Ember.View.extend({
    // ...
});

It was used somewhere on the page, but at some point I decided that the widget was no longer needed, so I commented out the widget's markup. I wasn't sure whether we would ultimately keep the widget or not, so I opted to keep the above javascript code for the controller and view around for awhile so it would be easily available if I later decided to re-enable that UI element.

Everything seemed to work fine until a few days later when I noticed that another one of my controls, Bar, was not being populated with data. After spending hours trying to figure out the problem, I finally happened to comment out the unused code for the Foo widget and the problem went away. WTF?!? Why should this have anything to do with the functioning of a completely unrelated widget? This makes absolutely no sense to me, and it completely violates the natural assumption that the controller and view for two completely unrelated controls would have no impact on each other. I would have liked to know the underlying cause, but I didn't want to waste time with it, so I just removed the code and moved on.

Spontaneously Changing Values

Maybe a week later I ran into another problem. Some data was changing when I didn't expect it to. I looked everywhere I could think of that might affect the data, but couldn't find anything. Again, I spent the better part of a day trying to track down the source of this problem. After awhile I was getting desperate, so I started putting print statements all over the place. I discovered that the data was changing in one particular function. I examined it carefully but couldn't find any hint of this data being impacted. Eventually I isolated the problem to the following snippet:

console.log(this.get('foo'));
this.set('bar', ...);
console.log(this.get('foo'));

The first log line showed foo with a value of 25. The second log line showed foo with a value of 0. This is utter madness! I set one field, and a completely different one gets changed! In what world does this make any shred of sense? This time, even when I actually figured out where the problem was happening I still couldn't figure out how to solve it. At least the first time I could just comment out the offending innocuous lines. Here I narrowed down the exact line that's causing the problem, but still couldn't figure out how to fix it. Finally I got on the #emberjs IRC channel and learned that Ember's set function has special behavior for values in the content field, which foo was a part of. I was able to fix this problem by initializing the bar field to null. WAT?!?

I was in shock. This seemed like one of the most absurd behaviors I've encountered in all my years of programming. Back in the C days you could see some crazy things, but at least you knew that array updates and pointer arithmetic could be dangerous and possibly overwrite other parts of memory. Here there's no hint. No dynamic index that might overflow. Just what we thought was a straightforward getter and setter for a static field in a data type.

Blaming Systems, Not People

Before you start jumping all over me for all the things I did wrong, hear me out. I'm not blaming the Ember developers or trying to disparage Ember. Ember.js is an amazing library and my application wouldn't exist without it or something like it. I'm just a feeble-minded Haskell programmer and not well-versed in the ways of Javascript. I'm sure I was doing things that contributed to the problem. But that's not the point. I've been around long enough to realize that there are probably good justifications for why the above behaviors exist. The Ember developers are clearly way better Javascript programmers than I will ever be. There's got to be a better explanation.

Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, talks about the beer distribution game. It's a game that has been played thousands of times with diverse groups of people in management classes all over the world. The vast majority of people who play it perform very poorly. Peter points out that we're too quick to attribute a bad outcome to individual people when it should instead be attributed to the structure of the system in which those people were operating. This situation is no different.

Like the beer distribution game, Javascript is a complex system. The above anecdotes demonstrate how localized well-intentioned decisions by different players resulted in a bad outcome. The root of the problem is the system we were operating in: an impure programming language with weak dynamic typing. In a different system, say the one we get with Haskell, I can conclusively say that I never would have had these problems. Haskell's purity and strong static type system provide a level of safety that is simply unavailable in Javascript (or any other mainstream programming language for that matter).

The Godlike Refactoring

In fact, this same project gave us another anecdote supporting this claim. The project's back end is several thousand lines of Haskell code. I wrote all of the back end code, and since we have a pretty aggressive roadmap with ambitious deadlines the code isn't exactly all that pretty. There are a couple places with some pretty hairy logic. A few weeks ago we needed to do a major refactoring of the back end to support a new feature. I was too busy with other important features, so another member of the team worked on the refactoring. He had not touched a single line of the back end code before that point, but thanks to Haskell's purity and strong static type system he was able to pull off the entire refactoring single-handedly in a just a couple hours. And once he got it compiling, the application worked the first time. We are both convinced that this feat would have been impossible without strong static types.

Conclusion

I think there are a couple of interesting points worth thinking about here. First of all, the API chosen by Ember only hid the complexity, it didn't reduce it. What seemed to be a simple get() method was actually a more complex system with some special cases. The system was more complex than the API indicated. It's useful to think about the true complexity of a problem compared to the complexity of the exposed API.

The second point is that having the ability to make categorical statements about API behavior is very important. We use this kind of reasoning all the time, and the more of it we can do, the fewer the number of assumptions we will have to question when something isn't behaving as we expect. In this case, I made the seemingly reasonable categorical assumption that unused class definitions would have no effect on my program. But for some reason that I still don't understand, it was violated. I also made the categorical assumption that Ember's get() and set() methods worked like they would work in a map. But that assumption didn't hold up either. I encounter assumptions that don't hold up all the time. Every programmer does. But rarely are they so deeply and universally held as these.

So what can we learn from this? In The Fifth Discipline, Senge goes on to talk about the importance of thinking with a systems perspective; about how we need to stop blaming people and focus more on the systems involved. I think it's telling how in my 5 or 6 years of Haskell programming I've never seen a bug as crazy as these two that I encountered after working only a few months on a significant Javascript project. Haskell with it's purity and strong static type system allows me to make significantly more confident categorical statements about what my code can and cannot do. That allows me to more easily build better abstractions that actually reduce complexity for the end user instead of just hiding it away in a less frequented area.