Problems with Codecademy “Learn Sass” Projects

I revisited Codecademy’s “Learn Sass” class for a quick review and also to check out new material added since my first run. I’m also a Codecademy Pro subscriber this time, which opened up the practice project assignments. The lessons went fine, but the projects did not. The learning environment was supposed to automatically compile SCSS to CSS every time I hit “Run”. But it was quickly obvious that changes I made to SCSS file were not being reflected in the corresponding CSS file nor visible in HTML. Is it another back-end failure like what foiled my Codecademy MongoDB course? Some debugging later, I figured out the problem: if I make a mistake in the SCSS file and create invalid Sass syntax, the background compiler runs and fails. This is a part of learning and is OK. What is NOT OK is the fact it silently fails without showing me an error message. This infuriating behavior is not the first time Codecademy did this to me. Fortunately, this time project material is easy enough for me to port elsewhere.

The quickest and easiest (if not the most efficient) way to do this was to fire up Visual Studio Code and tell it to build me a dev container. I could replicate most of this functionality on my own, launching a Node.js Docker container instance and mapping a volume to my GitHub repository working directory. But by using a published configuration file for Node.js JavaScript projects, I was up and running in a half dozen mouse clicks and much quicker than doing it on my own. After the container was up and running, I followed Sass installation directions to run npm install -g sass. Now I could run sass compiler myself and get error messages to help me fix my mistakes.

Even with that, though, I’m not out of the woods. This course is several years old and shows signs of lacking maintenance. One project stumbled into deprecated behavior that generated compile-time warnings.

Deprecation Warning: Using / for division outside of calc() is deprecated and will be removed in Dart Sass 2.0.0.

Recommendation: math.div($tons-produced, 3) or calc($tons-produced / 3)

More info and automated migrator:

54 │     height: #{$tons-produced/3}px;
   │               ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    main.scss 54:15  root stylesheet

Fortunately fixing this one is fairly easy, following the recommendation to wrap the calculation inside a call to calc(). But then it gets worse: we get a non-obvious error.

Error: Undefined operation "null % 3".
56 │     @if($i % 3 == 0){
   │         ^^^^^^
  main.scss 56:9  root stylesheet

I understand the intent of the project, but I don’t know why this code isn’t working. Even after I copied directly from the answer key to verify I’m not just making a silly typo somewhere. $i was defined in the @each loop and we could use at the top level of the loop successfully. But this line is in an inner scope and using $i is an error here. My hypothesis is that I stumbled into a Sass breaking change regarding variable scopes.

Even if I ignore these technical errors, I’m not terribly fond of these projects. This particular error was from a project using CSS to build bar charts. Would anyone actually do this? It feels like a pointless demo showing something could be done but not something actually useful. Due to this and the fact we are looking at old material, I didn’t get as much out of these projects as I had hoped. I shrug and move on.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn Sass”

Reviewing what’s new (and relevant to me) with Angular over the past two years, I saw improved support for Sass listed. As soon as I saw that, I realized I should review Sass before diving into Angular again. Codecademy has a “Learn Sass” course and based on my notes here I’ve taken it once years ago. My Codecademy progress tracker page showed the course as “Completed” as well. But when I clicked “Start”, my progress bar dropped to 41% complete. This is because the course had a few updates in the “Sustainable SCSS” section. There’s also the fact that my previous run was without a Codecademy Pro subscription, so I didn’t have access to the projects section of the course.

Reviewing the Lessons turned out to be quite useful, as I had forgotten some of Sass and other pieces took on a different meaning in light of other recent classes I’ve taken. Notable Sass features include:

  • Nesting: the course started with nesting clauses, which is still my favorite part of Sass and probably still the biggest value added. Keeping related CSS rules together in a parent/child hierarchy helps understand organization in a style sheet, we no longer have to memorize which rules we’ve seen elsewhere.
  • Variables: The Sass variables mechanism isn’t exactly the same as CSS variables a.k.a. custom properties, but they solve many of the same problems. Historically, Sass variables existed before CSS variables support were widespread among browsers.
  • Functions: Sass functions also start with a fixed set just like CSS functions. (We can’t declare our own functions.) But Sass goes further by giving us features like loops and if/else which I haven’t seen from CSS functions.
  • Mixin: The final major Sass feature I liked. A @mixin is a CSS macro that we can then use elsewhere in the style sheet via @include. As demonstrated in the course, this is great for packing all different vendor prefixes into a single line.

The course covered other topics, but they didn’t stand out as much to me. Maybe I’ll value them after tackling more projects. I’m curious if the best practices recommended in “Sustainable SCSS” would be very practical elsewhere, especially something like Angular which imposes its own project file structure.

So the lessons review were fine, and now with a Pro subscription I wanted to give the projects a shot. I ran into problems immediately: my changes in .scss file did not reflect on .css, nor are changes visible in rendered HTML. What’s going on? Time for some debugging.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn TypeScript”

I want to go back and take another look at Angular web application development framework, because I’ve learned a lot about web development since my earlier attempt. But before I do, I want to review TypeScript, which is what Angular uses to tame some of JavaScript’s wild nature. Conveniently, Codecademy has a “Learn TypeScript” course for me to do exactly that.

As its name implies, TypeScript imposes some of the benefits of data type enforcement to JavaScript’s default data type system, where anything can go anywhere. The downside of JavaScript’s flexibility is that it also allowed many bugs to hide until emerging at very inconvenient times. While it’s always possible to move to an entirely different language if type safety is desirable, the beauty of TypeScript is that it maintains full compatibility with JavaScript so we don’t have to leave that ecosystem (JS runtimes, libraries, tools, etc.) to gain benefits of compile-time type checks. TypeScript accomplishes this magic by performing its checks on TypeScript source files. Once everything has been verified to be satisfactory, that source code is translated to standard JavaScript for execution.

But before that compiler runs, TypeScript syntax gives us a lot of tools to organize our code to catch bugs at “compile” time. (More accurately TypeScript-to-JavaScript transpiling time.) There are static code analysis features to find problems. Starting with simple ones like a mistyped variable name would get caught because it has no declared type. We also get (illusions of) features like enum so we can constrain values within a defined valid set.

However, in order to stay compatible with JavaScript, TypeScript couldn’t offer all the rigorousness of a strictly typed language. There are various middle ground features sprinkled throughout so we don’t have to take all-or-nothing. The type guard of “[property] in [object]” aligns with “duck typing” patterns: checks for the method we care about instead of the exact object type or interface. It was also amusing to see support for generics, which is becoming a feature in strictly typed languages but now we have it in TypeScript as well compiling down to “do whatever you want” JavaScript. That leads to things like Index Signatures with no real counterpart in strictly typed languages, and I credit its existence to JavaScript for being weird. I wouldn’t blame everything on JavaScript, though. I sometimes stumble across TypeScript union types, which lets us support a limited set of types. In one practice exercise, we have an array that can be an array of one of two types. I typed TypeA[] | TypeB[] which made sense to my brain, but that was not acceptable. I had to use (TypeA | TypeB)[] and I still don’t understand why.

This course also exposed me to certain JavaScript things that were not specific to TypeScript. There was a brief mention of documentation comments: /** */ blocks that included markup like @param and @returns. I vaguely recall seeing this before but I no longer remember what this is called and the course didn’t give me a pointer. This course was also the first time I saw JavaScript rest parameters and its counterpart spread syntax. And finally, this is where I learned of number.toFixed() which I will definitely use in the future.

