Book Review: Ruby Cookbook

Since I am relatively new to Ruby, I have no idea how life could have been in the dark ages of the non-Japanese-speaking Ruby community (1995 – 2000), when there was no English Ruby book on the market. The ice was broken by Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas with a pickaxe – err… actually the Pickaxe (a.k.a. “Programming Ruby”), which has undoubtedly become an all-famous Ruby-classic since then.

In the foreword, Matz, the author of Ruby, explains that since he is much better in coding than in documentation writing, probably the authors did not have an easy job – what they could not find in the (rather scant) documentation, had to figure out directly from the Ruby source code.

The Ruby book scene looks radically different today. In fact we are facing the opposite problem: there are so much books on Ruby that sometimes it can be hard to choose which ones to read and in which order. Probably it won’t be any easier to find the answers for these questions in the future: judging from the blogs and announcements, the bigger part of the books is yet to come. If you are new to Ruby you will most probably have a hard time figure out how to spend your money wisely [1] – so what’s the solution?

Of course there is no definitive answer for this question – I can only tell you what worked for me.

First I would definitely recommend David A. Black’s Ruby for Rails [2]. It is absolutely suited for newcomers (and for advanced hackers, too), no matter if you are new to Ruby and/or coming from a different programming language [3]. I was also a Python enthusiast (through doing most of my everyday work in Java) when I have discovered Ruby – and David’s book was a perfect choice to switch very fast.

Currently I am undecided between the 2nd and the 3rd place, so let’s say you should check them out in parallel – They are (of course) the pickaxe and Hal Fulton’s “The Ruby Way”. They are both time-tested Ruby classics, hence a must read. However, if you have time and/or money to read only one of the above books, in my opinion it should be “Ruby for Rails”.

Although these three masterpieces are – in my opinion – among the most well-written and informative tech books available today, you have to remember the good old rule: No matter how much books you read or how good they are – you will never become a true Ruby hacker until you actually begin to use the acquired knowledge and put it into practice.

After reading these books I wanted to jump into writing some cool stuff – Ruby seemed to be so elegant, easy, succinct – and to my greatest surprise, I could not write too much sensible code :-) (at least not without referring to these books and/or google and/or ruby-talk more frequently that I considered o.k. to call it programming on my own).

This is exactly the situation where the Ruby Cookbook should enter the scene. The first three books give you a hint
about *what* can be done with Ruby[4]. The cookbook offers you well organized content in forms of recipes to show you *how* it can be done elegantly, quickly and effectively in a ruby-esque way.

Probably the most frequent answer to the question ‘How should I improve my Ruby skills’ on the ruby-talk mailing list sounds: By starting your own project. Since I put this advice into practice myself and it worked for me, I have to agree: armed with the goodies from Learning Ruby, The Pickaxe and the Ruby way, the best thing to do is to grab a copy of the Cookbook and jump into your own project. When I started my one, a web extraction framework, I had no idea about documenting Ruby code, packaging the whole program into a gem, logging, writing unit tests (in Ruby) and automatizing these tasks (and a lot of other things – this post would be considerably longer if I would like to state everything). However, with the Ruby Cookbook by my side, learning and putting things into practice from writing the first line until packaging the whole framework into a gem was a piece of cake.

If you are unfamiliar with the O’Reilly cookbook series format, it is a set of ‘recipes’ (problem statement, solution, discussion) divided into categories (like Strings, Arrays, Hashes… in this case) for easy lookup of the problem at hand. While it would be possible and certainly edifying to read the book cover to cover from the start (in this case you should also consider that it has 873 pages), I found that it really shines when you are stuck with a problem: you search for the relevant category and the relevant problem, apply the solution, read the discussion to understand what’s going on under the hood, rinse, repeat and after the 3rd or so cycle you will find out that you are not reaching for the book anymore (at least not because of this problem).

OK, time to take a more detailed look at the content.

