JavaScript got better while I wasn’t looking

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2017/10/07/javascript-got-better-while-i-wasnt-looking/

IndustrialRobot has generously donated in order to inquire:

In the last few years there seems to have been a lot of activity with adding emojis to Unicode. Has there been an equal effort to add ‘real’ languages/glyph systems/etc?

And as always, if you don’t have anything to say on that topic, feel free to choose your own. :p

Yes.

I mean, each release of Unicode lists major new additions right at the top — Unicode 10, Unicode 9, Unicode 8, etc. They also keep fastidious notes, so you can also dig into how and why these new scripts came from, by reading e.g. the proposal for the addition of Zanabazar Square. I don’t think I have much to add here; I’m not a real linguist, I only play one on TV.

So with that out of the way, here’s something completely different!

A brief history of JavaScript

JavaScript was created in seven days, about eight thousand years ago. It was pretty rough, and it stayed rough for most of its life. But that was fine, because no one used it for anything besides having a trail of sparkles follow your mouse on their Xanga profile.

Then people discovered you could actually do a handful of useful things with JavaScript, and it saw a sharp uptick in usage. Alas, it stayed pretty rough. So we came up with polyfills and jQuerys and all kinds of miscellaneous things that tried to smooth over the rough parts, to varying degrees of success.

And… that’s it. That’s pretty much how things stayed for a while.


I have complicated feelings about JavaScript. I don’t hate it… but I certainly don’t enjoy it, either. It has some pretty neat ideas, like prototypical inheritance and “everything is a value”, but it buries them under a pile of annoying quirks and a woefully inadequate standard library. The DOM APIs don’t make things much better — they seem to be designed as though the target language were Java, rarely taking advantage of any interesting JavaScript features. And the places where the APIs overlap with the language are a hilarious mess: I have to check documentation every single time I use any API that returns a set of things, because there are at least three totally different conventions for handling that and I can’t keep them straight.

The funny thing is that I’ve been fairly happy to work with Lua, even though it shares most of the same obvious quirks as JavaScript. Both languages are weakly typed; both treat nonexistent variables and keys as simply false values, rather than errors; both have a single data structure that doubles as both a list and a map; both use 64-bit floating-point as their only numeric type (though Lua added integers very recently); both lack a standard object model; both have very tiny standard libraries. Hell, Lua doesn’t even have exceptions, not really — you have to fake them in much the same style as Perl.

And yet none of this bothers me nearly as much in Lua. The differences between the languages are very subtle, but combined they make a huge impact.

  • Lua has separate operators for addition and concatenation, so + is never ambiguous. It also has printf-style string formatting in the standard library.

  • Lua’s method calls are syntactic sugar: foo:bar() just means foo.bar(foo). Lua doesn’t even have a special this or self value; the invocant just becomes the first argument. In contrast, JavaScript invokes some hand-waved magic to set its contextual this variable, which has led to no end of confusion.

  • Lua has an iteration protocol, as well as built-in iterators for dealing with list-style or map-style data. JavaScript has a special dedicated Array type and clumsy built-in iteration syntax.

  • Lua has operator overloading and (surprisingly flexible) module importing.

  • Lua allows the keys of a map to be any value (though non-scalars are always compared by identity). JavaScript implicitly converts keys to strings — and since there’s no operator overloading, there’s no way to natively fix this.

These are fairly minor differences, in the grand scheme of language design. And almost every feature in Lua is implemented in a ridiculously simple way; in fact the entire language is described in complete detail in a single web page. So writing JavaScript is always frustrating for me: the language is so close to being much more ergonomic, and yet, it isn’t.

Or, so I thought. As it turns out, while I’ve been off doing other stuff for a few years, browser vendors have been implementing all this pie-in-the-sky stuff from “ES5” and “ES6”, whatever those are. People even upgrade their browsers now. Lo and behold, the last time I went to write JavaScript, I found out that a number of papercuts had actually been solved, and the solutions were sufficiently widely available that I could actually use them in web code.

