Computer Science Blogs Beta

CSBlogs.com Homepage - Desktop

Rob and I have both been doing a lot of work on CS Blogs since the last time I blogged about it. Its now in a usable state, and the public is now welcome to sign up and use the service, as long as they are aware there may be some bugs and changes to public interfaces at any time.

The service has been split up into 4 main areas, which will be discussed below:

csblogs.com – The CS Blogs Web App

CSBlogs.com provides the HTML5 website interface to Computer Science Blogs. The website itself is HTML5 and CSS 3 compliant, supports all screen sizes through responsive web design and supports high and low DPI devices through its use of scalable vector graphics for iconography.

Through the web app a user can read all blog posts on the homepage, select a blogger from a list and view their profile — including links to their social media, github and cv — or sign up for the service themselves.

One of the major flaws with the hullcompsciblogs system was that to sign up a user had to email the administrator and be added to a database manually. Updating a profile happened in the same way. CSBlogs.com times to entirely remove that pain point by providing a secure, easy way to get involved. Users are prompted to sign in with a service — either GitHub, WordPress or StackExchange — and then register. This use of OAuth services means that we never know a users password (meaning we can’t lose it) and that we can auto-fill some of their information upon sign in, such as email address and name, saving them precious time.

As with every part of the site a user can sign up, register manage and update their profile entirely from a mobile device.

api.csblogs.com – The CS Blogs Application Programming Interface

Everything that can be viewed and edited on the web application can be viewed and edited from any application which can interact with a RESTful JSON API. The web application itself is actually built onto of the same API functions.

We think making our data and functions available for use outside of our system will allow people to come up with some interesting applications for a multitude of platforms that we couldn’t support on our own. Alex Pringle has already started writing an Android App.

docs.csblogs.com – The CS Blogs Documentation Website

docs.csblogs.com is the source of information for all users, from application developers consuming the API to potential web app and feed aggregator developers. Alongside pages of documentation on functions and developer workflows there are live API docs and support forums.

In the screenshot below you can see a screenshot of a docs.csblogs.com page which shows a developer the expected outcome of an API call and actually allows them to test it, in a similar way to the Facebook graph explorer, live on the documentation page.

CS Blogs API Documentation

CS Blogs API Documentation

Thanks to readme.io for providing our documentation website for free due to us being an open source project they are interested in!

The CS Blogs Feed Aggregator

The feed aggregator is a node.js application which, every five minutes, requests the RSS/ATOM feed of each blogger and adds any new blogs to the CSBlogs database.

The job is triggered using a Microsoft Azure WebJob, however it is written so that it could also be triggered by a standard UNIX chronjob.

Whilst much of the actual RSS/ATOM parsing is provided by libraries it has been interesting to see inconsistencies between different platforms handling of syndication feeds. Some give you links to images used in blog posts, some don’t, some give you “Read more here” links, some don’t. A reasonable amount of code was written to ensure that all blog posts appear the same to end-users, no matter their original source.

Try it!

I welcome anyone who wants to to try to service now at http://csblogs.com. We would also love any help, whether that be submitting bugs via GitHub issues or writing code over at our public repository.

Danny

Research Semester Begins

Most people don't do much more than a simple `git log`

My final semester at The University of York has officially begun. Over the next 5 months I will be conducting 100 credits worth of (hopefully) novel research in the area of Git Source Control Querying and Analytics through the use of Model-Driven Engineering under the supervision of Dr. Dimitris Kolovos.

The original project proposal is shown below:

Advanced Querying of Git Repositories

Git is a distributed version control system that is widely used both in academia and industry. Git provides a command-line API through which basic queries can be evaluated against local repositories (e.g. git log) but lacks facilities for expressing complex queries in a concise manner. The aim of this project is to support such complex high-level queries on Git repositories. In the context of this project, the student will need to

1) identify the metadata stored in a Git repository and extract it to an object-oriented representation (e.g. using JGit)

2) develop a driver that will allow languages of the Epsilon platform to query extracted metadata at a high level of abstraction. For example, the following query would select all files larger than 200 lines and which were last modified by joe@foo.com on a Wednesday:

File.all.select(f|f.lines > 200 and 
  (f.lastModifiedBy = "joe@foo.com" or f.lastModifiedDay = "Wednesday"))

Such an advanced query facility would enable the development of advanced Git repository analytics and visualisation services (e.g. using Epsilon’s EGL as a server-side scripting language).

I’m currently in the very early stages of literature review and finding out what other git analytics programs are available so there isn’t too much to talk about. However, I will as ever keep the blog up to date with my progress over the next few months.

Danny

Dollar IDE Screenshots

I realised today that I never got round to posting any screenshots of Dollar IDE, the PHP Integrated Development Environment I made for my Final Year Project at The University of Hull, once I’d finished developing the feature complete version for submission. This meant I couldn’t show it to anyone when I was talking about it, so I’ve posted some below.

Dollar IDE Start Screen

Dollar IDE Start Screen

This is the first screen a user sees when opening the Application. They can create a new project or open one from a git repository or the local computer — a recent project list makes it easy to get back into a project you’ve been working on.

