Learning D3.js basics with Ruby (and Opal)

I always wanted to learn D3.js, problem is JavaScript is too awesome and that kept turning me off… till now!

Let’s take a random tutorial that we will attempt to translate into Ruby, for example this: http://bl.ocks.org/mbostock/3883245.

A couple of thing we need to bear in mind are these: D3 is not object-oriented and it’s a pretty complex library. We’re expecting some problems.

To have something to compare it to we may note, for example, that JQuery is basically a class ($) that exposes methods that returns other instances of the same class. That makes things easy enough when we try to use it from an OO language like Ruby.

Part I — The Setup

Following the tutorial, let’s setup the HTML page:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<meta charset="utf-8">
/* …uninteresting CSS from the tutorial here… */
<script src="http://d3js.org/d3.v3.min.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<script src="http://cdn.opalrb.org/opal/current/opal.js"></script>
<script src="http://cdn.opalrb.org/opal/current/native.js"></script>
<script src="http://cdn.opalrb.org/opal/current/opal-parser.js"></script>

<script type="text/ruby" src="./app.rb"></script>


As you probably have noted we added a couple of libraries from the Opal CDN.

First we added opal.js, that is the runtime and core library that are necessary to run code compiled with Opal.

Then there’s native.js that we’ll use to interact with native objects (more details in this other post).

And last we have opal-parser.js and app.rb (that is declared as type="text/ruby"). The parser will look for all script tags marked as text/ruby and will load, parse and run them.

In additon we’re also providing a data.tsv file as described in the tutorial.

Part II — Code Ungarbling

About the process of translating

The approach I used to translate this code is quite simple, I copy/pasted all the JavaScript from the tutorial into app.rb and commented it out. Then I translated one line (or sentence) at a time tackling errors as they came.

Using Native

The first thing we need to do is to wrap the d3 global object with Native, so that is ready for Ruby consumption.

d3 = Native(`window.d3`)

Now let’s look at the first chunk of code

original code:

var parseDate = d3.time.format("%d-%b-%y").parse;

var x = d3.time.scale()
    .range([0, width]);

var y = d3.scale.linear()
    .range([height, 0]);

var xAxis = d3.svg.axis()

var yAxis = d3.svg.axis()

converted code

d3 = Native(window.d3)
time  = d3[:time]
scale = d3[:scale]
svg   = d3[:svg]

date_parser = time.format("%d-%b-%y")

x = time.scale.range([0, width])
y = scale.linear.range([height, 0])

x_axis = svg.axis.scale(x).orient(:bottom)
y_axis = svg.axis.scale(y).orient(:left)

By trying to run this code we discover early on that somehow Native is failing to deliver calls via method missing.

The reason is that bridged classes are a kind of their own and turns out that D3 tends to return augmented anonymous functions and arrays. Now both Array and Proc are bridged classes. That means that they are the same as their JS counterparts: Array and Function.

Native will have no effect on bridged classes (no wrapping) and therefore all calls to properties added by D3 will end in calls on undefined.

To solve this we’ll manually expose the methods on those classes, the final code looks like this:

module Native::Exposer
  def expose(*methods)
    methods.each do |name|
      define_method name do |*args,&block|
        args << block if block_given?
        `return #{self}[#{name}].apply(#{self},#{args.to_n})`

Proc.extend Native::Exposer
Array.extend Native::Exposer

Proc.expose :range, :axis, :scale, :orient, :line, :x, :y, :parse, :domain
Array.expose :append, :attr, :call, :style, :text, :datum

The complete code can be found in this gist.

UPDATE: see the code in action on Ju-Jist, and read about building ju-jist in this article

A better solution

Let’s hope that in the future the Opal team (me included) will add method missing stubs1 to all bridged classes (instead of just adding them BasicObject).


We probably didn’t learn very much about how to use D3.js, but we discovered a bit of its internals, exposing an interesting style of JavaScript.

  1. (which is the underlying mechanism that powers method_missing support in Opal) 

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