Syntax is the Problem

Michael Lewis mike at
Tue Nov 7 02:36:15 UTC 2017

The future of software development involves a meta experience.  If I want
to edit the name of a class property, and ensure that it updates
*everywhere*, why isn't this possible?  Right now, we have to
find+replace.  Could you ensure that all the users of your package also
have their property names replaced?  That would be tricky by today's
standard.  But what if that property has an underlying ID, and you're just
changing it's *label* rather than its *name/identifier*.

When you require/import any package, and you begin using it - you may only
be using a fraction of its capabilities.  When you call a function, maybe
that function has 3 different argument signatures.  When the maintainer's
deprecate some of the features/use cases, are you affected?  It's hard to
say unless you have very low level insight into what is actually in your

This insight is only available via the AST.

In the short term, I think you're right: babel is the realization of the
AST.  At least until we have better GUI scripting tools, better version
control, better build tools, etc.

By the way, a GUI doesn't mean you can't use your keyboard, and doesn't
even require a mouse.  It just means a very visual, meta experience.  It
could be similar to coding w/ auto complete, only the auto completed things
(vars, fns, classes, files, etc) would be real, tangible things, that you
could drag and drop, if you wanted.

But, it's not about dragging and dropping.  It's about the meta data.  The
ability to add encoded information associated with any of the things (apps,
modules, files, classes, properties, arguments, variables, conditions,
etc).  One thing I've been working on a lot is an automated logger.
Basically, create a for every method call, showing args,
grouping internal logs (nested method calls and direct log() calls), and
showing the return value.  This is easy with Proxies.  What's not so easy,
is configuring what you want logged, and when.  Meta data and ASTs would
help with this.

Instead of putting markdown in code comments (what a ridiculous hack?  I
mean, it's actually a pretty clever/easy/effective way to write formatted
documentation nearby your code, but seriously, is *that *the best user
experience we can imagine?), why not have a hotkey that activates a
documentation/tests panel?

Babel is complex and shouldn't be necessary.   Babel parses JavaScript into
an AST, just to convert it back to JavaScript, then we usually minify and
gzip before sending to client, then unzipping, parsing back to AST...

Why not serialize the AST directly to an optimized binary form?  Checksum
and ingest, no parsing needed?  I've never written a line of compiled code,
so I don't really know what I'm talking about here, but I think getting
closer to the "metal" (processor) makes a lot of sense.

Also, shouldn't the AST parsing be the same algorithm?  Why micromanage
babel *and* the V8 internal AST parser?  Seems like a lot of work.

I'm new around here - I have a lot to learn.  Even so, it's clear to me
that this system can be way better.

You asked what I meant by, "plugins for alternative experiences".
Basically, just alternative workflows (hotkeys, auto complete
algorithms/workflows, user interfaces, features, etc) for your GUI coding

On Mon, Nov 6, 2017 at 1:19 PM, Mike Samuel <mikesamuel at> wrote:

> On Sun, Nov 5, 2017 at 8:22 AM, Michael Lewis <mike at> wrote:
>> Raul-Sebastian Mihăilă just made a post here about some mixin syntax.  I
>> didn't read it (sorry).
>> But, it got me thinking about a concept I've been thinking for years:  *syntax
>> is the problem*, and there's a better solution.
>> If you define syntax as a human <--> computer language (a human-readable
>> and computer-readable form of text), you necessarily need a very strictly
>> defined syntax.  One missing curly, and you're f'd.
>> Duh, we all know this.  Hang onto your pants for a second, let's explore
>> an alternative.
>> What if we edited scripts more directly in AST form (abstract syntax
>> tree).  Developers could implement their own UI to manipulate this AST.
>> There are many, many benefits to this, I'll get to in a second.
> Assuming you're bringing this to TC39 because you think the committee can
> contribute to this effort,
> there seem to be a few separable questions here:
> 1. Would there be benefit to standardizing an AST?
> 2. Would developers benefit from being able to manipulate ASTs?
> 3. Should TC39 organize efforts to realign JS development around AST
> manipulation?
> TC39 has already debated some AST proposals.  You could add your use case
> to those.
> You really don't need them though.  Babel didn't wait.
> I'm unsure why manipulating ASTs is a benefit.  It seems tools that
> manipulate ASTs can simply have a parser tacked on the front and a
> serializer tacked on the back and manipulate text files.  This is what the
> refactoring tools in IDEs like Eclipse do.
> Even if these tools are wildly popular, the syntax won't be going away
> though.  Backwards-compatibility requires EcmaScript be embeddable in HTML,
> SVG and a number of other textual formats.
> It seems to me, that TC39 need not be involved in the process of specing
> tools for manipulating ASTs and even if TC39 gives a full-throated
> endorsement to such tools, it would still have to spec syntax.
> First, let's remember what everyone in the JS community is doing right
>> now:  running their code through transpilers.  (I refuse to do this, that's
>> why I'm unemployed - I strongly dislike the concept).  What is a
>> transpiler?  It's an unofficial middleman that interprets the syntax,
>> converts it to an AST, performs transformations, and then returns the AST
>> to syntax form.
> Suddenly, scripting in AST form doesn't sound so crazy.
> How does (developers would be better off authoring ASTs) follow from
> (tools like transpilers use ASTs internally)?
> Clearly, you wouldn't be writing JSON.  We would be using a GUI to create
>> the AST.  And this is the greatest benefit: moving away from *syntax*,
>> and moving to a GUI.
> There's a whole literature on end-user programming that others have
> referenced.  None of it has caught on with professional developers.  How
> are the GUIs you propose different from past efforts?
> Most Lisp syntaxes map directly to the AST with just a bit of syntactic
> sugar.   There are also plenty of fine GUIs.  You can have an awesome GUI
> for building an AST and still have syntax so that you can review code on
> long plane trips.
>> Then, instead of babel plugins that provide alternative *syntax*, you
>> could have plugins that provide alternative *experiences.*
>> What would designing a class look like, if using a GUI?
>>    1. Click [ create new class ]
>>    2. Click [ add new method ]
>> I can do this in Eclipse.  Most of the time I just type "class."
> There seems little benefit to a GUI that replaces repetitive typing with
> repetitive clicking,
> and I'm not familiar enough with the terms you use to know why I would
> want to plug-in experiences.
>> Or, click the [ extend ] button next to an existing class...
>> This is the future.
> This is an odd choice of tense.
>> I have to go eat breakfast, but I'd love to discuss this future if anyone
>> is interested...
> I hope you had an awesome breakfast!
> Maybe someday we'll all Click [ eat brekkie ].
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