• Your First Rails 3 Plugin

    On several different projects I have needed to find the newest and oldest record in certain models. The code to do this is pretty simple (especially in Rails 3).

    For example, here is a snippet to find the newest Post:

    @post = Post.order('created_at DESC').first

    We can make this even better by defining a method in the Post class like this:

    def newest
      order('created_at DESC').first

    With this new method our code becomes:

    @post = Post.newest

    But now we’re faced with having to add that method to lots of different models. This sounds like a perfect job for a simple Rails 3 plugin.

    It’s Just a Gem

    Plugins in Rails 3 are created just like any other Ruby gem. You can use whatever you like to create a new gem. Currently, I’m using Bundler:

    bundle gem date_filter

    This will create several files for you. The most important are the gemspec file and the contents of the lib directory.

    The gemspec

    Your gemspec file tells the world about your gem. The first thing you’ll want to do is edit this file and fill in the information marked with TODO - your name, e-mail address, gem summary, and gem description.

    The rest of the file should take care of itself. Note that the gem version is stored in date_filter/version.rb. Also, the list of files, test files, and executables is filled in automatically with git commands.

    The lib directory

    Inside the lib directory you’ll find a file called date_filter.rb and a directory called date_filter. A common practice is to keep the contents of date_filter.rb pretty minimal.

    Most of your actual code should go in separate files inside the date_filter directory. For example, here is my date_filter.rb file in its entirety:

    require 'active_record'
    require File.expand_path('../date_filter/base', __FILE__)
    ActiveRecord::Base.class_eval { include DateFilter::Base }

    Note that I am requiring ActiveRecord here. This is based on wycats advice - If You Override Something, Require It

    Next I require base.rb inside the date_filter directory. This contains the source for the plugin.

    The last line actually includes my code into ActiveRecord::Base. Since I am adding class methods, I use class_eval.


    Finally, here is the code for the plugin. It’s common practice to separate class methods from instance methods in Rails plugins. In this case I have a separate module for the class methods.

    When DateFilter::Base is included into ActiveRecord::Base the method included is called. This method then extends ActiveRecord::Base with the methods in the ClassMethods module.

    module DateFilter
      module Base
        def self.included(base)
          base.send :extend, ClassMethods
        module ClassMethods
          def newest
            order('created_at DESC').first
          def oldest
            order('created_at ASC').first

    Building and Installing

    If you made it this far, you’re ready to build and install your new plugin. Bundler includes some rake tasks to help with this automatically. You can see these by running rake -T

    rake build
    rake install
    rake release

    rake build will create a directory called pkg and build your new gem into this directory. You can then install it with the gem command.

    rake install will build and install your new gem. To use it in a Rails project, you will need to add it to your Gemfile and run bundle install.


    If you have an account at RubyGems.org you can also release your new gem. Check your profile page for your API key. Include your API key in ~/.gem/credentials as instructed, then run rake release to build and upload your gem to the site.

    This should get you started building your own Rails 3 plugins. There are still a couple of pretty important things missing from this process - tests and documentation. I plan to cover both of these in a future post.

    The complete source for this plugin is up at github. The gem is also available at RubyGems.org.

  • GeekAustin Rails Class

    Starting on May 26 I will be teaching a beginning Ruby on Rails class for GeekAustin. The class will meet every Thursday from 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM at Cospace. I have developed a pretty ambitious course outline that I hope to cover in just 8 weeks.

    The class is only $120 for 16 hours of training. The demand for Rails developers is so high right now, this is a tiny investment to get started in a very hot market. Someone who understands Rails inside and out can make that money back in a couple of hours (or less).

    You will need to know some HTML and CSS. Previous programming experience would also be helpful, but is not required. Prior experience with Ruby or Rails is also not required. I’m going to cover everything you need to know and provide plenty of references to other materials to fill in any gaps in your knowledge.

    I have really missed teaching, and I am so thankful for this opportunity. Developing the course outline and working on materials has been great. It seems like I’m exercising a part of my brain I haven’t used in a while. I honestly can’t wait to get started teaching this.

    This class will fill up fast. For full details and to sign up, see the EventBright page at http://geekaustinrailsclass.eventbrite.com/

  • Editing Multiple Records in Rails

    I recently had a requirement to create a single form with data from more than one record. This is a simple request, but I had never done it before in Rails.

