Ruby on Rails Tutorial

Learn Rails by Example

Michael Hartl

Contents

  1. Chapter 1 From zero to deploy
    1. 1.1 Introduction
      1. 1.1.1 Comments for various readers
      2. 1.1.2 “Scaling” Rails
      3. 1.1.3 Conventions in this book
    2. 1.2 Up and running
      1. 1.2.1 Development environments
        1. IDEs
        2. Text editors and command lines
        3. Browsers
        4. A note about tools
      2. 1.2.2 Ruby, RubyGems, and Rails
        1. Install Ruby
        2. Install RubyGems
        3. Install Rails
      3. 1.2.3 The first application
      4. 1.2.4 Model-view-controller (MVC)
      5. 1.2.5 script/server
    3. 1.3 Version control with Git
      1. 1.3.1 Installation and setup
        1. First-time system setup
        2. First-time repository setup
      2. 1.3.2 Adding and committing
      3. 1.3.3 What good does Git do you?
      4. 1.3.4 GitHub
      5. 1.3.5 Branch, edit, commit, merge
        1. Branch
        2. Edit
        3. Commit
        4. Merge
        5. Push
    4. 1.4 Deploying
      1. 1.4.1 Heroku setup
      2. 1.4.2 Heroku deployment, step one
      3. 1.4.3 Heroku deployment, step two
      4. 1.4.4 Heroku commands
    5. 1.5 Conclusion
  2. Chapter 2 A demo app
    1. 2.1 Planning the application
      1. 2.1.1 Modeling users
      2. 2.1.2 Modeling microposts
    2. 2.2 The Users resource
      1. 2.2.1 A user tour
      2. 2.2.2 MVC in action
      3. 2.2.3 Weaknesses of this Users resource
    3. 2.3 The Microposts resource
      1. 2.3.1 A micropost microtour
      2. 2.3.2 Putting the micro in microposts
      3. 2.3.3 A user has_many microposts
      4. 2.3.4 Inheritance hierarchies
      5. 2.3.5 Deploying the demo app
    4. 2.4 Conclusion
  3. Chapter 3 Mostly static pages
    1. 3.1 Static pages
      1. 3.1.1 Truly static pages
      2. 3.1.2 Static pages with Rails
    2. 3.2 Our first tests
      1. 3.2.1 Testing tools
        1. Installing RSpec
        2. Installing Autotest
      2. 3.2.2 TDD: Red, Green, Refactor
        1. Red
        2. Green
        3. Refactor
    3. 3.3 Slightly dynamic pages
      1. 3.3.1 Testing a title change
      2. 3.3.2 Passing title tests
      3. 3.3.3 Instance variables and Embedded Ruby
      4. 3.3.4 Eliminating duplication with layouts
    4. 3.4 Conclusion
    5. 3.5 Exercises
  4. Chapter 4 Rails-flavored Ruby
    1. 4.1 Motivation
      1. 4.1.1 A title helper
      2. 4.1.2 Cascading Style Sheets
    2. 4.2 Strings and methods
      1. 4.2.1 Comments
      2. 4.2.2 Strings
        1. Printing
        2. Single-quoted strings
      3. 4.2.3 Objects and message passing
      4. 4.2.4 Method definitions
      5. 4.2.5 Back to the title helper
    3. 4.3 Other data structures
      1. 4.3.1 Arrays and ranges
      2. 4.3.2 Blocks
      3. 4.3.3 Hashes and symbols
      4. 4.3.4 CSS revisited
    4. 4.4 Ruby classes
      1. 4.4.1 Constructors
      2. 4.4.2 Class inheritance
      3. 4.4.3 Modifying built-in classes
      4. 4.4.4 A controller class
      5. 4.4.5 A user class
    5. 4.5 Exercises
  5. Chapter 5 Filling in the layout
    1. 5.1 Adding some structure
      1. 5.1.1 Site navigation
      2. 5.1.2 Custom CSS
      3. 5.1.3 Partials
    2. 5.2 Layout links
      1. 5.2.1 Integration tests
      2. 5.2.2 Rails routes
      3. 5.2.3 Named routes
    3. 5.3 User signup: A first step
      1. 5.3.1 Users controller
      2. 5.3.2 Signup URL
    4. 5.4 Conclusion
    5. 5.5 Exercises
  6. Chapter 6 Modeling and viewing users, part I
    1. 6.1 User model
      1. 6.1.1 Database migrations
      2. 6.1.2 The model file
        1. Model annotation
        2. Accessible attributes
      3. 6.1.3 Creating user objects
      4. 6.1.4 Finding user objects
      5. 6.1.5 Updating user objects
    2. 6.2 User validations
      1. 6.2.1 Validating presence
      2. 6.2.2 Length validation
      3. 6.2.3 Format validation
      4. 6.2.4 Uniqueness validation
        1. The uniqueness caveat
    3. 6.3 Viewing users
      1. 6.3.1 Debug and Rails environments
      2. 6.3.2 User model, view, controller
      3. 6.3.3 A Users resource
    4. 6.4 Conclusion
    5. 6.5 Exercises
  7. Chapter 7 Modeling and viewing users, part II
    1. 7.1 Insecure passwords
      1. 7.1.1 Password validations
      2. 7.1.2 A password migration
      3. 7.1.3 An Active Record callback
    2. 7.2 Secure passwords
      1. 7.2.1 A secure password test
      2. 7.2.2 Some secure password theory
      3. 7.2.3 Implementing has_password?
      4. 7.2.4 An authenticate method
    3. 7.3 Better user views
      1. 7.3.1 Testing the user show page (with factories)
      2. 7.3.2 A name and a Gravatar
      3. 7.3.3 A user sidebar
    4. 7.4 Conclusion
      1. 7.4.1 Git commit
      2. 7.4.2 Heroku deploy
    5. 7.5 Exercises
  8. Chapter 8 Sign up
    1. 8.1 Signup form
      1. 8.1.1 Using form_for
      2. 8.1.2 The form HTML
    2. 8.2 Signup failure
      1. 8.2.1 Testing failure
      2. 8.2.2 A working form
      3. 8.2.3 Signup error messages
      4. 8.2.4 Filtering parameter logging
    3. 8.3 Signup success
      1. 8.3.1 Testing success
      2. 8.3.2 The finished signup form
      3. 8.3.3 The flash
      4. 8.3.4 The first signup
    4. 8.4 RSpec integration tests
      1. 8.4.1 Webrat
      2. 8.4.2 Users signup failure should not make a new user
      3. 8.4.3 Users signup success should make a new user
    5. 8.5 Conclusion
    6. 8.6 Exercises
  9. Chapter 9 Sign in, sign out
    1. 9.1 Sessions
      1. 9.1.1 Sessions controller
      2. 9.1.2 Signin form
    2. 9.2 Signin failure
      1. 9.2.1 Reviewing form submission
      2. 9.2.2 Failed signin (test and code)
    3. 9.3 Signin success
      1. 9.3.1 The completed create action
      2. 9.3.2 Remember me
      3. 9.3.3 Cookies
      4. 9.3.4 Current user
    4. 9.4 Signing out
      1. 9.4.1 Destroying sessions
      2. 9.4.2 Signin upon signup
      3. 9.4.3 Changing the layout links
      4. 9.4.4 Signin/out integration tests
    5. 9.5 Conclusion
    6. 9.6 Exercises
  10. Chapter 10 Updating, showing, and deleting users
    1. 10.1 Updating users
      1. 10.1.1 Edit form
      2. 10.1.2 Enabling edits
    2. 10.2 Protecting pages
      1. 10.2.1 Requiring signed-in users
      2. 10.2.2 Requiring the right user
      3. 10.2.3 An expectation bonus
      4. 10.2.4 Friendly forwarding
    3. 10.3 Showing users
      1. 10.3.1 User index
      2. 10.3.2 Sample users
      3. 10.3.3 Pagination
        1. Testing pagination
      4. 10.3.4 Partial refactoring
    4. 10.4 Destroying users
      1. 10.4.1 Administrative users
        1. Revisiting attr_accessible
      2. 10.4.2 The destroy action
    5. 10.5 Conclusion
    6. 10.6 Exercises
  11. Chapter 11 User microposts
    1. 11.1 A Micropost model
      1. 11.1.1 The basic model
        1. Accessible attribute
      2. 11.1.2 User/Micropost associations
      3. 11.1.3 Micropost refinements
        1. Default scope
        2. Dependent: destroy
      4. 11.1.4 Micropost validations
    2. 11.2 Showing microposts
      1. 11.2.1 Augmenting the user show page
      2. 11.2.2 Sample microposts
    3. 11.3 Manipulating microposts
      1. 11.3.1 Access control
      2. 11.3.2 Creating microposts
      3. 11.3.3 A proto-feed
      4. 11.3.4 Destroying microposts
      5. 11.3.5 Testing the new home page
    4. 11.4 Conclusion
    5. 11.5 Exercises
  12. Chapter 12 Following users
    1. 12.1 The Relationship model
      1. 12.1.1 A problem with the data model (and a solution)
      2. 12.1.2 User/relationship associations
      3. 12.1.3 Validations
      4. 12.1.4 Following
      5. 12.1.5 Followers
    2. 12.2 A web interface for following and followers
      1. 12.2.1 Sample following data
      2. 12.2.2 Stats and a follow form
      3. 12.2.3 Following and followers pages
      4. 12.2.4 A working follow button the standard way
      5. 12.2.5 A working follow button with Ajax
    3. 12.3 The status feed
      1. 12.3.1 Motivation and strategy
      2. 12.3.2 A first feed implementation
      3. 12.3.3 Scopes, subselects, and a lambda
      4. 12.3.4 The new status feed
    4. 12.4 Conclusion
      1. 12.4.1 Extensions to the sample application
        1. Replies
        2. Messaging
        3. Follower notifications
        4. Password reminders
        5. Signup confirmation
        6. RSS feed
        7. REST API
        8. Search
      2. 12.4.2 Guide to further resources
    5. 12.5 Exercises

