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Javascript Review

Javascript is a fairly unique language, not just in that it's privileged by browsers, but in that it seems obvious to me it is objectively worse than most other languages, and I find it bizarre that people choose to use it when they have other options. I will attempt a comprehensive, neutral analysis of it's quality as a language as I do for other languages.

Best comparison: Python review

Type system

I've written at length about why dynamic typing is bad, and workarounds like TypeScript can at best mitigate the destruction.

Dynamic typing is a sin

But Javascript's lack of type checking is actually way worse than even other dynamic languages. At least in others, likePython, most things that should be compile-time errors are still run-time errors. But in Javascript they're often silent failures. For example, accessing a nonexistent slot of an array or object gives you `undefined`. Good luck debugging that.

But you can define one of the values to be `undefined` and it's now in there!

Even a function parameter just gets `undefined` if it's not passed. All arguments are optional; you *can't* define a function that requires you to pass it a parameter. Let that sink in for a minute.

You also don't get an error when passing too many arguments to a function.

And I found out the hard way that in browsers, `setTimeout` silently does nothing if you pass its arguments in the wrong order. That was how I lost most of a day of work.

Even indexing a non-array and non-object isn't an error:

Arrays are objects?

Javascript arrays aren't really arrays, but objects. I don't just say this because `typeof [] === 'object'`; there are a lot of destructive ways in which the language doesn't seem to think of them as an actual sequence type. One is that you can assign past the end of an array and you just get "empty items" inbetween:

See what I mean? It's like you're just assigning keys in an object, and array indices don't have any special meaning (though they do print sensibly).

And those empty items *aren't the same as undefined* (if they were, that would imply a deeper difference between arrays and objects than Javascript seems to want to admit). Or they are, but they're not. Check this out:

It's like the holy trinity of `undefined`!

This is because arrays have a `length` attribute that stores the number of elements they supposedly have. So when you assign to an index, it changes the length, and then when you look at the array all the slots inbetween that don't exist as keys in the array are presented as these "empty items". `delete` is meant for removing a key from an object, so when used on an array, it only deletes the key and doesn't collapse the others or modify the `length` attribute, so it just leaves an empty slot behind. What a terrible newb trap.

You also can't add arrays with `+`; the `.push` method is how you're supposed to add elements to the end, and `.concat` is for adding arrays. The main way to delete from an array is `.splice`, but there are a lot of others depending on the specifics:

https://love2dev.com/blog/javascript-remove-from-array/

For some reason, `.splice` is also how you insert elements. The one method is basically a swiss army knife instead of using different functions to accomplish different tasks.

This type coercion is outrageous

A lot of people who rant about Javascript mention this. Let me just jump into the examples:

I don't oppose all type coercion. For example, I support coercing between different numeric types. But this? Not only it is through the roof, it's wildly inconsistent, unintuitable, and most of the ones involving arrays and objects are complete nonsense. An operation that doesn't involve numbers should never come out as `NaN`; that's not what `NaN` means.

In general, things that are almost certainly mistakes should raise exceptions, not silently return a nonsensical value.

`null` vs `undefined`

There are *two* primitive values that represent the lack of a value, and they're different:

1. For function parameters, passing `undefined` causes the parameter to get its default value. Passing `null` causes it to get `null`.

2. `undefined` doesn't come out in JSON; `null` comes out as `null`.

To be fair, there is some kind of logic here in retrospect: `undefined` is something unset; `null` more represents an intentionally lack of a value. But the distinction is still unnecessary and confusing.

And any Javascript extraordinaire is probably familiar with the baffling fact that `typeof null === 'object'`. This is, in fact, a historical bug that became standardized to avoid breaking code that depended on the bug:

https://2ality.com/2013/10/typeof-null.html

Objects can't compare for equality

`==` on objects (including arrays) compares for identity, not equality. If you want to test whether two objects are equal, you have to iterate over their keys.

In a language that has `==` and `===`, you would think `==` would compare by value for objects, and `===` would compare identity. But no, in the one case where the distinction would be actually helpful instead of a nefarious newb trap, they do the same thing.

Object constructors for primitive types

As far as I know, there's literally no point to the existence of these; it's just a consequence of how constructors work in Javascript.

Also, this isn't a likely thing to trip over, but it's just infuriating:

Because objects are always true.

Error handling

Javascipt uses exceptions like other dynamic languages, but it's lacking over Python and Ruby in that it doesn't support catching only specific types of exceptions. `catch` always catches everything and you have to manually check and reraise if you only wanted to catch some kinds. And like the others, it catches name errors. Ugh.

Why do all the dynamic languages catch name errors by default?

It does give good stack traces, and has the finally statement.

Lack of syntactic support for arrays

Because of the way Javascript treats arrays as objects, it supports neither negative indices nor slicing. Just compare the readability difference:

Variable declarations are a mess

Assigning to an undefined variable in Javascript by default creates a *global* variable, if you don't use `'use strict';` at the top of the file. Besides this unfortunate fact, there are *three* different keywords for declaring variables that all have subtle differences:

What an elegant and straightforward system!

