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Programmable Matter

A dynamic data-driven document development environment (DDDDDE)

Did you ever wish your document editor were more like an IDE? Your IDE more like a spreadsheet? Your spreadsheet more like a database? No?

Programmable Matter is a "document development environment": a rich text document editor that supports embedded code. You can use code to assemble documents from components, generate documents from structured data, and even build simple UIs.

Like an IDE, it provides live feedback about your code (syntax highlighting, error reporting, code suggestions) and navigation of the document and code structure.

Like a spreadsheet, it provides live update of results as you make changes to documents, data, and code; and in the presence of code errors, the correct parts still run.

Like a database, it provides means of defining structured data tables and working with them through a uniform interface.

What's it good for?



Work in progress! Lots of unfinished parts, tons of bugs!


git clone
cd programmable-matter
npm install
npm run compile
npm run start

Platform support

I develop Programmable Matter on a Mac; it reportedly works OK on Linux but I haven't tried it myself. I suspect it does not work well on Windows (because I've been sloppy with some filesystem / path stuff) but I haven't tried it.

On Linux, in the keyboard shortcuts described below, read control for command and alt for option.


Programmable Matter screenshot

In Programmable Matter you work with a folder of documents. When you start PM you'll get an empty folder in a default location (you can change the location with the "Set data directory" menu option in the "File" menu).

Search pane

The left-hand pane side shows a list of documents. Type a string in the search box at the upper left to restrict the list to matching documents. To create a new document, type a document name in the search box, then press the + button; or just press enter if there are no matching documents.

To select a document from the list, click on it; or use the up/down arrow keys, then enter to move focus to the document editor. To delete a document, select it, then type option-delete. To rename a document, edit its name in the box to the right of the search box.

To hide or show the search pane, type option-command-B.

(TODO: document subfolder support)

Editor pane

The middle pane is a rich-text editor for the currently-selected document. Changes made to the document are saved to the filesystem automatically, and changes to the filesystem are applied to the document.

The editor supports the following keyboard shortcuts:

shortcut effect
command-B bold
command-I italic
command-U underlined
command-E monospaced
option-command-X strikethrough
option-command-0 paragraph
option-command-1 header level 1
option-command-2 header level 2
option-command-3 header level 3
option-command-4 header level 4
option-command-5 header level 5
option-command-6 header level 6
option-command-7 bullet list
option-command-8 numbered list
tab indent
shift-tab dedent
enter break
shift-enter soft break
command-enter hard break

A hard break breaks out of the current structure (list, code block, etc.); a soft break breaks the current line but stays inside the current structure; a regular break does one or the other depending on the current structure.

Additionally it supports the following short Markdown-like shortcuts (type a trailing space to expand):

shortcut effect
* / - / + bullet list
1. numbered list
# header level 1
## header level 2
### header level 3
#### header level 4
##### header level 5
###### header level 6
> blockquote
{{{ code block
**text** bold
*text* italic
~~text~~ strikethrough
^text^ superscript
_text_ subscript
`text` monospaced
{code} inline code span
[[url]] linked URL

Code blocks and inline code spans support a simple Typescript-like language, see Language below; code in these blocks is evaluated live and rendered into the document. Type errors in code are highlighted in red in the document editor; hover the mouse pointer over them to see the error message.

To show just the editor pane, press option-command-C; to return to the split view press option-command-S.

Display pane

The right-hand pane displays the rendered document, with code blocks and inline code spans evaluated and rendered. The document is re-rendered whenever it (or its dependencies) changes. Rendering skips code errors where possible; see Language below for details.

To show just the display pane, press option-command-D; to return to the split view press option-command-S.

(TODO: docs on layout mechanism)


Fair warning, there are lots of bugs and unfinished parts in the editor, and it's easy to trash a document. (I'm working on global undo, which will make it easier to recover when this happens---and also working on fixing the bugs of course.)


Code blocks and inline code spans support a simple Typescript-like language (I'll refer to it as TS-- here).

There are several design differences from actual Typescript:

  • TS-- evaluates reactively (like a spreadsheet): expressions are compiled and evaluated with respect to whatever state they depend on (documents and the code in them, and also transient in-memory state), and recompiled / reevaluated on demand when the state changes.

  • TS-- tolerates type errors: when an erroneous expression appears in a position that can accept undefined (e.g. an optional function argument or object field, the test of an if, a top-level rendered expression, etc.), it evaluates to undefined; in an arithmetic expression (e.g. 7 + <error>) the erroneous part is dropped (so 7 + <error> evaluates to 1); otherwise the error propagates to the enclosing expression (which may itself be in a position that can accept undefined). In all cases the error is highlighted in the editor, not silently ignored.

