How I learned from a crazy idea

According to wikipedia, a particle accelerator is a machine that uses electromagnetic fields to propel charged particles to very high speed and energies. A collider accelerator causes them to collide head-on, creating observable results scientists can learn from.

(photo of CERN / LHC tunnel from Ars Electronica)

Sometimes, I feel like an idea collider producing experiments I can learn from.

The idea

I have millions of ideas: some are stupid (and it’s ok) and some may be interesting. Sadly, for most of them, time and resources are missing to shape and mature them properly. Somehow, we must choose our battles.

On rare occasions, that crazy idea which doesn’t make sense comes up… and it would be really cool to try it.

This is more or less how the GPF-JS library project started several years ago. Building a library supporting most of the hosts existing at that time and that would allow experimenting some cool concepts with JavaScript was appealing (classes, interfaces, streams, documentation generation, TDD, code coverage, backward compatibility testing…).

So far, it is a success since a lot was learned from that experience: I documented them on my blog.

These days, I am working on a side project that requires a backend to hold the data. Obviously, the implementation started with NodeJS as it is good opportunity to push my ES6 knowledge a little bit further.

The project reached the point where some features of the GPF-JS library could be leveraged.

This means that the library needs to support ES6 code.

However, since it is designed to be compatible with so many hosts (and some of them are deprecated), it somehow sets the language support to quite a low standard (some may say ‘old’ JavaScript).

Transpiling could have been an option but some hosts are not even supporting the resulting ES5 code.

Among the exposed api, there is an entry point to define classes: gpf.define. Inheritance is specified by setting the $extend property in the entity definition.

The library even offers a $super helper to facilitate calling the base class method whenever it makes sense.

So far so good.

But what would happen if one applies this API with an ES6 class?

The result is:

Before going any further, it is important to check that your browser supports the ES6 syntax. If you are using Internet Explorer, please switch to a different one.

See it on runkit

Two colliding ways of creating classes producing sparks… Let see what can be learned from that.

Building JavaScript classes

The ‘old’ way

There are many ways to build a class and leverage prototype inheritance in JavaScript. Here is the pattern used in GPF-JS.

First, a class is represented by its constructor function.

Every function object exposes a prototype property, an object which members are inherited by all instances created with this function.

Therefore, the class members are added to the function prototype.

To create a subclass, a new constructor function is needed.

The base constructor is called by applying the base function on the newly created instance.

As mentioned previously, The GPF-JS library facilitates calling the base class constructor using this.$super().

On the other hand, the new function prototype is initialized with an object that inherits from the base class prototype using Object.create.

Consequently, all members of the base class will be inherited by the subclass. Also, instances will be recognized by the instanceof operator.

The ES6 way

The class keyword was introduced and the syntax is self-explanatory.

It is interesting to observe that Es6A and Es6B are also functions.

Subclassing an ‘old’ class in an ES6 class

Good news, the following code works smoothly.

Subclassing an ES6 class in an ‘old’ class

The code presented in the introduction almost looks like the following example. It obviously leads to the same error.

Class constructor cannot be invoked without ‘new’

If you think about the old way of creating classes, this error fully makes sense. Indeed, in the old way, there is no syntax difference between a normal function and a class constructor. As a result, both could be either invoked or called with the new keyword.

However, all JavaScript functions are not constructors. Indeed, most native methods are secured:

When it comes to the new syntax, the intention of the developer is to build a function that will be used to create instances. Therefore, the language doesn’t expect this function to be invoked for a simple function call.

Reproduce the behavior in the ‘old’ way

It is possible to reproduce this behavior with the ‘old’ syntax. The new operator will instantiate an object and pass it during the function invocation. This means that testing this with instanceof will do the trick.

Note that, in this implementation pattern, the base constructor call works because any instance of OldB is also an instance of OldA.

This behavior is already implemented in GPF-JS.

A simpler alternative consists in using new.target but it was defined in ECMAScript 2015.

Again, there were many ways to create classes before the introduction of the class keyword. Some may disagree with the use of instanceof. To be fair and complete, I invite you to check the article JavaScript Factory Functions vs Constructor Functions vs Classes from Eric Elliott who exposes a different point of view.

Notable differences between the two ways of creating class

As explained previously in the ‘Old’ way of creating classes, the base constructor is called by applying the base function on this. However, there is no limitation on when the base constructor can be applied. Furthermore, it is not even required to call it.

As a matter of fact, you can start leveraging the newly created instance even before it was properly built.

It has been enforced with ES6 as it is not possible to use this before calling the super constructor.

Detecting an ES6 class constructor

If the library has to deal with ES6 classes, it needs a safe way to detect such constructors.

Actually, this can easily be done by converting the function to string and by checking if it starts with the class keyword.

Subclassing an ES6 class in an ‘old’ class

The ‘old’ pattern does not work because the ES6 constructor can’t be applied like a normal function. What can be done to create an ‘old’ class that would subclass an ES6 one?

