TimHunter writes "I was skeptical when I first saw the title of David Berube's new book, Practical Ruby Gems, from Apress. Do Ruby programmers really need a book devoted entirely to add-on libraries? Most Ruby programmers already know about the RubyGems package management system, and most already have their set of favorite gems. About a third of the way through the book I grudgingly admitted that Rubyists might be able to use this book. After all, even long-time Ruby programmers are unlikely to know about all the gems covered in this book. So then I had a new question. Would I find something in this book that made me say 'I didn't know you can do that with Ruby!'" Read on for the rest of Tim's review.Ruby is an object-oriented programming language in the same family as Perl and Python. The programming language used by Ruby on Rails, Ruby is very popular for writing web applications but also widely used for general-purpose programming tasks. Ruby is open source with a commercially friendly license, and is available for Linux, Mac OS X, and Microsoft Windows. RubyGems is Ruby's system for managing, delivering, and installing third-party libraries and applications. It is similar to Perl's CPAN or the Python Package Manager.
|Practical Ruby Gems|
|summary||A survey of useful and interesting Ruby libraries|
Libraries distributed by RubyGems are called "gems." RubyForge is the central Ruby software repository and the primary distributor of gems. According to sysadmin Tom Copeland, RubyForge currently hosts about 1400 different gems. Of that number, Berube selected 29 useful and interesting libraries for his survey of "practical" gems. All of the gems described in this book work the same on Linux, OS X, and Windows.
Practical Ruby Gems is divided into three parts. Part 1 describes the RubyGems system itself. This part explains how to install the RubyGems software and then use RubyGems to install and manage individual gems. (RubyGems is not part of Ruby's standard distribution, except in the "one-click installer" for Microsoft Windows.) The section entitled "What is require_gem?" in Chapter 3 demonstrates one of the problems with writing technical documentation for a moving target like RubyGems. Practical Ruby Gems describes RubyGems 0.9.0. After the book went to press the RubyGems team released a new version that replaced the 'require_gem' method with a method called simply 'gem'. Currently all uses of 'require_gem' generate a warning message. (The remedy for this mistake is simple: attach a yellow sticky with the words "s/require_gem/gem/g" to page 20.) This is really a nitpick, though. Generally the text and examples in the book work as well for the new release as they did for 0.9.0.
Part 2 is by far the largest and has a chapter devoted to each of the 29 gems. The chapters in this part share a common structure. After a short introduction to the gem, there is a section entitled "How Does It Work?" which explains the purpose of the gem and how it's used. Frequently this section includes a small example. "How Does It Work?" is followed by a complete example script. Then, "Dissecting the Example" steps through each part of the example, explaining how it works and pointing out important classes and methods. The examples frequently combine two or more gems, such as the example for pdf-writer, which also uses the net-sftp gem, and the example for the mongrel web server gem, which also uses the Camping web micro-framework gem.
The examples — always practical, frequently interesting, at least to a geek like me — are the heart of the book. Berube said that "no one wants to pay to read a chapter that regurgitates [the gem's built-in documentation]....I wanted to write a book that you could take the examples and actually be interested in what they accomplished." For instance, Chapter 6 describes the BlueCloth text-to-HTML conversion gem. The example in this chapter is a script that converts lightly marked-up text to PDF by combining BlueCloth with html2ps and ghostscript. Chapter 12 describes the yahoofinance gem, a library for retrieving stock quotes using the Yahoo! Finance API. The example for this library combines yahoofinance with the fxruby GUI library to produce a rudimentary stock ticker in less than 100 lines of code. (The source code for all of the examples in the book can be downloaded from the Apress web site.)
But not every example is perfect. Several of the examples rely on MySQL, which I found a chore to install. I wish Berube had chosen a simpler data base for these examples. I never did get the Camping example to run successfully. I suspect the problem was caused by some change to a gem introduced after the book went to press.
In Chapter 22 I got my "you can do that with Ruby?" moment. This chapter explains runt, a Ruby library for creating "temporal expressions," objects that describe dates that reoccur, such as "every Thursday" or "the last Thursday of every month." The example combines runt with linguistics, a small gem that extends some of the Ruby core classes with methods that support such things as pluralization and conversion from numbers to words. The result is a program that lists a set of dates expressed as "the 3rd Mondays of 2026." I was impressed by both gems, not only for the functionality they provide but by their natural and elegant interfaces as expressed in the example script. I not only learned about two very practical Ruby gems, but something about Ruby programming itself. This particular example may not strike everybody the way it did me, but I believe that most readers will find an equally pleasant surprise.
Part 3 is a tiny, advanced topics section which describes how to create and distribute your own Ruby gems and how to run a private gem server on a local network.
Practical Ruby Gems is not for the novice. Berube assumes that his reader is familiar with programming in general and Ruby specifically, and is also familiar with the operating system in which Ruby is running. This is an appropriate assumption because Practical Ruby Gems will be most useful to readers who are serious about programming Ruby, such as professionals or serious amateurs, or those would like to become professionals or serious amateurs.
Practical Ruby Gems is available in PDF format from the Apress web site at about half the price of the paper book.
I have been programming Ruby as a hobby for over 5 years. I am the maintainer of RMagick, one of the gems reviewed in this book. Apress gave me a review copy of Practical Ruby Gems, but otherwise I have no connection to the author or publisher.
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