Jul 08

PHP Reflections

In my (rel­a­tive­ly) new job we use PHP for the back­end. This is the first time that I’ve used PHP for doing any real work and now that I’m using it for real I have found it to be an inter­est­ing lan­guage. I am still on the fence about whether I actu­al­ly like it or not but is does have some nice fea­tures. Given that I’ve only been using is seri­ous­ly for 3 months now I can’t claim to be an expert and I know that I’m just scratch­ing the sur­face at this point.

One of its best fea­tures is that dynam­i­cal­ly com­piled which real­ly short­ens the edit-​compile-​test cycle. I like being able to make small changes and see the (near­ly) imme­di­ate result with­out hav­ing to go through a build phase. It’s also nice that there is a large library of func­tion­al­i­ty avail­able as well as a large com­mu­ni­ty of third-​party solu­tions. I’m just now start­ing to look at some of the frame­works built on PHP and many look real­ly good. I do real­ly like the asso­cia­tive arrays, espe­cial­ly the abil­i­ty to eas­i­ly nest them, how­ev­er, I don’t like the way that PHP merges them with indexed arrays. I know that oth­er lan­guages do this as well, but I don’t like it.

I think my biggest prob­lem with PHP is just how easy it is to com­bine the out­put (view) with the log­ic (con­troller) and even mix in some data (mod­el) into one file. This is the same prob­lem that JSP had. This basi­cal­ly neces­si­tates a frame­work of some kind in any large project. The syn­tax is also prob­lem­at­ic for me. I find it messy and full of unnec­es­sary items like dol­lar signs ($) which I believe come from the Perl past. Perl had a rea­son for using a dol­lar sign for vari­ables: it indi­cates a “sim­ple” val­ue that is not an array (@) nor a hash (%). Given that PHP merges all of these into one pre­fix ($) it would be nice to get rid of it entire­ly.

Basically I think that PHP does a bet­ter job of fill­ing the “dynam­ic, script­ing lan­guage for gen­er­at­ing web pages” than JSP does, but I feel that it could be cleaned up a bit and a lit­tle more struc­ture added to make it eas­i­er to work with.

May 14

The Story Begins

In which our intre­pid (or is that tepid?) Hero finds him­self on the shores of the Sharp Sea look­ing through the Windows to the Presentation of the Foundation of all things.

Last time I men­tioned that I was work­ing on a project to sim­pli­fy con­fig­ur­ing our main prod­uct and that I decid­ed to make it a reg­u­lar Windows appli­ca­tion instead of a (shud­der) VBA appli­ca­tion.

I like learn­ing com­put­er lan­guages and so I thought that this would be a good time to learn C#. I had dab­bled with it over the years and had writ­ten some small pro­grams in it, but noth­ing serious–nothing that required learn­ing the details or the dark recess­es of a lan­guage. And with 3.0 out I fig­ured I could learn about all the cool new fea­tures. That and I just can’t bring myself to use Visual Basic. It is a pow­er­ful lan­guage with some neat fea­tures but it just brings up too many old, painful mem­o­ries.1

So I fired up Visual Studio and told it to cre­ate a new Windows Forms Application.

Hey, what’s that WPF Application tem­plate?

Oh, that is Microsoft’s lat­est attempt to make a good UI library. It’s just anoth­er rework­ing of their old stuff. Don’t wor­ry about it.

Shouldn’t we at least look at it and see if it’s any bet­ter? I mean learn­ing some­thing new is fun and it’s one of the rea­sons were doing this on the side.

No, we know some­thing about how Forms work and we don’t have the time to learn a com­plete­ly new sys­tem if we want to show some­thing soon to con­vince peo­ple not go the VBA route. Don’t wor­ry it will all be fine.

OK, if you say so…

Talking to my inner self can be annoy­ing. Where was I? Oh yeah, the appli­ca­tion solu­tion was cre­at­ed. Add a few sup­port projects, steal code from oth­er projects, rename a few things, and com­pile. Yay it runs!

Time pass­es…

Microsoft annoys me.

You talk­ing to me?