Iteration

Javascript has three different for loop constructs: the C-style `for (let i = 0; i < items.length; i++) {`, `for (let i in items) {`, and `for (let i of items) {`. What are the differences? Can we maybe use these two latter constructions to elide the antiquated C bullshit?

Well, no. `for`..`in` is for iterating on the keys of an object... but objects in Javascript have string keys. And do you know what that means happens when you try to use this on an Array?

Because arrays are technically objects and so their keys as given by `for`..`in` are of course the *string* indices. This works for some use cases, but if you try to add to the index counter, it'll break your code in bizarre ways.

`for`..`of`, on the other hand, *only* gives you the values. Not the keys. And of course there's no easy way to get the key from the value; there's nothing equivalent to Python's `enumerate`, as far as I know. There's also no `range`. So, we still sometimes need antiquated C bullshit to iterate in Javascript.

While I'm on the topic of iteration, I find it interesting that in ES6 Javascript picked up an iterator/generator interface, like Python's:

https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/JavaScript/Guide/Iterators_and_Generators

No generator expressions or comprehensions, though.

Object syntax

Javascript's syntax for objects is much nicer than other languages. Literals don't usually need quotes around keys (`{id: 5, name: 'Bob'}`), and they support bracket syntax to evaluate an expression as a key (`property = 'name'; obj[property]` is like `obj.name`). And then there there are super convenient things like object spread syntax:

https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/JavaScript/Reference/Operators/Spread_syntax

Arrow functions

Most dynamic languages have `map`, `filter`, `reduce`, and lambdas, but I think Javascript leads the others (or at least Python) in the functional programming department with arrow functions:

https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/JavaScript/Reference/Functions/Arrow_functions

I use them every day; they feel a lot nicer than the `function` keyword. And the syntax is intuitive, too; it *looks* like you're taking the parameter list and doing something with it. Python has lambdas and in-function `def`, but lambdas are limited to just a `return` statement and `def` doesn't handle scoping the same way arrow functions do.

this article on Pylint shows an example of the difference where you would want the arrow function behavior.

Concurrency

As Javascript was born in the single-threaded, event-driven environment of the browser, its concurrency features revolve around IO rather than parallel processing. Node, however, does support using OS threads to do actual parallelism, so that's cool, even if it can't be done nearly as cleanly as async/await. I haven't really used the threading so I can't comment much more on it.

Node OS threads

Stdlib and ecosystem

The JS stdlib is missing a lot of standard fare. No titlecase. No randint. No strftime and strptime. No regex escape! The community made a package on NPM for it even though it's only a few lines, because people kept hand-rolling it and getting it wrong.

https://www.npmjs.com/package/escape-string-regexp

https://stackoverflow.com/questions/3561493/is-there-a-regexp-escape-function-in-javascript

Oh, wait, there are at least three others.

https://www.npmjs.com/package/regex-escape

https://www.npmjs.com/package/escape-regex-string

https://www.npmjs.com/package/escape-regex

I guess the community didn't actually succeed in standardizing. This is why I say language designers underrate putting things in the stdlib.

A problem that seems to plague the NPM ecosystem is overdependency. Everything has a huge amount of dependencies. You can barely install anything without populating your `node_modules` with at least a hundred directories.

A lot of the dependencies are nonsense packages, which provide a single function of often just *one* line (and not even ones that are tricky like the regex escape).

This article is a good read on the situation

Ecosystems of other languages don't have this problem. Even Django, the giant all-the-features Python web framework, has only *3* dependencies, including indirect.

Filesystem imports

Javascript is one of few languages that allows arbitrary filesystem path imports. In Node for example I can do `util = require('../util.js')`. This is nice. Imports are usually much less flexible than that in other languages.

---

I guess I should write some kind of conclusion. The conclusion is that Javascript is bad and you should feel bad. I think it's a tragedy that server-side Javascript ever became a thing and it should become not a thing, because the place where you have no choice but to use Javascript is the only place where it makes sense to Javascript. Other dynamic languages, like Python, Ruby, and Julia, are hands-down superior to Javascript if you can choose either.

Javascript has gotten quite a lot better in recent years with the addition of async/await, modules, and great features like arrow functions. I feel terrible for people who had to use it on the server before all that. But even *with* those things, it seems to be asymptotically catching up at best; the few things Javascript does *better* than other dynamic languages are small deals while the downsides are huge; and many are systemic problems that can't be fixed because of compatibility requirements.

I want to say that I don't think Javascript's flaws are primarily blameable on the designers being dumb. It's a harder job than making most languages, since they have much less ability to fix things - the fundamental problem is that the people writing the code don't control what interpreter and version is used to run it. But whatever the causes, the flaws are there, and we should avoid using Javascript where better alternatives are readily available.

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