Older blog entries for jamesh (starting at number 175)

Drive Mount Applet

The new drive mount applet is now checked into the HEAD branch of gnome-applets, so will be in Gnome 2.10. There are a few things left to do, such as making it possible to open the file manager as well as unmounting/ejecting it. I did up a screenshot showing what it looks like as an applet.

Libtool

Finally managed to reproduce a particular libtool bug that people have reported on and off. It does show why some people decide that .la files are evil, since it doesn't occur when people delete those files ...

A reduced test case can be found here. The problem occurs when you have multiple copies of a library in your linker library search path with associated .la files. In the test case, there are the following libraries:

  • libfoo.so and libfoo.la in the directory /A. This is the library we want to link to.
  • libfoo.so and libfoo.la in the directory /B. We don't want to link to this one, because it is old.
  • libbar.so and libbar.la in the directory /B.

Let's say I then try to link an app that needs libbar and the new version of libfoo, and happen to use the following link line:

libtool --mode=link gcc -o main main.c -lbar -L/A -L/B -lfoo

In the absense of libtool, this would result in us linking against /B/libbar.so and /A/libfoo.so (since /A comes before /B in the search path).

However, libtool ends up doing something quite different. When it sees -lbar, it notices that there is a libbar.la in /B, expands that argument to the full path name of the actual library (/B/libbar.so), and prepends /B to the library search path. This means that when it gets round to processing -lfoo, it finds /B/libfoo.la instead of /A/libfoo.la, and links to the wrong library.

If this sounds like an obscure bug, note that it also happens if we replace /B with /usr/lib. In this case, we don't even need the -L/usr/lib argument. So the following command results in linking with /usr/lib/libfoo.so instead of /A/libfoo.so:

libtool --mode=link gcc -o main main.c -lbar -L/A -lfoo

This sort of situation is quite common when trying to build some software into a separate prefix that is also provided by the OS, when you are relying on a few libraries installed in /usr/lib with .la files.

After putting together the test case I tested it out in the latest development release (1.9f), and it appears that the problem has been fixed. Given that the libtool developers are so close to a 2.0 release, I don't know whether they would bother putting out another 1.5.x release to fix the problem.

So if you do run into the problem, some possible solutions are:

  1. Upgrade to libtool-1.9f. I'm not sure how good an idea this is if you are producing tarballs, since they will be packaged with the development release too.
  2. Remove all the .la files in /usr/lib. Some distributors seem to take this route (eg. Ximian/Novell and Red Hat).

Even More Icon Theme Stuff

To make it a bit easier to correctly display themed icons, I added support to GtkImage, so that it is as easy as calling gtk_image_new_from_icon_name() or gtk_image_set_from_icon_name(). The patch is attached to bug #155688.

This code takes care of theme changes so the application developer doesn't need to. Once this is in, it should be trivial to add themed icon support to various other widgets that use GtkImage (such as GtkAbout and GtkToolItem).

JHBuild

I started work on some extended documentation for JHBuild. At the moment, this just includes some information on setting it up and basic use. I'll extend it to hold a reference to all JHBuild commands, some documentation on the module set file format and some frequently asked questions.

It would be good to include some information on setting up JHBuild's tinderbox mode (like Luis has). Getting a few more tinderboxes running for Gnome on other platforms such Solaris/SPARC would be really useful -- Luis's build logs have already helped track down a few build failures, so having build information for a few more platforms would be very useful.

New Computer

I just got the last components for my new computer (an Athlon 64 system). It is a fair bit faster than the laptop I've been doing most of the development on, so should be quite nice once it is all set up.

It is amazing how much hardware has improved and gone down in price. The motherboard alone is packed with features I wouldn't have expected for something costing AU$220:

  • Gigabit ethernet
  • An 802.11g wireless card (PCI)
  • An extra Promise SATA chip, bringing the number of SATA connectors up to 4, and the IDE connectors to 3.
  • Firewire
  • SPDIF output (both electrical and optical).
  • 6 headphone-style jacks on the back, so you can get 6 channel audio output without losing your line in and microphone jacks.

I also got a Raptor hard drive for the system. These drives seem to have up to twice the performance of most 7200rpm desktop drives, and make a big difference to the overall performance of the system.

