Chapter 1: Introduction

When personal computers were first introduced, most of them came equipped with a simple programming language, usually a variant of BASIC. Interacting with the computer was closely integrated with this language, and thus every computer-user, whether he wanted to or not, would get a taste of it. Now that computers have become plentiful and cheap, typical users don't get much further than clicking things with a mouse. For most people, this works very well. But for those of us with a natural inclination towards technological tinkering, the removal of programming from every-day computer use presents something of a barrier.

Fortunately, as an effect of developments in the World Wide Web, it so happens that every computer equipped with a modern web-browser also has an environment for programming JavaScript. In today's spirit of not bothering the user with technical details, it is kept well hidden, but a web-page can make it accessible, and use it as a platform for learning to program.

That is what this (hyper-)book tries to do.

I do not enlighten those who are not eager to learn, nor arouse those who are not anxious to give an explanation themselves. If I have presented one corner of the square and they cannot come back to me with the other three, I should not go over the points again.

― Confucius

Besides explaining JavaScript, this book tries to be an introduction to the basic principles of programming. Programming, it turns out, is hard. The fundamental rules are, most of the time, simple and clear. But programs, while built on top of these basic rules, tend to become complex enough to introduce their own rules, their own complexity. Because of this, programming is rarely simple or predictable. As Donald Knuth, who is something of a founding father of the field, says, it is an art.

To get something out of this book, more than just passive reading is required. Try to stay sharp, make an effort to solve the exercises, and only continue on when you are reasonably sure you understand the material that came before.

The computer programmer is a creator of universes for which he alone is responsible. Universes of virtually unlimited complexity can be created in the form of computer programs.

― Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason

A program is many things. It is a piece of text typed by a programmer, it is the directing force that makes the computer do what it does, it is data in the computer's memory, yet it controls the actions performed on this same memory. Analogies that try to compare programs to objects we are familiar with tend to fall short, but a superficially fitting one is that of a machine. The gears of a mechanical watch fit together ingeniously, and if the watchmaker was any good, it will accurately show the time for many years. The elements of a program fit together in a similar way, and if the programmer knows what he is doing, the program will run without crashing.

A computer is a machine built to act as a host for these immaterial machines. Computers themselves can only do stupidly straightforward things. The reason they are so useful is that they do these things at an incredibly high speed. A program can, by ingeniously combining many of these simple actions, do very complicated things.

To some of us, writing computer programs is a fascinating game. A program is a building of thought. It is costless to build, weightless, growing easily under our typing hands. If we get carried away, its size and complexity will grow out of control, confusing even the one who created it. This is the main problem of programming. It is why so much of today's software tends to crash, fail, screw up.

When a program works, it is beautiful. The art of programming is the skill of controlling complexity. The great program is subdued, made simple in its complexity.

Today, many programmers believe that this complexity is best managed by using only a small set of well-understood techniques in their programs. They have composed strict rules about the form programs should have, and the more zealous among them will denounce those who break these rules as bad programmers.

What hostility to the richness of programming! To try to reduce it to something straightforward and predictable, to place a taboo on all the weird and beautiful programs. The landscape of programming techniques is enormous, fascinating in its diversity, still largely unexplored. It is certainly littered with traps and snares, luring the inexperienced programmer into all kinds of horrible mistakes, but that only means you should proceed with caution, keep your wits about you. As you learn, there will always be new challenges, new territory to explore. The programmer who refuses to keep exploring will surely stagnate, forget his joy, lose the will to program (and become a manager).

As far as I am concerned, the definite criterion for a program is whether it is correct. Efficiency, clarity, and size are also important, but how to balance these against each other is always a matter of judgement, a judgement that each programmer must make for himself. Rules of thumb are useful, but one should never be afraid to break them.

In the beginning, at the birth of computing, there were no programming languages. Programs looked something like this:

00110001 00000000 00000000
00110001 00000001 00000001
00110011 00000001 00000010
01010001 00001011 00000010
00100010 00000010 00001000
01000011 00000001 00000000
01000001 00000001 00000001
00010000 00000010 00000000
01100010 00000000 00000000

That is a program to add the numbers from one to ten together, and print out the result (1 + 2 + ... + 10 = 55). It could run on a very simple kind of computer. To program early computers, it was necessary to set large arrays of switches in the right position, or punch holes in strips of cardboard and feed them to the computer. You can imagine how this was a tedious, error-prone procedure. Even the writing of simple programs required much cleverness and discipline, complex ones were nearly inconceivable.

