Monthly Archives: March 2013

What I learned from… Ruby on Rails

After I read the excellent article 4 Things Java Programmers Can Learn from Clojure (without Learning Clojure) I not only took in the interesting lessons the author had, but I was prompted to think about all the lessons I’ve learned over the years from the various frameworks, languages, APIs, projects, and people I’ve worked with.

So, in the interest of starting a series which I may or may not update periodically, here’s the first installment of “What I learned from…”. I decided to start with the single framework I spent not that much time with (off and on for a couple of years) but from which I learned more than any other; Ruby on Rails.

Here are five things that I learned from Ruby on Rails:

1: A holistic approach can be wonderful

A lot of frameworks and languages end up just being a big bucket of parts from which you can pull to assemble your own development platform. What ends up happening is that every business ends up with their own variant on that mix.

Rails is often referred to as “opinionated”. In practice that means that they make decisions for how things will be, whether its file formats, or directory structure, or the libraries which are included as standard. They try to come up with a solution that will work 80% of the time for every need a web application developer typically has and then wire that up as the standard in the framework. However, in many cases they have put in work to ensure that you could replace a given piece if your app is one of the 20% for whom that particular solution isn’t a good fit.

2: All the “extras” as standard

This is kind of saying the same thing as my comment about a holistic approach, but lots of other frameworks I’ve worked with skipped huge swaths of problems and yet still seemed to think of themselves as “one stop” solutions. Rails saw that you didn’t really have a solution unless you had addressed package installation, testing, different deploynment environments, database changes, etc. Here are three big ones that are either usually skipped or which didn’t get much attention until post-Rails.

  • Testing – No, testing isn’t really optional. It makes your code better and it costs very little once you get over initial setup costs. Any effort put in by the framework to make it easier is time spent that multiplies tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of times as it encourages people to improve their projects.
  • Environments – This is such a basic thing that I’m astonished how few frameworks deal with it. Virtually all software is run in development mode with different settings than in production. Even if those are your only two enviroments (or if you have others like test and beta), you can benefit from having support for different configurations and setup that are per environment.
  • Migrations – Although there are some third party Java libraries (Flyway, LiquiBase) that try to offer the same kind of functionality, I haven’t seen Rail’s concept of a series of updates which can take your database to the latest version to match your code (or backwards when needed) take off nearly the way a lot of other early Rails stuff seems to have been adopted elsewhere. I think just about every app development framework which deals with databases would benefit from it and I’m always surprised this one hasn’t spread more, though I noticed a recent Kickstarter to add them to Django.

3: Convention over configuration

If you’ve ever worked with Struts then you’re familiar with files that have to be filled in with data every time you add a new page to an application. Rails avoids that by simply saying, “Put this type of file in this directory and I’ll know, by convention, what you want me to do with it.” In many cases it can use the name and location of a file to know everything about how to hook it into an existing application.

There are people out there in your career who will try to convince you that having a file (or in some cases, many files) you have to edit are better than simple conventions. That they allow you “flexibility” and you can put your files anywhere you want. Do not listen to those people.

4: Proscribed directory layout

Simple test, take a random open source Rails project out of Github and a Java one. Try to find stuff and quickly understand each of the two projects. The Maven proponents would claim that adopting Maven gets you that same kind of structure to your project for Java and I don’t have enough experience with it to agree or disagree. But my experience with regular Java projects tells me that each one is a “unique little snowflake.”

5: method_missing

This is actually a Ruby thing and not a Rails thing at all, but Rails gets lots of mileage from it.

method_missing is a method that gets called whenever a method gets called on a Ruby class that doesn’t exist. However, you can implement method_missing yourself and you get full information on what the code tried to call. Rails uses that in ActiveRecord to synthesize new functions on the fly to keep the syntax of their ORM system ridiculously simple. For example, “Person.find_all_by_name(‘John’)”. Is there really a find_all_by_name? Nope. Can it create one on the fly based on the name of the function you called? You bet.

