How many boy scouts?

Sometimes we find ourselves working on stuff that is less than scintillating, maybe discussing the implementation details of yet another pointless cookie notification bar or whether it would be a bad thing to implement one of those things that highlights random words on your site like “gambling” and pops up ads if you accidentally mouse over them [yes! – Ed.]; at such times it’s sometimes tempting to dream you were instead working in Silicon Valley on some ground-breaking project like self-driving cars.

I have an antidote for that though; suppose you really were working on the software that guides a self-driving car. That would be awesome, right? Even the worst implementation of an AI-controlled vehicle is soon likely to be many times safer for the passengers and the world at large than even the best human driver, and there are really smart people working on the problems right now.

I’ve been reading this amazing essay from Paul Ford, “What is Code?”, and in it he explains why if those rockstar ninja developers exist, they’re probably going to have pretty high standards as to what problems they work on and are therefore probably not going to be sitting in the next cubicle in a typical dev team.

They’re not interviewing at your crappy company for your crappy job. They’re not going to come and rescue your website; they’re not going to make you an app that puts mustaches on photos; they’re not going to listen to you when you offer them the chance to build the next Facebook, because, if they exist, they are busy building the real Facebook.

Very astute, right? But it was this next sentence that made me glad I’m not one of them.

Sometimes they’re thinking about higher mathematics, or how to help a self-driving car manage the ethical choice between running over a squirrel and driving off a cliff. Or they’re riding their bikes, or getting really into pottery.

If you’re the one designing the anti-collision software, you’re the one who has to tell it how to decide in emergency situations. So the squirrel case is pretty easy (once you train it to reliably differentiate between a child in a furry hat and a squirrel, but that’s another matter) – bye bye Mr Squeaks, right?

But how would you suggest to your automaton that it handle the sort of situation that psychologists use to bother otherwise happy people; like, assuming that its brakes have failed and it’s hurtling down a hill, able to steer but not stop, and it has to choose the lesser of two evils.

Do you suggest it should stay on the road and aim, for instance, at the mother and a child in a pushchair on the pedestrian crossing (two people with their lives ahead of them), or steer into the bus queue of twenty older people instead?

But what if there are boy scouts in the bus queue too?

If you’re a rockstar programmer and your next question is, “how many boy scouts?” there may be a job for you in Mountain View. Tell them I suggested you give them a call.

Now, what colour would you like your cookie notification bar, Mr Smithers?


Unique filenames when uploading in Zend Framework

This is typical Zend Framework; needing a simple file upload as part of a Zend Form, I turned to the built in helpers and yes, it’s easy to upload a file with minimal additional code. So far so good.

But it defaults to uploading the file with the original filename and to overwriting existing files. I cannot remember a time when this was the behaviour I wanted from a file uploader; I always want to preserve existing files instead of overwriting them, and I usually want to give it some additional information in the filename or folder path – things like account or user IDs and timestamps for example, or just random hashes.

Eventually managed to find a way of customizing it that didn’t require three times the code saved by using Zend Framework in the first place, with grateful thanks to Dean Clatworthy:

$post = $request->getPost(); // This contains the POST params
        if ($request->isPost()) {
            if ($form->isValid($post)) {
                $upload = new Zend_File_Transfer_Adapter_Http();
                $filename = $upload->getFilename();
                $filename = basename($filename);
                $uniqueToken = md5(uniqid(mt_rand(), true));
                $filterRename = new Zend_Filter_File_Rename(array('target' => '/path/to/uploads/' . $uniqueToken.$filename, 'overwrite' => false));
                if (!$upload->receive()) {
                    $this->view->message = 'Error receiving the file';
                $this->view->message = 'Screenshot(s) successfully uploaded';

Unique filenames when uploading using Zend_Filter_File_Rename (Zend Framework).

Check for common misspellings for emails on signup forms

Kicksend/mailcheck · GitHub.

Came across this excellent jQuery plugin, which links into your signup forms and prompts users who mistakenly enter their email address if the mistake is a common one. For example, if they type foo@gmail.con instead of it doesn’t prevent it submitting, but prompts them “Did you mean Works for hotnail and so on too. Very nice; apparently they measured how effective it was and it did reduce bounced signup emails by a measurable %.