It should be a nice system once I finish building it. Also, since it is an x86-64 system, it effectively provides two architectures to test stuff on.

Drive Mount Applet

I started to look at bringing the drive mount applet from gnome-applts up to scratch, since it hasn't really had much work done on it other than porting to the 2.x development platform.

The applet is a classic example of Gnome 1.x user interface complexity. The applet shows a button that can be clicked to mount or unmount a particular mount point. For this simple functionality, it provides the following preferences:

  • The mount directory
  • The interval at which to check the mounted state
  • Which of a set of custom images to use to show the mounted state (eg. floppy drive, cdrom drive, etc).
  • The ability to specify custom mounted/unmounted images.
  • Whether to eject the disk after unmounting.
  • Whether to use a second method for checking the mounted state which might work better with automounters.

The applet also had a few problems, such as not being able to unmount a disk if there was a trash directory on it (since fam would have a dnotify watch active on that directory).

By using some of the newer gnome-vfs APIs, I think it should be possible to remove all the preferences:

  1. The GnomeVFSVolumeManager API can be used to get a list of attached drives and volumes, and receive notification when volumes are mounted or new drives are connected or disconnected. This allows one applet to display the status of all user (un)mountable drives/volumes in one applet.
  2. By using the gnome-vfs APIs to unmount or eject a volume, a volume_pre_unmount signal to interested applications before attempting to unmount it. When Nautilus receives this signal, it drops its FAM watches on the trash directory for that volume, and closes all associated windows. This means that Nautilus/FAM won't cause a "volume is busy" error (although some other apps might hold files opne on the volume).
  3. The gnome-vfs APIs tell us what the volume type is. This way we can automatically do an unmount+eject for cdrom, zip and jaz drives like Nautilus does rather than having to provide a preference.
  4. Gnome-vfs also tells us what icon name should be used for a particular drive or volume. This way the applet can just pull the icons from the current icon theme rather than having to maintain separate ones.

My code is at the point where it produces nice screenshots, and has the above features. The screenshot shows it as a separate window, but adding the applet wrapper stuff isn't too difficult (it is easier to test as a standalone app). It is less than half the size of the old applet too, which is promising.

11 Oct 2004 (updated 11 Oct 2004 at 10:42 UTC) »

Federal Election

Looks like we are going to have at least another three years with The Rodent. It also looks like they will have a majority in the senate, which will reduce the senate's effectiveness as a house of review.

We might not have John Howard for the entire term though, since he is of retirement age. NineMSN seems to think that Peter Costello is already the leader.

It also looks like The Democrats senators up for reelection got completely wiped out, with much of their support going to The Greens.

Gnome-VFS

Robert Collins wrote an interesting critique on the gnome-vfs API. I don't agree with all the points, and there are some reasons why the API isn't as elegant as it could be. Below are some responses.

Initialisation

One thing that gnome_vfs_init() does is to call g_thread_init(). Before this function is called, the locking APIs in glib are no-ops. You really want this function called early on if the app is going to use threads, otherwise you will end up with inconsistencies (eg. a lock() call might be a no-op, but the unlock() call might not be if g_thread_init() is called in between).

The other issue is that gnome_vfs_init() can fail. If it is called automatically, then any function that might invoke the initialisation routine now has a new failure mode. I don't know whether this is a real problem or not though.

Calling Style - Inconsistent Ordering

One big difference between the out parameters in gnome_vfs_open() and gnome_vfs_read() is that the first function is essentially a constructor for a file handle, while the second is a method for a file handle that fills in a provided buffer.

I'll agree that the calling conventions are not as nice as they could be though. If they were being designed today, I suspect that they would look more like this:

GnomeVFSHandle  *gnome_vfs_open (const gchar     *text_uri,
                                 GnomeVFSOpenMode open_mode,
                                 GError         **error);
GnomeVFSFileSize gnome_vfs_read (GnomeVFSHandle  *handle,
                                 gpointer         buffer,
                                 GnomeVFSFileSize bytes,
                                 GError         **error);

Unfortunately, the GError API was not developped til the 2.0 series, while these parts of the gnome-vfs API persist from the 1.x days.

