Sentience discovered in the Linux kernel

Ladies and gentlemen, after much experimentation, I have made a remarkable discovery. Perhaps the very first case of a sentient AI has been discovered, sitting right under our noses, in the Linux Kernel. With such a complicated codebase that has evolved greatly over the years, there are certainly more surprising places for it to spring up, but it’s still quite unexpected.

And where, specifically, has this sentience manifested itself? The suspend/resume code.

See now, like many of you, I’ve dealt with the instabilities of suspend/resume. I’ve considered it to just be buggy, unreliable, and possibly incompatible with my hardware. That is, until I realized that there’s a pattern. One that began to make a sort of sense.

A couple months back, I gave suspend/resume another shot, and to my surprise it worked. I figured that Ubuntu 10.04 finally fixed it, but it still wasn’t perfect. I still noticed problems.

The first thing I noticed was that when I unsuspended at work, I couldn’t use my volume keys. Everything else was fine, but my laptop’s volume keys didn’t register as a key press on anything. If I suspended again and brought it back home, the keys would work fine. If I suspended at home and resumed at home, I wouldn’t have the volume key problem. Weird, but just buggy, right?

It was a couple weekends ago when I suspended my laptop to take it somewhere. It wouldn’t suspend at all. Just hard-locked. This continued until the week, when it worked again. Last weekend? Same problem, couldn’t suspend. Monday, it worked fine.

It was then that I realized suspend/resume was breaking deliberately! See, my laptop feels more comfortable at home, less so at work but it tolerates it (with some complaining), but absolutely doesn’t want to leave during the weekend. It’s like a cat that just wants to be in a familiar environment, selfishly vying for your attention through mischievous acts. Look at it hard enough and the pattern emerges. It’s undeniable.

That got me thinking. What other possible instances of AI have we been misconstruing as bugs or random glitches? All those inter-connected street lights that occasionally shut off as you walk underneath them? Maybe they’re just shy, or they hate you. Maybe NES cartridges just found being blown stimulating.

So remember guys. Windows suspend/resume may work just fine. Mac too. But Linux’s suspend/resume isn’t a buggy pile of crap. It’s an intelligent buggy pile of crap, that just wants to be loved.

Looking Back on Review Board

Just over 3.5 years ago, David Trowbridge and I spent some time discussing the annoyances of the typical patch submission and code review processes in the open source projects we participated in and at companies, and decided to play with some ideas for improving this. At the time, we knew very little about what we intended to do. We had a name for it pretty early on, but that was about all we had. We didn’t even know whether we’d get past an early prototyping stage. But here it is, over 3 years later, and we have the leading open source code review tool with an active support and development community, hundreds of companies using it, and exciting new innovations for aiding in the code review process.

I was thinking a few days ago about how far we’ve come and some of the decisions we made along the way. I went digging through our commit history in order to relive some of the past of our little project. Since so few people were even aware of Review Board’s existence at the time, I thought I’d share some of our history with you. Particularly the interesting and funny bits.

“Add the reviewboard.”

Commit #1. The very first thing we put in our Subversion tree on September 27, 2006. I don’t even remember what was in this change now. We transitioned to Git last year and this commit is now just plain empty. Maybe it was jut the directory structure? Who can say.

Early on, we didn’t refer to “Review Board” as a proper name. It was generally “the reviewboard” or something similar. The codebase was young. We didn’t actually do code review on the project at this point (and it shows!). The first few months are littered with odd or nonsensical commit messages, small breakages, and bad decisions.

A few of my favorite commit messages are:

  • “I suck. Make submitting of reviews.”
  • “Don’t stuff the list of files in the bug list. It’s impolite.”
  • “Avoid failing out with Christian’s wacko form”
  • “Gum.”
  • “Holy apple pancakes. It worked!”
  • “I suck… The array was empty… The tests never had a chance to fail. :(“
  • “‘This is a summary’ sucks. Now we use fortune for the summary, description, and testing done. ‘You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny.'”
  • “Unbreak things before ChipX86 notices”
  • “I’m just… garhgh”

Nowadays, our commit messages look nothing like that, but that’s the fun of a new project. You get to go commit-crazy while you try to figure out what you’re building.

Dashboard, quips and fortunes

The UI of old looked quite different than the UI of today.

We had a dashboard from the very beginning (before the review request pages, even) but it wasn’t anything like the dashboard we had today. It was a simple page with a table containing all outgoing review requests and a table containing incoming review requests. But it also had one more thing: quips.

