<tt>bgchannel://</tt> Considered Harmful?

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Recently Bryan posted about background channels — a system for automatic updating desktop wallpaper. One of the features of the design is a new URI scheme based on the same ideas as webcal://, which I think is a bad idea (as dobey has also pointed out).

The usual reasoning for creating a URI scheme like this go something like this:

  1. You want to be able to perform some action when a link in a web page is clicked.
  2. The action requires that you know the URI of the link (usually to allow contacting the original server again).
  3. When the web browser activates a helper application bound to a MIME type, you just get the path to a saved copy of the resource, which doesn’t satisfy (2).
  4. Helper applications for URI types get passed the full URI.

So the solution taken with Apple’s iCal and Bryan’s background channels is to strip the http: off the start of resource’s URI, and replace it with a custom scheme name. This works pretty well for the general case, but causes problems for a few simple use cases that’ll probably turn out to be more common than you think:

  • Serving a background channel (or calendar, or whatever) via a protocol other than http. The first alternative protocol you’ll probably run into is https, but there may be other protocols you want to support in the future.
  • Any links to a background channel will need to be fully qualified since they use a different scheme. If you move your site, you’ll need to update every page that links to the background channel. If you could use relative URIs in the links, this wouldn’t be the case.

One alternative to the “new URI scheme” solution, that doesn’t suffer from the above problems is to serve a “locator file” from the web server that contains the information needed to request the real information. Even though the helper application will only get the path of a temporary file, the content of the file lets the app connect to the server. This is the approach taken by BitTorrent, and various media players like RealPlayer.

The separate “locator file” can even be omitted by placing the background channel location inside the background channel itself. This is the approach taken for Atom, via a <link rel="self"/> link.

8 March 2005

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South Africa

I put up my photos from the trip to Cape Town online. Towards the end there are some photos I took while hiking up Table Mountain.

Building Gnome

It looks like with the Gnome 2.10 release, some packages fail to build from CVS if you are using a version of libtool older than 1.5.12. This is due to the way libtool verifies the version strings — in versions prior to 1.5.12, the check to make sure that the interface version numbers were non negative used a shell pattern that only matched numbers up to 3 digits long.

This might have seemd fine when it was coded, since how many libraries actually end up with more than 999 versions without breaking compatibility? However, many Gnome libraries are using noncontiguous interface version numbers so that releases on the stable branch can be assigned numbers guaranteed to be less than the versions released on HEAD.

So many 2.X libraries use X*100 as a base for the interface version number, which means with 2.10 we reach 1000 and things break. With libtool 1.5.12 and newer, the shell patterns have been modified to handle numbers up to 5 digits long, so it shouldn’t cause a problem til we are ready to release Gnome 2.1000 (which will be due for release in about 250 years if the current schedule is maintained).

Mathematics Input

msevior: have you looked at the OpenOffice equation editor? It provides a fairly similar interface to what you’ve put together, with a few differences:

  • In OpenOffice, the equation entry window is shown as a pane below the document in the main window.
  • The OpenOffice equation entry syntax seems to be “TeX without the backslashes”, which is a little less intimidating for new users (although if you already know TeX, it means that there is more to learn).
  • Editing isn’t completely one way. If you click on the parts of the equation in the top pane, it will move the cursor to the corresponding position in the bottom pane. I don’t know how easy this would be with itex2mml, since I guess the transformation is one-way.

I agree with you that this style of input is a lot more usable than the Microsoft equation editor for people who understand Mathematics and need to enter a lot of it. The MS editor seems to be optimised for transcribing an equation from some other source, where you know exactly what it will look like from the start. In contrast, the text interface makes it as easy to rearrange an equation as it is to rearrange the rest of the text in the document.

6 January 2005


I’ve put some of the photos from my trip to Mataró, and the short stop over in Japan on the way back. The Mataró set includes a fair number taken around La Sagrida Familia, and the Japan set is mostly of things around the Naritasan temple (I didn’t have enough time to get into Tokyo).


A few months back, I got a second monitor for my computer and configured it in a Xinerama-style setup (I’m actually using the MergedFB feature of the radeon driver, but it looks like Xinerama to X clients). Overall it has been pretty nice, but there are a few things that Gnome could do a bit nicer in the setup:

  • Backgrounds get stretched over both screens. The Ubuntu backgrounds already looked a bit weird at a 5:4 aspect ratio. They look even worse at a 5:2 ratio 🙂. Ideally the background image would be repeated on each monitor of the virtual screen. Some details are available as bug 147808, but it looks like the fix would be in EelBackground code.
  • Most parts of the desktop treat the monitors as independent (which is good, since most people pick Xinerama over classic X multi-screen so that dragging windows between monitors works, rather than to build video walls), but there is a few bits that don’t. One of the more obvious ones is in Metacity: the alt+tab dialog pops up centred on the monitor where mouse currently resides, but it cycles through all the windows visible on the virtual screen. This is a bit confusing, since it looks like it will be a monitor-local operation based on the position of the dialog (however, if it was monitor-local I’m not sure how you’d switch focus to a window on the other monitor with only the keyboard …).