Calling Style - Inconsistent Method Naming

I agree that the gnome_vfs_truncate() function name is inconsistent. My guess as to why they chose gnome_vfs_truncate and gnome_vfs_truncate_handle() was to match the underlying truncate() and ftruncate() C library calls. This was probably a case of balancing consistent APIs with ease of transition from libc APIs to gnome-vfs APIs.

Returning data to pointers

I agree that the existing calling convention is not as nice as it could be. As I said earlier, it would probably have been designed to use GError if it was being developed today.

The GError API has a number of benefits over errno style ones, including:

  1. Automatically threadsafe. The place where the error is reported is on the stack. A global variable is a problem for multi threaded apps on systems without Linux 2.6 style thread local storage (you need to do tricks like making errno into a function that returns the appropriate variable for the current thread).
  2. In Robert's example, the actual error information is looked up from a file handle. What do you do if there is no file handle involved in the function call? Also, wouldn't gnome_vfs_open() return a NULL file handle on error?
  3. For the cases where there is a file handle to look up the error info on, what happens if two threads are working with the file handle at the same time?
  4. GError is consistent with other Gnome APIs :)

The GError API also makes it easy to pass error data up a number of call frames similar to exceptions. If your function has a GError argument, you can simply pass that same error object to other functions when you call them. If those functions fail on an error, simply return immediately, and the caller can handle the error.

Streams Interface

There actually is a stream interface available in one of the libraries both GTK and gnome-vfs depend on: GIOChannel. I guess it would be nice if gnome-vfs provided a GIOChannel implementation for VFS file handles. The main thing that would be needed here would be the io_create_watch() implementation, which would probably require exposing a file descriptor to poll on (this could probably be implemented using a pipe pretty easily).

Doing this as GObject interfaces isn't really an option, since GIOChannel is implemented in libglib which is below libgobject, and gnome-vfs file handles aren't GObjects. I know that at one point Ian was planning to change the various handles to GObjects, but this didn't happen. It would probably be possible to do this kind of change while only requiring changes to VFS methods, so it can't be completely ruled out.

Directory Interface

You can asynchronously load a directory listing using gnome_vfs_async_load_directory(). I don't blame you for missing it — the organisation of the APIs in the various headers is a bit confusing.

Language Bindings

There are a lot of things a language binding can do to make gnome-vfs nicer to use. Some of these things include:

  • If the language provides exceptions, convert error GnomeVFSResult's to exceptions and change the calling conventions to something more sane.
  • If the language allows for runtime type checking or multiple dispatch, don't wrap the gnome_vfs_foo() and gnome_vfs_foo_uri() functions separately. Instead, just check if a string or a GnomeVFSURI was passed in and do the right thing.
  • If the language has a standard file handle interface or convention, try to implement it in the binding.

The Python bindings do some of these things, and definitely make things easier to use.

Elections

Tomorrow is the Australian Federal Election. It is weird how there are some topics that none of the parties seem to have been bringing up during the election. In particular, they don't seem to be mentioning about how John Howard lied about the children overboard scandal last election (if he didn't lie, then he intentionally kept himself uninformed which is possibly even worse). This was a case where information was suppressed until just after the election had finished. If the information had been made public, it could have changed the result of the election.

Hopefully by the end of Saturday we won't have a Prime Minister who isn't a spamer and telemarketer.

Jamin: from what those articles say, Michael Moore was offering incentives for people to vote — not incentives to vote for a particular candidate. While I agree that the latter is bad, why is encouraging people to vote bad?

In the Australian elections, I've received a postal vote application from my current MP. While I think it would be better if the applications were sent out by the AEC, I don't think there is anything wrong with encouraging people to vote in this way.

Also, even if you don't consider yourself a Bush supporter, the people who manage the websites you referenced certainly are. If you want to accuse someone of being a propagandist, perhaps you should choose some less obviously biased news sources.

Hub: there is a preference to get Thunderbird to check all IMAP folders for new messages. It just isn't exposed in the UI. Instructions for turning it on can be found here.

More Icon Theme stuff

In an email, Jonathan pointed out that simply using gtk_icon_theme_load_icon() by itself is not optimal either. If the user changes their icon theme, you should reload the icon in case it has changed in the new theme.