The beginning of quips functionality was being built. Quips are just little random quotes that are inserted in the UI. I think the plan was to put quips on certain pages, making Review Board a little more fun. We were using them in the dashboard for empty lists, with variations all saying something about the dashboard being empty. Quips are a neat feature that just never survived the early days of development.

Fortunes are similar. On Linux/Unix systems, there’s a little program called “fortune” that just displays a random quote. Since we at first had to test review request functionality without actually having a repository backend of any sort, and we didn’t want to input all the information each time, we just used fortune to generate the summary, description and testing done text. This made for some really funny review requests early on, but this is of course something that had no reason to survive initial development.

Sometimes we would create a bunch of review requests just to see what kind of quotes we’d get. 🙂

Multiple repositories? Almost didn’t happen.

One of the really critical parts of Review Board today is the ability to talk to a variety of different types of repositories in one instance. But, it turns out, this almost didn’t happen.

The initial goals were not that ambitious. Review Board talked to one repository per instance. Everything was basically hard-coded with one repository in mind. That type of repository, as well as its information, was customizable. You just couldn’t have more than one. At the time, this wasn’t a problem, but it didn’t take long until we had a need to talk to two repositories.

We discussed this and at first decided that if we needed to talk to two repositories, we could just set up two instances. It would have been a lot of work to update it for multiple repositories, after all. And really, this was a small project. Who would really need more than a couple repositories? This started to nag at me, though, and so I spent a couple nights rewriting all of the code as an experiment. It ended up working pretty nicely, and we were able to ditch the multi-instance model.

The importance of rewards

It’s always nice to have a little reward for milestones. Developers sometimes compete over cool bug numbers, revisions, etc. Initially, we were going to use quips to add some fun to the site, but we ended up settling on our current trophy system.

One of our first Review Board instances started to approach review request #1000, which was a huge milestone for us. I decided to commemorate the event by staying up and quickly hacking in a hidden feature for showing a trophy for review request #1000. The way we implemented it, you’d see the first ever trophy at 1,000, and from there you’d see it at every milestone number (1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 10,000, etc.). I didn’t want to stop there, though, so I added support for a second type of trophy, one that has confused people with its appearance to this day. Mission complete.

Of course, when we updated the server and someone finally hit 1000, it triggered a bug in the new trophy code and broke his review request. Oh well, I tried.

Diff viewers are hard

If I could pick one point during the whole history of Review Board where I was ready to completely give up, it would be during the creation of our diff viewer. All three diff viewers.

See, the first diff viewer was a complete and total hack. We generated a side-by-side diff using the diff tools and just parsed the output, basically generating a table of that. It was ugly, though, and limiting. It also caused problems where text on a row would either be truncated or would break the parser. I spent a long time working on this before I totally gave up and went on to try a new approach.

My second approach was closer to what we have today, but also limiting and very, very buggy. We were using Python’s built-in diff generation module, which implements a basic diff algorithm. It gave us insert and delete information, but not replace information. We had to hack that in ourselves, and it was really a hack. Try taking a bunch of inserts and deletes and find out which of those are really changed lines. No, really, try it. It’s harder than you think, and it’ll often be wrong.

Still, we stuck with this for a long time. It was slow, buggy, and didn’t generate the sort of output people expected from diff tools. Most people see diffs from GNU Diff, which implements the Meyers Diff Algorithm (with a few additions and tweaks). These Meyers diffs are much nicer to view than what Python gave us. Another problem we hit was that we didn’t have real line number information, so we had to output fake line numbers. They weren’t really line numbers so much as row numbers in the table. Ugh. Even getting this far was really hard and frustrating, and the result still wasn’t good.

Attempt #3. I decided to build our own diff parser and generator from scratch. What a project. I knew nothing about diff generation and hardly knew where to start. I spent probably a good month or so just trying to work on this new diff code, and was so close to giving up so many times. It ended up being completely worth it, though, as we ended up with a very nice, extensible diff parser.

Without that third attempt, we’d be in the stone age. Review Board would not be as nice to use. We wouldn’t have inter-line diffs (where we highlight what changed in a replace line), syntax highlighting, move detection (coming in 1.5), or function/class headers (where we show which function/class the part of the diff is in — also coming in 1.5).

What else…

Well, there’s a lot more I could talk about. Our initial attempts at JavaScript code for the UI, our trials and challenges with database migration, or our early problems storing diffs with different encodings in databases. This is getting long, though, so I’ll cover these in another post on lessons learned.

