Archive for the ‘javascript’ Category

Learning jQuery Deferreds published

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

learning-jQuery-deferredsNicholas Tollervey and I have written a book, Learning jQuery Deferreds, published by O’Reilly.

If you’ve been a reader of this blog over the years, you may have noticed that I’m very fond of deferreds (also known as promises or futures). I’ve mainly been using them in Python with Twisted, and a couple of years ago was happy to notice that jQuery also has a (somewhat different) version of deferreds. Asking around, it soon became clear that although there are tens of millions of programmers who’ve used jQuery, very few of them have ever used deferreds. E.g., at the jQuery conference in San Francisco in 2012, only about 25% of the audience in a talk on deferreds. There are about 19,000 results for “deferred” on StackOverflow.

This seemed like a perfect storm: a fantastically cool and empowering technology that I love thinking and writing about, built in to a ubiquitous web library, in use by millions of programmers, and yet somehow not widely known or used.

The book tries to really teach deferreds. There are 18 real-life examples, along with 75 challenges (and solutions). We’ve tried to get readers into deferreds the way we are, to be provocative, to try and get you thinking and scratching your head. To get you to see how cool and elegant working with deferreds can be. In short, to make you one of us.

Although the book focusses on jQuery’s flavor of deferreds, we wrote it with a much broader aim: to be just as useful to people working with any flavor of deferreds in any language. The concepts behind deferreds are few and simple. Even if you’re not a jQuery user or a JavaScript programmer, we hope you’ll enjoy and benefit from the book.

If you’re curious, the animal on the cover is a musky rat-kangaroo. O’Reilly chose it for us. When I first saw it, I mailed them and Nicholas to say it looked “overfed, passive, and thoughtful” to which Nicholas replied that it resembled me. The O’Reilly toolchain is modern and fun, employing AsciiDoc and a shared Git repo. We wrote 30,817 words and 2,301 lines of Javascript. There’s a source code repo for all the book examples, at We spent six months on the book, during which I usually spent 1-2 days a week on it. It was a blast to write.

If you’d like to buy a copy, use AUTHD as a discount code on the O’Reilly site and you’ll receive 40% off the print or 50% off the e-book. Please let me know what you think, and/or leave a review on the O’Reilly (or Amazon) site. Have fun, and thanks!

Promises are first-class objects for function calls

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Have you ever programmed in a language without functions as first-class objects? You can’t return a function from a function, can’t pass a function as an argument, and you certainly can’t make anonymous functions on the fly. Remember how liberating, empowering, and flexible it felt when you moved to a language with functions as first-class objects?

Yesterday, after 7 years of working with deferreds/promises/futures (call them what you will), thinking carefully about them thousands of times, mailing and blogging about them, giving talks about them, and now writing a book about them, I realized there is a very simple way to look at them:

Promises are first-class objects for function calls.

In other words, a promise gives you a way to make a function call and to pass around that function call. Return it from a function, pass it as an argument, put it in a data structure, etc. Given a promise, you can arrange to process the result of the function call or its error.

To be a bit more abstract: A promise is a time-independent reification of a function call.

By “time-independent” I mean that if you get a promise from somewhere, you don’t have to worry whether the underlying function call has already completed, is currently in progress, or has yet to run. Depending on the promise implementation there may be no way to find out. The point is that you don’t have to care and you shouldn’t care.

That’s all I’ll say for now, except for a final comment on naming.

I think “promise” is a better name than “future” or “deferred” because the latter two feel more like they’re referring to an event yet to happen. A promise feels more neutral: you could easily be making a promise about something you’ve already done. Many explanations of promises/deferreds/futures stress that they are something that will hold the result of a computation that’s not yet completed. That’s certainly a common usage, but it’s only part of the picture. Describing promises as a reification of a function call takes the time factor completely out of the picture.

Here’s a small Javascript function to memoize a (single-argument) function to illustrate the point:

var memoize = function(fn) {
    var promises = {};

    return function(arg) {
        var promise = promises[arg];
        if (!promise) {
            promise = promises[arg] = $.when(fn(arg)).promise();
        return promise;

The memoization cache is full of promises, not underlying function results. Some of the function calls may have completed, some may be underway. I’m using the jQuery $.when function as a convenience (that’s an irrelevant detail, don’t let it distract you). The promises stay in the cache indefinitely (no eviction, for simplicity), holding promises for function calls from the past.

Time is not an issue here.

Specifically, and in contrast, think about what happens with non-promise memoization. What happens if a first call comes in with an argument X, but before fn(X) has finished computing there is another call with argument X? Then another and another and another? You wind up calling fn(X) many times. I.e., doing exactly the thing you were trying to avoid! And there’s nothing you can do about it.

If you’re interested to review the book I’m writing with Nicholas Tollervey on jQuery deferreds, please email me or leave a comment below. Most of the book is not really specific to jQuery’s flavor of deferreds.

jQuery-when2 – a more flexible way to work with jQuery deferreds

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

I’ve often been frustrated by the limited functionality of jQuery.when. You give it some deferred objects and it fires when all the deferreds are finished. The trouble is, if any of the deferreds is rejected the deferred returned by jQuery.when fires immediately. So you can’t use it to collect the results of all deferreds including any errors. You also can’t use it to fire when the first of the passed deferreds fires.

So last night I wrote a new version of when, called jQuery-when2 that offers the three behaviors that I commonly want:

  1. resolve on the first success,
  2. fail on the first error (the jQuery.when behavior), or
  3. resolve when all results (successes or errors) have been collected.

The API differences from jQuery.when:

  • when2 must be called with a list as its first argument.
  • An options Javascript object may be passed as a second argument.
  • If options.resolveOnFirstSuccess is true, the deferred returned by when2 will resolve as soon as any of the passed deferreds resolves. In this case, .done callbacks will be passed index and value args, where index is the index of the deferred that fired. If non-deferreds are in the arguments to when2, the first one seen will trigger the resolve (not very useful, but consistent).
  • If options.failOnFirstError is false, the deferred returned by when2 will never fail. It will collect the results from all the deferreds and pass them all back. The caller gets to figure out which values (if any) are errors.
  • If no options are given (or options.failOnFirstError is true), fail will be called on the deferred returned by when2 on the first error (this is the behavior of jQuery.when). The args passed to fail will be index and value, indicating which deferred was rejected.
  • Any .progress callbacks added to the returned deferred are also called with index and value arguments so you can tell which deferred made progress.

You can grab the source code, see examples, etc., on Github.

BTW, I’m writing a short (about 75pp) O’Reilly book, Learning jQuery Deferreds, with Nicholas Tollervey. If you’re interested in reviewing early Rough Cuts drafts, please let me know! The book will be out late this year.