The new merge command in baz is quite nice. This provides support for merging in ways that tla can’t. One of the limitations of star-merge is that it can get confused if you don’t strictly follow the star topology when merging. That is, you should only merge to/from the person you branched from, and people who branched from you. If siblings merge for instance, it can cause problems with subsequent merges.

The new merge command doesn’t suffer from that problem, and allows you to merge from anyone. Of course, if you break the star topology, people wanting to merge from you will either need to be using Bazaar, or ask for you to merge from them first (so that the star-merge algorithm merges the right changes).

8 December 2004

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I’ve been in Mataró (about an hour from Barcelona) now since Sunday, and it’s quite a nice place. It is a bit cooler than Perth due to it being the middle of Winter here, but the way most of the locals are rugged up you’d think it was a lot colder. It’s great to catch up with everyone, and a number of pygtk developers will be turning up over the next few days for the BOF on the weekend.

Gnome Foundation Elections

Congratulations to the new board members. It is a little disappointing that only about 56% of members voted though. Once the membership committee has the anonymous voting stuff set up, it might be worth doing the preferential voting referrendum.


I’ve been working on some preliminary documentation for JHBuild, which is available here. It should be useful for new users and people looking at writing new module sets for it. It has a fairly complete command reference and config file reference, so it is probably useful for current users too. It would be good to add some information about setting up a tinderbox like the one Luis set up for Gnome.

Nautilus Extensions

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One of the changes in the Gnome 2.9 development series is the removal of most of the Bonobo code from Nautilus, which results in a speed boost due to lower complexity and less IPC overhead. This had the effect of breaking existing bonobo based context menus, property pages and views. The first two can be converted to the Nautilus extension interface, but the second has no equivalent in the new code (partly because Nautilus is concentrating on being a file manager these days rather than a universal component shell like it was in the early days).

Two of the casualties of the change were gnome-control-center‘s font and theme code, and nautilus-media. Since I wrote the font browser code in gnome-control-center, I updated it to work again. It isn’t clear whether nautilus-media will be updated, since the view was a major component of it, and most of the remaining functionality is provided by totem.

Context Menus

If you are looking at updating a Nautilus context menu to use the new extension interface, fontilus-context-menu.c is a pretty good example to model your code on.

One of the big differences is the way Nautilus extensions are loaded compared to the old context menu API. With the old API, you would provide a Bonobo component and set a number of properties in the bonobo-activation server file listing a menu label, the list of mime types the context menu applies to, what URI schemes it supports and whether it supports multiple files. Nautilus could then do a single bonobo-activation query to find out what context menu items correspond to the current selection, and add them to the menu. If the user selected one of the items, the corresponding component would be activated, and an event sent to its Bonobo::EventListener interface.

In contrast, Nautilus extensions are initialised on Nautilus startup. They indicate that they provide context menu items by implementing the NautilusMenuProvider interface. When the user brings up the context menu, the get_file_items method will be called on all extensions that implement that interface. A list of NautilusFileInfo objects is passed in, and the method returns a list of NautilusMenuItem objects. Also, Nautilus extensions are run in-process while Bonobo components could be written for in-process or out of process use.

One of the benefits of this system is the added control of when to display a menu item, and what to use as the label. If you want to only display your context menu item when 42 text/html files and one image/png file are selected you can. However it does mean that each new extension causes some code to be run before popping up a context menu. I have no idea how this compares time wise to the time taken for the previous bonobo-activation query though.

Property Pages

The interface for property pages is quite similar to the context menu interface. As with context menus, you have an imperative NautilusPropertyPageProvider::get_pages interface rather than a declaritive interface based on activation properties. This has the benefit that you can simply not provide the page when the properties in question are not available for the file (with the old setup, you’d end up providing a properties page stating that there is nothing to display).

The other interesting parts of the extension interface is the NautilusInfoProvider interface that lets you attach extra information to files, such as extra emblems or custom attributes, and NautilusColumnProvider, which lets you provide additional columns for the list view that map to custom file attributes. One example of this is nautilus-vcs, which can show revision numbers for files in CVS working copies and adds emblems indicating the file state.

Of course, there are downsides to the extension interface too — since extensions are always in process, they can crash Nautilus or leak memory. However, it was already possible for Bonobo based extensions to do this if they were designed as in-process components and badly written …

Another issue is that language bindings might find it more difficult to support the extension interface where the language runtime would have to cooperate with Nautilus, compared to out of process Bonobo components where they have more control. I guess we’ll see what happens.