Inspired by Emacs Rocks! Episode 11 on
swank-js, I spent the last week writing a new extension to
Emacs to improve support for web development. It’s called
Skewer and it allows you to interact with a browser
like you would an inferior Lisp process. It’s written in pure Emacs
Lisp, operates as a servlet for my Elisp webserver,
and requires no special support from your browser or any other
external programs, making it portable and very easy to set up.
The video also on YouTube.
It works a little bit like impatient-mode. First,
the browser makes a long poll to Emacs. When you’re ready to send code
to the browser to evaluate, Emacs wraps the expression in a bit of
JSON and sends it to the browser. The browser responds with the result
and starts another long poll.
As such, the browser doesn’t need to do anything special to support
Skewer. If it can run jQuery, it can be skewered. I’ve tested it and
found it working successfully on the latest versions of all the major
browsers, including you-know-who.
To properly grab expressions around/before the point I’m using the
amazing js2-mode, originally written by the famous Steve
anyway! I thought I was clever with my psl-mode, writing
my own full language parser. Steve Yegge did the same thing on a much
larger scale three years ago with js2-mode. It includes an entire
the language. For Skewer, I use js2-mode’s functions to access the AST
and extract complete, valid expressions.
What’s wrong with swank-js?
Skewer provides nearly the same functionality as swank-js, a
The problem with swank-js is the complicated setup. It requires a
cooperating Node.js server, a particular version of SLIME, and a lot
of patience. I could never get it working, and if I did I wouldn’t
want to have to do all that setup again on another computer. In
contrast, Skewer is just another Emacs package, no special setup
needed. Thanks to
package.el installing and using it should be no
more difficult than installing any other package.
Most importantly, with Skewer I can capture the setup in my
.emacs.d repository where it will automatically
work across any operating system, so long as it has Emacs installed.
I already used Skewer to develop a little boids toy, which
I’m using to demonstrate the mode (the video). Unlike my previous
experiences in web development, this was extremely enjoyable —
probably because it felt a lot like I was writing Lisp. And unlike any
Lisp I’ve used so far, I had a canvas to draw on with my live
code. That’s a satisfying tool to have.
Due to those prior poor experiences, I had avoided web development for
a long time. But now that I have some decent tools configured I’m
going to get into it more. In fact, I’ve decided I’m completely done
with writing Java applets. Bounze will have been my last
This has become a pattern for me. When I want to start using a new
language or platform I need to figure out a work-flow with Emacs. This
involves trying out new modes, reading about how other people do it,
and, ultimately, when I found out the existing stuff is inadequate I
build my own extensions to create the work-flow I desire. I did this
with Java, recently with psl-mode (which was to
be expected), and now web development.
demo Skewer mode idiomatically, perhaps the most exciting discovery
unaware of this community and taking my first steps into it has been
who, at the time, didn’t quite understand the consequences of their
design decisions, and later extended by similar people. The name of
the language itself is evidence of this. Fortunately some really smart
people jumped on board along the way (including Guy Steele of Lisp
fame) and have tried to undo, or at least mitigate, the mistakes.
actually a lot like the Elisp community, but on a larger scale:
there’s still a whole lot of frontier to explore and it’s pretty easy
to make a noticeable splash.
Here’s to splashing!