Tag Archives: VendAsta
We’ve all seen it. The classic tutorial on [insert popular web framework here] that has us building a blogging system in twenty minutes or less. It’s actually getting kind of old and I’m growing sick of seeing what I’m able to create with only platform x,y and z. I’m more interested in how I can use a web framework that doesn’t hold my hand by providing a bunch of “one size fits all” defaults. I like flexibility and choice. I like it when the web framework I’m using allows me to mix and match third party systems easily. One third party web framework component that is becoming more popular is commenting systems. Let’s take a brief look at three of the most popular systems to see what each offers us.
Copy and paste the following code into the area where you would like ID comments to appear
var idcomments_acct = ‘YOUR_UNIQUE_ID_HERE’;
<span id=”IDCommentsPostTitle” style=”display:none”></span>
To display a link with the current comment count, for example Comments (7), copy and paste the following code where you want the link to appear:
var idcomments_acct = ‘YOUR_UNIQUE_ID_HERE’;
How about the user experience when commenting on a site? This is where I really appreciate the power of third party commenting systems, with the value added by extra features I didn’t have to code. Things like email notifications when someone replies to a thread, sign in using any of the social networks I’m a part of (ID supports Facebook, Twitter, and Open ID at the time of writing), automated threading, profile linking, upvote/downvote, comment history, and integration with popular blogging platforms like wordpress, blogger (hint hint Posterous, it would be nice if you added this!).
I was also pleasantly surprised that a tweet about a bug in the email notification system yielded a really fast response from their technical support team. Did I mention it’s free?
I haven’t used JS-Kit (JSK) on any live blogs but my good buddy Nathan Heagy let me know of it’s existence a few months ago and I was intrigued to see what it might offer. Some differences from other systems is that JSK allows you to publish comments from a larger variety of places and broadcast those comments out to more than just the web page the comment thread is embedded on (ie: google friend, yahoo friends and FriendFeed in addition to the regular social networks). JS-Kit also has image uploading, YouTube video embedding, a basic comment formatting interface and lots more. These features are nice, but I don’t think they add as much value and here’s the kicker: JS-Kit isn’t free. They have a 30 day free trial available but after that pricing starts at $12/year but is based on the amount of traffic your site gets.
The code seems easy enough to understand:
Installing JS-Kit comments into your site
JS-Kit is ok but Intense Debate being free and providing essentially the same core features without all the “bells and whistles” appeals to me much more. YMMV ;)
The veteran in hosted commenting systems, Disqus has been around for a lot longer than either Intense Debate or JS-Kit and it shows. Disqus offers the most in terms of supported platforms for connecting to and rebroadcasting to as well as the media features that JSK offers (video and image publishing). Setup is slightly more involved; if you want to add things like Facebook Connect and Akismet (for spam protection) you need to provide API keys. Again the code is very easy to inject into any page, static or dynamic.
<noscript>View the discussion thread.</noscript>
Disqus also gives you the power to control the look and feel of the commenting interface right inside their control panel. This is a pretty nice feature for people who aren’t so technical that they want to hack away at the CSS manually. The fact that right out of the gate Disqus is free and offers just as much power as JS-Kit and Intense Debate makes it a pretty attractive option.
These are just a few of the options out there if you want to implement a commenting system and don’t want to write it yourself. I hope you learned something reading this (I sure did writing it). I made sure to research all the facts as best I could before writing but in case I missed anything please feel free to let me know in the …. commenting system Posterous has built in :]
A wise man once told me that the best way to get ahead in life is to learn lessons from the experiences and failures of others. That man was my dad. He didn’t share often with me when I was growing up but when he did I listened carefully (for the most part..) because what he had to say carried the weight and experience of someone who had experienced far more in life than I had. Programming is a lot like learning this way. There are people and companies who have tried and failed, sometimes miserably, at coming up with solutions to problems. When compared to other disciplines, I suspect there are more failures in programming than there are successes. This puts us in a unique position as developers because it offers us a distinct advantage over other industries; we have more examples of what not to do … if we choose to seek them out.
I love programming. It’s the only job I’ve had where I feel energized by solving problems. Sometimes my solutions suck but I think that’s ok because I’m willing to admit it and strive to improve wherever possible. This is what I believe constitutes passion as a programmer. Passion is different than zealotry. A passionate programmer seeks out solutions using the best tools and technologies he knows at the time with the willingness to admit that any solution at any given time is never penultimate; it’s merely the best at that moment in time. Zealots spend their time evangelizing solutions based on hype or buzz.