Yeah. They’re real­ly big, have very tal­ent­ed peo­ple and they still cre­ate com­plex, hard-​to-​use stuff like this. It’s a real pain to get things on the win­dow, look­ing nice, and be func­tion­al. You have to write so much code. Ugh.

You know, there is the thing I heard about once…I’m think it was called WPF. Someone once said we should look at it. I can’t remem­ber who…

OK, OK. I get the mes­sage. Just to make you hap­py I’ll take a quick look, you’ll see that it’s just the same old stuff repack­age like always and we can get back to mak­ing this work.

Thanks, this will be fun…

Fire up a new solu­tion, this time a WPF Application. Looks pret­ty much the same, an emp­ty win­dow. OK, the tool on the left look pret­ty much the same, maybe one or two new things. Nothing sur­pris­ing there. I guess it time to read up on this. I’ll give it an hour or so.

Time pass­es…

OMG, this is even more com­pli­cat­ed than Forms! Look at all the options and set­tings!

Time pass­es…

Wait, bind­ing? Like Adobe Flex? We liked bind­ing in Flex.

Time pass­es…

Item tem­plates? Data tem­plates? What?

Time pass­es…

I’ve got it! I get it! Wait! Microsoft made this? This is…good. This is…right!

I told you we should look at it.

But it was just anoth­er “Microsoft threw too many peo­ple at the prob­lem” thing. How could I have known?

You should lis­ten to me more you know. This half the brain has good ideas too you know.

The Recap

For those try­ing to keep track, I, like many oth­ers, do not have the most favor­able opin­ion of Microsoft prod­ucts. I do have a lot of respect for the peo­ple who work for Microsoft. Some of the bright­est stars of my field (soft­ware devel­op­ment) work for them. But in my opin­ion, the com­pa­ny some­how man­ages to infect them and caus­es them to pro­duce things that are, shall we say, not so good. I think that it may have some­thing to do with bureau­cra­cy and iner­tia, but what­ev­er the rea­son, I am not a fan of most of the prod­ucts that have come out of Microsoft for the last few years (many years in fact).

But WPF changes all of that. Now mind you, it is not per­fect. There are some things I would change but over­all this is how a win­dow sys­tem should be. The sep­a­ra­tion of con­cerns, the sim­plic­i­ty of exe­cu­tion (once you get over the “how does it work” hump), and the abil­i­ty to change just about every­thing is fan­tas­tic. As time goes on and I learn about new fea­tures in the sys­tem I go “wow that’s great. I wish I had known about that before.”

And the great thing about this is that it works as a Windows appli­ca­tion and a brows­er appli­ca­tion. And with Silverlight using the same basic tech­nol­o­gy I see great pos­si­bil­i­ties ahead.


  1. The new Visual Studio 2010 is going to include F# as a stan­dard lan­guage. Finally a func­tion­al lan­guage may become main­stream. I miss Scheme. 
May 12

Something a Little Different

For the past few years I’ve been using Java for the major­i­ty of my pro­fes­sion­al and pri­vate devel­op­ment. Using it pro­fes­sion­al­ly was sim­ply because that is what my com­pa­ny want­ed. Privately was because I was using it pro­fes­sion­al­ly and so the envi­ron­ment was there and start­ing up a new project was easy. Java is a good, sol­id lan­guage with a pletho­ra of libraries and sup­port but every time I went to make an appli­ca­tion with a nice UI I was stymied. Everything just seemed hard to do in Swing—much hard­er than it should be.

Recently, I was put on a new project at work. For this project we are build­ing a sim­ple con­fig­u­ra­tion tool for our main prod­uct. Configuring usu­al­ly requires gath­er­ing lots of sim­i­lar items and so some­one thought that Microsoft Excel would be a good plat­form. One of the biggest things that it had going for it was that it was the tool that the require­ments gath­er­ing peo­ple were already using. They were just using it to col­lect the tables of data, but with no pro­grammed sup­port. The they would give that infor­ma­tion to some­one else to input into our con­fig­u­ra­tion files. So, some­one thought that it would be a help­ful idea to auto­mate many of the steps they went though and gen­er­al­ly improve the expe­ri­ence. The only prob­lem was that they used VBA.

