Sunday, February 25, 2007

I've lost all meaning for the term "day off"

I have. Really. I'm sitting around researching screen scrapers (because it'll be horribly useful for work, sadly) and while Googling and reading blogs, I've come across a very useful looking tool called Firebug ( that lets you inspect and modify a page's DOM in real time. The original thread that prompted this was of course searching for existing methods of web scraping. I found a pretty good looking thread on this guy's blog which I can't wait to try out at work on certain pages that I probably can't mention in a personal blog. Suffice it to say that the content of that blog entry has me convinced, now more than ever, that Firefox is hands down the best browser ever.

<edit> This page is super useful for learning screen scraping with Ruby </edit>

Staying on the ball

If you know me, then you've seen my analogy with two fists to staying on the ball. If not, just know that it's a great analogy. The real topic of this post is that as a software developer, during the course of your education (if you have one beyond high school) you can't help but have this one idea beaten into you: you have to stay current with trends in software development and you have to be on the ball with learning new tools to get the job done quicker, otherwise you will find yourself out of a job.

As I read through blogs, articles, newsfeeds, etc, I'm learning more and more how behind the times I really am. I think part of that is due to my education, ironically enough: there's enough out there that you need to know to be truly effective in the workplace that they can't possibly keep up in universities and colleges, which makes it all that much harder to get a really good job that's going to pay you a lot of money. As a result, you have to find a way to keep up and stay current on your own or risk being left behind in a heap of a job with shit for pay. I don't want to do the latter. It's with that in mind that I realize there are some buzzwords / buzztechnologies that I should at least be familiar with if not know intimately and use on a day-to-day basis:

1. .NET / C# / ASP.NET : There's an assload of jobs out there that use this rather than Java or any of the popular open-source technologies. And unless you go a technical institute, they don't teach you this; it's something you have to learn on your own. The need to learn .NET and other Microsoft technologies has recently been burnt into my own mind after I went for a job interview and they went with somebody else, not because I didn't know .NET (but could learn it very rapidly given my existing experience) but because they could get a technical institute (*cough* NAIT *cough*) grad with maybe a tenth the software development experience far cheaper than a university-educated developer.

My experience is mainly with free and open source (FOSS) technologies like Java, Spring, Hibernate, Javascript, XML, HTML etc with a fair bit of Ruby and some Perl / Python / BASH scripting thrown in. While certainly very interesting and academically stimulating areas of software development, they unfortunately don't look nearly as good on a resume as does Microsoft technologies, which a majority of companies are very much locked into.

2. XQuery, XML databases, XSLT, Atom/APP, XForms, AJAX: All XML related technologies, their goal is to make web development easier and make web-based applications more robust and usable. I think it's important I at least get familiar with these technologies, if not use them on a day-to-day basis for my projects at work.

As somebody who's graduated from a Canadian university with a degree in Engineering, I have the chance (and desire) to get my PEng designation. However, due to certain restrictions of my local engineering association, I have to meet certain strict requirements with regard to the work that I do. Some of those restrictions include having to work on engineering-related software (ie essentially engineering software for other engineers and engineering projects).

3. Embedded devices / Device drivers / System-level development: this is something that has long garnered my interest, but that I've never had the time to devote to learning. I'll especially need it if I'm to accomplish certain career objectives as mentioned above.

There's a number of other technologies / etc, whatever that I can go on about that I need to learn, but it's really too numerous to mention in a single blog post. I've enumerated three balls that I want to be on, and to accomplish that, I'm going to have to jump from ball to ball on a constant basis and hope I don't fall flat on my ass.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Internet Explorer quirks

What I'm about to say is neither a new thought nor a new sentiment in the least: Internet Explorer sucks.

I don't just say that because I'm a huge fan of many other browsers, but because as somebody who develops applications that have to be completely browser-agnostic, dealing with Internet Explorer is a fucking pain. The quirk that's got me today is this: Internet Explorer doesn't properly handle XHTML. The consequence of this is that it doesn't recognize self-closed script tags as valid (ie <script src="blah.js" type="text/javascript"> ) and as a result will biff if you try to use them. Firefox, Opera and SeaMonkey all have no problem with it. Unfortunately I don't have a Mac with which to try out Safari and Camino, but the point is that using the above code snippet will cause Internet Explorer to NOT EVEN RENDER THE PAGE. It strikes me that this is a horrible bug, especially for a large corporation like Microsoft. It's this kind of BS that drives people to better solutions. I feel bad for the people who haven't realized there's better shit out there than IE. Sorry for the harsh language, but yes, I'm bitter.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The things every user should know about Linux / Unix

There's a ton of things every user should know about Linux / Unix, and I'll be the first to admit that I don't know nearly as much as I should. Here's some basic stuff though (I'll enumerate it as much to remind myself as to inform others) :
user[add|mod|del] - Administrate users. As with anything else, read the man pages and learn the arguments they take inside and out.
group[add|mod|del] - ...same thing, just for groups.
chsh - Change your shell
echo $0 - Get the name of the shell you're currently running
whoami - Lets you know what user you're running under
users - Lists all the users currently logged into the system.
echo "stuff" /dev/pts/[some integer here] - Echoes text to the running pts, good for command line communication with other users.

