Front End Web Development

Custom properties and @property

QuirksBlog - Wed, 07/21/2021 - 3:18am

You’re reading a failed article. I hoped to write about @property and how it is useful for extending CSS inheritance considerably in many different circumstances. Alas, I failed. @property turns out to be very useful for font sizes, but does not even approach the general applicability I hoped for.

Grandparent-inheriting

It all started when I commented on what I thought was an interesting but theoretical idea by Lea Verou: what if elements could inherit the font size of not their parent, but their grandparent? Something like this:

div.grandparent { /* font-size could be anything */ } div.parent { font-size: 0.4em; } div.child { font-size: [inherit from grandparent in some sort of way]; font-size: [yes, you could do 2.5em to restore the grandparent's font size]; font-size: [but that's not inheriting, it's just reversing a calculation]; font-size: [and it will not work if the parent's font size is also unknown]; }

Lea told me this wasn’t a vague idea, but something that can be done right now. I was quite surprised — and I assume many of my readers are as well — and asked for more information. So she wrote Inherit ancestor font-size, for fun and profit, where she explained how the new Houdini @property can be used to do this.

This was seriously cool. Also, I picked up a few interesting bits about how CSS custom properties and Houdini @property work. I decided to explain these tricky bits in simple terms — mostly because I know that by writing an explanation I myself will understand them better — and to suggest other possibilities for using Lea’s idea.

Alas, that last objective is where I failed. Lea’s idea can only be used for font sizes. That’s an important use case, but I had hoped for more. The reasons why it doesn’t work elsewhere are instructive, though.

Tokens and values

Let’s consider CSS custom properties. What if we store the grandparent’s font size in a custom property and use that in the child?

div.grandparent { /* font-size could be anything */ --myFontSize: 1em; } div.parent { font-size: 0.4em; } div.child { font-size: var(--myFontSize); /* hey, that's the grandparent's font size, isn't it? */ }

This does not work. The child will have the same font size as the parent, and ignore the grandparent. In order to understand why we need to understand how custom properties work. What does this line of CSS do?

--myFontSize: 1em;

It sets a custom property that we can use later. Well duh.

Sure. But what value does this custom property have?

... errr ... 1em?

Nope. The answer is: none. That’s why the code example doesn’t work.

When they are defined, custom properties do not have a value or a type. All that you ordered the browsers to do is to store a token in the variable --myFontSize.

This took me a while to wrap my head around, so let’s go a bit deeper. What is a token? Let’s briefly switch to JavaScript to explain.

let myVar = 10;

What’s the value of myVar in this line? I do not mean: what value is stored in the variable myVar, but: what value does the character sequence myVar have in that line of code? And what type?

Well, none. Duh. It’s not a variable or value, it’s just a token that the JavaScript engine interprets as “allow me to access and change a specific variable” whenever you type it.

CSS custom properties also hold such tokens. They do not have any intrinsic meaning. Instead, they acquire meaning when they are interpreted by the CSS engine in a certain context, just as the myVar token is in the JavaScript example.

So the CSS custom property contains the token 1em without any value, without any type, without any meaning — as yet.

You can use pretty any bunch of characters in a custom property definition. Browsers make no assumptions about their validity or usefulness because they don’t yet know what you want to do with the token. So this, too, is a perfectly fine CSS custom property:

--myEgoTrip: ppk;

Browsers shrug, create the custom property, and store the indicated token. The fact that ppk is invalid in all CSS contexts is irrelevant: we haven’t tried to use it yet.

It’s when you actually use the custom property that values and types are assigned. So let’s use it:

background-color: var(--myEgoTrip);

Now the CSS parser takes the tokens we defined earlier and replaces the custom property with them:

background-color: ppk;

And only NOW the tokens are read and intrepreted. In this case that results in an error: ppk is not a valid value for background-color. So the CSS declaration as a whole is invalid and nothing happens — well, technically it gets the unset value, but the net result is the same. The custom property itself is still perfectly valid, though.

The same happens in our original code example:

div.grandparent { /* font-size could be anything */ --myFontSize: 1em; /* just a token; no value, no meaning */ } div.parent { font-size: 0.4em; } div.child { font-size: var(--myFontSize); /* becomes */ font-size: 1em; /* hey, this is valid CSS! */ /* Right, you obviously want the font size to be the same as the parent's */ /* Sure thing, here you go */ }

In div.child he tokens are read and interpreted by the CSS parser. This results in a declaration font-size: 1em;. This is perfectly valid CSS, and the browsers duly note that the font size of this element should be 1em.

font-size: 1em is relative. To what? Well, to the parent’s font size, of course. Duh. That’s how CSS font-size works.

So now the font size of the child becomes the same as its parent’s, and browsers will proudly display the child element’s text in the same font size as the parent element’s while ignoring the grandparent.

This is not what we wanted to achieve, though. We want the grandparent’s font size. Custom properties — by themselves — don’t do what we want. We have to find another solution.