Foreword

My former company (CD Baby) was one of the first to loudly switch to Ruby on Rails, and then even more loudly switch back to PHP (Google me to read about the drama). This book by Michael Hartl came so highly recommended that I had to try it, and Ruby on Rails Tutorial is what I used to switch back to Rails again.

Though I’ve worked my way through many Rails books, this is the one that finally made me “get” it. Everything is done very much “the Rails way”—a way that felt very unnatural to me before, but now after doing this book finally feels natural. This is also the only Rails book that does test-driven development the entire time, an approach highly recommended by the experts but which has never been so clearly demonstrated before. Finally, by including Git, GitHub, and Heroku in the demo examples, the author really gives you a feel for what it’s like to do a real-world project. The tutorial’s code examples are not in isolation.

The linear narrative is such a great format. Personally, I powered through Rails Tutorial in three long days, doing all the examples and challenges at the end of each chapter. Do it from start to finish, without jumping around, and you’ll get the ultimate benefit.

Enjoy!

Derek Sivers (sivers.org)
Formerly: Founder, CD Baby
Currently: Founder, Thoughts Ltd.

Acknowledgments

Ruby on Rails Tutorial owes a lot to my previous Rails book, RailsSpace, and hence to my coauthor Aurelius Prochazka. I’d like to thank Aure both for the work he did on that book and for his support of this one. I’d also like to thank Debra Williams Cauley, my editor on both RailsSpace and Rails Tutorial; as long as she keeps taking me to baseball games, I’ll keep writing books for her.

I’d like to acknowledge a long list of Rubyists who have taught and inspired me over the years: David Heinemeier Hansson, Yehuda Katz, Carl Lerche, Jeremy Kemper, Xavier Noria, Ryan Bates, Geoffrey Grosenbach, Peter Cooper, Matt Aimonetti, Gregg Pollack, Wayne E. Seguin, Amy Hoy, Dave Chelimsky, Pat Maddox, Tom Preston-Werner, Chris Wanstrath, Chad Fowler, Josh Susser, Obie Fernandez, Ian McFarland, Steven Bristol, Giles Bowkett, Evan Dorn, Long Nguyen, James Lindenbaum, Adam Wiggins, Tikhon Bernstam, Ron Evans, Wyatt Greene, Miles Forrest, the good people at Pivotal Labs, the Heroku gang, the thoughtbot guys, and the GitHub crew. Finally, many, many readers—far too many to list—have contributed a huge number of bug reports and suggestions during the writing of this book, and I gratefully acknowledge their help in making it as good as it can be.

About the author

Michael Hartl is a programmer, educator, and entrepreneur. Michael was coauthor of RailsSpace, a best-selling Rails tutorial book published in 2007, and was cofounder and lead developer of Insoshi, a popular social networking platform in Ruby on Rails. Previously, he taught theoretical and computational physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Teaching. Michael is a graduate of Harvard College, has a Ph.D. in Physics from Caltech, and is an alumnus of the Y Combinator program.

Copyright and license

Ruby on Rails Tutorial: Learn Rails by Example. Copyright © 2010 by Michael Hartl. All source code in Ruby on Rails Tutorial is available under the MIT License and the Beerware License.

   Copyright (c) 2010 Michael Hartl

   Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person
   obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation
   files (the "Software"), to deal in the Software without
   restriction, including without limitation the rights to use,
   copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell
   copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the
   Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following
   conditions:

   The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be
   included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

   THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND,
   EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE WARRANTIES
   OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND
   NONINFRINGEMENT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS OR COPYRIGHT
   HOLDERS BE LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGES OR OTHER LIABILITY,
   WHETHER IN AN ACTION OF CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE, ARISING
   FROM, OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE SOFTWARE OR THE USE OR
   OTHER DEALINGS IN THE SOFTWARE.
/*
 * ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
 * "THE BEERWARE LICENSE" (Revision 42):
 * Michael Hartl wrote this code. As long as you retain this notice, you can
 * do whatever you want with this stuff. If we meet someday, and you think
 * this stuff is worth it, you can buy me a beer in return.
 * ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
 */

Chapter 4 Rails-flavored Ruby

Grounded in examples from Chapter 3, this chapter explores some elements of Ruby important for Rails. Ruby is a big language, but fortunately the subset needed to be productive as a Rails developer is relatively small. Moreover, this subset is different from the usual approaches to learning Ruby, which is why, if your goal is making dynamic web applications, I recommend learning Rails first, picking up bits of Ruby along the way. To be a Rails expert, you need to understand Ruby more deeply, and this book gives you a good foundation for developing that expertise. As noted in Section 1.1.1, after finishing Rails Tutorial I suggest reading a pure Ruby book such as Beginning Ruby, The Well-Grounded Rubyist, or The Ruby Way.

