Category Archives: Packt

review: Expert PHP5 Tools

In short: great overview of the various tools and processes that can be followed to make working in PHP easy and manageable. I have a new employee here in the office who will be getting this book after me, to quickly bring her up to speed on good practices.

The Good

As you might guess from the “new employee” comment, even though the word “Expert” is in the title, you don’t need to be an expert PHP programmer to use this book. It’s an all-round overview of the programs you might use during your day-to-day programming life for the next few years.

As the author (Dirk Merkel) suggested in the book, some people may disagree with some choices in the book. For example, I am a fervent Vim user, but the book chooses Eclipse as its programming environment of choice.

From a broader point of view, the Eclipse IDE may be the correct one for programmers to use, as it offers much more than just a text editor. As for me, it’s hard to change an old dog’s habits!

The book includes some handy reference notes for various tools, such as SVN or phpDocumentor. It’s good for people that are not used to reading online references for everything to have them all in one book.

Each chapter is immensely in-depth. To the point that it’s almost like each chapter is a mini-book on its own subject. In some cases the chapters include everything you might ever use on those subjects.

For myself, I’m interested to try some of the suggestions in the Continuous Integration chapter and throughout the book, as I already run a few projects where updates are more important than releases. I’m especially interested in integrating SVN with automated testing and style-checking. Test-driven Development is described in the book, and it certainly seems more robust than my current “deadline-driven development” style!

The Bad

There were code samples in there that could have been shortened immensely by choosing a different spacing scheme or reducing the comments. For example, in the Debugging chapter, there is a code sample that goes on for 9 pages. That’s a lot of code to read… If the empty lines and comments had been removed or reduced, Dirk could have cut it down to maybe 4 or 3 pages, making it much more readable in print. As it was, I did my best to read through it, flipping back and forth between pages to find where references went or came from.

The Ugly

Actually, there wasn’t really anything in this book that I’d call ugly, apart from the overly long code examples.

Conclusion

Immensely useful for the professional programmer. Especially a programmer who needs to fit into a team.

I’m no beginner myself, and picked up quite a few tips throughout the book.

Buy this book – it’s worth it.

update: CMS design with jQuery and PHP

I got an “urgent” email recently from my Packt coordinator – she told me that if I kept writing my book at the rate I was writing, then it would end up being about 500 pages.

Thing is, though – it would be tricky to reduce the chapters I’ve already done, as a half explanation is as good as no explanation at all.

So, I looked over the planned chapters again, and saw that the final three could probably be dropped without affecting the core content of the book – they were just more example plugins showing how to integrate various things with the CMS.

The book itself is on how to build a CMS in PHP, that uses jQuery to make administration easier. That has been accomplished already in the existing chapters (1-7).

I suggested to Packt that I would drop the final three chapters and rework the earlier chapters so the book was more easily read (a 40-page chapter is /not/ easy to read).

Got an email back from them yesterday saying that the plan sounded good.

So the current plan is:

  • Finish chapter 8, which is on panels and widgets.
  • Write chapter 9, which will build a plugin demonstrating panels and widgets.
  • Try to break the earlier chapters apart so that there are more chapters, with less pages per chapter.
  • profit

I think I’ll be finished the current chapters within three weeks, then take a week or two to rework the earlier chapters, then another month for rewrites, and finally the book will be published 2/3 weeks later.

So, the book may be out within two months.

After this, I’m taking a break from modern technology to write about baroque technology – I’ll be writing a book on how to build a cheap clavichord.

what I'm up to

As usual, I’m behind on stuff.

I just submitted chapter 3 of my upcoming book “CMS Design with PHP and jQuery”, and chapter 4 was due to be complete and sent two days ago.

My clavichord project stalled when the cumulative number of mistakes made it incredibly unlikely I’ll complete it in a usable fashion.

In work, I’m behind on a pretty large online-store project, but in that case I’m okay with it – I wasn’t slacking; things are just very busy at the moment.

My piano playing has also stalled – I’ve been trying to learn The Heart Asks Its Pleasure First for the last month. I’m stuck on the final page, where the left hand is all over the place and the right has an intricate tune to play. Its all in my head, but I just can’t play it smoothly. Thinking of putting that on the back-burner and going onto Bach’s 2-part inventions instead.

upcoming

Packt have asked me to review Expert PHP5 Tools. Looking forward to it. It’s got some stuff in it which I’ve read about but never tried. Including: UML design of applications, incorporating tests into subversion submissions, and automated documentation of source (among other things).

My piano teacher found an examiner who will be testing in Monaghan next month, so I’ll finally be able to get grade 2 out of the way. I’ve been practicing grade 2 and 3 tunes for months. Playing 6 tunes every day before I do anything else has been reducing th amount of time I have for the rest of my practice, so I’ll be glad to get this one passed as well.

