Flows of energy

by Marijn Haverbeke (license)

Eloquent JavaScript's Build System

Monday, September 8, 2014 javascript books tooling

A text is not just a string of Unicode. It has structure, and a certain internal coherence. People might want to read it in different formats, and if I am going to hand-edit it, I want its source to be in an editing-friendly format.

For the first edition of my book (Eloquent JavaScript), I wrote my own markup format style and a Haskell program to parse it. That was, of course, a big waste of time and made it needlessly hard for people to contribute to the book or translate it.

When writing the second edition, I used AsciiDoc as a source format, since I had had good experiences with that before. This worked reasonably well, though I'll discuss some problems I had with it later.

The nice thing about being both a programmer and an author is that you can build custom tooling for the text you are working on. While rewriting Eloquent JavaScript, I built up a big suite of tools and scripts to build, check, and customize the book. This blog posts describes those tools. They are probably of no direct use to anyone else, but they might inspire similar tools, and make for an amusing technical story. The source and build tools for the second edition can all be found in the book's github repository.

Coding during reading

The version of the book on the website is interactive. It allows the reader to edit and run the example code, and to solve the exercises inline.

To support this, I include CodeMirror (which was originally written for this very purpose, to use in the first edition of the book) and use it to turn code snippets into editors when clicked. When the code is executed, this is done in a hidden iframe element, which has its console.log wired up to output its arguments below the editor, rather than writing them to the normal JavaScript console. When running HTML examples, the iframe is not hidden, but instead also shown below the editor.

An interesting dilemma is the question of what happens when the reader inputs a program that creates an infinite loop. Back when the first edition was being written, browsers still aborted scripts that ran for too long. But that has gone out of style, and modern browsers tend to just crash the tab instead. This is not a very good user experience.

So I stole Remy Sharp's approach from jsbin, which is to mangle the code that the user enters, inserting time checks at the end of loop bodies so that scripts that jump to a previous point in the program can be terminated when they run for too long. To do this properly, I run the code through Acorn to parse it, and patch up the relevant points using information from the parse tree. The actual code inserted increments a global variable, and only calls into the more expensive time-checking function when that variable modulo 1000 yields zero. When the time is exceeded and the user confirms the termination of the script through a confirm dialog, an exception is raised.

It is still possible to create an infinite loop with creative use of continue or by catching and ignoring the exception, but for typical, accidental infinite loops, this approach works well.

In the first edition, the reader was required to run all code snippets they came across, or they would run into errors about undefined variables when trying to run code that depended on earlier definitions. This was very confusing and needlessly complicated. The build scripts for the second edition allow snippets of code to be marked as part of the base code for a chapter, and will extract such code into files that are automatically loaded when running code in the interactive environment.

Conditional compilation

My scripts can currently build this interactive HTML version, an ePub book (zipped XHTML), and two flavors of LaTeX: one in the style of my publisher, and one to build the free PDF file.

Using the same sources for both an interactive website and a static book is somewhat challenging. In the interactive version, the reader is encouraged to see the output of a program by running it. This is not possible on paper or in an ebook, so there the text has to be slightly different, and screenshots or output dumps have to occasionally be included.

This was solved by defining some AsciiDoc macros to only include pieces of text in a given type of target. This makes the sources a bit more clunky, like ifdef in C does, but differences were rare enough to keep this manageable.

Complicated formula can not be sanely described in pure AsciiDoc, so I occasionally had to include some raw LaTeX or HTML in the sources. This was done with another set of macros, and does mean that if I want to add another target format, I will have to add code specifically for that format as well.

The publisher insisted on some conventions that I don't personally find helpful, such as classical-style quotes, where punctuation after a quoted piece of text is moved into the quotes, and title case in section headings. I wrote the sources using my preferred style, and have a post-processing node script that transforms them to the other style when building the LaTeX files for the paper book.


All the invocations of asciidoc, xelatex, inkscape, and the variety of node scripts that make up the build system are orchestrated by a makefile.

I bear no great love for make, since at a certain level of complexity makefiles tend to become utterly unreadable spaghetti, but for a small project like this they work wonderfully, allowing me to specify the dependencies between the files in a succinct and precise way, and being able to rebuild only what had to be rebuilt when I change something.

The website and the ebook files distributed from there are kept up to date by a post-update git hook that runs make html book.pdf book.epub whenever I push something new to the repository.