This chapter covers a lot of material, and it’s OK not to get it all on the first pass. I’ll refer back to it frequently in future chapters.

4.1 Motivation

As we saw in the last chapter, it’s possible to develop the skeleton of a Rails application, and even start testing it, with essentially no knowledge of the underlying Ruby language. We did this by relying on the generated controller and test code and following the examples we saw there. This situation can’t last forever, though, and we’ll open this chapter with a couple of additions to the site that bring us face-to-face with our Ruby limitations.

4.1.1 A title helper

When we last saw our new application, we had just updated our mostly static pages to use Rails layouts to eliminate duplication in our views (Listing 4.1).

Listing 4.1. The sample application site layout.
app/views/layouts/application.html.erb
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN"
  "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd">
<html lang="en" xml:lang="en" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">
  <head>
    <title>Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App | <%= @title %></title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <%= yield %>
  </body>
</html>

This layout works well, but there’s one part that could use a little polish. Recall that the title line

Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App | <%= @title %>

relies on the definition of @title in the actions, such as

class PagesController < ApplicationController

  def home
    @title = "Home"
  end
  .
  .
  .

But what if we don’t define an @title variable? It’s a good convention to have a base title we use on every page, with an optional variable title if we want to be more specific. We’ve almost achieved that with our current layout, with one wrinkle: as you can see if you delete the @title assignment in one of the actions, in the absence of an @title variable the title appears as follows:

Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App | 

In other words, there’s a suitable base title, but there’s also a trailing vertical bar character | at the end of the title.

One common way to handle this case is to define a helper, which is a function designed for use in views. Let’s define a title helper that returns a base title, “Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App”, if no @title variable is defined, and adds a vertical bar followed by the variable title if @title is defined (Listing 4.2).1

Listing 4.2. Defining a title helper.
app/helpers/application_helper.rb
module ApplicationHelper

  # Return a title on a per-page basis.
  def title
    base_title = "Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App"
    if @title.nil?
      base_title
    else
      "#{base_title} | #{@title}"
    end
  end
end

This may look fairly simple to the eyes of an experienced Rails developer, but it’s full of new Ruby ideas: modules, comments, local variable assignment, booleans, control flow, string interpolation, and return values. We’ll cover each of these ideas in this chapter.

Now that we have a helper, we can use it to simplify our layout by replacing

<title>Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App | <%= @title %></title>

with

<title><%= title %></title>

as seen in Listing 4.3. Note in particular the switch from the instance variable @title to the helper method title (without the @ sign). Using Autotest or spec spec/, you should verify that the tests from Chapter 3 still pass.

Listing 4.3. The sample application site layout.
app/views/layouts/application.html.erb
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN"
  "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd">
<html lang="en" xml:lang="en" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">
  <head>
    <title><%= title %></title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <%= yield %>
  </body>
</html>

4.1.2 Cascading Style Sheets

There’s a second addition to our site that seems simple but adds several new Ruby concepts: including style sheets into our site layout. Though this is a book in web development, not web design, we’ll be using cascading style sheets (CSS) to give the sample application some minimal styling, and we’ll use the Blueprint CSS framework as a foundation for that styling.

To get started, download the latest Blueprint CSS. (For simplicity, I’ll assume you download Blueprint to a Downloads directory, but use whichever directory is most convenient.) Using either the command line or a graphical tool, copy the Blueprint CSS directory blueprint into the public/stylesheets directory, a special directory where Rails keeps stylesheets. On my Mac, the commands looked like this, but your details may differ:

$ cp -r ~/Downloads/joshuaclayton-blueprint-css-016c911/blueprint \
> public/stylesheets/

Here cp is the Unix copy command, and the -r flag copies recursively (needed for copying directories). (As mentioned briefly in Section 3.2.1.2, the tilde ~ means “home directory” in Unix.)

Once you have the stylesheets in the proper directory, Rails provides a helper for including them on our pages using Embedded Ruby (Listing 4.4).

Listing 4.4. Adding stylesheets to the sample application layout.
app/views/layouts/application.html.erb
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN"
  "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd">
<html lang="en" xml:lang="en" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">
  <head>
    <title><%= title %></title>
    <%= stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/screen', :media => 'screen' %>
    <%= stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/print',  :media => 'print' %>
  </head>
  <body>
    <%= yield %>
  </body>
</html>

Let’s focus on the new lines:

<%= stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/screen', :media => 'screen' %>
<%= stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/print',  :media => 'print' %>

These use the built-in Rails helper stylesheet_link_tag, which you can read more about at the Rails API.2 The first stylesheet_link_tag line includes the stylesheet blueprint/screen.css for screens (e.g., computer monitors), and the second includes blueprint/print.css for printing. (The helper automatically appends the .css extension to the filenames if absent, so I’ve left it off for brevity.) As with the title helper, to an experienced Rails developer these lines look simple, but there are at least four new Ruby ideas: built-in Rails methods, method invocation with missing parentheses, symbols, and hashes. In this chapter we’ll cover these new ideas as well. (We’ll see the HTML produced by these stylesheet includes in Listing 4.6 of Section 4.3.4.)

By the way, with the new stylesheets the site doesn’t look much different than before, but it’s a start (Figure 4.1). We’ll build on this foundation starting in Chapter 5.3

home_with_stylesheet
Figure 4.1: The Home page with the new Blueprint stylesheets. (full size)

4.2 Strings and methods

Our principal tool for learning Ruby will be the Rails console, which is a command-line tool for interacting with Rails applications. The console itself is built on top of interactive Ruby (irb), and thus has access to the full power of Ruby. (As we’ll see in Section 4.4.4, the console also has access to the Rails environment.) Start the console at the command line as follows:

$ script/console
Loading development environment (Rails 2.3.8)
>> 

By default, the console starts in a development environment, which is one of three separate environments defined by Rails (the others are test and production). This distinction won’t be important in this chapter; we’ll learn more about environments in Section 6.3.1.

The console is a great learning tool, and you should feel free to explore—don’t worry, you (probably) won’t break anything. When using the console, type Ctrl-C if you get stuck, or Ctrl-D to exit the console altogether.

Throughout the rest of this chapter, you might find it helpful to consult the Ruby API.4 It’s packed (perhaps even too packed) with information; for example, to learn more about Ruby strings you can look at the Ruby API entry for the String class.

4.2.1 Comments

Ruby comments start with the pound sign # and extend to the end of the line. Ruby (and hence Rails) ignores comments, but they are useful for human readers (including, often, the original author!). In the code

  # Return a title on a per-page basis.
  def title
  .
  .
  .

the first line is a comment indicating the purpose of the subsequent function definition.

You don’t ordinarily include comments in console sessions, but for instructional purposes I’ll include some comments in what follows, like this:

>> 17 + 42   # Integer addition
=> 59

If you follow along in this section typing or copying-and-pasting commands into your own console, you can of course omit the comments if you like; the console will ignore them in any case.