    After experimenting for a while (and reading quite a few forum posts and StackOverflow answers) I came up with a working solution. Hopefully this will save someone a little time in the future.

    First, let’s create a simple Rails app for managing users. Each user will have a first name, last name, and e-mail address. I’m using scaffolding to generate the code.

    rails new multi_edit
    cd multi_edit
    bundle install
    rails g scaffold User first_name:string last_name:string email:string
    rake db:migrate

    Next, add the new routes for editing all users. I tried to stick to the RESTful convention with these. I’m just using the word ‘all’ in place of the :id.

    match 'users/all/edit' => 'users#edit_all', :as => :edit_all, :via => :get
    match 'users/all' => 'users#update_all', :as => :update_all, :via => :put

    Now, let’s add the edit_all method to our UsersController to get started. The only thing it needs to do is get all users.

    def edit_all
      @users = User.all

    Next, we build the form for editing all users.

    <%= form_for :user, :url => update_all_path, :html => { :method => :put } do %>
          <th>First Name</th>
          <th>Last Name</th>
        <% @users.each do |user| %>
          <%= fields_for "user[]", user do |user_fields| %>
          <td><%= user_fields.text_field :first_name %></td>
          <td><%= user_fields.text_field :last_name %></td>
          <td><%= user_fields.email_field :email %></td>
          <% end %>
        <% end %>
      <div class="actions">
        <%= submit_tag %>
    <% end %>

    The interesting part of this code starts around line 9. As expected, we iterate over the users with @users.each.

    The next line tells Rails to name the fields for each user with array notation. For example, user_fields.text_field :first_name will output a text field named user[1][first_name].

    The params hash will include a ‘user’ key that contains a hash of information for each user. The key for each of these hashes will be the user id.

    Now that we know what the params will look like, it’s pretty straight-forward to write the update_all method.

    def update_all
      params['user'].keys.each do |id|
        @user = User.find(id.to_i)

    We iterate over each key in params['user'], then find and update the user associated with that id. I am leaving error checking as an exercise for the reader…

    The complete source code for this simple application is on my GitHub page at https://github.com/anthonylewis/multi_edit

  • A Better Looking Terminal

    I spend a lot of time in the Mac OS X Terminal.app. Unfortunately, the built-in color schemes are all pretty terrible. I can’t stand to look at any of them for more than a few minutes.

    So, one of the first changes I make on a new Mac is to update the default color scheme. It’s surprisingly easy to make something much easier on the eyes than the Basic theme. Here’s how I do it.

    • On the Terminal menu, click Preferences
    • Click Settings on the toolbar

    • Make sure the Basic theme is selected
    • Now click the Gear, then Duplicate Settings
    • Type the name Metal

    • On the Text tab, change the Text and Bold Text colors to Mercury and the Selection color to Steel

    • On the Window tab, change the Background Color to Lead

    • Finally, click the Default button

    When you open a new terminal, you should see something that looks more like this:

    Now that is something I can work with for a while.

  • Rails on Rackspace Cloud - Part 2

    Part one covered setting up a new Ubuntu server and getting Ruby 1.9.2 up and running with rvm.

    Now we will finish the setup with a Firewall, MySQL, Apache2, and Phusion Passenger.

    Setting Up the Firewall

    Before we install the database and other services, lets get the firewall set up. On Ubuntu, I like to use the Uncomplicated Firewall - UFW.

    sudo apt-get install ufw

    That will install the firewall. Now set the defaults, add some rules, and enable the firewall.

    sudo ufw default deny
    sudo ufw allow ssh
    sudo ufw allow http
    sudo ufw enable

    To see the current rules, you can check the status.

    sudo ufw status

    Now the only ports open to the internet are SSH (22) and HTTP (80).

    Installing MySQL

    Now that we’re a little more protected from the outside world, lets install the database.

    sudo apt-get install mysql-server mysql-client libmysqlclient-dev

    And install the mysql2 gem.

    gem install mysql2

    Remember to ‘rvm use 1.9.2’ if you didn’t set it as the default.

