Team: Developers

Welcome to the engine room!

We develop the platform. That’s both server-side and client-side code and design (!), as well as any additional tools, apps, etc. If you’re technically minded but want to help more with docs, developer outreach, user needs analysis, you’re also more than welcome to join.

For now we use this team primarily to keep a diary of our work.

Number of members: 1 (view list)


Team rules

You agree to license all technical contributions under CC-0 (public domain); see:

We’ve opted for these terms for our codebase to make re-use and extension minimally complex.

This team has not published any reviews yet.

HTML5 video and audio support added

We now have support for HTML5 video and audio in reviews and posts. You can insert media by URL using the “Insert media” menu in the rich text editor. Alternatively, you can use the markdown syntax for images — ![alt text](url) — and it will now work for video and audio files as well.

Here’s an example of an embedded audio file:

Keep in mind that this only works for links to files in formats supported by modern browsers (typically mp4/webm/ogv for video, mp3/ogg for audio). YouTube links and such won’t magically work. We may or may not add support for that—YouTube is ubiquitous, but it’s not ideal to have videos that may disappear at any moment embedded in reviews that are meant to be freely reusable forever.

Under the hood, the CommonMark markdown specification does not yet include support for video/audio. As a result, CommonMark compliant parsers like Markdown-It (which we use) don’t support it, either. There was a preexisting plugin, but it had a few issues:

  • clocked in at >100KB due to an unnecessarily complex dependency

  • did not show any fallback text for older browsers

  • included hardcoded English strings

  • did not tokenize audio and video differently from images, making it difficult to integrate with rich-text editors

While some of this may be fixed (I sent a pull request), I ended up writing and publishing a new module, markdown-it-html5-media, that is optimized for our use case. Using image syntax tracks the emerging consensus in the ongoing CommonMark discussion about this topic.

SPARQL that sparkles

We’ve had support for looking up items via Wikidata for a while now. In order to give you the most relevant results, we exclude some stuff from the search that is very unlikely to be of interest: disambiguation pages, categories, templates, and other “meta-content” from Wikipedia.

To do this, we previously had to fire off two requests for every query we sent to Wikidata: one, to the MediaWiki API for Wikidata, using the wbsearchentities module that also powers Wikidata’s own search; the second to the powerful Wikidata Query Service, in order to identify which of the search results should be excluded.

It turns out that the Wikidata Query Service supports directly interfacing with the MediaWiki API, but until recently, the order of the results was lost when performing such a query.

Thanks to Wikimedia Foundation engineer Stas Malyshev, this was fixed a few days ago, so we were able to rewrite our queries to make use of it. Our Wikidata search is now entirely powered by SPARQL, the query language designed for the semantic web.

The result: significantly more responsive Wikidata lookup and simpler code. See the code for details; most of the work is done by the _requestHandler function. In related news, Wikidata also has recently significantly improved the quality of search results by switching to ElasticSearch.

Fun with Node 8.9.0 and jsdoc is powered by Node.js. This post is very much about the internals, so only read on if you care. :-)

We’ve just upgraded the site to a major new release of Node: 8.9.0. Many excellent blog posts have been written about the new features in this series of Node. Personally, I’m most excited about async/await.

In modern web development, you’re often dealing with operations that are synchronous (executed immediately and blocking operation of other code) vs. asynchronous (effectively running “in the background”).

For example, when you run an expensive database query, you don’t want it to keep other visitors of the site waiting—it should run in the background. But the application needs to know when the query is finished. Promises are one way to organize such asynchronous execution sequences.

Unfortunately, as you deal with more complex sequences of events, using only promises can also make code increasingly difficult to read. Here’s an example from the sync-all script, which is run every 24 hours to fetch information from sites like Wikidata and Open Library:

  .then(things => {
    things.forEach(thing => thing.setURLs(thing.urls));
    let updates = => 
      limit(() => thing.updateActiveSyncs())
      .then(_updatedThings => {
        console.log('All updates complete.');

What’s going on here? We’re getting a list of all “Things” (review subjects), excluding old and deleted revisions. Then, for each thing, we reset the settings for updating information from external websites. We build an array of asynchronously run promises which contact external websites like Wikidata and Open Library. The limit() call throttles these requests to two at a time.

The main readability problem is the increasing nesting. If you add .catch() blocks to Promises, it can be even more difficult to follow what’s going on, and to make sure all your brackets are in the right place.

Here’s what this sequence looks like with async/await:

  const things = await Thing.filterNotStaleOrDeleted();
  things.forEach(thing => thing.setURLs(thing.urls));
  await Promise.all( => 
      limit(() => thing.updateActiveSyncs())

It’s a lot easier to see what’s going on. And this isn’t even accounting for the greater simplicity of success/error handling. Under the hood, async/await works with Promises, and there are many situations where using Promises directly is fine (note even the second version uses Promise.all). But for more complex operations, it really makes a difference.

While I’m at it, I’m adding standardized documentation in jsdoc format to modules as I go. Essentially, these are code comments in a special syntax that can be used to generate HTML output. You can find the generated result here; it will be updated every 24 hours from the currently deployed codebase.

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