The weird thing is that I do hear a lot about JavaScript, but the feature I’ve seen raved the most about by far is probably… built-in types for working with arrays of bytes? That’s cool and all, but not exactly the most pressing concern for me.

Anyway, if you also haven’t been keeping tabs on the world of JavaScript, here are some things we missed.

let

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 44, Chrome 41, IE 11, Safari 10

I’m pretty sure I first saw let over a decade ago. Firefox has supported it for ages, but you actually had to opt in by specifying JavaScript version 1.7. Remember JavaScript versions? You know, from back in the days when people actually suggested you write stuff like this:

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<SCRIPT LANGUAGE="JavaScript1.2" TYPE="text/javascript">

Yikes.

Anyway, so, let declares a variable — but scoped to the immediately containing block, unlike var, which scopes to the innermost function. The trouble with var was that it was very easy to make misleading:

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// foo exists here
while (true) {
    var foo = ...;
    ...
}
// foo exists here too

If you reused the same temporary variable name in a different block, or if you expected to be shadowing an outer foo, or if you were trying to do something with creating closures in a loop, this would cause you some trouble.

But no more, because let actually scopes the way it looks like it should, the way variable declarations do in C and friends. As an added bonus, if you refer to a variable declared with let outside of where it’s valid, you’ll get a ReferenceError instead of a silent undefined value. Hooray!

There’s one other interesting quirk to let that I can’t find explicitly documented. Consider:

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let closures = [];
for (let i = 0; i < 4; i++) {
    closures.push(function() { console.log(i); });
}
for (let j = 0; j < closures.length; j++) {
    closures[j]();
}

If this code had used var i, then it would print 4 four times, because the function-scoped var i means each closure is sharing the same i, whose final value is 4. With let, the output is 0 1 2 3, as you might expect, because each run through the loop gets its own i.

But wait, hang on.

The semantics of a C-style for are that the first expression is only evaluated once, at the very beginning. So there’s only one let i. In fact, it makes no sense for each run through the loop to have a distinct i, because the whole idea of the loop is to modify i each time with i++.

I assume this is simply a special case, since it’s what everyone expects. We expect it so much that I can’t find anyone pointing out that the usual explanation for why it works makes no sense. It has the interesting side effect that for no longer de-sugars perfectly to a while, since this will print all 4s:

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closures = [];
let i = 0;
while (i < 4) {
    closures.push(function() { console.log(i); });
    i++;
}
for (let j = 0; j < closures.length; j++) {
    closures[j]();
}

This isn’t a problem — I’m glad let works this way! — it just stands out to me as interesting. Lua doesn’t need a special case here, since it uses an iterator protocol that produces values rather than mutating a visible state variable, so there’s no problem with having the loop variable be truly distinct on each run through the loop.

Classes

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 45, Chrome 42, Safari 9, Edge 13

Prototypical inheritance is pretty cool. The way JavaScript presents it is a little bit opaque, unfortunately, which seems to confuse a lot of people. JavaScript gives you enough functionality to make it work, and even makes it sound like a first-class feature with a property outright called prototype… but to actually use it, you have to do a bunch of weird stuff that doesn’t much look like constructing an object or type.

The funny thing is, people with almost any background get along with Python just fine, and Python uses prototypical inheritance! Nobody ever seems to notice this, because Python tucks it neatly behind a class block that works enough like a Java-style class. (Python also handles inheritance without using the prototype, so it’s a little different… but I digress. Maybe in another post.)

The point is, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with how JavaScript handles objects; the ergonomics are just terrible.

Lo! They finally added a class keyword. Or, rather, they finally made the class keyword do something; it’s been reserved this entire time.

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class Vector {
    constructor(x, y) {
        this.x = x;
        this.y = y;
    }

    get magnitude() {
        return Math.sqrt(this.x * this.x + this.y * this.y);
    }

    dot(other) {
        return this.x * other.x + this.y * other.y;
    }
}

This is all just sugar for existing features: creating a Vector function to act as the constructor, assigning a function to Vector.prototype.dot, and whatever it is you do to make a property. (Oh, there are properties. I’ll get to that in a bit.)