I would divide the book into five categories: Essentials, Ruby Specific Constructs, Advanced Techniques, Internet and networking and Software Management/Distribution. I will review them one by one briefly.

  • Essentials include Strings, Numbers, Arrays, Hashes, Date and Time, Files and Directories. For a beginner Ruby journeyman, these chapters are a real gold mine. Though the cookbook is not really intended for total beginners (it assumes a fair amount of Ruby knowledge), it certainly would not be impossible for a skilled (non-Ruby) programmer to understand most of the recipes since they are going from simple to complicated (e.g. the String chapter begins with concatenating strings and closes
    with showing off text classification with a Bayesian classificator).

    In this category I have probably learned the most Ruby best-practices from the chapters Arrays and Hashes [5]. As a constant lurker on the ruby-talk mailing list, I have had some hard time figuring out all those inject()s and collect()s and each_slice()s and each_cons()s and other enumerator/iterator things – when I have thought I already understood them, somebody came with an even more complicated example and I was not so sure once again – until the moment I bought the book, that is.

    The cookbook is very good at eliminating these vague and wobbly things like I had: you will not only understand what’s going on, but actually get comfortable using the idioms so typical for Ruby. That’s so great about it.

  • Ruby Specific Constructs featuring Objects and Classes, Modules and Namespaces, and Reflection and Metaprogramming. Every newcomer to Ruby encounters the wonders that (not exclusively but most characteristically) make the language so beautiful: code blocks, closures, mixins, the vast possibilities offered by metaprogramming and reflection just to mention some of them. This chapter is written exactly to examine and discuss these constructs.

    While probably I learned the most new things from this section, I have to say that I have been missing a meta-level here: The chapters (especially about metaprogramming) presented a lot of fancy LEGO bricks but did not show how to build a Statue of Liberty or Eiffel tower out of them (well, not even a simple medieval castle in my opinion :-) . Of course this does not need to be a problem – metaprogramming techniques should have a book on their own, and anyway a cookbook is not intended to solve concrete problems but rather reoccurring/frequent ones. Probably I am just too curious about the ways of the meta :-) .

    To sum it up, this and the previous section (Essentials) together helped to beef up my rubyish programming style by an enormous magnitude in the practice – nearly all information you need is there in the other books as well, but reading them does not make you comfortable with these techniques.

  • Advanced Techniques include XML and HTML, Graphics and Other File Formats, Databases and Persistence, Multitasking and Multithreading, User Interface, Extending Ruby with Other Languages, and System Administration. I was kind of unsure about this category – pairing UI with databases or system administration for example seemed odd for the first glance – but since I did not want to create even more categories, I have decided to put everything here which did not fit into the other ones, thus it can be viewed as a ‘miscellaneous’ section as well.

    I would like to review two chapters here – HTML/XML and Databases and Persistence since these are the closest to my field of expertise and I also believe these two were the most deep in this category. Again, this does not mean that the other chapters were not good, but in my opinion they just scratched the surface compared to above two.

    The HTML/XML chapter really has it all: parsing, validating, transforming, extracting data from XML documents, encoding and XPath handling to highlight some interesting topics. The coverage is surprisingly thorough for a language which is promoting YAML (Yaml Ain’t Markup Language) over XML. The HTML chapters, though there is just a few of them, are also very useful:-downloading content from Web pages, extracting data from HTML, converting plain text to HTML and vice versa. My only concern here is that I missed some third party package coverage (like RedCloth, BlueCloth, Hpricot or Mechanize) – but this is really nitpicking: if the author would take all my wishes into account, the book would have several thousand pages :-)

    Databases and Persistence starts off with serialization recipes (using YAML, Marhsal and Madeleine). Chapters on indexing unstructured as well as structured text (SimpleSearch, Ferret) are a pleasant surprise before the must-have topics take off: connecting and using different kinds of databases (MySQL, PostgreSQL, Berkley DB)
    as well as Object Relational Mapping frameworks (Rails ActiveRecord and Nitro Og) and doing every kind of SQL voodoo magic of course. What should I add? Probably nothing.[6]

    I would really like to write something about the other chapters in this category, too, but since I am constantly bashed for the length of my posts, just believe me that they are great as well :-) .

