Category Archives: Ruby on Rails

MarkUs, Squad, How’s / Refactor My Code, Belated Happy Holidays, and Oh Yeah – I’m Not Dead

Belated happy holidays! My last post was over a month ago, and so my blog has a nice layer of web-dust on it right now.  Well, here I am to ease your mind.  I’m still alive!

But that almost wasn’t true.

I won’t bore you with the details – I’ll just give you the facts, and let you fill in the blanks.

  1. My girlfriend Em, her sister Cassie, and myself, were up in Collingwood on New Years Day, enjoying a relaxing day at a Norwegian spa (the outdoor baths were amazing – how awesome is it to be in a boiling hot tub, while simultaneously, your hair is so frozen that it’s snapping off in your hands?)
  2. The roads that night were treacherous.  Snowy, un-plowed, and dark.  I had borrowed my Mom’s car for the trip, and we took it realllllly slow.
  3. After a tortoise-paced two hour ride back to Em’s place in Newmarket, and then another two hour drive from Newmarket to my home in Grimsby the next day, I was getting pretty sick of winter driving.  On top of that, the brakes seemed to be acting funny.  I found myself sliding a lot, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of resistance when I put my foot down.
  4. The next day, my Mom takes the car to go to work.  She doesn’t even leave the drive-way.  The brakes hadn’t been acting funny:  the brakes hadn’t been acting at all.  Turns out we had a leaky brake-line for the entire trip…
  5. Guts of the story:  I think we drove home from Collingwood with about 35% brake power in one of the worst snow storms I’ve ever driven in.

Breakfast tasted especially good for us that morning.

Anyhow, now where was I?  Oh yeah…


MarkUs 0.6 got kicked out a week or so ago.  The MarkUs Team kicked the crap out of a bunch of tickets over the holidays, and I think we ended up with a pretty solid release.  MarkUs is being used again at UofT this semester, and Byron Weber Becker is also piloting it at UWaterloo.  I’ll cautiously say that things seem to be going well for this release.  Great job, MarkUs Team!

I’m TAing the students working on MarkUs for Greg’s UCOSP course again.  We had a fantastic code-sprint this past weekend!  The new team members have already started working on tickets and submitting code to review.  I think we’re on our way into another highly productive semester.

A Few More Web-Based Code Review Tools

Remember that big list of code review tools I put up a while back?  I’ve got a few more to add:

How’s My Code

This is a pretty dead-simple code review tool that came about during a Rails Rumble a few months back.  It has that “big friendly buttons and round corners” web 2.0 thingy going on.  I haven’t gone so far as to actually try it out, but I did watch this web-cast:

Not bad if you just want to get your code out there, and get your team commenting on your changes…

A few things caught my attention:

  • It’s a web service, so you don’t install it…you sign up for it
  • It currently only supports Git.  🙁
  • There doesn’t seem to be any support for contextual per-line commenting…I think it’s just file by file commenting.  I’d love it if I could comment on a single line of code…

Still, if I was working on a project hosted on a Git repo, and I needed a dead-simple code review service, and I needed it quickly, I could probably do a lot worse than this.

Click here to check out How’s My Code


Remember that time when I wrote about how it might be neat if somebody created a code review tool on top of Google Wave? (or Bespin for that matter – though I didn’t mention it, and should have)

Looks like somebody else was thinking the same thing. And a few months earlier.  I guess it’s not easy to be super cutting-edge.

Anyhow, looks like something Wave-ish (yet simpler, more streamlined) has been developed.  Check out Squad.

I just tried this thing out for free (with ads, features locked, etc), and it was pretty cool.  I could see something like this being very useful for showing new MarkUs team members how to do things.  Actually, I just used it to show a new member of the MarkUs team how to use Shoulda.  Pretty useful.  It sure beats coding through IRC and

A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Super simple to get going – open up a session, and send someone a generated link, and you’re both coding in no time
  2. One person codes at a time…so while one person edits, the screen is locked for everyone else
  3. Ads on the left are a little annoying
  4. Sports syntax highlighting for a number of languages – though I noticed that Ruby wasn’t one of them.  :/

I can see this becoming second nature, like

Who knows – I might find more reasons to use Squad as the semester rolls, and MarkUs picks up speed.  I’ll keep you posted.

If you missed the link I put in above, click here to check out Squad

Refactor My Code

This service crowd-sources code review requests, so don’t expect to get deep architectural feedback, because it’ll probably come from strangers who don’t/barely know your code base.

The idea is – slap a piece of code that you’d like refactored up on the site, and then others swoop in with brilliant suggestions (assuming of course, you asked your question properly…check this out…what the…?)

This is the sort of thing that CS instructors probably wouldn’t want their students using too much…it’d then become

Still, I think it counts as peer code review.  And it’s way different that anything else I’ve been looking at.  Nice.

Click here to check out Refactor My Code

Anyhow, I just thought I’d mention those.