Like all Codecademy courses, this one gives us enough context for us to navigate product document on our own. In this case, the official reference is The TypeScript Handbook. Explanations in the handbook make a lot more sense to me after this Codecademy course than it did before, so I’d say “Learn TypeScript” was worth my time investment.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn MongoDB”

Codecademy’s course catalog on SQL databases is thinner than those on topics like web front-end development, and their in-browser learning infrastructure isn’t as polished for those courses either. This has caused me frustration, but I was still learning useful knowledge. Codecademy’s PostgreSQL skill path was packed with information I can use and links to where I could learn more. After that, though, I wasn’t interested in anything else under their SQL umbrella of courses, but that doesn’t mean I’m done with databases because SQL relational databases are no longer the only game in town: A few alternative “NoSQL” database designs have recently arisen, and I had been curious about their design tradeoffs. So, the next step is Codecademy’s Learn MongoDB course, which I learned was launched (or at least promoted) recently via a Codecademy mailing list. Unfortunately its technical immaturity caused problems, more on that later.

This course started well, with a review of databases for those who come into the course without a background in SQL relational databases. With that background established, it proceeded to describe how NoSQL databases (there are several subtypes) like MongoDB (representing the “document database” subtype) go about their business. I loved this section, because it answered my question about why these databases exist and when they might (or might not!) be the right tool for the job.

On the course syllabus it said “Built in partnership with MongoDB” which in practice meant many links to MongoDB’s established portfolio of guides and documentation. After Codecademy’s own explanation of SQL vs. NoSQL, we have a link to MongoDB’s own take. Related to that topic is a presentation that describes MongoDB structures in terms of close analogues in SQL, but also implored experienced database developers to free their mind and think beyond relational database conventions. It seems perfectly possible to set up a MongoDB database so it looks and act like a relational database, but not taking advantage of MongoDB strengths risks incurring all the disadvantages of NoSQL without any reward to balance them out.

The MongoDB advantage that really caught my attention is the ability to start working on a project before we know everything about data access patterns. In a SQL-backed project that is a recipe for disaster because incomplete information would lead to a suboptimal schema, and one that we’d be stuck with towards the end of the project. Over in MongoDB land, our data validation can be loose in early stages of the project and tightened as we go if desired. During the course of development, MongoDB can theoretically adapt to changes much more easily than SQL databases could handle schema updates. I wonder if this means it’s possible for an application to evolve their MongoDB usage and end up in a state where it’d make sense to migrate to a SQL relational database.

These features were all very promising, and I really looked forward to playing with MongoDB. Unfortunately, Codecademy’s hands-on lesson backend is broken today. On the first page of the first interactive lesson, I was told to show all databases in a MongoDB instance by typing in the “show dbs” command, which listed four databases as expected. After this list was shown, I was to click the “Check Work” button to verify my progress before proceeding. But when I clicked “Check Work”, nothing happened. I did not see a successful check, which would have allowed me to proceed. In the absence of success check, I expect to see a red X telling me my answer was wrong and need to try again. But I didn’t see that, either. Nor did I see any sort of an error message. No “Pass”, no “Fail”, and not even a “Oh no something is wrong”.

I’m stuck.

So Codecademy’s Learn MongoDB course was a bust, but as mentioned earlier, MongoDB has their own collection of learning resources. The reading material so far got me interested enough that I want to continue learning MongoDB. Instead of waiting for Codecademy to fix their backend, I will switch to MongoDB’s learning platform.

[UPDATE: Codecademy has fixed their MongoDB course and I could continue its lesson, which is now extremely easy and just a review as I’ve since gone through courses on MongoDB’s own learning platform.]

Notes on Codecademy “Design Databases with PostgreSQL”

After a frustrating experience with the node-sqlite course on Codecademy, I’ve concluded that their in-browser instruction environment is not well set up for teaching SQL. Or at least, this course is far weaker than others on Codecademy, which I had been generally satisfied up until this point. I considered switching to a different topic but decided there were still a few more things I wanted to learn. But from here on out, when I fail an exercise, I’m more likely to decide my answer was fine. (More willing to hit “View Solution” to see the answer and compare.) And more importantly, I’m going to review the course syllabus beforehand and skip those with frustrating “Code Challenge” sections.

Which led me to “Design Databases with PostgreSQL” which is technically a “Skill Path” offering rather than a course. Like my previous skill path in web development, I started this skill path and was immediately at 50% completion due to material that overlapped with courses I’ve already taken. One major difference is that all my Codecademy database courses used SQLite to illustrate general SQL concepts, but this skill path has some PostgreSQL-specific details amongst more general database concepts.

Initially, I was mildly disappointed that the material was shallower than I had expected based on course description. The sales pitch made it sound like we’re going to get into some real detailed nuts-and-bolts, but while the course did indeed to into further depth than other courses to date, there were still many topics that ended with “we’re not going into more depth, but at least now you are aware it exists.” An example concerns database keys. From my earlier courses I had known about primary, foreign, and composite keys. This course mentioned there are also super, candidate, and secondary keys then proceeded to say nothing more about them. As a starting pointer this is fine, I had just expected more.

Once I adjusted my expectations, this skill path was time well spent. We get more information on database schema and that proper design of a schema can make a difference in database performance. Both at development time (make queries easier and less prone to problems) and at runtime (easier updates and faster queries.) Part of this design process is database normalization, which was covered by starting with a poorly designed database. After covering how a poorly normalized database causes problems in use, we are walked through typical normalization techniques to solve those problems.

But those solutions usually have a tradeoff. This course has a recurring theme in the form of database tradeoffs. A competent database engineer has to be able to understand the problem domain and usage patterns to properly prioritize certain constraints versus others. A normalized database has a lot of space, performance, and consistency advantages. But it does tend to make updates and queries more complex by requiring database joins. Similarly, a database index can make queries faster, but maintenance means updates are slower. The index also takes up space on disk.

A light complaint I have about this course is that its illustrative examples were surprisingly poor. One example used an email address as a primary key for a list of people, but a person can have multiple email addresses making it a poor primary key. Another example separated ingredients from recipes, but the ingredient is associated with a fixed amount. It is unrealistic for a cookbook to use, say, the same amount of salt for every recipe.

One of the practice exercises was “Bytes of China”, setting up a database that would track information suitable for a restaurant menu. From the starting directions I had looked forward to an open-ended exercise, because it said to: “Create table with columns that make sense based on the description” This came to a screeching halt when we were given information to add to these tables in the form of SQL INSERT clauses that expect a specific database schema. I had to delete the database schema that made sense to me and rebuild a different schema to suit the exercise data. This was annoying. They could have told us to build to suit their sample data upfront instead of letting us waste time designing our own that wouldn’t work.

Gripes aside, I learned a lot of neat things that I expect to use in future projects that might need a database. I learned how it was possible to represent many-to-many relationships with a “join table” that has a composite primary key that consists of a combination of foreign keys. Beyond “PRIMARY KEY” I learned about constraints like UNIQUE, CHECK, and REFERENCES. In the earlier SQLite course I was dismayed to learn it doesn’t enforce the schema, calling it a flexible feature instead of a bug. PostgreSQL isn’t as free-wheeling but we still need to watch out for times when it becomes inadvertently unhelpful. If I make a mistake trying to put a floating-point number like 1.5 into an integer field, PostgreSQL would round it to 2 without error. Or if I make a mistake putting it into a text field, PostSQL would helpfully convert the number 1.5 to the string “1.5”.