The class block can be used as an expression, with or without a name. It also supports prototypical inheritance with an extends clause and has a super pseudo-value for superclass calls.

It’s a little weird that the inside of the class block has its own special syntax, with function omitted and whatnot, but honestly you’d have a hard time making a class block without special syntax.

One severe omission here is that you can’t declare values inside the block, i.e. you can’t just drop a bar = 3; in there if you want all your objects to share a default attribute. The workaround is to just do this.bar = 3; inside the constructor, but I find that unsatisfying, since it defeats half the point of using prototypes.

Properties

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 4, Chrome 5, IE 9, Safari 5.1

JavaScript historically didn’t have a way to intercept attribute access, which is a travesty. And by “intercept attribute access”, I mean that you couldn’t design a value foo such that evaluating foo.bar runs some code you wrote.

Exciting news: now it does. Or, rather, you can intercept specific attributes, like in the class example above. The above magnitude definition is equivalent to:

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Object.defineProperty(Vector.prototype, 'magnitude', {
    configurable: true,
    enumerable: true,
    get: function() {
        return Math.sqrt(this.x * this.x + this.y * this.y);
    },
});

Beautiful.

And what even are these configurable and enumerable things? It seems that every single key on every single object now has its own set of three Boolean twiddles:

  • configurable means the property itself can be reconfigured with another call to Object.defineProperty.
  • enumerable means the property appears in for..in or Object.keys().
  • writable means the property value can be changed, which only applies to properties with real values rather than accessor functions.

The incredibly wild thing is that for properties defined by Object.defineProperty, configurable and enumerable default to false, meaning that by default accessor properties are immutable and invisible. Super weird.

Nice to have, though. And luckily, it turns out the same syntax as in class also works in object literals.

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Vector.prototype = {
    get magnitude() {
        return Math.sqrt(this.x * this.x + this.y * this.y);
    },
    ...
};

Alas, I’m not aware of a way to intercept arbitrary attribute access.

Another feature along the same lines is Object.seal(), which marks all of an object’s properties as non-configurable and prevents any new properties from being added to the object. The object is still mutable, but its “shape” can’t be changed. And of course you can just make the object completely immutable if you want, via setting all its properties non-writable, or just using Object.freeze().

I have mixed feelings about the ability to irrevocably change something about a dynamic runtime. It would certainly solve some gripes of former Haskell-minded colleagues, and I don’t have any compelling argument against it, but it feels like it violates some unwritten contract about dynamic languages — surely any structural change made by user code should also be able to be undone by user code?

Slurpy arguments

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 15, Chrome 47, Edge 12, Safari 10

Officially this feature is called “rest parameters”, but that’s a terrible name, no one cares about “arguments” vs “parameters”, and “slurpy” is a good word. Bless you, Perl.

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function foo(a, b, ...args) {
    // ...
}

Now you can call foo with as many arguments as you want, and every argument after the second will be collected in args as a regular array.

You can also do the reverse with the spread operator:

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let args = [];
args.push(1);
args.push(2);
args.push(3);
foo(...args);

It even works in array literals, even multiple times:

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let args2 = [...args, ...args];
console.log(args2);  // [1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3]

Apparently there’s also a proposal for allowing the same thing with objects inside object literals.

Default arguments

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 15, Chrome 49, Edge 14, Safari 10

Yes, arguments can have defaults now. It’s more like Sass than Python — default expressions are evaluated once per call, and later default expressions can refer to earlier arguments. I don’t know how I feel about that but whatever.

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function foo(n = 1, m = n + 1, list = []) {
    ...
}

Also, unlike Python, you can have an argument with a default and follow it with an argument without a default, since the default default (!) is and always has been defined as undefined. Er, let me just write it out.

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function bar(a = 5, b) {
    ...
}

Arrow functions

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 22, Chrome 45, Edge 12, Safari 10

Perhaps the most humble improvement is the arrow function. It’s a slightly shorter way to write an anonymous function.

