Joseph Hallenbeck

Anno Domini 2013

Bear Lake Panorama

I have taken to experimenting with stitching panoramic images together. The one above is of Bear Lake in September of this year. We sped around the lake at sunset hoping to get to the eastern shore in time for the shot. I ran out of the truck down onto the stony beach and started shooting.

The resulting photo has has had little post work done in lightroom, but was stitched together using photoshop with a dash of content aware fill to fill in where the distortion curved down into the blue sky and took out a chunk of the right-most mountain.


Model: Nikon D80 /w Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX

Shutter: 1/160 sec

Exposure Program: Manual

F-Stop: f/9

ISO: 400

Focal Length: 35mm

Lighting: None

No of Stitched Photos 4

December 02, 2013

My Favorite PHP Helper Function - A Better Isset()

Filed under: Software Development (updated on 2017-08-22 09:30)

PHP7’s Null Coalesce Operator

As of PHP 7 the function described below is no longer neccessary as it’s been superceded by the Null Coalesce Operator.

Null Coalesce allows a nice bit of syntactical sugar for a checking if a variable is set and then returns that variable if it is or some fallback value if it is not:

<?= $title ?? 'Blog Title' ?>

Outputs the value of $title if it is set or ‘Blog Title’ if it is not. It is the same as doing:

<?= isset($title) ? $title : 'Blog Title' ?>

My favorite helper function for CodeIgniter is a ridiculously simple function that has an amazing amount of utility. I stole, at least the idea of, this function from LemonStand and it has since made its way into nearly every CMS that I have worked on:


*  Check if $var is set and if not return null or default
*  @param mixed $var The var to check if it is set.
*  @param mixed $default The value to return if var is not set.
function h( &$var, $default = null) {
    return isset( $var ) ? $var: $default;

At first this doesn’t really seem to be doing much, after all at first glance it looks like it is nothing more than a wrapper for isset, but this improves heavily upon isset in two very important ways. First, let’s look at how this function works.

In the function definition we are taking a reference to a variable. Recall, a reference is pointing at the memory, not value, of a variable and so we can actually pass to our helper function a variable that has not yet been initialized. This saves us from receiving a notice that the variable does not exist. Our call to isset thus checks our memory to see if it is actually referencing a variable or nothing at all. If it is referencing an actual variable it returns that variable, otherwise it returns null (our default default) or whatever value has been assigned to $default.

The utility of this is best expressed in handful of examples. The biggest use of this is in a view. Let us look at a view constructed without the use of our helper function:

<h2><?= isset( $title ) ? $title : 'Blog Title' ?></h2>
<p><?= isset( $content ) ? $content : null ?></p>

In a sizable view the above can get quite long and quite cumbersome to maintain. Each call to isset is checking to see if the controller actually passed the value on to the view ( $title or $content ). If we did not do this we would get a notice from PHP. Sometimes this is resolved by programmers by using the error suppression symbal (@), however the notices will still end up in the logs of many frameworks that strictly check for errors. Contrast this with a view using our helper function:

<h1><?= h( $title, 'Blog Title' ) ?></h2>
<p><?= h( $content ) ?></p>

The above is a much, much more concise view that is easier to read and is still a strictly valid snippet of PHP that generates no warnings or notices. Once we start to use this helper function regularly all different kinds of uses come up for it, for example we can use it to see if a model returned a value:


/* 1. Longer method without using the helper function */
$page = $this->pages->getByURI( $url );
if( ! $page )
    $page = $this->pages->get404();
$this->render( $page );

/* 2. With helper function */
$page = h( $this->pages->getByURI( $url ), $this->pages->get404() );
$this->render( $page );

The above snippets are fairly simple, but let’s walk through them. In both instances we need to pass some page object on to the render method. An error occurs if it does not get a valid page object so we must check after retrieving a page that it actually exists. In the first snippet we use four lines of code to first get a page by $url (the value of which is set somewhere else). Now if the pages model returns nothing then we enter a conditional statement that retrieves the 404 error page.

However, with the use of our helper function we can shorten the code in half and remove the conditional all together make it a much more readable snippet of code. The first line of the second snippet simply passes the return of the pages model and the get404 method into our helper function which returns the first if it returns something or the latter if it does not. The only downside is the additional load since the 404 page would also need to be loaded concurrent to the current page with each request, but in most cases this is going to be negligible.