Every bit of SQL instruction I’ve come across before only ever joined two tables, this course was the first to teach me how to join more than two. I can see how this would feel obvious to SQL veterans, but every beginner has to see it at least once:

SELECT table_one.column_one AS alias_one, table_two.column_two AS alias_two, table_three.column_three AS alias_three
FROM table_one
INNER JOIN table_two
ON table_one.primary_key = table_two.foreign_key
INNER JOIN table_three
ON table_two.primary_key = table_three.foreign_key;

I think all of the remaining nifty tricks are PostgreSQL-only, but I’m not sure. The course doesn’t make a lot of distinction between thing we can use in other databases versus PostgreSQL-only. So I don’t know if I can extract just the date from a timestamp (DATE_PART()) with other databases, or if I can make this query to examine constraints on record for a table:

  constraint_name, table_name, column_name
  table_name = 'fill in table name';

Given the pg_ prefix, the following query is likely PostgreSQL specific way to list every index built for a table.

FROM pg_Indexes
WHERE tablename = 'fill in table name';

Also with the prefix is a query to show size of a table, which includes space consumed by storing data and all associated index.

SELECT pg_size_pretty (pg_total_relation_size('products'));

And finally, we get a few starting points for performance analysis. Like prepending EXPLAIN ANALYZE in front of a query to get information on how the database plans out its execution. Or SELECT NOW(); to print out a timestamp before and after an operation so we can see how long it took.

That’s a lot of information packed into a single Skill Path. I wished for more, but I can understand there’s a tradeoff against making the course too long. Maybe this is the perfect length after all, and just enough for me to learn more on my own later. I can spend years learning all the intricacies of relational databases, but right now I’m more curious to explore something a little different.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn Node-SQLite”

After my SQL fresher course, shortly after learning Node.js, I thought the natural progression was to put them together with Codecademy’s “Learn Node-SQLite” course. The name node-sqlite3 is not a mathematical subtraction but that of a specific JavaScript library bridging worlds of JavaScript and SQL. This course was a frustrating disappointment. (Details below) In hindsight, I think I would have been better off skipping this course and learn the library outside of Codecademy.

About the library: Our database instructions such as queries must be valid SQL commands stored as strings in JavaScript source code. We have the option of putting some parameters into those strings in JavaScript fashion, but the SQL commands are mostly string literals. Results of queries are returned to the caller using Node’s error-first asynchronous callback function convention, and query results are accessible as JavaScript objects. Most of library functionality are concentrated in just a few methods, with details available from API documentation.

This Codecademy course is fairly straightforward, covering the basics of usage so we can get started and explore further on our own. I was amused that some of the examples were simple to the point of duplicating SQL functionality. Specifically the example for db.each() shows how we can tally values from a query which meant we ended up writing a lot of code just to duplicate SQL’s SUM() function. But it’s just an example, so understandable.

The course is succinct to the point of occasionally missing critical information. Specifically, the section about say “Add a function callback with a single argument and leave it empty for now. Make sure that this function is not an arrow.” but didn’t say why our callback function must not use arrow syntax. This minor omission became a bigger problem when we roll into the after-class quiz, which asked why it must not use arrow syntax. Well, you didn’t tell me! A little independent research found the answer: arrow notation functions have a different behavior around the “this” object than other function notations. And for, our feedback is stored in properties like this.lastID which would not be accessible in an arrow syntax function. Despite such little problems, the instruction portion of the course were mostly fine. Which brings us to the bad news…

The Code Challenge section is a disaster.

It suffers from the same problem I had with Code Challenge section of the Learn Express course: lack of feedback on failures. Our code was executed using some behind-the-scenes mechanism, which meant we couldn’t see our console.log() output. And unlike the Learn Express course, I couldn’t workaround this limitation by throwing exceptions. No console logs, no exceptions, we don’t even get to see syntax errors! The only feedback we receive is always the same “You did it wrong” message no matter the actual cause.

Hall of Shame Runner-Up: No JavaScript feedback. When I make a JavaScript syntax error, the syntax error message was not shown. Instead, I was told “Did you execute the correct SQL query?” so I wasted time looking at the wrong thing.

Hall of Shame Bronze Medal: No SQL feedback. When I make a SQL command error, I want to see the error message given to our callback function. But console.log(error) output is not shown, so I was stabbing in the dark. For Code Challenge #13, my mistake was querying from “Bridges” table when the sample database table is actually singular “Bridge”. If I could log the error, I would have seen “No such table Bridges” which would have been much more helpful than the vague “Is your query correct?” feedback.

Hall of Shame Silver Medal: Incomplete Instructions. Challenge #14 asked us to build a query where “month is the current month”. I used “month=11” and got nothing. The database had months in words, so I actually needed to use “month=’November'”. I wasted time trying to diagnose this problem because I couldn’t run a “SELECT * FROM Table” to see what the data looked like.

Hall of Shame Gold Medal Grand Prize Winner: Challenge #12 asks us to write a function. My function was not accepted because I did not declare it using the same JavaScript function syntax used in the solution. Instructions said nothing about which function syntax to use. After I clicked “View Solution” and saw what the problem was (image above) I got so angry at the time it wasted, I had to step away for a few hours before I could resume. This was bullshit.

These Hall of Shame (dis)honorees almost turned me off of Codecademy entirely, but after a few days away to calm down, I returned to learn what Codecademy has to teach about PostgreSQL

Notes on Codecademy “Learn SQL”

I’m a little sad that hobbyist web app projects have lost the option of free hosting on Heroku, but that’s no reason to stop learning. Heroku is not irreplaceable, I’m sure I can figure out something if a project proceeds far enough to be worth the effort. So, back to learning: where should I go next? Looking at project ideas that involve Node.js and potentially Express, I decided the next area of focus is a backing datastore. It’s time for some database refresher work starting with Codecademy’s “Learn SQL“.

I’ve taken several database courses in the past, to varying levels of rigor and depth. I expected the introductory material of this course to be review so I’m better able to learn new concepts later in the course. As it turned out, this course was entirely review for me but to be fair, some concepts were fresher in my mind than others. I especially appreciated the cool animations illustrating various table joins.

This specific course could be more accurately titled “Learn SQLite” because that’s the database engine used in the course. Which is fine, it covers all the basics. The one thing I hadn’t known (or had forgotten) about SQLite is its… flexibility… in data types. It is standard operating procedure for SQL tables to be declared with a data schema. “Names are strings, IDs are numbers”, etc. While SQL was designed for the database engine to enforce this schema, SQLite does not. When the Codecademy course mentioned this, I said “What!?” but the assertion checks out, confirmed by SQLite’s own FAQ which declares type flexibility as a feature and not a bug. I come from a world of strictly typed programming languages like C, so flexible typing like JavaScript feels more like a problem waiting to happen than a feature. I feel the same with SQLite’s lack of schema enforcement.

Another reason to take a SQL refresher course now is to review all concepts from a new perspective. Now that I am thinking of using a database as backend storage for a web application. From this perspective, some of SQL features make less sense than in other contexts. For example, I’m not sure ORDER BY makes sense to do within the database engine, as a web app almost certainly needs to have sorting logic anyway. Think of the shopping sites that lets the user reorder by availability, by lowest price, etc. For small datasets I’d want to do that on the client end instead of round-tripping each new sort as a new query all the way to the database. But the story changes for large datasets. It’ll make sense to sort data on the database if we want things ordered and then LIMIT to the top X items. That reduces bandwidth consumption between server and client and would be a good tool to have.

In contrast, other features like CASE (to categorize values), AS (to rename columns), and ROUND (rounding numbers) are definitely tasks better performed on the client end. I can’t think of a scenario (yet) where it makes sense to do that work on the server-side database.

This course touches on the concepts of primary keys and foreign keys, but other than uniqueness we didn’t get any further details of relational database design. This course didn’t cover concerns of properly designing a database to suit the task, such as database normalization. As a result, this course is good for setting someone up to use an existing database, but not enough to help them set up a new database. Or at least, not an efficient or effective one. Maybe that’ll be part of another course.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn Express”

I may have my quibbles with Codecademy’s Learn Node.js course, but it at least gave me a better understanding to supplement what I had learned bumping around on my own. But the power of Node isn’t just the runtime, it’s the software ecosystem which has grown up around it. I have many many choices of what to learn from this point, and I decided to try the Learn Express course.

