Category Archives: Software

A Gentle Introduction to Gulp

We’re at the end of 2015, and web technology has changed quite  a bit since I started in 2002. Nowadays, for the front end stuff, there is a whole family of tools based on the node.js package manager (npm) that you can use to streamline and automate your workflow.

In this article (based on Windows), we’ll learn to use Gulp to do routine tasks such as concatenating and minifying JavaScript tasks. There’s another tool called Grunt with a similar purpose, and you’ll find all sorts of discussions on the internet comparing Grunt vs Gulp. Basically, Grunt is the older of the two and has a bigger community – an important factor considering that these tools are plugin-driven. However, I’m covering Gulp here as I felt it was more intuitive. For this small demonstration it has all the plugins we need, and performance (a common point of comparison) isn’t even a factor.

Setting up Gulp

The first thing we need is to install node.js:


There’s a chance you might already have node.js, if you installed it with Visual Studio 2015.

Once you have installed node.js, you should have npm in your path. Open a command prompt, and install Gulp using the following command:

npm install gulp -g

-g means globally, and thanks to this, gulp should now be in your path.

Next, we want to create a package.json file. This is a kind of project file for node.js-related stuff. We can use npm for this too:

npm init

npm will ask a bunch of questions in order to set up the package.json file, suggesting possible answers where it makes sense to do so. name and version are required, but you can leave the rest empty if you like:


Next, we need to install Gulp locally in our project:

npm install gulp --save-dev

This installs Gulp; –save-dev updates the package.json with a devDependencies field:

  "name": "gulptest",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "Learning to use Gulp.",
  "main": "index.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  "author": "Daniel D'Agostino",
  "license": "ISC",
  "devDependencies": {
    "gulp": "^3.9.0"

Plugins and the Gulp file

Gulp itself doesn’t do anything; it is just configured to run tasks. Its capabilities come from the plugins you install, and you configure it to do stuff using a Gulp file. For this simple example, we’re just going to use a few plugins:

npm install gulp-concat gulp-uglify --save-dev

Once again, –save-dev updates your devDependencies in package.json:

  "devDependencies": {
    "gulp": "^3.9.0",
    "gulp-concat": "^2.6.0",
    "gulp-uglify": "^1.5.1"

Next, create a file called gulpfile.js, and put the following code in it:

var gulp = require('gulp'),
    uglify = require('gulp-uglify'),
    concat = require('gulp-concat');
gulp.task('default', function() {
  return gulp.src('js/*.js')

To test this out, I downloaded jquery and jquery-ui, and put the uncompressed Javascript files in a “js” folder. Having created the Gulpfile above, all you need is to run Gulp:


You should find a folder called dist, with a file called all.js in it, containing the contents of the files originally in the js folder:


Concatenating JavaScript is good for performance because the browser only needs to make a single request, rather than having to retrieve several small files. But we can do even better by minifying the JavaScript (using the gulp-uglify plugin). Just add the following line:

var gulp = require('gulp'),
    uglify = require('gulp-uglify'),
    concat = require('gulp-concat');
gulp.task('default', function() {
  return gulp.src('js/*.js')

Run Gulp again, and you’ll find that all.js has been updated. In fact, it’s much smaller now, and it’s completely illegible:


Conclusion and Further Reading

The purpose of this article was to get you set up with Gulp, and see something working with the least possible hassle. Mark Goodyear’s article (on which this article is partly based) covers a lot of other common operations to carry out with Gulp. If you need to do anything particular – linting your JavaScript files, minifying your CSS, using Less, etc, there’s probably a plugin for it.

Beyond that, all you need to know is how to use Gulp effectively as part of your build process.

  • Running Gulp without arguments makes it look for the “default” task. You can pass the name of a task to run as an argument, allowing you to run a variety of operations.
  • How do you debug your minified JavaScript? You don’t. Use separate tasks for development and for release, and minify only in your release task.
  • Ideally these tasks should be run automatically as part of your continuous integration.
  • An ASP .NET 5 (formerly known as vNext) project in Visual Studio 2015 can easily integrate with npm tools, and you can configure it to run your tasks when you build.
  • Not using Windows? These command line tools are easy to use on other platforms (although installing npm will obviously be different).

Update 8th January 2016: Check out “More Gulp in Practice“, the followup to this article.

Pasting JSON/XML as Classes in Visual Studio

Note: This feature is available as from Visual Studio 2015.