ConstructorOfB

First, let set the right context and expectations:

  • gpf.define is used with a dictionary having the $extend property set to an ES6 class constructor
  • a constructor property points to a JavaScript function
  • this.$super is called to invoke the base constructor
  • to respect the ES6 constraints, this.$super must be called before any use of this or the construction should fail

To validate the implementation, we will place it within the following statements:

Attempt number 1: The copycat

The very first attempt exploits a trick that I mastered while developing the library.

It is possible to create JavaScript functions dynamically using the Function constructor.

This is detected as an issue by most linters because it looks like an eval. However, it is more secure since the created function has a restricted access to the current scope.

As explained in MDN: Functions created with the Function constructor do not create closures to their creation contexts; they always are created in the global scope. When running them, they will only be able to access their own local variables and global ones, not the ones from the scope in which the Function constructor was created. This is different from using eval with code for a function expression. This reduces the risk of conflicts with existing names. But, in consequence, you need to pass the values you want to access in the created function.

To summarize, the first attempt consists in creating a class factory function where:

  • the constructor is a copy of constructorOfC with this.$super being replaced with super
  • the base class will be passed as a parameter

In the previous code, an ES6 template literal has been used to build the constructor string. This syntax would not be allowed in the library because it would not compile on older hosts.

It works !

But…

As explained previously, the class constructor that is created from the constructorOfC function code does not keep the context of its source. If constructorOfC is a closure accessing names from its local scope, everything is lost.

This would probably work for some situations but, to keep its context, we must execute constructorOfC as-is.

Attempt number 2: Applying constructorOfC on this

Considering we must keep and call constructorOfC as-is, what happens if we can call it directly ?

But this is used before super is called. As a consequence, it fails with:

Attempt number 3: Building this

Let consider the assumption that the base class supports instantiation with no parameters.

Because we must call super before using this, we start the constructor with a call to super() to initialize this. Then we apply constructorOfC on this and we make sure that this.$super would call the constructor again (through super.constructor).

What will happen?

It throws the error:

Attempt number 4: An unusual way to invoke a constructor

So far, trying to apply the base constructor on the newly created instance appears to be a dead end. Indeed, the only way to call the base constructor is to use the new keyword.

But doing so would create a new instance of the base class: it won’t be chained to the right prototype. This prevents subclassing.

One ugly hack would consist in switching the base constructor function’s prototype value before calling new and restore it after.

Is it really the only way?

After doing some research on the web, this particular stackoverflow thread gave the answer.

A comment from 2015 says:

For subclassing Foo (…) with class Bar extends Foo …, you should use return Reflect.construct(_Foo, args, new.target) instead (…). Subclassing in ES5 style (with Foo.call(this, …)) is not possible.

I got my first Aha moment ! And I immediately checked the Reflect object documentation.

In particular, the Reflect.construct method acts like the new operator, but as a function. It is equivalent to calling new target(…args). It also gives the added option to specify a different prototype.

This helper not only solves the problem of calling the base class constructor, but it also allocates a new object with the right prototype chain.

However, the method returns a new instance: it can’t be applied on an existing one.

Considering the construction will happen while executing the function constuctorOfC, we need to provide an initial value for this that supports the $super method. Then we need to ‘substitute’ it after the final instance was allocated.

Then came second Aha moment !

Why not creating a wrapper that would expose the same interface than a new instance of C but would redirect all properties access to the instance created with Reflect.construct using Object.defineProperties ?

An additional method of the wrapper, named $super, would call Reflect.construct to create the final instance.

As the final instance is not created unless this.$super has been called, any call forward would fail. It validates that super must be called first.

One last problem remains.

The whole purpose is to create a subclass which constructor will be invoked with new and that must return an instance of the proper class. By default, when new is invoked with a constructor, the JavaScript engine is responsible of allocating the new instance and it invokes the constructor with it. The result of the new expression is this initially allocated instance.

In our case, Reflect.construct will create another instance that must be the result of the new expression.

Luckily, JavaScript supports replacing the allocated object by another one using the return statement at the end of the constructor code.

This behavior is described in the new operator documentation: The object (not null, false, 3.1415 or other primitive types) returned by the constructor function becomes the result of the whole new expression.

This is how singletons are implemented in GPF-JS.

To summarize:

  • Reflect.construct builds an instance of C initialized with constructor of B
  • The initial value of this is ignored, a wrapper is used to invoke constructorOfC
  • The final instance is returned at the end of the class constructor

It works !

But…

The problem is that all the accessed properties must be redirected from the wrapper to the instance. In this example, it is easy because the content of the object and its constructors is already known.

In the library, it won’t be true.

Attempt number 5: Shadowing the object

Digging further in the same stackoverflow thread, some proposed the use of proxies but for a different purpose.

Checking the documentation again, I realized that the Proxy object can be used to define custom behavior for fundamental operations… like property lookup.

This last piece of the information leaded to the final solution below.

It works !

I didn’t find any drawback yet (but it is still under study).

Conclusion

As useless as it may sound, the library will now support ES6 classes. But besides this feature, this small experience (or should I say challenge) introduced me to new JavaScript objects which, at first sight, had no interest but that are really helpful to solve the problems I faced.

Regarding the support of the Reflect Proxy objects, they will be used only when an ES6 class is detected.

Passionate developer, always keen on finding new ways to do things, welcome to my thoughts.

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