Scott Hanselman Updates His Tool List

Check out all the goodies Scott has for us here:

Ultimate Developer and Power Users Tool List for Windows

I first saw Scott present at TechEd05 in Orlando, and asked him about some of the apps he used in his presentation.  My productivity has been improved ever since.

While his list is impressive and very comprehensive, I would make one addition and one substitution.

First the substitution, I’m not a fan of VLC.  I’ve tried it a few times after recommendations like Scott’s, but nothing beats Media Player Classic in my experience.  Pair this lightweight media player with Real Alternative and QuickTime Alternative and you will realize a new level of simplicity in using online media.

My nomination for addition to Scott’s list is GetPixel.  It is drop-dead simple.  It only does one thing, but it does it well.  The name says it all.  This tool gets the values of a selected pixel.  Very helpful for a GUI developer.

++Alan

ETNUG Gets Back in Gear

We took July off, but ETNUG is back on tomorrow evening.

This month, we are pleased to welcome John Kellar to present a session on “Tools, Tips and Best Practices in .NET.”  John will also fill us in on DevLink, the FREE developer event he has organized.   Check it out at http://devlink.net/.

When:
Tuesday, August 29, 2006 6:00 pm

Where:
New Horizons Computer Learning Center
9111 Cross Park Drive
Building C Suite 100
Knoxville, TN 37923
http://www.nhknoxville.com/pages/directions.htm

Who:
John is a developer and architect working as a senior consultant with Compuware Corporation. In addition to being Chairman of the devLink Technical Conference, he remains active in the development community as a Board member of the Nashville Visual Studio .NET User Group and speaker.  John has worked on applications in several markets including healthcare, government, financial services, data integration services and most recently consulting services. He was a charter member of the Little Rock .NET User Group and served two years as Vice-President. John also worked on organizing several developer conferences including Tech Expo 2005, Tech Expo 2006 and devLink 2006.

What:
Tools, Tips and Best Practices in .NET

I received a copy of Wally’s book to give away, and John is bringing an iPod Shuffle!

Please join us, and bring a friend!
++Alan

“My Big Fat Greek Shredding”

My good friend Wade went to Greece recently. Here’s a photo he sent. Mouse over the image to see the outcome. ๐Ÿ™‚


Uh oh!


++Alan

ORM and the Fox (Part 1)

I have been moving quickly between tasks since my return from Boston.  I’m finally taking some time off for the Independence Day holiday.  Floating in the pool, I keep finding the subject of Ted Neward’s essay coming to mind.  It appears I still have something I want to say about ORM.  In this series of  posts, I hope to explain why Visual FoxPro has more mojo for resolving Object Relational Mapping issues than any other technology, of which I am aware.

At the speaker’s dinner for the Atlanta Code Camp, I discussed LINQ with Charlie Arehart, and Wally.  I brought up the doomed Object Spaces project, and quoted Ted Neward’s pithy line that “Object relational mapping is the Vietnam of computer science.”  It is a good line.  It is also true, as much as a pithy metaphor can be true.

Now that Ted has expanded his metaphor, we can see the limitations of metaphor in general.  I recommend Jeff Atwood’s analysis of Ted’s essay.  I agree with everything Jeff has written there.  Primarily, I agree that Ted tried too hard to stretch his Vietnam analogy which distracted from his primary, quite sound, thesis that “there is no good solution to the object/relational mapping problem.”  Full stop.

Despite any over-reaching in support of his Vietnam analogy,  I must state clearly that Ted Neward is possibly the most qualified person in the industry to make the criticisms he does of ORM.  Here’s a short bio with his credentials.  Suffice it to say that he is not arguing from a position of ignorance.  Ted works with many technologies, and has seen the limitations of ORM manifested in different languages and platforms.

To continue with my love letter to Ted, he acknowledged something that few people in the industry are even aware of.  Visual FoxPro eases the dissonance between objects and relational data better than any other technology on the planet.  I first came to this realization upon reading this post by Joel Spolsky in 2004.  Joel identified the impedance mismatch between objects and relational data as a shortcoming in all modern programming languages.  Joel didn’t bother listing VFP among “modern high-level programming languages.”

