Tag Archives: hacks

How IFTTT, Mandrill, and Twilio is helping me find an apartment in SF

Note 7/8/2013: Craigslist makes it impossible (please let me know if you were able to get around it) to allow Mechanize to retrieve HTML from Heroku’s server. However, it works when I send a request from my local server. If anyone knows why it would make a difference, please leave a comment!


Anyone familiar with the SF apartment market understands the tremendous pain and frustrations in finding an available lease at a reasonable price. We have all heard and shared war stories of the hourly refreshing of Craigslist and bringing all of your bank statements and necessary paperwork to the open house just to win a chance to secure a lease for an apartment. In true SF-technology fashion, I decided to minimize response time to a new choice apartment listings on Craigslist by wiring together IFTTT, Mandrill, and Twilio to auto respond with an open email and a click-to-call to my phone number and the number in the listing to schedule an appointment.


IFTTT (‘If this, then that’) allows you to create ‘recipes’ using the simple conditional structure ‘If this, then that’ and various ‘ingredients‘ (i.e. craigslist queries, instagram posts, buzzfeed articles, tweets). It is powerful due to its simplicity and flexibility; it can enable anyone to put the web to work without any programming knowledge.

I used IFTTT to send an email to my email address when there is a new Craigslist query that matches the me and my roommates’ apartment listing preferences. This way, any new Craigslist listing that fits the query that I have set will be sent directly to my email inbox.


I setup a subdomain (I added ‘to’ as the MX record and have it setup on my Mandrill account) responsible to receiving email messages and use Mandrill to parse the inbound email (similar to how I built the A-List inbound parser). In the below code sample, it is important to note that you must first return a ‘200’ to let Mandrill know that it is the right address to send the POST request of the inbound email.

Once the email is successfully received and parsed, I use the Mechanize library to navigate to the Craigslist listing (line 31). Then, a few regex commands to find and scrape an email address (line 34) and a phone number (line 35). With the email address, I use ActionMailer (line 46) to send out a templatized email, cc’ing my roommates, asking to schedule an appointment to check out the apartment.


If I was successfully able to scrape a phone number from the Craigslist listing, then Twilio will automatically make two outbound phone calls (one to my mobile phone and one to the number on the listing). Throughout the day, I will be able to pick up my phone at my leisure and speak with somebody (if the call connects on the other end) to schedule an appointment.

Note that the routing must also be setup in your Rails app (the sample code is not shown here).

The first step is that we are sending a request to Twilio to initiate a phone call to my phone number (agent_number or ‘555-555-5555’ in the example below) with dynamic TwiML (Twilio’s XML-like proprietary markup language).

The first dynamic TwiML (line 38 above and ‘clicktocallcallscreen.xml.builder’ below) tells Twilio to listen, upon a call connecting with my phone (agent_number or ‘555-555-5555’), for a keypad response indicating that I want to be connected with the Craigslist lister’s phone number. If I hit a key, then proceed to dial the other number and connect us. Note that I am  providing yet another dynamic action URL (‘@post_to’) that will populate the final TwiML with the correct phone numbers that will be connected in the final call.

It is in line 46 in inbox_controller.rb where the clicktocall.xml.builder (below) is called dynamically (with ‘@calling_to’ and ‘@caller_id’ both being passed to the TwiML).

The result is Twilio automatically connecting me with the phone number listed on the Craigslist post. This is a derivation of a very popular Twilio use ‘Click-to-call’ that many lead management and sales teams use to better engage with their customers.


Now I don’t have to be on Craigslist 24/7 to find a suitable apartment listing; I can just wait for my web server to send out emails or phone calls to schedule appointments with Craigslist posts that fit our preferences. Now if there were only a way to automate the showing up, preparing the paper work, competing against other bidders, and the remainder of the apartment leasing process.


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Phantachat: node.js, websockets, and ephemeral conversation

In person conversation is fleeting. Words hang in the air for a brief moment then vanish suddenly. All participating members have to be present and aware in order to keep up with the conversation.

Conversation online has traditionally been very asynchronous. Instant message and email both log your messages with a timestamp, allowing you to maintain a history conversations for you to browse afterwards. You can message your friend knowing that she probably won’t respond immediately.

Phantachat is an online chat web app, but tries to mimic chat in person. Your messages linger for no longer than a few seconds, forcing you to have that page open on your screen to be able to follow the conversation. Messages are also sent in immediate real time, without having you to hit enter, and there is no backspace.


