my recent reads..

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters; From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
Power Sources and Supplies: World Class Designs
Red Storm Rising
Locked On
Analog Circuits Cookbook
The Teeth Of The Tiger
Sharpe's Gold
Without Remorse
Practical Oscillator Handbook
Red Rabbit

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Two Ruby Books To Own..

If I had to pick two..

Design Patterns in Ruby by Russ Olsen is the first technical book in a very long time that I have enjoyed reading from cover to cover.

It's more than just a naïve translation of the classic GoF patterns. Olsen manages the dual trick of not only demonstrating how the classic patterns can still be relevant in Ruby, but how to approach them with the full power of ruby at your disposal.

I liked the way that Olsen avoided doing bare minimum implementations. So when looking at the Composite pattern, he spruces things up with a little operator overloading. And where ruby affords a number of possible approaches, these get discussed and compared (like with the Decorator pattern).

The final chapters in the book present a few additional patterns that go beyond the GoF and are particularly topical and relevant for ruby: DSLs, meta-programming, and convention over configuration.

In short, Design Patterns in Ruby is a grand tour, an effective tutorial in a selection of ruby practices, and ultimately a very enjoyable, rewarding, and sometimes even funny book to read.

The second book I'd stowaway with is Ruby Best Practices by Gregory Brown.

It doesn't pretend to be encyclopedic in the manner of The Ruby Way. However, where sometimes I find The Ruby Way curtails topics just when they start to get interesting, Brown dives deep with Ruby Best Practices.

Clear examples are accompanied by thoughtful and full treatments of the subject at hand. It has particularly useful focus on "Mastering the Dynamic Toolkit", "Text Processing", "Functional Programming Techniques", and "Designing Beautiful APIs".

So they're my picks. Now, obviously these are not ideal books for learning ruby from scratch, but once you're past the basics these are the two at the top of my pile;-)

Anyone willing to counter with their top two picks? Agree or disagree with my choice?

Soundtrack for this post: I Like Your Old Stuff Better than Your New Stuff - Regurgitator from the album Unit Re-Booted

#Amazon, #Audible: can you get your global act together?

I bitched about Audible for not doing a good job of serving the global audience.

Well. I just got an email today that reminded me not to forget lambasting Amazon (now audible's parent company).
Over 800 Albums for $5 Each..

..from the Amazon mp3 store. Or so it said. It was a lie and grand deception.

I so want to buy from Amazon's mp3 store - heaven save me from even considering the Apple iTunes Store - but guess what? I can't. Not authorized outside the US (even though I can buy the exact same thing on a bit of plastic and have it shipped to me).

Now, I know it is not Audible and Amazon that set these policies. It's the RIAA and the rest of the old-fashioned publishing industry (be it books or music). And judging by The Washington Post's recent article "E-books spark battle inside the publishing industry", it seems things may get worse before they get better.

But I wish Audible and Amazon were a little more aggressive in championing consumer rights. In particular, take close aim at the notion of regional distribution deals.

Once upon a time, it was reasonable to ink regional deals. After all, someone needed to provide the warehouse, retail frontage and so on. In far off, foreign lands. But in the digital age, we have global retail frontage. Local distribution deals (and all their attendant evils such as DVD region coding) are an anachronism.

To put it simply: When Amazon, Audible or any other internet distributor puts a product in their stores, it should be available (and have been sold on) a global basis. If publishers are not able to make such a deal, don't stock their stuff. Send them packing and tell them to come back when they've got a deal that works for a global audience.

But is there an incentive for Amazon, Audible and the like to take such a stand against the publishers? Well here's one: the other 80% of the world market. I loo-ve Audible (props @jason), and Amazon has been a favoured source for years. But if you keep jilting me under the control of US-centric publishers, I'll be the first to jump to a regional/truly-global competitor. Your future growth will be limited to the shores of the continental US.