  • Internet and networking consists of Web Services and Distributed Programming, Internet Services and (surprise! surprise!) Web Development: Ruby on Rails. It would be really a cliché to write about why and how much the Internet is so important nowadays, how much Web 2.0 rocks, SOA and WS and REST and FOO and BAR rules etc. so I won’t do that ;-) . However, it is a fact that Web application development never mattered this much in the history – so these chapters were basically compulsory.

    I would divide the category into two subcategories – Internet/Web stuff and distributed programming.

    There is really not too much to add to the first category – there is an unbelievable amount of information crammed into two chapters: ‘abstract’ techniques (HTTP headers and requests, DNS lookup etc), using every kind of protocols (HTTP(s), POP, IMAP, FTP, telnet, SSH…), servlet, client/server and CGI programming as well as talking to Web APIs (amazon, flickr, google) and Web services of course (XML-RPC, SOAP). In my opinion, the category offers more than enough information to get started and/or explore advanced techniques.

    It’s a shame that Distributed Programming got the half of a chapter only – O.K., I admit I am somewhat inclined to these techniques and they are maybe not used by that much people. The action is revolving mostly around DrB and Rinda, with an exception of 2 MemcCached recipes. The chapter closes with a nice ‘putting things together’ recipe by creating a remote-controlled Jukebox.

    I did not get too deep into the Ruby on Rails chapter, since I read Agile Web Development with Rails as well as Ruby for Rails and a lot of much more advanced Rails stuff previously – but judging from the recipe titles and skimming through some of them, the chapter looks very informative and unquestionably helpful if you have had no prior experience with Rails.

  • Last but not least, Managing and Distributing Software includes Testing, Debugging, Optimizing, and Documenting, Packaging and Distributing Software and Automating Tasks with Rake. If you plan to use Ruby for any other task than system administration (or writing very short scripts/one liners for whatever reason), documenting, testing, debugging and automating tasks is absolutely crucial. I know that lot of coders does not like to hear this – since they want to code and not write tests, documentation etc. – but I think nowadays, a serious programmer, no matter how much she would like to concentrate on hacking up feature MyNextCoolStuffWhichWillShakeTheEarth has to master these things. In the long run, any software that is undocumented, tested and continuously refactored will turn into Spaghetti quite easily.

    That said, these chapters were excellent for me. I have experience with these tasks in Java – however, the toolset is radically different in some cases (like Ant vs. Rake) and even if it is similar (Unit tests, rdoc vs. JavaDoc) the re-learning of them was inevitable. Fortunately, with the help of these recipes it was a breeze to learn them in Ruby (well, I have to add that actually these things (as nearly everything else) are considerably easier to do in Ruby, so the ease of learning stems from this fact as well).

    Rake absolutely rocks. Maybe I am also concerned because I have been working with Apache Ant a lot – well, if the ratio between Ruby and Java code is say 1:10, then the ratio between Rake and Ant files is 1:50 if we also consider simplicity, maintainability and understandability.

    Finally, if you also plan to release your software, the chapter Managing and Distributing Software can come handy. I think if you would like to distribute your stuff to the masses, packaging it into a gem is inevitable – rubygems are so cool that they made Rubyists too lazy to download something from a site instead of launching ‘gem my_cool_software’.

Conclusion



If you would like to become a serious Ruby hacker, don’t hesitate to buy this book. In my opinion it is absolutely worth every cent – and even more. My only problem is that there are no more recipes – however this is not a critique but rather a compliment: you simply can not get enough – not even from nearly 900 pages. One could argue that some things are missing or he would rather see this instead of that (I believe the authors themselves have had some tough time deciding these matters) – but I guess everyone agrees that the material which made it to the book is absolutely top-notch. 5 out of 5 stars – a great addition to anyone’s Ruby bookshelf.