Websocket is a web technology providing simultaneous two-way communications channels over a single TCP connection. This allows for immediate, seamless, synchronous data passing between the client and the server. We decided that in order to get the chat to behave as real time as possible, that we would choose to use Websockets (we went with Socket.io with Node.js/Express.js).

Unfortunately, there are very few free web/application hosting services out there that support websockets. Heroku doesn’t support web sockets, but you can configure your application to instead use long polling, which allows the client to send HTTP requests to the server at regular intervals and immediately receives a response.

Some other hosting platforms out there (www.appfog.com, http://www.dotcloud.com, http://www.nodejitsu.com) may support web sockets, but unfortunately they don’t provide a free tier. Our next plans are to spin up an instance on AWS so we can deploy a solution that uses websockets instead of long polling.

Dynamic chat rooms

In order to generate a unique chatroom, we created added some logic to the routing: if someone goes to the root, then generate a new hash (I used the hashids package for generating codes) and redirect to the new route with the hash at the end and start a new socket.io namespace; if someone goes to a hash that exists, then throw that person into the same socket.io namespace; and if someone goes to a route that is a hash that doesn’t exist, the server will return an error page.

With socket.io, there are two main ways of creating ‘chatrooms’: using ‘rooms’ or using ‘namespacing’. We decided to use namespacing, because namespaces can be connected to by the client (but only if it already exists on the server). With rooms, they can only be joined on the server side.

When a new namespace is created (when a new hash is generated on the server), the server creates a new namespace, then passes the hash to the client to allow the client to join that specific namespace.

Next Steps

This is still a very simple app. Next steps could be sharing other types of media that will also vanish within a few seconds (images, for instance). Or to allow more than two people to join each chat room (right now, it is only one on one).

Suggestions, feedback, and new ideas are always welcome!

Github: https://github.com/lambtron/phantachat


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Welcome to the A-list

Note (5/31/2013): Recently, this app was featured in Lifehacker. Kindly note that this app is still in beta and there are probably many bugs that have yet to surface themselves (one such obvious one is checking in multiple passengers, as I wrote this for me and my buddies and didn’t have children to buy tickets and for whom to check-in). If you do run into any issues or have any feedback, feel free to tweet at me @andyjiang or comment on this blog post and I will make a note of it.


Recently, a conversation over dinner about personal life hacks without the direct intention of blatant commercialism spawned a neat idea that scratches an itch that us west coast jet setters face occasionally—not only just checking into Southwest flights, but also checking into those flights as early as possible to attain a highly coveted ‘A-list’ boarding group.

There have been too many times when the 24 hour period prior to the flight occurs when I’m away from my computer. This web application, however, will check into your Southwest flight for you.

Instead of going to a website where you input the information necessary for you to check in (name and confirmation number), you now can you just forward your Southwest flight confirmation email (the one with the subject that says ‘Your trip is right around the corner!’) to sw@to.andyjiang.com. Then, when the 24 hour check in window opens up, the web application will check in to the flight for you.

How does the app work?

The Mandrill (hosted by Mailchimp) server receives an inbound email and sends a POST request to the web server. The web server then extracts the text from the body of the email from the POST request and runs several regular expressions on it to get the following pieces of information: first name, last name, confirmation number, your email address, the URL it needs to go to in order to check in for you. It saves this data into a Mongo database (MongoHQ add-on with Heroku).

An hourly task runs on the server (Heroku Scheduler) to look at all of the records in the mongo database; for each record, if it is time to check in, the web server  uses the Mechanize library to get and parse the HTML of the confirmation web site, fill in the required information, and check in for you. Then it takes your boarding group and boarding position and sends you a confirmation email.

Tools I used

Since debugging is 90% of any project, it is important to learn to break the project into small, achievable goals, to quickly isolate problems and to iterate through working solutions. Below is a list of some of the tools I used to test quickly and build out the application.

RubularRegular expressions were critical to parsing the body of the inbound email. This nifty website allows you to test all of your regexp patterns against Strings of your choice. Combined with IRB and .class?, you can very quickly determine the right commands to extract the information needed from the text.

LocaltunnelLocaltunnel, hosted by Twilio, allows you to expose an endpoint on your local server to receive HTTP requests from other servers. This is important when you are using a service that will send you webhooks (Twilio, Mandrill inbound emails, etc.), so you don’t have to push your changes to a production server in order to test whether your app correctly processes the POST request to your endpoint. With Localtunnel, you just follow the instructions on the site, copy and paste the localtunnel URL/endpoint generated (tied to your local server), and provide it to the web service so it knows the address to send its request, thereby allowing you to test locally.