    Installing Apache and Passenger

    The database is ready to go at this point, now we need a web server.

    sudo apt-get install apache2 libcurl4-openssl-dev apache2-prefork-dev \
                         libapr1-dev libaprutil1-dev

    That will install Apache2 and the extra development packages needed by Passenger. Now install the Passenger gem.

    gem install passenger

    Now we’re ready to install the Passenger Apache2 module. Note, this doesn’t actually install anything. It just builds the module and gives instructions for updating the configuration.


    Now we need to create a new module load file to tell Apache about Passenger.

    sudo vim /etc/apache2/mods-available/passenger.load

    Here are the contents of passenger.load. The first two lines should be all on one line.

    LoadModule passenger_module /home/testapp/.rvm/gems/ruby-1.9.2-p180/gems/
    PassengerRoot /home/testapp/.rvm/gems/ruby-1.9.2-p180/gems/passenger-3.0.5
    PassengerRuby /home/testapp/.rvm/wrappers/ruby-1.9.2-p180/ruby

    If we did everything right, we can enable the Passenger module now.

    sudo a2enmod passenger

    Now we need to set up our virtual host under sites-available.

    sudo vim /etc/apache2/sites-available/testapp

    Here are the contents of that file. You will obviously need to replace the xx.xx.xx.xx with the IP address of your server.

    <VirtualHost *:80>
      ServerName xx.xx.xx.xx
      DocumentRoot /home/testapp/testapp/public
      <Directory /home/testapp/testapp/public>
        AllowOverride all
        Options -MultiViews

    Disable the default web site and enable our new test application.

    sudo a2dissite default
    sudo a2ensite testapp

    Setup a simple Rails App

    Create a simple Rails application in your home directory just to make sure everything is working.

    rails new ~/testapp
    cd ~/testapp
    bundle install
    rake db:migrate RAILS_ENV=production

    Finally, reload the Apache2 configuration.

    sudo /etc/init.d/apache2 reload

    Go to your server’s IP address in your browser and you should see the default Ruby on Rails index page.

  • Rails on Rackspace Cloud - Part 1

    This is my recipe for starting up a new Rackspace Cloud Server and getting it set up for hosting Ruby on Rails applications.

    Part one will take you from a new server to a working installation of RVM and Ruby. Part two will cover installing MySQL, Apache and Phusion Passenger.

    If you don’t already have an account with Rackspace, I encourage you to go over to http://www.rackspace.com/cloud/ and check them out.

    I prefer Ubuntu Linux, so let’s start with that.

    Starting a New Server

    First, sign in to your Cloud Control Panel, then click Hosting, Cloud Servers.

    Click the Add Server button, scroll down to Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat), then click the Select button.

    Now type in a server name and select how much RAM you’ll need, then click the Create Server button.

    After a short wait, your new server should be ready to go. You will receive an e-mail with your new server’s IP address and root password.

    Connect to the IP Address with SSH, log in as root with the password provided, and lets get started.

    Initial Login

    The first thing you should do at this point is change the root password.


    Type in your new root password twice. Now let’s add a new user account.

    adduser testapp

    Type in the information for your new user. Add the new user to the sudo group so you can execute commands as root.

    adduser testapp sudo

    Now that we have a new account to use, we need to deny the root user access via ssh. This will stop people trying to brute-force our root password.

    vim /etc/ssh/sshd_config

    Find the line that contains “PermitRootLogin” and change the value from “yes” to “no”. Restart the ssh server when you’re done.

    /etc/init.d/ssh restart

    We have set up a new user account with sudo access and denied root login via ssh, so let’s log out for now.


    New User Login

    Now reconnect with your new user account and let’s make sure all of our software is up to date.

    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get upgrade

    This should be really fast. Rackspace’s internet connection puts mine to shame.

    Installing RVM

    Next, we’ll install git so we can install rvm.

    sudo apt-get install git-core

    Now copy and paste the command below to install rvm:

    bash < <(curl -s https://rvm.beginrescueend.com/install/rvm)

    Once this finishes, you will see a lot of instructions for setting up rvm as well as a nice “Thank you” from Wayne.

    rvm automatically creates a file called .bash_profile in our home directory. This causes bash to skip loading the regular .profile.