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(a, b, c) => { ... }
a => { ... }
() => { ... }

An arrow function does not set this or some other magical values, so you can safely use an arrow function as a quick closure inside a method without having to rebind this. Hooray!

Otherwise, arrow functions act pretty much like regular functions; you can even use all the features of regular function signatures.

Arrow functions are particularly nice in combination with all the combinator-style array functions that were added a while ago, like Array.forEach.

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[7, 8, 9].forEach(value => {
    console.log(value);
});

Symbol

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 36, Chrome 38, Edge 12, Safari 9

This isn’t quite what I’d call an exciting feature, but it’s necessary for explaining the next one. It’s actually… extremely weird.

symbol is a new kind of primitive (like number and string), not an object (like, er, Number and String). A symbol is created with Symbol('foo'). No, not new Symbol('foo'); that throws a TypeError, for, uh, some reason.

The only point of a symbol is as a unique key. You see, symbols have one very special property: they can be used as object keys, and will not be stringified. Remember, only strings can be keys in JavaScript — even the indices of an array are, semantically speaking, still strings. Symbols are a new exception to this rule.

Also, like other objects, two symbols don’t compare equal to each other: Symbol('foo') != Symbol('foo').

The result is that symbols solve one of the problems that plauges most object systems, something I’ve talked about before: interfaces. Since an interface might be implemented by any arbitrary type, and any arbitrary type might want to implement any number of arbitrary interfaces, all the method names on an interface are effectively part of a single global namespace.

I think I need to take a moment to justify that. If you have IFoo and IBar, both with a method called method, and you want to implement both on the same type… you have a problem. Because most object systems consider “interface” to mean “I have a method called method, with no way to say which interface’s method you mean. This is a hard problem to avoid, because IFoo and IBar might not even come from the same library. Occasionally languages offer a clumsy way to “rename” one method or the other, but the most common approach seems to be for interface designers to avoid names that sound “too common”. You end up with redundant mouthfuls like IFoo.foo_method.

This incredibly sucks, and the only languages I’m aware of that avoid the problem are the ML family and Rust. In Rust, you define all the methods for a particular trait (interface) in a separate block, away from the type’s “own” methods. It’s pretty slick. You can still do obj.method(), and as long as there’s only one method among all the available traits, you’ll get that one. If not, there’s syntax for explicitly saying which trait you mean, which I can’t remember because I’ve never had to use it.

Symbols are JavaScript’s answer to this problem. If you want to define some interface, you can name its methods with symbols, which are guaranteed to be unique. You just have to make sure you keep the symbol around somewhere accessible so other people can actually use it. (Or… not?)

The interesting thing is that JavaScript now has several of its own symbols built in, allowing user objects to implement features that were previously reserved for built-in types. For example, you can use the Symbol.hasInstance symbol — which is simply where the language is storing an existing symbol and is not the same as Symbol('hasInstance')! — to override instanceof:

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// oh my god don't do this though
class EvenNumber {
    static [Symbol.hasInstance](obj) {
        return obj % 2 == 0;
    }
}
console.log(2 instanceof EvenNumber);  // true
console.log(3 instanceof EvenNumber);  // false

Oh, and those brackets around Symbol.hasInstance are a sort of reverse-quoting — they indicate an expression to use where the language would normally expect a literal identifier. I think they work as object keys, too, and maybe some other places.

The equivalent in Python is to implement a method called __instancecheck__, a name which is not special in any way except that Python has reserved all method names of the form __foo__. That’s great for Python, but doesn’t really help user code. JavaScript has actually outclassed (ho ho) Python here.

Of course, obj[BobNamespace.some_method]() is not the prettiest way to call an interface method, so it’s not perfect. I imagine this would be best implemented in user code by exposing a polymorphic function, similar to how Python’s len(obj) pretty much just calls obj.__len__().

I only bring this up because it’s the plumbing behind one of the most incredible things in JavaScript that I didn’t even know about until I started writing this post. I’m so excited oh my gosh. Are you ready? It’s:

Iteration protocol

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 27, Chrome 39, Safari 10; still experimental in Edge

Yes! Amazing! JavaScript has first-class support for iteration! I can’t even believe this.

