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Thoughts on software architecture and development, and methods and techniques for improving the quality thereof.

David B. Robins (home)

Code Visions: Improving software quality
Code review tools and SVNKit tricks

By David B. Robins tags: Tools, Bugs, Java Wednesday, January 21, 2015 11:44 EST (link)

For a few months now, with the expectation of adding a new developer to our embedded group (present population: me), I've been looking for a code review tool. Admittedly, I'd been spoiled by SmartBear Collaborator (formerly Code Collaborator, but they're pitching it as document review too) at Exacq/Tyco, which was teriffic but is also $500 per named user (which is not that bad, but while we're not in bad shape we're also not in "let's drop a few thousand on a development tool" mode). Before that, we did code review by email (not great) and at Microsoft a couple of the dev managers really liked reviews being in-person, so one would pack up a DPK (diff package), throw it on a share, and interrupt someone's flow to get a review.

The highest-recommended open source tool was Review Board, so I set it up on my Amazon EC2 server and monkeyed with it until it saw my SVN repository, and left it for a while. Then I tried using it for a review, and hoo boy, I know it's free (so's Linux), but it's all kinds of terrible. The command-line tools they required for pre-commit review didn't work, so we tried post-commit (in a branch) and while I could comment the comments were hard to see/open after creating, and I don't believe replies were supported. It also didn't support updating a changeset after review comments, something Collaborator did pretty seamlessly most of the time.

Another recommendation was Atlassian Crucible, which looked pretty good in their overview/screenshots, and we're already using a number of their OnDemand (now "Cloud") tools (JIRA bug database, Confluence wiki, HipChat) so I gave it a try. I first downloaded the Windows 64-bit version on my laptop, which installed easily (to give the Windows ecosystem credit, Windows installers are usually good), but it had trouble accessing my SVN repository. I poked around a little but since I was eventually going to host it on a Linux server anyway figured I'd eliminate Windows from the equation and installed the Linux version. I must say, I was very favorably impressed with how easy it was to install (and that it didn't require a "blessed" Linux distro, working fine on Arch); unlike Windows, Linux installers are hit and miss when they exist at all. In this case it was: unzip, make a data directory, run a script and tell it where to find the config, run a script to start the service, connect via web browser. However, I had the same SVN repo access issues.

My SVN repository is accessed via an SSH tunnel (svn+ssh protocol). Atlassian recommends using their provided jsvn script to analyze Subversion connectivity issues, so I tried that; same error. I cranked up the Java log level to "FINEST" and it showed me the internal protocol data, and at some point it gave me an SVN E1700001 "authorization failed" error. I cut and pasted the same commands to a local svnserve session I initiated with the same user, and—no error (same with the standard svn command-line utility). Logging svnserve is extremely hacky, but I set it up and saw that it was logging a different username than the SSH user—the client local user, in fact. I added the command-line parameters to the log file and saw it was passing a --tunnel-user argument. Why? Since it used SVNKit for Subversion access, I downloaded and built the current trunk and fired up jdb. I didn't find out why it sent the local username rather than the SSH username, but I did find an undocumented property (similar to the documented ones) that I could use to set the remote SVN username: (.username is the SSH user). Setting that let me in; in fact I didn't even need to set it in FISHEYE_OPTS since it seems to have been saved in the Fisheye/Crucible server user's ~/.subversion directory.

That made everything happy, and I could see something much like Trac's "timeline" view for commits, search the repository, etc.; I created a test review and it worked decently well except it doesn't have anything like Collaborator's defects. It does have a way to mark a comment as a defect, but there's no way to close a defect, just unmark it (and use a convention like inserting the text [RESOLVED]). The linked ticket is #6 in Fisheye/Crucible tickets by votes, and the one above is similar (checkbox for reviewer to acknowledge a comment); however, it's 2.5 years old (the other ticket is marked as duplicating it, and it's 7.5 years old), so I'm not getting my hopes up.

Since we do plan to get a license (using trial 30-day now), as it's only $10 each for Fisheye/Crucible for 1-5 users, and I believe that's perpetual and not recurring, and includes a year of support. I upgraded to PostgreSQL a few days after installing, since the built-in "HSQLDB" isn't supported outside evaluation. This was also super-painless following the migration page, a pleasant surprise.

