• Switching from PHP to Ruby on Rails

    Nov 30 2006

    Normally, I try to avoid server-side programming topics. But this time, I thought I'd share my story to perhaps inspire some of you to try something new.

    I switched to working in Ruby on Rails this month. Lots of people have done the switch, and even more have written about how Ruby on Rails makes coding web sites a lot more fun and easy (it's true!). But that's not what this story is about.

    Until I switched, I was a PHP programmer. It's not just that I did a lot of work in PHP, it's that this is what clients expected of me, or so I thought.

    Unfortunately, I was getting really bored of doing PHP programming. I've never been passionate about PHP, it's just something I know that I use to get the job done. Code Igniter had gotten me excited about coding in PHP again, but it just wasn't enough.

    I've had a lustful eye on Ruby on Rails since I first heard about it a year or two ago. Yet it stayed on my long-term To Do List, never quite becoming a reality. "When I have more time, I'll figure it out and start using it," I thought. "One of these days I'll do a small project for myself in Rails so I can learn it," I told myself for months.

    I felt like I was stuck. PHP was what I knew, what I had used for years, and what I was best at. I had never used Rails, so I certainly didn't feel qualified enough to sell myself as a Rails developer. On top of this, I had three major projects coming up that were all supposed to be done in PHP.

    Then one day, I asked myself why I was so willing and excited to work in JavaScript but not PHP. Why is one fun and the other painful? I had always thought of the difference as just client versus server, but then I figured out it might just be the language itself. So I decided the only way to keep my sanity was to switch. There was no way I would keep doing this PHP thing.

    So, I got in touch with my clients and asked if they'd be willing to build the projects with Ruby on Rails instead of PHP. They couldn't care less. All they wanted was the finished project, and it didn't matter to them how it was done. One client even said the only reason she had mentioned PHP was because it seemed like the most common, but really didn't care. They didn't even mind that I was just starting to learn, because they knew it would make the project more fun for me, and they trusted me.

    So I did it. I've been coding in Rails since the start of the month, and it's been a great time. Sure, there was a learning curve. It took me some time to figure out how to do the simplest of things. But I read through the book, I experimented, I searched the web for answers, and now I'm cruising. I'm about 80% as good in Rails as I am in PHP, except with Rails everything takes half the time so in the end it's actually faster.

    So what's the moral of the story? If there's something new you want to start doing, or if you're getting bored, just go change things. Today. Create your own opportunities. And stop finding excuses in those around you for your inability to change, because there's a good chance they will totally support you.

  • Multiple IEs

    Nov 28 2006

    This week, I installed TredoSoft's Multiple IE package (via friendly bit). It's an installer for Internet Explorer standalone versions 3, 4.01, 5.01, 5.5 and 6. It's based on evolt's standalone versions, but packed up in a nice installer. It even fixes some problems with cookies and conditional comments.

    Check it out, it's a great package to have installed, and makes it a lot easier and cleaner to get all the old IEs running on your system. (You're all testing your web sites in IE 3, aren't you???)

  • Using POST with a regular link

    Nov 22 2006

    Here's the problem: According to the principals of Representational State Transfer (REST), GET requests shouldn't change anything on the web server. Only POST requests should. For example, you really shouldn't have an <a> link that deletes an item. When you click a link, it sends a GET request to another page, and deleting an item is definitely a change. You should have a delete button that submits a form using POST instead.

    Why? Well for one, Google Accelerator speeds up your web surfing by downloading all the pages that it knows about through the links on a page. So if there are links that delete items or other horrible things, Google Accelerator will go and delete everything for you. This actually happened to some users of 37 signals.

    So the real solution is to just use a submit button for all the actions that actually do something (delete, save, etc.). And this is totally fine from a technical point of view, but not so great from an asthetic point of view. Buttons can be pretty ugly, right? (I actually like how they look, but then again, I'm not a designer.)

    There is also another solution. You can use JavaScript to make a hidden form, then add an onclick event to a link that submits the form when you click the link. This solution is okay, except for those who don't have JavaScript (like search engine spiders).

    I came up with a solution that tackles the problem from the asthetic angle. We can style the buttons so they look like links! Seriously!