Code Reviews and Predictive Impact Analysis

A few posts ago, I mentioned what I think of as the Achilles’ Heel of light-weight code review:  the lack of feedback over dependencies that can/will be impacted by a posted change.  I believe this lack of feedback can potentially give software developers the false impression that proposed code is sound, and thus allow bugs to slip through the review process.  This has happened more than once with the MarkUs project, where we are using ReviewBoard.

Wouldn’t it be nice…

Imagine that you’re working on a “Library” Rails project.  Imagine that you’re about to make an update to the Book model within the MVC framework:  you’ve added a more efficient static class method to the Book model that allows you to check out large quantities of Books from the Library all at once, rather than one at a time.  Cool.  You update the BookController to use the new method, run your regression tests (which are admittedly incomplete, and pass with flying colours), and post your code for review.

Your code review tool takes the change you’re suggesting, and notices a trend:  in the past, when the “checkout” methods in the Book model have been updated, the BookController is usually changed, and a particular area in en.yml locale file is usually updated too.  The code review tool notices that in this latest change, nothing has been changed in en.yml.

The code review tool raises its eyebrow.  “I wonder if they forgot something…”, it ponders.

Now imagine that someone logs in to review the code.  Along with the proposed changes, the code review tool suggests that the reviewer also take a peek at en.yml just in case the submitter has missed something.  The reviewer notices that, yes, a translation string for an error message in en.yml no longer makes sense with the new method.  The reviewer writes a comment about it, and submits the review.

The reviewee looks at the review and goes, “Of course!  How could I forget that?”, and updates the en.yml before updating the diff under review.

Hm.  It’s like a recommendation engine for code reviews…”by the way, have you checked…?”

I wonder if this would be useful…

Mining Repositories for Predicting Impact Analysis

This area of research is really new to me, so bear with me as I stumble through it.

It seems like it should be possible to predict what methods/files have dependencies on other files based on static analysis, as well as VCS repository mining.  I believe this has been tried in various forms.

But I don’t think anything like this has been integrated into a code review tool.  Certainly not any of the ones that I listed earlier.

I wonder if such a tool would be accurate…  and, again, would it be useful?  Could it help catch more of the bugs that the standard light-weight code review process misses?


The Shoulders of Tall, Smart People

Recently, I came to the realization that I’ve been writing computer programs in one form or another since I was about 6 or 7 years old.

Along the way, I’ve had plenty of people to influence the way I think about code, and how I write it.  Sure, there have been plenty of textbooks along the way too, but I want to give some thanks to the people who have directly affected my abilities to do what I do.

And what better way of doing that then by listing them?

A Chronological List of People Who Have Influenced My Coding

  1. My parents, for bringing home our first family computer.  It was an 8088XT IBM Clone – no hard drive, 640K of RAM, dual 5 1/4 floppies…it was awesome.  This is the computer I started coding on – but I couldn’t have started without…
  2. My Uncle Mark and my Aunt Soo.  Both have degrees in Computer Science from the University of Waterloo (that’s where they met).  My recollection is pretty vague, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of the programming texts in my house (a big blue QuickBasic manual comes to mind) surely didn’t come from my parents – must have been those two.  With the book in one hand, and the 8088 in the other, I cranked out stupid little programs, little text adventure games, quizzes, etc.
  3. The online QB community from the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s.  When my family got online, I soon found myself hanging out at NeoZones, in the #quickbasic IRC channel on EFNet… actually, a lot of crazy stuff was being done with QuickBasic back then – I remember when DirectQB came out, and somebody was able to code a raytracer…in BASIC.  It was awesome.  I’d say these were my foundation years, when I learned all of my programming fundamentals.
  4. My friends Nick Braun, Joel Beck, and Doug McQuiggan – these three guys and I used to come up with crazy ideas for games, and I’d try to program them.  I’d come home from school, and pound out code for a computer game for a few hours in the basement.  More often then not, these projects would simply be abandoned, but still, a lot was learned here.
    Joel, Doug, our friend Julian and myself were also members of a band in highschool.  It was my job to build and maintain the band website, and this is when I learned to write HTML, basic Perl, and simple JavaScript.
  5. After highschool, I went into Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto.  I didn’t do too well at the Electrical bits, but I could handle myself at the Computer bits.  I learned OOP, Java, and basic design patterns from Prof. James McLean.
  6. I also learned a great deal from Prof. McLean’s course text – Introduction to Computer Science Using Java by Prof. John Carter.  I know I said I wasn’t going to mention textbooks, but I also got taught Discrete Mathematics from Prof. Carter, so I thought I’d toss him in too.
  7. My second (and last) semester in ECE had me taking Programming Fundamentals with Prof. Tarak Abdelrahman.  I learned basic C++ from Prof. Abdelrahman, and how to deal with large systems of code.
  8. After my move to the Arts & Science Faculty, I took my first Computer Science course with Dr. Jim Clarke. I learned about Unit Testing, and more design patterns.  I also eventually learned some basic Python from him, but I think it was in another course.
  9. I took CSC258 with Prof. Eric Hehner, and learned about the structure of computer processors.  Physically, this was a low-level as I’d ever gotten to computers.  I was familiar with writing Assembly from my QB days, but Prof. Hehner’s Opcode exercises were really quite challenging – in a pleasant way.  Also, check out his concept of Quote Notation
  10. After that year, I spent the first of three summers working for the District School Board of Niagara.  Ken Pidgen was my manager, Mila Shostak was my supervisor.  Ken gave me incredible freedom to work, and soon I was developing web applications, as opposed to just fixing up department websites (as I originally thought I would be doing).  Mila gave me guidance, and showed me how to use CSS to style a website.  She also got me started using PHP and MySQL to create basic web applications.
  11. While working at the Board, I had the pleasure of sitting across from Jong Lee.  Jong and I would bounce ideas off of one another when we’d get stuck on a programming problem.  He was very experienced, and I learned lots of practical programming techniques from him.
  12. Michael Langlois and Ken Redekop acted as my clients at the Board, and always gave me interesting jobs and challenges to perform.Everyone at the Board was always very positive with me, and I’ll always be grateful that they took a newbie undergrad under their wing!  I was given a ridiculous amount of freedom at the Board, and was allowed to experiment with various technologies to get the job done.  Through my three summers there, I learned bits about Rails, CakePHP, MVC, network security, how to deploy an application remotely, how to run a local server, how to develop locally and post to remote, ORM, Flash, web security…so many things.  The list is huge.
  13. Karen Reid and Greg Wilson have been the latest influences on me.  The MarkUs Project was the first project I’ve ever worked on with a team.  It was my first time seriously using version control, my first time using a project management portal (Dr. Project), my first time learning Ruby, and my first time working on an open source project.  I’ve also learned plenty about time management, people, the business of software, and how to get things done.  Again, I’ve been given lots of freedom to learn, experiment, and hone my craft.