Learning Android opens doors

By David B. Robins tags: Development, Mobile Tuesday, December 23, 2014 23:32 EST (link)

For a little while now I've been thinking I should learn a little about mobile development. The last time I considered it I was so put off by the thought of using Java that I gave up; but this time I gritted my teeth, installed Android Studio, and created a project. I went with a blank Activity, which I learned is sort of like the fundamental UI building block of an Android project, and used the visual editor to add some controls: some static text, a button (originally "Go!" but it later became "Unlock"), and a multiline text area to be used for status/logs. Later, a static image (of holly, for Christmas) was added, and I'm sure I violated all good positioning practices to get it where I wanted it without losing the button.

From there I started reading about the Android support for BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) and added basic scan code to the onCreate handler and a handler for the button click event. Originally I connected on the button click event; eventually I did that in onCreate and had it send the authentication message and modified the button to (1) be enabled only when connected, and (2) send an unlock message to unlock the door when clicked. I also updated the read-only log area with certain events: seeing a door, including the remote address (take that, iOS!); connection; disconnection (disables the unlock button, too); and button unlock. Honestly, it wasn't much trouble at all; a fun little project: Java's a lot less painful than it once was.

Now obviously it's a proof of concept. There's buckets of things it doesn't handle that the real guest app does: it probably doesn't do backgrounding well; the UI isn't pretty; it doesn't handle log in to our cloud site; it's not very flexible about which doors it will unlock. Those are all easy to fix (and rather tedious); this is just "Look, I can unlock doors with Android!", and a "my first Android app". Am I likely to want to work in mobile development in future? No, I don't think so; but I can do it if pressed and if I see a need it's easier for me to whip up an app than it was before.

This experience also validates my preferred method of testing candidates: I use a problem that requires that they both consume and produce an interface; in the specific case for C and C++, the interface consumed is the Python C API (which tends to make people think it's a Python problem when it isn't). Learning and implementing new interfaces is a huge part of programming and when the skill is developed it allows for rapid expansion to new areas of programming. Even embedded programming is far more about new interfaces and constraints than it is hardware.

Fix one thing, break another

By David B. Robins tags: C++, Development, Embedded, Bugs Wednesday, November 19, 2014 15:58 EST (link)

I've been doing a bunch of work with the nRF51822's on-chip UART this week; I found an issue with the vendor's code and contributed a fix back. Their code has generally been good and I imagine closing down the UART while the other side is transmitting, and then expecting to be able to reopen and pick up where they left off, isn't something people usually do. I had suspected some random UART issues but hadn't isolated them yet, so I wrote a test that:

  1. sent an incrementing stream of bytes from one chip to the other and verified it arrived with no gaps;
  2. verified that the other side saw the same first number (had to make some RTS/CTS fixes there);
  3. then I went to full duplex;
  4. had one side shut down the UART randomly, wait, and re-enable and ensure nothing was lost (this is where I had to make the library code fix).

I also found an interesting case where a fix exposed a bug: I fixed a function that had no return value (which you'd expect GCC with -Wall to warn about, but it doesn't, at least if the function has branches):

bool FSendMessage(message::Header const &msg, size_t cb)
   if (!FAppendToQueue(msg, cb))
   return true;  // this was missing

elsewhere I had this code:

message::ShuttingDown msg;
APP_ERROR_CHECK_BOOL(FSendMessage(msg, sizeof(msg)));

   __WFE();  // "wait for events" instruction, basically uses less power than pure busy wait


APP_ERROR_CHECK_BOOL is basically an assert, and the while loop wasn't there before. When FSendMessage fell off the end of the function, it happened to return 0 and the assert fired. However, when it did that it went into an infinite loop (in the assert handler) and allowed the queued message to finish sending, and then since it was looping forever it behaved similarly to the chip being powered off: it stopped responding, so it seemed like it was working properly.

When I added the return true, the assert no longer fired, and (no while loop yet) Serial::Close shut down the serial port before the message finished sending. I added the while loop to wait for transmission to finish. (I could have put it into Serial::Close itself, but that wasn't the right thing; it's OK for it to shut down the port with data to send in the general case; it can resume later.)

Resurrection on demand

By David B. Robins tags: C++, Development, Architecture, Embedded Sunday, July 27, 2014 17:07 EST (link)

It's been a few months since I've written an entry here, and that's mainly due to the job change to Senior Development Manager at Yikes. But I've been writing a whole lot of C++ and Python using technologies and techniques new to me and have plenty to write about on sundry topics.

