Always Get Better

Never stop looking for ways to improve

February 15th, 2010

Now that the rebellion against IE6 has hit mainstream, a brave new world of CSS3 and HTML5 has been opened to web professionals.

Beware Mixing Purposes
CSS is intended to define the appearance of elements, not their behaviour. Be very careful about “overloading” CSS to accomplish tasks best performed by JavaScript.

A popular example of poor CSS usage is drop-down menu lists. Some web programmers use CSS’ :hover selector to instruct the web browser to display sub-navigation when the user hovers over a list item.

ul#menu li:hover ul { display: block; }

This is much better accomplished using a touch of jQuery:

jQuery("ul#menu ul").css({display: "none"}); // For Opera
jQuery("ul#menu li").hover(function(){
jQuery(this).find('ul:first').css({visibility: "visible", display: "none"}).show(268);
jQuery(this).find('ul:first').css({visibility: "hidden"});

Not only is this example less dependent on consistent web browser support for the CSS :hover selector, we’ve even thrown in a spiffy little roll-out animation.

Keep It Simple
The nth-child selector is one that stands to be abused by overzealous developers. Imagine this: change the display of every nth element as defined through an algebraic expression.

Why is this a bad thing? CSS is run in the same memory space as the general web page – that’s why it’s so fast. JavaScript tends to be isolated; meaning if you make an infinite loop in JavaScript, the web browser will eventually stop it from running. If the same thing happens in CSS, your web session is probably toast.

Separate Logic from Presentation
CSS was a leap forward because it separated presentation from structure; rather than programming font and colour elements, designers were able to explicitly control the way their web page appeared on screen. HTML was being used to serve the purpose CSS was designed to cover.

More recently, CSS has become a crutch to enable functionality better suited for JavaScript. When unsure about which to use, ask yourself: Does this solution affect only the display, or is some action happening?

November 13th, 2009

At last, remote desktop has a practical use!

If you are working on a web design and need to see how it will look on Mac, your only choice up until now has been to buy a low-end Mac. That’s an expensive proposition for occasional use. If you’re a web designer by trade you are probably already using a Mac anyway, but for the rest of us there is finally a better choice.

Head on over to BrowsrCamp – for a pittance ($3 gets you 2 days of access) you get to control a machine running OS X.

You can use VNC to connect to the server; if you don’t have or can’t install VNC, BrowsrCamp offers a web interface so you can access the machine directly from your browser.

It’s such a simple, wonderfully executed concept that should be in any programmer’s bag of tricks.

October 11th, 2009

If you’re fortunate enough to be using a dual-screen setup (I suggest that everyone should be using dual screens), check out these 45 wallpapers from the constantly amazing Six Revisions.
Birth of the Moon

October 10th, 2009
Get Yourself Out of Debt
Creative Commons License photo credit: faungg

When creating reports that are calculation-heavy, it’s tempting to create functions like ‘calculatePercent()’ or ‘calculatedMedian()’ so the correct numbers are available on demand.

Sounds good and convenient, but what happens when you have 100 different calculations to make across 50,000 data records? Each report will take 5 million passes to generate. That could take a long time especially if there are multiple reports being generated.

DRY – Don’t Repeat Yourself

Fortunately, the solution is straightforward. Rather than passing through those 50,000 records 100 times (once for each percentage needed), create an array for your values and calculate ALL of them in one shot. Then, just have calculatePercent() and calculateMedian() call from that array. Sounds simple, and it is as the pseudocode below shows:

for each record:
for each value:
valueList[value].append( record[value] )

July 12th, 2009

You can still see ghosts of the traditional “waterfall” method of software development in modern agile practices. The traditional model involved long periods of planning followed by development and extended maintenance periods – ideal for long-lived systems (I’m shuddering and thinking of COBOL apps running on mainframes).

With today’s rapidly-evolving platforms and business’ intolerance for risk, developers are called upon to deliver solutions faster on changing hardware and software. The focus has shifted toward quick development cycles and constant integration.

At the basic level, the process is the same: plan, build, deploy.

A full understanding of the traditional “waterfall” software development lifecycle (SDLC) can help any programming communicate more clearly with project managers or clients who are more inclined to understand projects in these terms.

Phase 1: Planning (Logic)

The planning phase of the SDLC involves communicating with the project’s key stakeholders in order to understand the project’s requirements. What are the goals of the project, and what are the expected costs?

At this stage there is no program code involved, nor is there discussion of any particular programming language or framework. The goal is to understand what the new software will do and why; not how.

The planning phase is also the time to assess other possible solutions that could meet the client’s recommendation. This is where most analysts fail – rather than let their project stop at this point, many organizations will endeavour to push their own solution. Try to ignore the dollar signs – if you can meet your clients needs by integrating an existing solution rather than developing something new, you will make them happier because they save money and end up with a product that is completely within their best interests.

Phase 2: Design

The design phase brings us closer to writing code, but we still haven’t opened our IDE yet. At this stage our job is to create the software on paper based upon the requirements we came up with in the previous step.