4.2.2 Strings

Strings are probably the most important data structure for web applications, since web pages ultimately consist of strings of characters sent from the server to the browser. Let’s get started exploring strings with the console:

>> ""         # An empty string
=> ""
>> "foo"      # A nonempty string
=> "foo"

These are string literals (also, amusingly, called literal strings), created using the double quote character ". The console prints the result of evaluating each line, which in the case of a string literal is just the string itself.

We can also concatenate strings with the + operator:

>> "foo" + "bar"    # String concatenation
=> "foobar"

Here the result of evaluating "foo" plus "bar" is the string "foobar".5

Another way to build up strings is via interpolation using the special syntax #{}:6

>> first_name = "Michael"    # Variable assignment
=> "Michael"
>> "#{first_name} Hartl"     # String interpolation
=> "Michael Hartl"

Here we’ve assigned the value "Michael" to the variable first_name and then interpolated it into the string "#{first_name} Hartl". We could also assign both strings a variable name:

>> first_name = "Michael"
=> "Michael"
>> last_name = "Hartl"
=> "Hartl"
>> first_name + " " + last_name    # Concatenation, with a space in between
=> "Michael Hartl"
>> "#{first_name} #{last_name}"    # The equivalent interpolation
=> "Michael Hartl"

Note that the final two expressions are equivalent, but I prefer the interpolated version; having to add the single space " " seems a bit awkward.

Printing

To print a string, the most commonly used Ruby function is puts (pronounced “put ess”, for “put string”):

>> puts "foo"     # put string
foo
=> nil

The puts method operates as a side-effect: the expression puts "foo" prints the string to the screen and then returns literally nothing: nil is a special Ruby value for “nothing at all”. (In what follows, I’ll sometimes suppress the => nil part for simplicity.)

Using puts automatically appends a newline character \n to the output; the related print method does not:

>> print "foo"    # print string (same as puts, but without the newline)
foo=> nil
>> print "foo\n"  # Same as puts "foo"
foo
=> nil

Single-quoted strings

All the examples so far have used double-quoted strings, but Ruby also supports single-quoted strings. For many uses, the two types of strings are effectively identical:

>> 'foo'          # A single-quoted string
=> "foo"
>> 'foo' + 'bar'
=> "foobar"

There’s an important difference, though; Ruby won’t interpolate into single-quoted strings:

>> '#{foo} bar'     # Single-quoted strings don't allow interpolation
=> "\#{foo} bar"

Note how the console returns values using double-quoted strings, which requires a backslash to escape characters like #.

If double-quoted strings can do everything that single-quoted strings can do, and interpolate to boot, what’s the point of single-quoted strings? They are often useful because they are truly literal, and contain exactly the characters you type. For example, the “backslash” character is special on most systems, as in the literal newline \n. If you want a variable to contain a literal backslash, single quotes make it easier:

>> '\n'       # A literal 'backslash n' combination
=> "\\n"

As with the # character in our previous example, Ruby needs to escape the backslash with an additional backslash; inside double-quoted strings, a literal backslash is represented with two backslashes.

For a small example like this, there’s not much savings, but if there are lots of things to escape it can be a real help:

>> 'Newlines (\n) and tabs (\t) both use the backslash character \.'
=> "Newlines (\\n) and tabs (\\t) both use the backslash character \\."

4.2.3 Objects and message passing

Everything in Ruby, including strings and even nil, is an object. We’ll see the technical meaning of this in Section 4.4.2, but I don’t think anyone ever understood objects by reading the definition in a book; you have to build up your intuition for objects by seeing lots of examples.

It’s easier to describe what objects do, which is respond to messages. An object like a string, for example, can respond to the message length, which returns the number of characters in the string:

>> "foobar".length        # Passing the "length" message to a string
=> 6

Typically, the messages that get passed to objects are methods, which are functions defined on those objects.7 Strings also respond to the empty? method:

>> "foobar".empty?
=> false
>> "".empty?
=> true

Note the question mark at the end of the empty? method. This is a Ruby convention indicating that the return value is boolean: true or false. Booleans are especially useful for control flow:

>> s = "foobar"
>> if s.empty?
>>   "The string is empty"
>> else
>>   "The string is nonempty"
>> end
=> "The string is nonempty"

Booleans can also be combined using the && (“and”), || (“or”), and ! (“not”) operators:

>> x = "foo"
=> "foo"
>> y = ""
=> ""
>> puts "Both strings are empty" if x.empty? && y.empty?
=> nil
>> puts "One of the strings is empty" if x.empty? || y.empty?
"One of the strings is empty"
=> nil
>> puts "x is not empty" if !x.empty?
=> "x is not empty"

Since everything in Ruby is an object, it follows that nil is an object, so it too can respond to methods. One example is the to_s method that can convert virtually any object to a string:

>> nil.to_s
""

This certainly appears to be an empty string, as we can verify by chaining the messages we pass to nil:

>> nil.empty?
NoMethodError: You have a nil object when you didn't expect it!
You might have expected an instance of Array.
The error occurred while evaluating nil.empty?
>> nil.to_s.empty?      # Message chaining
true

We see here that the nil object doesn’t itself respond to the empty? method, but nil.to_s does.

There’s a special method for testing for nil-ness, which you might be able to guess:

>> "foo".nil?
=> false
>> "".nil?
=> false
>> nil.nil?
=> true

If you look back at Listing 4.2, you’ll see that the title helper tests to see if @title is nil using the nil? method. This is a hint that there’s something special about instance variables (variables with an @ sign), which can best be understood by contrasting them with ordinary variables. For example, suppose we enter title and @title variables at the console without defining them first:

>> title        # Oops! We haven't defined a title variable.
NameError: undefined local variable or method `title' 
>> @title       # An instance variable in the console
=> nil
>> puts "There is no such instance variable." if @title.nil?
There is no such instance variable.
=> nil
>> "#{@title}"  # Interpolating @title when it's nil
=> ""

You can see from this example that Ruby complains if we try to evaluate an undefined local variable, but issues no such complaint for an instance variable; instead, instance variables are nil if not defined. This also explains why the code

Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App | <%= @title %>

becomes

Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App | 

when @title is nil: Embedded Ruby inserts the string corresponding to the given variable, and the string corresponding to nil is "".

The last example also shows an alternate use of the if keyword: Ruby allows you to write a statement that is evaluated only if the statement following if is true. There’s a complementary unless keyword that works the same way:

>> string = "foobar"
>> puts "The string '#{string}' is nonempty." unless string.empty?
The string 'foobar' is nonempty.
=> nil

It’s worth noting that the nil object is special, in that it is the only Ruby object that is false in a boolean context, apart from false itself:

>> if nil
>>   true
>> else
>>   false        # nil is false
>> end
=> false

In particular, all other Ruby objects are true, even 0:

>> if 0
>>   true        # 0 (and everything other than nil and false itself) is true
>> else
>>   false
>> end
=> true

4.2.4 Method definitions

The console allows us to define methods the same way we did with the home action from Listing 3.3 or the title helper from Listing 4.2. (Defining methods in the console is a bit cumbersome, and ordinarily you would use a file, but it’s convenient for demonstration purposes.) For example, let’s define a function string_message that takes a single argument and returns a message based on whether the argument is empty or not:

>> def string_message(string)
>>   if string.empty?
>>     "It's an empty string!"
>>   else
>>     "The string is nonempty."
>>   end
>> end
=> nil
>> puts string_message("")
It's an empty string!
>> puts string_message("foobar")
The string is nonempty.