It seems like method_missing is something that would only work in a dynamic interpreted language like Ruby, but I’ve long thought that you could create a completely compiled language that would be capable of synthesizing new functions like this at compile time as well. The benefits are largely in the area of ease-of-coding but they are real ones. For example, why bother having getters and setters on your classes if they could be synthesized automatically?

I’m not sure where I’m ever going to use a language construct like this again unless I somebody asks my advice about writing a new language, but I’m storing it away. You never can tell when something like that will come in handy.

Easy background images for your iOS views

On an iOS game I’m developing I wanted a background image on some of my views. That’s an easy thing to do in the interface builder by simply adding a UIImageView stretched to the full extents of its containing view. However, I’ve layed it out for the four inch form factor of an iPhone 5 or the equivalent iPod Touch, how will it react to the form factor of an iPhone 4, 4S, or the older Touch?

The answer is that thanks to Auto Layout your controls can be made to adjust quite nicely, however, you’re going to have some issues with that image. By default the image view adjusted its size to the size of the containing window and squeezed my background image. Ick.

The fact that you may have two versions of the image, one Retina and one not (that is, background.png and background@2x.png) doesn’t save you because there are older devices that have both Retina displays and smaller screens. What you need is a solution that works with 4″ Retina, 3.5″ Retina, and 3.5″ non-Retina screens.

The background.png isn’t an issue. It should only come into play for non-Retina screens and to my knowledge there are no four inch non-Retina screens. Go ahead and just lay it out for 320 by 480 and be done with that one. Then, if the background is one where you can design a version that can safely lose 176 pixels in the long dimension (via a border or other area that can be safely clipped), then lay out a background that is 640 by 1136 with 88 pixels at the top and bottom that will be clipped off when it is viewed on the smaller screen. Then you can change one small setting on the image view so it will center and clip the image rather than squeeze it and you’re done.

The background image as it would appear on an iPhone 5 (640 x 1136).

The background image as it would appear on an iPhone 5 or similar 4″ Retina device (640 x 1136).

The same image automatically cropped top and bottom as seen on an iPhone 4 (or similar Retina device with a 3.5" screen).

The same image automatically cropped top and bottom as seen on an iPhone 4 (or similar Retina device with a 3.5″ screen).

The mode setting that makes it work. By default it's set to "Scale to Fill", change it to "Aspect Fill" and it will keep the width full but center and crop the image.

The mode setting that makes it work. By default it’s set to “Scale to Fill”, change it to “Aspect Fill” and it will keep the width full but center and crop the image.

Two images + One setting = Something that gives you easy backgrounds for all small iOS devices

But, if that’s not cutting it for you, there’s another choice. Have a third image ready. iOS has naming conventions for images (you saw some of them above with the @2x) that helps them load the right image for Retina or non-Retina and iPhone/iPod Touch vs iPad. However, they didn’t include a naming convention for the different form factors of 3.5″ vs. 4″.

So an alternative is to load a different image specifically for the Retina 3.5″ and let the non-Retina 3.5″ and Retina 4″ be handled automatically by the image naming conventions. Here’s some sample code that could go in the viewDidLoad to override and load an alternate image:

- (void)viewDidLoad {
  [super viewDidLoad];

  // Do any additional setup after loading the view, typically from a nib.

  // We're relying on automatic loading of background.png and
  // background@2x.png to handle the non-Retina 3.5" devices and the Retina 4"
  // devices.
  // So we're manually detecting Retina 3.5" devices and loading a special
  // image just for those.
  if  ((UI_USER_INTERFACE_IDIOM() == UIUserInterfaceIdiomPhone) &&
    [[UIScreen mainScreen] scale] > 1.0 &&
    [UIScreen mainScreen].bounds.size.height != 568.f) {
      [self.backgroundImageView setImage:[UIImage imageNamed:@"alternateBackground.png"]];