Matthew Daly's Blog

I'm a web developer in Norfolk. This is my blog...

15th October 2010 8:39 pm

Getting Work Done With Perl

After my initial struggles with Perl, I now think I’m really starting to get to grips with the language. I generally find it a pain when you have to learn by building small but basically useless scripts - I always do best when building something useful.

As one of the exercises for my studies I had to open a database connection to a Microsoft Access database, but I wanted to do the exercise in Ubuntu (I’ve always preferred using Unix-like operating systems for programming, and thanks to apt-get it’s a lot less grief installing additional libraries and modules as you need them) and couldn’t get Perl to connect to the database properly, so I resolved to export it to either MySQL or SQLite.

I was able to export it to MySQL in the end using mdbtools, but I wasn’t entirely happy with the end result. I resorted to re-exporting the data as a CSV file, then resolved to write a small Perl script to read the file, parse it using a regular expression to obtain the necessary information, then insert it into a new SQLite database.

Here’s what I came up with:

#!/usr/bin/perl -w
use strict;
use DBI;
my $db = "dbi:SQLite:backend.db";
if (!(-e "backend.db"))
print "Database does not exist. Creating it...";
# Create the database
my $dbh = DBI->connect($db) or die "Error in connecting to database! $DBI::errstr";
open(READFILE, "cartable.csv");
unless($_ =~ m/id,/)
my $year = $1;
my $make = $2;
my $model = $3;
my $color = $4;
my $price = $5;
my $dbh2 = DBI->connect($db) or die "Error in connecting to database! $DBI::errstr";
my $insertdb = $dbh2->do("INSERT INTO CARS (YEAR, MAKE, MODEL, COLOR, PRICE) VALUES (\"$year\", \"$make\", \"$model\", \"$color\", \"$price\");");
print "Write completed!\n";
print "To demonstrate it works, we'll run a SELECT query against the database...\n";
# Read the database
my $readdb = DBI->connect($db);
my $dbselect = $readdb->prepare("SELECT * FROM CARS;");
# Print the results
print "ID\tYear\tMake\tModel\tColor\tPrice\n";
while(my @row = $dbselect->fetchrow_array)
print "$row[0]\t$row[1]\t$row[2]\t$row[3]\t$row[4]\t$row[5]\n";
# Close the connection

Apologies for the fact that the indentation doesn’t seem to have copied across from Vim very well (can anyone recommend a good WordPress plugin for displaying code, none of the ones I’ve tried seem to be any good?). It works well, and it’s also helped me grasp Perl’s database API better.

I think I’ve got a better idea now of what Python and Perl are best at and when to use each. Perl is a great language, but the fact that a lot of it is implicit makes it a little harder to pick up at first than Python - for instance, the default variable, which is quite a good idea, but takes a little getting used to. Its regex support is great, and I like the database API, but I would find it a lot harder to do any object-oriented programming in Perl than in Python (which I guess is why Moose exists). I’ve found Perl very useful for quick and dirty scripts and as a glue language, but for longer scripts Python seems the better choice.

22nd August 2010 5:15 pm

What Makes a Good Programming Textbook?

I own a lot of programming textbooks. I went through a long phase of buying ones about virtually any technology I was even remotely interested in, therefore I own loads of books about Perl, Ruby, Python, PHP and C, among others. Granted, with many of them I’ve done little more than flick through them (I find it’s hard to get round to learning things like that without some kind of plan, which was what made me eventually start doing a more formal course since it forced a plan on me), but I’ve seen quite a few.