Note that Ruby functions have an implicit return, meaning they return the last statement evaluated—in this case, one of the two message strings, depending on whether the method’s argument string is empty or not. Ruby also has an explicit return option; the following function is equivalent to the one above:

>> def string_message(string)
>>   return "It's an empty string!" if string.empty?
>>   return "The string is nonempty."
>> end

The alert reader might notice at this point that the second return here is actually unnecessary—being the last expression in the function, the string "The string is nonempty." will be returned regardless of the return keyword, but using return in both places has a pleasing symmetry to it.

4.2.5 Back to the title helper

We are now in a position to understand the title helper from Listing 4.2:8

module ApplicationHelper
  # Return a title on a per-page basis.               # Documentation comment
  def title                                           # Method definition
    base_title = "Ruby on Rails Tutorial Sample App"  # Variable assignment
    if @title.nil?                                    # Boolean test for nil
      base_title                                      # Implicit return
    else
      "#{base_title} | #{@title}"                     # String interpolation
    end
  end
end

These elements—function definition, variable assignment, boolean tests, control flow, and string interpolation—come together to make a compact helper method for use in our site layout. The final element is module ApplicationHelper: code in Ruby modules can be mixed in to Ruby classes. When writing ordinary Ruby, you often write modules and include them explicitly yourself, but in this case Rails handles the inclusion automatically for us. The result is that the title method is automagically available in all our views.

4.3 Other data structures

Though web apps are ultimately about strings, actually making those strings requires using other data structures as well. In this section we’ll learn about some Ruby data structures important for writing Rails applications.

4.3.1 Arrays and ranges

An array is just a list of elements in a particular order. We haven’t discussed arrays yet in Rails Tutorial, but understanding them gives a good foundation for understanding hashes (Section 4.3.3) and for aspects of Rails data modeling (such as the has_many association seen in Section 2.3.3 and covered more in Section 11.1.2).

So far we’ve spent a lot of time understanding strings, and there’s a natural way to get from strings to arrays using the split method:

>>  "foo bar     baz".split     # Split a string into a three-element array
=> ["foo", "bar", "baz"]

The result of this operation is an array of three strings. By default, split divides a string into an array by splitting on whitespace, but you can split on nearly anything else:

>> "fooxbarxbazx".split('x')
=> ["foo", "bar", "baz"]

As is conventional in most computer languages, Ruby arrays are zero-offset, which means that the first element in the array has index 0, the second has index 1, and so on:

>> a = [42, 8, 17]
=> [42, 8, 17]
>> a[0]               # Ruby uses square brackets for array access.
=> 42
>> a[1]
=> 8
>> a[2]
=> 17
>> a[-1]              # Indices can even be negative!
=> 17

We see here that Ruby uses square brackets to access array elements. In addition to this bracket notation, Ruby offers synonyms for some commonly accessed elements:9

>> a                  # Just a reminder of what 'a' is
=> [42, 8, 17]
>> a.first
=> 42
>> a.second
=> 8
>> a.last
=> 17
>> a.last == a[-1]    # Comparison using ==
=> true

This last line introduces the equality comparison operator ==, which Ruby shares with many other languages, along with the associated != (“not equal”), etc.:

>> x = a.length       # Like strings, arrays respond to the 'length' method.
=> 3
>> x == 3
=> true
>> x == 1
=> false
>> x != 1
=> true
>> x >= 1
=> true
>> x < 1
=> false

In addition to length (seen in the first line above), arrays respond to a wealth of other methods:

>> a.sort
=> [8, 17, 42]
>> a.reverse
=> [17, 8, 42]
>> a.shuffle
=> [17, 42, 8]

By the way, the shuffle method is available only on Ruby 1.8.7 or later; if you’re using 1.8.6, you can use

>> a.sort_by { rand }

instead.

You can also add to arrays with the “push” operator, <<:

>> a << 7                     # Pushing 7 onto an array
[42, 8, 17, 7]
>> a << "foo" << "bar"        # Chaining array pushes
[42, 8, 17, 7, "foo", "bar"]

This last example shows that you can chain pushes together, and also that, unlike arrays in many other languages, Ruby arrays can contain a mixture of different types (in this case, integers and strings).

Before we saw split convert a string to an array. We can also go the other way with the join method:

>> a
[42, 8, 17, 7, "foo", "bar"]
>> a.join                       # Join on nothing
=> "428177foobar"
>> a.join(', ')                 # Join on comma-space
=> "42, 8, 17, 7, foo, bar"

Closely related to arrays are ranges, which can probably most easily be understood by converting them to arrays using the to_a method:

>> 0..9
=> 0..9
>> 0..9.to_a              # Oops, call to_a on 9
ArgumentError: bad value for range
>> (0..9).to_a            # Use parentheses to call to_a on the range
=> [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]

Though 0..9 is a valid range, the second expression above shows that we need to add parentheses to call a method on it.

Ranges are useful for pulling out array elements:

>> a = %w[foo bar baz quux]         # Use %w to make a string array
["foo", "bar", "baz", "quux"]
>> a[0..2]
=> ["foo", "bar", "baz"]

Ranges also work with characters:

>> ('a'..'e').to_a
=> ["a", "b", "c", "d", "e"]

4.3.2 Blocks

Both arrays and ranges respond to a host of methods that accept blocks, which are simultaneously one of Ruby’s most powerful and most confusing features:

>> (1..5).each { |i| puts 2 * i }
2
4
6
8
10
=> 1..5

This code calls the each method on the range (1..5) and passes it the block { |i| puts 2 * i }. The vertical bars around the variable name in |i| are Ruby syntax for a block variable, and it’s up to the method to know what to do with the block; in this case, the range’s each method can handle a block with a single local variable, which we’ve called i, and it just executes the block for each value in the range.

Curly braces are one way to indicate a block, but there is a second way as well:

>> (1..5).each do |i|
?>   puts 2 * i
>> end
2
4
6
8
10
=> 1..5

Blocks can be more than one line, and often are. In Rails Tutorial we’ll follow the common convention of using curly braces only for short one-line blocks and the do..end syntax for longer one-liners and for multi-line blocks:

>> (1..5).each do |number|
?>   puts 2 * number
>>   puts '--'
>> end
2
--
4
--
6
--
8
--
10
--
=> 1..5

Here I’ve used number in place of i just to emphasize that any variable name will do.

Unless you already have a substantial programming background, there is no shortcut to understanding blocks; you just have to see them a lot, and eventually you’ll get used to them.10 Luckily, humans are quite good at making generalizations from concrete examples; here are a few more, including a couple using the map method:

>> 3.times { puts "Betelgeuse!" }   # 3.times takes a block with no variables.
"Betelgeuse!"
"Betelgeuse!"
"Betelgeuse!"
=> 3
>> (1..5).map { |i| i**2 }          # The ** notation is for 'power'.
=> [1, 4, 9, 16, 25]
>> %w[a b c]                        # Recall that %w makes string arrays.
=> ["a", "b", "c"]
>> %w[a b c].map { |char| char.upcase }
=> ["A", "B", "C"]

As you can see, the map method returns the result of applying the given block to each element in the array or range.