Anyhow, these are the people who come to mind.  I might add to this list if I remember anyone else.

But in the mean time, for the people listed above:  thank you.

Still Alive

Where have I been?  My last blog post was over a month ago!

I’ve been pretty busy.  MarkUs is getting close to deployment, I’m about to move to a new apartment, and The Johnson Report has been playing quite a few shows.

So I’ve had my hands full!

But don’t despair – I didn’t forget about Poland!

And on that note, allow me to publish a new chapter…

Summer Work: Week 1

For this summer, the Computer Science Department at UofT has hired me to continue my work on the OLM project.  Click on that link, or check out my other post about OLM to see what it’s all about.

I just finished my first week of work, and it finished with a long weekend.  Not bad.

And I’ve got a great team – I’m working with Severin Gehwolf and Nelle Varoquaux, both excellent thinkers, programmers, and collaborators.  Severin is a UofT student like myself, and Nelle has flown in specially from France (!) to work with us.  They’re great, and we’re going to get a lot done.

So what have we to show for our first week of work?

Well for starters, we’ve gutted the entire database schema of OLM.  We started right from the bottom, and worked our way through every component of the database, trying to figure out what we could cut, trim, expand, and refactor.

And there was plenty to do.  This version of OLM has been in the works for a while now, and there have been plenty of awesome people working on it – but there’s been a variety of Ruby/Rails/JavaScript experience, and the cracks show.

I, myself, came into this project with no Rails experience whatsoever, and while I think I now more or less get the drift, I’m still by no means an expert.  Anyhow,  I’m looking at my old code too, and kind of grimacing.

But the ideas are all there.  It’s like a big hunk of marble that a whole lot of people gnawed and chiseled at for a little bit, trying to make a sculpture.  After the big DB schema refactor, I think the whole team can sort of see the rough form of what this thing is trying to become, and now we just need to carve it out.  Luckily, instead of a few hours per week like the last few semesters, we get a full summer to focus on it.

So, with the DB refactor done, the first thing has been to redesign the models/controllers to play nice with our new database tables.  It was scary, because after the refactor, everything broke – but we’re working on it, and it’s slowly starting to come back.

We’ve also decided to switch the file storage back-end.  Up until now, we were using Ruby to organize a file system back-end to do simple versioning of submitted files.  One of our goals this summer, is to build an abstraction layer that will allow us to choose different options for this versioned storage back-end.  In particular, we aim to support Subversion.  That’s right – a web-based Subversion front-end that supports commits, and catches (but doesn’t resolve) conflicts.  It’s a fun thought.

I have a feeling this is going to be a very interesting part of our project, and I’ll probably report on it more as it develops – but as it stands, it’s still being conceived on wipe-boards and scrap paper.

Anyhow, I’ll try to keep this blog up to date with what we’re doing.  Or maybe I’ll keep this blog up to date.  I’m conflicted.

Who knows, maybe this will be my last blog post of the summer.  I won’t lie – after working 8 hours on a computer, the last thing I want to do is come home and write a blog post.  If anything, my posts will probably wait until the weekends.

But we’ll see.