When making a new project inputs such as “Project Name” and “Save Location” are validated as-you-type so a user always knows how to resolve any problems (e.g. invalid characters or selected a directory that you don’t have write permissions for).

The “Project Type” drop down allows you to select templates for your project. E.g. A web template which has an index.html and ‘images’, ‘styles’ and ‘js’ folders included. The idea was to allow this to be extended so you that you could select, for example, a CakePHP project type and DollarIDE would download CakePHP and resolve all the dependencies, however this has not yet been implemented.

Dollar IDE Open Project from Github

Dollar IDE Open Project from Github

DollarIDE integrates with any git repository through LibGit2Sharp, but has enhanced integration with Github through their API. When you create a project you can have Dollar IDE automatically make and initialize a repository on Github for you and even set if you want it to be public or private. In the above screenshot you can see how Dollar IDE allows you to log in with you Github credentials (which are stored securely using Windows DPAPI) and then select from a dropdown which repository you wish to open and start editing.

Dollar IDE Syntax Highlighting & Autocomplete

Dollar IDE Syntax Highlighting & Autocomplete

Of course most of a developers time is spent in the code editing window itself. In the screenshot above you can see DollarIDE’s tabs, auto-completion and syntax highlighting.

Dollar IDE Settings

Dollar IDE Settings

Seen as developers spend a lot of time in their IDE I felt it was important to ensure that Dollar IDE could be customized to suit their needs. For example, in the Colour Scheme Settings window shown above the user can change both the accent colours and background colour of Dollar. This includes the obligatory dark theme.

You can also see the project pane on the right hand side of the background window in this screenshot. The project pane allows the developer to manage folders and files, and open them for editing — all from inside the same window as the code itself. Due to PHP often being deployed in a CGI setting, file locations are especially important.

Finally, this screenshot also shows that Dollar IDE currently makes no attempt to syntax highlight HTML, which is a great shame as PHP is often intermixed with HTML. This will be one of the first features I add when I eventually open source the project.

Danny

Formal Specification Module Result – 96%

Z Notation PDF Render

The other module I was working on alongside “Topics in Privacy and Security” was “Formal Specification”.

In this module I used Z notation to formally specify a navigation system for Robot Vacuum Cleaners (A bit of a computer science obsession it seems). I then used the technique of promotion to allow for more than 1 robot vacuum cleaner to be in a room and observed some emergent interaction.

Comparison of the two movement algorithms I formally specified.

Comparison of the two movement algorithms I formally specified.

I really enjoyed this module, I like the challenge of working more on a mathematics level rather than a programming level — you have to work with different ‘data structures’ and work with different operators and structures of notation.

I would recommend for anyone to look in Z as it really makes you think about methods and functons in a different way. In terms of pre-conditions (what must be true for the function to start?), post-conditions (what must be true at the end of the function?) and invariants (what must always hold true?). It strikes me as a very good way to think about testing programs, even if you don’t formally specify them before producing them.

A visualisation of some of the emergent behaviour that happened with two robots -- one robot could effectively trap the other in the middle of the room.

A visualisation of some of the emergent behaviour that happened with two robots — one robot could effectively trap the other in the middle of the room.

Formal specification is probably a bit over the top for most software engineering projects, but if I were to ever work on a Planes autopilot system, or a system which moved the control rods in a Nuclear Power Station, I’d want to know formal specification had taken place. So it’s a useful skill to have learnt. It was also a nice refresh on discrete mathematics.

Danny

Topics in Privacy and Security Module Result – 77%

Interactive GUI for Reputation Attack Effect Calculator

Last week was a hectic one. I had a coursework deadline for my Adaptive Learning Agent Systems module, and a exam for Static Analysis and Verification. Amongst all the work I received my results for my Topics in Privacy and Security Module.

The module was assessed by a 100% weighted coursework for which the aim was to develop both a security risk management strategy for a telehealth company and develop some software to determine the best reputation metric for a star-rating system for e-commerce websites to reduce the effect of self-promoting and slandering attacks at different scales.

For the security risk management strategy the ISO/IEC 27002 and ISO/IEC 27005 standards were followed. Assets, user roles, system boundaries and businesses processes were identified, possible violations were considered, threat agents and paths were analysed and critical analysis of which risks had to be managed and which controls to use to mitigate their risks took place.

Identifying Assets can be a Long Process

Identifying Assets can be a Long Process

I used the programming portion of the coursework as an opportunity to learn cross-platform GUI development in Java, using JavaFX. As of the time of writing JavaFX still doesn’t support simple dialog boxes without a host of libraries… which made it interesting. However, it was quite impressive to see ‘write once (carefully), run anywhere (conditionally)’ work in action. I also used it as a chance to try out a form of more modular development, in which all of my business logic was in a library which any GUI could tap into, whether that be a Java Servlet, JavaFX or Command Line program. For the coursework I developed both the aforementioned GUI and a simple Terminal Interface, both running on the same shared .jar library.