@property

Lea’s article explains that other solution. We have to use the Houdini @property rule.

@property --myFontSize { syntax: "<length>"; initial-value: 0; inherits: true; } div { border: 1px solid; padding: 1em; } div.grandparent { /* font-size could be anything */ --myFontSize: 1em; } div.parent { font-size: 0.4em; } div.child { font-size: var(--myFontSize); }

Now it works. Wut? Yep — though only in Chrome so far.

@property --myFontSize { syntax: ""; initial-value: 0; inherits: true; } section.example { max-width: 500px; } section.example div { border: 1px solid; padding: 1em; } div.grandparent { font-size: 23px; --myFontSize: 1em; } div.parent { font-size: 0.4em; } div.child { font-size: var(--myFontSize); } This is the grandparent This is the parent This is the child

What black magic is this?

Adding the @property rule changes the custom property --myFontSize from a bunch of tokens without meaning to an actual value. Moreover, this value is calculated in the context it is defined in — the grandfather — so that the 1em value now means 100% of the font size of the grandfather. When we use it in the child it still has this value, and therefore the child gets the same font size as the grandfather, which is exactly what we want to achieve.

(The variable uses a value from the context it’s defined in, and not the context it’s executed in. If, like me, you have a grounding in basic JavaScript you may hear “closures!” in the back of your mind. While they are not the same, and you shouldn’t take this apparent equivalency too far, this notion still helped me understand. Maybe it’ll help you as well.)

Unfortunately I do not quite understand what I’m doing here, though I can assure you the code snippet works in Chrome — and will likely work in the other browsers once they support @property.

Misson completed — just don’t ask me how.

Syntax

You have to get the definition right. You need all three lines in the @property rule. See also the specification and the MDN page.

@property --myFontSize { syntax: "<length>"; initial-value: 0; inherits: true; }

The syntax property tells browsers what kind of property it is and makes parsing it easier. Here is the list of possible values for syntax, and in 99% of the cases one of these values is what you need.

You could also create your own syntax, e.g. syntax: "ppk | <length>"

Now the ppk keyword and any sort of length is allowed as a value.

Note that percentages are not lengths — one of the many things I found out during the writing of this article. Still, they are so common that a special value for “length that may be a percentage or may be calculated using percentages” was created:

syntax: "<length-percentage>"

Finally, one special case you need to know about is this one:

syntax: "*"

MDN calls this a universal selector, but it isn’t, really. Instead, it means “I don’t know what syntax we’re going to use” and it tells browsers not to attempt to interpret the custom property. In our case that would be counterproductive: we definitely want the 1em to be interpreted. So our example doesn’t work with syntax: "*".

initial-value and inherits

An initial-value property is required for any syntax value that is not a *. Here that’s simple: just give it an initial value of 0 — or 16px, or any absolute value. The value doesn’t really matter since we’re going to overrule it anyway. Still, a relative value such as 1em is not allowed: browsers don’t know what the 1em would be relative to and reject it as an initial value.

Finally, inherits: true specifies that the custom property value can be inherited. We definitely want the computed 1em value to be inherited by the child — that’s the entire point of this experiment. So we carefully set this flag to true.

Other use cases

So far this article merely rehashed parts of Lea’s. Since I’m not in the habit of rehashing other people’s articles my original plan was to add at least one other use case. Alas, I failed, though Lea was kind enough to explain why each of my ideas fails.

Percentage of what?

Could we grandfather-inherit percentual margins and paddings? They are relative to the width of the parent of the element you define them on, and I was wondering if it might be useful to send the grandparent’s margin on to the child just like the font size. Something like this:

@property --myMargin { syntax: "<length-percentage>"; initial-value: 0; inherits: true; } div.grandparent { --myMargin: 25%; margin-left: var(--myMargin); } div.parent { font-size: 0.4em; } div.child { margin-left: var(--myMargin); /* should now be 25% of the width of the grandfather's parent */ /* but isn't */ }

Alas, this does not work. Browsers cannot resolve the 25% in the context of the grandparent, as they did with the 1em, because they don’t know what to do.

The most important trick for using percentages in CSS is to always ask yourself: “percentage of WHAT?”

That’s exactly what browsers do when they encounter this @property definition. 25% of what? The parent’s font size? Or the parent’s width? (This is the correct answer, but browsers have no way of knowing that.) Or maybe the width of the element itself, for use in background-position?

Since browsers cannot figure out what the percentage is relative to they do nothing: the custom property gets the initial value of 0 and the grandfather-inheritance fails.

Colours

Another idea I had was using this trick for the grandfather’s text colour. What if we store currentColor, which always has the value of the element’s text colour, and send it on to the grandchild? Something like this:

@property --myColor { syntax: "<color>"; initial-value: black; inherits: true; } div.grandparent { /* color unknown */ --myColor: currentColor; } div.parent { color: red; } div.child { color: var(--myColor); /* should now have the same color as the grandfather */ /* but doesn't */ }

Alas, this does not work either. When the @property blocks are evaluated, and 1em is calculated, currentColor specifically is not touched because it is used as an initial (default) value for some inherited SVG and CSS properties such as fill. Unfortunately I do not fully understand what’s going on, but Tab says this behaviour is necessary, so it is.