    The only thing in .bash_profile is rvm configuration, so let’s just delete it…

    rm .bash_profile

    and add the configuration to .profile instead.

    vim ~/.profile

    Add this line at the very bottom:

    [[ -s "$HOME/.rvm/scripts/rvm" ]] && . "$HOME/.rvm/scripts/rvm"

    Finally “source” your .profile file so the change will take effect.

    source ~/.profile

    Installing Dependencies

    Now we’ll install the rest of the packages we need to build ruby. RVM can provide us a list of needed software.

    rvm notes

    Look at the line starting with “For Ruby” to get a list of dependencies.

    sudo apt-get install build-essential bison openssl libreadline6 \
                         libreadline6-dev curl git-core zlib1g zlib1g-dev \
                         libssl-dev libyaml-dev libsqlite3-0 libsqlite3-dev \
                         sqlite3 libxml2-dev libxslt-dev autoconf libc6-dev \

    Again, this shouldn’t take long.

    Installing Ruby

    We’re finally ready to install Ruby.

    rvm install 1.9.2

    We have Ruby 1.9.2 now, let’s use it.

    rvm --default use 1.9.2

    Installing Rails

    Now that we have Ruby set up, we’re ready to install Rails. It should be as simple as this:

    gem install rails

    Note that when you’re using RVM, you do not have to precede this with “sudo”.

    After another short wait, you should be all set.

    Verify that the ruby and rails commands work as expected. In part 2 we’ll setup MySQL, Apache and Passenger.

  • Happy Pi Day

    In honor of Pi Day, I thought I would write a little Ruby script to generate pi to a few decimal places.

    A quick trip to the Wikipedia page for pi turned up many formulas for computing pi. I took one of the easy ones and set about writing some code.

    Most of the formulas involve the factorial function. Unfortunately, Ruby doesn’t have a built in method for computing the factorial. After a little Googling, I found a nice, functional example at the Rosetta Code wiki.

    Putting that all together, I ended up with this:

    def fact(n)
      (1..n).reduce(1, :*)
    sum = 0.0
    (0..8).each do |n|
      a = fact(2 * n) ** 3.0
      b = 42.0 * n + 5.0
      c = fact(n) ** 6.0
      d = 16.0 ** (3.0 * n + 1.0)
      sum += (a * b) / (c * d)
      puts 1.0 / sum

    Note that I’m only iterating 8 times. On my PC, that gives pi out to 15 decimal places which is all of the precision available in a floating point number.

  • Exploring ODBC with Ruby DBI

    I recently found myself in an interesting situation. I needed to extract data from a database. Unfortunately, all I had to work with was an ODBC name.

    If this were a MySQL database, I would have used the command-line interface to check out the structure and see what was available.

    In this case, I didn’t have a command-line interface. What I did have was Ruby and irb. Here’s how I got the job done.

    Required Gems

    Three gems are required to make this work. First, we need dbi and a driver (or dbd). The dbd-odbc driver also requires the ruby-odbc gem.


    In order to install ruby-odbc on Windows, you will need to compile it from source. I used the excellent DevKit provided with the RubyInstaller and had no problems.


    Let’s assume that the ODBC Data Source Name is “TestData”. First, we require the DBI library, then connect to the data source.

    require 'DBI'
    dbh = DBI.connect("DBI:ODBC:TestData")

    You can also pass a username and password after the connection string if required.

    List and Describe Tables

    Now that we have a connection, let’s see what tables are available.


    My test database only has one table. It’s called “Table1”. Let’s list the columns in this table.

    dbh.columns "Table1"

    This will tell us the type of data stored in each field in addition to the name.

    Query For Data

    In order to see the actual data, we can prepare and execute an SQL query. In this case, the separate prepare and execute is not really necessary, but it’s a good habit to get into.

    sth = dbh.prepare("SELECT * FROM Table1")
    row = sth.fetch

    The fetch method will return a row of data at a time until there is not more data. At that point it returns nil. Calling fetch again after it returns nil will result in an exception.

    A Complete Example

    Here’s a simple example of connecting to the ODBC database and displaying all of the data in a tab separated format.

    require 'DBI'
    dbh = DBI.connect("DBI:ODBC:TestData")
    sth = dbh.prepare("SELECT * FROM Table1")
    puts sth.column_names.join("\t")
    while row = sth.fetch
      puts row.join("\t")

    You could also require the CSV class and use it to generate comma-separated output.

  • To Hex and Back (With Ruby)

    I am a big fan of plain text. It is easy to view and easy to edit. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to work with binary files and data.