Of course, manually entering these arcane patterns of bits (which is what the 1s and 0s above are generally called) did give the programmer a profound sense of being a mighty wizard. And that has to be worth something, in terms of job satisfaction.

Each line of the program contains a single instruction. It could be written in English like this:

  1. Store the number 0 in memory location 0
  2. Store the number 1 in memory location 1
  3. Store the value of memory location 1 in memory location 2
  4. Decrement the value in memory location 2 by the number 11
  5. If the value in memory location 2 is the number 0, continue with instruction 9
  6. Increment the value in memory location 0 by the value in memory location 1
  7. Increment the value in memory location 1 by the number 1
  8. Continue with instruction 3
  9. Output the value of memory location 0

While that is more readable than the binary soup, it is still rather unpleasant. It might help to use names instead of numbers for the instructions and memory locations:

 Set 'total' to 0
 Set 'count' to 1
 Set 'compare' to 'count'
 Subtract 11 from 'compare'
 If 'compare' is zero, continue at [end]
 Add 'count' to 'total'
 Add 1 to 'count'
 Continue at [loop]
 Output 'total'

At this point it is not too hard to see how the program works. Can you? The first two lines give two memory locations their starting values: total will be used to build up the result of the program, and count keeps track of the number that we are currently looking at. The lines using compare are probably the weirdest ones. What the program wants to do is see if count is equal to 11, in order to decide whether it can stop yet. Because the machine is so primitive, it can only test whether a number is zero, and make a decision (jump) based on that. So it uses the memory location labelled compare to compute the value of count - 11, and makes a decision based on that value. The next two lines add the value of count to the result, and increment count by one every time the program has decided that it is not 11 yet.

Here is the same program in JavaScript:

var total = 0, count = 1;
while (count <= 10) {
  total += count;
  count += 1;

This gives us a few more improvements. Most importantly, there is no need to specify the way we want the program to jump back and forth anymore. The magic word while takes care of that. It continues executing the lines below it as long as the condition it was given holds: count <= 10, which means 'count is less than or equal to 10'. Apparently, there is no need anymore to create a temporary value and compare that to zero. This was a stupid little detail, and the power of programming languages is that they take care of stupid little details for us.

Finally, here is what the program could look like if we happened to have the convenient operations range and sum available, which respectively create a collection of numbers within a range and compute the sum of a collection of numbers:

print(sum(range(1, 10)));

The moral of this story, then, is that the same program can be expressed in long and short, unreadable and readable ways. The first version of the program was extremely obscure, while this last one is almost English: print the sum of the range of numbers from 1 to 10. (We will see in later chapters how to build things like sum and range.)

A good programming language helps the programmer by providing a more abstract way to express himself. It hides uninteresting details, provides convenient building blocks (such as the while construct), and, most of the time, allows the programmer to add building blocks himself (such as the sum and range operations).

JavaScript is the language that is, at the moment, mostly being used to do all kinds of clever and horrible things with pages on the World Wide Web. Some people claim that the next version of JavaScript will become an important language for other tasks too. I am unsure whether that will happen, but if you are interested in programming, JavaScript is definitely a useful language to learn. Even if you do not end up doing much web programming, the mind-bending programs I will show you in this book will always stay with you, haunt you, and influence the programs you write in other languages.

There are those who will say terrible things about JavaScript. Many of these things are true. When I was for the first time required to write something in JavaScript, I quickly came to despise the language. It would accept almost anything I typed, but interpret it in a way that was completely different from what I meant. This had a lot to do with the fact that I did not have a clue what I was doing, but there is also a real issue here: JavaScript is ridiculously liberal in what it allows. The idea behind this design was that it would make programming in JavaScript easier for beginners. In actuality, it mostly makes finding problems in your programs harder, because the system will not point them out to you.

However, the flexibility of the language is also an advantage. It leaves space for a lot of techniques that are impossible in more rigid languages, and it can be used to overcome some of JavaScript's shortcomings. After learning it properly, and working with it for a while, I have really learned to like this language.

Contrary to what the name suggests, JavaScript has very little to do with the programming language named Java. The similar name was inspired by marketing considerations, rather than good judgement. In 1995, when JavaScript was introduced by Netscape, the Java language was being heavily marketed and gaining in popularity. Apparently, someone thought it a good idea to try and ride along on this marketing. Now we are stuck with the name.