But of course, not every textbook is equal. Some are great, truly seminal works that are raved about by well-known programmers. Examples include the Camel book (Programming Perl) and K & R (The C Programming Language). Others are rarely mentioned. But what makes a really good textbook? Here I’m going to list some of the attributes that I’ve found in my favourite and most effective programming texts, and that I think make for a good, effective and informative textbook that makes a good job of getting you up and running programming in a new language:

  • Lots of working examples to enter - To learn to program, whether from scratch or in a brand new language, the best advice I’ve ever heard was that you need to read a lot of code, and write a lot of code. I find that, at least at the start, nothing helps me learn to code in a new language better than lots of examples for me to type in and run, in order to pick up the basic syntax and keywords of the language. After all, that’s how many people used to learn BASIC, by typing in listings from magazines, and it’s how you learn English as a child - you’re exposed to the language, and you copy it, then understanding comes later. One of the best examples of this is C for Dummies, All In One Desktop Reference, by Dan Godkin - it’s packed full of loads of great example programs to enter and run that demonstrate the basic concepts well in C.
  • Maintains your interest by showing you how to do interesting things - Not many people are interested in learning a new programming language to do something tedious (that said, if someone already has to do something tedious, such as a task at work, teaching them how to write a program to do it for them may well be considerably more interesting for them than doing the task themselves, hence the popularity of scripting languages for automating dull tasks), so a good programming textbook needs to show the learner how to do something interesting. Games are an obvious example, but they can get a bit much - how many different versions of Hangman do people want to create? Simple web apps are also an option with many programming languages. If something needs to be more utilitarian, then if possible it should be genuinely useful for solving a problem (the programmer doesn’t necessarily need to have this problem, they just need to see how to create a program to fix it). Frivolous little scripts that do things like recite “99 Bottles of Beer” to demonstrate for loops have their place, but that place is near the start only - by the end a programmer wants to be able to write useful programs.
  • Good exercises to stretch the reader- Many textbooks will have additional exercises for the reader at the end of each chapter that allow them to practice their skills and ensure they aren’t just copying a listing, but are genuinely capable of writing code from scratch in the language. These are effectively the “homework” assignments, and I’ve found that these can be far more important at teaching me how to use the language well for actual programming projects than the listings within the book.

These are my thoughts, but I’d be interested to read what other people think about this issue. What’s the best programming textbook you’ve ever used, and why do you like it? What do you think a good programming textbook should have?

16th August 2010 9:50 pm

Perl After Python

I’m currently studying for the CIW Web Developer qualification, and having passed the exams for database design and JavaScript, I’m now on to the third component, Perl. I figured that having already picked up a reasonable grasp of another scripting language (namely Python), that I would have no trouble picking up Perl quickly, as happened when I learned JavaScript.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out as well as I’d hoped so far, and in a number of ways. First of all, it doesn’t seem to “fit your brain” quite as easily as Python does - I find that the significant number of non-alphanumeric characters used makes it less intuitive than Python, at least for me. I’m also not a great fan of the syntax - in particular, I really am not keen on the syntax used for object-oriented programming. In general I’m finding it a struggle to pick up many things I learned quite quickly in Python.

That said, Perl has plenty of awesome features. CPAN has a staggering number of modules available, and makes it very easy to install them. And of course, its support for regular expressions is second to none. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a language I really want to know better and be able to use well, but I am finding it quite hard going compared to Python.

I strongly suspect, however, that it may well be, at least in part, because I learned Python first and my brain is used to the Pythonic way of doing things, therefore I’m having to unlearn those habits for Perl. Has anyone else learned Python first and then struggled to pick up Perl, or is it just me? Does learning Python first predispose you to finding Perl more difficult?

8th August 2010 12:47 am

Moving Away from OS X

I bought my MacBook two years ago, and at first I was cynical about how I would find it compared to Ubuntu, but over time I found myself using it more and more. While I have never considered myself a Mac user (I’ve always thought of myself as a Linux user who owns a Mac), I did grow to appreciate the combination of a solid Unix base with a well thought-out GUI, and it worked out well for me.