Goodbye, my friend

Goodbye, Vinay

I lost a good friend Sunday.

Vinay Venkatesh, also known as djgraphite, was a friend and co-worker at VMware. We had known each other for many years, since before he joined VMware, from the #adium and #growl channels on back when I worked on libgaim and he worked on Growl. Vinay was always helpful , friendly, passionate, and full of creative ideas. This extended to his work on VMware Fusion

A few years ago, Vinay interviewed for a job at VMware in my team. We hired him for the relatively new Fusion product for the Mac. This was my first in-person experience with him, and we quickly became friends. I remember spending hours in his office talking about all sorts of things. New games coming out that we wanted to play, projects we were working on, new gadgets, ideas for Review Board, architectural changes we wanted to make to our products at work, what we did on the weekends… Anything and everything, really.

While we developed separate projects at work, we often ran ideas past each other. Vinay shared my desire to improve the common and per-platform code bases we each worked on, and while we didn’t always find the time to implement each idea, much of my discussions with him led to improvements in all of our desktop products: Workstation, Player and Fusion. Over the past month, I’ve spent considerable time on a project that was largely his brain-child. The details aren’t important, but suffice to say that it’s an important part of the future versions of all our desktop products. Every step of the way, I consulted with him, making sure I was on the right track, asking for advice in the design, and getting code reviews. Continuing on that project without him by my side is something I’m certainly not looking forward to.

His work was just a small part of his life, though. Most important to him was his friends and his family. Making friends with Vinay was easy. He was inviting, outgoing, funny, and loved meeting new people. He had a lot of friends at work and outside of work. I thought I knew a good number of them, but I realized since just how few I knew. We were important to him and he let us know that.

It was also no secret to anybody who knew him just how close he was to his family. He spoke of them often, with praise and love. He would tell us about his sister, how happy he was that she was getting married, how excited he was that she was moving closer to him. He would talk about his parents and tell us how every time he visited them they would ask when he was getting married. We would joke that one day he’d return after a trip with a bride around his arm.

When I think of Vinay, and this is how I always pictured him, I think of him laughing. He was generally a very happy, upbeat guy. Liked to joke around, share stories, and spend time with friends. One of the things he really helped drive at VMware within our team was our Thursday Movie Night. Every Thursday (more or less) we go to dinner and then come back to the office and watch a movie. Vinay loved Movie Nights with us and often provided the movies and dinner recommendations. Outside of work he’d host parties at the house he shared with many of our friends. His last party, which I regretfully didn’t attend due to conflicting plans, was a Halloween party on Friday the 30th. I hear it was a lot of fun, and I’m glad he was able to enjoy himself one last time.

On Sunday, around 1PM PST, I got the terrible news. Vinay had been in a motorcycle accident, and died on the operating table.

I got the news on Twitter, shortly after dropping off a mutual friend at the train station. I didn’t believe it at first. My mind said “No, this is a joke or just a misunderstanding,” but part of me knew the truth. I quickly dialed people, trying to find out what happened. I reached my friend Scott at the hospital, who was with Vinay when it happened. He told me the news that broke me.

I wanted to blame someone, but this was one of those freak accidents. He was with a group of people, riding his motorcycle, when he hit a groove in the road that knocked him off his bike. There were no external injuries, but they couldn’t stop the internal bleeding. He died shortly after.

News spread vast, over both Twitter and Facebook. A group of us organized at the house he shared with others, trying to comfort each other and come to terms with what had happened. None of us wanted to believe it, but we couldn’t deny it had happened. It was a night of hell. The next day wasn’t any better. Very few of us even attempted to go into work, and those that did gave up being productive quickly. Throughout the day, information spread, again over Twitter and Facebook, about the funeral plans, which were set for Tuesday the 3rd.

The funeral was hard, but it was a nice ceremony, as nice as these things go anyway. It was evident just how many people cared for Vinay and how far his influence had spread. The room we were in was not small, but it was so packed that people were overflowing into a second room. The turnout was huge. After we paid our final respects, many of us went back to the house, comforted each other, and shared stories.

It was a tragedy, and certainly too soon. I do find some comfort in knowing that Vinay went out doing what he loved to do. It also brought people together. I met some great people from one of his many groups of friends tonight, as well as finally meeting his family. I wish these meetings would have happened in better circumstances, but I’m certain Vinay would be happy to know that in some way, he brought his friends closer.