    Ruby’s inspect method does a decent job of showing the contents of a binary string, but sometimes I need something a little more powerful.

    Back in the day I would use a hex editor to open binary files and decipher their contents. I don’t have a need for a hex editor anymore, but I would like to occasionally view binary data in the same format.

    After some intense Googling and Ruby doc reading, I came up with a few methods to convert a binary string to hex, and convert a string of hex back to the original binary.

    Bin to Hex

    To convert a string to it hex representation, first take each byte, convert it to hex, then join all of the hex digits back together.

    def bin_to_hex(s)
      s.each_byte.map { |b| b.to_s(16) }.join

    If you like spaces between the hex digits, change join to join(‘ ‘)

    Hex to Bin

    Converting the string of hex digits back to binary is just as easy. Take the hex digits two at a time (since each byte can range from 00 to FF), convert the digits to a character, and join them back together.

    def hex_to_bin(s)
      s.scan(/../).map { |x| x.hex.chr }.join

    If you find yourself using these frequently in a project, you could add the methods to the String class.


    Of course, there is more than one way to do this. Ruby also provides the handy pack and unpack methods for Arrays and Strings respectively. These are a little more cryptic since you need to know the meaning of the format string to understand what’s going on.

    def bin_to_hex(s)
    def hex_to_bin(s)
      s.scan(/../).map { |x| x.hex }.pack('c*')

    Check the Ruby documentation for Array and String for a complete explanation of pack and unpack.


    Here’s the output of a quick IRB session to demonstrate how this works.

    irb(main):001:0> s = "Hello, World!"
    => "Hello, World!"
    irb(main):002:0> s = s.each_byte.map { |b| b.to\_s(16) }.join
    => "48656c6c6f2c20576f726c6421"
    irb(main):003:0> s = s.scan(/../).map { |x| x.hex.chr }.join
    => "Hello, World!"

    These methods are no replacement for a hex editor, but if you need to check an encryption key or some other short string of binary, they can be just the thing.

  • 10 Years

    I remember September 9, 1999 like it was yesterday…

    Paige and I were living in a tiny upstairs apartment. Thanks to a friend of a friend, we were some of the first people in town to have a cable modem.

    Back then it was uncapped and since we were officially helping to “test” it, I think it was free for the first few months. Going from around 50k dial-up to at least 5,000k cable made the internet a lot more enjoyable.

    Also around this time I discovered a new program called Napster. It was a friendly place where people got together and shared music.  While you were downloading songs from other users you could chat with them about their collections.

    The generosity of others, combined with the cable modem, meant I was able to download music faster than we could listen to it. It was fun to have friends over on the weekend and let them pick what they wanted to hear from my endless jukebox.

    This was also around the time of our complaint to Domino’s Pizza.  Our pizza arrived cold, and Paige called to tell them about it.  The person on the phone replied “No problem Ms. Lewis.  We’ll get another pizza out to you right away.  You’re one of our best customers.  You’ve ordered over 100 pizzas this year.“  Apparently we ate a lot of pizza in those days.

    The big news story at the time was Y2K.  Many people believed that at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999 every computer in the world would stop working.  This would cause a world-wide black out, stock markets would crash, dogs and cats would live together, etc.

    I set the clock on my computer ahead to December 31, 1999 at 11:59 PM and watched it roll over to January 1, 2000.  Nothing bad happened so I wasn’t too worried.

    In an effort to make Y2K seem a little scarier, some news outlets also reported on the 9-9-99 bug.  Supposedly, four nines was the code that told some mainframes to end the currently running program.  The theory was that when the mainframes encountered this date, they would stop working.

    This sounded as ridiculous to me then as it does now. So, on September 9, 1999 I wrote my first ever blog post about the 9999 bug.  (That’s right kids, I was blogging when blogging wasn’t cool.)

    I had a few web pages before that date, but this was the first thing I ever wrote in the “blog” style.  It was a title with a few paragraphs of text, posted on a certain date. I didn’t call it a blog, of course. I had seen a few people set up their web sites like this before and I wanted to try it out myself.

    Things have changed a lot since those days.  Back then I updated the site by editing the HTML in notepad and using WS_FTP to upload the pages to a web server.  I’ve moved on through several different programs to write blog posts, but I made sure to preserve that first post through all of the moves.

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