Command Line Interface to the Reputation Attack Effect Calculator

Command Line Interface to the Reputation Attack Effect Calculator

Thankfully, now that this week is over, so is the taught portion of my masters degree. For the next 4 months I will be working on my research project, which will be discussed in a future blog post.

Danny

A Reading List

One of the things I’ve always tried to do is learn stuff outside of my university studies. Its nice to have a multitude of views about any given subject, from different people with different experience. Besides, university isn’t there to teach you everything you need to know — just to give you a very good foundation from which to progress.

I thought it might be a nice idea to note down what I’ve been reading recently, mainly so that I can refer back to it later, but also because it might be of use to someone else.

  1. Coding Horror – Lots of opinions and strategies for dealing with User Experience
  2. The Joel Test – List of things your Software Projects should be aiming to utilise by a former Excel Developer
  3. Slashdot – A website which aggregates general tech news
  4. Daring Fireball – Tech opinions from the guy who *invented* Markdown
  5. dev.ghost.org – Notes and information about the development of the Ghost blogging platform, especially interesting if you’re using that system, but also interesting for insight into how modern open-source development works.

As you can see its not a huge list, but I think its full of interesting opinions and news. If you have any publications you think your fellow computer scientists should be reading feel free to comment below.

One of the things I noticed whilst writing this list is how much I am missing reading HullCompSciBlogs. Don’t worry, CSBlogs.com is still on track to be released soon. You can aid in the development of the system here: https://github.com/csblogs/

Danny

HackTrain

HackTrain

This weekend I was lucky enough to be part of The HackTrain.

HackTrain is the first ever train hackathon in Europe targeted to #HackTheRails! An unforgettable experience where 40 of the best developers from all around Europe will revolutionize the world! Jump on board the HackTrain for a once in a lifetime journey, travel to the top tech spaces in the UK, hang out with the market makers in the Startup ecosystem, and create startups that will revolutionize the world!

The journey started out in London where National Rail Enquires, The Association of Train Operating Companies, East Midlands Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast all gave talks about their technology stacks, public APIs they had made available and challenges with technology they were trying to overcome. The sponsors for the event, including financial computing company Bloomberg also spoke about their APIs and what they do.

The first train we got took us from London St. Pancras to Sheffield via the Midland Mainline. During this time we had icebreaker sessions to get to know our fellow hackers, including having to come up with a pitch for a company whose name was an amalgamation of two random words. My team got Snickers Jacuzzi, so we pitched an idea for advertising jacuzzis on the inside of Snickers wrappers. Mad, I know.

Once we arrived in Sheffield we went to Electric Works — an office full of tech startups and home to Europe’s largest indoor slide — this was where each of the 40 participants who wanted to could pitch an idea. I decided to pitch the idea of an application which could dynamically work out any delays happening in real-time to your train (or any subsequent trains in your journey) and alert anyone who might be affected by this, for example a parent picking you up from the train station or anyone subscribed to attend an event on your Google Calendar. In this example it could also inform said parent what time they would have to leave their current location to pick up their child on time. Once everyone had pitched their ideas each of the participants voted for which projects they felt should be worked on. 11 out of 40 people voted for my idea, and so I was able to attempt to form a team to develop it.

However, due to weird team sizes my team had to merge with another team. This was a blessing in disguise as they were nice people to work with, however it meant that only one of our projects could be worked on. I suggested we worked democratically and put it to a vote of the 5 members of the new team and it was decided that we would work on the other idea.

The idea the team I was in developed over the course of the following 48 hours was called Icebreaker. Icebreaker aimed to solve the problem of boredom on long train journeys by matching you up with people on the train who were interested in talking and making friends. People would be allocated travel partners based on their interests and likes on Facebook. You can watch a truly horrifying video of an advert we produced showing how the system works below:

The workflow can be explained as follows:

  • Buy a ticket from TheTrainLine.com or similar
  • They redirect you to Icebreaker
  • If you want to talk, enter your mobile phone number and log in with Facebook. If not, close the tab.
  • Do nothing more, we handle all the hard work!
  • 10 minutes before you get on your train we’ll tell you who you’re matched with. If you still want to meet someone reply ‘yes’. If you’re not in a good mood that day or otherwise don’t want to meet reply ‘no’ or don’t reply!
  • If both people reply with ‘yes’ within 10 minutes, a location is selected for them to meet on board, and some unreserved seats where they could possibly sit together are suggested.

Whilst we were developing the system we were lucky enough to visit the National Railway Museum in York and Tech Cube in Edinburgh. A highlight of the journey for me was going over the Royal Border Bridge (aka the Berwick-upon-Tweed Viaduct).

The Final Judging of the competition happened in the National Railway Museum at York (nice and close to home ;)). Unfortunately our team wasn’t to win anything this time, however I can say I learnt a lot from the experience and made some wonderful connections with people in my industry and that of the train industry. I particularly learnt quite a lot about the Facebook and Twilio API’s, how to develop a business plan in a short period of time, how not to act on video and how important consumer validation is to an idea.

I’d like to take this time to thank the organisers, sponsors and judges of the HackTrain as well as my fellow participants who made it a weekend to remember.

Danny

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