I’m not going to bitch and moan about the low profile of VFP.  I know what it can do, and it’s been earning me a decent living for years.  I just can’t believe other languages have not done a better job of “borrowing” the best of what VFP does.  I’m damn tired of all the LISP articles on Reddit telling me how I’m missing out because my language of choice doesn’t have feature foo which LISP has had since the ’60’s.  I also take issue with Paul Graham’s essay about the RAD nature of LISP for startup companies.  Any experienced VFP developer could easily make the same arguments in favor of the Fox.

When I first saw Ted’s mojo comment, I felt vindicated.  I made a quick post, and forwarded the link to “the Craigs“.  I secretly hoped they would write this argument for me.  Fortunately, I have to sort this one out for myself.  I am currently developing an object interface to encapsulate a VFP cursor.  This is totally unnecessary in Visual FoxPro, but I need to leverage my object model from .NET, so I must encapsulate all the tasty VFP goodness behind a COM interface.  This is the ultimate test of VFP’s ORM mojo in my experience to date. 

It is my contention that the “secret sauce” to VFP’s ORM mojo is the cursor.  A VFP cursor is a data structure like no other.  Most non-VFP developers associate VFP with the DBF storage format.  People seem to assume that it is “just” a database.  Visual FoxPro does have a very powerful in-process data engine which includes a wickedly fast ISAM storage format, but it can use data from any source as a cursor with that same data engine.  This is where we find the secret sauce. 

Other languages need to map data from relational sources to primitive types such as arrays or dictionaries (collections).  The ADO recordset is actually an object oriented implementation of VFP’s cursor engine.  The ADO.NET dataset takes this further to include relations in the definition.  Strongly typed datasets are a particularly easy way to handle data in managed code.  The advantage that VFP has is that it handles data in cursors natively.  That is what it is made to do.  Handling data in a columnar format, and setting relations between these table-like data structures is the core of the VFP mission.

VFP developers use SQL commands as first class citizens of the language.  They are handled by the runtime in the same manner as conditional and looping statements such as IF and FOR.  There is no conceptual difference to a VFP developer between addressing a local variable, a property on an object, or a field in a cursor. 

Let’s pause for a moment and refine our terms.  Here is what Whil Hentzen has to say about VFP cursors in his excellent (though out of print) introduction to VFP development Fundamentals: Building Visual Studio Applications on a Visual FoxPro 6.0 Foundation:

Weโ€™ve been using the term “result set” to refer to the collection of records created by the execution of a SELECT command. While Visual FoxPro is “record oriented” in that we can move from record to record as we desire, other languages that use SQL do not have this capability and can only address a block of records as a single entity. As a result, all SQL operations are oriented toward manipulating this “set of records.” They refer to this block of records as a “cursor,” which stands for CURrent Set Of Records. A cursor is a table-like structure held in memory; it overflows to disk as memory is used up. In some cases, such as queries that essentially just filter an existing table (in other words, no calculations or joins), Visual FoxPro opens a second copy of the table in another work area and then applies the filtering condition to present a different view of the table as the query requests it.

Cursors have two advantages. First, they are fast to set up, partly because of the possible filtering of an existing table, and also because of their initial creation in RAM. Second, maintenance is greatly reduced, because when a cursor is closed, any files on disk created due to RAM overflow are automatically deleted.

I hope it is clear from the above that any data that can be understood conceptually as a row/column data source can be handled very elegantly by VFP.  The key point to recognize is that the data runtime and the language runtime are one.  They even share a common garbage collection mechanism, which you can read about here.  VFP developers are able to enumerate, search, sort or perform set based operations against one or more cursors without making a context shift from the surrounding procedural code.