Rest in peace, my friend. We love you, and we’ll never forget you.

Review Board 1.0 Released!

Review Board 1.0

Tonight, we hit a milestone in the Review Board project that we’ve been working toward for over two years. We finally pushed out our 1.0 release. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this release (okay, so not literally, but it was A LOT OF WORK!). The last few months in particular have been challenging, as we’ve had to solve some tricky bugs and scalability problems, but the end result is pretty great.

Just a short while ago, we announced the release and put up an overview of the entire release and product. We’ve already had some nice congratulatory e-mails and tweets, which is really nice 🙂

Some stats for this release:

  • 2 years, 9 months, 25 days have passed since our first commit.
  • 120 contributors have contributed to Review Board so far (in terms of code contributions).
  • 2,019 commits were made.
  • 899 review requests have been posted to our project’s actual Review Board server. 1,650 users are registered on there.
  • Our demo server, in comparison, has 2,082 review requests filed and 10,154 users.
  • 938 bugs were filed. 812 were fixed.
  • 232 feature requests were filed. 101 were implemented. Most remaining ones are scheduled for releases.
  • An estimated 200+ companies are now using Review Board. 26 have let us list them publicly.
  • The largest known Review Board install has over 83,000 filed review requests and over 2,000 users, doing upwards of 10GB of traffic per day.
  • 5 presentations on Review Board are known to have been given, 3 by us, 2 by others.
  • 552 users have joined our main mailing list, and 3,674 e-mails have been sent.

Now that Review Board 1.0 is out, we can get started on some awesome new features we’ve had planned. I have a little notebook full of ideas for our 1.1 and 1.5 releases (which may become 1.5 and 2.0, respectively, as this list grows). Some of the new features are actually ready to be committed within the next couple of days, so those of you using nightlies will start to see them soon.

We were accepted into this year’s Summer of Code, and have three students working on exciting projects for us, so hopefully we’ll start to see these trickle into the upcoming nightlies as well. Among these projects include diff viewer improvements (moved region detection, better whitespace-only change detection), IDE integration with Eclipse, and improved notification hooks and e-mail support.

We’re also working on providing support for third-party extensions, which will allow developers to extend Review Board in new, exciting ways without having to modify Review Board itself. This is especially handy for companies who wish to integrate better with their sandboxes, bug trackers or unit testing services. This will likely land in 1.5 (2.0?) at the earliest, as it’s a large change, but the code for this mostly works today. It’s just a matter of getting the codebase ready and figuring out what APIs we want to stabilize and expose.

As I mentioned in the release announcement, we’re planning a release party, tentatively on July 11th, 2009, in the Bay Area (somewhere around Palo Alto, CA). If any Review Board users want to join us, please RSVP!

Review Board: Summer of Code, Roadmap and Future Plans

Summer of Code

This year, we (the Review Board project) was given the opportunity to participate in Google’s Summer of Code. We’ve received some great student proposals so far, and I think we’ll see exciting work done on Review Board this summer.

The deadline for Summer of Code is coming up fast (April 3rd, 19:00 UTC). If you’re interested in working on Review Board and haven’t yet applied, it’s not too late, but you’ll want to hurry. Skim through our ideas page and, if you find something interesting or have a great idea not listed here, then apply and tell us your plans. I can say we’ve received several proposals so far for the installer and admin UI, so unless you feel strongly about either of those, you’ll increase your chances with other proposals.

We’re also offering free Review Board hosting for open source projects participating in Summer of Code. If you’re a mentoring organization and would like to give Review Board a try for reviewing and managing student code, go ahead and contact us and we’ll get you set up.


We’re finally nearing 1.0. We recently put out our 1.0 beta 2 release and are now in a feature freeze. We’re working to get some bug, performance and usability fixes in for beta 3, which I’m shooting for in a few weeks. Then we’ll branch for 1.0, put out a Release Candidate or two, and then finally release 1.0!

There’s a lot of really cool features planned after 1.0, namely extensions and policy customization.