Zend Framework 2 – blech

It’s been a while since I paid any attention to what they were doing in ZF2; I’d been aware of the discussion and some of the plans way back, but last time I checked in there was nothing much to see yet unless you were involved directly with the effort.

So I stopped by today and was impressed to see that ZF2 is in production and there to download as 2.0.6.

I read through the new getting started tutorial and experienced a sinking feeling. I’ve always had this love/hate relationship with Zend Framework. Not so much with the software, actually, as the project as a whole. Since starting to use it back in 2007, I’ve found it badly documented, constantly shifting and often seeming to lack a coherent direction. Because it changed so much and relatively quickly in the early days (and had massive new features parachuted in without much explanation in later versions, like the Application object) it’s always been hard to know the best way to do things, particularly when you need to grab it quickly to use on a new project after working on an existing one for an extended period.

There is lots of good stuff in ZF2 – I’m really pleased to see unit testing front and centre in the getting started, for example, and I like the new more convenient form rendering methods.

But I’m shocked at how lengthy and verbose the getting started tutorial is, just to get to the point where you’re printing out some records on a page. I’m not saying ZF should have scaffolding or that scaffolding is actually particularly useful to have; on the other hand, I ask myself, do I really have to type all that in, especially when other frameworks are so much more expressive? Or more realistically, copy/paste it all every time you need it. The routing code is amazingly ugly with an extraordinarily low signal to noise ratio – just imagine how much boilerplate you’ll be scrolling through in a real app just to read the dozen or so bits of actual information in that.

This is not a technical criticism, incidentally, it’s an aesthetic and usability thing. I’m not disputing the architectural decisions; the guys who write and maintain ZF are way above me as programmers. But as an average, reasonably experienced web developer, I want to write code that I like to look at, code that is “user-friendly” for the developers in the same way that the UI should be user-friendly for the end users.

Zend Framework.

Good signup form


Thought this signup form from Kickstarter was rather well done – presenting the signup form in its entirety on the same page as the login form; they obviously know that a large number of users each day are new to the service so give them as few opportunities as possible to fall by the wayside. Interesting how services like Twitter and Facebook are becoming standards for authentication; it’s as though OpenID has finally come of age, all we needed were central services with sufficient reach to act as the broker of your credentials. When I first signed up to Stackoverflow back at the start of the public beta, there were few available services I would willingly choose to trust as my provider.

Interesting how the visual focus of the page is heavily weighted toward creating a new account. I didn’t even get as far as reading the Facebook option before I started typing. I wonder if that’s intentional.

How to fix jQuery 1.7 Date Validation for UK dates in Webkit browsers

Turns out the jQuery date validation in jQuery Validate from 1.7 is pretty screwed… it prevents valid UK dates from being submitted in Chrome and Safari and allows nonsense like 31/31/2012 through in Firefox.

Lots of people use the fix here:

But it doesn’t seem to work in Safari: luckily commenter ‘Mad’ points to an alternate solution in Microsoft’s AJAX library which seems to work great everywhere:

		// Fix for international date validation woes in jQuery Validate
		// as described here, but fix only for chrome:
		// alternate method as linked from comments here
		// assign class 'date_international' to target datepicker text field instead of 'date'
			function(value, element) {
				var check = false;
				var re = /^\d{1,2}\/\d{1,2}\/\d{4}$/;
				if( re.test(value)){
					var adata = value.split('/');
					var gg = parseInt(adata[0],10);
					var mm = parseInt(adata[1],10);
					var aaaa = parseInt(adata[2],10);
					var xdata = new Date(aaaa,mm-1,gg);
					if ( ( xdata.getFullYear() == aaaa ) && ( xdata.getMonth () == mm - 1 ) && ( xdata.getDate() == gg ) )
						check = true;
						check = false;
				} else
					check = false;
				return this.optional(element) || check;
			"Please enter a correct date"

Slightly edited from