Back and ready for action: reading and writing

May 4, 2009 at 9:40 pm (Limelight, Reading, Week 7) (, , , , , , , )

Well, I’ve played my last trumpet gig on the books for the time being. Took a trip down to South Carolina over the weekend to play a wedding ceremony and visit my mom. It was a good trip, and I actually got a decent amount of work done, believe it or not. The Limelight GUI that talks to my Java Tic-Tac-Toe code is finally in a completed state! I showed it to Micah this morning, and he didn’t have much to say at first besides that it worked pretty smoothly (he also noticed that I’d put in artificial sleeps to make the Computer vs. Computer game look more interesting). We spent a bit of time looking at some problems I was having with a refactoring in a Props file, but didn’t make much headway.

Most of the other work I did over the long weekend was reading – I’m really enjoying Michael Feathers’ Working Effectively with Legacy Code. I’ve noticed that most TDD resources I’ve read so far have dealt with simple, granular situations, where the design is perfect. But when I go to write tests for my code, I find that things are much more complicated. This tells me that at least one of two things are happening:

  1. Most textbook examples are simpler than real life situations
  2. My design isn’t clean enough

My estimation is that both are the case, but at any rate, I’m getting more and more motivated to write tests, even when it seems like it might be difficult. Particularly, the ideas of “sensing” and “separating” are helping me to crystallize what exactly I’m trying to accomplish when I write tests. The idea is that if I have an implementation method that needs to set a variable, I need to write a test that somehow senses the change in that variable based on the use of that method. It’s a simple idea, but there are a lot of ways that legacy code can make this difficult.

My next assignment was to pretend I was a writer (gasp!) and write a review of Limelight, as though it was for a magazine or something. I found myself drifting into tutorial mode for a paragraph or two, but eventually made my way toward an opinion on the framework. Basically, I think it’s great. There are a few strange behaviors here and there, and some features I’d like to see added, but it’s pretty cool to have a desktop application framework where you only need to write Ruby. Now, I must be completely forthcoming and admit that I’ve never tried any other Ruby GUI frameworks like Shoes, RubyCocoa, or wxRuby. In taking a cursory glance at Shoes (by everyone’s favorite Ruby mad scientist, _why), it looks interesting and feature-packed, but I’d like to see bigger examples, with the same separation of concerns that Limelight boasts. I’d also be surprised if interfacing with Java code was easy, or even possible, since Shoes doesn’t use the JVM.

Whew, I think I’ve written about all the prose I can write in a day; think I’ll spend the rest of the evening working some more SICP exercises. I watched another lecture over the weekend and finally started to look at the book and its exercises. It’s definitely forcing me to think in a very different way than I’m used to – I think this is exactly what Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt had in mind in The Pragmatic Programmer with their suggestion to learn a new language every year. At this point, I’m trying to learn several this half of the year, but since I’d at least written some cursory Java and Javascript code, I think I’m OK for now. I do worry sometimes about stretching myself too thin and becoming a jack of all trades, master of none, but as long as I can keep improving on all the fronts I’m aware of, I think I’m in good shape.

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Week 5, Weekend

April 26, 2009 at 8:20 pm (Reading, Watching, Week 5) (, , , , , , , )

I’m constantly amazed by the amount of information available online to help people improve and learn. To my wife’s chagrin, I spent several hours watching video lectures by Hal Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman (from a 1986 course presentation at Hewlett Packard) and by Douglas Crockford (at Yahoo, I believe).

These aren’t directly related to my assignments for the apprenticeship, but I’m learning a lot. The Abelson/Sussman lectures (also on Google Video) are based on their book, The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (SICP), which I understand was the introductory course at MIT for many years. I recommend the 256k mp4 versions if you’re downloading – the 64k are too hard to make out, and the high-res ones are huge! The language, Scheme, has got some pretty cool features, but to be blunt, the parentheses are pretty ugly. The really interesting part of this language, so far, is that functions are first-class objects, which can be saved into variables, passed into other functions, etc. This isn’t a completely foreign concept to me, as Ruby has closures like Procs and lambdas, but I think it’s the area of Ruby where I feel the least comfortable. Another pretty crazy thing is the way control structures like loops must work: recursion (a function might call itself with a modified index). I feel like I’d have had an easier time beginning to understand the minimax algorithm if I’d watched these videos first – the tree structure in particular was clearly explained, in one example, as it related to recursion.

I’d seen Caleb Cornman‘s tweets about the Crockford videos (they’re also available for download from the YUI Theater site), and realized (for the umpteenth time) that even though I’ve written a decent amount of Javascript in my day, I know basically jack about how the language works. I’ve generally just let the Rails helpers, JQuery, or Prototype to do the dirty work for me, hacking in the rest as needed. So that can work, as it does for many others, but trust me when I say that you don’t want to be debugging ugly Javascript. I’m a little weirded out that I just happened to be learning about lambdas and Lisp, and Crockford mentions several times that how Javascript is the first language with lambdas to really hit the mainstream. Javascript has no concept of classes, only objects! I’m surprised, but intrigued to learn a lot more about the subject. Currently debating whether to start with Crockford’s Javascript: The Good Parts (recommended highly by Jim Suchy) and David Flanagan’s Javascript: The Definitive Guide (the only book Crockford recommended other than his own). The local library has the 4th edition of the Flanagan book – I wonder how much has changed in the most recent (5th) edition… Anyone familiar with these and have advice?

I spent some time during and after each of the videos fooling around with practicing Scheme and Javascript, in Emacs and Firebug (a Firefox add-on), respectively. I’m starting to get the hang of Emacs, which is encouraging. I’d need to do a lot more reading and practicing to get as good with it as I am with Vim, but I feel like I should at least have a rudimentary knowledge of how to get around in Emacs, since it’s one of the most-used editors on Unix machines (and has such strong Lisp integration).

I also did a lot of reading, from Refactoring by Martin Fowler et al., and a book I’m reviewing for the Pragmatic Programmers. I won’t say much about the review book, but it’s very good so far, and I think it’ll turn out wonderfully. They were looking for someone who wasn’t an expert, and as I told Micah, that’s me!

Refactoring is so much more readable than I’d imagined. I had always thought of it in the same category as the Gang of Four Design Patterns book, which I flipped through once at a bookstore and found it to be far beyond my understanding. I think at this point it’d be easier, but Refactoring is extremely clear and easy to read. I wish I’d read it sooner, because it describes a lot of the things I’ve done to clean up my Tic-Tac-Toe (and to make changes to it as they came up). The automated tools in IntelliJ made the process easier, of course, but I’m also discovering that some of my bigger changes could have been made much easier by applying the steps in the refactorings catalog.

It’s always a good sign when you’re excited to get back to work and do some coding, but I’m wondering if I should be doing more actual coding at home. I may get into some Limelight Tic-Tac-Toe tonight – I think that things should fall into place more quickly now that at least some of the game logic is hooked up between Java and Ruby.

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