Markdown UI

January 30, 2021·8 minute read
Since a few years ago the idea of a Second Brain has been resonating with me. The capability to store an infinite amount of information interesting to me and be able to sort it, categorize it and create relations between items, lets you increase the knowledge in many topics in this world and improve day by day.
After trying and evaluate many solutions out there like Workflowy, Notion and now Obsidian, it is clear to me that the best approach to store this kind of information is simple Markdown files. The simplicity and the capability to backup it somewhere is the main reason to follow this way.

But coming from Notion, I miss some nice features like kanban views, calendars, or tables. Something that doesn't come out of the box in the Markdown spec.

One cool approach to store complex information in markdowns is by the block of code prefixed by ```. You have seen this popular syntax in many source control platforms to show syntax highlighting of different programing languages.

Goal

In this post, I want to explore and experiment with the possibilities of using this approach to render more rich components to show plain text, like the one required to model a simple interactive table.

The goal after interact with the UI is to be able to store back to plain text into markdown files and close the cycle. This idea is not new and it is implemented in other places like Github todos, kanbans or complex UML diagrams. To shine with this small project, I wanted to play with some technology new to me like WASM.

To understand the project vision you can check the conceptual lifecycle of the information in the followin diagram:

Markdown UI lifecycle
Also, I wanted to refresh my knowledge about lexers and parsers, taking the opportunity to implement them in Rust.

First step: Parsing

To be able to validate the idea and achieve the minimum viable product, we will take the easiest example to play with. We are going to build an interactive markdown table. All values in this table will be floats. This is an example of the content:

First of all, we need a grammar, similar to CSV structure, and we are going to use Parsing Expression Grammar (PEG). This grammar could be implemented in Javascript with a library like pegjs, but since we are implementing this step in Rust, we are going to use pest-rs crate.
The grammar needs to support floats for each one of the cells, called in this case Field. Then, a list of floats separated by commas will form the rows of the table, in this case, called Record. Then a File will be a list of Record separated by break lines:
We need to understand that this grammar doesn't include the classic Markdown code fence (```) because this responsibility belongs to the parent Markdown parser.

Once we have a nice grammar definition, we can use it to build the parser. Pest is going to build all the utility modules to be able to parse the incoming data to abstract syntax tree nodes.

First, it generates the required Enum's to be able to differentiate the parsed tokens.

On the other hand, it will also generate a parser to build the correct tree of nodes:

If we run this code with the test.csv as input, we are going to get:

Second step: Render

Now that we have the required structures to keep the AST of the table, we are going to send them as objects to Javascript world. Those objects will be the source that will feed some UI built on top of libraries like React or Vue. In this case, we are going to follow the React path.
Those DTO's will be represented by Rust structs that will hold the information parsed in previous steps. To be able to go from WASM to Javascript, we need to add Serialize and Deserialize traits to our structures.
Thanks to wasm-bindgen and wasm-pack, we are able to build a package that includes a declaration of a parse function that can be called from Javascript world:
This function will return JsValue's with a representation of our Field and Record structures. Those objects will be used to render a nice and interactive UI build on top of React.

Third step: Interaction

Now that we are able to render the parsed content, we can continue adding a bit of interactivity to the view. You can imagine whatever nice use case for your widget. From adding buttons, drag and drop, calendars, etc.

For demo purposes, we are going to add just a button to add new rows to the table.

This button will modify the internal state of Javascript objects that represents those records and the UI will react accordingly. As an example, we are going to as to the user a new row of float numbers to be added to the table:

Fourth step: Serialization

Finally, the last step in this cycle is to serialize the React state back to Markdown plain text. To do this, we will call again a WASM function to compute this. With this approach, we encapsulate all the logic about parsing and serializing in the same WASM module. To achieve this, we are going to code the store function and expose it to wasm_bindgen:

Then, we call this new function from React passing as argument all rows in the table from the state:

And we get the final goal of new Markdown 🎉 for this dynamic table component:

Conclusion

We went through all the steps required to parse arbitrary data to feed a reactive UI and close the cycle back to text. As we said, the possibilities of this approach for markdown documentation or more rich second brains are endless.

To see a working demo widget, check the widget below:

Markdown UI - Table

Markdown

React

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You can find the demo source code here

In a next post we are going to implement an interactive kanban board with tasks following the same strategy as this one. Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading me and to all people that helped me to polish this article!

Happy hacking!


Ferran Basora

Hi there 👋, I’m Ferran Basora, Software Engineer. I write thisblog, buildFactorial and publish the best I read onTwitter.

We need a tool™ #rust, #opensource, #security, #webperf

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