  • TS-- has sound typechecking (modulo bugs): there are no any types, casts, or other holes in the typesystem; and code that doesn't typecheck is not run.

  • TS-- restricts mutable state: state variables may be defined only at the top level of a document, and may only be mutated inside event handlers (currently this is not enforced). You can think of state in TS-- like a model in the Elm architecture, or a store in Redux. (However, TS-- does not enforce the action / command pattern; you can mutate state directly.) (I may add back a separate notion of "local" state to support imperative loops etc., but this would not interact with reactivity, it would just be another way to write an externally pure computation.)

  • TS-- doesn't have Typescript's expression / statement separation, everything is an expression (so e.g. you can use an if as a subexpression). However I'm currently using a stock Typescript parser (Babel) so there aren't many places where we can actually parse a statement in an expression position (I plan to change this).

There are lots of places where TS-- currently lacks parity with Typescript:

  • no parameterized types (I plan to support this)

  • no recursive types (I plan to support this)

  • no type-level computation (I probably won't support this in the user-accessible language but it might make sense for describing external libraries)

  • no class support (I probably won't add this, unless it's really necessary to interface with some external library)

  • no standard library (there is not much standard library in actual Typescript to begin with; I will probably add a richer standard library)

  • lots of other unimplemented bits

Rendering code blocks and inline code spans

Code blocks are parsed as Program nonterminals; top-level expressions in code blocks are rendered into the document. Code blocks may also contain imports, exports, and variable definitions, which are not rendered.

Inline code spans are parsed as Expression nonterminals and rendered into the document.

Expressions may be given in JSX syntax (returning a React.ReactElement). Components may be defined as functions (as in React) and used in JSX tags; however other aspects of React (hooks etc.) are not supported.

Rendered expressions must have type React.ReactNode; that is, they must be a string, number, boolean, null, undefined, React.ReactElement, or Array<React.ReactNode>.

Type-incorrect expressions are skipped when rendering.

Imports and exports

Top-level variable definitions may be exported and imported between documents as usual in Typescript; the file name in an import is the name of the document as shown in the document list pane.

Declaring state variables

A constant binding is defined as usual with

const x = 7


const x: number = 7

where the initializer may be any expression; however, a "constant" binding may still be dynamic, so e.g. the value of

const x = now % 1000

is the milliseconds part of the current time.

A mutable state variable is defined with

let x: Session<number> = 7


let x: Code<number> = 7

The type constructor syntax is used to specify the lifetime of the state: Session state is transient, in-memory state lasting for the lifetime of the user's session; Code state is persistent state stored in the code itself (changing its value updates the initializer).

The actual type of mutable state variables is given by the argument to the type constructor, so here it's just number. (When I get around to switching out the parser I plan to implement an annotation syntax here, e.g. @code or @session.)

The initializer of a mutable state variable must be a constant expression; it may not contain identifiers. (I plan to relax this to permit identifiers that name constant values.)

Mutable state variables may be updated with Typescript assignment syntax:

x = x + 1

or for a structured variable: = 7

Mutable variables may only be defined at the top level of a document.

Built-in functions and components

There is patchy support for the usual HTML tags in JSX, see src/lang/Render/initEnv if something you need is missing. (I'd like to find a way to use the actual Typescript definitions from React and CSSType.)



Fair warning, there are lots of bugs and unfinished parts in the compiler, and it's easy to trash a document.

(TODO: more detailed docs)

Preview server

There is a preview server running at localhost:3001; you can view the rendering of a document named foo through a web browser by visiting localhost:3001/foo. (There is no UI to change the port but you can change it, see src/server.ts.)

This is different from the display pane in that it compiles out static HTML and Javascript (which can be published to an external site, see Publishing below) rather than evaluating and rendering the document on demand. Not everything supported in the display pane is currently supported in compiled code (in particular, imports are not supported).

A document is not visible through the preview server unless its publish flag is set; there is no UI for this right now, but you can edit the file in the filesystem: look for the meta object and add a publish: true field to it.


It's possible to publish the current PM folder to Github Pages (see Publish Site in the File menu) but right now it is hard-coded to publish my personal web site (don't worry, you don't have my Github credentials). You can change this to point to your own Github Pages site (see src/ghPages.ts).

A document is not published unless its publish flag is set; there is no UI for this right now, but you can edit the file in the filesystem: look for the meta object and add a publish: true field to it.

File format

Documents are stored with a .pm extension in JSON format. The top-level object contains a nodes field, which is a list of nodes representing the document structure; and a meta field containing metadata about the document.

(TODO: docs on nodes and metadata)






A dynamic data-driven document development environment (DDDDDE)






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