Having looked at two different uses for our helper function, we can begin to see that we can get quite a bit out of some very very small functions. If you have your own favorite one-liner functions feel free to share in the comments below.

In this article I plan on addressing CodeIgniter’s shortfalls as a framework for validating objects and introduce a method for improving the validator classes re-usability.

When To Validate?

The answer to this question is simple: whenever we are dealing with input. The (incorrect) assumption that CodeIgniter and many web-applications make is that user input comes in the form of GET and POST variables and a considerable amount of effort goes into validating inputs via these routes. However, GET and POST are not the only sources for user input. User input can come via external sources such as tying into a remote API, an RSS feed, or from the database itself. From each of these sources we could get an invalid state. In the case of the remote API or RSS feed this is easy to understand. The API could change, or the RSS feed could be malformed. In the case of the database the issue typically appears when data is stored into the database under one context but is then accessed with a different expectation.

Take for example a database with the following table:

  `name` varchar(256) NOT NULL,
  `birthdate` DATE NOT NULL,
PRIMARY KEY (`id`) ) ;

Now say that we inserted a person with name “Bob” and birthdate “1975-01-01.” This passes the validator going into the database, but later on we pull this row from the database and use it to construct a plain PHP object with properties id, name, and birthdate which we pass onto the view and attempt to output the birthdate with the following line:


echo date('Y-m-d', $person->birthdate);

This is going to cause an error. Why? Because the date function is expecting the second parameter to be a UNIX timestamp, but birthdate is already a formatted date string. Now, we could solve this by changing the schema of the database or changing the schema of the person object, but it is important to note that even if we did fix the disparity between the two we would still not fix the issue that it is possible for the person object to exist in an invalid state.

So my answer is to when should validation occur is during object instantiation and setting. The properties of the object should not be able to be set to a value that the object cannot accept. This places validation clearly into the realm of the “M” in “MVC.”

Form Validation in CodeIgniter

CodeIgniter’s documentation offers a form validation class that makes the above mistake very clearly. It can only validate the POST super global and doesn’t really offer much of a solution towards validation of objects themselves. Furthermore, their example controller oddly mixes the issue of object validation, and thus business logic, inside the controller which tends to create in many CI application fairly bloated controllers:


public function index()
  $this->load->helper(array('form', 'url'));

    'Password Confirmation', 

  if ($this->form_validation->run() == FALSE) {
  } else {

I cannot offer a solution towards adapting the validation class to be fully object operating without a heavy rewrite of the class, but we can move this obtuse validation into a distinct model that encapsulates this behavior away from the controller.

Introducing the Abstract Validator Class

We can get the validation logic out of the controller by moving it into a Validator class. We begin with an abstract base class since each form will need their own validator classes:


abstract class Validator extends CI_Model
  protected $rules = array();
  protected $fields = array();

  # Get keys of fields.
  public function getStructure()
    return array_keys( $this->fields );

  # Validate $_POST against the rules and fields.
  public function validate()
    foreach( $this->rules as $key => $rule )
      $this->form_validation->set_rules( $key, $this->fields[$key], $rule );

    return $this->form_validation->run( $this );

We take advantage of the fact that the CI god to access the form_validation object inside the Validator instance to create the validate method which merely sets the validation rules and then runs them. The Validator has two properties $rules and $fields which we will use in sub-classes to provide the CI_Validator rules and fields strings. We can transform the above controller into the following subclass:


class LoginValidator extends Validator
  protected $rules = array(
                       'username' => 'callback_username_check',
                       'password' => 'required',
                       'passconf' => 'required',
                       'email' => 'required|is_unique[]');
  protected $fields = array(
                        'username' => 'User Name',
                        'password' => 'Password',
                        'passconf' => 'Password Confirmation',
                        'email' => 'E-Mail');

  public function username_check( $name )
    return $this->users->check_username( $name );

Here we can see how the rules and fields are used as well as how we can extend the Validator class to add additional unique callback validations. This simplifies the controller significantly:


public function index() {

  if ( $this->loginvalidator->validate() ) {
  } else {

The business logic is now gone and the controller is back to focusing on what it’s supposed to be doing – load resources and running paths.

