Ruby and Rails Thoughts

I’ve decided to learn a few new programming languages and web frameworks over the next year or so to broaden my experience and just to have fun. I figured that I’d start with Ruby and its Rails framework. Python (and its Django framework) are also at the top of my list, but I seem to run into Ruby programs more often and the Rails fanatics are loudest, so I’m starting there.

After about 5 evenings of documentation and tutorial reading intermixed with a bit of programming I’m about 1/3 of the way through my first real Rails application and am beginning to have a few thoughts on Ruby, Rails, and the process of learning new languages and frameworks:

Languages are Easy…
This might have something to do with how my brain works, but I find learning new programming languages quite easy and extremely interesting. Some of the things I find really neat about the Ruby language:

  • Full-on object-oriented — I really like the consistency
  • Blocks and Iterators — I fell in love with blocks in SmallTalk, they are a great concept and so much easier to use than named callback functions
  • Method names can end in equals such as name=(newName), parentheses are optional, and spaces seem to be allowed in method names that include ‘=’, so attribute-setting methods can look syntactically identical to variable assignment operators. Example:'Adam') is equivalent to = ('Adam') and is equivalent to = 'Adam'. Sweet syntactical sugar.
  • All instance variables are private. Always. The snazzy setter/getter syntax can spoof the idea of public attributes while still retaining actual methods to do the work. (I never got the point of public attributes other than as a way to avoid other languages’ painful getter/setter syntactical requirements.)
  • Classes are never closed — can always add a method
  • Single-inheritance prevents ambiguity in the class-hierarchy, but there is this concept of ‘Mix-ins’ where the un-closed nature of classes (I think) allows for a class to obtain method implementations from another class without inheriting from it. It sounds interesting, but I haven’t played with it yet

The Ruby language may have some blemishes (and apparently a slow interpreter), but it seems like a pretty nice language in general and pretty devoid of major syntactical or conceptual warts.

…Frameworks are hard
While I feel like I can [mostly] get my head around Ruby in a few days, Rails is another matter. Rails follows a few architectural concepts very strictly: convention over configuration, DRY, MVC, etc. One of the problems (at least with the tutorials and documentation on the Rails website) is that few of the convention have descriptions on how they should be applied and the documentation is scattered and can be hard to follow. A lot of magic happens behind the scenes when things are named a certain way and it can be hard to sort out what’s up when something goes wrong.

One problem I ran into that took me forever to debug was that by naming one of my classes Connection and using it in a has_many relationship I collided with something internal to ActiveRecord which caused an indecipherable error when trying to save my object. Connection is not one of the reserved words listed for Rails.

It may just be that I need to find a good book for Rails, but the official online documentation seems to be rather sparse, disorganized, and/or scattered. I don’t mean to complain too much and I believe that Rails will become much easier to use after I have a bit more time in the saddle, but it is a complex system that is not easy to learn a bit at a time.

I don’t want to dwell on on comparisons, but I must note that I have been very spoiled by PHP’s excellent official documentation at and for the Zend Framework. PHP has more warts than, well, something with a lot of warts, (it has many, many warts), and doesn’t begin to compare to Ruby in syntactical elegance, but good documentation is also a valuable thing.

With all this said, I now have only 5 evenings in Ruby on Rails and I plan to give it at least twice that more. I hope by the end of this first project I’ll be comfortable enough with it to use it on other small to medium-sized applications with relative speed and ease.

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