View Elements in Developer Tools: In Chrome (Firefox and Safari, also), you can view the HTML document of each page you are on by going to View > Developer > Developer Tools (or Option + Command + I). This is important when you are using Mechanize, which allows you to parse HTML given the HTML element, id, class, name, etc. I would test code by using IRB, initialize a Mechanize object, open up the browser, and navigate the web from the terminal.


Feedback is always welcome. If you think you are going to forget to use this next time you fly Southwest, go into your Gmail account right now and set up an instant email forwarding. Go to your Gmail’s Settings > Forwarding and POP/IMAP > Forwarding, then select Add a Forwarding Address. Type in “sw@to.andyjiang.com” and send the verification email that will contain the confirmation code.

Forwarding and POP/IMAP > Forwarding to set up a new email address to auto forward your Southwest itinerary emails" class /> Go to your Gmail's Settings > Forwarding and POP/IMAP > Forwarding to set up a new email address to auto forward your Southwest itinerary emails.

Forwarding and POP/IMAP > Forwarding to set up a new email address to auto forward your Southwest itinerary emails” class /> Go to your Gmail’s Settings > Forwarding and POP/IMAP > Forwarding to set up a new email address to auto forward your Southwest itinerary emails.

You will receive shortly an email that will provide you with the confirmation code that you can enter in the above field. The return email will also include a link that you can just click on to verify and confirm sw@to.andyjiang.com as the new forwarded email address.

The generated email with your confirmation code to verify the auto forwarding email address

The generated email with your confirmation code to verify the auto forwarding email address

Once you confirmed the email address to allow you to auto forward to it, then you will have to set up the filter for the right emails to be auto forwarded. Click on the link in the tip ‘You can also forward only some of your mail by creating a filter!’ and then either copy and paste “from:southwest subject:(Your trip is around the corner)” into your Gmail search bar or use the template in your ‘Show Search Options’ drop down below.

Setting up autoforward for any Southwest itinerary emails to sw@to.andyjiang.com

Setting up autoforward for any Southwest itinerary emails to sw@to.andyjiang.com

Creating the filter to auto forward specific emails to sw@to.andyjiang.com

Creating the filter to auto forward specific emails to sw@to.andyjiang.com













That should set it up so that any future email from Southwest with that particular subject will be automatically forwarded to my web app, which should hopefully check you in so you won’t have to sit in the back between the two fat, sweaty guys.

I will blog more about the actual code in future posts.

If you have any questions, please let me know!


[EDIT]: Please note that this is still not 100% battle tested, but it will improve over time the more emails it receives! Thanks, everyone!

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TextMe: A bookmarklet that lets you send highlighted text in your browser to your phone

A few weeks ago, I built ‘TextMe‘, a derpy little bookmarklet that lets you send highlighted text in your browser to your phone as an SMS. My friend Jen actually inspired this app and I realized how useful it would be when I’m on my way out and don’t want to retype the address of the restaurant into my phone. I also felt that this would be a good project to improve my javascript (I’ve never written a bookmarklet), as well as learn to work around Cross-Origin Resource Sharing.

The technology stack for this project is HTML/css/javascript/jQuery, Rails, Ruby, Heroku.

Using TextMe!

TextMe! is straightforward to use: type in your phone number in the field and generate a link that is then dragged to your toolbar. Whenever you want to text yourself something, just highlight it in the browser and click the bookmarklet.

Things I’ve learned

1. Bookmarklet Javascript: The bookmarklet, essentially, is a function that is executed whenever you click on it. In this case, the function did the following things: attach a script to the HTML document body, execute that appended script, import two functions (“getSelText” that will capture the highlighted text and “sendSMS” that will send a POST request to my server, thus sending a request to Twilio to deliver the SMS), and then calling “sendSMS” that will initiate the SMS delivery.

Here is the code for the TextMe! landing page ( www.andyjiang.com/textme ). This essentially shows how I took the user’s phone number, generated a script (with the particular phone number) that will make the sendSMS call to the server, and put that into an anchor tag that the user can drag to the toolbar. Line 17 is the javascript function that ends up in the bookmarklet that is dragged to the toolbar:

When you click on the bookmarklet after it is dragged on your toolbar, the function appends some javascript to the HTML document and imports the below two functions. Then, once everything is imported successfully, sendSMS is called with the phone number passed as an argument. The function sendSMS will get the selected text and send a request to the server (passing the recipient’s phone number and the body of the SMS, which is the highlighted text) to then ultimately send the SMS.