This is quite easy to handle correctly though, using the "changed" signal of GtkIconTheme:

GtkIconTheme *icon_theme = gtk_icon_theme_get_default ();
g_signal_connect (icon_theme, "changed", G_CALLBACK (callback), NULL);

Now callback() will be called when the icon theme changes, at which point you can reload the icon.

What would be nice would be a GtkImage constructor that let you pass in an icon name plus desired size, and handled theme changes for you. Maybe I'll do a patch for this ...

4 Oct 2004 (updated 4 Oct 2004 at 14:11 UTC) »

Icon Theme APIs (continued)

Of course, after recommending that people use gtk_icon_theme_load_icon() to perform the icon load and scale the icon for you, Ross manages to find a bug in that function.

If the icon is not found in the icon theme, but instead in the legacy $prefix/share/pixmaps directory, then gtk_icon_theme_load_icon() will not scale the image down (it will scale them up if necessary though).

jhbuild

Jhbuild now includes a notification icon when running in the default terminal mode. The code is loosely based on Davyd's patch, but instead uses Zenity's notification icon support. If you have the HEAD branch of Zenity installed, it should display without any further configuration. Some of the icons are a little difficult to tell apart at notification icon sizes, so it would be good to update some of them.

DVDs

The Double the Fist DVD is great. I hope they do another season, and release the second half of the first season on DVD. It is a satire on extreme sports and reality TV shows among other things, and is worth watching. Apparently it was originally shown on ABC digital, so not many people saw it during its original screening (digital television is fairly new in Australia, and equipment is still fairly expensive).

Ubuntu

Ubuntu seems to have taken off very quickly since the preview release came out a few weeks ago. In general, people seem to like the small tweaks we've made to the default Gnome install. Of course, after the preview came out people found bugs in some of my Gnome patches ...

One of the things we added was the trash applet on the panel. I made a fair number of fixes that make the applet fit in with the desktop a bit better and handle error conditions a bit better.

Probably the biggest fix was adding support for multiple trash directories. Originally the applet would move files to ~/.Trash and didn't monitor any other trash directories, which meant that moving to the trash took longer than necessary on slow volumes and the applet didn't correctly reflect the trash's empty state if you used the "move to trash" context menu item in Nautilus.

One of the problems implementing this was that the trash handling in Gnome is pretty much entirely private to Nautilus. I managed to adapt the Nautilus code into a small class (about 500 lines) that could provide an item count for the trash, notification of changes to the item count, and the ability to empty the trash. A lot of the complexity in this code is to handle plugging and and unplugging of removable volumes. It'd be nice if this kind of code was available in gnome-vfs or something though.

Icon Theme APIs

While working on various Ubuntu fixes, I found an error that seems to be quite common in various bits of the desktop. It goes something like this:

  1. Find the image file for an icon at size n using gnome_icon_theme_lookup_icon() or gtk_icon_theme_lookup_icon().
  2. Create a GdkPixbuf from the image file using gdk_pixbuf_new_from_file().
  3. Use the pixbuf as an nxn icon.

The first problem with this is that gtk_icon_theme_lookup_icon() is not guaranteed to return an image at the desired size. This is quite obvious when you consider that you can pass in an arbitrary size to the lookup function, but the icon theme will only contain a finite number of sizes. However, if you ask for a common sized icon and the icon theme contains that size image, it might appear that the function will always return an image file of the requested size. The fix is to check the size of the loaded pixbuf and scale it if it is of the wrong dimensions.

The second problem is to do with SVG image files. They can be rendered at arbitrary sizes, but gdk_pixbuf_new_from_file() doesn't tell the loader backend what size is actually wanted. This means that the SVG will be rendered at whatever size is listed in the file itself, which could be very large or very small. To avoid having to resize the SVG image after rendering it (which could be slow), you can use the gdk_pixbuf_new_from_file_at_size() routine (new in GTK 2.4) which passes the desired size to the backend so that ones like the SVG backend can render at an appropriate size. This function will return a pixbuf that fits into the bounding height/width you pass to it, and will perform scaling if the backend can't load the image at the requested size.

If this sounds complicated, there is an easier way. You can just use gtk_icon_theme_load_icon(), which will lookup the image, and load it at the desired size all in one go. I guess there aren't many people using it because there wasn't an equivalent in the older GnomeIconTheme API.