Let me first describe the system we're building here at Yikes (and by "here" I mean scattered all over North America). The near-term goal is a hotel check-in system whereby a guest can bypass the front desk, go directly to their room, and unlock it with their phone (I know, I know, first-world problems); longer-term, the plan is to expand into the proximity space generally. To make this system work there are several components (the existence of none of which is secret in itself, just don't expect to see any schematics; but you didn't, did you?): a mobile phone app, a cloud API/database server, some on-property ("property" is jargon for "hotel" here) small form-factor computers, and a device with radios that resides in each door and controls the lock. It is on this device we are going to focus, since although I've been architecting various parts of the system it is where I've been writing code.

This device consists of a custom board with two chips which each have Bluetooth (Low Energy or "Smart" 4.0) connectivity responsibilities: one talks to the other hotel systems, and the other chip talks to a guest's phone and the door lock, unlocking it if the right authentication is received.

The device runs on a battery (as well as the physical difficulty of getting a power cable into a door, there are fire and liability concerns). Obviously, the longer this battery lasts the better (due to both cost and the inconvenience of staff having to replace it). A measurement a month or so ago showed it only lasting two days, when we're hoping for it to last more along the lines of 18 months+; but I have reason to believe that measurement is spurious and am trying to get details of its circumstances, since I've been running my development device 8-10+ hours a day for weeks off the same battery.

Nonetheless, wherever it's at now if we can do a little work for a large return in power-saving, we should do it. And it struck me that while there are reasons the first chip needs to run continually (it has to scan for advertisements and keep a clock, which it already does in a low-power mode), if the second chip has no room authorizations pending (phones to authenticate and then allow in if matched), it can shut down completely. I read through the relevant sections of the (Nordic) API and the nRF51 chip manual, checked that we could pin-reset the second chip from the first, and started experimenting.

To give the chip a chance to finish current operations, the per-second "tick" handler checks if anything is pending and then invokes the API go to to System OFF mode, sd_system_power_off. I later realized that the first chip would need to know the other chip was shut down (so it didn't offer needless resets and so it could sync communications), so using an existing messaging system I had the second chip send a message first. The continually-running chip can set a flag and then knows that when it next needs to send a message to the other, it needs to send a reset and wait for boot-up.

Obviously… it's critical that the second chip check for messages on wake-up, and process them, before it finds it's not busy and decides to sleep again!

We have employed the services of a contractor to do proper power profiling for the device in various modes; it may turn out, for example, that booting up is expensive and usage patterns show that it makes sense to wait for, say, 2 minutes of no activity before shutting down rather than doing it immediately when not busy. As another interesting note, we had been building the code (using Keil's ARMCC) at debug optimization (-O0); I added a debug flag to our build (we use SCons); enables optimization (-O2): code size dropped about 30% each side. It remains to be evaluated what effect this has on power consumption. At some point I may try building with GCC, but I've heard that Keil does much better and we're still well under the free code size limit (32k) so it's not a high priority.

Generating GSSAPI tokens from arbitrary Kerberos logins

By David B. Robins tags: Development, Unix Saturday, April 12, 2014 23:22 EST (link)

Forums such as StackOverflow are very helpful for providing solutions and code samples for shallow issues; but when one needs to dig a little deeper, they tend not to have answers. Of course, this is why they pay us the big bucks: to do the required research to make all the various libraries play nicely together. This is such a story.

The problem: given a username, an associated Kerberos domain (e.g., a Windows/Active Directory/LDAP domain), and a password, obtain a GSSAPI token suitable for logging in to a service. The service will use gss_accept_sec_context (Linux/Mac, hence "Unix", GSSAPI) or (Windows SSPI) AcceptSecurityContext to validate the token. Existing code was able to fetch a token for an arbitrary username and password using the Windows APIs, which made it easier, but GSSAPI didn't support it directly so instead only "single sign-on" using credentials from a cache (set via kinit) would be supported on Linux/Mac. The accept code, however, would accept any valid token, if we could figure out a way to generate it.

Another dev made a first attempt at generating a token, going to the MIT Kereberos library (libkrb5) directly since GSSAPI didn't expose usable APIs. He did get Kerberos to cough up a token using krb5_get_init_creds_password (and the obvious supporting functions to create a context, parse the server name, etc.) but the server, using the API functions mentioned above, didn't accept it: Windows servers said SEC_E_INSUFFICIENT_MEMORY. He passed the problem on to me, and I got the same error. I made sure my Linux client machine was joined to the domain (using tools called "Centrify"); same result. I played around with different Kerberos calls, e.g., setting up a credentials context with krb5_init_creds_init and adding the server principal and password separately; no dice.