Pity, but such is life. Especially when you’re working with new CSS functionalities.

Conclusion

So I tried to find more possbilities for using Lea’s trick, but failed. Relative units are fairly sparse, especially when you leave percentages out of the equation. em and related units such as rem are the only ones, as far as I can see.

So we’re left with a very useful trick for font sizes. You should use it when you need it (bearing in mind that right now it’s only supported in Chromium-based browsers), but extending it to other declarations is not possible at the moment.

Many thanks to Lea Verou and Tab Atkins for reviewing and correcting an earlier draft of this article.

Let&#8217;s talk about money

QuirksBlog - Tue, 06/29/2021 - 1:23am

Let’s talk about money!

Let’s talk about how hard it is to pay small amounts online to people whose work you like and who could really use a bit of income. Let’s talk about how Coil aims to change that.

Taking a subscription to a website is moderately easy, but the person you want to pay must have enabled them. Besides, do you want to purchase a full subscription in order to read one or two articles per month?

Sending a one-time donation is pretty easy as well, but, again, the site owner must have enabled them. And even then it just gives them ad-hoc amounts that they cannot depend on.

Then there’s Patreon and Kickstarter and similar systems, but Patreon is essentially a subscription service while Kickstarter is essentially a one-time donation service, except that both keep part of the money you donate.

And then there’s ads ... Do we want small content creators to remain dependent on ads and thus support the entire ad ecosystem? I, personally, would like to get rid of them.

The problem today is that all non-ad-based systems require you to make conscious decisions to support someone — and even if you’re serious about supporting them you may forget to send in a monthly donation or to renew your subscription. It sort-of works, but the user experience can be improved rather dramatically.

That’s where Coil and the Web Monetization Standard come in.

Web Monetization

The idea behind Coil is that you pay for what you consume easily and automatically. It’s not a subscription - you only pay for what you consume. It’s not a one-time donation, either - you always pay when you consume.

Payments occur automatically when you visit a website that is also subscribed to Coil, and the amount you pay to a single site owner depends on the time you spend on the site. Coil does not retain any of your money, either — everything goes to the people you support.

In this series of four articles we’ll take a closer look at the architecture of the current Coil implementation, how to work with it right now, the proposed standard, and what’s going to happen in the future.

Overview

So how does Coil work right now?

Both the payer and the payee need a Coil account to send and receive money. The payee has to add a <meta> tag with a Coil payment pointer to all pages they want to monetize. The payer has to install the Coil extension in their browsers. You can see this extension as a polyfill. In the future web monetization will, I hope, be supported natively in all browsers.

Once that’s done the process works pretty much automatically. The extension searches for the <meta> tag on any site the user visits. If it finds one it starts a payment stream from payer to payee that continues for as long as the payer stays on the site.

The payee can use the JavaScript API to interact with the monetization stream. For instance, they can show extra content to paying users, or keep track of how much a user paid so far. Unfortunately these functionalities require JavaScript, and the hiding of content is fairly easy to work around. Thus it is not yet suited for serious business purposes, especially in web development circles.

This is one example of how the current system is still a bit rough around the edges. You’ll find more examples in the subsequent articles. Until the time browsers support the standard natively and you can determine your visitors’ monetization status server-side these rough bits will continue to exist. For the moment we will have to work with the system we have.

This article series will discuss all topics we touched on in more detail.

Start now!

For too long we have accepted free content as our birthright, without considering the needs of the people who create it. This becomes even more curious for articles and documentation that are absolutely vital to our work as web developers.

Take a look at this list of currently-monetized web developer sites. Chances are you’ll find a few people whose work you used in the past. Don’t they deserve your direct support?

Free content is not a right, it’s an entitlement. The sooner we internalize this, and start paying independent voices, the better for the web.

The only alternative is that all articles and documentation that we depend on will written by employees of large companies. And employees, no matter how well-meaning, will reflect the priorities and point of view of their employer in the long run.

So start now.

In order to support them you should invest a bit of time once and US$5 per month permanently. I mean, that’s not too much to ask, is it?

Continue

I wrote this article and its sequels for Coil, and yes, I’m getting paid. Still, I believe in what they are doing, so I won’t just spread marketing drivel. Initially it was unclear to me exactly how Coil works. So I did some digging, and the remaining parts of this series give a detailed description of how Coil actually works in practice.

For now the other three articles will only be available on dev.to. I just published part 2, which gives a high-level overview of how Coil works right now. Part 3 will describe the meta tag and the JavaScript API, and in part 4 we’ll take a look at the future, which includes a formal W3C standard. Those parts will be published next week and the week after that.

Wed, 12/31/1969 - 2:00pm
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