November 19, 2013

Building Pecunia - Introduction

Filed under: Software Development

What is Pecunia?

I have been keeping my own personal accounts for some time in a progressively growing spreadsheet that after one decade of use, multiple files, and dozens of worksheets. The entire thing is quite a mess. My solution? Build an app for it! Pecunia will be a simple budgeting application designed from the ground up for keeping track of monthly budgets, annual budgets, and keeping a ledger of individual expenses. With a little bit of work, I should be able to turn it into a multi-user application to launch as an extension on for public use as well as an open source repository on Bitbucket.

This also gives me an excuse for a long series of posts going through the steps necessary to take a spread sheet, abstract it’s logic into models, and implement it’s functionality into a useful application.


Pecunia will be built using the following resources:

  • PHP 5.4
  • Apache 2.2
  • MySQL 5.5
  • Silex
  • Laraval 4

Update: January 22, 2014

After some consideration, I am opting away from Silex towards using Laraval 4. It is not that I have suddenly found a dislike for Silex, rather I love working with it, but that I would like to try my hands at the “latest and greatest” to see what the big deal is about and to add another tool to my retinue.

September 23, 2013

CodeIgniter's God Complex

Filed under: Software Development

I have worked with Code Igniter almost exclusively for the last nine months. In that time, I have found it to be a massive step ahead over working with some of the major CMS systems on the market (WordPress, I am looking at you). Nevertheless, there remains some major architectural and blind spots that exist in CodeIgniter as a framework. Some of these issues are resolvable (CodeIgniter’s presumption that you would only ever want to validate the POST superglobal), while others are inherent in it’s design. In this series I hope to look at some of these issues that I have found with CodeIgniter, showcase work-arounds where I can, or simply rant where no good solution exists. Today’s topic will be of the latter variety.

The God Object AntiPattern

Lets dip over to WikiPedia for the definition of a God Object:

In object-oriented programming, a god object is an object that knows too much or does too much… a program’s overall functionality is coded into a single “all-knowing” object, which maintains most of the information about the entire program and provides most of the methods for manipulating this data. Because this object holds so much data and requires so many methods, its role in the program becomes god-like (all-encompassing). Instead of program objects communicating amongst themselves directly, the other objects within the program rely on the god object for most of their information and interaction.

The God Object in CodeIgniter

CodeIgniter started as an early MVC framework that has maintained backwards compatibility with PHP5.2. It’s maintainers have insisted on maintaining this compatibility which has limited CI from taking advantage the advances that PHP5.3, 5.4, and 5.5 introduced to the language.

There remains nothing truly wrong with PHP5.2. While 5.3+ offers us many great advantages, a SOLID framework is still possible using the older version. CI’s architectural issues do not stem necessarily from it’s usage of the older version but rather the violation of SOLID principles in archetyping it’s interpretation of MVC.

In CI we have the CI super class (the idea of a super class alone should be a code smell) that is globally available via the get_instance() function. This returns an instance of CI_Controller, our main application controller handling the current request. This instance is our elusive beast. The God Object itself. We’ll call this object CI from here on out.

In any one request there can be only one instance of CI – it is essentially a singleton responsible for:

  1. Loading models
  2. Processing the request
  3. Returning the response

Overloaded Models

Here is where we get into the meat and potatoes.

The CI object begins its life by loading resources, that is it begins by loading various models and libraries and maintaining links to each of them like so:


public function __construct() { 

This code instantiates an instance of the news model and assigns a reference to news. It then instantiates an instance of events. In this manner every model that comes into existence during request process is held as a reference by the CI object and can be access latter on in the request, e.g.


public function index() { 
    $data = array(); 
    $data['articles'] = $this->news->get( 3 ); 
    $this->load->view( 'news', $data ); 

Once more, something very peculiar is done during this process. CI not only instantiates an instance of the given model but it also copies these references to every subsequently loaded model.

Thus every object that is loaded in this manner becomes aware of every object that had been loaded up-to that point regardless of whether that object really needed access to the behaviors of those objects. The model becomes unnecessarily bloated and the difficulty of debugging the behaviors of a given model increases. Unintended behaviors might be caused not by the model itself but by the combination of that particular model and the order or selection of previously loaded models.