Soundtrack for this post: Can't Take Me Home - Pink

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Understanding Authlogic Plugin Dynamics

authlogic is by far and away my favourite authentication framework for Rails. I've raved enough in my slides on Authlogic_RPX.

It's true beauty is making authentication so unobtrusive for application developers.

However, the same can't be said for Authlogic plugin developers. I spent quite a bit of time meandering through the authlogic source and other plugins in order to produce Authlogic_RPX (the RPX plugin for authlogic, to support JanRain's RPX service).

I recently returned to the Authlogic_RPX in order to provide an update that finally adds identity mapping (with contributions from John and Damir; thanks guys!).

Luckily my previous exploits were recent enough that much of what I learned about authlogic were still pretty fresh. But before I forget it all again, I thought it would be worthwhile to write up a few of the "insights" I had on the authlogic source.

Hence this post. I'm just going to focus on one thing for now. Since authlogic is so "unobtrusive", one of the big conceptual hurdles you need to get over if you are attempting to write an authlogic plugin is simply:
Just how the heck does it all get loaded and mixed in with my models??

(To follow this discussion, I'd recommend you have a plugin close to hand. Either my previously mentioned Authlogic_RPX, or another like Authlogic_OAuth, or Authlogic_openid)

By unobtrusive, I mean like this. Here is the minimal configuration for a user model that uses Authlogic_RPX:
  class User < ActiveRecord::Base

Pretty simple, right? But what power lies behind that little "acts_as_authentic" statement?

What follows is my attempt at a description of what goes on behind the scenes..

First: get loaded

The main file in an authlogic plugin/gem is going to have the relevant requires to the library files. But they do squat. We start mixing in our plugin with the includes and helper registrations:
require "authlogic_rpx/version"
require "authlogic_rpx/acts_as_authentic"
require "authlogic_rpx/session"
require "authlogic_rpx/helper"
require "authlogic_rpx/rpx_identifier"

ActiveRecord::Base.send(:include, AuthlogicRpx::ActsAsAuthentic)
Authlogic::Session::Base.send(:include, AuthlogicRpx::Session)
ActionController::Base.helper AuthlogicRpx::Helper

Note that your plugin ActsAsAuthentic module get's mixed in with ActiveRecord itself (not just a specific ActiveRecord model). That's crucial to remember when considering class methods in your plugin (they are basically global across all ActiveRecord).

What including ActsAsAuthentic in ActiveRecord::Base does..

What happens when the previous lines included the plugin's ActsAsAuthentic module?
The self.included method handles the initial bootstrap..

module AuthlogicRpx
module ActsAsAuthentic
def self.included(klass)
klass.class_eval do
extend Config
add_acts_as_authentic_module(Methods, :prepend)

Here we see we do a class_eval on the class that the module is included in (i.e. ActiveRecord::Base). You'll immediately get the sense we're doing some kind of mixin with the Config and Methods modules. The Config / Methods module structure is a common pattern you will see throughout authlogic.

extend Config takes the Config module (AuthlogicRpx::ActsAsAuthentic::Config) and add it to the ActiveRecord::Base class cdefinition. i.e. methods defined in Config become class methods of ActiveRecord::Base. (If you add a def self.extended(klass) method to Config you'll be able to hook the extension).

add_acts_as_authentic_module(Methods, :prepend) adds the Methods module (AuthlogicRpx::ActsAsAuthentic::Methods) to the authlogic modules list. That's all. Take a look at add_acts_as_authentic_module:

def add_acts_as_authentic_module(mod, action = :append)
modules = acts_as_authentic_modules
case action
when :append
modules << mod
when :prepend
modules = [mod] + modules
write_inheritable_attribute(:acts_as_authentic_modules, modules)

Ready to launch..

