My Life As A Blog

Archive for May 2008

Made Up Technical Terms #3

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Codefix – the amount of coding needed in order to maintain mental health:
I feel much better now I’ve had my codefix.


Written by remark

May 30, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Posted in General

Made Up Technical Terms #2

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Cosmic Ray – A developer who exhibits a naturally deleterious effect on code.

Written by remark

May 28, 2008 at 11:30 pm

Posted in General

Ruby Tuesday #7 Part 2: Tips from the Inside

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Getting up to speed in any language is much easier when those who have trodden the path ahead of you share their experiences.  This post by Peter Cooper contains 21 tips he’s gleaned from writing Ruby Inside.  Very useful.  And if you read to the end, there’s a bonus tip.

Written by remark

May 27, 2008 at 7:12 pm

Posted in Ruby

Ruby Tuesday #7 Part 1: Even Twittier

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Having managed to download the public timeline and output in a friendly format, the next task was to access some other methods of the Twitter API.  A couple of other timeline methods exist: friends_timeline and user_timeline.  Both can take the username as part of the URL.  How hard will it be to update the code to accommodate these calls?

One of the first things I noticed was that each of the URL’s for the Twitter API have the same base (, so it’d be good to split this out.  I updated the get_url method accordingly:

def get_url(base_address, path)
  url = URI.parse(base_address + path)
  req =
  res = Net::HTTP.start(, url.port) {|http| http.request(req)}

I tried to use the join method of URI, but it seemed to strip out the http:// part of the URL.  The next step was to create a new class called Client (in the Twitter file.)  It looks like this:

class Client

  def download_public_timeline

  def download_friends_timeline(username)

  def download_user_timeline(username)


  def download_timeline(path)
    get_url(BASE_ADDRESS, path)


For those of us learning Ruby, there’s a couple of interesting things to note here.  The first is the constant – it’s denoted by the use of capital letters.  It’s not really a constant – I could change the value if I liked, but Ruby convention is that if it begins with a capital letter then it’s a constant.  Those of us coming from a C# background may be surprised to learn that this constant could be used anywhere in the program – it is not limited to the scope of the class in which it is defined.  The constant can be qualified by the class name (e.g. Client::BASE_ADDRESS) for clarity.  The second point of interest is the use of the word private.  Any method defined after the use of private will be have private visibility (instances of the class and subclasses) until the end of the class or the words public or protected.  Methods are public by default.  Once again, private is not a keyword but a method specifies that the following method definitions are private.

All that’s left is to call these methods from the main body – which looks like this:

require 'Twitter'

$KCODE = "u"

translator =
client =

translator.xml_to_tweets(client.download_public_timeline).each do |tweet|
  puts "#{tweet.user.screen_name} says #{tweet.text}"

translator.xml_to_tweets(client.download_friends_timeline('put_your_username_here')).each do |tweet|
  puts "#{tweet.user.screen_name} says #{tweet.text}"

translator.xml_to_tweets(client.download_user_timeline('put_your_username_here')).each do |tweet|
  puts "#{tweet.user.screen_name} says #{tweet.text}"

The funny looking line near the top ($KCODE…) sets the text encoding to be UTF-8.   I set this because there is some character data in the timeline that would look funny otherwise.  (I was using Netbeans when I put this in and it had no effect – garbled output for some character data – whereas at a terminal calling the program I got the results I expected, I haven’t tried this yet with Sapphire in Steel.)

It was fairly straightforward to add this extra functionality.  I fell into the trap of using C# style names, which I corrected before writing this post, so I’m clearly still thinking in C#.   And even though the Client class is fairly concise, I wonder if it could be made more concise yet.  The next step is to add the ability to tweet directly from the Ruby program.

Written by remark

May 27, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Seeing the Big Picture

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K. Scott Allen’s post on the limits to visual tools is an interesting read.  The main contention is that visual tools don’t scale and consequently have a limit.  The examples in the post back up this point.  I wonder if this is a problem with visual tools per se, a limitation of current tools or a misuse of the tools.  It may be a combination of these factors.  The first question to ask is: do text based tools scale well?  The good news is that we can split a system up into an arbitrary number of files.  This is great for understanding the contents of a file – but the system as a whole is still very difficult to understand, especially for those coming to the system cold.  Putting everything into one diagram is the equivalent of putting all our code into one text file – I’m going to assume you agree with me that that’s a bad idea for all but the most trivial of system.  With a well factored codebase, the best route into the system for most people, in my experience, is some sort of graphical overview – the key here being that it must be at the right level of abstraction.

