Archive for the 'Beautiful Code' Category

Another reason to love Ruby…

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Nyan cat tests your code

How we work

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

We have published a bit more information about how we work – our Beautiful Code doctrine, the process that we follow and how we convert your ideas into tangible features.


Thursday, February 24th, 2011

One of the greatest things about RSpec is that the specifications you write not only prove that your code is doing what it should be doing, but also it provides a starting point for your technical documentation.

Which means you are secure enough in your development to add functionality like this:

ApplicationHelper greeting
- should say 'morning' between 4am and 12pm
- should say 'afternoon' between 12pm and 5pm
- should say 'evening' between 5pm and 9pm
- should say 'night' between 9pm and 4am

One of those tiny details that most people won’t even notice – but makes a subliminal impression on your users (in this case, greeting them with a “Good morning” or “Good evening” depending upon the time).

Favourite code

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

I think Bigwig has become my favourite bit of code that I’ve ever worked on.

Before Bigwig, it was Object Factory, before that it was a Delphi class that I used to create tree-structured data (imaginatively called TNode).

Bigwig’s doesn’t have a test suite and it’s not even my code – it was started by David Smalley and has contributions from Caius Durling and the rest of the Brightbox team.

But there’s just something about it – it’s a daemon (start it running and forget about it); it’s been running in production for months without a single glitch; and probably most importantly, the code is so simple that there’s almost nothing to it.

Free Software and Brightbox

Monday, March 9th, 2009

I’ve just done a quick post at the Brightbox blog detailing their use of free and open source software and showing some of the free Brightbox projects.

In particular, Warren & Bigwig and Object Factory could be of use to many people and are probably worth a look.

MVC: A brief history of Models, Views and Controllers

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Any web-developer Rubyist knows about models, views and controllers. The MVC paradigm is embedded in the structure of Rails and Merb and encouraged by Ramaze and Sinatra. If you’re a Mac developer or an iPhone bod then MVC is common practice there as well. Same goes for Sproutcore and even Microsoft is getting in on the act.

But where does MVC come from?

Well, like most things I enjoy in the world of software development, MVC has its roots in Smalltalk. However, things used to look slightly different to the MVC we know and love. In Smalltalk, the basic Object has a feature known as “dependencies” built-in; nowadays, we would call this the observer pattern. Basically, any object can register an interest in any other object and will be notified whenever the target changes.

target addDependent: listener.

Later, when something changes within target, it can decide to notify all its dependents (observers):

self changed: #SomeArbitraryMessage.

and the listener has its update: aSymbol method called.

Building this notification mechanism right into the core of the system means that it can be used everywhere – especially when designing user-interfaces (remember, Smalltalk was the GUI for the Xerox Star, which his Steveness bought and adapted for the Lisa). Models were the system components, the pieces of the system that actually do the work. Views represented portions of the screen and controllers represented the keyboard and the mouse. These parts were arranged as follows:

MVC in Smalltalk

MVC in Smalltalk

The view would add itself as a dependent to the model and display the relevant aspects of the model on-screen. The user would see this, manipulate it via the mouse and keyboard, which triggers the controller. The controller sends messages to the model, which triggers its notifications, prompting the dependent view to redraw itself. In other words, the controller and view are independent objects that know nothing about each other – the only tie between them is the controller’s knowledge of the model and the dependency mechanism.

Contrast this to the MVC we know today:

MVC in Rails

MVC in Rails

Here the user pokes the controller, which in turn sends messages to the model. The model does its thing and then the controller extracts the relevant information and passes it to the view, which is then rendered to the user. In this manner, the controller lives up to its name, orchestrating the entire cycle – and is the centre of all the coupling (as it knows about the view and the model).

So why did things change (first in Smalltalk and then the following MVC frameworks)?

The first problem is that the controller takes input and the view handles output – as separate objects. Which, especially for desktop applications, doesn’t really work; if you click on a text-field you expect different behaviour to clicking on a scrollbar.

Secondly, imagine an array of models being shown in a list box. The list box has the concept of a current selection. So your array model (a model of models) needs to have a current selection, so that the view knows which is which. But what if the same list is rendered in two places at the same time. If you point both views at the same array model, they would both share the same selection properties. So you actually end up with something more like:

Getting Complicated

Getting Complicated

As you can see it gets nasty pretty quickly. And actually the controller is simply passing its messages directly through to the array model which is actually doing the routing of the other messages – the controller is pretty much redundant.