Passionate programmers use logic, prototypes and test cases to prove that what they think works will work. Zealots are always working hard to implement “the next big thing” in the hopes of scoring a knockout; they’re like the blackjack player who constantly changes up his strategy in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game. Passionate programmers realize that perfection is unattainable but they still strive to attain it with care.
It’s been said before, “if we could only use solution [x] problem [y] would go away completely”, “things will be all better if we just do this”, “this is exactly what we need, let’s implement it now!” I know that these things get said because I used to say them (and probably still do from time to time; stop me if you hear me). The problem with these “silver bullet” solutions is that they don’t exist. The “one size fits all” mentality is the sign of an immature developer. Perfection is dangerous, however the pursuit of perfection can be an incredible motivator if it is tempered with pragmatism. Knowing when to implement a solution that is good enough for the task at hand avoids unnecessary refactoring and saves time.
Ask your business analyst or company owner what they think about perfection and the response will likely include the word “risk”. Far too often the technical is all we think about. Our job as passionate programmers is to communicate early and often with our business owners to understand the business goals of any potential solution. By considering business goals we mitigate against the risk of building only the perfect technical solution.
I’m not an english major but I think that Shakespeare has some good things to say about perseverance.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”
The answer to the question has to be: to be! Giving up is not an option! Passionate programmers arm themselves with all of the tools and knowledge they have in order to face problems. They also surround themselves with like minded people and thrive on failure. Failure affords us the chance to persevere and refine our process until we reach a solution that is “good enough”.
“And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
Have you resolved in the past to persevere through difficult problems as a programmer only to find that you get trapped in over thinking how you’re going to solve them? Startups with great ideas fail so often because of this. Passionate programmers are persistent in identifying this shift in focus that leads to a cyclical pursuit of perfection which steer’s companies off course.
What type of programmer are you? that is the question.
[ Note: this post was originally started in September/November, 2008. It's been sitting in my drafts for quite a while and I decided it was time to finish it up. ]
We finished off a short 1 week development sprint last Friday [edit: sometime in Sep/Nov 2008] which culminated in the current live version of the VendAsta website. Despite such a short dev-cycle, I feel we were able to accomplish most of our research goals.
One of the tools we used that I didn’t have much experience with prior was Yahoo Pipes. We had somewhat of a unique problem to solve; we wanted to be able to draw from a variety of Feed sources that would filter through to different sections of the site. Before I dove into using Pipes my gut feeling was just to use some sort of feed parsing library in Python that was compatible with AppEngine. One of the requirements for implementing the feed sources was that it be very easy to update should a feed need to be changed. If we stuck with the Python library implementation and statically coded some feed sources, changes would take significantly more overhead to implement.
We started investigating Pipes as a platform to aggregate all of the content we wanted to re-publish and were impressed by what we found. It turns out that the Pipes interface is much better at providing an easy-to-update set of feed sources for non-programmers. If you haven’t looked at the Pipes interface I highly recommend you do so. I think Pipes offers so much advanced filtering and splicing functionality in a really tight package, so I’ll attempt to break down some of the modules we used specifically for the VendAsta website.
The image above is a shot of the Pipes interface, and more specifically the Pipe that we use to aggregate all of the feed-based content on the VendAsta website. I should clarify, by feed-based content I’m referring to all of the official employee, product, and corporate blogs. Yes you read that right, employee blog posts (when tagged appropriately) end up on our corporate website. But let’s set aside the trust/ethical issues related to that and focus on the technology we’re using. There are a few components to the root pipe we use to collect all this content, and the Pipes documentation isn’t always entirely clear on the best way to use things, so I will attempt to decompose it and discuss each module in detail.
We have a URL mounted on VendAsta.com that provides only 1 function: spitting out a list of link tags in the following format:
<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="Allan Wolinski" href="http://www.orthodrome.ca">
Internally, we store a list of all employees with some meta information like blogURL, linkedinURL etc. This url is what we provide to the auto-discovery module so it can do it’s magic and go out to all of the rss+xml links and gather a list of feeds from the blogs. Here’s a sample of the output you get from this URL in the Pipes debug console.
Once we have this list of blogs and the links to them, we can pass the output from the auto-discovery module on to the Loop + Fetch Site Feed modules.
Loop + Fetch Site Feed
The loop module is pretty self explanatory, you use it when you want to iterate over a group of results and operate on them somehow. It’s kind of similar to providing an AJAX onSuccess callback; you send out a request for the content (the iteration) and you define a ‘callback’ by dragging a supporting pipes function into the available box to process each item. In our case, we’re using the Fetch Site Feed module from the toolbox to snag a feed from each site in our blogroll. We configure the module to emit all results to our next module, the Filter, which does most of the magic in determining which content ends up on the corporate website.