Our bug tracker is filled with feature requests for all kinds of things, ranging from bug tracker integration, instant messaging, a method for offering bribes for code reviews, and so on. We clearly can’t put all the requested features in the codebase, so we’ve decided instead to add support for third-party extensions. Coming soon, developers will be able to write extensions to Review Board in the form of Python modules to extend or alter the functionality of Review Board. The extension framework will allow them to do the following:

  • Access the database using the existing Review Board database models.
  • Add new database models for storing data.
  • Listen for signals (new review request published, review request submitted, etc.) and act on them.
  • Add custom URLs.
  • Replace existing URLs, for advanced capabilities such as replacing the diff viewer.
  • Add new API handlers.
  • Add “action” links to existing review requests and reviews.
  • Add columns and sidebar entries to the dashboard.
  • Add pages to the administration UI.
  • Communicate with other extensions.
  • Provide a settings page, which stores data in Review Board-provided models (we even auto-generate the settings page for the extension by default).
  • And more!

A lot of this already exists in a private development branch, and it will be one of our primary focuses as soon as 1.0 goes out.

In time, we’ll add a new section to the Review Board website where developers can list their extensions for download and for sale. Administrators will be able to browse and search for extensions directly from the administration UI and install them without having to even open a terminal (in most cases).

We’re hoping this will solve a lot of in-house integration issues. For example, many companies have custom sandbox architectures, bug trackers, and statistics software which they’ll now be able to tie in with Review Board.

Policy Customization

We’ve found that a lot of companies have very specific ways they want to handle policy and access restrictions. For example, many companies want to limit who can see certain parts of a repository (and therefore certain diffs), or want to allow anybody to create review groups, or want to disallow people from joining review groups. Some also want to dictate what constitutes approval for submitting a change.

We’re looking into the various requests and attempting to come up with a policy model that is flexible enough to handle these needs. One of the ideas is to provide some basic level of access control on a per-repository, per-path, and per-group basis. We’d then piggy-back on the extension framework to allow for more specific policy control. The advantage is that developers could write their own policy rules that interface with some part of their company’s infrastructure.

If people have any input on this, we’d love to hear it.

Improving browser performance in Review Board

This past Sunday, I landed a set of changes into Review Board that provide improved performance, such as aggressive browser-side caching of media and pages. It’s just a start, but has already significantly reduced page load times in all of my tests, in some case by several seconds. We implemented these methods for Review Board, but they’re methods that can be applied to any Django project out there.

There are several key things that Review Board now does to improve performance:

  • Tells browsers to cache all media for one year.
  • Only sends page data if new data is available.
  • Compresses all media files to reduce transfer time.
  • Parallelizes media downloads.
  • Loads CSS files as early as possible.
  • Loads JavaScript files as late as possible.
  • Progressively loads expensive data.

A lot of the performance improvements come straight from Yahoo!’s Best Practices for Speeding Up Your Site. We’re not doing everything there yet, but we’re working toward it. That’s a great resource, by the way, and I recommend that everyone who has even made a website before go and read it.

So what do the above techniques buy us, and how are we doing them? Let me go into more details…

Caching all media for a year

The average site has one or more CSS files, JavaScript files, and several images. This translates to a lot of requests to the server, which may leave the site feeling slow. On top of this, a browser only makes a few requests to a server at a time, in order to avoid swamping the server, which will further hinder load times. This happens every time a user visits a page on your site.

Aggressive caching makes a huge difference and can greatly reduce load times for users. Review Board now tells the browser to cache media files for a year. Once a user downloads a JavaScript or CSS file, they won’t have to download it again, meaning that in general the only requests the browser needs to make is for the page requests and AJAX requests.

The big pitfall with long-term caching is that the cached resources can go stale. For example, if a new version of an image was uploaded, the browser wouldn’t even know about it, since it was told it should keep its old version for a year before checking again.

We solve this by introducing “media serials,” timestamps that are appended to all media paths. Instead of caching /js/myscript.js, the browser would cache /js/myscript.js?1273618736.

These media serials are computed on the first page request by our djblets.util.context_processors.ajaxSerial context processor. This quickly scans all media files known to the program, finding out the latest modification timestamp. It then provides a {{MEDIA_SERIAL}} variable for templates to append to media URLs as part of the query string.

The benefit to this method is that we can cache media files for a year and not worry about users having stale cached resources the next time we upgrade a copy of Review Board. The filenames requested will be different, browsers will see that the new file is not in the cache, and make a request, caching the new file for a year.

Only send page data if new data is available

Aggressive caching of media files is great and saves a lot of time, but it doesn’t help for dynamically generated content. For this, we need a new strategy.

When a browser makes a request, it can send a If-Modified-Since header to the server containing the Last-Modified value it received the last time it downloaded that page. This is a very valuable header, and there’s some things we can do with it to save both the server and the browser a lot of trouble.

