Saturday, June 07, 2008

Maybe a Reason to Learn some Scheme, not a Reason to Avoid Anonymous Functions

A team member with one of my consulting projects sent an email yesterday, describing his counterintuitive run-in with the this keyword in an ActionScript 3 anonymous function. He found a fellow traveler looking at the same issue here... and concluded this might by 'yet another reason to avoid anonymous functions.'

I have a different view, which I thought might be worth reproducing here:

I'm not sure this is a reason to avoid anonymous functions. Looking at the issue and the blog post, the following points may be helpful for the newbies to ActionScript. AS3, and the Flex/Eclipse (FlexBuilder) environment especially, make ActionScript seem like a strange flavor of Java (or C#). But it's not.
ActionScript 3 is an implementation of EcmaScript 4. It has much more to do with JavaScript than with Java, although Adobe intentionally created an environment that would be familiar and comfy for Java devs.

EcmaScript (aka JavaScript) is a Lisp/Scheme family language not a C/C++/Java family language.

Unfortunately, for historical reasons, it shares some syntax constructs with the C-derivative languages, and ES4/AS3/JS2 adds more of those -- but many of them have different meanings, as the aforementioned blogger discovers the hard way.

If you're interested in how this came about, and how to think about it, I can't say enough to praise Douglas Crockford's lectures on "The JavaScript Programming Language", which you can watch from YUI theater. Brendan Eich takes issue with some of the "politics" stories in Crockford's account. But confirms that engineers were recruited to Netscape with the promise of implementing [some flavor of] Scheme in the browser.

If you expect to spend any amount of time in the future doing JS or AS, a couple hours watching Doug Crockford speak are unbelievably worth it. JavaScript (and AS) are extremely powerful languages and can work really well ... only they definitely don't work like they appear they should, if you see the syntax and come from a C/Java background...

Once we realize that we're basically running Scheme in the browser (Brendan says Self), lambda -- anonymous functions and their closures -- become first-class objects as fundamental to us as stack vars in a C language.

As a bonus, if you're new to this and have some time, MIT has published one of the classic textbooks, "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs" online for free under a Creative Commons License, along with instructors' manual, exercises, etc.

Actually, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say if your company or team has a C/stack/register kind of background (Assembly/C/C++/C#/Java/Pascal/Delphi/ and you're looking at getting involved in JavaScript/ActionScript/Ruby projects, make a team workshop out of doing as much of the Abelson/Sussman book as you can get away with. As a practical side effect, it'll also make your SQL code easier (core SQL is more like Scheme than C) and give you another way to look at problems.


Brendan Eich said...

Hi Adam -- great to see a plug for SICP.

In case your readers don't go to my blog, I wanted to re-state that I was the only engineer recruited by Netscape with Scheme as the bait. In fact for the first year, apart from part-time and summer intern help (much appreciated), I was the only person working on "JavaScript" -- and that included the "DOM level 0."

I wish Netscape had bulked up on Schemers, but Java was all the rage, and JavaScript hung on by the skin of my teeth (with critical support from Marc Andreessen and Bill Joy, as described in my blog post).


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