I’m trying to push myself to get the current book finished as soon as possible. This is difficult as writing a CMS is a much more complex job than writing a cookbook of techniques. The chapter I just finished had 40 pages in it. By the 40th page of the previous book I was already into chapter 3. Chapter 2 wasn’t much smaller either!

When this book is finished, I’ll be starting a new one, on building a clavichord as cheaply as possible. Because I failed with the current one, but learned quite a lot from it, I feel I’ll get it right this time, and would like to document it as I go. There’s a lot of math involved in building a clavichord, and I think I may even get a good programming application out of it!

After that, I’m thinking of starting up contact juggling again, and completing the book, this time with videos.

When I get the time, I’d also like to get back into building robots. I think the gardening robot is a bit beyond me at the moment (involves some very complex AI), but I thought I’d try build a digger bot. You tell it what you want dug, where to put the debris, etc., and it gets to work.

CMS Design with jQuery and PHP: moving a recaptcha form

reCAPTCHA is a free captcha service which lets you use their captchas for your programs.

I wanted to create a login/password-reminder page, with recaptcha used in both forms.

Unfortunately, you can’t have two recaptcha images on the same page, as every time the image is displayed, it is a new image and the old one is no longer valid (which means that if it’s used in two forms, you can only ever submit the second one.)

A solution that came to me is to “move” the captcha from one form to the other, so you’re only ever actually using one recaptcha.

So how is it done?

demo

In the demo, I’m using jQuery UI to separate the forms into two tabs.

If you look at the source, you will see there is one recaptcha object, in the first table. The table row has the ID “captcha”.

The entire JavaScript used in the demo is this:

$(function(){
	// remove the captcha's script element
	$('#captcha script').remove();
	// set up tabs
	$('.tabs').tabs({
		show:function(event,ui){
			// if the captcha is already here, return
			if($('#captcha',ui.panel).length)return;
			// move the captcha into this panel
			$('table tr:last',ui.panel).before($('#captcha'));
		}
	});
});

The first thing that’s done is that the captcha’s <script> element is removed. If you don’t remove it, then when the table row is moved, the script will be re-interpreted, causing breakage.

Now, the tabs are initialised. We set the show event to run a little function. That function checks to see if the captcha row is contained in the newly-shown panel. If it’s not, then it’s moved there using this line:

$('table tr:last',ui.panel).before($('#captcha'));

The above line means “insert/move the #captcha element in front of the last tr in the table contained in ui.panel“.

This is part of the User Management And Access Control chapter of the up-coming book “CMS Design using jQuery and PHP” ( a sequel, sort-of, to my jQuery 1.3 with PHP).

ToDo

List of things off the top of my head that I want to do:

  • write a book. already had a non-fiction book published, but I’d love to have an interesting an compelling original fiction idea to write about. I’m working on a second non-fiction book at the moment.
  • master a martial art. I have a green belt in Bujinkan Taijutsu (ninja stuff, to the layman), but that’s from ten years ago – found a Genbukan teacher only a few days ago so I’ll be starting that up soon (again, ninja stuff).
  • learn maths. A lot of the stuff I do involves guessing numbers or measuring. it’d be nice to be able to come up with formulas to generate optimal solutions.
  • learn electronics. what /is/ electricity? what’s the difference between voltage and amperage? who knows… I’d like to.
  • create a robot gardener. not just a remote-control lawn-mower. one that knows what to cut, what to destroy, that can prune bushes, till the earth, basically everything that a real gardener does.
  • rejuvenate, or download to a computer, whichever is possible first. science fiction, eh? you wait and see…
  • create an instrument. I’m just finishing off a clavichord at the moment. when that’s done, I think I’ll build another one, based on all the things I learned from the first. followed by a spinet, a harpsichord, a dulcimer, and who knows what else.
  • learn to play an instrument. I’m going for grades 2 and 3 in September for piano. I can play guitar pretty well, but would love to find a classical teacher.
  • write a computer game. I have an idea, based on Dungeon Keeper, for a massively multiplayer game. maybe I’ll do it through facebook…
  • write programs to:
    • take a photo of a sudoku puzzle and solve it. already wrote the solver.
    • take a photo of some sheet music and play it.
    • show some sheet music on screen, compare to what you’re playing on a MIDI keyboard, and mark your effort.
    • input all the songs you can play on guitar/keyboard. based on the lists of thousands of people, rate all these songs by difficulty, to let you know what you should be able to learn next.
    • input a job and your location. have other people near you auction themselves to do the job for you. or vice versa: input your location, and find all jobs within walking distance to you where you can do an odd job for some extra cash (nearly there: http://oddjobs4locals.com).
    • takes a photo and recognises objects in it (partly done)
    • based on above, but can also be corrected and will learn from the corrections (also partly done)
  • stop being damned depressed all the time.

There’s probably a load of other stuff, but that’s all I’ve got at the moment!

