Javascript API Design: Function's Arguments Order

Flight formation

The number one rule is consistency... cause nobody want to use a broken API like PHP... It's very clear and does not need further explanation.

Ok, so let's keep it consistent, but what order should we use anyway?

When designing a Javascript API, an important point one may consider is the binding possibility (i.e. using .bind() on the API methods).

Ask yourself what is the most constant parameter and what is the most variable parameter for a method.

Let's use a real-world example here.

I'm currently working on a new general purpose data validation lib (doormen). The main feature of the lib is a function that takes a schema and a data as arguments, and throws if the data does not validate according to the schema.

As of doormen v0.2.x, the syntax is now doormen( schema , data ):

// do not throw
doormen( { type: 'number' } , 1 ) ;

// throw: 'hello' is not a number
doormen( { type: 'number' } , 'hello' ) ;

But before v0.2.x, the syntax was doormen( data , schema ). What a terrible design mistake I made back then!

As you can imagine, a single schema aims to validate multiple data, hence there will be a greater number of unique data than unique schema. The schema parameter is less variable than the data parameter.

Therefore, as of v0.2.x, one is able to create a specific validator easily using .bind(), e.g.:

var singleDigitNumberValidator = doormen.bind( null , { type: 'integer', min: 0, max: 9 } ) ;

singleDigitNumberValidator( 3 ) ; // OK
singleDigitNumberValidator( 13 ) ; // Not OK
singleDigitNumberValidator( 'bob' ) ; // Not OK

After binding, only one argument remains!

Before v0.2.x, slightly more code was needed, and one more function call to achieve the same:

var singleDigitNumberValidator = function( data , schema ) {
    return doormen( data , { type: 'integer', min: 0, max: 9 } ) ;
} ;

singleDigitNumberValidator( 3 ) ; // OK
singleDigitNumberValidator( 13 ) ; // Not OK
singleDigitNumberValidator( 'bob' ) ; // Not OK

I think this rule can apply to language that do not have .bind() too, since it follows a “generic to specific” pattern.

Javascript's syntactic sugar

Sugar production

Truthy and Falsy

First, we need to understand the truthy and falsy concept, because it will be widely used in the second part.

Truthy and falsy is a common concept among dynamic language featuring loose typing.

Any value, whatever the type, belong to the truthy or falsy group. When an operator need a boolean value, truthy will be true and falsy will be false.

Those values are falsy:


Those values are truthy:

123    // any numbers that are not 0 are truthy
'some random string'    // any non-empty string are truthy
[]    // any array are truthy, even empty arrays
{}    // any object are truthy, even empty objects, except null (yay, null is an object...)

An if statement will execute its block of code if the expression is truthy.

if ( expression )
    // if expression is truthy, the following lines are executed
    // if expression is falsy, the following lines are executed

Sugar production details

Syntactic Sugar

Here an unordered list of shortcuts that eases life and helps maintaining a neat and elegant codebase.

  • !! expression: a very elegant way to cast a variable or an expression into a boolean, much more pleasant than the cumbersome expression ? true : false. It is also known as the double not. How it works? ! returns the inverse boolean value of an expression. Apply it twice and you are back to the original logical value of the expression, casted as a boolean.

  • + stringExpression: it converts a string expression into a number, e.g. typeof + '42' === 'number' is true. It works if + is used as an unary operator, when there are no left member.

  • + new Date(): it converts the Date value into a number, same mechanics than the previous one.

  • optionalArgument || defaultValue: it returns optionalArgument if it is truthy, else it returns defaultValue. || is sometime refered as the default operator. In Javascript, the || and && operator are a bit like flow controle, they don't produce booleans, but instead they return the last evaluated operand. Still, the returned operand is considerated truthy or falsy according to the logical rules of AND and OR operators.

    Also, the first variable was named optionalArgument on purpose. Because it is an elegant way to define default parameter for functions when the type of the parameter is expected to be always truthy (object, array). Do not use when falsy values are expected.

function fn( optionalObject )
  optionalObject = optionalObject || {} ;
  • object && object.child && this is the guard operator, allowing us to safely access the property of nested objects. Without that, accessing directly would raise an error if object was not an object, or if object has no child property.