The filter module works really well for grabbing a set of elements based on a certain set of criteria; in our case we use the Regexp option to explicitly allow any content with the tag/category ‘VendAsta’.
Union, Sort, Rename + Pipe Output
The final layer of our pipe involves combining results from some other static sources independent of filters (VendAsta blog and the StepRep blog), sorting them based on the date published descending, renaming a specific RSS feed field (item.dc:creator) to ‘author’ to fix a problem in the feed reading library we’re using server side (feedparser.py) and finally the output of all these operations: ‘Pipe Output’ module. All these modules are really easy to string together with the Pipes interface and are clickable at any point during the creation which will toggle the debug output to stop at the currently selected module. This is very useful for seeing what the modules you are using do at each step of the process.
Pipes as abstract components ties it all together
So now that we have a completed Pipes module, we can do a number of things with it. We can get the output in RSS or JSON format, define a custom url for the pipe, and even give it a name and make it public so other people can use it in their mashups. However, the coolest feature IMHO is that you can use any created pipes module as an abstracted pipes component on it’s own which can be part of another pipes component that you can then perform further operations on. We chose to separate a few of the layers in our feed hierarchy this way for simplicity sake and to keep it loosely coupled if we wanted to make changes to what feeds appear on certain pages. Here’s an example of our previous Blogroll pipe being used as input for further filtering and display on 1 section of the VendAsta website: the Projects page.
We covered a lot of ground on the MyFrontSteps project this week. We managed to migrate our Photo Management / Uploading solution on Homebook from SWFUpload and a lot of hacked together jQuery to a more elegant solution (albeit one that could still use some refactoring – but what code can’t use refactoring really). We decided to use the “still-in-beta” YUI Uploader coupled with some custom jQuery. The implementation seems much more cohesive than our previous solution but there were a few gotchas we rant into when trying to get things working properly in IE7.
I know this component is still in beta support from Yahoo, but I had given it a very brief try in our supported browser baseline (currently FF2+, Safari3+, IE7+) and it seemed to work really well. All of the YUI stuff we’re using works really well and the graded browser support and testing the YUI team puts behind their work makes implementation that much more reliable. That being said, no piece of software is perfect and we ran into a pretty frustrating bug implementing the YUI Uploader in a specific area of the application.
We have a number of context menus in Homebook that appear to the user on mouseover. This particular thumbnail represents the default image for a users Home, and clicking it prompts the user with a file dialog to select a new photo which is then uploaded via the YUI Uploader. When instantiated, the uploader inserts a transparent Flash object using the SWFObject plugin into the markup in the container specified. In our case we had the following markup:
ul class='mfs-context-menu invisible' id='default-image-menu' li a span class='uploader' id='upload-profile-picture' /span 'Change Profile Picture' /a /li /ul
We use a class of invisible to set the css property ‘display:none;’ on the ‘ul’ so it’s hidden by default when the page loads. When the page loads and the script triggers, the uploader sits nicely in the span tag directly above the link in the li tag. The user then clicks on the transparent flash object and the upload can start. Now, this approach works fine in every browser EXCEPT IE7. For some reason when the uploader is instantiated in IE7 if it becomes hidden and then shown again at any point the YUI Uploader loses all binding to the functions that trigger submission to the server side url. I tried doing some searching to see if this was documented anywhere and came up empty everywhere I looked.
So, the solution in our case was to move the uploader ‘span’ tag outside of the ‘li’ but still inside the thumbnail container, give it a fixed width and height directly above the image (like a transparent rectangle) and bind mouseover/mouseout events to it that triggered show/hide of the ‘li’ element with the ‘a’ inside:
ul class='mfs-context-menu invisible' id='default-image-menu' span class='uploader' id='upload-profile-picture' /span li a 'Change Profile Picture' /a /li /ul
This way the flash element never gets hidden, and IE7 doesn’t do anything funky to it so the uploader remains operational.
If I had captured a snapshot of my application usage habits during each year of the last few years I think I would have discovered something like this:
- 2005: (Windows): Photoshop, Fireworks, Dreamweaver, Firefox
- 2006: (Windows/Linux): Fireworks, Komodo, Linux Terminal, Notepad, PHPMySQL, WAMP, Firefox (+Firebug)
- 2007: (Windows/OS X): Fireworks, Notepad, IntelliJ IDEA, Visual Studio, Firefox (+Firebug)
- 2008: (OS X): Fireworks, Textmate, OSX Terminal, Firefox (+Firebug)
I’ve got nothing really insightful about these pseudo-stats, it just kind of struck me as I was working that I really don’t use much of an IDE at all now.