If the browser sends If-Modified-Since, and we know that no new data has been generated since the timestamp provided, we can send an HttpResponseNotModified (HTTP response code 304). This will tell the browser it already has the newest version of the page. The sooner we do this, the better, as it means we don’t have to waste time building templates or doing any expensive database queries.

Djblets, once again, provides some functions to help out here: djblets.util.http.set_last_modified and djblets.util.http.get_modified_since.

The general usage pattern is that we first build a timestamp representing the latest version of the page. This could be the timestamp for a particular object that the page represents. We then check if we can bail early by calling:

if get_modified_since(request, timestamp):
    return HttpResponseNotModified()

Further down, after building the page, we must set the Last-Modified timestamp, using the same timestamp as above, like so:

set_last_modified(response, timestamp)

We’re using this in only a few places right now, such as the review request details page, but it drastically improves load times. If the review request hasn’t changed and nobody’s commented on it since the browser last loaded the page, a reload of the page will be almost instant.

Compress all media files

Our Apache and lighttpd config files now enable compression by default. By compressing these files, we can turn a relatively large JavaScript file (such as the jquery and jquery-ui files) into a very small file before sending it over to the browser. This reduces transfer times at the expense of compression/decompression time (which is small enough to not worry for deployments of this size, and can be offset by caching of compressed files server-side).

Parallelize media downloads

It’s important to not mix loads of media files of different types. The browser parallelizes media downloads of the same type, in page load order, but if you load one CSS file, one JavaScript file, another CSS file, and then another JavaScript file, the browser will only attempt one load at a time. If you load all the CSS files before all JavaScript files, it will parallelize the CSS file download and then the JavaScript downloads. By enforcing the separation of loads, we can achieve faster page download/render times.

Load CSS files as soon as possible

Loading CSS files before the browser starts to display the page can make the page appear to load smoother. The browser will already know how things should look and will lay the page out accordingly, instead of laying the page out once and then updating that once the CSS files have loaded.

Load JavaScript files as late as possible

JavaScript loads block the browser, as the browser must parse and interpet the JavaScript before it can continue. Sometimes it’s necessary to load a JavaScript file early, but in many cases the files can be loaded late. When possible, we load JavaScript files at the very end of the document body so that they won’t even begin downloading until the page has rendered. This provides noticeable performance for script-heavy pages.

Progressively load expensive data

There are types of data that are just too expensive to load along with the rest of the page. For a long time, Review Board would parse and render fragments of a diff for display in the review request page, but that meant that before the page could load, Review Board would need to do the following:

  1. Query the list of all comments.
  2. Fetch every file commented on.
  3. Apply the stored patch to each file.
  4. Diff between the original and patched files.
  5. Render the portion of the diff commented on into the page.

This became very time-consuming, and if a server was down, the page wasn’t available until everything timed out. The solution to this was to lazily load each of these diff fragments in order.

We now display a placeholder table for each diff fragment in roughly the same size of the rendered fragment (to avoid excessive page scrolling on loads). The table contains a spinner showing that something is happening, and, one-by-one (to avoid dogpiling) we load each diff fragment.

The code to render the diff fragment, by the way, takes advantage of the If-Modified-Since header and is also cached for a year. We use an AJAX_SERIAL (same principal as the MEDIA_SERIAL above) to allow for changes in new deployments.

With these caching mechanisms in place, the review request page now loads in roughly a second in many cases (or less once cached), with diff fragments coming in lazily (and then almost immediately on future loads).

More to come…

This was a great first step, but there’s more we can do. Before we hit our 1.0 release, we’re going to batch together all our CSS files and JavaScript files into a couple of combined files and then “minify” them (basically compressing them in such a way to allow for smaller files and faster load times of the interpreted data).

Again, these are techniques we’re now making use of in Review Board, but they’re not in any way specific to Review Board. Anyone out there developing websites or web applications should seriously look into ways to improve performance. I hope this was a good starting point, but seriously, do read Yahoo!’s article as well.

Infect your application with Parasite!


Ever find yourself stuck debugging an application because the UI is just doing something weird that you can’t track down? Maybe a widget isn’t appearing correctly, or you just need more information about the overall structure and logging statements aren’t doing you much good. Debugging complex UIs can be a pain.

We’ve had some real challenges at VMware, due to the complexity of our applications. It was enough to drive me mad one day, so rather than write more logging statements, I wrote Parasite.

