Monday, 19 December, 2016 UTC


Summary

Mat Marquis puts on some festive tunes before recounting the tale of asynchronous JavaScript. Promises offer a robust way of structuring your code to avoid event-driven disasters of visitor-vexing jankiness. Don’t be stuck in queues this Christmas. You might miss the main event.

There are only four good Christmas songs.
I know, yeah, JavaScript or whatever. We’ll get to that in a minute, I promise.
First—and I cannot stress this enough— there are four good Christmas songs. You’re free to disagree with me here, of course, but please try to understand that you will be wrong.
They don’t all have the most safe-for-work titles; I can’t list all of them here, but if you choose to let your fingers do the walkin’ to your nearest search engine, I will say that one was released by the band FEAR way back in 1982 and one was on Run the Jewels’ self-titled debut album. The lyrics are a hell of a lot worse than the titles, so maybe wait until you get home from work before you queue them up. Wear headphones, if you’ve got thin walls.
For my money, though, the two I can reference by name are the top of that small heap: Tom Waits’ Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, and The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. The former once held the honor of being the only good Christmas song—about which which I was also unequivocally correct, right up until I changed my mind. It’s not the song up for discussion today, but feel free to familiarize yourself just the same—I’ll wait.
Fairytale of New York—the top of the list—starts out by hinting at some pretty standard holiday fare; dreams and cheer and whatnot. Typical seasonal stuff, so long as you ignore that the story seems to be recounted as a drunken flashback in a jail cell. You can probably make a few guesses at the underlying spirit of the song based on that framing: following a lucky break, our bright-eyed protagonists move to New York in search of fame and fortune, only to quickly descend into bad decisions, name-calling, and vaguely festive chaos.
This song speaks to me on a couple of levels, not the least of which is as a retelling of my day-to-day interactions with JavaScript. Each day’s melody might vary a little bit, granted, but the lyrics almost always follow a pretty clear arc toward “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT CONTENT.” You might have heard a similar tune yourself; it goes a little somethin’ like setTimeout(function() { console.log( "this should be happening last" ); }, 1000); . Callbacks are calling callbacks calling callbacks and something is happening somewhere, as the JavaScript interpreter plods through our code start-to-finish, line-by-line, step-by-step. If we need to take actions based on the results of something that could take its sweet time resolving, well, we’d better fiddle with the order of things to make sure those actions don’t happen too soon.
“But I can see a better time,” as the song says, “when all our dreams come true.” So, with that Pogues brand of holiday spirit squarely in mind—by which I mean that your humble narrator is almost certainly drunk, and may be incarcerated at the time of publication—gather ’round for a story of hope, of hardships, of semi-asynchronous JavaScript programming, and ultimately: of Promise unfulfilled.
The Main Thread
JavaScript is single-minded, in a manner of speaking. Anything we tell the JavaScript runtime to do goes into a single-file queue; you’ll see it referred to as the “main thread,” or “UI thread.” That thread can be shared by a number of critical browser processes, like rendering and re-rendering parts of the page, and user interactions ranging from the simple—say, highlighting text—to the more complex—interacting with form elements.
If that sounds a little scary to you, well, that’s because it is. The more complex our scripts, the more we’re cramming into that single-file main thread, to be processed along with—say—some of our CSS animations. Too much JavaScript clogging up the main thread means a lot of user-facing performance jankiness. Getting away from that single thread is a big part of all the excitement around Web Workers, which allow us to offload entire scripts into their own dedicated background threads—though not without limitations of their own. Outside of Web Workers, that everything-thread is the only game in town: scripts executed one thing at a time, functions calling functions calling functions, taking numbers and crowding up the same deli counter as a user’s interactions—which, in this already strained metaphor, would be ham, I guess?
Asynchronous JavaScript
Now, those queued actions may include asynchronous things. For example: AJAX callbacks, setTimeout/setInterval, and addEventListener won’t block the main thread while we’re waiting for a request to come back, a timer to tick away, or an event to trigger. Once those things do kick in, though, the actions they’re meant to perform will get shuffled right back into that single-thread queue.