VBA is a great macro lan­guage, but as a tool for build­ing appli­ca­tions it sucks. It real­ly just blows. Try hav­ing mul­ti­ple peo­ple work­ing on it at the same time. And this was the project that I was put on. Oy.

So to keep myself sane I decid­ed that I would look into alter­na­tives. As this was a tool tar­get­ed at a small group of peo­ple (say 20–30 peo­ple total) and all of these would be on some form of Windows I fig­ured that we should just go ahead and make this a full Windows appli­ca­tion. I had dab­bled with C# and GDI so I thought I’d try my hand at mak­ing a tar­get­ed appli­ca­tion (while work­ing on the VBA/​Excel deba­cle).

So the next few entries will be my expe­ri­ences with doing an appli­ca­tion not in Java. We’ll see how it goes.

Feb 15

Google phone interview part I

I applied for a job at Google and thought I’d write about my expe­ri­ences with their inter­view process. Many oth­ers have writ­ten about the process and my expe­ri­ence was sim­i­lar to theirs. I sub­mit­ted my resume through their web site and even though the mar­ket isn’t great right now I got a response from one of their recruiters who I’ll call Carol.

Carol informed me that I had passed the first round by sub­mit­ting a resume that was good enough to ring some bells and that she was sched­ul­ing me for a phone inter­view. Right away my heart start­ed pounding—I heard about these myth­i­cal phone inter­views from the web. These minia­ture tort…er…interrogation ses­sions were renown for their abil­i­ty to bring even the might­i­est of us to tears.
 
“How about Wednesday?” she asked. “Wednesday is fine” my finely-​tuned grey mat­ter spit back with­out con­sid­er­ing a) I would be out of the area (oth­er peo­ple would call it a vaca­tion), b) it was only 4 days away (five if you count the day of dri­ving to get to my des­ti­na­tion), and c) I had­n’t talked with my wife about it. So not only did I not ask for more time but I had just com­mit­ted to spend­ing most of my (our) vaca­tion pre­ping for a mini inqui­si­tion. I could hear the con­ver­sa­tion in my head: “Oh hun­ny,” I would say to my wife, “you know those longs walks in the woods you were plan­ning on…well…and, ha ha, this is sooo funny…you see, he he…I just agreed to do a phone inter­view, ha ha, on Wednesday, he he, that, ha ha, I have to spend every (snick­er) hour of every day study­ing for! Isn’t that great? Hunny?” Yeah right. I’m a dead man.

Luckily I’m mar­ried to an under­stand­ing woman who decid­ed to be supportive—so sup­port­ive that she drove (she hates dri­ving on long trips) and had me study on the dri­ve up. She also had me research­ing the web for tips. Does any­one else see the irony of using Google to search for “Google phone inter­views?”

So the big day arrives. I have my phone ful­ly charged (yeah I’ve had the phone dies in the mid­dle of the impor­tant phone call), I have my notes, and most impor­tant­ly I have my pre­ferred caf­feine deliv­ery sys­tem: Coke. In fact I’m on my sec­ond when my wife says “Did you check to make sure the cell recep­tion is good?”

Cue the dramitic music and zoom in on the bars on my cell. At this point one could ask “what bars?” but I’m not sure that my heart could take that. “NO BARS!!” I screech not real­iz­ing that the human voice can actu­al­ly hit that high a tone. My wife looks at me like I’m…well…stupid. “You know it does­n’t work on the first floor. Go upstairs and check.” My wife is very patient. I get upstairs and look at the phone with trep­i­da­tion. One bar…two bars…three bars!…no two bars!..no three!…two…

I’m not sure how long I stood there watch­ing the third bar flick­er in and out until I real­ized that the best recep­tion is in the bed­room and I go in there. Yay! Four Bars!!!

I should men­tion at this point that the place we are stay­ing is out­side of Klamath Falls, OR and that there are hills between us and the cell tow­ers. There is one low spot that seems to line up with the bed­room on the sec­ond floor. I know this as we have been there sev­er­al times. I’m an engi­neer, OK a soft­ware engi­neer, but I under­stand the prici­ples and yet I can’t seem to get my brain wrapped around this and I’m about to take what is reput­ed to be a tough phone inter­view.

My phone rings. I’m doomed.