Eventually I asked if there were Linux servers among the servers that were configured for Kerberos logins; and it turned out there were. They coughed up a slightly different error, saying I had an invalid token. Well, that made more sense than E_INSUFFICIENT_MEMORY and might allow for some progress. I set up a stub program on the same machine as the server (wanting to vary as little as possible), using the same token validation code, and unsurprisingly it gave the same error: but it was a lot easier for me to build and link it with a debug version of libkrb5 that I could step into with gdb (our server's watchdog also likes to reboot the machine if one halts in the debugger too long; that can be disabled, but it's an obstacle). Being able to step into libkrb5, I could see it was rejecting the token because it didn't begin with the magic value 0x60, and I tracked down a function that could properly encapsulate the token with the required RFC 4121 framing: gss_encapsulate_token, by dint of grepping around the source. This got me further, but unforutnately gss_encapsulate_token purposely left off a field called the "token type" which was necessary, so I had to write my own version that passed the correct type to the internal wrapper, g_make_token_header, to make another internal function, g_verify_token_header, happy.

That got me further, but a function that decoded the payload, which was supposed to be ASN.1 DER formatted, threw back an error, since my payload was the raw Kerberos credentials. I poked around the source some more, and found something that looked like it might wrap things up properly, and even a relevant-seeming public interface: krb5_mk_req_extended. I still had some #if'd branched versions of earlier attempts; but it turned out that the krb5_init_creds_init version, with krb5_init_creds_set_password and krb5_init_creds_set_service, was the ticket, so to speak. I pared the code down to what was absolutely required, removing unnecessary calls and experimental branches, and passed it back.

I'll also be integrating it into the shared authentication code, now that the "magic spell" is known. It was certainly a great help to have the Kerberos source, given that the (protocol) documentation is so sparse and generally unhelpful. Basically, it was a framing issue: the raw Kerberos token needed to be wrapped in an appropriate ASN.1 description and then that in a GSSAPI header. That perhaps explains why the Windows implementation complained of insufficient memory: intepreting the credentials as a GSSAPI token might have meant interpreting some credentials data as length fields, which may have contained invalid data making the length appear impossibly long (hopefully SSPI just rejected it based on the token length rather than trying to actually allocate memory).

Spooky action at a distance Python bug

By David B. Robins tags: Python, Bugs Wednesday, March 12, 2014 21:56 EST (link)

This was a fun one: when used with a new kind of camera, our web service crashed, and only on Linux. Technically, not a new camera, but a new library (provided by the manufacturer) that "de-warps" a fisheye (very wide-angle) lens using software, straightening out lines curved by the lens and providing (in some ways) a more natural view. This is part of a feature known as "digital PTZ" (PTZ = Pan, Tilt, and Zoom), differentiated from physical PTZ which allows for physically moving cameras to alter their viewing angle by sending commands to internal motors.

The Exacq web service (link goes to our demo server) makes use of the Exacq SDK (evAPI), which I am responsible for; and it is the API code that wraps the manufacturer-specific dewarp libraries and invokes them for the appropriate cameras when requested. Thus, the web team asked us to investigate, since the crash happened within an API invocation. It took a bit of time to get setup to debug the web server, by attaching, but I eventually figured that out. I asked for, and the web team provided, a standalone Python repro, which made investigation easier.

Early on I figured out it had something to do with the Python ctypes built-in library, which makes it possible to invoke functions in C libraries (our API is natively a C library, provided as a DLL or shared object). The Python 2.6 from the Ubuntu "deadsnakes" PPA (my local Python was 2.7) did not repro the bug, and nor did 2.7; and it was possible to just switch out to make it go away. So I started looking in later Python 2.6 releases than the web server used to see if there was a fix. No dice: and with the Python 2.6 versions I built myself, the issue persisted. I tried using strace to see what the working Python did differently, and nm to see if there were any important different imports or exports, but got nowhere.