Applets vs. Notification Icons

It seems that a lot of people get confused by what things on the panel should be applets and what should be notification icons. Originally, the main difference between the two was this:

  • The lifecycle of an applet is managed by the panel, which in turn is tied to the lifecycle of the session. So applets generally live for the length of the session (unless they are added/removed part way through a session).
  • Notification icons are more transient. Their lifecycle is linked to whatever app they were created by. Once the app exits the notification icon goes away too.

There are some other differences though:

  • Applets can be moved around on the panel while notification icons are constrained to the system tray. If you accept that notification icons are transient then it isn't that big a deal.
  • KDE also implements the system tray spec, so a notification icon can be used on both desktops (plus any other desktop that implements the spec). In contrast, Gnome applets are Bonobo controls which makes them a bit difficult to use on other desktops.
  • The panel can merge menu items into the context menu of applets, and supports middle click drag to move applets.
  • The system tray is supposed to be able to display "message balloons" for the notification icons. This doesn't seem to work properly though. The reason for getting the system tray to show the balloons is so you don't get multiple applets popping up such notices on top of each other, and to make it easier for the user to manage such notifications.

Due to these differences there are a number of notification icons such as Novell's netapplet which more closely follow the lifecycle of an applet but are notification icons for cross desktop compatibility.

While talking with Mark on IRC, it became apparent that a number of the applets included with Gnome aren't strictly linked to the session's lifetime. For example, my laptop has a PCMCIA wireless adapter, so I put the wireless applet on my panel to show the signal strength. However, it doesn't really make sense to display the applet when the card is unplugged.

Similarly, if I share my home directory between a number of computers, it doesn't make sense to show the volume control applet on systems without a sound card or the battery status applet on systems without a battery. So perhaps these applets shouldn't really be tied to the panel's life cycle.

With infrastructure like NetworkManager where there is a user-level daemon used to communicate with the user when necessary, it would make sense for that daemon to provide network status as notification icons. This way the icons would only appear when the associated device was attached. Something similar could be done for the volume control and battery status applets -- query HAL to see if they need to be loaded.

However, with such long lasting notification icons you probably want some of the features of applets such as being able to move them round a bit. This indicates that it might not make so much sense to make such a big distinction between applets and notification applets.

I wonder how difficult it would be to extend the system tray/notification icon spec to handle the features applets currently have?. From a quick look, the additional features include:

  1. Some way for icons to cooperate with the panel to handle moving icons around.
  2. Some way to uniquely identify applets so that the panel can place them in the same location next time the icon is created.
  3. Provide some standard context menu items. The standard ones that applets have merged in are "Move", "Lock" and "Remove from panel". Only the first two would need additions to handle.
  4. Better size negotiation. An applet can query the width and orientation of a panel when deciding what its size should be. I don't think a notification icon can do so.
  5. Figure out a good way to start notification icons on session startup.
  6. If notifcation icons can be moved to anywhere on the panel, where should truely transient icons be placed the first time? Currently they are placed in the system tray, which provides a convenient place for the user to expect to see such notifications.

This should also make it easier to provide more full featured panel widgets that work cross desktop. I wonder how feasible it is?

Notification Icons

I decided to go ahead and write the code to allow Zenity to listen for commands on stdin. It was pretty easy to add, and Glynn accepted the patch so it is in the latest CVS version. The main difference between the implementation and what I described earlier is that you need to pass the --listen argument to Zenity to activate this mode (without it, it acts as a one-shot notification icon where it exits when the icon is clicked on). The easiest way to use it from a bash script is to tie Zenity to a file descriptor like this:

exec 3> >(zenity --notification --listen)

You can then feed commands to the notification icon by echoing things to that file descriptor. For example:

echo "tooltip: a new tooltip" >&3

The available commands are icon, tooltip and visible. When you've finished and want to kill off the icon, you can simply close the file descriptor:

exec 3>&-

Some things that would be good to add are message balloon support (although the Gnome system tray doesn't seem to support them right now) and support for animated images (useful to get the user's attention while message balloons don't work).

One of the reasons for adding this functionality to Zenity was for use in jhbuild. Davyd did the initial prototype for this, but the idea for the notification icon seemed fairly generic and useful outside of jhbuild. Also, by putting it in Zenity there is less to maintain in jhbuild itself :)

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