Before I started the course, I understood Express was one of the earlier Node.js frameworks for building back end of websites in JavaScript. And while there have been many others that have come online since, with more features and capabilities, Express is still popular because it set out not to pack itself with features and capabilities. This meant if we wanted to prototype something slightly off the beaten path, Express would not get in our way. This sounded like a good tool to have in the toolbox.

After taking the course, I learned how Express accomplishes those goals. Express Routes helps us map HTTP methods (GET/POST/PUT/DELETE) to JavaScript code via “Routes”, and for each route we can compose multiple JavaScript modules in the form of “Middleware”. With this mechanism we can assemble arbitrary web API by chaining middleware modules like LEGO pieces to respond to HTTP methods. And… that’s basically the entirety of core Express. Everything else is optional, so we only need to pull in what we need (in the form of middlware modules) for a particular project.

When introducing Routes in Express, our little learning JavaScript handler functions are actually fully qualified Middleware, but we didn’t know it yet. What I did notice is that it had the signature of three parameters: (request, response, next). The Routes course talked about reading request to build our response, but it never talked about next. Students who are curious about them and striking out to search on their own as I did would find information about “chaining”, but it wouldn’t make sense until we learned Middleware. I thought it would have been nice if the course would say “we’ll learn about next later, when we learn about Middleware” or something to that effect.

My gripe with this course is in its quiz sections. We are given partial chunk of JavaScript and told to fill in certain things. When we click “Check Work” we trigger some validation code to see if we did it right. If we did it wrong, we might get an error message to help us on our way. But sometimes the only feedback we receive is that our answer is incorrect, with no further feedback. Unlike earlier Node course exercises, we were not given a command prompt to run “node app.js” and see our output. This meant we could not see the test input, we could not see our program’s behavior, and we could not debug with console.log(). I tried to spin up my own Node.js Docker container to try running the sample code, but we weren’t given entire programs to run and we weren’t given the test input so that was a bust.

I eventually found a workaround: use exceptions. Instead of console.log('debug message') I could use throw Error('debug message') and that would show up on the Codecademy UI. This is far less than ideal.

Once I got past the Route section, I proceeded to Middleware. Most of this unit was focused on showing us how various Middleware mechanisms allow us to reduce code duplication. My gripe with this section is that the course made us do useless repetitive work before telling us to replace them with much more elegant Middleware modules. I understand this is how the course author chose to make their point, but I’m grumpy at useless make-work that I would delete a few minutes later.

By the end of the course, we know Express basics of Route and Middleware and got a little bit of practice building routes from freely available middleware modules. The course ends by telling us there are a lot of Express middleware out there. I decided to look into Express documentation for some starting points.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn Node.js”

I’ve taken most of Codecademy’s HTML/CSS course catalog for front-end web development, ending with a series of very educational exercises created outside of Codecademy’s learning environment. I think I’m pretty well set up to execute web browser client-side portions of my project ideas, but I also need to get some education on server-side coding before I can put all the pieces together. I’ve played with Node.js earlier, but I’m far from an expert. It should be helpful to get a more formalized introduction via Codecademy, starting with Learn Node.js.

This course recommends going through Introduction to JavaScript as a prerequisite, so the course assumes we already know those basics. The course does not place the same requirement on Intermediate JavaScript, so some of the relevant course material is pulled into this Node.js course. Section on Node modules were reruns for me, but here it’s augmented with additional details and a pointer to official documentation.

The good news for the overlap portions is that it meant I already had partial credit for Learn Node.js as soon as I started, the bad news is the Codecademy’s own back-end got a little confused. I clicked through “Next” for a quick review, and by doing so it skipped me over a few lessons that I had not yet seen. My first hint something was wrong was getting tossed into a progress checking quiz and being baffled: “I don’t remember seeing this material before!” I went back to examine the course syllabus, where I saw the skipped portions. The quiz was much easier once I went through that material!

This course taught me about error-first callback functions, something that is apparently an old convention for asynchronous JavaScript (or just Node) code that I hadn’t been aware of. I think I stumbled across this in my earlier experiments and struggled to use the effectively. Here I learn they were the conceptual predecessor to promises, which led to async/await which plays nice with promises. But what about even older error-first callback code? This is where util.promisify() comes into the picture, so that everyone can work together. Recognizing what error-first callbacks are and knowing how to interoperate via util.promisify(), should be very useful.

The course instructs us on how to install Node.js locally on our development computers, but I’m going to stick with using Docker containers. Doing so would be inconvenient if I wanted to rely on globally installed libraries, but I want to avoid global installations as much as possible anyway. NPM is perfectly happy to work at project scope and that just takes mapping my project directory as a volume into the Docker container.

After all, I did that as a Docker & Node test run with ESP32 Sawppy’s web interface. But that brought in some NPM headaches: I was perpetually triggering GitHub dependabot warnings about security vulnerabilities in NPM modules I hadn’t even realized I was using. Doing a straight “update to latest” did not resolve these issues, I eventually figured out it was because I had been using node-static to serve static pages in my projects. But the node-static package hadn’t been updated in years and so it certainly wouldn’t have picked up security fixes. Perhaps I could switch it to another static server NPM module like http-server, or get rid of that altogether and keep using nginx as sheer overkill static web server.

Before I decide, though, this Learn Node.js course ended with a few exercises building our own HTTP server using Node libraries. These were a little more challenging than typical Codecademy in-course exercises. One factor is that the instructions told us to do a lot of things with no way to incrementally test them as we go. We didn’t fire it up the server to listen for traffic (server.listen()) until the second-from-final step, and by then I had accumulated a lot of mistakes that took time to untangle from the rest of the code. The second factor is that the instructions were more vague than usual. Some Codecademy exercises tell us exactly what to type and on which line, and I think that didn’t leave enough room for us to figure things out for ourselves and learn. This exercise would sometimes tell us “fill in the request header” without details or even which Node.js API to use. We had to figure it all out ourselves. I realize this is a delicate balance when writing course material. I feel Codecademy is usually too much “do exactly this” for my taste, but the final project of Learn Node.js might have gone too far in the “left us flailing uselessly” direction.

In the meantime, I believe I have enough of a start to continue learning about server-side JavaScript. My next step is to learn Express.

Notes on Codecademy “Build a Website” Off-Platform Projects

Most Codecademy courses involve interactive learning inside their in-browser learning development environment, but occasionally we are directed to get off Codecademy platform and build something on our own. I have set up nginx as a local development web host (not the best use of nginx) serving files directly off a GitHub repository for these projects. This repository is, in turn, set up to host project content via GitHub pages. After this infrastructure is setup, I dove in to the off-platform project assignments of Built a Website with HTML, CSS, and Github Pages skill path.

The first project was “Dasmoto’s Arts & Crafts”, a relatively simple art shop landing page exercising a beginner’s level of HTML and CSS. We are given the images to use, and a specification of how the site should look. This was a practice exercise intended for us to run directly off local filesystem, without even a web server. But where’s the fun in that? I built this project locally, serving my files via nginx.

The next project was “Tea Cozy”, a more sophisticated tea shop landing page. This was from “Flexbox and Grid” section that pulled in most of the material of Learn CSS: Flexbox and Grid. Again, we are given a set of images to use, and a specification for how the site should look. This layout is far more complex than “Dasmoto’s Arts & Crafts” project, requiring use of (no surprise) flexbox and grid. I enjoyed the challenge of building “Tea Cozy” and I feel I have a much better grasp of flexbox & grid after this project.