It is only when we add the acts_as_authentic in our model class that things start to happen. This method loads all the modules from the list built up by all the call(s) to "add_acts_as_authentic_module". Note the include in the last line of the method:

def acts_as_authentic(unsupported_options = nil, &block)
# Stop all configuration if the DB is not set up
return if !db_setup?

raise"You are using the old v1.X.X configuration method for Authlogic. Instead of " +
"passing a hash of configuration options to acts_as_authentic, pass a block: acts_as_authentic { |c| c.my_option = my_value }") if !unsupported_options.nil?

yield self if block_given?
acts_as_authentic_modules.each { |mod| include mod }


Once the include is invoked, our plugin will usually hook the event and do some setup activity in our module's def self.included method.

module Methods
def self.included(klass)
klass.class_eval do

Unlike the Config extension, the class you are including in (the klass parameter in the example), is the specific ActiveRecord model you have marked as "acts_as_authentic".

In other words, the methods in the Methods module get included as instance methods for the specific ActiveRecord models class (User in the example I presented earlier).

Hanging it on the line..

Let's hang it all out in a simplified and contrived example. Take this basic structure:

module AuthlogicPlugin
module ActsAsAuthentic
def self.included(klass)
klass.class_eval do
extend Config
add_acts_as_authentic_module(Methods, :prepend)
module Config
def config_item
module Methods
def self.included(klass)
klass.class_eval do
def self.special_setting
def instance_item

If we add this to our User model, then the result we'd end up with is this:

  • config_item: will be a class method on ActiveRecord::Base

  • instance_item: will be an instance method on User

  • special_setting: will be a class method on User

Conclusions & Implications?

I've covered the main points in bootstrapping authlogic. There's obviously a lot more that goes on, but I think once you get these basics it makes authlogic-related code so much easier to read and understand. It's a pretty neat demonstration of dynamic ruby at work.

Understanding the loading process is also makes it possible to be definitive about how your application will behave, rather than just treating it as a heuristic black box.

Take authlogic configuration settings for example. Say we have a configuration parameter in our plugin called "big_red_button" that takes values :on and :off.

Syntactically, both of these user model definitions are valid:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
acts_as_authentic do |c|
c.big_red_button :on

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
big_red_button :on

However, the behaviour is slightly different, and the difference will be significant if you have any initialisation code in the plugin that cares about the setting of the big_red_button.

In the second case, it should be clear that setting big_red_button :on only happens after all the plugin initialisation is complete.

But in the first case, it is a little more subtle. If you go back to review the acts_as_authentic method you'll see that setting the big_red_button occurs at yield self if block_given?. Implications:

  • Config extension of ActiveRecord::Base takes place before the big_red_button is set

  • Method methods are included in the User model before the big_red_button is set

  • Method's def self.included is called after the big_red_button is set (meaning you can safely do conditional initialisation here based on the big_red_button setting)

How's that? Pretty cool stuff, but thankfully as I mentioned before, these details only really concern plugin authors and anyone who just loves to read dynamic ruby code.

There's much more to authlogic that what I've discussed here of course (and RPX). Perhaps good fodder for a future post? Let's see..

Soundtrack for this post: Because it's There - Michael Hedges

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Watching people shop

I've been a long time Amazon customer, but a while ago I stumbled upon The Book Depository in the UK. Not only are their prices competitive with Amazon (especially when you consider the free shipping), but I was totally sucked in by their live "Watch people shop" widget - a very cool Google maps mashup.

..although it does look a bit strange when all the book buyers in Australia seems to be based in Alice Springs;-)

Soundtrack for this post: Someone To Watch Over Me - Blossom Dearie

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The #joojoo is coming (with or without the true story)

Michael Arrington hasn't been shy about arguing his position on the CrunchPad/joojoo story, and until recently that's all we've really heard.

Reading the filing, I had the distinct feeling that everything wasn't so cut and dried as Mike claimed, and there's another story to tell.

Andrew Warner's Mixergy interview with Chandra (and subsequent discussion on TWiT) finally starts to bring some balance. I'm sure it all won't come out until the dust has settled around the court case, but I reckon there's a book in this story, a lá The Accidental Billionaires ("Crunch!"?)

