Room 29

So I managed to miss last week’s week notes out. I’m not really sure why that was, I think because over the weekend I sometimes feel I don’t want to do “work”, i.e. the weeknotes, but then during weekdays I want to do proper work, not weeknotes. Oh well, here I am now so I might as well get on with it.

Week 107 was actually pretty good, fairly relaxed but quite productive too. I finally started work on the new version of my GCSE & A-Level revision iPhone apps. I spent the whole of the Monday brainstorming the feature-set that I’m aiming for and then building this into a list of Milestones and breaking down the first few milestones into more detail. Once I’d done that I entered all the information into the Trac setup that I’ve previously mentioned. I quite like how Trac is all set up for handling milestones and versions of apps as it has worked out really well for managing this project.

Although these are iPhone apps the first thing I needed to do was to create a web app for managing the questions. So far I’ve just been taking the questions from the teacher as a collection of word documents and then in a part-manual, part-automated process turned these into XML files for the iPhone app to read. I wanted to make a web-based system that the teacher could use himself to upload questions so that he can sort everything to do with the questions out, taking up less of my time. Along with properly planning this project out and setting milestones I also decided I really needed to try building this project using “Test Driven Development”, i.e. writing a set of automated tests for functionality and then building out the functionality until the tests pass. This is actually the first time I’ve tried doing this for a whole project and it’s been an interesting ride so far. I’ve found that it’s really slowed me down, partly just from having to learn about the various Ruby modules and Rails plugins and getting myself up to speed with them, but I do think I’m getting better quality code and structure as a result so I’m going to continue doing it.

The first features I completed were the ability to import the existing XML files into the database and then export “test modules” from the database into the same XML format. This is about making sure we can manage questions from the database in the future and that, if necessary, I can continue to use the existing iPhone code to launch apps. I then started work on the admin interfaces. I’ve done so many admin interfaces over the years, especially back when I was doing PHP. I was hoping the state of things had changed so that it would be nice and easy to set something up to do all the work for me, especially considering rails has scaffolding which I haven’t used before but have read about and is supposed to do this sort of thing. I happened to find out about the Ruby Toolbox that week and that had an Admin Interfaces section which suggested active_scaffold was the most popular plugin to use.

I started playing with active_scaffold this week with mixed results. It was really simple to get set up but then some of the features didn’t seem to work. I managed to work out eventually that I needed another plugin to support it – recordselect. I got that installed but then it didn’t seem to work right, the ajaxy bits just didn’t do what they were supposed to and I was getting nowhere. I ended up dropping the ajaxy bits but did post a message to the active_scaffold mailing list. I’ve now had a response telling me that I need to use a different fork of the recordselect plugin, the main version only supports Rails 3 whereas I’m still using Rails 2. Hopefully once I do that things will go better.

I got sidetracked on Thursday this week by having a look at a few bugs in the chess app I’ve been working on. It seems I’d missed out some functionality of the PGN format and it was tripping up when trying to read some more complicated files. I spent all day Thursday and some of Friday on this but finally got it sorted on Saturday morning. I’ve now sent a new version over to the client and I’ll find out what they think when I meet them on Tuesday.

Other interesting things that happened in the past two weeks… in week 107 I had feedback for requesting support for xAuth in the API and XML output. On Saturday morning I had some time so I had a look into it. The XML output turned out to be trivial. The JSON output is quite simple, I construct native datastructures like arrays and hashes and then call .to_json on the resulting object. Turns out if I call .to_xml on the same object I get perfectly reasonable XML out. The xAuth support was a little more tricky. xAuth is a mechanism whereby mobile and desktop apps can take a username and password from a user and then make a call to a server to exchange this for a token that can be used to make requests. This is better because the app then doesn’t need to store the username and password and they’re also not being passed over the network repeatedly. It also means that you don’t have to go through the convoluted OAuth process of app -> web browser -> app. I managed to get both these features out on Saturday morning and the person who had requested them was quite surprised and happy. Hopefully he’ll be using them in a Windows Mobile 6.5 twitter app soon. One other thing I tried to do was to convert from using Basic Auth with Twitter to using OAuth instead, Twitter are turning off Basic Auth support at the end of the month and so I really need to switch soon. Unfortunately it looked like the twitter4r library that I use doesn’t yet support OAuth so I decided to postpone the change, I’m really going to have to do something this week, either find an OAuth compatible version of twitter4r or use an alternative library.

When looking back at my previous post I noticed that a good chunk of it was about how the server went down and took ages to come back up. Yesterday I upgraded some packages on the server again and rebooted it, happy in the knowledge that the disk check completed last time and so that should’ve found whatever the problems were. Unfortunately at 12:30 this morning (just before going to bed) I got a tweet, an SMS and an email from pingdom telling me that was down. I looked into it and saw that yet again it had mounted the disk as read only. I began a disk check and went back to bed. It’s still running now but hopefully will be done in the next two hours. I’m going to have to get in touch with Hetzner and demand that they give me new drives I think as I can’t have this going down for so long so often.

Again to finish on some good news, I have an office! You can see it in the photo above, and Adrian McEwen practicing his DJing (or perhaps pretending to sit at a desk). A bunch of us freelancers in Liverpool have been umming and ahhing over getting one for months now. Hakim happened to be walking past an office building on Duke Street with a sign mentioning office space to let. We had a look at a selection of the offices they had available and settled on one with enough room for four of us with plenty of natural light (though hopefully not too much so we can still see our screens). We received the keys on Thursday and most of us moved in properly on Friday. It’ll be interesting to see how this goes for me, I’ve predominantly worked from home for the past 5 years so I’m not sure how I’ll find working in an office again. Right now it’s looking like being a lot of fun and good to see people every day but considering none of us really got much work done on Friday we’re going to have to be more careful in the future. I’m sure as things calm down and we get used to it we’ll be really productive, and hopefully able to make use of each other’s slightly differing talents.

I’ll be dropping some stuff off in the office today and then heading to How? Why? DIY! to see what it’s all about. If you’re in Liverpool you should come along!