  • !a !== !b: this is the easiest way to achieve a logical XOR (eXclusive OR) in Javascript. This expression is true if a is truthy or b is truthy, but not both of them. The not operator cast a and b to boolean (while reversing their logical value), then if they are different, one and only one of them is true, therefore the whole expression is true.

Feel free to comment and share your own favorite syntactic sugar with us!

JavaScript's “NaN” demystified

The Unknown in the dark!

Every JavaScript's bashers will troll you with this thing: the NaN === NaN statement is false.

At first glance, this looks like an awful misconception. It's very misleading, and it is always temptful to compare some variable with NaN. I used to think that it was a bad design choice that lead to this.

But I was wrong.

That's true, NaN is an unruly child. But the fact that “NaN is not NaN” is an absolute necessity.

I will try to explain you the reason.

But what is NaN?

NaN stands for “Not A Number”.

Still, typeof NaN is 'number'. More lulz for bashers... ;)

But again, there are some rationale behind that fact.

NaN is produced by some arithmetic operation, when the result is unknown and cannot be represented, even by Infinity.

Some examples of expression and their values:

1 / 0    // Infinity
-1 / 0    // -Infinity
0 / 0    // NaN
Infinity / Infinity // NaN
Infinity * 0    // NaN
Infinity - Infinity    // NaN
Math.sqrt( -1 )    // NaN
Math.log( -1 )    // NaN

NaN is used when the result is undefined (e.g. 0/0), or is not a real number (the square root of all negative numbers are imaginary numbers).

Therefore, NaN, as a language feature, IS programmatically a 'number'. That's why typeof NaN === 'number'. But as a mathematical entity, it IS NOT a number.

It MUST be of number type, so it can be autoboxed as an instance of Number, and thus have access to all methods of the Number's prototype. It is clear that any arithmetic operator or methods of the Math object should return a Number.

NaN is Not A Number from a mathematical point of view, not from a programming language point of view. Many programming language have a NaN concept, it is not a particularity or a fantasy of the JavaScript language. In fact, NaN is part of the floating-point spec, quoting Wikipedia:

Systematic use of NaNs was introduced by the IEEE 754 floating-point standard in 1985, along with the representation of other non-finite quantities like infinities.

Actually NaN exists in your bare-metal CPU's data representation, it is a special case of the float and of the double type. You have read it: it IS a special case of the float and the double type, that's why JavaScript tells you that typeof NaN === 'number'. Trust JavaScript, it is right!

The tenebrous mist

Why NaN can't compare with itself?

Okey, again that's a question of point of view.

The main trouble comes from the fact that those operators == === != !== have two meanings. The first and immediate meaning is the mathematical equality. However, almost all programming language use the same operator to test equality or identity of any kind of non-numeric instance, e.g. string comparison, object identity, and so on.

NaN !== NaN is choking you, because you read it as an object's instance comparison. But NaN is of number type, so it is the mathematical version of those operators that kicks in there.

Ok, so you are now asking yourself why on earth NaN is different from NaN from a mathematical point of view?

That's pretty simple.

NaN is not a number, it represents something unknown.

Can you tell me how Infinity - Infinity and 0 / 0 compare? Is it really the same value to you? I hope your answer is NO or you need to study the math a bit more.

Moreover, compare Math.sqrt( -1 ) to Math.sqrt( -4 )... Both value are NaN because the square root of a negative number is an imaginary number. In the first case, the Complex Number value is i, in the second case it is 2i. Now I'm sure that you are glad that the JavaScript tells you that Math.sqrt( -1 ) !== Math.sqrt( -4 ) is true.

But then why Math.sqrt( -1 ) !== Math.sqrt( -1 )?

Again, that's logical. We all know how a programming language breaks down big expressions into smaller pieces.

First the left Math.sqrt( -1 ) is evalued and replaced by NaN, then the right Math.sqrt( -1 ) is evalued and replaced by NaN too. Finally the two NaN are compared with each other. At that point, JavaScript cannot tell if the first NaN represent i, 2i or whatever, since like most language, it doesn't have a native type for Imaginary Number. All it has is a comparison of two floating-point numbers, both saying that there are not floating-point numbers anymore.

If you are still confused, understand NaN as an Unknown Number.

NaN is not greater than anything, neither lesser than anything

We know for sure that NaN !== 0 is false.

However, NaN < 0 is false too, as well as NaN > 0.

You can try that for any numbers or Infinity (or even NaN itself), it will be false anyway!