It works pretty much how you’d expect, or at least, how I’d expect. You give your object a method called Symbol.iterator, and that returns an iterator.

What’s an iterator? It’s an object with a next() method that returns the next value and whether the iterator is exhausted.

Wait, wait, wait a second. Hang on. The method is called next? Really? You didn’t go for Symbol.next? Python 2 did exactly the same thing, then realized its mistake and changed it to __next__ in Python 3. Why did you do this?

Well, anyway. My go-to test of an iterator protocol is how hard it is to write an equivalent to Python’s enumerate(), which takes a list and iterates over its values and their indices. In Python it looks like this:

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for i, value in enumerate(['one', 'two', 'three']):
    print(i, value)
# 0 one
# 1 two
# 2 three

It’s super nice to have, and I’m always amazed when languages with “strong” “support” for iteration don’t have it. Like, C# doesn’t. So if you want to iterate over a list but also need indices, you need to fall back to a C-style for loop. And if you want to iterate over a lazy or arbitrary iterable but also need indices, you need to track it yourself with a counter. Ridiculous.

Here’s my attempt at building it in JavaScript.

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function enumerate(iterable) {
    // Return a new iter*able* object with a Symbol.iterator method that
    // returns an iterator.
    return {
        [Symbol.iterator]: function() {
            let iterator = iterable[Symbol.iterator]();
            let i = 0;

            return {
                next: function() {
                    let nextval = iterator.next();
                    if (! nextval.done) {
                        nextval.value = [i, nextval.value];
                        i++;
                    }
                    return nextval;
                },
            };
        },
    };
}
for (let [i, value] of enumerate(['one', 'two', 'three'])) {
    console.log(i, value);
}
// 0 one
// 1 two
// 2 three

Incidentally, for..of (which iterates over a sequence, unlike for..in which iterates over keys — obviously) is finally supported in Edge 12. Hallelujah.

Oh, and let [i, value] is destructuring assignment, which is also a thing now and works with objects as well. You can even use the splat operator with it! Like Python! (And you can use it in function signatures! Like Python! Wait, no, Python decided that was terrible and removed it in 3…)

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let [x, y, ...others] = ['apple', 'orange', 'cherry', 'banana'];

It’s a Halloween miracle. 🎃

Generators

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 26, Chrome 39, Edge 13, Safari 10

That’s right, JavaScript has goddamn generators now. It’s basically just copying Python and adding a lot of superfluous punctuation everywhere. Not that I’m complaining.

Also, generators are themselves iterable, so I’m going to cut to the chase and rewrite my enumerate() with a generator.

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function enumerate(iterable) {
    return {
        [Symbol.iterator]: function*() {
            let i = 0;
            for (let value of iterable) {
                yield [i, value];
                i++;
            }
        },
    };
}
for (let [i, value] of enumerate(['one', 'two', 'three'])) {
    console.log(i, value);
}
// 0 one
// 1 two
// 2 three

Amazing. function* is a pretty strange choice of syntax, but whatever? I guess it also lets them make yield only act as a keyword inside a generator, for ultimate backwards compatibility.

JavaScript generators support everything Python generators do: yield* yields every item from a subsequence, like Python’s yield from; generators can return final values; you can pass values back into the generator if you iterate it by hand. No, really, I wasn’t kidding, it’s basically just copying Python. It’s great. You could now built asyncio in JavaScript!

In fact, they did that! JavaScript now has async and await. An async function returns a Promise, which is also a built-in type now. Amazing.

Sets and maps

MDN docs for MapMDN docs for Set — supported in Firefox 13, Chrome 38, IE 11, Safari 7.1

I did not save the best for last. This is much less exciting than generators. But still exciting.

The only data structure in JavaScript is the object, a map where the strings are keys. (Or now, also symbols, I guess.) That means you can’t readily use custom values as keys, nor simulate a set of arbitrary objects. And you have to worry about people mucking with Object.prototype, yikes.

But now, there’s Map and Set! Wow.