2. Javascript without jQuery: Because this is a bookmarklet, the intention was to keep it as lightweight with minimal dependencies. As such, it made sense (and was a great challenge) to write all of the bookmarklet javascript without jQuery to help append scripts and traverse the document object model. Note the substantial amount of jQuery used in the first code sample.

3. Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS): In computing, an important security concept for browser-side programming was what is known as ‘same origin’ policy. This policy allows scripts running on the same ‘origin’ (domain, hostname, web server) to access each other’s methods, properties, and attributes with no specific restrictions. However, this policy prevents scripts on one domain to access the methods, properties, and attributes of another domain (imagine if you could write some javascript on my hostname that can call methods on another web server—there are obvious security implications and risks involved).

In some instances, it is necessary to pass data from the client side of one hostname to the server of another domain, as is in the case of this bookmarklet. TextMe! attaches and runs a script on any website on the Internet, which takes the highlighted text and POSTs that data to my humble little WEBricks Heroku-hosted web server. In these cases, CORS is one modern way of allowing for these interactions to happen.

CORS defines a specific way to allow for cross-domain requests to occur. The browser making the cross-domain request to the server has to pass an ‘Origin HTTP header’, indicating its domain. Then, the web server responds with an ‘Access-Control-Allow-Origin’ header with a value denoting which origin sites are allowed.

Please see the example from my server side Ruby code below. Line 33 an onward shows the header response with ‘Access-Control-Allow-Origin: *’, meaning to allow every cross-domain request.

Note that I didn’t include any phone number validation, which should probably be included to some extent.


For a quick project, TextMe! certainly challenged me in new areas and helped me learn as a developer. Understanding how bookmarklets worked, writing jQuery-free javascript, and getting a better grasp of Cross-Origin Resource Sharing proved to be achievable, yet challenging goals.

Features to add in next version:
– easier to drag the bookmarklet to the toolbar
– form validation for the phone number!

So try it out and let me know what you think!


Thanks to Jen for the original idea, Yuning for proofreading a draft of this in 30 seconds, as well as Mike and Song who helped out with various engineering aspects of the project.

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Managing your digital subscriptions (RSS Feeds)

Like any netizen with an interest in remaining culturally aware and quasi-relevant among my peers, I consume a lot of content. Not just articles on Hacker News or WSJ, but also various blogs, tumblrs, Facebook statuses, Instagram photos, and tweets. In addition, I am normally on the go, waiting in lines, or like to browse content while under my comforter in bed. What is the best solution to managing all of these subscriptions across various platforms (laptop, mobile, and tablet)?


Laptop / Desktop

I’ve been an avid user of Google Reader for some time because I can organize my subscriptions into various folders. Moreover, I can easily email content directly from the web interface to my friends who may find it interesting.

Another reason to use Google Reader is that your account can be linked to mobile subscription reader apps such as Pulse and Flipboard. This ultimately provides cross-platform managability for your subscriptions.

Plus, you can create “bundles” (collection of individual subscriptions) and share them with your friends. See my Angel/VC Blogs bundle here.


Google Reader web interface


Mobile / Tablet

The popular portable browsing apps include Pulse and Flipboard (both free and allows for social media integration). Before, I would add RSS feeds directly from the apps themselves, but that meant any change would require a separate, manual, and parallel change in Google Reader.



Pulse, unfortunately, does require some parallel managing. However, it is marginally more convenient than going through their interface to find the RSS feeds.

All you have to do is add your Google Reader account, which then includes all of the feeds organized à la web interface. From here, you can select the individual feeds to populate your Pulse.



Flipboard is nice in that it does not require any parallel managing. Similar to Pulse, just add your Google Reader account, then add the folders from Google Reader. Anytime you add or remove an individual feed from your folders on Google Reader, the change will be automatically reflected on your Flipboard.


Single location for subscription management

With this setup, I only have to manage my subscriptions with Google Reader. The only downside is that if I want to dynamically add or remove a subscription, I would have to go through Google Reader (of which the web app on the mobile phone is a bit clunky).


How do you manage your subscriptions? Do you have a better or a more preferable method? Any recommended blogs that I may be interested in? Do you only look at pictures of cats?

Comments and thoughts are appreciated!




Follow me on twitter at @andyjiang.

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