My Presentation for the DC Ruby on Rails Users Group

Last Thursday, May 3rd, I gave a technical presentaton to the Washington DC Ruby on Rails Users Group. All in all, it was a very nice experience.

First, the audience - the folks at the meeting were friendly, accomodating and indisputably interested in learning more about Ruby, Rails and related technologies. I also had a great time at dinner with some of the audience members after the meeting.

Media and Public Affairs Building, George Washington UniversitySecond, the venue - the user group had a very nice set-up at George Washington University, with a great lecture room in the Media and Public Affairs Building.

Third, it was relaxing to give a presentation in a setting where the audiovisual equipment working flawslessly - there were no hassles getting my laptop hooked up so the audience could view my PowerPoint slides.

We waited for a few minutes after the official start of the meeting for a few stragglers to show up. The discussion during this time period focused on two main topics - how and to what extent Rails was being used in a company like AOL; and where the heck did I get my laptop's screen background.

AOL Rails Projects

Regarding AOL, there are a number of Rails efforts going on at AOL, as well as quite a bit of interest in the technology from those who've heard about it but haven't had a chance to use it yet. The only customer-facing Rails project is Ficlets, which is more of a demonstration of capabilities than a major site., part of AOL's AIM NetworkFiclets is a small-scale social network focused on the realm of fan fiction. Users create extremely short stories online for others to view. The catch is that the stories can only be 1000 characters long, and other users may add short sections onto the beginning or end of each story. Hence the term "ficlets."

The site integrates with Flickr so that users can find photographs to serve as "inspiration" for their stories. For logging in, users can use either their AOL screen name or the non-proprietrary OpenID system.

Ficlets went from concept to production in three months with only a small development team led by Kevin Lawver, an AOL architect.

Note: (June 24, 2009) Ficlets is dead. It was shut down by AOL on January 15, 2009, despite numerous requests from its fan base to keep it up.

There are a number of other Rails projects in progress at AOL, mostly for internal web sites. The rapid development possible with Rails makes it quite useful for internal enterprise web sites. Something to think about for future reference.

Note: (June 24, 2009) Ruby is effectively dead at AOL. All of the Ruby folks have left, and management seems unwilling to consider new technologies that might actually help them get out of their corporate death spiral. And with all of the Ruby folks gone, the AOL Ruby Users Group is basically dead, too. It's all kind of depressing.

Star Trek

Regarding my screen background, well, it's a picture of me on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, compliments of the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles. That's me at the back of the bridge, in the blue science officer uniform.

Dave Keener, on the bridge of the Enterprise This all came about because the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, California, went out of business. The assets of the business, i.e - the wax figures, were auctioned off to pay various debts.

An aspiring entreprenuer tried to buy the seven wax figures of the original Star Trek crew at an auction, but was disappointed when he was outbid. Then the high bidder defaulted so, as the second highest bidder, he was able to buy them for a total of 70K.

He figured that he'd in turn sell them to a theme park and turn a handy profit.

Oops. No buyers, because the theme parks didn't see the money potential in the wax figures. That didn't stop this guy - he decided that he would show them how to make money using the figures. So he commissioned some carpenters to make a mock-up of the Enterprise bridge. Then he started carting the mock-up and the wax figures to some science fiction conventions.

He created a nice deal that allowed people to get their picture taken with the Star Trek crew: $20 for a picture on CD, $25 for a frameable picture, $30 for both. So, what the heck, for $20 I got to hang out on the Enterprise and have my picture taken.

Haven't heard yet whether our aspiring entreprenuer was ever able to sell the wax figures.

The Presentation

For my presentation, which is now available in PDF form online, I chose a topic that was somewhat off the beaten path: "Creating Custom Charts using Ruby Vector Graphics (RVG) in Rails Apps."

RVG is a drawing API that supports the creation of scalable vector graphics. RVG is bundled with RMagick, which is a Ruby interface to the ImageMagick and GraphicsMagick image processing libraries. Learn how to use RVG to create custom diagrams that can be integrated directly into web sites. The discussion will provide a general introduction to RVG, then illustrate the use of RVG in a web application that displays nearby stars in a generated perspective diagram. I did this as a form of counter-programming. A number of topics have been hammered to death lately within the Rails user community, so I wanted to speak on a topic that was likely to be fresh to the audience. Accordingly, I didn't want to cover RJS, or REST or a bunch of other areas. I chose graphics.

Of course, the whole area was new to me, so it took quite a bit of work to put the presentation together. Furthermore, in order to discuss RVG, I had to familiarize the audience with other technologies, including the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) standard, RMagick, ImageMagick and GraphicsMagick. For the demonstration application, I also had to provide some background on astronomy. It turned out to be a wide-ranging, 70-minute-long presentation, and one that the audience seemed to enjoy.


Following my presentation, there was a useful and entertaining discussion session. Audience members polled each other for information on subjects like the best hosting companies for Rails apps, alternatives to RMagick (ImageScience, though it doesn't have all of the features of RMagick) and other subjects.

And I learned something new. If you put your laptop screen up in front of an audience, they will study it. Intently.

The inimitable dancing Tivo box.I was very surprised when one of the questions turned out to be: "Hey, what is that Tivo Desktop icon you have on your screen? Can you explain what that is?"

So, unexpectedly, I also got to spend a few minutes providing the audience with information on Tivo. Specifically, how to download movies from a Tivo box to a computer via either the Tivo Desktop application or the built-in web site that is hosted on each Tivo box.


What can I say? First, I think the Washington DC Ruby on Rails Users Group is providing an excellent service for the Ruby/Rails community. Second, I had a good time. I'd be happy to speak on another topic in the future. Of course, it will be a while before I have a new presentation ready.

In the meantime, I will be doing this presentation again on Wednesday, May 9th, for the benefit of AOL.


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