Jumping on the Rails

June 21, 2009

Well on my journey to improve my programming skills & again purely because I’ve been getting tired of using PHP for all my solutions, I recently decided to delve into Rails.

I’d been pointed to it by Ekerete Akpan an old work collegue who uses it quite extensively with his own projects.

I’d resisted from learning the language initially primarily down to the fact that the language seemed to be quite basic, in that I was correct, something I’m regretting as I find it now to be one of the best features.

I initally wanted to create a frontend for Chatterl, using ActiveResource. After fighting with it for a week or so, I ended up scrapping that notion and moving on to another project idea I had kept aside for a little while (Solvius).

I won’t go into detail on the goals of Solvius as the site is already live & a brief summary of the webapp can be found here.

The first thing I did was get my self a copy of The Rails way, I have to say I’ve not used the book much over the past month but it was indepensible when it came to helping me learn the basics. I had also picked up copies of ‘Agile Web Development with Rails‘ & ‘Rails for PHP Developers‘, though these proved to be little help & ended up being frustrating reads as they both presumed the reader had basic knowledge of programming methodologies.

By this time I had built the basic functionality of Solvius, allowing users to join the site and create and solve problems, using the active as authenticated plugin. My journey was far from over, I wanted to add ReCaptcha & a little JQuery to the mix. I got a little excited thinking that I could get my hands dirty but low and behold there were plugins for both of these features also :D. Such things are a rarity in the PHP world and having spent a great deal of time there, the PHP side of me felt robbed, whilst the code monkey in me was pleased that I could deal with more direct problems.

All though my inital experience was a pleasant one, I wanted to improve on it further. I’ve been using TDD for a while and played around with Test::Unit for a bit but wasn’t really happy using it, I decided to go for my next book purchase ‘The RSpec Book‘. I have to say reading that was an eye opener, not only from a BDD newbie stand point but also from a coders point of  view, the book helped to improve my coding style and gave me a few cool ideas to play around with when I get the chance.

I started introducing RSpec & cucumber into Solvius about a week ago & already started to reap the benefits, primarily being able to implement functionality from a users point of view rather than my techie one, along with having a point of reference and an enhanced sense of confidence in implementing new functionality.

I’ve read ‘The RSpec Book‘ a couple of times now and will hopefully get the chance to use Cucumber & RSpec in my next pet project. For the moment though I’ll focus my time on improving Solvius & improving my Rails skills in general. Although it feels as if I have picked up the framework pretty quickly, there is still a host of things to grasp & learn.

I’m hoping I’ll have enough time to create a serious of posts, outlining the whole development process using Rails & the tools I’ve picked up over the course of my Rails journey.


Latest project – Solvius

June 7, 2009

Well it’s been a while since I’ve written a post, mainly due to the amount of time I’ve spent learning Rails & working on Solvius.

After reading “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware“, I decided to create a program to store all the problems I come across over times, storing them in a solutions log of sorts. For one reason or another I had put it off.

Fortunately I came up with some free time & decided to finally write the application in Rails, I’m new to Rails & as some of you may know I rarely miss the chance to kill two birds with one stone.

It didn’t take long to create the basic functionality, two weeks at the most, the last few weeks I’ve spent learning Cucumber & RSpec, but thats another post. I’ve finally uploaded the application to my host & setup some basic data, over the next few weeks I’ll incrementally add new functionality to the site.

It’s been an enjoyable experience, I must say I’ve become a total convert to rails (i’ll leave that for another post) & have picked up a crap load of knowledge over the past month of a half learning. Hopefully in the coming weeks I’ll write up my notes and experiences but for now I thought I’d quickly go through what Solvius allows people to do & some of the plans I have for it in the future.


Well as I previously mentioned Solvius was inspired by “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware“. It’s primary goal is to help people track and store problems & solutions that we come across in our day to day lives. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve come across a problem that I’ve solved but know I’ll have to go digging for the solution.

The cool thing about solvius is that the application can be used to store all kinds of problems and solutions, whether it be some kind of novelty puzzle to some a professional or academic conundrum.

