Time Not Well-Spent

Here it is, Whiskey-Exemption Thursday, and my weight is on-target so I can even have beer. The purpose of Thursday is to devote an evening to pushing the writing forward, and hang the consequences.

What have I been writing this fine evening? I’ve been trying to come up with the least-objectionable way to emulate Swift’s extensions to Protocols in php. The answer: there is no way.

Begin geek

Coding with php is coding with flint knives and bearskins; the power of php is in its wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am ability to do a quick task and then to go away.

Bless the movers behind php, they’re trying to evolve their language to catch up with the way people are using it these days. If they had known Drupal was coming along, they might not have been so quick-and-dirty before. Drupal might be slightly less awful as a result.

There are design patterns enabled by Swift that I get a little misty contemplating. Being able to add extensions (with executable code!) to protocols is enormously powerful. Having experienced that, I wanted to do the same thing in php, creating a trait “taggable” and having classes that used it automatically injected with the implementation. Injected, not inherited. Ain’t gonna happen.

End geek

At least now I’m writing prose about writing the code rather than writing the code itself. Progress, I guess.


Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and PHP

Often when dealing with Cascading Style sheets, or CSS, I find myself wishing that the CSS mechanism included variables. This is especially true when dealing with colors, since you want the same color applied to lots of different things. It can be a real pain to go back through an old style sheet and find the code for the color you want. I was quietly surprised that no one making up how CSS worked had addressed something like this.

Then, a while back I was giving a buddy of mine a few exercises to introduce him to the exciting world of Web programming, touching on CSS, HTML, PHP and MySQL. I gave him pretty much no guidance; I just thought up plans that would introduce him to the concepts and gave him a list of my favorite references. (I’ll be posting those exercises here in the nearish future.)

Anyway, without me to tell him how to do things, he went and dug around and one of the first style sheets he sent me for evaluation had a .php extension rather than .css.

Bingo! Once you see it in action, it’s obvious. PHP can be used to generate CSS files just as easily as it can be used to generate HTML files. Now my style sheets can change based on external conditions or can simply define a set of colors that all the style definitions share. Why did it take me so long to figure this out? It seems like this technique should be a lot more common than it is.

Here’s a quick code snippet for those who want to try it for themselves:

	header('Content-Type: text/css');
	$header_back_color = '#dddddd';
#corner_table th {
	background-color:<?php echo $header_back_color ?>;
	text-align: center;

A couple of notes: the <?php MUST be the very first thing in the file. No empty lines, no spaces. The reason is that the next line, with the header() function, has to be called before the server sends any page content. (Once the server starts sending content back to the browser, it’s too late to be fiddling with the headers. Any whitespace outside the <?php tag will be considered content.) The header line is necessary because you need to tell your browser that what you are sending really is a css file.

In the <head> of the html file, you call the style sheet just like normal, but of course the file you fetch will have a php extension:

<link rel="stylesheet"
      media="screen" />

That’s all there is to it. Why have I not done this with every css file?

Lost in Translation?

Even if you’re not a programmer, take a look at the following lines of code:

public function sendCommunication($oCommunication)
    if (self::emailMode != EMAIL_TEST_MODE_NONE) {
        if (self::emailMode == EMAIL_TEST_MODE_LOGGED_IN_ONLY) {
            // EVER
            // FOR ANY REASON
            $oCommunication->to = $oCommunication->from;
            $oCommunication->cc = '';

Now, I ask you, even if you’re not a programmer, you know there’s one thing you would never, ever, do to the above code. Right? Now let’s say you are a programmer, a professional, being paid because of your ability to find solutions to problems and express them in an abstract language.

Now further imagine that changing the above code can lead to the customers of the people paying for this work getting spammed with confusing emails with our client’s name on them.

Yeah, you guessed it.


Haloscan comments to WordPress – the nitty gritty.

As I mentioned in the previous episode, I recently had to move more than 8000 comments from my old comment system, Haloscan, and import them into WordPress. Haloscan served me well back in the day, but they are going away, and all my more recent comments are in the WordPress system anyway. Nice to have them all in one place.

The process turned out to be pretty easy. I found a script for importing comments from a different system, modified it, modified it some more, found a fundamental problem with it, fixed that, and in the end not much of code remained from the example, except the part where the WordPress logo is displayed on the screen. I assume that part came from the code the guy copied to make the code that I copied.

Along the way I learned a couple of things. PHP is a pretty flexible language, but running a loop that sets up 8500 data structures and runs 25500 database queries exposes PHP’s primary weakness: memory management. The whiz kids who invented PHP designed it for a load/compile/execute/exit-and-clean-up flow. Memory allocated during execution is cleaned up when the program is done running (usually when the Web page is delivered). When you try to do heavy lifting with PHP, you have to start paying attention to getting your memory back before the traditional clean-up time.