REST and JSON together have revolutionised the way we expose and consume data in recent years. For this reason it has become increasingly common to need to integrate with REST services, and data itself is provided in either XML or JSON format. This typically involves creating a set of classes that match the data provided by the service, so that the application may take care of serialisation and deserialisation, and work with structured data.

Although you can create these data classes manually, Visual Studio provides a shortcut to generate classes from XML or JSON data. For instance, let’s say that we want to work with the data from the GitHub API:


We can easily generate a class for this by copying that data, and in Visual Studio going into Edit -> Paste Special -> Parse JSON As Classes:


And as if by magic, the following class gets generated:

        public class Rootobject
            public string current_user_url { get; set; }
            public string current_user_authorizations_html_url { get; set; }
            public string authorizations_url { get; set; }
            public string code_search_url { get; set; }
            public string emails_url { get; set; }
            public string emojis_url { get; set; }
            public string events_url { get; set; }
            public string feeds_url { get; set; }
            public string followers_url { get; set; }
            public string following_url { get; set; }
            public string gists_url { get; set; }
            public string hub_url { get; set; }
            public string issue_search_url { get; set; }
            public string issues_url { get; set; }
            public string keys_url { get; set; }
            public string notifications_url { get; set; }
            public string organization_repositories_url { get; set; }
            public string organization_url { get; set; }
            public string public_gists_url { get; set; }
            public string rate_limit_url { get; set; }
            public string repository_url { get; set; }
            public string repository_search_url { get; set; }
            public string current_user_repositories_url { get; set; }
            public string starred_url { get; set; }
            public string starred_gists_url { get; set; }
            public string team_url { get; set; }
            public string user_url { get; set; }
            public string user_organizations_url { get; set; }
            public string user_repositories_url { get; set; }
            public string user_search_url { get; set; }

Now, the class and property names might not be exactly the way you want them, and you might need to change some things, but this will still save you a lot of typing.

If you’re still not convinced, try it with a more complex example that involves nested data structures. For instance, let’s say we have this JSON data:

	"name" : "John Smith",
	"summary" : "Wannabe Superhero",
	"workexperience" : [{
			"title" : "Insurance Guy",
			"company" : "ABC Ltd.",
			"start" : "Feb 2015",
			"description" : "Current job, very bad"
		}, {
			"title" : "Cleaning Guy",
			"company" : "Super Clean Ltd.",
			"start" : "Jan 2013",
			"end" : "Jan 2015",
			"description" : "Dirty work",
			"recommendations" : [{
					"name" : "Boss guy",
					"position" : "Boss"
				}, {
					"name" : "Colleague girl",
					"position" : "Cleaning Girl"

With no effort whatsoever, you can get these classes generated for you:

        public class Rootobject
            public string name { get; set; }
            public string summary { get; set; }
            public Workexperience[] workexperience { get; set; }

        public class Workexperience
            public string title { get; set; }
            public string company { get; set; }
            public string start { get; set; }
            public string description { get; set; }
            public string end { get; set; }
            public Recommendation[] recommendations { get; set; }

        public class Recommendation
            public string name { get; set; }
            public string position { get; set; }

And there’s a similar function for XML.

You’re welcome.

Running Games Requiring a CD in DOSBox

Back in 2009, I had written DOSBox for Dummies, a short and simple article explaining how to get old games running in DOSBox, and how to write a batch file so you don’t have to do this every time. A typical batch file might look something like this:

dosbox -c "mount c C:\prophet" -c "C:" -c "prophet"

That will often be good enough. But if your game needs to access resources on CD, such as Ravenloft: Stone Prophet in this case, then that’s not quite going to work:


To allow the game to access the CD, you’ll need an extra command to mount the CD drive:

-c "mount d D:\ -t cdrom"

The whole thing looks something like this:

dosbox -c "mount c C:\prophet" -c "mount d D:\ -t cdrom" -c "C:" -c "prophet"

That’s much better:


If you don’t want to pop in your CD every time you want to play, just copy the CD onto your hard disk, and mount that folder instead:

dosbox -c "mount c C:\prophet" -c "mount d C:\STONE_V1.0 -t cdrom" -c "C:" -c "prophet"

That works just as well.

On Mystery Meat Navigation and Unusability

This article was originally posted here at Programmer’s Ranch on 12th September 2013. It has been updated since a lot of the original examples are no longer available.