Examine a Model’s State? No way.

Take for example the simple act of using var_dump to see the state of an object in memory. If we were to var_dump our instance of news we might as well call it a day as news contains a reference to everything that has been loaded into memory for our request. The server will proceed to dump the entirety of our application to the screen for us to wade through!

No Public Property is Safe

A larger issue is the assigning of the references themselves. Since the first act of initiating the model object is to copy CI’s massive registry of references to the model any properties or references set in the model’s constructor is at the mercy of the controller overwriting the model. Take for example, the events model. Let’s say the following was in the constructor:


public function __construct() { 
    $this->news = new News(); 

Following substantiation of the events object the Events object CI will immediately overwrite the news property with it’s own instance of the news property. Thus the events model would either need to make the news property private or protected which would generate an error when CI attempts to access it or we would always need to take care to keep our model properties from existing in the same namespace as CI.

I actually ran into a horrible bug where this very thing happened. I had a class named Validator that I loaded in with the controller. I also intended each of my models to load their own instances of the Validator class and to initialize their instances with own unique validation parameters. However, since the controller had already loaded an instance of Validator it immediately overwrote each of my model’s Validator’s forcing them all to use the same instance of the class. The resolution to this problem was to have to name each instance of Validator something different, thus we had EventValidator, NewsValidator, etc.

I decided to share my fix for lightboxing in NextGEN Gallery 2.0.21. This version of the WordPress plugin for some odd reason breaks support for lightboxing the gallery images (that is having the gallery image “pop out” in front of the page when clicked).

This fix does not modify the NextGEN gallery itself so we can easily revert to using NextGEN’s lightboxing whenever it gets fixed.

Follow these steps:

1. Turn off NextGEN Lightbox Effect

Log into the dashboard of your WordPress installation and navigate to `Gallery

Other Options and select Lightbox Effects. There select from the drop down No lightbox`

2. Install Lightbox 2 v2.6

It is important to have the most up-to-date version of Lightbox because of compatiblity issues with jQuery 1.10. Go to the Lightbox 2 website and download the latest version of lightbox, unzip the download and upload the resulting directory into your theme’s directory on your server (it should be in /wp-content/themes/).

3. Update header.php To Load Lightbox 2

Now from the WordPress dashboard select Appearance >> Editor >> header.php. For those of you without programming experience this might seem arcane but follow along. Between the <head> and </head> tags include the following lines of code:

<style type="text/css" media="screen">
        @import url( 
            '<?= get_theme_root_uri() ?>/THEME/lightbox/css/lightbox.css' 
  src="<?= get_theme_root_uri() ?>/THEME/lightbox/js/lightbox-2.6.min.js">

Where THEME is the name of your current WordPress theme.

There is two ways of going about this. First navigate this time to `Apperance » Editor » footer.php. We can either append the javascript directly to the end of this file, or (the better solution) you could create an external javascript file and load it.

To do the latter, you simply create a file named lightfix.js and paste the script below minus the <script> and </script> tags. Then include it in your file the same way that you included lightbox-2.6.min.js above only this time append the include to the end of the footer.php.

If you want to just put the script directly in footer.php just copy the text below directly into the file:

( function( $, images ) {
  $(img).each( function() {
    if( $(this).parent().is('a') {
      $(this).parent().attr('rel', 'lightbox');
})( jQuery, '.storycontent img');

You might need to modify .storycontent img to fit your own theme. This script selects all the img html elements in the div with a class name storycontent it then loops through each of these images and if they are contained inside an anchor tag then it transforms that image into a lightbox. Since each picture in the NextGEN gallery is wrapped in an anchor tag linking to the image source this should automatically work alongside Lightbox 2 to return the lightbox functionality to our gallery.

September 14, 2013

Galleries are Broken

Filed under: Journal

I just noticed today that a combination of the newest version of the nextgen-gallery plugin with my custom jQuery and lightbox code succeeding in completely breaking support of both such that neither the nextgen galleries used in the Art and Photography sections nor the lightboxes used in various blog posts really work.

If I have some time this weekend this will all be fixed up shortly.

