Friday, March 8, 2013

Doing It Wrong

How many times have you discovered that your previously-clever way of solving a problem was actually a terrible practice?  As a naive PHP coder, I remember foreach-ing over arrays for all sorts of reasons when PHP's native methods would have done a much better job.  Even simple languages have more features than conceivably be loaded into the human brain.

For instance, after my earlier experimentation with Rebol's PARSE, I wanted to give it a real run.  Regex is horrifyingly bad at wading through HTML but PARSE can handle it with ease.  With a few false starts, I finally had a decent script that'd grab all of the URLs linked from Hacker News' front page:

collect [
  ;TODO: currently skips "Ask HN" type questions
  non-quotes: complement charset {"}
  yclink: ["http://" any "news." "" any non-quotes]
  ;HTTPS compliant (doesn't work on my build)
  ;weblink: ["http" any "s" "://" some non-quotes]
  weblink: ["http://" some non-quotes]
  parse webpage [
    any [
      thru {href="}
        [yclink {"}
        | copy link weblink {"} (keep to-url link)
        | some non-quotes {"}]

I was rather proud of this, and posted it to the Rebol chat for comments.  Sadly, one expert pointed out that I was doing it all wrong and should replace it all with a simple one liner:

some [thru <td class="title"> set link tag! set anchor string! (keep anchor)]

Ouch.  Good thing I don't have an ego, or it'd be bruised right now.  Fortunately, this isn't just me.  We all speak languages that are just too big for our brains to handle.  Here's some things that I've found useful in rounding out the corners of my knowledge:

Tutorials: Not just for noobs

Simple "Hello World" tutorials are great for installing and demonstrating the syntax of a language, but they're not all there is.  If you find yourself with a bit of free time, find an in-depth tutorial on a part of your language the you aren't familiar with.

To this end, I skimmed through a tutorial on creating a simple blog engine with Node.js.  In particular, I  was looking for how they rendered arbitrary pages, a problem I'd encountered on my own Node journey.  While the solution they offered was different, it didn't solve my problem.  I still don't consider this time wasted, as I've now got another way of handling things for future projects (say, when I finally get around to polishing my own blog project).

Programming community

As the Rebol example shows, running your code past experienced hackers can show us things we'd never heard of before.  Interestingly enough, you don't need to be incredibly lucky to get expert advice - just show a willingness to learn and ask properly.  As a rule of thumb, people don't like giving away free advice when the advisee has shown little to no effort to research on their own.

Find a problem, write a package

Most OSS communities are developed to the point where the basics are covered in terms of plugins.  Instead of picking the best plugin, try developing a basic version of your own.  Compare what you wrote to the "best" version and see what you can learn.

Got other tips?  Let me know!

[0] But you're here, so you already knew that, didn't you?

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