Archive for Internet

Quick-and-dirty SMTP Server For Debugging

2013-12-27 11:51

Every computer program expands until it can read e-mail – or so they say. But many applications need not to read, but to send e-mails; web apps or web services are probably the most prominent examples. If you happen to develop them, you may sometimes want a local, dummy SMTP server just for testing this functionality. It doesn’t even have to send anything (it must not, actually), but it should allow you to see what would be sent if the app worked in a production environment.

By far the easiest way to setup such a server involves, quite surprisingly, Python. There is a standard library module called smtpd, which is built exactly for this purpose. Amusingly, you don’t even have to write any code that uses it; you can invoke it straight from the command line:

  1. $ python -m smtpd -n -c DebuggingServer

This will start a server that listens on port 8025 and dumps every message “sent” through it to the standard output. A custom port is chosen because on *nix systems, only the ports above 1024 are accessible to an ordinary user. For the standard SMTP port 25, you need to start the server as root:

  1. $ sudo python -m stmpd -c DebuggingServer localhost:25

While it’s more typing, it frees you from having to change the SMTP port number inside your application’s code.

If you plan to use smtpd more extensively, though, you may want to look at the small runner script I’ve prepared. By default, it tries to listen on port 25, but you can supply a port number as its sole argument.

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Author: Xion, posted under Applications, Internet, Programming » Comments Off on Quick-and-dirty SMTP Server For Debugging

License It, Please

2013-01-31 6:45

In a blog relayed to my news reader today via Slashdot, I found this bit about providing licenses to the open source code you publish. Or, more specifically, about not providing them:

If some ‘no license’ sharing is a quiet rejection of the permission culture, the lawyer’s solution (make everyone use a license, for their own good!) starts to look bad. This is because once an author has used a standard license, their immediate interests are protected – but the political content of not choosing a license is lost. [emphasis mine]

I admire how the author goes all post-modernistic by bringing up fuzzy terms like “permission culture”. It’s a serious skill, to muddy such a clear-cut issue by making so many onerous assumptions per square inch of text. The alleged existence of some “political content” involved in not choosing any license – as opposed to, say, negligence or lack of knowledge – is easily my favorite here.

On more serious note: what a load of manure. I won’t even grace the premise with speculation on how likely it is to have anything to do with reality – that is, how big a percentage of the ‘no license’ projects is made so by the conscious choice of their authors. No, I will be insanely generous and assume that it actually holds water. Doesn’t matter; the claim that this practice should be encouraged and that something valuable is lost if software project has a license is still sheer lunacy.

If you don’t explicitly renounce some rights to your code – by providing a license, as the most common way – they are all reserved to you. Regardless of what political or cultural weight you may want to associate with this fact, the practical one is implied by law. And it’s very simple: no one can safely do anything with that code of yours, for there is always a risk you will exercise your rights through prosecution.

Of course I know you wouldn’t do anything so clearly evil. But that’s no guarantee for many parties that treat the issues of copyright and liability very seriously: from solo freelancers to the biggest of companies, and from lone hackers to the most influential software foundations. If you care about your code being widely used and solving problems for as many people as possible, this is also something you should pay attention to.
Otherwise it may happen that for someone, your work is just the perfect piece of puzzle – but they cannot use it safely. They might ask you to fix your oversight, of course, but they might also go somewhere else.

And that is typically the “immediate interest” that you protect by licensing: letting others actually use your code. If you ask me, that sounds like something totally worthy of protection.

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Author: Xion, posted under Internet, Programming » 3 comments

jqpm: Package Manager for jQuery

2012-07-07 15:05

There is a specific technology I wanted to play around with for some time now; it’s called node.js. It also happens that I think the best way to get to know new stuff is to create something small, but complete and functional. Note that by ‘functional’ I don’t really mean ‘practical’; that distinction is pretty important, given what I’m about to present here.

Basically, I wrote a package manager for jQuery. The idea was to have a straightforward way to install jQuery plugins – a way that somewhat mirrors the experience of dozens of other package managers, from pip to cabal. End result looks pretty decent, in my opinion:

  1. $ jqpm install flot
  2. [jqpm] flot installed successfully
  3. $ ls *.js
  4. jquery.flot.js

The funny part? It doesn’t use any central, remote registry of plugins. What it does is searching GitHub and pulling code directly from there – provided it is able to find something relevant that looks like jQuery plugin. That seems to work well for quite a few popular ones, which is rather surprising given how silly and simplistic the underlying algorithm is. Certainly, there’s plenty of room for improvement, including support for jquery.json manifests – the future standard for the upcoming official plugin site.