Parasite is a debugging tool that David Trowbridge and I have been working on to give developers an interactive view of their entire application’s UI. It provides a number of really useful features, including:

  • See the entire widget hierarchy of your UI.
  • Watch properties update live.
  • Modify existing properties on a widget.
  • View all registered GtkActions.
  • Toggle GTK+’s debugging of graphic updates.
  • Inject custom code while the application is running.

Yes, you can inject new code into an application. With Python. Parasite runs in-process as a GTK+ module, so it has access to some internals of your application. We provide a Python shell equipped with PyGTK support for creating and modifying your UI on-the-fly, regardless of the language it was written in. Handy when you want to test out new concepts for a UI without writing new C code.

David has a nice screencast available showing some of what Parasite can do.

For more information on Parasite, including screenshots, a mailing list, and where to get the source code, see the Parasite homepage.

Review Board 1.0 alpha 1 released

Roughly two years ago, David Trowbridge and I began development of Review Board for use in our open source projects and our team at VMware. During that time, we’ve turned Review Board into a powerful code review tool that works with a variety of version control systems. Most of VMware has moved over to it, as have an estimated 50-100 companies world-wide. We’ve had over 100 contributors to the project, people providing volunteer support on the mailing list, and people have developed third party tools for integrating with Review Board.

After all this time in development, with this many people contributing, we decided it’s probably time to get a release out there. Sure, we could have done this a long time ago, but there’s a number of large things we were hoping to get in (a recently-committed UI rewrite, for instance). Now that we have most of the major features we want for our 1.0 release, we decided it was time for an alpha.

Over the coming months, we’ll be working on stabilizing the codebase, fixing a few large remaining usability quirks, enhancing performance, and writing some proper documentation (which is coming along nicely).

We’re eager to get a quality product out there and to begin development on the next release. There’s a lot of neat things planned:

  • Support for writing extensions to Review Board.
  • A fully-featured API covering every operation you’ll need to perform.
  • Some degree of policy support (specifying which users/groups can see which parts of a repository, for instance).
  • Reviews with statuses other than “Ship It”. This will probably be customizable to some degree.
  • Possibly some theme customization to allow Review Board to blend in better with corporate sites, Trac installs, etc.

Along with this, I plan to roll out a new website for the project that will have a browseable list of third party extensions, apps, Greasemonkey scripts, and more.

We have more information on our release on our release announcement.

Armed robbery in progress

Our Christmas this year was very nice, with lots of good presents, time spent with family, delicious food, and an opportunity to foil an armed robbery. Yes, an armed robbery. How do I continually get myself into these situations?

While heading back home from my stepdad’s parents’ house, I spotted a guy standing in a small field at a street corner near my parents’ house, holding what looked to be a gun. The guy was probably late teens/early adult, Caucasian, and dressed in all black. His actions looked instantly suspicious. He was pointing the gun to the ground and made some motion as if he was checking the ammo or something. He seemed pretty lost in his own world, apparently not even realizing he seemed very suspicious.

My Mom was driving, and decided to slowly drive away from home instead of toward it, and then turn around, giving us time to watch and see what was happening. We knew there was a gas station across the street and wanted to see if he was going to head in there. If so, there was a good chance we’d be witnessing a robbery.

Sure enough, he started walking across the street to the TowerMart, a gas station/convenience store. We parked the car and my Mom grabbed my phone and called 911 while my brothers and I carefully watched from behind a building, making sure we weren’t noticed. We saw the guy walking back and forth at the side of the building, looking very nervous. He was wearing long sleeves with his left hand exposed and his right hand (which was holding the gun) completely covered. As my Mom talked to the police, we continued to watch, and the guy eventually psyched himself into going into the store. He put the gun in his pocket and went in.

The store was pretty crowded, and we weren’t sure what to expect. Would people be running out screaming? Would people be locked in? Would we hear gun fire? Or would he just leave?

We never saw him actually leave, but we could only see the one side of the building. A couple minutes later, six police cars drove up, two right beside us. Two cop cars pulled up alongside us. One of them hopped out, grabbed a big ol’ semi-automatic, and approached the building, pointing the gun, ready to fire. Three other cops did the same, surrounding the building. A couple other cops went in and got people out of there, with another couple cops asking those people if they had seen anyone matching the description we gave, or saw other suspicious activity.

They spent some time going through the TowerMart and eventually came back out once they were sure he wasn’t hiding in there. It seems at some point, he had left the building. We weren’t able to see when. However, he was definitely in there. Practically everyone they talked to noticed him, as he was nervously walking in circles around the building, completely covered. He had either grown nervous with the number of people in there, or heard the sirens come. Either way, he got out of there before doing anything.