How to deal with NaN

Short answer: use the global isNaN() function.

Better: if you don't have to deal with outdated browsers, use Number.isNaN(). It is more reliable. It is part of ECMAScript 6, a.k.a. Harmony.

You can learn the difference between those two on MDN.

Be aware: in many other programming language, things like a division by zero will throw an exception. JavaScript DO NOT throw any exception for that. The resulting value is simply NaN.

So you have to either check your input or your output, depending on what your code is doing.

You have to check with isNaN() everytime NaN could be expected, because:

NaN is viral!

Any computation with NaN produces NaN.

Let's look at that method, having in mind that this.a and value both equals zero:

MyClass.prototype.unsafe = function( value )
    this.b = this.a / value ;   // Now this.b is NaN
    this.c += this.b ;  // Now this.c is NaN
    this.d = 15 + this.c + this.e * this.g ;    // Now this.d is NaN

As you can see, your whole object will be filled with NaN in no time!

So be careful!

The light in the dark!

Finally: the good news!

Yes, I have a good news for you: NaN is a falsy value.

So a simple check with if ( myNumber ) { blah() ; } will avoid it, just like 0 null undefined false '' (...).

To be safe, just turn the previous code into that: = function( value )
    if ( ! value || typeof value !== 'number' )
        // no division by zero or division by NaN anymore
        throw new Error( "Bad argument #0" ) ;

    this.b = this.a / value ;
    this.c += this.b ;
    this.d = 15 + this.c + this.e * this.g ;

On the contrary, Infinity is a truthy value. Hopefully! ;)

Understanding Object Cloning in Javascript - Part. II

Two brothers

Shallow copy vs deep copy

A shallow copy will clone the top-level object, but nested object are shared between the original and the clone. That's it: an object reference is copied, not cloned. So if the original object contains nested object, then the clone will not be a distinct entity.

A deep copy will recursively clone every objects it encounters. The clone and the original object will not share anything, so the clone will be a fully distinct entity.

Shallow copies are faster than deep copies.

When it is ok to share some data, you may use shallow copy. There are even use case where it is the best way to do the job. But whenever you need to clone a deep and complex data structure, a tree, you will have to perform deep copy. Have in mind that on really big tree, it can be an expensive operation.

How to perform a deep copy of an object in Javascript

Okey, so let's modify the shallowCopy() function of the previous article.

We need to detect properties containing objects, and recursively call the deepCopy() function again.

Here is the result:

function naiveDeepCopy( original )
    // First create an empty object with
    // same prototype of our original source
    var clone = Object.create( Object.getPrototypeOf( original ) ) ;

    var i , descriptor , keys = Object.getOwnPropertyNames( original ) ;

    for ( i = 0 ; i < keys.length ; i ++ )
        // Save the source's descriptor
        descriptor = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor( original , keys[ i ] ) ;

        if ( descriptor.value && typeof descriptor.value === 'object' )
            // If the value is an object, recursively deepCopy() it
            descriptor.value = naiveDeepCopy( descriptor.value ) ;

        Object.defineProperty( clone , keys[ i ] , descriptor ) ;

    return clone ;

By the way, if the property is a getter/setter, then descriptor.value will be undefined, so we won't perform recursion on them, and that's what we want. We actually don't care if the getter return an object or not.

There are still unsolved issues:

  • Circular references will produce a stack overflow
  • Some native objects like Date or Array do not work properly
  • Design pattern emulating private members using a closure's scope cannot be truly cloned (e.g. the revealing pattern)

What is this circular reference thing?

Let's look at that object:

var o = {
    a: 'a',
    sub: {
        b: 'b'
    sub2: {
        c: 'c'
} ;

o.loop = o ;
o.sub.loop = o ;
o.subcopy = o.sub ; = o.sub2 ; = o.sub ;

This object self-references itself.

That means that o.loop.a = 'Ha! implies that console.log( o.a ) outputs "Ha!" rather than "a". You remember how object assignment works? o and o.loop simply point to the same object.

However, the naiveDeepCopy() method above does not check that fact and therefore is doomed, iterating o.loop.loop.loop.loop.loop... forever.

That what is called a circular reference.

Even without the loop property, it happens that the original object want that the subcopy and sub properties point to the same object. Here, again, the naiveDeepCopy() method would produce two differents and independent clone.