Notes


[1] It is absolutely possible to learn Ruby withouth spending a nickel – there are excellent Ruby tutorials out there, like Why’s poignant guide to Ruby ( with cartoon foxes and chunky bacon :-) ) or the first edition of the Pickaxe book which is available online for free, or Learning Ruby by Satish Talim, and a lot of other ones, too. For some beginner ruby exercises you can also check out my earlier post: 15 exercises for learning a new programming language – or just use google…Back


[2] I am not sure whether it was the best move to include ‘Rails’ in the title – it may turn down some who would like to learn Ruby but not Rails. However, I can
assure you that this book is a true Ruby masterpiece. Though there are some interesting Rails techniques included, the primary focus is unquestionably Ruby. Back


[3] There is one possible exception: If you are new not only to Ruby but also to programming, you should probably check out Chris Pine’s Learning to program first. Back


[4] Of course there will be always some overlapping and not every book can be absolutely correctly categorized in every case (for example, the Ruby Way has also a cookbook-like chapters) Back


[5] Of course this does not mean that the rest of the chapters were not that helpful – just coming from Python, I did not have so much ‘wow’ moments. Nevertheless,
they also teach a lot of idioms and are in no way less informative than the other two. Back


[6] Devil’s advocate(tm) says: maybe some chapters on SQLite and Oracle, as well as advanced SQL stuff would be cool – however, this is really mega-über nitpicking since then the title should be ‘Ruby and SQL cookbook’ :-) Back


Site Updates

I am constantly trying to update rubyrailways.com with useful features and enhancements (feedback is warmly welcome – even the present look was influenced by a lot of your comments). This is the last set of updates:

  • Ajaxified Comment Preview

    is a handy WordPress plugin which can create a preview of the comment you are currently writing before you actually post it. Check out any of the posts (e.g. this one :-) ) and scroll down to the ‘Leave a Reply’ section to see it in action (you don’t actually have to comment if you just would like to play around).

    Markdown should work with the comments, too. For adding a comment which contains code, I recommend to use the <pre> tag to preserve whitespace (unfortunately SyntHiHol (see next bullet) does not work here).

  • SyntHiHol

    is a code highlighter, you can see it in action in my last post for example. All you have to do to achieve these nicely highlighted code blocks is to write the code in a div with the attribute “lang” (possible values include ruby, python, java, php, c, c++, c#, bash, …. nearly 70 languages!). Cool, isn’t it?

  • Akismet

    though I don’t think so there is anybody who does not know akismet, for completeness, sake, it’s “a plugin which identifies and blocks comment and trackback spam on blogs with integration to various blogging systems”. In the dark pre-akismet era I have received 10-15 spams a day on average. Guess how much did I get since the installation? Exactly zero. It sounds unbelievable but it’s true

    . I have just checked – akismet caught 370 spam comments during its 1-month reign.

  • Installed trac

    a web-based software project management tool – well this is not of too much interest to the readers of this blog (yet) but maybe someone is interested in my experience.

    Currently this site is hosted on dreamhost, and fortunately I have found the DreamTrac script for trac installation on DH. Well, I think now, after all the struggling I would be able to install trac with this script for the first try – but the current installation took me about 3 hours and 8 tries.

    However, this was not the biggest problem – after all I have managed to install and configure trac – it was much worse that the script (or trac configuration?) overwrote my .htaccess file in the home directory, which caused the main site (http://rubyrailways.com ) to stop – and even worse, it exposed my whole home directory to the world! :-)
    Since I did not count with such side effects, I have found and corrected this problem after a few hours only.

    If this would not be enough, ther is one ‘minor’ problem with trac on dreamhost: for me it is so slow that it is practically unusable (takes about 20-30 seconds, sometimes more to load). I don’t know what can be the problem – it’s fastcgi enabled, and though not explicitly optimized, I don’t think so it should look like this… Any ideas?