Related to JavaScript is a thing called ECMAScript. When browsers other than Netscape started to support JavaScript, or something that looked like it, a document was written to describe precisely how the language should work. The language described in this document is called ECMAScript, after the organisation that standardised it.

ECMAScript describes a general-purpose programming language, and does not say anything about the integration of this language in an Internet browser. JavaScript is ECMAScript plus extra tools for dealing with Internet pages and browser windows.

A few other pieces of software use the language described in the ECMAScript document. Most importantly, the ActionScript language used by Flash is based on ECMAScript (though it does not precisely follow the standard). Flash is a system for adding things that move and make lots of noise to web-pages. Knowing JavaScript won't hurt if you ever find yourself learning to build Flash movies.

JavaScript is still evolving. Since this book came out, ECMAScript 5 has been released, which is compatible with the version described here, but adds some of the functionality we will be writing ourselves as built-in methods. The newest generation of browsers provides this expanded version of JavaScript. As of 2011, 'ECMAScript harmony', a more radical extension of the language, is in the process of being standardised. You should not worry too much about these new versions making the things you learn from this book obsolete. For one thing, they will be an extension of the language we have now, so almost everything written in this book will still hold.

Most chapters in this book contain quite a lot of code1. In my experience, reading and writing code is an important part of learning to program. Try to not just glance over these examples, but read them attentively and understand them. This can be slow and confusing at first, but you will quickly get the hang of it. The same goes for the exercises. Don't assume you understand them until you've actually written a working solution.

Because of the way the web works, it is always possible to look at the JavaScript programs that people put in their web-pages. This can be a good way to learn how some things are done. Because most web programmers are not 'professional' programmers, or consider JavaScript programming so uninteresting that they never properly learned it, a lot of the code you can find like this is of a very bad quality. When learning from ugly or incorrect code, the ugliness and confusion will propagate into your own code, so be careful who you learn from.

To allow you to try out programs, both the examples and the code you write yourself, this book makes use of something called a console. If you are using a modern graphical browser (Internet Explorer version 6 or higher, Firefox 1.5 or higher, Opera 9 or higher, Safari 3 or higher, Chrome), the pages in this book will show a blueish bar at the bottom of your screen. You can open the console by clicking on the little arrow on the far right of this bar. (Note that I am not talking about your browser's built-in console.)

The console contains three important elements. There is the output window, which is used to show error messages and things that programs print out. Below that, there is a line where you can type in a piece of JavaScript. Try typing in a number, and pressing the enter key to run what you typed. If the text you typed produced something meaningful, it will be shown in the output window. Now try typing wrong!, and press enter again. The output window will show an error message. You can use the arrow-up and arrow-down keys to go back to previous commands that you typed.

For bigger pieces of code, those that span multiple lines and which you want to keep around for a while, the field on the right can be used. The 'Run' button is used to execute programs written in this field. It is possible to have multiple programs open at the same time. Use the 'New' button to open a new, empty buffer. When there is more than one open buffer, the menu next to the 'Run' button can be used to choose which one is being shown. The 'Close' button, as you might expect, closes a buffer.

Example programs in this book always have a small button with an arrow in their top-right corner, which can be used to run them. The example we saw earlier looked like this:

var total = 0, count = 1;
while (count <= 10) {
  total += count;
  count += 1;

Run it by clicking the arrow. There is also another button, which is used to load the program into the console. Do not hesitate to modify it and try out the result. The worst that could happen is that you create an endless loop. An endless loop is what you get when the condition of the while never becomes false, for example if you choose to add 0 instead of 1 to the count variable. Now the program will run forever.

Fortunately, browsers keep an eye on the programs running inside them. Whenever one of them is taking suspiciously long to finish, they will ask you if you want to cut it off.

In some later chapters, we will build example programs that consist of many blocks of code. Often, you have to run every one of them for the program to work. As you may have noticed, the arrow in a block of code turns purple after the block has been run. When reading a chapter, try to run every block of code you come across, especially those that 'define' something new (you will see what that means in the next chapter).

It is, of course, possible that you can not read a chapter in one sitting. This means you will have to start halfway when you continue reading, but if you don't run all the code starting from the top of the chapter, some things might not work. By holding the shift key while pressing the 'run' arrow on a block of code, all blocks before that one will be run as well, so when you start in the middle of a chapter, hold shift the first time you run a piece of code, and everything should work as expected.

  1. 'Code' is the substance that programs are made of. Every piece of a program, whether it is a single line or the whole thing, can be referred to as 'code'.