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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

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I can work on anything I want

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working on your own project is that there is so much to do. That may seem strange, why would I want to have so much to do? But if you look at it a different way it becomes a much more enjoyable experience.

Whenever I sit down to work on my pet project, a new iOS app, I can choose what I’m in the mood to work on. Perhaps I’m in the mood to work on the branding, editorial, licensing, or marketing? Or, would I prefer to hunker down into some Swift programming and refine the datastore, algorithms, animations, speed, etc of the app? Or perhaps I’d like to identify key strategic partners for my product launch or look through beta user feedback or do some artwork?

You see the point? Yes, there is a lot to do. And it can seem overwhelming if you allow it to be. But, no matter what type of mood I’m in I can make some progress on the project nearly every single day. And I’m having a ball so far.

Observations on building my first iOS app in Swift

In early June I decided I wanted to learn iOS app development using Swift.

I’ve made a lot of progress over the last month, building two apps that I can use on my own phone, and one app that I’m now in beta testing via TestFlight with a few friends. Over the last month I’ve made some observations on the process of building an iOS app, the Swift programming language, Xcode, iOS frameworks, and the various other bits needed to make an app. I thought I’d take the time to jot those down.

These are in no particular order:

  • Swift is growing on me rather quickly. The idea behind Swift has always interested me, but I hadn’t really given it a try until now. Like any new language you need to work with it for a time before some of the things that you may not like about it, you end up seeing the wisdom in.
  • I’m very glad I waited until Swift 3 before trying it in earnest. The tutorials I’ve come across for earlier versions make it clear the language has matured in a short period of time.
  • Using Storyboards in Xcode is not intuitive whatsoever. I know many people avoid them altogether (from what I’ve seen on YouTube). Unless you watch someone build a Storyboard you’d likely never, ever just figure it out.
  • iOS frameworks are bulky. It is no wonder so many apps are so big. Just including one or two frameworks for my very simple first app ballooned the app to over 15Mb.
  • That being said, iOS frameworks are very useful. With just a few lines of code you can get something working quickly.
  • Playgrounds are very useful to learn Swift.
  • The Playgrounds compiler can become stuck rather easily. Especially if you paste in a bunch of code from your project to mess around with and get it to work. I’ve had to restart Xcode several times.
  • Xcode has crashed on me a few times over the last month. Crashes on macOS (and also most Apple apps) are very rare. So to be working on something so fragile seems out-of-character. Especially with how simple my apps are currently.
  • Auto Layout baffles me still. I have a working UI for one of my apps that works across multiple device screen sizes. But it is far from what I’d want to ship with. I’ve watched a lot of videos on how to use Auto Layout but I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I’m waiting for the moment it clicks.
  • The connection between labels and buttons and other UI elements in your Storyboard and your Controller class is far too fragile. You should be able to rename things, delete things, move them around without completely blowing everything up and starting over. Example: If I CNTRL+Drag a label onto my Controller and create an Reference Outlet for it… I should be able to rename that Outlet without needing to CNTRL+Drag again. I don’t know how, but somehow.
  • Did I mention that Auto Layout baffles me still?
  • Building and deploying an app to iTunes Connect in order to add to the App Store or Test Flight is an entirely un-Apple-like experience. There is no Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 type of workflow. Similar to Storyboards it is not something you can figure out – you must watch or read to learn. It feels like it was never designed by a Product person.
  • Building an app that resides on a device like the iPhone is an amazing experience. While I’ve always been able to load my web apps on a phone, and I’ve built some apps that use a WebView to deploy across multiple platforms, this is the first time I feel like I’m touching my app when I use it. There is nothing that comes close to native UI.
  • Also, building an app that requires no connection to the web has been really fun. It is so fast! I’d like to move forward by trying my best to keep HTTP request at zero or as low as possible.
  • The amount of information an iOS device knows at any given time is pretty amazing. It can know (with the user’s permission) where it is, what altitude it is at, which way it is pointing, how many times the person’s heartbeat that day, what it is looking at, etc. etc. Amazing to play with these features.
  • The Xcode IDE is really incredible to use. You may not remember a framework’s properties but you can just begin typing a reasonable word and expect that Xcode will figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. Also, if you happen to write older syntax because you’re following an out-of-date tutorial, it will automatically convert it to the most recent syntax.