By the way, we’re now in a position to understand the line of Ruby I threw into Section 1.4.4 to generate random subdomains:11

('a'..'z').to_a.shuffle[0..7].join

Let’s build it up step-by-step:

>> ('a'..'z').to_a                     # An alphabet array
=> ["a", "b", "c", "d", "e", "f", "g", "h", "i", "j", "k", "l", "m", "n", "o",
"p", "q", "r", "s", "t", "u", "v", "w", "x", "y", "z"]
>> ('a'..'z').to_a.shuffle             # Shuffle it!
=> ["c", "g", "l", "k", "h", "z", "s", "i", "n", "d", "y", "u", "t", "j", "q",
"b", "r", "o", "f", "e", "w", "v", "m", "a", "x", "p"]
>> ('a'..'z').to_a.shuffle[0..7]       # Pull out the first eight elements.
=> ["f", "w", "i", "a", "h", "p", "c", "x"]
>> ('a'..'z').to_a.shuffle[0..7].join  # Join them together to make one string.
=> "mznpybuj"

4.3.3 Hashes and symbols

Hashes are essentially a generalization of arrays: you can think of hashes as basically like arrays, but not limited to integer indices. (In fact, some languages, especially Perl, call hashes associative arrays for this reason.) Instead, hash indices, or keys, can be almost any object. For example, we can use strings as keys:

>> user = {}                          # {} is an empty hash
=> {}
>> user["first_name"] = "Michael"     # Key "first_name", value "Michael"
=> "Michael"
>> user["last_name"] = "Hartl"        # Key "last_name", value "Hartl"
=> "Hartl"
>> user["first_name"]                 # Element access is like arrays
=> "Michael"
>> user                               # A literal representation of the hash
=> {"last_name"=>"Hartl", "first_name"=>"Michael"}

Hashes are indicated with curly braces containing key-value pairs; a pair of braces with no key-value pairs—i.e., {}—is an empty hash. It’s important to note that the curly braces for hashes have nothing to do with the curly braces for blocks. (Yes, this can be confusing.) Though hashes resemble arrays, one important difference is that hashes don’t generally guarantee keeping their elements in a particular order.12 If order matters, use an array.

Instead of defining hashes one item at a time using square brackets, it’s easy to use their literal representation:

>> user = { "first_name" => "Michael", "last_name" => "Hartl" }
=> {"last_name"=>"Hartl", "first_name"=>"Michael"}

Here I’ve used the usual Ruby convention of putting an extra space at the two ends of the hash—a convention ignored by the console output. (Don’t ask me why the spaces are conventional; probably some early influential Ruby programmer liked the look of the extra spaces, and the convention stuck.)

So far we’ve used strings as hash keys, but in Rails it is much more common to use symbols instead. Symbols look kind of like strings, but prefixed with a colon instead of surrounded by quotes. For example, :name is a symbol. You can think of symbols as basically strings without all the extra baggage:13

>> "name".length
=> 4
>> :name.length
NoMethodError: undefined method `length' for :name:Symbol
>> "foobar".reverse
=> "raboof"
>> :foobar.reverse
NoMethodError: undefined method `reverse' for :foobar:Symbol

Symbols are a special Ruby data type shared with very few other languages, so they may seem weird at first, but Rails uses them a lot, so you’ll get used to them fast.

In terms of symbols as hash keys, we can define a user hash as follows:

>> user = { :name => "Michael Hartl", :email => "michael@example.com" }
=> {:name=>"Michael Hartl", :email=>"michael@example.com"}
>> user[:name]              # Access the value corresponding to :name.
=> "Michael Hartl"
>> user[:password]          # Access the value of an undefined key.
=> nil

We see here from the last example that the hash value for an undefined key is simply nil.

Hash values can be virtually anything, even other hashes, as seen in Listing 4.5.

Listing 4.5. Nested hashes.
>> params = {}        # Define a hash called 'params' (short for 'parameters').
=> {}
>> params[:user] = { :name => "Michael Hartl", :email => "mhartl@example.com" }
=> {:name=>"Michael Hartl", :email=>"mhartl@example.com"}
>> params
=> {:user=>{:name=>"Michael Hartl", :email=>"mhartl@example.com"}}
>>  params[:user][:email]
=> "mhartl@example.com"

These sorts of hashes-of-hashes, or nested hashes, are heavily used by Rails, as we’ll see starting in Section 8.2.

As with arrays and ranges, hashes respond to the each method. For example, consider a hash named flash with keys for two conditions, :success and :error:

>> flash = { :success => "It worked!", :error => "It failed. :-(" }
=> {:success=>"It worked!", :error=>"It failed. :-("}
>> flash.each do |key, value|
?>   puts "Key #{key.inspect} has value #{value.inspect}"
>> end
Key :success has value "It worked!"
Key :error has value "It failed. :-("

Note that, while the each method for arrays takes a block with only one variable, each for hashes takes two, a key and a value. Thus, the each method for a hash iterates through the hash one key-value pair at a time.

The last example uses the useful inspect method, which returns a string with a literal representation of the object it’s called on:

>> puts flash            # Put the flash hash as a string (with ugly results).
successIt worked!errorIt failed. :-(
>> puts flash.inspect    # Put the flash hash as a pretty string
{:success=>"It worked!", :error=>"It failed. :-("}
>> puts :name, :name.inspect
name
:name
>> puts "It worked!", "It worked!".inspect
It worked!
"It worked!"

By the way, using inspect to print an object is common enough that there’s a shortcut for it, the p function:

>> p flash               # Same as 'puts flash.inspect'
{:success=>"It worked!", :error=>"It failed. :-("}

4.3.4 CSS revisited

It’s time now to revisit the lines from Listing 4.4 used in the layout to include the cascading style sheets:

<%= stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/screen', :media => 'screen' %>
<%= stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/print',  :media => 'print' %>

We are now nearly in a position to understand this. As mentioned briefly in Section 4.1.2, Rails defines a special function to include stylesheets, and

stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/screen', :media => 'screen'

is a call to this function. But there are two mysteries. First, where are the parentheses? In Ruby, they are optional; these two lines are equivalent:

# Parentheses on function calls are optional.
stylesheet_link_tag('blueprint/screen', :media => 'screen')
stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/screen', :media => 'screen'

Second, the :media argument sure looks like a hash, but where are the curly braces? When hashes are the last argument in a function call, the curly braces are optional; these two lines are equivalent:

# Curly braces on final hash arguments are optional.
stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/screen', { :media => 'screen' }
stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/screen', :media => 'screen'

So, we see now that each of the lines

<%= stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/screen', :media => 'screen' %>
<%= stylesheet_link_tag 'blueprint/print',  :media => 'print' %>

calls the stylesheet_link_tag function with two arguments: a string, indicating the path to the stylesheet, and a hash, indicating the media type (’screen’ for the computer screen and ’print’ for a printed version). Because of the <%= %> brackets, the results are inserted into the template by ERb, and if you view the source of the page in your browser you should see the HTML needed to include a stylesheet (Listing 4.6).14

Listing 4.6. The HTML source produced by the CSS includes.
<link href="/stylesheets/blueprint/screen.css" media="screen" rel="stylesheet"
type="text/css" />
<link href="/stylesheets/blueprint/print.css" media="print" rel="stylesheet"
type="text/css" />

4.4 Ruby classes

We’ve said before that everything in Ruby is an object, and in this section we’ll finally get to define some of our own. Ruby, like many object-oriented languages, uses classes to organize methods; these classes are then instantiated to create objects. If you’re new to object-oriented programming, this may sound like gibberish, so let’s look at some concrete examples.