As most of the cops started to exit the building, the one who had pulled up closest to us walked up and asked what we saw. Then he said, “Oh, I talked to you before.” We all thought that was strange, since he hadn’t actually talked to us, but then he pointed out that he remembered us from the assault back in May. Good memory.

We walked with him to the field and pointed out roughly where we saw him standing. He found the footprints and was calling out the detectives to take pictures or whatever. We chit-chatted briefly before returning home. He told us we very well may have saved the store and a lot of people from experiencing a robbery on Christmas Day. I just hope the guy didn’t make another attempt elsewhere.

We found out that an hour or two later, the police were still all over that place. About an hour ago, they apparently had arrested someone not too far from here. Whether related or not, I don’t know. Given that they had video footage of the guy, testimonies and descriptions from a bunch of people in the store, and his footprints, it’s probably only a matter of time.

The rest of Christmas proceeded without police intervention. Merry Christmas!

Ubuntu and Desktop Notifications

This past Monday, Mark Shuttleworth wrote about their plans for an overhaul of desktop notifications (the little popup bubbles telling you someone IM’d you or there’s updates available). Many people have asked me about this, some concerned, and wanted to know what I thought. Being the maintainer of libnotify, notification-daemon and the Desktop Notifications specification, some people were concerned that this work would supersede my own.

The reality is, this isn’t a replacement of my project. This is a new joint effort between Ubuntu, KDE, and myself. What’s been written in Mark’s post may not end up being the end result. We’re still deciding how this will progress, and Ubuntu wants to experiment a bit. Aaron Seigo’s post on the subject sums up a lot of my thoughts on this, and I recommend reading it, though I’ll go further and discuss where this all started and how it’ll affect the project.

First of all, libnotify/notification-daemon isn’t going anywhere. It’s not being replaced, nor is an alternate spec being drafted. Ubuntu’s User Experience team has some new things they want to try, and that’s fine. The plan is to see how this stuff goes in their codebase, with the intention of migrating code back upstream.

A couple of weeks ago, during the Ubuntu Summit, I was invited to speak with some of the developers and User Experience guys from Ubuntu about their plans. They showed me the mockup that’s on Mark’s blog and told me about their plans. They have things they want to do that could definitely improve the experience. Some things are pretty controversial, such as the removal of actions on notifications. We sat down, discussed and debated various aspects of the proposals for a while, and I believe reached a general course of action for the project. The highlights include:

  • Actions will be removed for applications packaged in Ubuntu. The developers will try to replace them with something that they feel makes more sense, with the hope of pushing these changes upstream.
  • The released notification-daemon will, I believe, support actions, since many non-packaged applications do use them. They will, however, appear as old-style notifications and not appear in the new window stack demoed in Mark’s blog post.
  • We’ll be drafting new additions to the notification spec in order to address the needs of KDE and Mozilla.
  • The work will be done by their developers in either a fork or a whole new notification-daemon implementation, allowing them a greater ability to experiment. These changes (or parts of them) will make their way upstream. It will be spec-compatible so users won’t have to worry too much about losing features (aside from actions, perhaps).
  • In the end, it’ll likely be that the Ubuntu theme specifically works this new way, and that other themes will work differently (they may support actions more directly, for example).

Now I should point out that I don’t believe actions are a bad thing. There’s many use cases where actions are very much warranted, and it seems Aaron agrees. While the Ubuntu team has discussed the possibility of deprecating this in the spec, I believe the end result will be that actions will live on. I’m also pretty adamant that upstream notification-daemon will still support actions and some other features. Ubuntu can choose what experience to give their packaged applications, but that may differ a bit from what we decide upstream.

Time will tell how this all turns out. I personally think it’s great that there’s some momentum on this project. I know I haven’t had much time to work on it as of late, between VMware and Review Board, which is why getting some new people on board with fresh thoughts will probably be a good thing.

On a related note, I’d like to welcome Andrew Walton to the project. He’s going to be working as a co-maintainer and helping out when I’m busy (which will be a lot of the time for a while).

Over the next month or two, the project should start to pick up. We’re beginning to look at ways to improve the spec and at what work needs to be done in the near future for the project. These discussions will take place on xdg-list.

And with that, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas (or just a very good December 25th for those who don’t celebrate Christmas)!