I went back to the debugger, gdb: when I had first looked at the crash location, it had looked like it was accessing unallocated memory below the current stack (via info proc mappings); but either I had calculated wrongly or miscopied something, because looking later showed the destination of the instruction (movapd %xmm0, 0(%eax)) as valid memory (verified by checking the process memory map, or p *(int *)$eax, although that's just the first 4 bytes of it). I ran the succeeding and failing cases in separate (GNU screen) windows, again. I wrote down the addresses being accessed, and a light came on: the SSE XMM registers are large: what are their alignment requirements?

And so it was: the SIGSEGV failure, coming from a processor general protection fault, was indeed an alignment error: the instruction required a 16-byte aligned memory location, and it wasn't. I had even gone to the trouble earlier of creating a Python C extension that called the same function, bypassing ctypes, which succeeded: and when it did, so did the call via ctypes (it fetched the dewarped image), most likely because the first call, judging by the names of the internal functions (we had symbols but not source), initialized the library by populating some tables that only needed to be set up once. Once I knew what to look for, I found the Python bug, which had only been fixed in 2.7 and 3.2+.

So, lessons? Check the reason for a segment violation (available in $_siginfo in gdb, although it might not have been helpful since alignment errors are expected as SIGBUS), and double-check diagnoses, like the initial belief that the memory address was bad. Isolate the fault as best possible (I found it was ctypes fairly quickly).

We resolved to leave this dewarping library, which was one of several others already in use, out of the Linux release until the web service upgraded to Python 2.7, which was already planned, and possibly issue a mid-cycle release update (outside the normal quarterly channel) if there is sufficient business justification (read: people willing to give us money for it).

All aboard the D-Bus!

By David B. Robins tags: Development, Python Tuesday, January 28, 2014 19:17 EST (link)

I'm sure the title's been repeated numerous times at this point all across the Interwebs: but this is my site, and I like it, so we're going with it.

A little while ago, I was looking at Celery, an interface to distributed message queues. But after ruminating on it for months and not making much progress, I have to confess that queues are a bad fit for the kind of RPC I was looking to do (COM would be a good fit if I were developing on Windows). I decided to give D-Bus a shot, using Python, since the service I wanted to share is in Python. An actually decent Python DBus Tutorial actually lived up to the name, and I wrote a server around it that wrapped some functions in a module I already had.

The reason I wanted to run the module as a service was that it cached some data that I didn't want to continually reload (even from a file). So I provided a simple interface (the details aren't terribly important, but it takes an approximate name and returns the best good match and a related id on success (a tuple), None on failure. It uses Levenshtein distance, or, rather, a ratio (to length) to avoid certain pathological results. To allow for auto-updates, when it is run it looks for an existing object of its kind on the bus and sends a quit request.

To start the local bus for a user, I used a solution which I can't find now that stores connection settings (DBUS_SESSION_BUS_ADDRESS and DBUS_SESSION_BUS_PID) in ~/.dbus_settings, stored there or executed by .bashrc. I then hooked up the new service to a frequently run program that usually had to hit the Internet and do a slow and inaccurate search; worked great; accuracy and time both improved. That isn't everything I wanted to do, but making decent progress after so long a disinterested hiatus at least indicates to me that this technology is a better fit for the problem rather than the queues rathole.

Burndown chart for Trello

By David B. Robins tags: Business, Tools, Architecture Thursday, December 12, 2013 21:04 EST (link)

I've mentioned previously that we use Trello to manage work items and sprints (we use three week sprints). Another manager got me to start using Scrum for Trello, a browser plugin that allows for setting estimates and accruing work on task cards; it shows them as card annotations and conveniently totals up estimates and work done for lists and boards. For the current sprint board, our lists are "Backlog" (not yet started, but, of course, estimated), "Developing", "Testing", and "Done".

I found the "Burndown for Trello" app, but really didn't like it; the unpaid version doesn't work with Scrum for Trello, and their help doesn't show any charts, so I gave up on it as, if not bad, then unknown and untestable. Our ESM (Enterprise Server Manager) product shows charts, so I asked what library they used; they use (not wanting to go through the painful process of finding an actively developed Javascript library that did what I wanted if I someone had already evaluated the field) jqPlot, and it looked great; super-flexible and makes beautiful graphs.

Design-wise, I went with the Unix philosophy: small components that each do one thing well. I broke it into:

  • burn, a program to read a Trello board and emit a snapshot of current total estimates and work done,
  • daily_burn, a program to be run via cron at midnight that uses burn to add the day's snapshot to a database,
  • data, a web app returning said database (for AJAX callbacks),
  • graph, a web page that displays the current chart.