At the moment the application is in beta, so invites are needed before you can signup, hopefully once all the kinks are ironed out and I have the time to improve the design, the site will be open to all.


  • Create problems
    Allows a user to create a public or private problem
  • Solve problems
    Registered users are able to solve public problems, as well as their private ones
  • Make problems private
    Not everyone likes their problems out in the open

Future Features

  • Invites via twitter
    Will be able to tweet @solvius which will mail out an invite
  • Suggest solutions
    Users are able to suggest solutions for public problems
  • Solution & problem search
    Registered users will be able to search for specific types of problems & solutions
  • Facebook Connect
    Peoples will be able to register via FBConnect
  • Tweet updates
    Updates when problems are solved
  • Problem/Solution groups
    Users will be able to join specific problem/solution groups to help in mass problem solving.

Feel free to check out the site out  or tweet @solvius with any suggestions or ideas.


SimplePie & ZendFramework

April 21, 2009

I\’ve been working on my old site the past couple of days and needed to integrate a blog aggregator for my wordpress blog.

Instead of doing it all from scratch & reinventing the wheel, I decided to integrate SimplePie into my Zend Framework project.

Listed below are the steps I needed to get  SimplePie into Zend Framework.

  • Download SimplePie
  • Rename simplepie.inc to SimplePie.php & copy to the library directory of your ZF project.
  • If you want dates you will also need idn/idna_convert.class.php
  • Rename idna_convert.class.php to convert.php & create a directory called \’idna\’ within the library directory
  • Move the newly renamed convert.php & npdata.ser to library/idna
  • Now we are ready to utilise SimplePie within our project.

Below are excerpts from my project, hopefully it will help illustrate how to utilise SimplePie once you have made the necessary changes.

class BlogController extends BaseController {

	function init() {
		$feed = new SimplePie(\'https://baphled.wordpress.com/feed\');
		$this->view->title = $feed->get_title();
		$this->view->items = $feed->get_items();
	 * The default action - show the home page
	public function indexAction() {


Above we instantiate SimplePie with the URL to our RSS feed, we then initialise our feed & retrieve it\’s title & items, assigning the variables to the view.

The next segment of code is for the index.phtml and basically populates our content with our aggregated blog feed.

foreach($this->items as $item): ?>
	<div class=\"chunk\" style=\"padding:0 15px;\">
		<h4><a href=\"{$item->get_permalink()}\" target=\"_blank\"><?php echo $item->get_title(); ?></a></h4>
		<?php echo $item->get_description(); ?>
		<p class=\"footnote favicons\" align=\"center\">
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_blinklist(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Blinklist\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/blinklist.png\" alt=\"Blinklist\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_blogmarks(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Blogmarks\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/blogmarks.png\" alt=\"Blogmarks\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_delicious(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to del.icio.us\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/delicious.png\" alt=\"del.icio.us\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_digg(); ?>\" title=\"Digg this!\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/digg.png\" alt=\"Digg\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_magnolia(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Ma.gnolia\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/magnolia.png\" alt=\"Ma.gnolia\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_myweb20(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to My Web 2.0\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/myweb2.png\" alt=\"My Web 2.0\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_newsvine(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Newsvine\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/newsvine.png\" alt=\"Newsvine\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_reddit(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Reddit\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/reddit.png\" alt=\"Reddit\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_segnalo(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Segnalo\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/segnalo.png\" alt=\"Segnalo\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_simpy(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Simpy\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/simpy.png\" alt=\"Simpy\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_spurl(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Spurl\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/spurl.png\" alt=\"Spurl\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->add_to_wists(); ?>\" title=\"Add post to Wists\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/wists.png\" alt=\"Wists\" /></a>
			<a href=\"<?php echo $item->search_technorati(); ?>\" title=\"Who\'s linking to this post?\"><img src=\"/images/favicons/technorati.png\" alt=\"Technorati\" /></a>
<?php endforeach; ?>

Lighting up the tunnErl Pt. 9 – The Gotchaz

March 13, 2009

Over the years I’ve become pretty good at picking up on errors, learning a new paradigm as well as a new language helps to introduce a lot more of these than usual so I’ve put some of the more common errors I have come accross to help others pick up on the errrors that had me baphled from one extent to another.