Updated: The problem seems to be documented already with the 2.0.21 build of NextGen. Since there is no fix for the problem and since I already have a lightbox solution installed in the theme for automatically adding lightbox to any non-lightboxed image in a post, I decide to just disable NextGen’s implementation of lightbox and add a little javascript magic to solve the problem.

September 14, 2013

On the Extraordinary Polish of Fez

Filed under: Literary Criticism


I am struggling to find the words that adequately describe the simple joy that is Fez. I think the word that I most often find in my reflection is complete. That is, I think Fez is a more polished and “whole” game than many a modern Triple-A title.

Concerning Publishing Unfinished Games

It has become too common to see games placed on shelves before they are truly finished. I could point the finger at any number of triple A titles (mostly in the MMORPG and FPS genres) wherein the release of the game is done before production has really honestly finished. But the most brazen releasing of unfinished games seems to come from the Independent scene where often games seem more like tech demos then completed titles.

These unfinished games are hobbled together and released while their ideas are still weak and unrealized. They lack the true polish that is necessary to fully explore their game-play potential. Graphics are unpolished with no eye for creating a cohesive aesthetic. Game-play consists of repeating the same simple mechanic over and over. And content is either procedurally generated, random, or simply lacking in complexity and attention to detail.

These poor unfortunate children are cast out into the marketplace and I am still surprised to see so many titles getting praised despite their severe flaws.

Exploring the Observatory in

Unity of Ideas in Fez

When I look at Fez what I see is a gestalt that creates an exceptional sense of unity in presentation. The game is whole and explores its ideas sufficiently to fully showcase the game without exhausting our temperament. I am reminded of the original Super Mario Bros in that it is a game that could be beaten in a short time but yet each piece – the art, the arrangement of the platforms, and progressive difficulty was a creative expression that created an ensemble that far exceeded it’s parts. Indeed, had one platform been off, had one level simply felt as though it was a hap-hazardous assembly of ill thought ideas the entire idea would collapse. But we do not see this with Fez, instead we see a kind of excellence found only in minute attention to detail that encourages us to immerse ourselves in the scene feeling secure that it will not disappoint us by failing to reward our explorations.

In essence, we have a game whose levels encourage a kind of tranquil enjoyment of each scene – the dog laying to sleep, the strange hieroglyphics adorning the walls, and pixel-perfect skies. The developers behind Fez certainly felt the need to reward such careful exploration as without the desire to wander about the levels solving Fez’s mind-boggling puzzles becomes nigh impossible.

That is, the process of rewarding for exploration is built into the game. On one level spinning a globe reveals hidden treasure maps. On another turning a valve lowers and raises the water table on a completely different level. Puzzle pieces reveal that what looks like decorative glyphs in the game may be a part of solving a larger puzzle. Rather than punish us for wandering beyond the linear paths and only rewarding us for progress, Fez rewards us for returning over and over again to the same places to look again. Our approach to each level is hyper-linear and this hyper-linearity creates a sense of choice not found more linear narratives.

Sidescrolling Game-Play in

The Game-Play of Fez

The stages of Fez go on far beyond what I typically expect of an independently produced title. We find such a variety of unique realms that rarely repeat their themes – haunted mansions, seasides, jungles, and libraries.

Each stage reveals such a wealth of history into the eight and sixteen-bit eras. We see tetris blocks built into the levels, Owls that look remarkably like those found in Zelda, and a story that winks at the 2D “worlds” that exist inside our computers as our hero sets off to save the world by collecting cubes all the while electronic tears appear all about him in the world.

The idea of exploring a 3D world collapsed onto a 2D plane while still allowing the user to change the plane of collapse is not a new one. Mario explored these visuals in the various Paper Mario titles. Portal, likewise explores the bizarre possibilities of physics-breaking that video game space can produce. So, like so many other games before it, Fez is not something truly new but an exploration of something that has come before.

But it is not the exploration of something new that makes Fez, or many great games great. It is once again the fact that Fez is complete, polished and a unified example of it’s kind.

August 18, 2013

Steam Summer Sale 2013

Filed under: Journal

Outside of a select handful of console titles that I absolutely adore (Zelda, Mario, Shin Megami, Okami, Team Ico), most of my gaming goes on via the PC.

The Steam sales are thus regular points of interest in which I indulge myself in buying far more games than I could realistically play through in a year.