Regarding specific technologies, I went with Python (3) for the first two apps, Apache as the web server (which was already running on the web server machine, which serves as a rotating build/task status display), Python over WSGI for the web app, and of course graph uses Javascript, CSS, and HTML (5). Besides jqPlot (and jQuery, obviously), I pulled in a date library Moment.js and several jqPlot plugins. (Incidentally, at some point after I had this running, the IT department at the large company that recently acquired us started expanding their web site block list for whatever reason, including blocking a category called "Content Servers", which included CDNs serving up Javascript libraries such as the ones I got jqPlot and Moment from. They unblocked it fairly quickly, for a large company; I know I wasn't the only one affected.)

Data-wise, burn emitted YAML, and daily_burn just added it to a file; it was set to skip weekends and holidays (if someone did work on those days, it would count toward the next day). I used the jqPlot date axis plugin (without it, for some reason, all dates piled up on top of each other, maybe because numerically "Wed Nov 27" evaluates to 0?) The data app just converted it to JSON (the fact that conversion was necessary at all was only because timestamps were stored, since the two formats are compatible for basic structures). An AJAX callback fetched an array of data, and a few simple loops created points for jqPlot.

I did make a few changes after I had it working for my team so that a neighboring manager could use it (and maybe others later, since using Trello is spreading): I moved board and sprint (date, length) information to a configuration file, and allowed for a parameter to refer to different configuration and data files. This had always been designed in to be possible, so it was just a matter of removing some shortcuts put in during development.

Cameras in 3D with Cinder

By David B. Robins tags: C++ Friday, November 15, 2013 18:40 EST (link)

In his "One C++" talk for GoingNative 2013, Herb Sutter challenged viewers to take a little time and produce a small application using the Cinder C++ graphics library.

I decided to combine libcinder with the exacqVision API to make an app for our weekly Friday demos (food is served, and non-engineers are encouraged to, and do, attend). At some point, I'll also add it as a downloadable sample for our customers. I started with the "Picking3D" sample included with Cinder, which features a duck and allows "picking" a point on its surface, and played around with it until it was drawing what I wanted and I had re-accustomed myself to OpenGL and manipulations in 3-space (it's been a while). One thing that was convenient with the sample was that it showed me how to use an included class that allowed manipulating the camera view through the UI by dragging.

My first idea was a "control room", a rectangular room where a hypothetical security guard might sit; and he's looking at a bank of monitors. Except instead of monitors, the walls themselves are screens showing various camera views. After selecting the coordinates of the room (arbitrary, so I picked some convenient +/- multiples of 100), the main trick here to figure out how to map camera images to said "walls". As I figured, they would have to be textures; and our code already knows how to stretch an image to a given size while maintaining the aspect ratio. I decided on two threads: one for the connection to the exacqVision server with the cameras, and another for the UI, as is fairly typical. They communicated via a std::mutex (fortunately, someone had just presented on C++11 concurrency during our developer lunch talks). I expect if I had had YUV images at that point (they were not added to the API until later), I would have used them as they are supposed to be more efficient for graphics hardware. However, with images on left, right, and back walls and the ceiling (probably 30 fps, but it was allowed to drop frames) speed was acceptable on a VM.

After getting basic display working, I changed the camera textures to fill the frame rather than keep "black bars", cropping whatever didn't fit, since this looked better. I also added controls to move the camera view forward as well as the existing dragging to rotate the viewpoint. To make sure my demo would go smoothly, I took the program, statically linked, and a copy of the API and ran it on the demo machine, a new small footprint box in the conference room; it ran fine, about the same as on my VM (both Windows 7). Always run your demo on the precise setup you'll be using at go-time, or if you can't, as close to it as you can get! It was pretty cool seeing people walking around on the mapped camera views, or the one view of the parking lot that automatically panned back and forth (PTZ presets).