Some important locations:
/etc/groups - Stores all of the system's user groups
/etc/passwd - Stores all of the system's user information

There's a ton more that should go in here, but I need to finish this post and start a new one. So yeah ... done.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fucking quirks

In an attempt to make one of my web applications more user friendly and bulletproof it against silly people at the same time, I've been adding Javascript to a lot of the pages. The basic functionality and validation is already there, but I've decided to use Javascript to help make a lot of the repetitive tasks go quicker and generally make the app easier to use:

This means automatically selecting certain options when other options are selected, putting in "Select All" and "Select None" buttons for large lists of items, etc. It's during these times that I've come across (1) one of Javascript's (in particular) little quirks, and additionally (2) a larger issue which affects all scripting languages.

1. In Javascript, when you want to select all the checkboxes (or radio buttons) in a form (or even a particular set), Javascript becomes quite inconsistent: if there's only one element in the group, it returns the element itself, rather than an array. I'll let you mull that over for a couple seconds, then keep reading.

Done ?

Ok. Speaking to any developers out there (or anybody else who's written code) who may be reading this, is that not the most retarded idea ever ? Seriously. That's just asking for trouble and wasting large amounts of time unnecessarily on debugging, especially for somebody unfamiliar with (and trying to learn) the language. Not to mention the fact that it leads to further code cruft due to (in my mind) unnecessary case checking that could be eliminated if something like form.checkboxes or form.radios returned a collection in any case, regardless of how many elements would be in the set. I mean, come on! Admittedly, I've had far less experience than the people who designed and implemented the Javascript language, but I think that kind of design decision is retarded on any level. I'm sorry guys, but it is.

2. While trying to debug the above mess, I came across the larger issue that always affects scripting languages: the lack of strongly-typed objects. By this very nature of scripting languages, this makes debugging harder than any given strongly-typed language, and it sucks. I suppose though, in all fairness to the Javascript language, it's the implementors that are responsible for providing help with debugging. On that note, Microsoft (and Internet Explorer X.X) are horrible for that sort of thing, displaying only "[object]" when trying to put an object to a string. Firefox is a bit better, in fact, it was Firefox that got me through my little ordeal above when I was expecting to see something like "[array]" and it gave me "[object HTMLInputObject]". Thank you Firefox and the developers working on the Mozilla project, it seems like you actually know something and understand what programmers have to go through when debugging things. To the people at Microsoft, how have you not thought of shit like this ? You suck.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Google and Firefox are officially fucking scary

To give you a little bit of background, I recently upgraded to Firefox 2.0 and I frequently use the hotkeys and search bar. A lot. More than you'll ever know. The Firefox search bar has had the ability to bring up entries that you've searched for in the past for quite a while, so I didn't notice this little trick until just recently :
When you have Google selected as your current search engine (I frequently use others as well, such as Wiki), it will automatically search for possible matches for what you're typing in and suggest them to even if you've never searched for it before. That in itself is a neat little trick, but the relevance of the results today astonished me when I wanted to search for the lyrics to "I believe in a thing called love" by The Darkness. I started by typing "the darkn" and right then and there "the darkness lyrics" was the third entry in the suggestion list. When I got to "the darkness i ", "the darkness i believe in a thing called love lyrics" was the first entry in the list. Is it just me, or has Google's seeming omnipotence combined with its usefulness and relevance gotten downright fucking disturbing ? I'm going to revel in this realization the rest of the day.

Friday, February 02, 2007

UTF-8 ... and why you should use it.

I've recently discovered that for the sake of compatibility with various languages and internationalization, that UTF-8 should be used for everything. That might sound like
a very vanilla statement with nothing to back it up, but I really don't have time to go into
the reasons I've discovered for using UTF-8. Also, suffice it to say that it has now been
forced on me as a requirement, one which I don't mind adhering to, but it takes some
effort to convert. Case in point is using Hibernate as your persistence framework. If you're
using XDoclet2 to generate all your mapping files from annotations, the conversion is very simple. In your component definitions in your ant task, make the the following changes:
<component classname="org.xdoclet.plugin.hibernate.HibernateMappingPlugin" destdir="${basedir}/src" version="3.0">

and :
<component destdir="${src.dir}" classname="org.xdoclet.plugin.hibernate.HibernateConfigPlugin" jdbcdriver="${jdbc.driver}" jdbcpassword="${jdbc.password}" jdbcurl="${jdbc.url}" jdbcusername="${jdbc.username}" dialect="${hibernate.dialect}" cacheprovider="${hibernate.cache.provider_class}" cacheusequerycache="${hibernate.cache.use_query_cache}" jdbcpool="" jdbcisolation="${hibernate.connection.isolation}" showsql="${hibernate.show_sql}" version="${hibernate.version}" style=""/>

... and that's all there is to updating Hibernate to generate your files with UTF-8 encoding. However, if you're making a web app, that's not the only thing that you're going to have to change. All your JSP(X) files should start with the following :

<jsp:root jsp="" version="2.0" c="" fmt="" spring="" display="urn:jsptld:" authz="">

< language="java" contenttype="text/html; charset=UTF-8" pageencoding="UTF-8">

<jsp:output declaration="false" element="html" public="-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" system="">

... or something very similar, the key point being that the encoding(s) specified are in UTF-8.
Also, since you're most likely using a database if you're using a web application, you'll need to update your database settings. One of the most common databases out there (and the one that I use) is MySQL. To permanently change the settings of MySQL to use the UTF-8 collation, you'll have to find your appropriate 'my.cnf' file and put this line:

...under the [client] and [mysqld] headings.