  • function_clause – generally means that the result was not matched for one reason or another, make sure you are retrieving the result you expected.
  • noproc – either the process is not started or the node cannot communicate with it, first try net_adm:ping(hostname). then check to see if the process is alive erlang:is_process_alive(Pid).
  • undef – Happen when a function in module does not exist, the module is not loaded or not exist at all. Maybe the function name has been misspelt.
  • ‘*.app not found’ – this typically means that the application can not be found or it is not included, check that it is part of you dependancies and that has been started properly.
  • error:{badfun,ok} – EUnit based error missing comma, usually because assert is returned in wrong place.
  • syntax error before: ‘end’ – have added an “,/;’ proceeding the end
  • none:error:internal error in beam_asm – Sinan based error, happens when code is out of sync, best solution is to kill sinserv and run sinan again.

As time goes by I’ll continue to add more, what this space. If anyone has come across a gotcha that i’ve missed drop me a line, i’ll be more than happy to add it to this list.


Lighting up the tunnErl Pt.8 – Testing processes

March 13, 2009

Well after months of trying to get my head around running units around a process I think I have it sussed.

Simple unit tests
Well I’m sure you have seen these type of erlang tests before

foo_test_() ->

The above code basically asserts that the method say returns what we expect. Okay so now what if we want to setup a process, lets say chatterl:start() and test its functionality, how would we do that? well it took me a while to get my head around this part.

I have noticed that if any processes are left alive during a unit test, the process will still be active whilst the other tests run, so if for some reason you find previous test cases failing where they were initially passing, first check that you have killed all the necessary processes in all units.

Creating simple units was a walk in the park and nothing really different from the standard units I’ve created in various C clones. The doozy was creating units that focus on a specific process rather than a method or function.

Testing processes

chatterl_mid_man_basics_test_() ->
[{setup, fun() ->
chatterl:start() end,
fun(_) ->
chatterl:stop() end,
[{timeout, 5000,
fun() ->
?assertEqual(<<"Illegal content type!">>,

The above test is from chatterl’s test cases, the test starts chatterl on setup, waits 5000 msecs using a timeout & runs the units within the final fun/0. Once our tests have run we need to stop chatterl (which will drop all its connected processes). I’ve used a timeout because it seems the processes I am working with need some time to be dropped before the next test is started, I’ve noticed that if this wasn’t done I’d get all kinds of unrelated errors or complaining that the process is still alive.

Though this process seems cumbersome, especially as I’m used to a single setup/teardown method which does the same thing each time a unit is run, the above handles our tests pretty well.

For the extra curious, you can find test cases used for chatterl/libs/chatter/src/chatterl_test.erl @ github.

You can also checkout Kevin Smith’s code as he seems pretty up to scratch with his tests membox is a good place to start.


Lighting up the tunnErl part 7 – Chatterl meets Nitrogen

March 13, 2009

Well it’s been a has been a while since I have posted a blog, mainly down to the amount of time I’ve been spending playing around with Chatterl & Nitrogen. I have come a way since first playing around with Erlang I decided a few months ago to make Chatterl my main personal project. I played around with BeepBeep around the same time as Nitrogen, for one reason or another I picked up Nitrogen quite quickly and decided to run with that as Chatterl‘s prototype frontend.

I have to admit though I have never really been a fan of event driven frameworks, especially those that mask mark up language but after a day or two of messing around with Nitrogen I found it quite a pleasant experience.

The learning curve can be somewhat steep as the documentation is not as good as it could be, I also have issues with having the root directory starting with /web/, so the admin directory would be http://blah.com/web/admin, hopefully this will be changed in the near future. Besides those minor gripes Nitrogen is starting off as a nice framework.

Well I wish I had some time to run through a little tutorial, for the moment the best I can do is show you how I implemented some of the functionality need for Chatterl‘s front-end. Below is a list of features I’ll be concentration on:

  • Main body
  • Validate Message
  • Client Panel
  • Message Panel
  • Groups Body
  • Users Panel

We’re working with Chatterl‘s Web Interface API (CWIGA) which works on, I prefer JSON so I’ve only implemented functionality to handle this. The implementation code is very similar to that I’ve written about previous so I wont waste bytes (see Twitterl), I’ll just say that we need to connect to CWIGA via HTTP.