CMS Design using jQuery and PHP: the core

I submitted chapter 1 of “cms design using jquery and php” yesterday.

I’ve been building and using CMSes for over ten years, and the more I do it, the more I realise that “less is more”.

In the beginning, I was writing CMSes that had absolutely every aspect of the requirements hard-coded. That made the system fast but inflexible.

Over the years, though, I started figuring ways of breaking the system up into more modular bits and pieces, that could be enabled/disabled depending on the job.

This is the essence of what “plugins” are about – you have a single core system which includes only the absolute essentials, and into that, you put whatever plugins you find necessary for the job you’re doing.

The trick, though, is in deciding what is a plugin and what is not. This is very important to figure out – if something should be a plugin, it should not be in the core, thus making he core more stable and manageable. Conversely, if you make something into a plugin which is necessary for normal use of the CMS, then it makes the system less stable.

An example of this dilemma is user logins. Obviously, you need to have user logins for the admin area to work, but you don’t need user logins on the front end of the site.

So, should user-logins be a plugin or core functionality? The solution is a mix of both – you need to create a hard-coded user login specifically for the admin area, and if you want users logging in to the front end, that is a plugin, even though they both use the same database. The difference is that the admin login area is at a defined point (when you access the admin area), while making the frontend login into a plugin allows you to place a login anywhere you want.

Anyway – over the years, I’ve whittled away at my own CMSes until I realised that the core functionality of a CMS consists of just three things:

  1. display and editing of “normal” pages
  2. user and role administration
  3. plugin management

It’s impossible to cover those three items in just one chapter, but once they are covered, that basically completes the CMS!

When you have the above three items completed in your CMS, you can then work completely on plugins, making the system stable and yet flexible.

Of course, there are some fine details (templates, UI, optimisation, DB structure, etc.) that go into completing those three items, but that’s basically it.

CMS Design with jQuery and PHP: postage and packaging prices

This article is based on work which will be expanded more fully in the book, when I get to that chapter.

Every time we do an online store here in webworks, the postage/packaging is different. In one case, for example, postage is free over €50 euro, in another, it depends on where it’s going, and in the latest, it depends on a load of factors including where it’s going, what the weight of the products is, and what delivery option was chosen.

Up until now, hand-coded the postage rules. Everything else was handled by user-friendly parts of our CMS, but postage was such a random thing that we couldn’t find anything common enough that we could make a generic P&P handler.

The finished product is more complex than this example, but I’ll describe a cut-down version of what we’ve done, with countries and parcel-types removed.

admin demo – demo of UI for generating P&P rules

The first demo shows how the postage-and-packaging rule-set is created, using an “if-else” flow generator to build up the logic of the thing, and after each major action, convert the current state into a JSON string which can be saved.

The PHP is not really important in this one. The JavaScript handles everything. It translates a “seed” JSON string into a graphical representation of the rules, which can then be manipulated and finally translated back (automatically) into a JSON string to be saved in a DB (or session in this case). source for the PHP, source for the JS.

The frontend does its work in the background:

frontend demo – using those rules to evaluate P&P (visit admin first).

In this case, we enter values – total, weight – and run through the rule-set to find out what the P&P ends up as.

The source is suprisingly small, using a small recursive function to dig through the rules, no matter how deep and complex they go.

Here’s the recursive function (see source for rest of file):

function os_getPostageAndPackagingSubtotal($cstrs,$total,$weight){
  foreach($cstrs as $cstr){
    if($cstr->type=='total_weight_less_than_or_equal_to' && $weight<=$cstr->value)return os_getPostageAndPackagingSubtotal($cstr->constraints,$total,$weight);
    if($cstr->type=='total_weight_more_than_or_equal_to' && $weight>=$cstr->value)return os_getPostageAndPackagingSubtotal($cstr->constraints,$total,$weight);
    if($cstr->type=='total_less_than_or_equal_to' && $total<=$cstr->value)return os_getPostageAndPackagingSubtotal($cstr->constraints,$total,$weight);
    if($cstr->type=='total_more_than_or_equal_to' && $total>=$cstr->value)return os_getPostageAndPackagingSubtotal($cstr->constraints,$total,$weight);
  }
  $val=str_replace('weight',$weight,$cstr->value);
  $val=str_replace('total',$total,$val);
  $val=preg_replace('#[^0-9*/\-+.\(\)]#','',$val);
  if(preg_match('/[^0-9.]/',$val))eval('$val=('.$val.');');
  return (float)$val;
}

The switch block goes through the various “if” types that can exist in the flow model, handling each of them recursively and return their values to the caller.

If no “if”s are encountered, then the ruleset has found an answer, and we return that answer.

Before returning it, though, we parse the value of the answer. This is in case the answer is a math formula to do with the weight or total of the item.