There are a couple of places you might have written asynchronously-fired JavaScript, even if you’re not super familiar with the overarching concept: XMLHttpRequest—“AJAX,” if ya nasty—or just kicking off a function once a user triggers a click or mouseenter event. Event-driven development is writ a little larger, with the overall flow of the script dictated by events, both internal and external. Writing event-driven JavaScript applications is a step in the right direction for sure—it won’t cure what ails the main thread, but it does work with the medium in a reasonable way. Event-driven development allows us to manage our use of the main thread in a way that makes sense. If any of this rings a bell for you, the motivation for Promises should feel familiar.
For example, a custom init event might kick things off, and fire a create event that applies our classes and restructures our markup which, on completion, fires a bindEvents event to handle all the event listeners for user interaction. There might not sound like much difference between that and one big function that kicks off, manipulates the DOM, and binds our events line-by-line—but in a script of sufficient size and complexity we’re not only provided with a decoupled flow through the script, but obvious touchpoints for future updates and a predictable structure for ongoing maintenance.
This pattern falls apart a little where we were still creating, binding, and listening for events in the same top-to-bottom, one-item-at-a-time way—we had to set a listener on a given object before the event fires, or nothing would happen:
// Create the event: var event = document.createEvent( "Event" ); // Name the event: event.initEvent( "doTheStuff", true, true ); // Listen for the custom `doTheStuff` event on `window`: window.addEventListener( "doTheStuff", initializeEverything ); // Fire the custom event window.dispatchEvent( event );
This example is a little contrived, and this stuff is a lot more manageable for sure with the addition of a framework, but that’s the basic gist: create and name the event, add a listener for the event, and—after setting our listener—dispatch the event.
Events and callbacks aren’t the only game in town for weaving our way in and out of the main thread, though—at least, not anymore.
Promises
A Promise is, at the risk of sounding sentimental, pure potential—an empty container into which a value eventually results. A Promise can exist in several states: “pending,” while the computation they contain is being performed or “resolved” once that computation is complete. Once resolved, a Promise is “fulfilled” if it gave us back something we expect, or “rejected” if it didn’t.
The Promise constructor accepts a callback with two arguments: resolve and reject. We perform an action—asynchronous or otherwise—within that callback. If everything in there has gone according to plan, we call resolve. If something has gone awry, we call reject—with an error, conventionally. To illustrate, let’s tack something together with a pretty decent chance of doing what we don’t want: a promise meant only to give us the number 1, but has a chance of giving us back a 2. No reasonable person would ever do this, of course, but I wouldn’t necessarily put it past me.
var promisedOne = new Promise( function( resolve, reject ) { var coinToss = Math.floor( Math.random() * 2 ) + 1; if( coinToss === 1 ) { resolve( coinToss ); } else { reject( new Error( "That ain’t a one." ) ); } });
There’s nothing too surprising in there, after you boil it all down. It’s a little return-y, with the exception that we’re flagging results as “as expected” or “something went wrong.”
Tapping into that Promise uses another new keyword: then—and as someone who attempts to make sense of JavaScript by breaking it down to plain ol’ human-language, I’m a big fan of this syntax. then is tacked onto our Promise identifier, and does just what it says on the tin: once the Promise is resolved, then do one of two things, both supplied as callbacks: the first in the case of a fulfilled promise, and the second in the case of a rejected one. Those two callbacks will have, as arguments, the results we specified with resolve orreject, respectively. It sounds like a lot in prose, but in code it’s a pretty simple pattern:
promisedOne.then( function( result ) { console.log( result ); }, function( error ) { console.error( error ); });
If you’ve spent any time working with AJAX—jQuery-wise, in particular—you’ve seen something like this pattern before: a success callback and an error callback. The state of a promise, once fulfilled or rejected, cannot be changed—any reference we make to promisedOne will have a single, fixed result.