When a piece of code sits in a non-runnable text file, and is being occasionally edited to evolve with the surrounding text, it is guaranteed to get damaged at some point. You'll introduce a syntax error, or refer to a variable that you renamed in the meantime. Several embarrassing bugs snuck into the code in the paper version of the first edition this way.

To prevent that from happening this time around, there is a script that extracts code snippets from the book, assembles them into a whole program, and tries to run them. Throughout the book, I use the convention of including the output that console.log produces in comments that start with // →. When such comments are present, the test runner also verifies that the output produced is the expected output.

Some code, such as the skeleton code into which people are to write their exercise solutions, or code that intentionally illustrates a mistake, does not run as-is. The test runner recognizes comments (in the AsciiDoc sources, not the code snippets themselves) like // test: no to disable testing of the next snippet, or // test: wrap to run it in its own scope (to prevent leakage of variables or strict declarations).

To be able to test browser code, I am using the jsdom npm package. It is rather slow, and not very robust, but it does enough to allow the simple code in the book to run.

I also wrote a simple link checker that verifies that the targets of internal links that occur in the text actually exist, and are only defined once.

Taming LaTeX

AsciiDoc has no maintained LaTeX backend. It does come with such a backend, but that is a half-working mess.

I can see why this is. LaTeX is not a nice target language. It requires all kinds of things to be escaped. But only in some contexts. In other contexts, escaping them will break things. Or they have to be escaped differently. It might be that AsciiDoc's configuration is powerful enough to do this, but neither the person who started the LaTeX backend, nor me, could figure out how.

Thanks to the fact that I only use a rather narrow subset of AsciiDoc, I could get passable output after a few days of tweaking my configuration file. Some problems I was unable to solve in a sane way, so I set up a post-AsciiDoc filter in the form of a node script that fixes these. Horrible kludges all around, but it works for my purpose.

This project thoroughly burned me out on LaTeX in general. The output looks great, way beyond what HTML is capable of, but you are pretty much condemned to learn its obscure, primitive language and write really ugly code in it if you want to customize anything for which a package does not already exist. On top of that, a LaTeX source file is everything but declarative—you are expected to mix all kinds of ad-hoc layout code into your content. CSS is not perfect, but it sure is more pleasant than this.

I had my pre-processing script convert internal links from 00_foo.html#anchor format to simply anchor, and ensured that all anchors were unique in the book. This way, internal links work seamlessly across the various document formats.

Managing images

I am making heavy use of SVG pictures in this book. For some silly reason (probably because it is a hundred years old and no serious update has happened in ages) LaTeX, which compiles to vector graphics, can not use SVG vector graphics. So I had to convert those to PDF files, and patch the LaTeX output to refer to the PDF rather than the SVG files.

Additionally, there are still browsers that don't render SVG, so PNG fallback pictures were also needed.

I tried to use ImageMagick's convert command to do the file conversions, but that makes a terrible soup of SVG files. Fortunately, Inkscape, the open-source SVG editor, can be invoked from the command line to directly convert images. I integrated that into my build process instead.

To fall back to PNG in the HTML files, I used a simple script that detects SVG <img> support, and if it isn't present, simply updates the src property of the image tags to point at the PNG files instead.

AsciiDoc, again

AsciiDoc has a lot going for it—it is pleasant to read and write (as opposed to XML), powerful enough to express serious documents (as opposed to Markdown), and easy to extend (as opposed to almost everything else).

But, like all “clever” text formats, it suffers from bad corner cases. Parsing is largely done with regular expressions (which makes it very easy to add syntax), but occasionally those go wrong, as regular expressions tend to. True to the system's name, most of its regular expressions are written as if everything is ASCII. Using markup characters next to Unicode punctuation (emdash or quotes) often confuses the parser. And there were moments where syntax inexplicably stopped working when spread out over multiple lines.

A bigger problem is the poor documentation of the configuration format. It is a rather simple format, and looking at the examples that come with the distribution (the various backends are basically just configuration files) got me quite far. But when I needed to do something complicated, usually when trying to generate LaTeX, I kept running into weird behavior in its templating language, which collapses white space in strange ways, and for whose syntax I could find absolutely zero documentation.

The worst issue, though, was that I ran into bugs where some macros would corrupt some internal data structure, and pieces of text would end up being replaced by senseless binary soup.

For a next project, I will probably first see if AsciiDoctor fits the bill. This is a rewrite of AsciiDoc designed to be faster, easier to extend, and less weird. But there too I could find little docs on the configuration process, and by the time I was frustrated enough with AsciiDoc to consider switching, I had already dug myself into a rather deep hole by depending on AsciiDoc-specific features.