The code I started with did a direct database query to add the comment to the comments table, but that got things out of sync with other tables. (The posts table keeps track of the number of comments that apply to it, presumably for performance reasons.) I dug into the core WordPress code and found the method they call to post comments, and I made my code call that function. I have no idea what all the bookkeeping chores are that function does, and really I don’t care as long as they get done.

I didn’t worry about performance too much at first (after all, it only has to run once), but one of the database queries I did was really expensive (scanning all the posts for a specific set of characters). Even running on my local server it was slow, and I knew that if I tried something like that on my actual Web host alarms would go off and they’d shut me down for a while. I did a little optimization on that front, and it was enough.

The following script has some Muddle-specific code in it, but it might come in handy for others who need to move Haloscan comments to a new system. The part that parses Haloscan XML is pretty generic and would work for anyone, the part that saves the comments might be useful as a guide as well. The main difference others will have to deal with is where to get proper post_id based on the thread field in the XML. In my case I had a link in each blog episode back to the Haloscan thread.

The HTML bit in the middle of the file is not essential; but it puts a nice WordPress logo on the screen when the script starts up. I inherited that from the script I started with.

NOTE: While this script has code in it specific to me, I am available to customize it for others who need to move their code from Haloscan into another environment, or, for that matter, from any structured source into WordPress. Drop me a line!

if (!file_exists('../wp-config.php')) die("There doesn't seem to be a wp-config.php file. You must install WordPress before you import any comments.");
function saveCommentToWP($comment, $dbRef, &$postThreads) {
    //echo "here's where the comment save happens <br/><br />";
    $thread = $comment['thread'];
    $postID = $postThreads[$thread];
    if (!isset($postThreads[$thread])) {
        $query = "SELECT * FROM wp_posts WHERE post_content LIKE '%".$thread."%' AND post_status='publish'";
        $postID = $dbRef->get_var($query, 0);
        $postThreads[$thread] = $postID ? $postID : 0;
        if ($postThreads[$thread] == 0)
            echo ("<br />Thread $thread has no post!");
            echo "<br />Thread $thread";
        flush();       // got to have real-time updates!
    if ($postID && $postID != 0) {
        $userId = $comment['email'] == '[email protected]' ? 1 : 0;
        //set up the data the way wp_insert_comment expects it.
        $wp_commentData = array();
        $wp_commentData['comment_post_ID'] = (int) $postID;
        $wp_commentData['user_id'] = (int) $userId;
        $wp_commentData['comment_parent'] = 0;
        $wp_commentData['comment_author_IP'] = $comment['ip'];
        $wp_commentData['comment_agent'] = 'Haloscan';
        $wp_commentData['comment_date'] = $comment['datetime'];
        $wp_commentData['comment_date_gmt'] = $comment['datetime'];
        $wp_commentData['comment_approved'] = '1';
        $wp_commentData['comment_content'] = $comment['text'];
        $wp_commentData['comment_author'] = $comment['name'];
        $wp_commentData['comment_author_email'] = $comment['email'];
        $wp_commentData = wp_filter_comment($wp_commentData);
        $comment_ID = wp_insert_comment($wp_commentData);
        //echo ("<strong>saved comment $comment_ID</strong>");
    // try to reclaim some memory
header( 'Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8' );
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">
<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">
<title>WordPress &rsaquo; Import Comments from RSS</title>
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=utf-8" />
<style media="screen" type="text/css">
    body {
        font-family: Georgia, "Times New Roman", Times, serif;
        margin-left: 20%;
        margin-right: 20%;
    #logo {
        margin: 0;
        padding: 0;
        background-image: url(http://wordpress.org/images/logo.png);
        background-repeat: no-repeat;
        height: 60px;
        border-bottom: 4px solid #333;
    #logo a {
        display: block;
        text-decoration: none;
        text-indent: -100em;
        height: 60px;
    p {
        line-height: 140%;
<h1 id="logo"><a href="http://wordpress.org/">WordPress</a></h1> 
// Bring in the data
$reader = new XMLReader();
if ($reader->open('export-8.xml')) {
    $postThreads = array();
    $thread = '';
    while ($reader->read()) {
        //echo "<br />read node type: ".$reader->nodeType.';     '.$reader->name.': '.$reader->value;
        if ($reader->nodeType == XMLReader::ELEMENT && $reader->name == 'thread') {
            $thread = $reader->getAttribute('id');
        if ($thread) {
            if ($reader->nodeType == XMLReader::ELEMENT && $reader->name == 'comment') {
                // begin building comment
                $comment = array('thread' => $thread);
                while ( !($reader->nodeType == XMLReader::END_ELEMENT && $reader->name == 'comment') ) {
                    if ($reader->nodeType == XMLReader::ELEMENT) {
                        $property = $reader->name;
                        $reader->read(); // assumes text element following element tag has the data
                        $comment[$property] = $reader->value;
                saveCommentToWP($comment, $wpdb, $postThreads);