Besides, now having seen it .. I want a joojoo! Short of an injunction, the joojoo is due to ship in the US in 8-10 weeks. It will be a real sad thing if the legal wrangle scuttles the joojoo's chances to have a serious shot in the market.

Business Tips via Mixergy, home of the ambitious upstart!

Monday, December 21, 2009

FREE: The Future of Intense Irony

@audible_com please can you do more to convince your audio book publishers that you are an internet company, and by definition operating in a global marketplace.

Does Chris Anderson (@chr1sa) know that FREE is not FREE (contrary to his intent I believe), but it is completely UNAVAILABLE in the audio form for large parts of the world. What is this crap!

As @jason says "We LOVE audible", but the love get a little tougher when we get dissed and discriminated by @audible_com based on where we live.

Free offers to people following @audible_com? Great PR you would think...

.. but that turns into real bummer for a lot of us - actively poisonous PR. Couldn't you simply check to make sure that any freebie you want to offer is one that you can do globally?

Bah humbug!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Launched: CloudJetty - a community guide to the latest "cloud" services and applications on the web

Time to drop the cloak of stealth from a new web application I've had in production for the past month or two..

CloudJetty is a site born from my own frustration in trying to find out what was really available in terms of business applications and services delivered "in the cloud". How do you find what is available, and how do you know what is trustworthy? That's what CloudJetty is for.
..a community-maintained buyers' guide to the latest "cloud" services and applications on the web, many for free or a nominal monthly subscription.

This is my open invitation for all to check out the site and help it grow..

  • It is still early days, but the first step is just to take it for a test drive! Looking for an invoicing solution for your business? Take your pick. CRM? Of course. Personal backup solutions? Yep. Did you know you can even do BI in the Cloud? You bet.

  • I'm looking for your help to grow the service listings. Got a favourite cloud/web app you are already using? If it's already in CloudJetty, add you rating and recommendation. If it's not there, then please feel free to go ahead and add it

  • If you are a provider of cloud services and applications, I'm especially keen to get your products listed. Vendors are welcome to add their own listings, provided they go along with the community-wiki rules: no sales hype; and accept that your listings can be edited by others.

  • I have no misconception that CloudJetty is perfect. I'd really like to hear about any problems, comments or suggestions you may have (there is a CloudJetty Google Group for feedback and discussion, or you can follow CloudJetty on twitter)

Looking forward to seeing you on CloudJetty!

Do we really need another "Cloud" site?

Honestly, that was the first thing I thought when contemplating CloudJetty. There are lots of sites with news and opinion about Cloud. Twitter is full of cloud !spam! Most vendors worth their salt have got a "cloud" section on their sites. But seriously, I've failed to find much in the way of information for people who don't really want to talk about cloud, they just want to use what works, and avoid what doesn't.

The good news is that there's already an incredible range of services available - think of any personal productivity tool, business application, or infrastructure service, and chances are there's already a cloud service for it (but whether its any good is another question!)

And this is only the beginning. may have fired the first shots in the SaaS war and has forever shaken up the CRM space. And an array of "infrastructure" services (like Amazon EC2) have radically change the economics of a technology startup. But personally I expect in time we'll see these initial waves dwarfed by the mass migration of (especially) small business to cloud/web applications that is only now starting to gain momentum.

Just as this is only the beginning for cloud in general, it's also just the beginning for CloudJetty. Hopefully much more in store for this site .. but let's not run before we can walk, eh?


It wouldn't be my tardate blog if I didn't geek out a little and share some of the behind the scenes details. CloudJetty is written in Ruby on Rails (2.3.4) and of course uses a good handful of gems (like vestal_versions, will_paginate, and my own Authlogic_RPX).

Best of all, I can get nice and self-referential. CloudJetty, being a application about the cloud, was built using cloud services, and to find out what cloud services it uses, you can look them up on ... CloudJetty;-)