Towards the end of the skill path was a project “Excursion”, a coming-soon phone app landing page. In addition to the images, we also had a video to embed. I had thought it be more of a skill practice than “Tea Cozy”, but it turned out to be far simpler with minimal layout challenges. The focus of this exercise was on GitHub Pages, a topic I had already put in the time to learn, so I blitzed through it relatively quickly. My only problem was trying to incorporate the copyright symbol, which wasn’t as simple as copy and pasting the Unicode character. A strange character gets added whenever I try to do so! I decided this problem wasn’t technically a HTML/CSS issue and punted.

And finally, we have a capstone project “Colmar Academy” educational institution landing page. We have a lot of added complexity in this project. This is the first project to require responsive layout, with both desktop and mobile views required. Some of the images provided had corresponding high-resolution desktop and low-resolution mobile versions. There was a video, and we even get a few icons in the form of SVG files. The specification we were given for this project was more loosely defined, with fewer explicit details, and we are to use our design sense to fill in the gaps. For example, it was up to us to decide where our media query breakpoints would be to transition between desktop and mobile views. This project took a lot of time, but it was time well spent because of everything I learned while doing it. At the moment, my biggest unsolved mystery is how to switch between desktop and mobile images from CSS. I couldn’t change the value of src property on an <img> tag from CSS! I ended up using two <img> tags, one with the desktop image and one with the mobile image and using CSS media query to set one of them to display: none; This feels inelegant, and I hope I learn a better way to do this in the future.

My code for these assignments are publicly visible on GitHub.

Notes on Codecademy “Build a Website with HTML, CSS, and Github Pages” Skill Path

After finishing Codecademy’s navigation design course, I thought it had some interesting information but it also spent too much time on CSS tricks I did not expect to be broadly applicable to future projects. Completing that course also meant I had covered majority of Codecademy’s courses under HTML & CSS section of the catalog. However, there are a few items listed that were not “Courses” so I thought I would check out a “Skill Path”. According to Codecademy, a skill path is focused on delivering the knowledge necessary to accomplish certain tasks. I paraphrase it as “Teach me what I need to know to accomplish X” versus a course which is more “Tell me about Y and how I might use it.”

In practice, judging by my first skill path “Build a Website with HTML, CSS, and Github Pages” (Or the shorter “Learn How to Build Websites” as per the URL) a skill path repackages a lot of components pulled from other Codecademy resources. Mostly individual lessons (modules?) but also other resources like their articles and blogs. After taking majority of Codecademy courses on HTML/CSS, going through this skill path was a little disorienting because their backend had tracked which modules I’ve already done. This meant that as soon as I clicked on starting this skill path, my progress was immediately over 50% complete. Looking over the skill path syllabus, I could see what I’ve already done and the gaps I still need to cover.

Most of the gaps were information presented Codecademy articles, covering things like how to set up a code editor like Visual Studio Code. (My personal choice.) Some of the gaps were modules on courses I hadn’t bothered to take, for example the command line course as I was already quite comfortable, but I was able to blitz through quickly.

A surprise was the gap on web accessibility. I thought this was an error as I had taken their Learn CSS Accessibility course, but the database is correct: this was a different course with material I had wished was in the CSS accessibility course. Starting with basic background and on to how to set up a screen reader for us to explore how these features will be consumed. I also appreciated more information on ARIA roles, where I learned we can put down some very fine-grained annotations for accessibility. There are a lot more ARIA roles than there are semantic HTML elements. It’ll take a lot of learning and practice to do ARIA well, but if the spec is too overwhelming, we can start with MDN’s introduction to ARIA.

I was heartened by this coverage of web accessibility but was then disappointed by its coverage of Font Awesome. Which I learned is a huge collection of icons (apparently not fonts as the name implies) available for use in websites. Icons are inherently compact way of visual communication, so we need to pay more attention to their use to ensure they are accessible. Unfortunately, not only did the course not cover how to maintain accessibility, it does not even mention accessibility as a concern when using icons.

One section I’m glad they put in this course is “Documentation and Research”. There’s no way for the course to cover everything, so it needs to teach people how to look stuff up on their own. For web developers, this means the holy trinity of MDN, Google, and StackOverflow. And for beginners who needed the exercise, a broken web site to fix by looking up the problems.

The real star of the skill path, though, are the off-platform projects. I like learning with Codecademy and its embedded interactive development environment. We can get a lesson side by side with sample code we can play with. However, these are all fairly basic fill-in-the-blank types of exercises. To be a web developer we need to be able to build a page from scratch, which is where these off-platform projects come in. We are given the assets (images and occasionally video) and a specification of what to build, but no templates. We had to create our own index.html and style.css from scratch and serve it up to in a browser to see our results. This course covered developing on the local file system, and using GitHub Pages, but I decided to add one more option to the mix: I thought it’d be a good exercise to setup nginx for local development hosting.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn Navigation Design”

I was definitely out of my depth with Codecademy’s color design course, but I was happy to absorb what I can and move on to another topic of novelty: Codecademy’s “Learn Navigation Design” course. Just as color could give subtle hints to the user on how to best interact with the site, so does applying good design to navigation elements. It’s something that we would rarely consciously notice until we encounter a poorly designed page, which is of course how this course started: by showing us an intentionally badly designed page and go up from there.

I was surprised that the first topic was how to show links on a page. After all the link styling in previous CSS courses and speaking of the user agent (browser default) stylesheet as a source of problems, this course presents the other side of the story: Hang on, guys, there are good reason they’re the way they are! And if we arbitrarily toss out all of those traits, site usability will suffer. Hover states are discussed here, and this time we’re reminded of their absence on touchscreen devices. We also get a link to MDN on pseudo-classes, information missing from the color design course!

Moving on from links to buttons, it started with an explanation of skeuomorphism vs. flat design for user interactive elements like buttons. This course covers examples for both styles. I’m personally a fan of the flat school of design. If somebody wants to do skeuomorphism on a button, I demand that they look like keys on an IBM Selectric typewriter.

After buttons the course talked about secondary navigation in the form of breadcrumbs on the page, usually found at the top of a site just before the header block. I appreciate an overview of the concept, but some of the examples get into fancy CSS tricks. I don’t think they’ll be generally applicable to all sites and I’m wary they degrade a page’s accessibility.

This navigation design course barely scratched the surface of User Experience (UX) design, but of course there’s an entirely separate Codecademy course “Introduction to UI and UX Design“. Looking over its syllabus, it doesn’t feel like the material would be useful in my personal tinkering projects. There’s also the fact that course was “Built in partnership with Figma” and the final section of the course is “Prototyping with Figma.” Is this course just an extended ad for Figma? I don’t know and at the moment I’m not terribly interested in finding out. At least Figma offers a free starter tier, if I decide to come back to this later.

Right now, I’m more curious about checking out Codecademy’s “Skill Path” offerings.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn Color Design”

After a brief overview of CSS browser compatibility concerns, which wrapped up Codecademy’s Learn Intermediate CSS curriculum, I looked at what remained under Codecademy’s HTML/CSS umbrella and started their Learn Color Design course. This is a less technical course more focused on art & design perspectives, so I knew it would take more effort for me to grasp all the concepts.

At least they started easy (for me) by going over HSL versus RGB for specifying color, and how HSL is easier to work with from a color design perspective. This is something I had learned from working with Pixelblaze and most of the concepts transfer easily. But then we moved quickly into concepts I had never encountered before, like designing color schemes. I liked the fact that the course material stayed with a same example page and changed colors around to illustrate monochromatic, complementary, analogous, and triadic color schemes. Keeping the content identical and changing just the color did help me see the effect somewhat, even if I am not familiar with the kind of vocabulary used. For example, I don’t know what it means for a color scheme to “create a sense of equality, vibrancy, and security in your designs”. These “Color Psychology” concepts are very foreign to my brain and will take time to absorb. Some of the vocabulary is new to me, too, using familiar words in unfamiliar ways. There was a quiz question “How is a shade of a color produced” and none of the possible answers made sense to my brain until I returned to course material and reviewed how the vocabulary is defined in this specific context.