A good clone method should be able to overcome that.


The closure's scope hell

Okey, let's examine this code:

function myConstructor()
    var myPrivateVar = 'secret' ;

    return {
        myPublicVar: 'public!' ,
        getMyPrivateVar: function() {
            return myPrivateVar ;
        } ,
        setMyPrivateVar( value ) {
            myPrivateVar = value.toString() ;
    } ;

var o = myContructor() ;

So... o is an object containing three properties, the first is a string, the two others are methods.

The methods are currently using a variable of the parent scope, in the scope of myConstructor(). That variable (named myPrivateVariable) is created when the constructor is called, however while it is not part of the contructed object in any way, it still remains used by those methods.

Therefore, if we try to clone the object, methods of both the original and the clone will still refer to the same parent's scope variable.

It would not be a problem if this was not a common Javascript's pattern to simulate private members...

As far as I know, there is no way to alter the scope of a closure, so this is a dead-end: pattern using the parent scope cannot be cloned correctly.

Next step: using a library

Okey, so far, we have done a good job hacking Javascript, and it was fun.

Now how about using a ready to use library?

The tree-kit library has a great clone() method, that works in most use case.

It happens that I'm actually the author of this lib, probably some kind of coincidence! ;)

clone( original , [circular] )

  • original Object the source object to clone
  • circular boolean (default to false) if true then circular references are checked and each identical objects are reconnected (referenced), if false then nested object are blindly cloned

It returns a clone of the original object.

How to use it? That's pretty straightforward:

  • first run the command npm install tree-kit --save into your project directory
  • then use it like this:
var tree = require( 'tree-kit' ) ;
var myClone = tree.clone( myOriginal ) ;

... where myOriginal is the object you want to clone.

Some optimization work have been done, so tree.clone() should be able to clone large structure efficiently.

One big step in optimization: removing recursivity in the algorithm – it's all taking place in a loop. It avoids stack-overflow and function's call overhead. As a side-effect, depth-first search has been replaced by a breadth-first search algorithm.

Great news: this method is able to detect circular references and reconnect them if the circular option is set to true! Oooh yeah!

If you are interested, you can visit the related source code on github.

If you are that kind of lazy guy, here is the code as of version 0.4.1 (MIT license):

exports.clone = function clone( originalObject , circular )
    // First create an empty object with
    // same prototype of our original source

    var propertyIndex ,
        descriptor ,
        keys ,
        current ,
        nextSource ,
        indexOf ,
        copies = [ {
            source: originalObject ,
            target: Object.create( Object.getPrototypeOf( originalObject ) )
        } ] ,
        cloneObject = copies[ 0 ].target ,
        sourceReferences = [ originalObject ] ,
        targetReferences = [ cloneObject ] ;

    // First in, first out
    while ( current = copies.shift() )
        keys = Object.getOwnPropertyNames( current.source ) ;

        for ( propertyIndex = 0 ; propertyIndex < keys.length ; propertyIndex ++ )
            // Save the source's descriptor
            descriptor = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor( current.source , keys[ propertyIndex ] ) ;

            if ( ! descriptor.value || typeof descriptor.value !== 'object' )
                Object.defineProperty( , keys[ propertyIndex ] , descriptor ) ;
                continue ;

            nextSource = descriptor.value ;
            descriptor.value = Array.isArray( nextSource ) ?
                [] :
                Object.create( Object.getPrototypeOf( nextSource ) ) ;

            if ( circular )
                indexOf = sourceReferences.indexOf( nextSource ) ;

                if ( indexOf !== -1 )
                    // The source is already referenced, just assign reference
                    descriptor.value = targetReferences[ indexOf ] ;
                    Object.defineProperty( , keys[ propertyIndex ] , descriptor ) ;
                    continue ;

                sourceReferences.push( nextSource ) ;
                targetReferences.push( descriptor.value ) ;

            Object.defineProperty( , keys[ propertyIndex ] , descriptor ) ;

            copies.push( { source: nextSource , target: descriptor.value } ) ;

    return cloneObject ;
} ;

Happy hacking!

Understanding Object Cloning in Javascript - Part. I

Cat brothers

Prerequisite: Understanding objects assignment in Javascript

As you know, the assignment does not copy an object, it only assign a reference to it, therefore the following code:

var object = { a: 1, b: 2 } ;
var copy = object ;
object.a = 3 ;
console.log( copy.a ) ;

... will output 3 rather than 1.