To save myself from myself, I established a series of simple rules that I (mostly adhere to) where Steam sales are concerned

  • I may only follow the summer sale.
  • I may only make one purchase per day.

So here’s my list of this year’s purchases:

  • The Witcher 2
  • Just Cause 2
  • Ys I & Ys II Chronicles
  • Borderlands 2
  • Torchlight III
  • Dust: An Elysian Tail
  • Civlization V Gold
  • Alan Wake Bundle
  • Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition
  • Tomb Raider Collection

So there’s 10 purchases for 10 days! (Although Alan Wake gave me Alan Wake and American Nightmare and Tomb Raider gave me the entire 10 game series).

A year ago, I promised a complete site overall. “It all has to go!” I said as I started revising stylesheets and pulling apart templates.

Then suddenly, I took a year break from blogging.

The thing was, that as I started to revise the site I began to realize that the whole thing lacked the certain kind of voice and insight that I had hoped to achieve. It felt rather forced.

The site itself did not help much. The template was a kludge of spaghetti code hammered together over a drunken weekend in college and looked nothing like the simplicity of modern design. Indeed, the style-sheets were endless reams of overrides and the Wordpress dashboard a mess of conflicting plugins.

I knew that I could do better, but I had no time for it. Disheartened, I stopped blogging altogether.

It helped, that at the same time, there was a sudden rush of crunch time at work, family weddings and holidays. My girlfriend getting a job first in Hulett, Wyoming and then Ashton, Idaho. In all of this, I found myself back on the job market trying to find a better position to cover the housing costs in what is a rather expensive Midwestern city. I landed at 44Interactive who promptly put me to work as a back-end web developer.

I found myself graduating from building modules for off-the-shelf CMSes (Joomla and WordPress) and into the realm of MVC frameworks and Dev-Ops. I took up the reins of Systems Administrator, switching my OS to Ubuntu, cracking my head against the Linux Documentation Library and straightening out a series of complex system of servers that had grown organically for far too long. I set up PCI compliant production servers, I created Dev servers for users to work off, and mastered working off a local LAMP stack and organizing my GIT flow to integrate into the new teams work.

Meanwhile, I spent my weekends driving through each of South Dakota’s winter storms to see Jess and then into the Spring and Summer making the longer commute to telework from Idaho. Even today, I am moving piecemeal out to the Caribou-Targhee area were I will be permanently teleworking from now on.

Through all of this, I felt like I had no time to write, no time to draw. But then this last month, I picked up my pens and realized how very much I missed them and the tranquility of sitting down to simply create.

The New Sites

The site you see comprises my last two years of professional growth. A new modern design emphasizing a better typography, white-space and subtleties in a well structured Word Press template. All the articles have converted to markdown in order to give them a uniform look and to escape from the trap of trying to design new layouts for each article. Comments now use the Disqus system to provide single authentication logins and to hopefully encourage greater user interaction – which until now has been mostly non-existent.

My hosting has also moved. I am putting my Linux administration to good use and hosting this off my own personal VPS provided by Digital Ocean. now serves as my primary host managed 100% by yours truly. The domain is now retired with my existing and future projects ( Dreamscapes and The Wind Up Blog moved to subdomains of our new host.

Likewise, The Wind-Up Bird features the same template and markdown improvements as my main blog and Dreamscapes will be ported to a custom Silex CMS whose design I plain to layout over the next few months.

To the right, you will find links to my LinkedIn profile and Bitbucket accounts, the latter which I hope to begin slowly incorporating new OSS projects.

Expect a complete overhaul of this site’s pages, and a return to regular articles. Particularly, I hope to address Javascript architecture, the pitfalls of Code Igniter, tips for administering CentOS/Ubuntu servers, a series of articles laying out how to quickly mock up a simple CMS using Silex, and my adventures exploring independent game development using the PyGame and PyGlet frameworks for Python.

It has been almost one year exactly since I posted my progress in attending the life studies group in Sioux Falls. I did not attend nearly as much as I had hoped last year. Indeed, with heavy overtime through the fall and only a scattering of visits last winter followed by an outright abstinence through the spring and into early summer – I am surprised that I have this many sketches to scrap up and post.