This course had a gem of a quote that I wished more web designers took to heart:

Remember that most users skim websites! They are not reading every word and checking every menu—you need to guide the user to the most important content with good color choices.

Like the lecture, the practice exercise gave us a site that was mostly grayscale and had us add color to it. The instruction ends with an encouraging “Now our site is looking great!” but it really doesn’t. I have yet to master the subtleties in choosing colors and to compensate I intend to use color schemes built by others as much as I could. But this course gave me some foundation so I could appreciate those prebuilt color schemes. It also helped me appreciate BrandColors, a collection of color schemes associated with many brands we see in our everyday lives.

There was an optional resource that pointed to Adobe Color with the claim “you will learn to use Adobe Color” but when clicking the link, I was redirected straight to the color wheel tool. It’s not immediately obvious where I could find anything instructional to help me learn, I think that URL might be outdated. The same “dropped into a tool with no instructions” problem applied to another optional resource, a color tool by CloudFlare Design. (Not to be confused with the CloudFlare that handles DDoS attacks.)

After some experimentation with color, we are to put that theory into practice by applying color for UI. Again, the instruction materials used a sample page that started out mostly grayscale and we added colors as we go. UI-specific concepts are added, such as using colors for button hover and disabled states. An aside: I wish this class discussed the fact that hover is absent from touchscreens and how design should change in response. And speaking of wishes, an earlier wish was granted here: we finally have a discussion on color blindness and given ColorSafe as a tool to help. Another realization I had during this course is that we never really had a discussion on CSS pseudo-classes, which we use to style things like hover states. A quick web search found this MDN resource as a starting point for later research. For now, I will proceed to the navigation design course.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn CSS: Browser Compatibility”

Web developers must keep in mind not everyone can see and interact with a site in the same way. This is not just a fundamental of web accessibility, but also the fact there are many different web browsers out there running on a huge range of hardware platforms. They won’t all have the same capabilities, so with that fact in mind we proceed to “Learn CSS: Browser Compatibility“.

The first and most obvious topic is, our index for features supported in various browsers and an invaluable resource. After that, the course talks about how different browsers have different default style sheets. There are reference resources to see what they are, and there exist tools to mitigate differences with a “normalized” or “reset” stylesheet. But if we simply can’t (or won’t) stay within standardized subset, we can use “prerelease” features via vendor prefixes. Either manually or via automated toolsl like Autoprefixer. This is the first of many tools within a whole category called “polyfill” that implements newer features in a backwards compatible way, making user experience more consistent across older/less supported browsers. I knew there were polyfill tools for transpiling new JavaScript features to run on browsers with older JavaScript engines, but I hadn’t know there were CSS polyfill tools as well. Perhaps I needed to pull in one of them to run Angular on Windows Phone? Codecademy pointed to Modernizr and as starting points to explore the world of polyfills.

Polyfill tools run at development time to decide what to do. But what if we can adjust CSS at runtime? This is the intent of CSS Feature Query, whose syntax looks a lot like CSS Media Query but for browser CSS feature support. Using this feature, however, is a bit of a Catch-22. Not all browsers support CSS Feature Query and obviously those browsers wouldn’t be able to tell us as such via the very mechanism that we’d use to ask for such information. This impacts how we’d write CSS using feature queries, and a likely place for bugs. Finally: we’d need some ability to debug feature query issues via browser developer tools, but a quick web search came up empty.

Completion of this course also gave me Codecademy completion credit for their “Learn Intermediate CSS” course, which is a packaged compilation of the following set of courses I took individually:

  1. Learn CSS: Flexbox and Grid
  2. Learn CSS: Transitions and Animations
  3. Learn CSS: Responsive Design
  4. Learn CSS: Variables and Functions
  5. Learn CSS: Accessibility
  6. Learn CSS: Browser Compatibility

But Codecademy had even more web styling classes beyond this package! I proceeded onward to learn color design.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn CSS: Accessibility”

During Codecademy’s “Learn CSS: Variables and Functions” course, I was mildly disappointed to learn that CSS custom properties and fixed calculation functions were far less powerful than I had mistakenly thought from the course title. No matter, they are sufficient for their intended purpose, and they are valuable tools for building pages that are inclusive to all users. Which is why the next class in Codecademy’s CSS curriculum is “Learn CSS: Accessibility.

First up is the size of text, the most significant factor in typographical design. This is a deep field with centuries of research from the print world, Codecademy can’t cover them all and correctly doesn’t try. We do get a bit of coverage on font-size, line-height, and letter-spacing. One oddity: a conversation on paragraph width introduces the CSS unit “ch” with 1ch being width of the zero character. (“0”) This allows specifying lengths in a way that scales with the font, but that sounds like what “em” does as well. A quick search didn’t find why we would use “ch” vs. “em”.

Another topic was color and contrast. The expected color wheel discussion talks about selecting different colors with high contrast, but it didn’t talk about color blindness. The course linked to a contrast checker tool by WebAIM, but it didn’t mention color blindness, either. A quick search on WebAIM site found a page for color blindness, but it is incomplete. The page ends with an example: a train map where routes are represented by colors. The page tells us that the different routes would be difficult to tell apart for the color-blind, but it doesn’t give us a solution to the problem! My guess? Maybe we can use different line styles?

This section also taught me there is a semantic HTML tag for denoting abbreviations.

<abbr title='Cascading Style Sheets'>CSS</abbr>

I don’t think this should be classified as an accessibility measure because it would be helpful for all audiences. This information is certainly available to screen readers, but there is some visual indication on a normal rendering. My browser renders it as dotted underlined text by default. (“user agent stylesheet”)

abbr[title] {
    text-decoration: underline dotted;

Another topic I didn’t think should be classified as accessibility is a discussion on changing rendering for print media. This should have been part of the media queries course, but at least the concepts make sense. When the user is printing out a web page, we can do things like hiding a navigation bar that wouldn’t have done anything on a sheet of paper. This course also talks about printing the URL of a link, because you can’t click on a sheet of paper.

@media print {
  a[href^='http']:after {
    content:  ' (' attr(href) ')';

However, this would only work for short URLS that can be reasonably typed in by hand. Many links of the modern web have long URLS that are impossible to accurately type in by hand. But on this vein, I think it would be worthwhile to print out the content of <abbr> tags as well.

Anyway, back to accessibility and screen readers. A section asserts that there are frequently items that are not useful for a screen reader and should be hidden. I think I understand the concept, but I thought the example was poor: In case of duplicate text, one of them could be hidden from screen readers with the aria-hidden='true' attribute. But it seems like the real fix is to remove duplicate text for all audiences! Another problem is this introduction of aria-hidden without saying anything more about it. A quick web search found this is just the tip of an iceberg called the Accessible Rich Internet Applications specification.

After the lecture, we are encouraged to read “Start Testing for Accessibility.” A short overview of several accessibility testing tools: Lighthouse, WAVE, Axe, and Accessibility Insights.

I know I have a lot to learn about web accessibility, not the least of which is learning about other ARIA properties. But there’s another side to the “not everyone sees the same web page as you do” problem: browser compatibility.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn CSS: Variables and Functions”

Following responsive design in Codecademy’s CSS curriculum is “Learn CSS: Variables and Functions“. I was intrigued by the title of this course, as “variables” and “functions” were features unexpected in a visual appearance style description syntax. I associate them with programming languages! Does their presence mean CSS has evolved to become a programming language in its own right? After this class, I now know the answer is a definite “no”.