    Okay, it's not so easy. And it's not perfect. But it's pretty close. Here's the code:

    .link-button {
        border: 0;
        padding: 0;
        background: inherit;
        font: inherit;
    
        cursor: pointer;
        text-decoration: underline;
        color: blue;
    
        overflow: visible;
    }
    
    <input type="submit" class="link-button" value="Delete"/>
    <button type="submit" class="link-button">Delete</button>
    

    It's a bit long because buttons have a lot of default styling to them. First, we remove the border, padding, background and font. Next, we change the mouse cursor and colour, and add an underline so that it looks and acts like a link. Last, we add this overflow: visible to force Internet Explorer to get rid of that weird spacing it adds inside buttons.

    You might also have to set the actual font and size of the button to make it match the text around. I don't know why, but font: inherit just doesn't always do the job like it should. If you specifically set font: 12px Arial, it will look fine.

    In Safari, it won't do anything if you're using an <input type="submit"> because you can't style these. However, you can style a <button type="submit"> though. You will just have to set the background colour directly and not use inherit. So as long as you don't have some trippy background image, it will be fine.

    Another thing: it's not perfect in Firefox or Safari. It will still have some weird spacing around it. Have a look at what Firefox does:

    Buttons have some spacing around them in Firefox

    The top is a regular link, the bottom is a button. You can see it's pretty close, but not perfect. Safari has a similar effect with spacing on the bottom.

    Well we can take it to the next level and use JavaScript so that it's perfect for the 90% of people who use JavaScript. The other 10% can see the extra spacing, but that's no big deal (they probably won't even notice). We can use the following function to accomplish this:

    function replaceButtonWithLink(button) {
    	var link = document.createElement('a');
    	link.href = '#';
    
    	// find link text either as value of input or innerHTML of button
    	link.innerHTML = button.value || button.innerHTML;
    
    	link.onclick = function() {
    		button.form.submit();
    		return false;
    	};
    	button.parentNode.insertBefore(link, button);
    	button.parentNode.removeChild(button);
    }
    
    // here's what you do for an <input type="submit"/> or <button type="submit"/>
    var button = document.getElementById("my_button");
    replaceButtonWithLink(button);
    

    Now we have a nearly perfect solution. If the spacing in Firefox isn't a problem for you, you don't even need the JavaScript portion. But it's there just in case you have some pixel-paranoid designers on your team that insist it should look perfect in their browsers (just hope they have JavaScript turned on!)

  • Replace text with an image using CSS

    Nov 7 2006

    Let's say you want to have a logo on a page, but you'd really like to use an <h1> with some text for the header in the HTML. Or maybe you like to use images for all your titles, but would still like to have plain text inside header tags in your HTML.

    There are a number of reasons for wanting to do this, namely accessibility and search engine optimization. I talk more about this in my post Writing Semantic HTML.

    The problem is: How do you hide the text? I think the most popular technique is to wrap the text with a <span> inside the header tag, then use some CSS to 1) hide the text, and 2) use the header tag as an image. Something like this:

    <style type="text/css">
    h1 {
        width: 500px;
        height: 100px;
        background: url(my_header_image.gif);
    }
    
    h1 span {
        display: none;
    }
    </style>
    
    <h1><span>My Great Header</span></h1>
    

    Unfortunately, this technique makes us add an extra tag to our markup, and we all know that every time we use an unnecessary tag, a puppy dies. Either that, or we end up with ugly, unnecessarily bloated HTML.

    Well here's another technique which hides the text just by using CSS. The text will still be readable by screenreaders and search engine spiders, but will disappear like magic for everyone else:

    <style type="text/css">
    h1 {
        width: 500px;
        height: 100px;
        background: url(my_header_image.gif);
        overflow: hidden;
        line-height: 500px;
    }
    </style>
    
    <h1>My Great Header</h1>
    

    This technique works by pushing the text down inside the header with a rather large line-height (it must be at least twice the height). Then the overflow: hidden hides the text since it's overflowing.

    Now isn't that better? No puppies were harmed, and we end up with slightly cleaner and shorter markup.