As I said before, though, the main purpose of jqpm was educational one. After toying with underlying technologies for a couple of evenings, I definitely have better perspective to evaluate their usefulness. While the topic might warrant a follow-up posts in the future, I think I can briefly summarize my findings in few bullet points:

  • Node’s JavaScript is almost the same language you can find in your browser, with all of its wats, warts and shortcomings. That’s not a big problem if you already learned to deal with them, but I surely wouldn’t recommend it as starter language for novices. Additionally, it also turns out to be quite verbose language, with all the ubiquitous functions and loops, and without denser syntactic sugar such as list comprehensions.
  • By contrast, the standard library of Node is very nice mixture of usefulness and minimalism. It’s certainly not as rich as Python’s or Java’s, but it’s more than usable, despite sitting a bit on the low level side.
  • The canonical tool for managing dependencies, npm, is rather curious creature. Combined with the way Node resolves require() calls, it makes for an unusual system that resembles classic C/C++ #includes – but improved, of course. What stands out the most is the lack of virtualenv/rvm-style utilities; instead, an equivalent approach of local node_modules subfolders is used instead. (npm faq and npm help folders provide more elaborate explanation on how does it work exactly).
  • The callback-based, asynchronous computation is a big hindrance that doesn’t really seem worthwhile. Intriguingly, the hassles of async vs. sync feel strangely similar to issues with pure vs. impure code in functional languages such as Haskell; in both cases you need some serious refactoring of brainware to start coding effectively. In Haskell, however, you are gaining tremendous boons to correctness, modularization, parallelization and testability. In Node, it’s disputable whether you actually gain anything: the whole idea of I/O based on a single event loop sounds all too similar to what an operating system already does with threads sleeping on I/O calls and hardware interrupts that wake them. Granted, this incarnation of asynchronous I/O is much better than some older ones, but that’s mostly thanks to JavaScript being much better equipped to handle the callback bonanza than plain ol’ C.

The bottom line: node.js is definitely not a cancer and has many legitimate uses, mostly pertaining to rapid transfer of relatively small pieces of data over the Internet. API backends, single page web applications or certain game servers all fall easily into this category.

From developer’s point of view, it’s also quite fun platform to code in, despite the asynchronous PITA mentioned above (which is partially alleviated by libraries like async.js or frameworks providing futures/promises). On the overall abstraction ladder, I think it can be placed noticeably lower than Java and not very much higher than plain C. That place is an interesting one, and it’s also not densely populated by any similar technologies and languages (only Go and Objective-C come to mind). Occupying this mostly overlooked niche could very well be one of reasons for Node’s recent popularity.

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Author: Xion, posted under Internet, Programming, Thoughts » 2 comments

Bootstrap, a UI framework for the modern Web

2012-04-22 20:11

It was almost exactly one year ago and I remember it quite vividly. I was attending an event organized by Google which was about the Chrome Web Store, as well as HTML5 and web applications in general. After the speaker finished pitching about awesomeness of this stuff (and how Chrome was the only browser that supported them all, of course), it was time for a round of questions and some discussion. I seized this opportunity and brought up an issue of user interface inconsistencies that plague the contemporary web apps. Because the Web as a platform doesn’t really enforce any constraints on UI paradigms, we can experience all sorts of “creative” approaches to user interface. In their pursuit of novelty and eye candies, web designers often sacrifice usability by not adhering to well known interface metaphors, and shying away from uniform UI elements.

At that time I didn’t really get a good answer that would address this issue. And it’s an important one, given the rate at which web applications are springing to life and replacing their equivalent desktop programs. Does it mean we’ll be stuck with this UI bonanza for the time being?…

Fortunately, there are some early first signs that it might not necessarily be so.

Enter Bootstrap

Few months later, in August 2011, Twitter released the first version of Bootstrap framework. Originally intended for internal use, this set of common HTML, CSS and JS patterns was made open source and released into the wild. The praise it subsequently gained is definitely well deserved, for it is a great set of tools for kickstarting development of any web-related project. Its features include:

  • a flexible grid system for establishing a skeleton of the web page or app
  • a set of great-looking styles for HTML form elements
  • many complex UI components, like collapsible alerts, dropdowns, navigation bars, modal windows, and so on
  • customizable set of CSS styles for typical markup elements, such as headers or tables

Along with universal acclaim came also the popularity: it is currently the most watched project on GitHub.

The value of consistency

However, some want to argue that being so popular has also an unanticipated, negative side. It makes the developers lazy, convinced they can get away without a “proper” design for their site or app. Even more: it allegedly shows disrespect for their users, as if the creator simply didn’t care how does their product look like.

Does it compute? I don’t think so. Do you complain if you find that any particular desktop application uses the very same looks for UI components, like buttons or list boxes?… Of course not. We learned to value the consistency and predictability that this entails, because it frees us from the burden of mentally adjusting to every single GUI app that we happen to use. Similarly, developers appreciate how this makes their work easier: they don’t have to code dropdown menus or modal dialogs, which in turns allows them to spend more time on actual, useful functionality.