First of all, CSS “variables” are far less capable than their programming language counterparts. The name isn’t even really accurate, as a value does not vary (hence not variable) after it is set. A value declared by one CSS rule can be overridden by a more specific CSS rule declaring something with the same name, but that’s more analogous to variable scope than actually varying its value. This mechanism is also known as CSS custom properties, and I think that is a much more accurate name than “variable” which oversells its capabilities.

That said, CSS custom properties have their uses. This course showed several cases where custom properties can be overridden by CSS rules to good effect. The first example I found very powerful is combining custom properties and media queries. It makes for a far cleaner and more maintainable way to adjust a stylesheet based on screen size changes. The second significant example is in the exercise project, where we could create multiple themes on a web page (Light Mode/Dark Mode/Custom Mode) using custom properties.

Moving on to “CSS functions”, I was disappointed to learn that we’re talking about a fixed set of data processing/calculation functions implemented by the runtime environment. We can’t actually declare our own functions in CSS. CSS functions are nowhere as powerful as C++ functions. They’re not even as powerful as Microsoft Excel functions, as CSS style sheets are not spreadsheets.

Like almost every standard associated with HTML, we see a specification that tried to rationalize a lot of ad-hoc evolution and failing to hide all of the seams. The one inconsistency that annoys me is the fact some function parameters must be separated by commas, and other functions require parameters to be separated by spaces. It is especially jarring when the two styles are used together, as in this example used in the course:

filter: drop-shadow(10px 5px 0.2rem rgba(236, 217, 203, 0.7));

The drop-shadow() parameters are separated by spaces, while the rgba() parameters are separated by commas. What a mess! How can we be expected to keep this straight? Still, these functions should suffice to cover most of the intelligence we’d want to put in a style sheet. I was most impressed that calc() tries to handle so much, including the capability to mix and match CSS units. I know the intent is to allow things like subtracting a pixel count from a percentage of width, but I see a debugging nightmare. The course covered only a subset of the set of functions, but of those that were covered my favorite is clamp(). I expect to use that a lot.

One unanswered mystery is the class recommends that we set global custom properties using :root pseudo-class as the specifier. The instruction said this is usually the <html> tag, without explaining exceptions to that rule. When is :root not <html>? The MDN documentation unfortunately doesn’t answer that question either. I’ll have to leave it as a mystery as I proceed to learn about web accessibility.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn CSS: Responsive Design”

Following a quick tour through CSS transition animations, next course on the Codecademy CSS curriculum is “Learn CSS: Responsive Design“. Up until this point, Codecademy CSS curriculum had primarily demonstrated concepts using unit measurement of pixels. This course brings us into the real world where pages have to adjust themselves to work well on devices ranging from 4.5″ cell phone screens to 32” desktop monitors.

The first focus is on typography, since most pages are concerned with delivering text for reading. Two measurements work based on font size: em is relative to the base font size of a particular point in the HTML tree, varying relative to its hierarchy. rem ignores the hierarchy and goes directly to root <html>.

Next, we move on to percentages, which are calculated based on the parent width of an element. There were a few paragraphs dedicated to how height calculations are based on parent width instead of parent height, but I didn’t understand why. There was an example of how parent height could be affected by child height so using percentages would cause a circular reference problem, which I understood. But wouldn’t the same problem occur on the width dimension as well? We can specify child width as dependent on parent width, and parent width dependent on contents (child width.) Why wouldn’t this cause the very same circular dependency? I don’t understand that part yet.

When I first started trying to write a HTML-based UI for controlling SGVHAK and Sawppy rovers, I learned of a chunk of HTML that I needed to put into phone-friendly HTML. I didn’t understand what it meant, though, it was just “copy and paste this into your HTML”.

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">

With this class I finally got this item checked off the “need to go and learn later” list. Codecademy even included a pointer to a reference for viewport control. This viewport control reference mentioned a few accessibility concerns, but I don’t really understand them yet. I expect to learn more HTML accessibility soon as it is listed later in Codecademy CSS curriculum.

Viewport led into media queries, another essential tool for pages to dynamically adjust between desktop, tablet, and phone usage. Most of the examples reacted to viewport width, which I understand to be the case most of the time in the real world. But this barely scratched the surface of media features we can query for. The one most applicable to my rover UI project is the “orientation” property, because that will let me reposition the virtual joystick when the phone is held in landscape mode.

Most of this course consisted of making changes in CSS then manually resizing our browser window to change viewport width and observe its effects. But again, width is but one of many media features that can be queried, and it’s not obvious how we can explore most of the rest. I wish this course included information on how to test and debug media query issues using browser developer tools. Such a walkthrough was quite informative in the JavaScript course and its absence here is sorely missed. A quick web search found the Media Query Inspector which looked promising at first glance, I’ll have to dig into that later. For now, it’s onwards to Codecademy’s CSS Variables and Functions.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn CSS: Transitions and Animations”

After an interesting and occasionally challenging time with Codecademy’s “Learn CSS: Flexbox and Grid” course, I followed their recommended CSS curriculum onward to “Learn CSS: Transitions and Animations“. It was an interesting and worthwhile unit, and thankfully shorter than the previous course on flexbox + grid. This is in part helped by a narrower scope: the CSS animation system does not attempt to cover all possible animations anyone may want to put on screen. It only animates a specified subset of CSS properties, but doing so covers majority of animation effects useful for adding visual interest and improving the user experience. As opposed to early HTML <BLINK>, a design misstep which definitely did not improve user experience.

Every animation system shares some fundamentals: what to change, where+when to start, where+when to stop, and how to move between start and stop points. That’s quite a few parameters to change and managing them quickly becomes cumbersome as the number of adjustable knobs increase. But CSS animation has a narrow scope, limiting the complexity somewhat. It also has a benefit: the start and stop state are specified by existing CSS mechanisms, leaving the transition system to deal with the animation-specific parameters.

This actually plays into an advantage of using CSS shorthand, which usually annoys me as presenting multiple ways to describe the same thing. Here multiple transition parameters can be collapsed into a single transition. It has all the annoyances of shorthands: it is another way to describe the same thing, and it requires memorizing an arbitrary order of parameters. But here transition has an advantage. We have the option to list multiple transitions in a comma-separated list and they will all execute simultaneously when triggered. The course called this “chaining” animations. I don’t know if the word “chain” was part of CSS specification or just a word choice by the author of this Codecademy course, but I found it misleading because “chain” implies animations that run consecutively (one after the other) instead of all animations running simultaneously in parallel.

Another way to specify multiple animations that run simultaneously is to specify “all” as the animated property. (The “what to change” parameter.) This would apply the same animation duration, easing function, and timing delay to all transitions that apply to an element. This is possible because the start & stop states were specified elsewhere in CSS. I see this as a very powerful mechanism in an “easy to shoot myself in the foot” kind of power. By specifying “all” we commit to animating all applicable property changes now and in the future. Which certainly means surprising behavior in the future when we add another change then surprised to see it animate. Followed by a debugging session that ends with “Oh, this transition applied to ‘all’.”

One thing I did not see is a way to create animated transitions between different layouts, for example when triggered by mechanisms covered in the CSS Responsive Design course. Perhaps that is not a scenario the CSS people deemed important enough?

Notes on Codecademy “Learn CSS: Flexbox and Grid”

After I took Codecademy’s “Learn CSS” course, I figured out it packaged together four shorter courses. Some of these short lessons were all material I’ve learned before and are just a review, so I flew through them quickly enough that putting together in a single “Learn CSS” made sense to me. This situation changed dramatically for the next item on the list: “Learn Intermediate CSS” is again a packaging of several shorter courses, except now the material is new to me and started with CSS flexbox. This was a new and challenging concept for me to grasp, so now I’m in favor of going by the shorter courses instead of the (now quite hefty) package.