Yet now I’m finding myself slowly moving back to Linux. I’m running Slackware 13.1 on an old Inspiron I’ve had since 2004, and my recently purchased Dell Studio 15 dual-boots Windows 7 and Ubuntu. But the one I’m using by far the most is my Mini Inspiron, which dual-boots Windows XP and Ubuntu Netbook Edition, and XP almost never gets used.

Part of the reason is that the Mini itself is just such a handy machine to have around - it’s small enough to be portable, and it’s convenient to use it anywhere at home too, but at the same time it’s big enough to use without any issues (which is more than I can say about my old Eee PC, which has now been passed on to my sister). OK, not everyone likes Dell’s products, but I’ve always found them to be very good value basic computers, and they really have gotten the whole netbook idea and produced an excellent product.

Also, Ubuntu Netbook Edition is really great - the newly revamped user interface works really well on the netbook form factor, and it’s an excellent experience for the most part. Performance is more than acceptable, and most applications start very quickly (Chrome is noticeably faster than on OS X).

But the thing that I’m really starting to appreciate more than anything else is just how much more powerful and flexible it is under the bonnet than OS X. For starters, a package manager like apt-get makes it incredibly easy to install new software. In particular, this is useful for installing useful Python modules, as so far as I’m aware Python doesn’t have anything like Perl’s CPAN or Ruby’s rubygem system. Yes, I guess I could use MacPorts or something like that, but personally I’ve never liked the idea of installing a new package manager yourself rather than using one that’s a fundamental part of the OS.

This also means I have to compile many Python modules from source on OS X. This has taught me an interesting lesson about usability - namely that it’s not an absolute. For many tasks Ubuntu is actually considerably easier to use than OS X, since Synaptic offers users the opportunity to install a lot of software from a GUI that on OS X would need to be compiled from source, although for installation of desktop applications OS X is probably marginally easier.

Also, byobu is an excellent tool - it really helps to make GNU screen more useful and accessible. I have it set up to launch screen in any new terminal sessions and I’m beginning to wonder how I ever coped without it.

Finally, Snow Leopard seems to have broken a lot of things I liked in OS X. I used to use the Terminator terminal emulator in Leopard and it worked well, but in Snow Leopard, Spotlight can’t find it (I think it’s something to do with the Java bridge being deprecated, as Terminator is written in Java), so I had to change to iTerm instead, which I don’t like so much. Snow Leopard also seems to refuse to open browser bookmarks via Spotlight in anything but Safari, which really gets on my nerves as I hate Safari.

I’m not planning to get rid of my MacBook anytime soon, but I am increasingly finding it’s less appropriate to my needs, less productive, and less powerful compared to Ubuntu.

10th July 2010 1:21 am

Staying Productive in Summer

Unless you live in the southern hemisphere, summer’s here. Right now it’s gone midnight but it’s still very hot, and being in the UK, where home air conditioning is not common, there’s little way to alleviate the heat besides opening the window (which you don’t want to do because people are continually having barbecues).

I have to admit to just not being a summer person - I don’t really like hot weather or outdoor pursuits in general. I’m happier in spring and autumn when it’s cool, but not cold, and I can wear my favourite Animal hoodie if it does turn chillier. When it gets hot I find it extremely difficult to get anything done unless I can do so in a fully air-conditioned environment, and have a lot of trouble sleeping at night, exacerbating the problem due to tiredness. Unfortunately, I’m now having to learn Perl from scratch during this time (a fairly daunting prospect at the best of times!), and it’s a bit of a nightmare trying to actually sit down and learn regular expressions properly when it’s hot and stuffy and you can’t think straight.

I’ll have to try going to a nice cool air-conditioned cafe with my Dell Mini, get a cold drink and see if I can get some work done that way. But I’m curious to know if anyone else has any good tips for remaining productive at learning a new programming language during hot weather that they’d like to pass on?

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About me

I'm a web and mobile app developer based in Norfolk. My skillset includes Python, PHP and Javascript, and I have extensive experience working with CodeIgniter, Laravel, Django, Phonegap and Angular.js.