Overall I’ve had a positive experience learning to build an iOS app on my own. Going from having an app in TestFlight to shipping an app feels like preparing to cross a desert on foot. But, I’m enjoying my experience so I’m going to trudge forward to do so.

I hope to ask for public beta testers of the app in a few weeks or a month.

Arguments aren’t parameters

Eevee on the names of things in programming languages:

Part of the problem here is that we’re not actually doing computer science. We’re doing programming, with a wide variety (hundreds!) of imperfect languages with different combinations of features and restrictions. There are only so many words to go around, so the same names get used for vaguely similar features across many languages, and native speakers naturally attach their mother tongue’s baggage to the jargon it uses. Someone who got started with JavaScript would have a very different idea of what a “class” is than someone who got started with Ruby. People come to Python or JavaScript and exclaim that they “don’t have real closures” because of a quirk of name binding.

I’m as guilty of spouting off inaccurate names of things as anyone. I catch myself using the generic term for the thing I’m talking about even if the language I’m referencing doesn’t support that feature. I use “method” a lot and I likely mean “member function”. I definitely say “argument” rather than “parameter”.

Fascinating piece as always from Evee. I’ve got a bunch of her posts saved to read later (as you can tell, this post is now 8 months old). I recommend subscribing to her site if you’re not already.

Attending the Wilkes-Barre Programming meetup

Osterhout Free Public Library

On Saturday I braved the frigid temperatures and attended a Wilkes-Barre Programming meetup at the Osterhout Free Library in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

I arrived a few minutes late – it was Saturday so of course I had to make myself some breakfast, enjoy my coffee, watch a little YouTube prior to getting out in the elements – and then I couldn’t find the room the meetup was in at the library. Once I found the group there was already 6 attendees and they were over an hour into their programming.

One of the attendees proposed a problem to be solved; convert a number into a Roman numeral using Python. I have little-to-no Python experience, and unfortunately not much was discussed at this meetup regarding the language (since it wasn’t for beginners) but I decided to try my hand at solving this problem in JavaScript. Here is my attempt (though incomplete). It can do the thousands and hundreds. I’d need a little more time to do the tens and singles but I ran out of time at the group.

I was happy to see this small group meeting in Wilkes-Barre. Some of the attendees mentioned they’d be visiting the #nepaJS meetup happening on Tuesday, which would be great. We need a lot more of these smaller groups and we need them all to be connected to the larger NEPA Tech group. In larger metropolitan areas these smaller groups would be hundreds strong and so consolidation wouldn’t be needed. We don’t have that here. So we need as much effort to be consolidated as possible. These small groups are where skills are honed, where partnerships and companies can be formed, where careers are forged. If you are someone that works in technology please consider joining one of these smaller groups. Even if you aren’t into programming. As they grow I’m sure they will end up fragmenting into more specific groups for the areas you’re interested in. The more support the better.

Hacking rather than waiting

Yesterday afternoon Sarah Pressler retweeted Jono Young’s request for a plugin that would add a submenu to the WordPress’ Admin with the current pages for the site under the Pages menu. This would reduce the number of clicks to get to the page editor.

I was waiting for an upload to finish and I thought, given the code I have laying around from other projects, I’d be able to supply Jono with something passable for what he needed. Though it is far from what I would recommend using, it is a start.

Here is what I did:

  • I used get_pages to get a list of WordPress pages the were published.
  • While looping through each page I used add_submenu_page to add the page titles under the Pages menu
  • I used JavaScript to replace the HREF attribute on the links to link to the page editor

That last step is the hacky part in my opinion. add_submenu_page() asks for a function name to call to build the page for the menu item when it is clicked. In other words, for each item on the Admin menu there is a corresponding function that will show you the page that it results in. But I didn’t want to create a new page, I wanted the link to go to the page editor.

I dug around for five minutes or so and I didn’t see an apparent way to change the links for the page titles (though I’m sure there is a better way if I had the time to continue looking) and so after the page loads I use JavaScript to replace the attributes with links to the page editor.

Nowhere near perfect but, in a pinch, it is one step closer to what Jono wanted. Hopefully he or someone else can build upon and it make something a little more reliable and less hacky.

You can see the source on Github.

How can I get into programming?