In creating and reviewing architectural documents and walkthroughs, I’ve often faced the same issue of getting the right amount of information into diagrams.  There is a temptation to have one diagram that shows everything – this temptation should be resisted as it leads to confusion.  Having a number of views of a model (each at differing levels of abstraction and with a different perspective and focus) is the best way I’ve found of distilling the right amount of information.  What we need from the tooling is a way to link the views together.  When you think about it, the principle here is similar to that used in splitting up a codebase into multiple files.  Diagrams and models are, of course, not text free – but in the right context one diagram can save a lot of time and effort.

So, I’m not convinced that there is an inherent quality of visual tools that limits their ability to scale – but the way in which we use them and some of the functionality provided may need to change to accommodate scale.  Another thing to consider is that models can be represented with both text and diagrams – potentially allowing different people to use representations that are closest to their natural strengths.

Written by remark

May 27, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Ruby Tuesday #6 : A little XML

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Last week I wrote some code to download the public timeline from Twitter.  The public timeline is in XML format, so we need a little code to translate it into something more readable.  Before getting to the XML reading, I moved the code from last week into a new file called, very imaginatively, Twitter.rb.  I also discovered that the name I gave the method (getUrl) isn’t very Rubylike, so I changed it (to get_url).  Now, I’m not the biggest fan of underscores, but part of this learning Ruby business is to learn the culture and customs as well as the language itself.

Next, I decided that it would be good to have a class representing a tweet and another class representing a user.  I put both of them in the Twitter file.  Here are those classes:

class Tweet
  attr_reader :created, :id, :text, :source, :truncated, :user

  def initialize(created, id, text, source, truncated, user)
    @created = created
    @id = id
    @text = text
    @source = source
    @truncated = truncated
    @user = user

class User
  attr_reader :id, :name, :screen_name, :location,
    :description, :image_url, :url, :protected

    def initialize(id, name, screen_name, location, description, image_url,
    url, protected, followers_count)
       @id = id
       @name = name
       @screen_name = screen_name
       @location = location
       @description = description
       @image_url = image_url
       @url = url
       @protected = protected
       @followers_count = followers_count

I’ve used the attr_reader method to create read-only attributes which are set in the initialise method of each class.  For those who, like me, are new to Ruby the initialise method performs a similar purpose to a constructor.  The funny @ signs denote instance variables.  I could have made these classes by using attr_accessor (which creates a getter and a setter), but I like this style of object.  I expect I’ll find a simpler way of doing it as I go along.

Next we need to read XML into these objects.  I created a class called Translator and in it created a method called xml_to_tweets (and a method it calls called element_to_user.)  Here’s the class:

class Translator
  def xml_to_tweets(xml)
    tweets = []
    xml_document =
    root = xml_document.root
    root.elements.each("status") do |element|
      tweets <<["created_at"].text,

  def element_to_user(element)["id"].text,

REXML is a conformant XML processor, so if you’ve done any XML programming before, it’ll be familiar.  Three things to note here.  Firstly, this code is using the REXML library (more info here) so I had to add 2 lines to the top of the file.  Those lines are:

require 'rexml/document'
include REXML

Secondly, for my fellow Ruby noobs, note that the value of the last expression in a method is returned (no return statement needed, although you can put it in if it you like.)

Thirdly, for the noobs again, note the array syntax.  A new array is created with the [] syntax and new elements are added with the << operator.

So, all that’s required now is some code to see if it works.  I used this code:

require 'Twitter' 

translator =

translator.xml_to_tweets(get_url('')).each do |tweet|
  puts "#{tweet.user.screen_name} says #{tweet.text}"

The output of that is a lot friendlier than the XML I was outputting last week, and it was fairly easy to write.  Next week I’ll need to extend the code to call some of the other methods of the Twitter API. 

Written by remark

May 20, 2008 at 8:25 pm

Made Up Technical Terms

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Welcome to the first (and, who knows, maybe the last) installment of a series of technical terms that I have made up (or will make up.)  Today’s made up technical term is:

Facecrook – someone who adopts false identities on social networking sites with criminal intent.

Written by remark

May 20, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Posted in General