Unfortunately, because JavaScript, Map couldn’t use the indexing operators without losing the ability to have methods, so you have to use a boring old method-based API. But Map has convenient methods that plain objects don’t, like entries() to iterate over pairs of keys and values. In fact, you can use a map with for..of to get key/value pairs. So that’s nice.

Perhaps more interesting, there’s also now a WeakMap and WeakSet, where the keys are weak references. I don’t think JavaScript had any way to do weak references before this, so that’s pretty slick. There’s no obvious way to hold a weak value, but I guess you could substitute a WeakSet with only one item.

Template literals

MDN docs — supported in Firefox 34, Chrome 41, Edge 12, Safari 9

Template literals are JavaScript’s answer to string interpolation, which has historically been a huge pain in the ass because it doesn’t even have string formatting in the standard library.

They’re just strings delimited by backticks instead of quotes. They can span multiple lines and contain expressions.

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console.log(`one plus
two is ${1 + 2}`);

Someone decided it would be a good idea to allow nesting more sets of backticks inside a ${} expression, so, good luck to syntax highlighters.

However, someone also had the most incredible idea ever, which was to add syntax allowing user code to do the interpolation — so you can do custom escaping, when absolutely necessary, which is virtually never, because “escaping” means you’re building a structured format by slopping strings together willy-nilly instead of using some API that works with the structure.

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// OF COURSE, YOU SHOULDN'T BE DOING THIS ANYWAY; YOU SHOULD BUILD HTML WITH
// THE DOM API AND USE .textContent FOR LITERAL TEXT.  BUT AS AN EXAMPLE:
function html(literals, ...values) {
    let ret = [];
    literals.forEach((literal, i) => {
        if (i > 0) {
            // Is there seriously still not a built-in function for doing this?
            // Well, probably because you SHOULDN'T BE DOING IT
            ret.push(values[i - 1]
                .replace(/&/g, '&amp;')
                .replace(/</g, '&lt;')
                .replace(/>/g, '&gt;')
                .replace(/"/g, '&quot;')
                .replace(/'/g, '&apos;'));
        }
        ret.push(literal);
    });
    return ret.join('');
}
let username = 'Bob<script>';
let result = html`<b>Hello, ${username}!</b>`;
console.log(result);
// <b>Hello, Bob&lt;script&gt;!</b>

It’s a shame this feature is in JavaScript, the language where you are least likely to need it.

Trailing commas

Remember how you couldn’t do this for ages, because ass-old IE considered it a syntax error and would reject the entire script?

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{
    a: 'one',
    b: 'two',
    c: 'three',  // <- THIS GUY RIGHT HERE
}

Well now it’s part of the goddamn spec and if there’s anything in this post you can rely on, it’s this. In fact you can use AS MANY GODDAMN TRAILING COMMAS AS YOU WANT. But only in arrays.

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[1, 2, 3,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,]

Apparently that has the bizarre side effect of reserving extra space at the end of the array, without putting values there.

And more, probably

Like strict mode, which makes a few silent “errors” be actual errors, forces you to declare variables (no implicit globals!), and forbids the completely bozotic with block.

Or String.trim(), which trims whitespace off of strings.

Or… Math.sign()? That’s new? Seriously? Well, okay.

Or the Proxy type, which lets you customize indexing and assignment and calling. Oh. I guess that is possible, though this is a pretty weird way to do it; why not just use symbol-named methods?

You can write Unicode escapes for astral plane characters in strings (or identifiers!), as \u{XXXXXXXX}.

There’s a const now? I extremely don’t care, just name it in all caps and don’t reassign it, come on.

There’s also a mountain of other minor things, which you can peruse at your leisure via MDN or the ECMAScript compatibility tables (note the links at the top, too).

That’s all I’ve got. I still wouldn’t say I’m a big fan of JavaScript, but it’s definitely making an effort to clean up some goofy inconsistencies and solve common problems. I think I could even write some without yelling on Twitter about it now.

On the other hand, if you’re still stuck supporting IE 10 for some reason… well, er, my condolences.