Linus Torvalds in 2004 on the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML):

To me, the biggest thing with small patches is not necessarily the patch
itself. I think that much more important than the patch is the fact that
people get used to the notion that they can change the kernel – not just
on an intellectual level (“I understand that the GPL means that I have the
right to change my kernel”), but on a more practical level (“Hey, I did
that small change”).

Over the years I’ve been asked many times “how can I get into programming?” and my answer has always been to contribute to some open source code. The benefits are manifold.

  • Sense of accomplishment (like Linus brought out)
  • Exposure to someone else’s code (you can learn a lot this way)
  • Helps you get comfortable with criticism (esp. if the codebase is managed by several people)
  • Learn to collaborate (have a team before you have a team)
  • Give yourself some publicity (the number 1 way to get work is to show your work)

So, get in there and get started.

Documentation by Stack Overflow

Kevin Montrose of Stack Overflow explaining Documentation:

Documentation is community-curated, example-focused developer documentation, based on the principles of Stack Overflow.

A natural extension to Stack Overflow and a welcome one. I should likely make this my homepage.

Building a single page web site using an Excel spreadsheet

Need something like this? Consider hiring me for your next project.

I was recently asked by a client if I could use an existing Excel spreadsheet and create a single-page web site from it. This way, their team would be able to use the work they’ve already done and the data they’ve already keyed in and wouldn’t need to do double the work.

I could have built an data import tool that used the Excel data and reformatted it for WordPress or another content management system, but after asking a few questions I figured the simplest and most cost-effect approach was to use the Excel spreadsheet as the datastore.

It sounded fun. So I gave it a shot.

Here is what I came up with. It is a bit simple, arguably a bit crude, and wouldn’t work for anything terribly complex or for a high-traffic site, but, it works for them and that is all that matters.

Let’s start out with a simple example spreadsheet. Let’s say you have the following data for your soccer team in Excel.

Excel Soccer Team Example

In this case you have four columns; Name, Age, Jersey Number, Goals. How can you get those to display in a web page? Using PHPExcel, which I’ve used on several client projects, you can read from and write to an Excel spreadsheet fairly easily using PHP. Using the above data as an example, the code might look like this.

Let’s walk through this code quickly. First, we load the PHPExcel IOFactory, which lets us read from Excel. Then we load the Excel file. $file, in this case, would be the full path to the Excel spreadsheet you’d like to load. Then, we create an array out of each row of data in the sheet. Once we have that, we simply loop through each row and create a “Player” out of each one.

You’ll notice the way I avoided adding a Player with the column names is to check to see if $row[A] == "Name". You could also skip the first row depending on where in the spreadsheet your soccer team’s information is. But this is just an example.

Now that you have this Player array, you could use this information anywhere on your page by creating a simple for loop to go through them and write the list of player and their information.

Let me give one more example. This represents what my client needed much more closely.

What if you had variable names in Column A and wanted the values of those variables to come from Column B? Here is an example spreadsheet where this might apply.

Excel spreadsheet example profile

Here is what the code may look like for this…

The subtle differences here, from the example above, is that $row[A] becomes the array key, and $row[B] becomes the value. By doing this, the person’s profile information is now easily printed anywhere on the page using <?php echo $person['age']; ?>

This simple Excel-powered approach becomes very powerful for someone with no web language skills. They can open an Excel spreadsheet, edit the values, and the web page changes.

Need something like this? Consider hiring me for your next project.

Microsoft open sources .NET Core

Richard Lander on the .NET Blog:

We are excited to announce the release of .NET Core 1.0, ASP.NET Core 1.0 and Entity Framework Core 1.0, available on Windows, OS X and Linux! .NET Core is a cross-platform, open source, and modular .NET platform for creating modern web apps, microservices, libraries and console applications.

They said they would, and they did. Good on MSFT. Likely an incredible amount of work to get this out. And supposedly this is also a deep rewrite of .NET Core.

Google has JAVA (though, they didn’t make it), Apple has Swift, and now MSFT has .NET*. All fully open source languages, frameworks, and platforms backed by public companies. A good time to be a programmer.

* MSFT has had .NET forever, it is just that now it is open sourced.

Three Toe: A simple SMS autoresponder on top of the Twilio API

If you find yourself needing something like this, why not hire me to make it for you?

