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February 25, 2008

Nerding Again: It's Hard

I’m back writing code. Despite the fact that I first programmed 45 years ago and used to be a top gun (if I say so myself), it’s hard getting re-started after a 17 year hiatus in which I’ve coded nothing more complex than some VBA in Excel macros and hacked a little HTML and played a little with the OpenSocial APIs .

How I got in trouble is I promised Mary I’d write a little demo app that she could try out at Town Meeting next week and see if it’s a good way for the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (which she chairs) to get people to report on what broadband they actually use. This way the Authority and all Vermonters get a wikiMap that shows what access options really are and aren’t available and what is and isn’t used and it can be kept uptodate. If it works at Town Meeting, then they can package it up and put it on their website.

“It’d be cool,” I said, “to have this all be displayed as pins on a Google map. People should see their pin go on the map when they supply the data. I mean we’ve got to set a good example of the e-state.”

“I’ve got to be able to get the data in spreadsheet form,” Mary said. “Can you get it out that way?”


Well, it’s all not so easy. My plan was to use Google Mashup Editor. It does a lot of the UI work for you and it runs on Google servers – no worry about scalability. You can even save data on the Google servers.

Nope, that won’t work. The number of entries you can save from your app is too limited even for this application. Moreover, you can’t get the data OFF the Google servers except as you display it in your browser. “Of course,” you experienced young studs’ll say, “all you have to do is talk from your browser code to a server and the server’ll store your data for you. It’s just a little bit of PHP and mySQL and you’re in business ” There’s even an example of that in the Google documentation.

But I don’t have a server and I don’t have time to learn how to set one up and program it in the next week or even learn .NET which might or might not help. Later, if the prototype works and we need to deploy so everyone can use in his or her own browser, then we can make this into a true client-server app.

So here’s the things I had to learn:

  • All about how HTML stores things in the DOM (don’t ask if you don’t know).

  • Javascript (which isn’t Java, BTW). My last serious programming language was Pascal for the Mac and it WASN’T object-oriented like its successor C++. So I was more than a little weak on all this object model stuff but now I’ve got my classes, objects, methods, properties, functions, and constructors pretty well straightened out.

  • How Javascript interacts with the DOM.

  • More about XML – it’s the right way to get data into Mary’s spreadsheet and anywhere else we may want to put it.

  • How to read and write file in Visual Basic because that’s how I’m going to do it until I have server (I know this’ll only work on Windows but that limitation’ll go away when the server comes).

  • How Visual Basic interacts with the DOM.

  • A development environment. Writing code in notepad got old quickly. Now I’m using Antechinus Javascript Editor. It’s been helpful so far and has a very good Javascript tutorial with it but I’ve got nothing to compare it to.

  • What an “HTA” is. It’s basically code written with web tools like HTML and Javascript that run on your computer like an application. Turns out that’s what the protype’ll be because it has to read and write files on my computer (remember, no server) and browsers don’t, in general, allow code that does that so that malicious web pages won’t steal or destroy local data.

But, despite all my whining, it’s really a lot easier to learn new stuff than it used to be. Everything you need is online so you never don’t have critical documentation. If you Google “xxx tutorial”, you inevitably find several good tutorials on xxx. The ones from W3 Schools are always good; they’re free; and there’s a good sandbox there to play in.

If you Google something like “Read Local Files in Browser”, you find someone on a forum or in a blog who’s answered the question for someone else. That’s how I found about HTAs.

That’s all for now; I’ve got a deadline.

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