I’ve been at VendAsta for a week now and I’m happy to say that my initial impressions haven’t changed all that much. It’s really fulfilling to go in every day and feel totally engaged and encouraged by both the work you’re doing and the people you’re working with. I’ve heard some people say negative things about VendAsta; things like “they won’t be around longer than 8 months” or “they’re just a start up, how can they hope to accomplish anything”. I find most of the people saying these things are either uninformed about what it is we’re working on or just spiteful for some reason. Well, to those of you in either camp let me enlighten you.
VendAsta is about building quality software. VendAsta is about empowering people by allowing them to work on the things they are passionate about. Right now the team I’m working on is building a social marketing tool that will enable homeowners and home industry service providers to share their experiences on whatever social network they happen to be using. There is a lot of room for movement in this area of the social networking sphere, particularly because nobody else has really taken advantage of the online experience as it relates to our homes and home experiences. Rennovations, improvements, parties, appliances you purchased, decorating tips… the list of things people can share about their homes goes on and on. So when I hear people predicting the downfall of VendAsta I really think they have no clue about how much potential there is in the market segment we’re working in. Oh and did I mention, that’s only 1/2 of what we do? :)
I made the switch to working on a Mac at home about 8 months ago. It was more of a novelty at the time, but I needed a change and was tired of “tweaking” my PC when I got home from work. I did manage to learn some important tricks about OS X and get a glimpse of what actually “working” on one would be like. Flash forward some 9 months and I work full time on a MacBook Pro developing with some of the most intriguing technologies out there. The only thing holding me back to Windows for the longest time was the games, and I find now that most of my gaming plays better on my iMac anyways. The keyboard shortcuts are kind of a pain to get used to, but once you realize you actually have an additional modifier key to work with things just kind of click :)
If you’re interested in learning I can’t recommend this book enough: Dive Into Python. The best part is, you can download a full PDF of the book entirely free! I’m only about half way through so far but it’s written in a very easy to understand style and comes with many code examples in the zip file. If you’re following along using the examples on a Mac it’s even better because Leopard comes already installed with Python 2.5. Yes, working with Python is good stuff :)
On Google App Engine (GAE)
Google App Engine is an interesting beast. I’ve read some articles already about how it’s changing development paradigms and forcing developers to think about scalability and data access in a completely different way. I don’t purport to be a database expert but from what I’ve read GAE uses a storage system called BigTable that differs radically from typical RDBS (Relational Database Systems). While this doesn’t affect me directly (yet) I find it interesting to read about problems like scalability. The GAE DataStore API is really simple yet effective, and so far the documentation has been really easy to read and the code examples really easy to follow. A few posts in the Google Groups section for GAE have some further detail on performance testing and the results are intriguing.
My only beef so far with GAE is with running Django on it and the fact that there seems to be a few established ways of running it but no “standard” way:
- Google Code – Running Django on Google App Engine
- GC Project – Google-AppEngine-Django
- Guido van Rossum – Rietveld (sample django on GAE project)
I’ve been working hard to try and figure out some of the best practices for running Django on GAE but I suppose a lot of this is subject to potential change considering GAE is still in PREVIEW RELEASE mode and the Django 1.0 release is still a few weeks away. I don’t anticipate too much change though as there is quite a bit of the API already established. I guess it’s a good thing we’re using the latest SVN releases of Django instead of the default 0.96, 0.97 releases GAE comes with by default.
I tried doing some tutorials on the Django website a few months back and while it was really cool seeing all the “magic” stuff that you got for free with things like the admin interface, ORM layer etc… I don’t think I really appreciated the power of what it can do until I started reading Dive Into Python. Since Django is written in Python it really helps to have an understanding of the language at a more rudimentary level to see exactly how Django works and to avoid the “wtf?! how did it do that?” questions I was having previously. It seems to me that the guys who built Django really understand what’s tedious about building web applications and they’ve created this set of tools to make web application development much more enjoyable.
I personally enjoy working on backend stuff like configuration, deployment, ORM setup and working with Django + GAE is really nice for all of that, but at the same time part of me really enjoys constructing the CSS, XHTML templates, implementing jQuery and YUI for effects and interface widgets, and actually designing the graphics… all of the more frontend type work. I consider myself a Sweeper (read the first paragraph), although more of a frontend leaning Sweeper, but working with the tools and technologies I am able to work with here at VendAsta has really empowered me to “sweep” from frontend to backend and picking up all kinds of knowledge everywhere in between. Just one more thing that makes me really feel like I’ve finally found a job that fits with my never ending thirst to work in both worlds. Did I mention, we’re hiring? :)