Ever had to debug a compiler my friend? It's hard.
Typical engineering wisdom goes that if you blame the compiler, you're wrong. You messed up and can't figure it out and it is not the compiler's fault.
But sometimes it is.
I'm working on a script to convert Wordpress exports to Markdown and after months of tinkering, noticed a terrible bug. JSX code samples don't work.
You take this bit of Wordpress source code:
And you get this output:
But you're supposed to get this:
The compiler that translates plain Wordpress HTML to Markdown makes a mistake. Sees HTML inside a code sample, parses it as HTML, then silently drops it.
How would you fix this?
I verified the input is all correct until it goes into the html-to-markdown compiler. That's always a good first step. Garbage in, garbage out
How compilers work
Compilers work in 3 stages.
- The front-end parses text inputs into an Abstract Syntax Tree – AST
- The middle-end manipulates the AST to add optimizations and other changes
- The back-end turns your AST back to text
Modern tools for Markdown processing
Your best bet to play with markdown right now is the Unified ecosystem. It's what Gatsby, Next, Prettier, and many others use.
Unified is a system of plugins with plugins that let you parse, process, and output ASTs. Easy to get started and confusing to dig deep. Hard to find the code that does anything.
Every plugin calls another plugin. 😅
General lay of the land is that:
- unified is the protocol that holds it all together
- rehype is the plugin ecosystem for HTML parsing/rendering
- remark is the plugin ecosystem for Markdown parsing/rendering
A basic example that parses HTML and spits out Markdown goes like this:
How you debug a compiler
Debugging a compiler is where life gets tricky. A whole processing pipeline, oof.
You're trying to find out which step of the processing pipeline makes a mistake. And whether it's a mistake at all. You could still be the one holding it wrong.
Works for everyone else. Chances are you're holding it wrong. But how do you figure out how you're holding it wrong?
You can watch me work through the issue here:
I go through the process methodically injecting console.logs into the pipeline to see how nodes change shape. Trying to figure out where it goes wrong.
In the end I decided it wasn't a bug. Or if it was, it's too deep for me to fix.
A debugging kludge
First you create a small example. As small as possible.
Then you build a debugging kludge – a tiny plugin that helps you hook into the compilation process.
It's a kludge because it's temporary, dirty, and for your eyes only. Like slapping a
console.log into your code to see what's going on.
Your pipeline has two sides, if you're translating HTML to Markdown:
- The Rehype side
- The Remark side
These require different kludges because the AST structure is different. Tag naming is different, properties are different, etc. Both are tree structures.
Debug a Rehype AST
To see how Rehype sees your code blocks, you use a kludge like this:
Look at the output and you see what Rehype sees. Every property, node structure, and value.
if to observe different nodes. I don't recommend printing the whole AST. Too much.
Debug a Remark AST
On the other side of the
rehype2remark divide, you have a Markdown AST. Same basic structure, different naming conventions.
Remark is easier to debug because it's well-supported by the unist ecosystem of helper plugins. 🎉
To print code blocks on the Remark side:
visit helper handles recursion for you.
How to fix a compiler pipeline issue
There's 3 ways to fix a compiler pipeline issue:
- On the parsing side
- In the middle
- On the stringify side
Fixing parsers by hand is hard. Writing, too. Most parsers are auto-generated from grammar definition files.
Rehype parses my JSX-containing code blocks as if they were HTML. I thought they should be strings.
After digging, I discovered that Rehype uses Parse5 – an HTML5 compliant parser used in the entire Node ecosystem. With 75,000,000 downloads per month ... yeah I'm the one who's wrong.
Fixing stringification is boring. You'll dig and dig and do nothing fun for days. Shit's boring, we did it for my compilers class in college.
Plus you've got a battle-tested stringifier right there. You need to give it the right input tree 😉
MacGyver a fix in the middle
Compiler middleware is the best place to add your fix.
Take the AST, change it so stringification does what you want. Magic.
Here's what I did for my example of JSX-containing code blocks:
Find all the code blocks, replace their children with a fake new child.
Make the child a
<code> block because Remark likes that better and stringify the whole
<pre> tag into a single
Not perfect, but better. Need to fix the child html nodes or find a JSX stringifier 🤔
Learned something new?
Read more Software Engineering Lessons from Production
I write articles with real insight into the career and skills of a modern software engineer. "Raw and honest from the heart!" as one reader described them. Fueled by lessons learned over 20 years of building production code for side-projects, small businesses, and hyper growth startups. Both successful and not.
Subscribe below 👇
Software Engineering Lessons from Production
Join Swizec's Newsletter and get insightful emails 💌 on mindsets, tactics, and technical skills for your career. Real lessons from building production software. No bullshit.
"Man, love your simple writing! Yours is the only newsletter I open and only blog that I give a fuck to read & scroll till the end. And wow always take away lessons with me. Inspiring! And very relatable. 👌"
Senior Mindset Book
Get promoted, earn a bigger salary, work for top companiesLearn more
Have a burning question that you think I can answer? Hit me up on twitter and I'll do my best.
Who am I and who do I help? I'm Swizec Teller and I turn coders into engineers with "Raw and honest from the heart!" writing. No bullshit. Real insights into the career and skills of a modern software engineer.
Want to become a true senior engineer? Take ownership, have autonomy, and be a force multiplier on your team. The Senior Engineer Mindset ebook can help 👉 swizec.com/senior-mindset. These are the shifts in mindset that unlocked my career.
Curious about Serverless and the modern backend? Check out Serverless Handbook, for frontend engineers 👉 ServerlessHandbook.dev
Want to Stop copy pasting D3 examples and create data visualizations of your own? Learn how to build scalable dataviz React components your whole team can understand with React for Data Visualization
Did someone amazing share this letter with you? Wonderful! You can sign up for my weekly letters for software engineers on their path to greatness, here: swizec.com/blog
By the way, just in case no one has told you it yet today: I love and appreciate you for who you are ❤️