A friend of mine somewhat recently became a licensed realtor. One thing that surprised him was the lack of technology being used in his workplace. Though not a technologist himself, he enjoys an efficient workflow such as using a tablet and managing documents digitally. So whenever he’s asked to complete a transaction using piles of paper and copy machines and so forth, it obviously gets under his skin.

For the last several months we’ve been trying to find ways that I can use my various talents (finite though they may be) to make his work easier or even improve the chances he’ll be successful in a sale. We’ve had a few conversations and personally I’ve been brainstorming and keeping notes and scratching out ideas.

Some of the ideas I’ve had are more expensive and involved while others are more simple and can be done inexpensively. One more expensive and involved idea is shooting drone footage of lakeside homes to help differentiate the listing. I hope to get a chance to shoot some drone footage soon. (hire me?)

One idea that, thanks to Twilio, is very easy and inexpensive to do is writing a SMS autoresponder to send property information to a would-be-buyer. And since I’ve wanted an excuse to play with Twilio this was my chance.

Here is the idea; A buyer pulls up in front of a house that they may be interested in. In the front yard, the listing agency’s sign would have a phone number that the buyer could send a code to and get information about the property.

It turns out that writing this on top of the Twilio API is very simple. (Coincidentally they IPO’d yesterday, their stock spiked 90%, and they wrote code live from the NYSE trading floor. Pretty good day for them yesterday.)

Here is what you need:

  • A Twilio account (you can use a free trial account to get started)
  • A phone number (you can purchase one from Twilio for $1/month or a short code for $1,000/month)
  • A server to host Three Toe

Let me just state right up front; using Twilio will cost money but it is very inexpensive. You get charged for each message received and each message sent. So in our example of a buyer texting a code and getting a response that is 1 round trip that costs just about a penny and a half (at current prices). A penny to send a home buyer a link to a beautiful web site of the home they want is a no-brainer.

Here is how Twilio works:

  1. Potential buyer sends a text message to your Twilio-powered number
  2. Twilio receives that text, creates a “POST” with general information about the sender (phone number, location, and contents of message, etc.)
  3. Twilio then sends that information to your app via a “webhook”
  4. Your app parses the response, and can do anything you want. In our case, we’re using Twilio to send a message back to the sender with information based on the code they sent

Theoretically you could use this simple service to do just about anything. You could ask for their email address and subscribe them to your newsletter. You could send back a YouTube video. You could keep a log of their phone number in a database and an agent could follow up with them at a later date. You could call the sender and read an audio message back to them with background music.  Or, you could first call the agent in charge of the property and then call the sender back and connect the two together.

But I didn’t do any of that. All I wanted to do for this service was set up an easy way to allow my friend the realtor to create an auto response for the code the potential buyer sent.

Here is the app works:

  1. Twilio sends a webhook POST and it is received by Three Toe.
  2. Using the contents of the message (e.g. “T0001”) it looks in a “responses” directory for a TXT file with that same name.
    1. If that TXT file is found, it responds to the sender with its contents.
    2. If that TXT file is not found, it responds with something like “There is no information available for this property.”

Very, very simple.

To add a new “code” that the application will respond to my friend the realtor just needs to add a new TXT file to the “responses” directory. Or, alternatively, I plan on creating a very simple form that will allow him to list and edit the responses and add new ones.

Here is the code: I’ve shared the basic application on GitHub in hopes that someone else can put it to use or even help improve it.

I’m fully aware that there are thousands of open source versions of this same sort of thing. In fact, this is basically what Twilio would likely use as their example code for others to learn from. I made this simply to scratch our itch and to get familiar with the Twilio API. It was fun to hack around with.

If you find yourself needing something like this, why not hire me to make it for you?

Update on June 28th, 2016: I’ve tagged version 0.2.1 on Github which includes a new configuration area to make it dead simple to create, edit, and delete codes and responses.

Update on June 29th, 2016: I’ve tagged version 0.3.0 on Github which includes a Bootstrap-style theme for the configuration area. This makes it easy to update codes and responses on mobile devices.

I have a few planned features for Three Toe that I’ll likely be able to build as extensions. I’ve already sold three copies of this simple app (with slight modifications) and some of the features needed by those customers will be making their way back into the repo. Fun app to hack away on.