Many clients feel like they are in over their head when your design starts taking form, but you can’t let them off the hook. You need to take the time to explain your design and make sure the client is fully aware and in agreement with what you are doing. Teach them how to communicate with you; learn the terms they use so you can speak their language.

Phase 3: Implementation

When we start programming, this is the part we envisioned ourselves doing. In reality, this is the part we do the least (assuming we did our job right in phases 1 and 2). We’re talking about getting down and dirt with raw code.

Phase 4: Maintenance

This is the most expensive part of the project – keeping the software running. If you’re lucky you will be gone after phase 3 – if your successor (the maintenance programmer) is lucky you will have done a thorough job of your documentation in all of the previous phases.

Maintenance deserves special thought because it occurs over time, so it gets absorbed as an ongoing cost to the business. It can be hard to justify spending a lot up-front to develop a new system when the existing one “already works, and costs less”. Always weigh the ongoing costs of developing and supporting features for an aging system versus performance gains and optimizations possible with new software.

Sometimes it makes sense to keep existing software in operation; sometimes businesses hold onto decaying systems far too long. There will always be a point where the newer system costs more to operate than the old would have cost for the same stretch of time; however, the total cost of ownership – satisfaction, new features, bug fixes – needs to be considered, not just the cost of implementing the new system.

April 12th, 2009

Sony is interesting in a “I can’t turn my head… I must watch this grotesque traffic accident” kind of way. At one time the de facto standard for the Playstation 2 and other high quality electronics, it is now burdened with the Playstation 3 and its laughable sales performance. To be fair, the Playstation 3 is an engineering beauty and an elegantly powerful machine.

For the first time in 16 months, the Playstation 3 surpassed sales of Nintendo’s Wii console in Japan. While Sony is spinning the news as a sign that their console has finally become more popular than the Wii, the fact of the matter is gamers bought the PS3 in order to play popular new game titles available only on that platform.

Ironically it was Sega’s Yakuza 3 that drove the latest surge, hearkening back to the early console war days and highlighting the exact same issue: like the PS3, consumers didn’t really care that the Sega systems were more technically advanced than the Nintendo offerings. As it turned out, players bought one or the other because they wanted to play Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog.

The key takeaway? The platform is worthless unless there is great software to use with it.

Sony is in a bizarre spot: they have an excellent platform upon which developers can and want to develop mind-blowing content. Perhaps their platform is the most advanced and capable – so much so that learning to harness its full potential will take years. Rather than proactively encouraging development, however, Sony is coasting on the success it had with its PlayStation 2 offering and treating developers coldly rather than as partners. Rather than fight Sony for the “privilege” of developing for the PlayStation 3, many companies are simply focusing their efforts on other systems such as the Wii where larger install bases mean bigger returns on investment.

We’re very interested in the PlayStation 3 and sincerely hope that Sony doesn’t screw this one up with their arrogance. A sampling of their hallucinations include:

The PS3′s Blu-Ray Player Justifies the Machine’s Cost

Too bad the component costs Sony $100 per unit. Sony may be looking ahead to mega-games that require the storage capacity offered by Blu-Ray, but in the meantime they are marketing the PS3 as a top-of-the-line Blu-Ray player.

Problem: They don’t include a remote control, and they don’t have an Infrared receiver. If you want to watch movies you have to use your game controllers or an optional bluetooth remote control – forget about compatibility with your existing home entertainment system.

Sony is the Official Leader in Gaming

Sony believes that the Wii is in a different market and the XBox lifespan/failure rate is going to mean wider adoption in the future. Regardless of sales (it trails the XBox and Wii), Sony believes the PS3 makes it the “official” leader in gaming. We stress once again – hardware is worthless without software.

The Sony Doesn’t Compete with the Wii

According to Sony, the Wii is not a next-generation console because they don’t target hard-core gamers. Therefore by reducing prices on the PS2 (which Sony considers to be the actual competitor to the Wii), they will be diluting Nintendo’s ability to deprive them of PS3 sales. Because it makes sense to move the PS2 and leave the PS3 sitting on the shelf.

December 1st, 2008

We rented Baby Mama this weekend. I was happily surprised to find PC Guy in the role of the fertility doctor – perhaps a nod to Mac Guy‘s film appearances. It warms my heart to see those references transitioning into the cultural lexicon. All this got me thinking about Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign; there have been some funny ads circulating around the net lately, including some Flash videos seemingly spreading between ad spots (how do they do that?).

The newest byte is that due to a shortage of trained developers, talented programmers can earn $125-$200 per hour by developing iPhone applications.  Unbelievable!  Where is my old iBook when I need it – buried under a stack of music CDs with an old version of OS X that doesn’t support the iPhone SDK.  Maybe the time is right to spring for a new laptop if there is a potential to earn $250,000 by creating a decent marketable application.  Gold rushes like this don’t act long – talk about striking when the iron is hot!