For example, An Post have definite prices for packets to Europe up to 2kg (which is 10.75), and beyond that, it’s 3 euro extra for every extra kg.

That translates to a load of definite “if” statements, and an end value of “(weight-2)*3+10.75″ for the final “else”.

So, we convert recognisable words such as “weight” or “total” to numbers, make sure that we’re only left with parseable characters (and not something that can be used to hack), and eval it to produce the result.

Obviously, the full product is more complete than this, with safeguards against faulty formulas, extras to handle countries and envelope types (parcel/packet/envelope), but this example should give you a few ideas if you’re building your own P&P handler.

CMS Design using PHP and jQuery

I’m happy this week. Last week, I spent some time and organised myself a bit more. In work, things are going smoothly – managed to get over a tricky piece of work and the rest is simply a list of small tasks.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been emailing and messaging Darshana at Packt Publishing, about writing a second book (jQuery 1.3 with PHP is going very well – list of reviews).

I initially wanted to write about file management, to explain how KFM works, and to help force me to improve on it. But there’s just not enough of an interested market in that – it’s too specialised.

So instead, I’ll be writing about CMS design using PHP and jQuery.

We (webworks.ie) have a CMS engine which we’ve written and improved for the last 6 or so years. We’ve open-sourced it a number of times, but never managed to generate much interest in it. We never had the time to spend on publicising it.

The book will not be specifically about that engine, but rather about the concepts that went into creating it – how a CMS works, how to manage plugins, administration, user management, and all the other little bits and pieces that every PHP developer needs to eventually address.

By way of explanation, I will be demonstrating various parts of our CMS, and explaining how and why it was built that way. I will be closely examining the other major CMSes as well, and giving alternative methods where good ones exist.

The proposed chapter list is:

  1. Introduction
  2. CMS core design
  3. User management and access control
  4. Page creation and Navigation
  5. Template Management
  6. Plugins
  7. Form creation
  8. Image Gallery
  9. Panels
  10. Search and Polls
  11. RSS and News
  12. Online Store
  13. Products

I’m really excited about this project!

what's up!

Short run-down of what I’m doing lately: nothing.

Less short: I’m trying to get work out the door, get a good run at some personal projects, pass grade 2 piano, get organised, and generally improve my lot.

None of this is working. I think the “get organised” bit is the most important, as it will help the rest of it fall into place.

I usually only post about web-development-related topics here, as that’s the only subject where I feel I can contribute something new and interesting, so I tend to not talk about other stuff. But sometimes, rattling off the current state of the head is good for clearing it.

In work, I can’t really complain – we have a number of largish projects which are slowly creeping towards completion. The hardest thing about them is getting information from the clients, and then a week or two later being told that half the information is not required. I guess my main complaint at work is the inexorably slow completion rate.

On the personal projects side:

There are still a number of small bugs in KFM 1.4, and either I don’t have the time to get to them, or there is no enough information to recreate the bug and the submitter doesn’t give me access to their copy so I can’t see it from their side.

KFM 2 has been halted for a while – the idea is huge, but I simply don’t have the time, and no-one is clambering for it. I’ll get to it when I have time, but I might have to approach it by evolving KFM 1.x into meeting what I wanted, instead of the original goal of building KFM 2 from scratch.

I started a new project, OddJobs4Locals two weeks back, and got a good two-day run at it, then time got ahead of me again. I think this will be a good one, when I can complete it. Useful for students, people with a little spare time, or simply people that just want to make a little extra cash. Not yet working, but it will be soon, I hope… This is doubly interesting to me, as it is done purely through AJAX, so it will be easy to do a smart-phone client or a desktop client when the time comes.

I’m in the back/forth stage of working with Packt publishing to see if they want me to do a second book (the first one has no bad reviews at all). We’ve mostly agreed on a table of contents, and I’m just trying to get the time to combine a few of the smaller chapters together.

On the piano, I’ve been ready for the grade 2 exam since November, and am still waiting to see if there will be an exam near me any time soon – I hate the effort that goes into travelling (I have a family, and no car). I was hoping to do a grade every 6 months. It looks like this might not be possible, despite me being ready for it… The tunes I’m doing for it are Beethoven’s Sonatina in G Major, a waltz by Bela Bartok, and Boys And Girls Come Out To Samba, by Terence Greaves – by the way, I don’t like those videos; there are no dynamics in any of them, and I can hear a number of mistakes as well. No video apparently of the Terence Greaves one.

As for organisation… well I guess I’d better start working with Mantis again.

My lot will have to wait – I’ve a load of work to get done before it can improve.

Meh. Depression taking hold again.

win a copy of jQuery 1.3 With PHP

I’ve just noticed that a site is running a competition to give away a copy of my book.

competition page

All you need to do is leave a comment explaining how you intend to use jQuery in your next project.

If you want to see reviews of the book, I’m maintaining a list of reviews here.