So if you swap things around, merge the controller and array model (into some sort of array controller) and then add multiple array controllers – one per view – to deal with the selection issue, suddenly you have the newer style object layout. Requests go into one of the controllers, it routes it to the model, then parcels up the results and invokes the view.

Evolution in action.

The curious case of beauty in Ruby (or Rails vs Merb part 2)

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

I’m sure you’ve all heard the Rails 3 announcement. When I first found out my initial reaction was “fuck me“. But shortly after I was filled with a feeling of dread and general unease. And I didn’t know why ….

Firstly, a bit of history.

I first tried programming on a Commodore Vic 20, and then after that a C64. C64 BASIC was very simple – if you wanted to do anything beyond PRINT statements you needed to POKE values into registers and control the hardware directly. Great for learning how things actually worked. And, to be fair, I was shit at it.

But I do remember reading an article on a system called “Smalltalk” and its “Object Oriented Programming”. Suddenly, programming made sense. It read a bit like English. You sent messages to the thing that knows how to answer your question. It was like talking to people. You ask Dave a football question. You ask George a music question. Cos Dave knows crap all about music and George knows nothing about football.

But, in those days, Smalltalk cost a fortune; there was no way a child like me could get hold of a Smalltalk environment. So instead, I got hold of Turbo Pascal 6 With Objects (thanks Dad). It was not Smalltalk but it read a bit like English and it had objects. I played about with Turbo Pascal, went to university (where I didn’t do computing but did do some C++) and then got a job doing Delphi (Turbo Pascal for the 90s). This object-oriented stuff really worked for me; I put a lot of effort into writing classes that had really simple public interfaces and with code that read like English. And Pascal (the language underlying Delphi) was great for that. Then I discovered Java, which meant I could write Delphi-like code but with having to deal with memory management. I also discovered PHP, Python and Ruby. None of which clicked with me; dynamic typing made me nervous (and PHP and Ruby seemed a bit ugly).

However, I needed an ORM for a Delphi project and I thought I should try to copy an open source project. Whilst searching I discovered Rails and thought “this is the one to copy”. But a day into my “copy ActiveRecord into Delphi” plan I thought “this is just like Smalltalk”. Why make an inferior copy when I can use something that’s not far off the Holy Grail. Writing an application on Rails had the same effect on me as my original discovery of Smalltalk – it read like English, it felt fantastic. So I gave up on Delphi and became a Rails programmer.

What I liked about Rails was its emphasis on happiness. When I wrote Rails code I felt like I was writing beautiful prose. I would go back and refactor it until it read correctly. This was not like pure Ruby, which was often ugly. No; Rails had this idea about beauty in code that really got me excited. It made me happy. It also made decisions for me – put your code here, test it like this, set up your database this way. But Rails had performance problems – so Merb was born. A ground-up rewrite of many of Rails’ ideas but with an emphasis on configurability and performance.

Maybe it’s the Engine Yard connection (I turned Engine Yard down for a job because it didn’t “feel right”) – and now I work for Brightbox, one of their competitors – but for some reason, every time I tried Merb I just couldn’t get into it. It was weird. Structurally and functionally it was the same as Rails – but it was Rails plus performance plus options. And I didn’t like it. I never got past the tutorials. Merb emphasises clear and understandable code and was tested with RSpec (which I love). Rails is hard to understand and uses Test::Unit (which is ugly). But I love Rails and I can’t get into Merb. I just couldn’t figure out why.

Until today.

Mr Hanson did a blog post on his first piece of Rails-Merb integration. And something stood out at me. As he was describing Merb’s provides/display functionality I noticed that I didn’t really “get it”. provides made sense, but how does that relate to display. Mr H addresses that directly:

There were a couple of drawbacks with the provides/display duo, though, that we could deal with at the same time. The first was the lack of symmetry in the method names. The words “provides” and “display” doesn’t reflect their close relationship and if you throw in the fact that they’re actually both related to rendering, it’s gets even more muddy.

And then he describes the Rails 3 version of the same functionality. Instead of provides/display it becomes respond_to/respond_with. In particular display @users becomes respond_with @users.