For the curious, the code can be found the functionality needed to interact with Chatterl can be found in the file chatterl_cwiga_handler.erl. The actual calls are defined within Chatterl interface.

Now we have the basics for interacting with Chatterl over HTTP, lets have a look at how this all ties in with working with Nitrogen. I won’t go over how Nitrogen works as that part is pretty well documented in a few placed (Nitrogen, Jón Grétar) but I will explain the functionality I’ve implemented for chatterl_nitrogen.

Main body
body() ->
ChatBody = [ #panel { id=messageBodyPanel} ],
Left = [ #panel
{ id=leftPanel,body=[client_panel(),message_panel(),
[#panel { id=groupsPanel, body=[groups_body()]}],users_panel()] } ],
Right = [ #panel { id=rightPanel, body=[ChatBody] } ],
Container = #panel { id=containerPanel, body=[Left,Right] },

Ok now what the hell is all that??? Well it doesn’t look like it but this is how Nitrogen renders HTML, we structure our HTML using Nitrogen‘s elements & actions which in turns renders our pages for us.

Firstly we define the containers needed to organise the chat window, Allowing me to have the chat box on the right, whilst having all the other features (message box, groups list, etc) on the left. As you may of already guessed the element #panel represents a div with XHTML, id’s act as you would expect & can be manipulated with CSS as usual.

Validate Message
validate_message() ->
wf:wire(messageTextBox, messageTextBox, #validate
{ validators=[
#is_required { text="You forgot to submit a message." },
#min_length { length=2, text="Title must be at least 2 characters long." }]}).

Here we use the method wf:wire which basically connects an element to another, so a input box could be ‘wired’ to a submit button. In this case we want to make sure that we validation only when the messageTextBox has data, validate it. The next two lines do exactly that, firstly #is_required makes sure that we actually have a value, whilst #min_length gives a validation error if it has not been adhered to. The response are triggered by AJAX using JQuery, so as soon as an event is caught it is handled asynchronously.

Client Panel
client_panel() ->
[#panel { id=clientPanel, body=[get_client_panel()]}].

This panel is pretty straight forward, it simply defines a DIV elements which calls get_client_panel/0 which in turn determine what actions are needed. This method will be explained better shortly.

Message Panel
message_panel() ->
[#panel { id=messagePanel, body=[
#label { id=messageLabel, text="Message:" },
#textbox { id=messageTextBox, text="", style="width: 100px;", postback=group_message}

This is the the DIV element that is used by the user to send messages to chatterl. We have a couple of things we have encountered yet, our postback, which will be explained shortly & two elements (#label & #textbox). Pretty straight forward right. What about this postback thingie? Well postbacks are in fact our AJAX calls, allowing the user to interact with the systems backend seemlessly. We’ll see how these are handled in the Events section.

Groups Body
groups_body() ->
SelectedGroup = wf:q(groupsDropDown),
#panel { class=groupsPanel, body=[
#h1 { text="Groups" },
#label { text="Select a group to join:" },
#dropdown { id=groupsDropDown, value=SelectedGroup,
options = [ #option { value=Group, text=Group }
|| Group <- chatterl_interface:get_groups()],
postback=join_group} ] }.

Here we have an panel which allows users to select a group to join, we again use a postback to handle our AJAX call & use the chatterl_interface module to retrieve a list of groups from Chatterl.

Users Panel
users_panel() ->
SelectedUser = wf:q(usersDropDown),
[#panel { id=usersPanel, body=[
#label { id=usersLabel, text="Select a user:" },
#dropdown { id=usersDropDown, value=SelectedUser,
options = [ #option { value=User, text=User }
|| User <- chatterl_interface:get_users()] } ]}].

This should be pretty self explanatory as it is more aless the same functionality as groups_body/0.