4.4.1 Constructors

We’ve seen lots of examples of using classes to instantiate objects, but we have yet to do so explicitly. For example, we instantiated a string using the double quote characters, which is a literal constructor for strings:

>> s = "foobar"       # A literal constructor for strings using double quotes
=> "foobar"
>> s.class
=> String

We see here that strings respond to the method class, and simply return the class they belong to.

Instead of using a literal constructor, we can use the equivalent named constructor, which involves calling the new method on the class name:

>> s = String.new("foobar")   # A named constructor for a string
=> "foobar"
>> s.class
=> String
>> s == "foobar"
=> true

This is equivalent to the literal constructor, but it’s more explicit about what we’re doing.

Arrays work the same way as strings:

>> a = Array.new([1, 3, 2])
=> [1, 3, 2]

Hashes, in contrast, are different. While the array constructor Array.new takes an initial value for the array, Hash.new takes a default value for the hash, which is the value of the hash for a nonexistent key:

>> h = Hash.new
=> {}
>> h[:foo]            # Try to access the value for the nonexistent key :foo.
=> nil
>> h = Hash.new(0)    # Arrange for nonexistent keys to return 0 instead of nil.
=> {}
>> h[:foo]
=> 0

4.4.2 Class inheritance

When learning about classes, it’s useful to find out the class hierarchy using the superclass method:

>> s = String.new("foobar")
=> "foobar"
>> s.class                        # Find the class of s.
=> String
>> s.class.superclass             # Find the superclass of String.
=> Object
>> s.class.superclass.superclass  # Find the superclass of Object (it's nil!).
=> nil

A diagram of this inheritance hierarchy appears in Figure 4.2. We see here that the superclass of String is Object, but Object has no superclass. This pattern is true of every Ruby object: trace back the class hierarchy far enough and every class in Ruby ultimately inherits from Object, which has no superclass itself. This is the technical meaning of “everything in Ruby is an object”.

string_inheritance
Figure 4.2: The inheritance hierarchy for the String class.

To understand classes a little more deeply, there’s no substitute for making one of our own. Let’s make a Word class with a palindrome? method that returns true if the word is the same spelled forward and backward:

>> class Word
>>   def palindrome?(string)
>>     string == string.reverse
>>   end
>> end
=> nil

We can use it as follows:

>> w = Word.new              # Make a new Word object
=> #<Word:0x22d0b20>
>> w.palindrome?("foobar")
=> false
>> w.palindrome?("level")
=> true

If this example strikes you as a bit contrived, good; this is by design. It’s odd to create a new class just to create a method that takes a string as an argument. Since a word is a string, it’s more natural to have our Word class inherit from String, as seen in Listing 4.7. (You should exit the console and re-enter it to clear out the old definition of Word.)

Listing 4.7. Defining a Word class in irb.
>> class Word < String             # Word inherits from String.
>>   # Return true if the string is its own reverse.
>>   def palindrome?
>>     self == self.reverse        # self is the string itself.
>>   end
>> end
=> nil

Here Word < String is the Ruby syntax for inheritance (discussed briefly in Section 3.1.2), which ensures that, in addition to the new palindrome? method, words also have all the same methods as strings:

>> s = Word.new("level")    # Make a new Word, initialized with "level".
=> "level"                  
>> s.palindrome?            # Words have the palindrome? method.
=> true                     
>> s.length                 # Words also inherit all the normal string methods.
=> 5

Since the Word class inherits from String, we can use the console to see the class hierarchy explicitly:

>> s.class
=> Word
>> s.class.superclass
=> String
>> s.class.superclass.superclass
=> Object

This hierarchy is illustrated in Figure 4.3.

word_inheritance
Figure 4.3: The inheritance hierarchy for the (non-built-in) Word class from Listing 4.7.

In Listing 4.7, note that checking that the word is its own reverse involves accessing the word inside the Word class. Ruby allows us to do this using the self keyword: inside the Word class, self is the object itself, which means we can use

self == self.reverse

to check if the word is a palindrome.15

4.4.3 Modifying built-in classes

While inheritance is a powerful idea, in the case of palindromes it might be even more natural to add the palindrome? method to the String class itself, so that (among other things) we can call palindrome? on a string literal, which we currently can’t do:

>> "level".palindrome?
NoMethodError: undefined method `palindrome?' for "level":String

Somewhat amazingly, Ruby lets you do just this; Ruby classes can be opened and modified, allowing ordinary mortals such as ourselves to add methods to them:16

>> class String
>>   # Return true if the string is its own reverse.
>>   def palindrome?
>>     self == self.reverse
>>   end
>> end
=> nil
>> "deified".palindrome?
=> true

(I don’t know which is cooler: that Ruby lets you add methods to built-in classes, or that "deified" is a palindrome.)

Modifying built-in classes is a powerful technique, but with great power comes great responsibility, and it’s considered bad form to add methods to built-in classes without having a really good reason for doing so. Rails does have some good reasons; for example, in web applications we often want to prevent variables from being blank—e.g., a user’s name should be something other than spaces and other whitespace—so Rails adds a blank? method to Ruby. Since the Rails console automatically includes the Rails extensions, we can see an example here (this won’t work in plain irb):

>> "".blank?
=> true
>> "      ".empty?
=> false
>> "      ".blank?
=> true
>> nil.blank?
=> true

We see that a string of spaces is not empty, but it is blank. Note also that nil is blank; since nil isn’t a string, this is a hint that Rails actually adds blank? to String’s base class, which (as we saw at the beginning of this section) is Object itself. We’ll see some other examples of Rails additions to Ruby classes in Section 9.3.3.

4.4.4 A controller class

All this talk about classes and inheritance may have triggered a flash of recognition, because we have seen both before, in the Pages controller (Listing 3.16):

class PagesController < ApplicationController

  def home
    @title = "Home"
  end

  def contact
    @title = "Contact"
  end

  def about
    @title = "About"
  end
end

You’re now in a position to appreciate, at least vaguely, what this code means: PagesController is a class that inherits from ApplicationController, and comes equipped with home, contact, and about methods, each of which defines the instance variable @title. Since each Rails console session loads the local Rails environment, we can even create a controller explicitly and examine its class hierarchy:17

>> controller = PagesController.new
=> #<PagesController:0x22855d0>
>> controller.class
=> PagesController
>> controller.class.superclass
=> ApplicationController
>> controller.class.superclass.superclass
=> ActionController::Base
>> controller.class.superclass.superclass.superclass
=> Object

A diagram of this hierarchy appears in Figure 4.4.

pages_controller_inheritance
Figure 4.4: The inheritance hierarchy for the Pages controller.

We can even call the controller actions inside the console, which are just methods:

>> controller.home
=> "Home"

This return value of "Home" comes from the assignment @title = "Home" in the home action.