The two variables object & copy reference the same object, so whatever the variable used to modify it, you will get the same result.

If you come from a C/C++ background, you should understand that object.a in Javascript should be translated into object->a in C/C++, it will help understand how copy = object works.

When it comes to object, a Javascript variable behaves more like a kind of automatic pointer.

Also there is a misleading saying commonly used in javascript, one may say that “Object are passed as reference”.

That's totally wrong.

If it was true, then the following code:

var object = { a: 1, b: 2 } ;

function fn( ob )
    ob = { c: 3, d: 4 } ;

fn( object ) ;
console.log( object ) ;

... would output { c: 3, d: 4 }, but actually object still reference { a: 1, b: 2 }.

So what happened really at function call?

Nothing unusual, each caller's argument are assigned to a callee's argument just like it would if you had manually used the = operator. There are no special case for object.

When you pass a variable by reference in a language that supports this pass by reference feature, the caller & callee variable are identical, as if they were each others aliases, so mutating one mutates the other.

Here in Javascript, we have two distinct variables, that happen to point to the same object... ... ... until re-assignment happens.

That's why I prefer to say that a variable, after an object assignment, behaves like a pointer to that object. In a C/C++ fashion, object = { a: 1, b: 2 } should be understood as object = &( { a: 1, b: 2 } ).

How to perform a shallow copy of an object in Javascript

Javascript does not have built-in object-cloning facilities.

A quick and dirty way to clone an object would be to create a new empty object, then iterate over the original to copy properties one by one.

This naive function will do the trick:

function naiveShallowCopy( original )
    // First create an empty object
    // that will receive copies of properties
    var clone = {} ;

    var key ;

    for ( key in original )
        // copy each property into the clone
        clone[ key ] = original[ key ] ;

    return clone ;

However, there are few issues with this code:

  1. The clone produced doesn't have the same prototype than the original, it is simply an instance of Object... the prototype of the clone is not the same than the prototype of the original.

  2. However, inherited properties of the original (inherited from its prototype) are copied into the clone as regular owned properties.

  3. Only enumerable properties are copied.

  4. Properties' descriptor are not copied, e.g. a read-only property in the original will be writable in the clone.

  5. Finally: if a property is an object, then it will be shared between the clone and the original, their respective properties will point to the same object.

Two-handed calligraphy

The 5th point is what make it a shallow copy: only the surface of the object is cloned, deeper objects are shared.

A variant using Object.keys() can be used if we want to copy only owned and enumerable properties:

function shallowCopyOfEnumerableOwnProperties( original )
    // First create an empty object
    // that will receive copies of properties
    var clone = {} ;

    var i , keys = Object.keys( original ) ;

    for ( i = 0 ; i < keys.length ; i ++ )
        // copy each property into the clone
        clone[ keys[ i ] ] = original[ keys[ i ] ] ;

    return clone ;

If you want to copy non-enumerable properties as well, you can replace Object.keys() with Object.getOwnPropertyNames():

function shallowCopyOfOwnProperties( original )
    // First create an empty object
    // that will receive copies of properties
    var clone = {} ;

    var i , keys = Object.getOwnPropertyNames( original ) ;

    for ( i = 0 ; i < keys.length ; i ++ )
        // copy each property into the clone
        clone[ keys[ i ] ] = original[ keys[ i ] ] ;

    return clone ;

Still, non-enumerable properties will be enumerable properties in the clone...

We can improve this function using Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor() & Object.defineProperty(), so descriptors will be cloned properly.

And finally, if we create the clone with Object.create() and use the result of Object.getPrototypeOf( original ) as its argument, we can ensure that the clone will have the correct prototype.

function shallowCopy( original )
    // First create an empty object with
    // same prototype of our original source
    var clone = Object.create( Object.getPrototypeOf( original ) ) ;

    var i , keys = Object.getOwnPropertyNames( original ) ;

    for ( i = 0 ; i < keys.length ; i ++ )
        // copy each property into the clone
        Object.defineProperty( clone , keys[ i ] ,
            Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor( original , keys[ i ] )
        ) ;

    return clone ;

Okey, this is far better.

Next time we will go further, we will see how to perform deep copy, and inspect issues that cannot be overcome easily.