Doing Web Design

Is there a word to describe the work we do when we're sifting through GitHub issues, pull requests, release notes, [StackOverflow] posts, etc of multiple different projects to find the root cause(s) of bugs or features? I've seen "archaeology", but not sure that fits exactly. – @tylergaw

A couple nominations coming from that thread:

I sort-of jokingly called it “web design”:

when "GitHub issues and SO posts" were "forum posts and individual weblogs" we called this "web design" — @jimniels

I had just finished doing work like this for a personal project and decided I’d blog about it for fun.

The Problem

I use Metalsmith as my static site generator (❤️ you Metalsmith). In my setup, every blog post is a markdown file with YAML front matter. In that markdown, I have a date value:

title: This is my blog post
date: 2020-12-20

The way Metalsmith works is it parses all the files in a directory on disk and, in essence, gives me back a giant array of objects where each object represents the contents of that file (along with meta info). What’s neat is the YAML front matter gets turned into data I can access in JavaScript, i.e. file.title or Given the example markdown file above, I get back something like this:

  title: "This is my blog post", // string
  date: 2020-12-20-T00:00:00Z // Date

Note that the date is not a string. It is a Date object in JavaScript. I don’t know how, but somehow, somewhere, that string in my markdown file is getting converted to a Date object and I actually don’t want it to. I want the raw value as a string. So where is that magic happening? Is there something in the bowels of metalsmith that is trying to smartly parse the YAML front matter? Like, it sees the key date and says “ah ok, I’ll go ahead and turn that into a Date for you”?

I want to understand what’s happening here.

Reading the API Docs

First, I go to Metalsmith’s Github page to see if there’s a configuration option for something like “smart date detection”.

Nope, nothing. This is all there is:


Set whether to parse YAML frontmatter. Defaults to true.

The docs say there’s a frontmatter method you can call on the Metalsmith instance and pass it a boolean that will configure whether to parse any YAML front matter at all. In theory I can turn that off, but that won’t solely stop the date value from becoming a string, it will keep all YAML front matter from becoming anything. I’ll have no metadata associated with each markdown file. That’s not what I want.

In a way, this is a possible bailout point for me. I can bailout here and tell Metalsmith to stop parsing YAML front matter and instead custom roll my own YAML parsing for each file that keeps date as a string. But that seems excessive. I figure I’ll look for other solutions. Since the Metalsmith docs don’t say anything about how or why date values are parsed, I figure I’ll look at the the project’s source code and find out for myself.

Reading Source Code

Under the hood in Metalsmith, I find the implementation for parsing front matter surprisingly straightforward. It leverages a library, so the implementation is essentially one line of code:

var parsed = require("gray-matter")(fs.readFile(file).toString())

That’s it. That’s all there is, which of course means I have to look at gray-matter and its documentation for insight into YAML date parsing.

In gray-matter, I don’t see anything documented about dates and date parsing. So I figure it must not be a configurable option? Even if it is, that library is being invoked within the Metalsmith library which does not surface any of those implementation details in its API. That means even if gray-matter provides an option like { smartDateDetection: false }, I can’t use it unless I fork the Metalsmith repo and adjust its source code myself—which I refuse to do.

Nonetheless, I am still curious. I look through the gray-matter project more. A CMD+F search on the README doesn’t yield any matches for “date”. Before diving into reading the source code, I decide to try and save time by searching for “date” in the Github project’s issues.

Reading Project Issues

After filtering through a few issues, I find this issue titled “Disable date parsing?” I feel that dopamine hit one gets when a discussion online matches your problem keywords precisely—“oh yeah, this has got to be it!” As I read the thread, I discover this interesting tidbit:

gray-matter doesn't do the actual yaml parsing itself. It passes that off to js-yaml by default.

I’ve got a library invoking a library invoking a library. It’s JavaScript for node, so granted, it’s libraries all the way down. “All the way down to what,” you might ask? The bedrock: the library that implements the YAML spec:

Also, according to this issue, it looks like the date parsing is in the YAML spec.

This is confirmed by a parallel Google search I have in another tab which has led me to a post titled “The incomparable JavaScript” stating:

to parse the frontmatter, Metalsmith calls gray-matter which calls js-yaml, which makes a brave effort to parse dates

That brave effort is to use this regex:

var YAML_DATE_REGEXP = new RegExp(
  '^([0-9][0-9][0-9][0-9])'          + // [1] year
  '-([0-9][0-9])'                    + // [2] month
  '-([0-9][0-9])$');                   // [3] day

  '^([0-9][0-9][0-9][0-9])'          + // [1] year
  '-([0-9][0-9]?)'                   + // [2] month
  '-([0-9][0-9]?)'                   + // [3] day
  '(?:[Tt]|[ \\t]+)'                 + // ...
  '([0-9][0-9]?)'                    + // [4] hour
  ':([0-9][0-9])'                    + // [5] minute
  ':([0-9][0-9])'                    + // [6] second
  '(?:\\.([0-9]*))?'                 + // [7] fraction
  '(?:[ \\t]*(Z|([-+])([0-9][0-9]?)' + // [8] tz [9] tz_sign [10] tz_hour
  '(?::([0-9][0-9]))?))?$');           // [11] tz_minute

Reading the Spec

You know you’ve gone deep on a problem when you end up at the spec—and here I am.

A cursory glance at the YAML spec says “untagged nodes are given a type depending on the application.” It then gives examples with integers, floats, and timestamps:

Example 2.22. Timestamps

canonical: 2001-12-15T02:59:43.1Z
iso8601: 2001-12-14t21:59:43.10-05:00
spaced: 2001-12-14 21:59:43.10 -5
date: 2002-12-14


I now have my answer: the date value in my YAML front matter, which is a string, is getting converted into a date object in JavaScript because metalsmith is invoking gray-matter which is invoking js-yaml which is following the spec which says to do so. If I used YAML in any capacity on a regular basis, I’d likely know this already, but now I know.

Imagine doing this every single day multiple times a day. You now know what it’s like to do this incredibly broad thing I call web design.