Get client Panel
get_client_panel() ->
case wf:session(client) of
undefined ->
wf:wire(groupsPanel, #hide {}),
wf:wire(messagePanel, #hide {}),
Client ->
wf:comet(fun() -> update_status("messages",1000) end),
wf:wire(groupsPanel, #show {}),
wf:wire(messagePanel, #show {}),

Well this method basically checks to see if a user is connected if they are then we display the messagePanel, groupsPanel along with groupsJoinedPanel. We allow the messages panel to update, giving the user the most up to date messages from Chatterl. We lastly set the client_panel to client_logout_panel/1, which we’ll have a look at shortly, this method basically allows the user to disconnect once they have connected successfully to Chatterl.

Client login Panel
client_login_panel() ->
#panel { id=loginPanel,
#label { text="Client name:" },
#textbox { id=userNameTextBox, text="", style="width: 100px;", html_encode=true, postback=connect }]}.

Client logout panel
client_logout_panel(Client) ->
#panel { id=logoutPanel,
#inplace_textbox { id=userNameTextBox, text=Client, html_encode=true, start_mode=view },
#button { id=theButton, text="Disconnect", postback=disconnect }]}.

This method is pretty much the same the the client_login_panel/0, with 1 small change, instead of connecting to Chatterl we want to disconnect. The principle is still the same, create an event, passing the postback (disconnect).
which in turn disconnects the user from Chatterl.

Update status
update_status(Type,Timeout) ->
process_flag(trap_exit, true),
case Type of
undefined -> ok;
"messages" -> loop_messages(Timeout);
{"general",StatusType} -> loop_status(Timeout,StatusType);
_ -> io:format("Unknown loop type: ~s",[Type])


Connect Event
event(connect) ->
[Client] = wf:q(userNameTextBox),
case chatterl_interface:connect(Client) of
{ok,Message} ->
wf:update(clientPanel, #panel { body=[get_client_panel()] });
{error,Error} -> wf:wire(#alert { text=Error })

Above is the actually postback method call event(connect) which utilises chatterl_interface:connect/1 allowing us to make a connection to Chatterl directly. If the request is successful we create a new session wf:session(client,Client) & update our clientPanel so that they user can logout as you would expect.We do this by using the wf:update/2 method that dynamically changes XHTML elements on the fly.

Disconnect Event
event(disconnect) ->
case chatterl_interface:disconnect(wf:session(client)) of
{ok,Message} ->
wf:update(messageBodyPanel, #panel { body=[] }),
wf:update(clientPanel, #panel { body=[get_client_panel()] }); % Should redirect here.
{error,Error} ->
wf:wire(#alert { text=Error })

Well there’s the disconnect event, nothing to dramatic here, simply unregister the client & selectedGroup cookies& update the page so that the client_panel is set back to its default.


TDD Patterns

January 28, 2009

Here are a few tips that I use myself to help keep myself on track, Like the other TDD related notes, I’ll keep these updated as time goes by.

It is often easy to get overwhelmed by a task & lose sight of what you as supposed to be testing and how to go about it, below are some pointers/patterns to help you run through the TDD process.

One Step Test
Each test should represent 1 step towards our overall goal.
If a test can not be found to do this, create one.

Starter Test
What test do we start with? Pick up a test that will teach you something about the system & will be quick to get working.
The One Step Test plays a hand in this, after realising the starter test it becomes easier to realise other test cases.

Learning Test
Use tests to help yourself learn about a particular architecture, by testing a library/framework you can find yourself becoming quite accustomed to it uses, not to mention checking that the API works as you expected.

Another Test
If a new idea is realised, write a test for it, its easy to get taken off of track so by writing down new tests. We retain the ideas but keep on with our present task at hand.

Regression Test
When a defect is reported the first things we do is, write the smallest possible test that will fail, once run will be repaired.
Gives the client a concrete way of explaining what is wrong and what they expect.
On a small scale regression testing can help you to improve your testing.

Having a problem realising a solution or implementing a test, take a break, take a walk, get a drink, have a rest. Anything to allow you to momentarily detach yourself from the problem at hand. This normally alleviates the issue of hitting a brick wall. Generally the more fatigued the worse judgement calls, spiralling into worse your decisions and the issues that arise because of it.