Archive for December, 2005

Archive for December, 2005

The Ning Playground

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The Ning Playground is a webservice for the creation of webservices. It is where the code and data for Commentosphere resides. While great efforts have gone into making the service easy for novices to jump into, this results in a less powerful toolset overall.

Application Creation
Ning handles application creation and setup admirably. Although I did not investigate starting an app from scratch with no files, such a thing is likely possible. If it is not, cloning an app and deleting all code would serve the purpose just as well. There are numerous example applications with working code that can be easily cloned from the omnipresent Ning Pivot sidebar. Once this has been done one merely has to visit the (unchangeable) URL chosen for the new app and perform some minor setup functions and there is a working application. Nothing could be easier, although if left at that it is mostly useless. Selecting ‘edit code’ from the same sidebar presents you with a directory structure where you may add or edit files to build the app.

Language Support
Ning supports both PHP and their own XNHTML. While the focus on PHP may be a negative aspect to some, for me it made it easy to get right into development, as PHP is the language I am familiar with. All standard PHP methods, as well as quite a number of extension packages are supported admirably and without the contstraints usually found on free (or even cheap) hosting. They also provide thier own set of classes to enable interfacing with their Content Store and other things, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and reading/writing RSS feeds.

XNHTML is a very nice, very easy XML derivative that enables basic output control and data access. While I did not investigate it thoroughly (being more apt to the PHP side of things) I did use it for outputting the app name (for which there is a handy tag provided), displaying certian code only if the user is logged in / a specifi user is logged in (a matter of wrapping the code in question inside the provided user test tags), and addind data to the Content Store via form for the Aggregator (which was a simple matte of using the XNHTML form tags instead of normal XHTML and using standard XHTML ‘input’ tags for the form itself). I found XNHTML to be very easy to use, and very conveniant for simple operations.

The Content Store
Here is where things got a tad more confusing. To a novice, the Ning Content Store is very easy to use and easy to learn, but to a programmer used to SQL it is a pain to learn a new data access method, no matter how easy. To its credit, the Content Store has many benefits, including easy sharing of data between all Ning apps and the ability to perform basic queries with ease using the objects provided. It has also, however, some drawbacks, including :

  • No boolean operators for filtering (ie OR / NOT), all filters applied overlap as though put together using AND.
  • No pattern matching quieries analogous to the SQL LIKE operator. The ‘like’ and ‘likeic’ operators in Ning are full-text search operators. They claim that such a feature is on their wishlist for the service, but currently it does not exist because of the load they fear it would place on the servers.
  • The object owners can only be set to NULL (anonymous) or the currently logged in user. This creates a problem for services wanting to provide bidirectional third-party APIs.
  • All data returned is in the form of XN_Content objects, which support many nice operations for the transformation of data (htmlentities, urlencode) but are sadly unsortable, making the merger of multiple queries impossible without writing your own sorting function (which I plan to get to eventually).
  • It’s slow for adding content, and if you’re adding a lot of content (either one large record or a great many records at once — read importer) painfully so. They claim to be working on this as part of their plan to optomise the entire Ning backend, but for now things such as my importer are doomed to lock up connections and cause browsers to do funny things, which messes up the import and basically makes the operation impossible.

Other Considerations
While Ning is about social applications, developement is currently anything but social. In fact, only the creator of an app can modify its code, and this permissing cannot be given to anyone else. While others may clone the app to experiment with the code and then send their modifications back to the creator, group development is virtually impossible. In response to my inquiry about this they said that they are working on solving this, but who knows when that will come about.

All code on Ning is licensed under a fair, but GPL-incompatable license, making the use of GPLed libraries impossible.

Documentation is in plenty, but not always easy to find. For example, when looking up documentation on the nature of the ‘like’ and ‘likeic’ operators none was to be found under their appropriate classes / methods. I had to go to a mammoth article titled Querying the Ning Content Store to find it.

I like Ning, I really do. I like the concept, I like the implementation, but it needs some work. For small-scale apps or non-developers the way it is makes coding easy. Even as a more experianced developer I am not one to complain about ease of use. They need, however, to add features that cater more to the power market as well as the easy market. Above all else I would like to see (1) a faster backend that doesn’t hang on running import scripts and the like (2) group development (3) pattern matching (4) better documentation.


Sleepover / Christmas Program / Conference

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So what happened to me and the Sleepover / Christmas program et al? Well the sleepover went alright, and it actually was a lot of fun. We played a lot of crazy games, like one where we put some M&M’s on a paper towel stretched over a bowl full of water. Then you poke holes in the paper towel with a pencil. The person to send the M&M’s into the water has to eat them out of the water without using their hands! That gets disgusting ;) We stayed up really late watching Hook and generally had a good time.

Next day was the Christmas Program, which went well. I played my one song with the band and then watched the rest from the audience. Everything went off perfectly without problem and we quickly came to the best part : Refreshments!

The Symons left a few days ago, they’re in N’Djamena now and soon on their way out.

On Friday the whole TEAM Chad field goes to Annual Conference, including me. We’ll be gone just over a week with probably no Internet or Email of any kind the entire time.


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I posted before about how some people are posting their comments to At that time I said that I thought the idea good, but would far prefer it if there were a service dedicated to this use, for reasons I listed. After some discussion on the subject, and seeing more and more how useful content is sometimes lost because it is in a comment somewhere, I decided to try my hand at implementing the idea myself.

So, using Ning as the hosting and codebase, I have developed Commentosphere. Yes, it’s a tacky name, if you have another suggestion I’m more than open to it 😉 Developing on Ning was an interesting first-time experiance, on which I plan to write a post later. Currently posting to the service is handled primarily by a bookmarklet available on the about page or the posting page, but I hope eventually to have some greasmonkey script’s based off of Johan of Ecmanaut‘s script for You must have a Ning account to add comments to the service.

For those people who have been tagged their comments on I have included an importer. Having, however, no comment data on myself I have not been able to properly test it, so feedback on this feature would be greatly appreciated!

Comments may be filtered by tag, user, what post they are on, what blog they are on, what parents they have (more on that below), or any combination of these. They are also fully searchable. Tag intersections do not work yet, but I am trying to fix that. Syndication is possible via RSS 2.0 or JavaScript (for inclusion in a blog sidebar, see mine) and there is a JavaScript Feed Generation tool. Other formats (including JSON) should be coming soon.

Comments are semi-threaded on Commentosphere. It works like this: when adding a comment you can specify the permalink URLs of one or more comments that this comment is a reply to. When viewing that comment in the app these ‘parent’ comments are listed and linked to. A link to ‘child’ comments is presented and, if clicked, will bring up a page of all comments who have that comment set as their parent. Multiple parents is currently a tag buggy, but that should be fixed soon.

Last but not least is the aggregator. The aggregator lets you add posts, blogs, tags, and users to monitor for comments. When a new comment is added to Commentosphere for any item you monitor, it will be added to your aggregator. For off-Commentosphere comments you have the option of adding an RSS comments feed that will also have its content mixed into the page. The page may itself be syndicated via RSS to allow you to monitor comments from blogs across the web without cluttering your reader with all the innumerable feeds. The aggregator currently has a known bug in that it does not sort the items in any way, and thus they end up chrological, but grouped by source. This is obviously not the desired behaviour and I am working to correct this.

And that, in a (large) nutshell, is it. More information can be found on the about page or the tips page. Testing and feedback on all features (especially the importer) would be greatly appreciated.