Learn CSS: Flexbox and Grid covers the first two lessons of Learn Intermediate CSS. As soon as we started with CSS flexbox I could tell it was a powerful tool. However, this particular course fell short of the normal Codecademy standards. For each function of flexbox, we run through simple illustrative examples, which is good. Unfortunately, these small examples were too simplified for me to understand how they would be applied. In other words, we see a lot of small pieces but the course never pulled them together in a bigger picture.

My personally attempt at summarizing flexbox is: a CSS construct that attempts to capture rules for laying out child elements in a way that is flexible to changes in screen size and aspect ratio. Since there’s no way to capture every possible way to lay things out, the subset supported by flexbox thus becomes a de-facto prescription of best-practice layout from the people who designed this CSS feature. Nevertheless, there are more than enough (possibly too many) knobs we can adjust to build a layout.

While going through the simple examples, I did see certain values that appealed to my personal style. They were, however, usually not the default value. For example, when covering justify-content I thought space-between (evenly distribute available space between elements, spread across available width, leaving no wasted space at left and right edges) looks best, but the default value is actually flex-start (pack elements to the start of flow (left) and leaving empty space to the end (right)). I understand choosing a default value is challenging and I’m ignorant of many of the concerns that went into a final decision. Sometimes the default behavior to “makes sense” are actually inconsistent. For example, the default flex-shrink value is 1, but its counterpart flex-grow has a default value of 0.

After the chaos of JavaScript shorthands, I thought I was freed from that thinking in CSS. No such luck. To specify dynamic scaling behavior in a flexbox, somebody thought it would be useful to combine flex-grow, flex-shrink, and flex-basis parameters into a single flex shorthand. As a beginner, I am not a fan of memorizing an arbitrary order of numbers, but maybe I’ll grow to love it.

The feature of flexbox that most surprised me is ability to flip its two axis with flex-direction. Not only would this let us build right-to-left layouts (for Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) this even hints at the ability to build layout for traditional Chinese layout. (Words top-to-bottom in a column, then columns laid out right-to-left.)

The Codecademy project for flexbox “Tea Cozy” is simultaneously really great and really awful. They gave us a set of images, most of which are pictures to use in a layout except one image which is actually the specification for laying out a page. So we are given a picture of what the result should look like, including some key dimensions, and told to go make it happen. I understand this is highly representative of the workflow of a web developer in charge of laying out a page according to a design specification, so that is really great. But given this course has been short on the “why” of things (each lesson is “do X and Y” instead of the much more useful “Do X and Y to accomplish Z.”) it was difficult to figure out which of the tools we just learned were applicable. I faced a wide knowledge gap between course material and building “Tea Cozy”. Still, I enjoyed the challenge of this exercise. And for better or worse, I did come out of “Tea Cozy” with a better understanding of flexbox.

Outside of Codecademy, I was told about Flexbox Froggy, an interactive game for teaching flexbox. It was fun and the frogs were cute. I doubt anyone could learn the full power of flexbox just from playing this game but seeing how some of the concepts were applied was good review after my course.

The next lesson introduces CSS grid, for layouts where regular spacing makes more sense than the dynamic rules of flexbox. Laying out elements in a grid was very familiar to me, it reminded me of the early days of HTML where I would hack a layout using <TABLE>. The bad news for me is that shorthand-itis is even worse for grid. We started with grid-template-rows and grid-template-columns, then we learn the two can be shortened to grid-template. Similarly, row-gap and column-gap become gap.

Aside: I was annoyed we didn’t have consistency on whether column/row are used as prefix or suffix for these parameters.

Back to the shorthand infestation: Not only do we have shorthand, now we have multiple levels of shorthand. We start with grid-row-start and grid-row-end, which are shortened in grid-row. But that’s not all! Their was the expected counterparts grid-column-start and grid-column-end shortened to grid-column. Then grid-row and grid-column — already shorthand themselves — are shortened into grid-area. Gah!

But CSS grid has more to offer over <TABLE> than just annoying shorthand, it also has ability to control justification and alignment of elements within the grid. But the names of these control knobs are pretty unintuitive and confusing. While I can see how justify-item controls justification of items inside a grid, I don’t understand why justify-content moves the entire grid. Why is the entire grid considered ‘content’? Adding to this confusion is justify-self, which is how an item inside the grid can override justification settings from the container grid. I look at all of this and think “here be dragons.”

I had hoped the project associated with grid would be as hands-on as “Tea Cozy” but it was “merely” laying out the grid in a to-do list, far more straightforward than “Tea Cozy”. Ah well.

Outside of Codecademy: the people who made Flexbox Froggy also made Grid Garden.

After this instructive though occasionally challenging course, CSS Transitions and Animations felt a lot easier.

Notes on Codecademy “Learn CSS”

After going through Codecademy courses on HTML and JavaScript, the next obvious step for me was to visit the third pillar of the modern web: CSS. There’s a bit of weirdness with the class listing, though. It seems Codecademy is reorganizing offerings in this area. I took the “Learn CSS” class listed at the top of their HTML/CSS section and afterwards, I discovered it was actually a repackaging of several smaller CSS courses.

Either that, or the reverse: Learn CSS course is being split up into these multiple smaller courses. I’m not sure which direction it is going, but I expect this is a temporary “pardon our dust while we reorganize” situation. The good news is that their backend tracks our progress through this material, so we get credit for completing them no matter which course was taken.

Anyway, onward to the material. CSS determines how things look and lets us make our pages look better even if we don’t have professional design skills. My first nitpick had nothing to do with appearance at all: in the very first introductory example, they presented a chunk of HTML with DIV tags for header, content, and footer. My first thought: Hey, they didn’t use semantic HTML and they should!

Most of the introductory material was vaguely familiar from my earlier attempts to learn CSS. I hadn’t known (or had forgotten) that attribute selectors had such a wide range of capabilities, almost verging on regular expressions. The fancier pattern matching ones seem like they could become a runtime performance concern. Selector chaining (h1.destination covers all H1 tags with class=”destination”) is new to me, as was descendant combinator (.description h5 covers all H5 tags under something (not the H5) with class=”description”). I foresee lots of mistakes practice keeping them straight alongside multiple selectors (.description,h5 covers H5 tags and tags with class=”description” equally, without requiring any relation between them.)

In the realm of box model and layout, I have never found the default HTML content box model to be intuitive to my brain. I always thought of the border and padding as part of the element, so I expect I’ll have better luck using box-sizing: border-box; instead for my own layouts. What I don’t expect to have a luck with is positioning. I’ve played with this before and relative/absolute/fixed/sticky always felt like voodo magic I didn’t fully understand. It’ll take a lot more practice. And a lot more examining of behavior in browser development tools. And if that fails, there’s always the fallback layout debug tool of putting a border around everything:

* { border: 1px solid red !important; }

And finally, I need more practice to get an intuitive grasp of how to specify values in CSS. Most of this course used pixels, but it would be nice to design style sheets that dynamically adjust to content using other units like em or rem. (Unrelated: this URL is in the MDN “Guides” section which have other helpful-looking resources.) I also want to make layouts dynamic to the viewport. We have a few tools to obtain such values: vw is viewport width, vh is viewport height, vmin is the smaller of the two, vmax is the larger of the two. On paper vmin+vmax can tell me if the screen is portrait or landscape, but I haven’t figured out the logic for a portrait layout vs. landscape layout. Perhaps that is yet to come in later Codecademy CSS courses.