Cursors are not perfect.  They are not objects, and can therefore not be passed around by reference.  There are two workarounds for this conundrum: ADO recordsets, and XML.  I use XML exclusively.  I no longer consider ADO recordsets to be a maintainable solution.  While the shortcomings of XML are well documented, the flexibility is irresistible.  Furthermore, the VFP XmlAdapter class makes it a snap to translate between cursors and XML, and even take and apply diffgrams.  Therefore, I use XML whenever I am passing data across object/process boundaries, and I convert the XML to VFP cursors within my object interfaces. 

In the next installment on this subject, I will address the object component of Object Relational Mapping.  For now, I hope that I have clarified that Visual FoxPro is not “just” a database.  From my perspective, it is primarily a runtime library for the Visual FoxPro language which seamlessly blends typical imperative programming constructs with relational data handling.

++Alan

Tech Ed 06 Day 5

The last day of Tech Ed is different from all the others.  Many people have left already, and all the big announcments have been made.  They do schedule some excellent presentations for Friday, so it is worth hanging around for.

I did manage to attend another session Thursday afternoon.  Steve Lasker gave a presentation about occasionally connected systems.  This talk covered the current and future technologies available from Microsoft to deal with moving data offline, then syncronizing with the server when after returning online.  Good session on a very relevant topic.

Thursday night’s party was great fun.  I skipped the ball park food, and went to the upper levels where they had a buffet, and beer options beyond Budweiser products.  I met up with my buddy Jim Topp, and we took in the concert, as well as a significant number of Samual Adams Boston Lagers, together.

The opening act was fine, but not inspiring.  Train was excellent.  They are definately a party band.  Along with all their own songs, they did two Zepplin covers, and closed with Aerosmith’s “Dream On”.  I would definately pay to see them again.

By Friday morning, I had answered, or at least addressed all of my TFS issues.  Before leaving for the party on Thursday, I brought Randy Miller a printout of CMMi KPAs not fullfilled by the MSF Guidance that my CMMi manager put together.  Randy’s response was, “You rock!”  I’m looking forward to working with Randy, and Kevin Kelly as we move forward.  One member of the team with whom I didn’t get to talk to enough was Noah Coad.  Noah was at the BOF sessions on Tuesday, but we only spoke briefly Wednesday morning. 

My first session on Friday was Architecting Your Own Enterprise Framework with Brian Button.  Brian shared the lessons he learned working on the Enterprise framework in the Patterns and Practices group.  I plan to download the slides when I return to my office, so I can review the wisdom contained therein.  Brian shared what worked for his team, and what didn’t.  The most prominent idea that I left with was the “Rule of 3”.  If you see a solution implemented three times, then it should go into a framework, but not before.  According to Brian, frameworks are not developed in the heads of designers, but should be extracted from working code.  This guidance basically follows the YAGNI principle.

During a half-hour break, I caught up with /\/\o\/\/ again to ask him about PowerShell resources for developers.  He pointed me to  Windows PowerShell Programmer’s Guide  Unfortunately, it is not currently available in a printable format, but this is an exciting find. 

My next session was Rapid Development of Data End-to-End Solutions and How They Work in an N-Tier Model given by Jay Schmelzer. This was the most code-intensive session I saw all week.  Jay dispensed with slides, and built a data access compenent and windows form to connect with Northwind.  Next he migrated his DAL to a webservice, and showed the changes required to maintain full functionality in the application.  Jay is very energetic, and this was a fantastic session.

My final session after lunch was Architecting Applications for a Service-Oriented World.  Beat Schwegler did an admirable job making SOA appear to be a real technology/architecture.  In contrast to the previous session, Beat used slides exclusively to walk us through a conceptual scenario focusing on maintaining existing IT systems investments, while adding additional value by connecting legacy systems through service contracts.  This is the first time someone has convinced me that SOA is more than just a marketing term from Microsoft.

Throughout the conference, the continuous themes were quality and value.  Microsoft is providing tools to insure quality in the software I produce, while it is up to me to insure that I am producing the right software.  If I build a quality product that doesn’t meet the needs of the user, then I have not added any value.

++Alan

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