Sure, it didn’t happen overnight when desktop OS’ were emerging as software platforms. Also, there are still plenty of apps whose creators – willfully or unintentionally – chose not to adhere to the standards. Sometimes it’s even for the good, as it allows for new, useful UI patterns to emerge and be adopted by the mainstream. The resulting process is still that of convergence, producing interfaces which are more consistent and easier to use.

Bootstrap shapes the Web

The analogous process may just be happening to the Internet, considered as a “platform” for web applications. By steadily raising in popularity, Bootstrap has a chance of becoming the UI framework for Web in general – an obvious first choice for any new project.

Of course, even if this happens, it would be terribly unlikely that it starts reigning supreme and making every website look almost exactly the same – i.e. transforming the Web into equivalent of desktop. What’s much more likely is following the footsteps of mobile platforms. In there, every app strives to be original and appealing but only those that correctly balance usability with artsy design provide really compelling user experience.

It will not be without differences, though. Mobile platforms are generally ruled with iron (or clay) fist and have relevant UI guidelines spelled out explicitly. For Web it’s very much not the case, so any potential “standardization” is necessarily a bottom-up process whose benefits have to be indisputable and clearly visible. Despite some opposition, Bootstrap seems to have enough momentum to really (ahem) bootstrap this process. It already wins hearts and minds of many web developers, so it may be just a matter of time.

If it happens, I believe the Web will be in better place.

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Author: Xion, posted under Internet, Programming, Thoughts » Comments Off on Bootstrap, a UI framework for the modern Web

The “Wat” of Python

2012-01-31 21:19

It is quite likely you are familiar with the Wat talk by Gary Bernhardt. It is sweeping through the Internet, giving some good laugh to pretty much anyone who watches it. Surely it did to me!
The speaker is making fun of Ruby and JavaScript languages (although mostly the latter, really), showing totally unexpected and baffling results of some seemingly trivial operations – like adding two arrays. It turns out that in JavaScript, the result is an empty string. (And the reasons for that provoke even bigger “wat”).

After watching the talk for about five times (it hardly gets old), I started to wonder whether it is only those two languages that exhibit similarly confusing behavior… The answer is of course “No”, and that should be glaringly obvious to anyone who knows at least a bit of C++ ;) But beating on that horse would be way too easy, so I’d rather try something more ambitious.
Hence I ventured forth to search for “wat” in Python 2.x. The journey wasn’t short enough to stop at mere addition operator but nevertheless – and despite me being nowhere near Python expert – I managed to find some candidates rather quickly.

I strove to keep with the original spirit of Gary’s talk, so I only included those quirks that can be easily shown in interactive interpreter. The final result consists of three of them, arranged in the order of increasing puzzlement. They are given without explanation or rationale, hopefully to encourage some thought beyond amusement :)

Behold, then, the Wat of Python!

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Author: Xion, posted under Internet, Programming » 12 comments

Self-Replacing Script Blocks for Dynamic Lists

2012-01-17 8:52

On contemporary websites and web applications, it is extremely common task to display a list of items on page. In any reasonable framework and/or templating engine, this can be accomplished rather trivially. Here’s how it could look like in Jinja or Django templates:

  1. <ul>
  2. {% for item in items %}
  3.     <li>{{ item }}</li>
  4. {% endfor %}
  5. </ul>

But it’s usually not too long before our list grows big and it becomes unfeasible to render it all on the server. Or maybe, albeit less likely, we want it to be updated in real-time, without having to reload the whole page. Either case requires to incorporate some JavaScript code, talking to the server and obtaining next portion of data whenever it’s needed.

Obviously, that data has to be rendered as well, and there is one option of doing it on the server side, serving actual HTML directly to JS. An arguably better solution is to respond with JSON or similar representation of our items. This is conceptually simpler, feels less messy and is potentially reusable as a part of website’s external API. There is just one drawback: it forces rendering to be done also in JavaScript.

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Author: Xion, posted under Applications, Internet » 1 comment

Text Ellipsis with Gradient Fade in Pure CSS

2011-12-26 18:56

The other day I encountered a small but very interesting effect, visible in Bitbucket issues’ table. Some of the cells were slightly too narrow for the text they contained, and it had to be ellipsized. Usually this is done by cropping some of the text’s trailing chars and replacing them with dots – mostly because that’s what the text-ellipsis style is doing. Here, however, I saw something much more original: the text was fading out in gradient-like style, going from full black to full transparent/white over a distance of about 30 pixels. It made quite of an eye-catching effect.

So, I decided to bring up Firebug and find out how this nifty trick actually works. Taught by past experiences, I expected a tightly coupled mis-mash of DOM and CSS hacks, with lots of moving parts that need to be carefully adjusted in face of any changes. Alas, I was wrong: it turned out to only use CSS, in succinct and elegant manner. After simple reverse-engineering, I uncovered a clever solution involving gradients, opacity and :before/:after pseudo-elements. It definitely deserves some press, so let’s look into it.

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Author: Xion, posted under Internet, Programming » 3 comments

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