It’s only a tiny thing. Logically and functionally, they are exactly the same. But DHH’s version has an emphasis on the words that are used. How they couple together (display/provide versus respond_to/respond_with).

And there is the reason that I was uneasy about Rails 3. What if Rails lost this emphasis on the human factors – how the words mesh together – in the search of performance. Merb is written functionally, Rails is written emotionally – Merb is about performance, Rails is about feelings.

But DHH has made me feel much better about Rails 3 – he has shown that he will take Merb constructs and Railsify them, humanise them. Because, although code is executed by computers, it is written, and more importantly, read by people like me.

If you find this useful then please take a look at some of my other writing – or recommend me on Working with Rails. Cheers.

Acceptance Testing in Ruby, Rails, RSpec and Cucumber

Friday, November 21st, 2008

I’ve written up a new post at the Brightbox blog detailing how we are using RSpec and Cucumber to build acceptance tests for the next generation Brightbox systems.

Loading the MySQL drivers into GNU Smalltalk

Friday, November 14th, 2008

It’s an unfortunate fact that many Open Source projects have documentation that is sadly lacking. A case in point is GNU Smalltalk.

Smalltalk is one of my favourite languages but a decent Smalltalk implementation that fits with your native window manager is hard to find. The point of GNU Smalltalk is that it works “headlessly” (Smalltalk invented the graphical user-interface and the integrated development environment so this is quite a departure), so I can still use my favourite text editor and run stuff from the command line. Just like Ruby!

However, it’s taken me a couple of hours to figure out how to simply connect to a database. But now I have, here it is:

  • Install GNU Smalltalk (in my case using MacPorts):
    sudo port install gst
  • Start GNU Smalltalk and create a working image:
    cd /Users/rahoulb/source/st
    st> ObjectMemory snapshot: ''.
  • Ctrl-D to exit Smalltalk and then restart using your new image:
    gst -I
  • Load the DBI database driver:
    st> PackageLoader fileInPackage: 'DBI'.
    Load the MySQL driver:
    st> PackageLoader fileInPackage: 'DBD-MySQL'.
    Save your image so you don’t need to reload these packages again:
    st> ObjectMemory snapshot.
  • Open a connection to your database:
    st>con:= DBI.Connection connect: 'dbi:MySQL:dbname=mydatabase' user: 'myuser' password: 'mypassword'.
    Grab some data:
    st>results:= con select: 'select name from customers limit 10;'
  • Bask in the glory of your data

Showing the Git branch in your bash prompt

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Safe and Secure - Image by frko:

Safe and Secure - Image by frko:

My first adventure in source control was many years ago. It was my first proper job and I was the sole developer in a tiny company. To keep the source code safe, it was all stored on a network share, and the file server was backed up at least once a day.

The problems started when two other developers joined the team. Within a week we repeatedly had the issue of two people editing the same file at the same time and one of them losing their changes. So we devised our own source control system. Every file had a piece of cardboard with its name written on it, about 2cm by 10cm. These were stuck, with blu-tak, to a wall. If anyone wanted to edit a file they must stand up, go to the board, take the piece of cardboard for that particular file and stick it to their monitor. So we had an at a glance view of who was working on what and also made sure that the files were kept safe.

Since then I’ve used Visual Sourcesafe (don’t laugh). To my mind, it’s not completely awful, but I could never get my head around branching and merging. I then moved to Subversion which is both incredibly simple to use and free. And I understood branching and merging, but it was just a bit too long-winded to use.

However now I, like all the Rails-kids, use git. Which is both great and awful. It’s taken me weeks to even begin to get my head around it. I still lose code every now and then. But it’s so easy to branch and merge; for the first time, branching is an integral part of the way I work. There is danger in branching though. With svn it’s easy to see which branch you are in – it’s the folder name. In git, it’s not so easy.

So, my extremely smart colleague, David Smalley, showed me this amendment to your .bashrc (or in my case .profile):

function parse_git_branch {
  git branch --no-color 2> /dev/null | sed -e '/^[^*]/d' -e 's/* \(.*\)/(\1)/'
export PS1="\u@\h:\w\$(parse_git_branch)\$ "

The function asks git which branch we are currently in. We then set PS1, the variable for the command prompt, asking it to show the username, host, path and branch.

So, if you are not in a git-managed folder you see:


And if you are in a git-managed folder you see:


So now you have no excuse!

Photo by frko