At this point, I thought up a variation: rather than a box, showing virtual "monitors" spaced around the inside of a sphere. I forked the existing code, since I had some handy innovations such as an object wrapper around the API handle (RAII and allowing for an overridable callback method), and the background worker thread. I started by placing textured rectangles around the sphere, careful with the transformation order (rotation and translation can go horribly wrong if the matrix multiplication order is mixed up, or rotation about axes is done incorrectly). I added a simple wireframe box spaced a little away from the textured rectangle to make it look more like a monitor (I had originally planned to use an image of a physical monitor, but decided that it didn't add that much and would be a bit messy given that it would have to be cut into four rectangles around the outside of each camera feed). I also drew axis circles to show the bounds of the sphere. I set keys to toggle a profusion of monitors rather than the few shown by default, and to set the view to rotate continuously about the y-axis. It was significantly slower with many monitors, of course; and I wasn't doing anything clever about not calculating textures for monitors not in the view. I also added more navigation keys to "walk" around the scene.

The demo went pretty well; it wasn't new functionality, of course, as is more usually shown, but there were some semi-serious comments about showing it in our booth at the various shows we attend; there may be a corner for such a display if it could be dusted up a bit, made generally interactive, and add an exacq logo or two, if it can be connected with selling, or at least enhancing awareness of, our API and how it can be incorporated into any desired UI, or integrate with a company's products.

Two web tools: FSReviews and Bugzilla Improved!

By David B. Robins tags: Automation, Tools, Meta, Architecture Friday, July 19, 2013 20:52 EST (link)

A couple of the internal tools I developed while at Freedom Scientific were web-based; I ran an Apache/mod_wsgi (Python 3) server on my Windows development box. One was a code review tool, which I called FSReview: code reviews were done in an ad hoc fashion over email, but those emails tended to get lost, especially when people were busy. This tool allowed one to select a project, and from its home page, create a review from a Perforce changelist (which was auto-populated through a dropdown, showing the last several changes made by the authenticated domain user, with descriptions, or a value could be typed in manually). The description would auto-populate in a text field; a note could be added, and then when the user clicked the Add button, the review would be added to a list of reviews.

The main screen, beside the Add Review button, had two jQuery accordion widgets: on the left, changes waiting for review, and on the right, changes being reviewed. Expanding an item showed more details; the header had the change number, a short description, date, and author. Anyone but the author could click Review on an item on the left, and it would move to the right side; from there, a review could be abandoned (returned to the review list for someone else to review), or completed (where it disappeared, although was still tracked in the database—Postgres—and could have sent a report, etc.).

Since the method of review had not changed—still email, except that requests could be added to the web page instead—there was a button on the open review that popped open an email addressed to the author, CC'ing a manager, with an appropriate subject and the description inserted at the end of the body. It was a fairly neat hack, and a chance to learn jQuery. Although I had no power to require it, my co-workers began using the tool due to its convenience (until eventually told not to by management; I think they wanted to shell out big bucks for something, although they hadn't chosen anything when I left). As with email, a rather large backlog grew; but now it was obvious, rather than buried in email. Since we committed before reviewing (which was different from Microsoft, where review was required first), I wasn't blocked; but it did become an interesting question to ask my manager: was it important to get everything reviewed?—in which case, why wasn't he asking people to get on it—or not worth bothering, which belied the claimed importance of them (as did he not getting his own changes reviewed, resulting in a few subtle and nasty bugs).

Another useful, but fairly trivial, thing the tool did was to convert text of the form "bug #n" into a link to Bugzilla, which was convenient for associating the bug with a fix. Sometimes the easy things—a small regular expression!—have great yields (and of course, the corollary is that the work on the 90% of the "iceberg" below the water often goes unseen).

The second tool I dubbed "Bugzilla Improved!"; it worked as a proxy for the local Bugzilla server. I wanted the "status whiteboard" field to be turned on so I could note the status of a bug (e.g., waiting for a tester) (at Microsoft, we would just assign the bug to the tester and they would assign it back when they were done with whatever had been asked; but that was not policy at FS). However, they had some local incompatible changes that made it impossible to do so (at least, for about a year), so I resolved to create my own version, storing the information in a local database.

To be able to tell at a glance that I was seeing my version with enhancements, I added a green "Improved!" after the Bugzilla title. I made these page changes using XSLT (which is very handy in the right circumstances). The other changes were of course functional: adding the "Status whiteboard" type field's title and control to the list, etc. The data would be inserted from the database or extracted and inserted into it when the appropriate accesses or submissions were made, tracked by bug number as primary key.

Eventually, as I noted, the conflict with our local changes was resolved and the built-in "status whiteboard" was turned on. I had not, at this point, completed the work to search my "phantom field", although I did have a design sketched out, although it may not have worked well with boolean operators.

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