But wait—actions don’t have return values, at least not ones that matter. The point of the home action, as we saw in Chapter 3, is to render a web page. And I sure don’t remember ever calling PagesController.new anywhere. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that Rails is written in Ruby, but Rails isn’t Ruby. Some Rails classes are used like ordinary Ruby objects, but some are just grist for Rails’ magic mill. Rails is sui generis, and should be studied and understood separately from Ruby. This is why, if your principal programming interest is writing web applications, I recommend learning Rails first, then learning Ruby, then looping back to Rails.

4.4.5 A user class

We end our tour of Ruby with a complete class of our own, a User class that anticipates the User model coming up in Chapter 6.

So far we’ve entered class definitions at the console, but this quickly becomes tiresome; instead, create the file example_user.rb in your Rails root directory and fill it with the contents of Listing 4.8. (Recall from Section 1.1.3 that the Rails root is the root of your application directory; for example, the Rails root for my sample application is /Users/mhartl/rails_projects/sample_app.)

Listing 4.8. Code for an example user.
example_user.rb
class User
  attr_accessor :name, :email

  def initialize(attributes = {})
    @name  = attributes[:name]
    @email = attributes[:email]
  end

  def formatted_email
    "#{@name} <#{@email}>"
  end
end

There’s quite a bit going on here, so let’s take it step by step. The first line,

  attr_accessor :name, :email

creates attribute accessors corresponding to a user’s name and email address. This creates “getter” and “setter” methods that allow us to retrieve (get) and assign (set) @name and @email instance variables.

The first method, initialize, is special in Ruby: it’s the method called when we execute User.new. This particular initialize takes one argument, attributes:

  def initialize(attributes = {})
    @name  = attributes[:name]
    @email = attributes[:email]
  end

Here the attributes variable has a default value equal to the empty hash, so that we can define a user with no name or email address (recall from Section 4.3.3 that hashes return nil for nonexistent keys, so attributes[:name] will be nil if there is no :name key, and similarly for attributes[:email]).

Finally, our class defines a method called formatted_email that uses the values of the assigned @name and @email variables to build up a nicely formatted version of the user’s email address using string interpolation (Section 4.2.2):

  def formatted_email
    "#{@name} <#{@email}>"
  end

Let’s fire up the console, require the example user code, and take our User class out for a spin:

>> require 'example_user'       # This is how you load the example_user code.
=> ["User"]
>> example = User.new
=> #<User:0x224ceec @email=nil, @name=nil>
>> example.name                 # nil since attributes[:name] is nil
=> nil
>> example.name = "Example User"           # Assign a non-nil name
=> "Example User"
>> example.email = "user@example.com"      # and a non-nil email address
=> "user@example.com"
>> example.formatted_email
=> "Example User <user@example.com>"

This code creates an empty example user and then fills in the name and email address by assigning directly to the corresponding attributes (assignments made possible by the attr_accessor line in Listing 4.8). When we write

example.name = "Example User"

Ruby is setting the @name variable to "Example User" (and similarly for the email attribute), which we then use in the formatted_email method.

Recalling from Section 4.3.4 we can omit the curly braces for final hash arguments, we can create another user by passing a hash to the initialize method to create a user with pre-defined attributes:

>> user = User.new(:name => "Michael Hartl", :email => "mhartl@example.com")
=> #<User:0x225167c @email="mhartl@example.com", @name="Michael Hartl">
>> user.formatted_email
=> "Michael Hartl <mhartl@example.com>"

We will see starting in Chapter 8 that initializing objects using a hash argument is common in Rails applications.

4.5 Exercises

  1. Using Listing 4.9 as a guide, combine the split, shuffle, and join methods to write a function that shuffles the letters in a given string.
  2. Using Listing 4.10 as a guide, add a shuffle method to the String class.
  3. Create three hashes called person1, person2, and person3, with first and last names under the keys :first and :last. Then create a params hash so that params[:father] is person1, params[:mother] is person2, and params[:child] is person3. Verify that, for example, params[:father][:first] has the right value.
  4. Learn about the Hash method merge.
Listing 4.9. Skeleton for a string shuffle function.
>> def string_shuffle(s)
>>   s.split('').?.?
>> end
=> nil
>> string_shuffle("foobar")
Listing 4.10. Skeleton for a shuffle method attached to the String class.
>> class String
>>   def shuffle
>>     self.split('').?.?
>>   end
>> end
=> nil
>> "foobar".shuffle
  1. If a helper is specific to a particular controller, you should put it in the corresponding helper file; for example, helpers for the Pages controller generally go in app/helpers/pages_helper.rb. In our case, we expect the title helper to be used on all the site’s pages, and Rails has a special helper file for this case: app/helpers/application_helper.rb
  2. I’ve linked my favorite Rails API source, RailsBrain. Its API version is currently a little out of date, but it doesn’t usually matter much. If you think it might matter, you can use the official Rails API, but I prefer the RailsBrain interface. Incidentally, “API” stands for application programming interface
  3. If you’re impatient, feel free to check out the Blueprint CSS Quickstart tutorial
  4. I’ve linked to RubyBrain, sister site to RailsBrain
  5. For more on the origins of “foo” and “bar”—and, in particular, the possible non-relation of “foobar” to “FUBAR”—see the Jargon File entry on “foo”
  6. Programmers familiar with Perl or PHP should compare this to the automatic interpolation of dollar sign variables in expressions like "foo $bar"
  7. Apologies in advance for switching haphazardly between function and method throughout this chapter; in Ruby, they’re the same thing: all methods are functions, and all functions are methods, because everything is an object. 
  8. Well, there will still be one thing left that we don’t understand, which is how Rails ties this all together: mapping URLs to actions, making the title helper available in views, etc. This is an interesting subject, and I encourage you to investigate it further, but knowing exactly how Rails works is not necessary to using Rails. (For a deeper understanding, I recommend The Rails Way by Obie Fernandez.) 
  9. The second method used here isn’t currently part of Ruby itself, but rather is added by Rails. It works in this case because the Rails console automatically includes the Rails extensions to Ruby. 
  10. Programming experts, on the other hand, might benefit from knowing that blocks are closures, which are one-shot anonymous functions with data attached. 
  11. Recall that shuffle isn’t available in Ruby 1.8.6; you have to use sort_by { rand } instead. 
  12. Apparently Ruby 1.9 guarantees that hashes keep their elements in the same order entered, but it would be unwise ever to count on a particular ordering. 
  13. As a result of having less baggage, symbols are easier to compare to each other; strings need to be compared character by character, while symbols can be compared all in one go. This makes them ideal for use as hash keys. 
  14. You may see some funky numbers, like ?1257465942, after the CSS filenames. These are inserted by Rails to ensure that browsers reload the CSS when it changes on the server. 
  15. For more on Ruby classes and the self keyword, see the RailsTips post on Class and Instance Variables in Ruby
  16. For those familiar with JavaScript, this functionality is comparable to using a built-in class prototype object to augment the class. (Thanks to reader Erik Eldridge for pointing this out.) 
  17. You don’t have to know what each class in this hierarchy does. I don’t know what they all do, and I’ve been programming in Ruby on Rails since 2005. This means either that (a) I’m grossly incompetent or (b) you can be a skilled Rails developer without knowing all its innards. I hope for both our sakes that it’s the latter. 
Michael Hartl is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.