Hello folks! 🙂

Today I’m going to talk about Mystery Meat Navigation (MMN). This term was invented 15 years ago by Vincent Flanders of Web Pages That Suck. It refers to a horrible practice of filling a website’s navigation with meaningless icons. When a user moves his mouse over one of these icons, the icon changes or pops up some text, revealing what it really does.

A classic analogy of mystery meat navigation (which seems to have mostly disappeared from the web) is a road sign that initially looks completely blank, but changes to indicate where you’re going just as you drive past it.

Even now, 15 years later, MMN is still used on the web. Even reputable web design companies here in Malta have fallen in the MMN trap. Alert eBusiness, for instance, used to have the following navigation bar:


Right, so what do those icons mean? The last one seems pretty clear: a shopping cart. Mousing over it reveals it stands for Alert Payment Gateway, which is close enough. But what about the rest? The first one is a mouse, for instance. Would it ever cross your mind that it actually means “Web Design”?

Another example: Pcionix (now defunct):


The home icon is pretty obvious, so that can be forgiven. But a pie chart that stands for SEO – seriously?

But this, from, is even worse:


This has got to be the worst of them all. Whereas you might be able to somehow guess what the icons in the other sites mean, the navigation here is hidden behind meaningless numbers that you again have to mouse over to understand.

It gets worse: there are videos on YouTube of sites with iconic navigation that actually floats around, so you actually have to find out where that “About Us” cube thingy moved to (examples: Mandarina DuckQualcomm).

So why is MMN bad? In case it isn’t obvious, it is very annoying for users to have to click on stuff to figure out what the page offers. A website should give a clear indication of how it is structured, without the user needing to interact with it just to get an idea. Imagine you’re driving and need to interact with a bunch of direction signs (such as these) one by one to get an idea of the places in the area. Then, after sifting through a dozen, you forget what you saw earlier and have to go back and interact with them again. Sorry, the “just a click away” idea is not an excuse when it comes to navigation, which is really a website’s backbone.

Another great example comes from feedback that Vincent Flanders received, and illustrates how MMN would be if applied to a business’s answering machine:

“You’ve reached XYZ Corporation. To find out what option #1 is, press 1. To find out what option #2 is, press 2. (Etc….) If you’d like to continue doing business with our company after we’ve slapped you around and wasted your valuable time, press 9”

MMN is a slap in the face of usability. It shows meaningless icons in the place of important navigational information. What could possibly worse?

The only thing worse than showing meaningless icons is not showing any icons at all! That’s pretty much the direction taken by Windows 8’s notorious alternate UI, formerly known as Metro. One of its design principles is “Do more with less” which includes “Put content before chrome”. In this case the “chrome” refers to the stuff that makes the application – menus, the ‘X’ button at the top-right, toolbars, etc. So basically you end up with something like this:


That’s the default PDF viewer on Windows 8 – one full screen Windows 8 Style (the new name for Metro) app with the PDF content and nothing else, not even an ‘X’ to close it. In fact Windows 8 users are somehow expected to know beforehand (“by osmosis”, as this Windows 8.1 review puts it) that to close a Windows 8 Style app you have to grab it from the top and drag downwards with your mouse. Contrast this with the same PDF viewed on Windows 7:


Needless to say, everything that you can do with a PDF is immediately accessible either from the toolbars or via the menus. There is no hidden stuff, no needing to drag your mouse into a corner to open some Start Screen or Charms Bar. See, the program actually shows you what it can do, and for new users that’s important. The “Content before Chrome” idea is wrong precisely because when you use a program, you want to do stuff, not just see stuff.

So it’s no wonder that Microsoft seems to have made a U-turn on its Windows 8 Style design stuff. If MMN is an example of bad usability, this Windows 8 abomination is an example of… unusability.

Reserving Windows 10 Upgrade

Windows 10 will be released on 29th July, and it’s no secret that it will be a free upgrade from Windows 7 or 8. In fact, a special icon is currently appearing in the system tray, allowing us to reserve our upgrade – possibly to spread out the download rather than have everyone hit the servers on launch day.

When you click on the system tray icon, a small application gives you an overview of what’s coming in Windows 10, and allows you to reserve the upgrade. Below are screenshots of this application (from 3 weeks ago), included here as a historical record. The application is slightly different today, but more or less conveys the same message.