It may not look like too much the way I’m using it here, but it’s powerful stuff—a pattern for asynchronously resolving anything. I’ve recently used Promises alongside a script that emulates Font Load Events, to apply webfonts asynchronously and avoid a potential performance hit. Font Face Observer allows us to, as the name implies, determine when the files referenced by our @font-face rules have finished loading.
var fontObserver = new FontFaceObserver( "Fancy Font" ); fontObserver.check().then(function() { document.documentElement.className += " fonts-loaded"; }, function( error ) { console.error( error ); });
fontObserver.check() gives us back a Promise, allowing us to chain on a then containing our callbacks for success and failure. We use the fulfilled callback to bolt a class onto the page once the font file has been fully transferred. We don’t bother including an argument in the first function, since we don’t care about the result itself so much as we care that the promise resolved without error—we’re not doing anything with the resolved value, just adding a class to the page. We do include the error argument, since we’ll want to know what happened should something go wrong.
Now, this isn’t the tidiest syntax around—at least to my eyes—with those two functions just kinda floating in a then. Luckily there’s an similar alternative syntax; one that I find a bit easier to parse at-a-glance:
fontObserver.check() .then(function() { document.documentElement.className += " fonts-loaded"; }) .catch(function( error ) { console.log( error ); });
The first callback inside then provides us with our success state, while the catch provides us with a single, explicit “something went wrong” callback. The two syntaxes aren’t completely identical in all situations, but for a simple case like this, I find it a little neater.
The Common Thread
I guess I still owe you an explanation, huh. Not about the JavaScript-whatever; I think I’ve explained that plenty. No, I mean Fairytale of New York, and why it’s perched up there at the top of the four (4) song heap.
Fairytale is a sad song, ostensibly. If you follow the main thread—start to finish, line-by-line, step by step— Fairytale is a sad song. And I can see you out there, visions of Die Hard dancing in your heads: “but is it a Christmas song?”
Well, for my money, nothing says “holidays” quite like unreliable narration.
Shane MacGowan, the song’s author, has placed the first verse about “Christmas Eve in the drunk tank” as happening right after the “lucky one, came in eighteen-to-one”—not at the chronological end of the story. That means the song might not be mostly drunken flashback, but all of it a single, overarching flashback including a Christmas Eve in protective custody. It could be that the man and woman are, together, recounting times long past—good times and bad times—maybe not even in chronological order. Hell, the “NYPD Choir” mentioned in the chorus? There’s no such thing.
We’re not big Christmas folks, my family and I. But just the same, every year, the handful of us get together, and every year—like clockwork—there’s a lull in conversation, there’s a sharp exhale, and Ma says “we all made it.” Not to a house, not to a dinner, but through another year, to another Christmas. At this point, without fail, someone starts telling a story—and one begets another, and so on. Sometimes the stories are happy, sometimes they’re sad, more often than not they’re both. Some are about things we were lucky to walk away from, some are about a time when another one of us didn’t.
Start-to-finish, line-by-line, step-by-step, the main thread through the year doesn’t change, and maybe there isn’t a whole lot we can do to change it. But by carefully weaving our way in and out of that thread—stories all out of sync and resolving one way or the other, with the results determined by questionably reliable narrators—we can change the way we interact with it and, little by little, we can start making sense of it.

About the author
While not making fast, accessible, responsive websites at Bocoup, Mat “Wilto” Marquis is a carpenter, boxer, wannabe French chef and British motorcycle mechanic, and absolutely terrible Mega Man 2 speed-runner.
As Chair of the Responsive Issues Community Group, Mat spearheaded the effort to add native “responsive image” solutions to the HTML5 specification, later going on to facilitate browser implementations and oversee the addition of native responsive image techniques to major CMSes. A former editor at A List Apart and former member of the jQuery team, Mat is now a frequent An Event Apart speaker, and recently had the honor of appearing in the film What Comes Next is the Future.
He recently published his first book, JavaScript for Web Designers, with A Book Apart.
He keeps busy.
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