Older blog entries for wlach (starting at number 106)

Hellofax rocks my world

It’s kind of rare for me to pimp out products and services on my blog, but I’m going to do so just this once. :)

I really despise faxes, but occasionally I do have to send them in the course of some of the admin work I still do on the side for my old consulting company (address changes, etc.). If you’re in a similar boat, you really owe it to yourself to check out hellofax.com. It’s about three gazillion times better than any other similar service that I’ve tried (which were all embarassingly bad: I’d sooner just go to a copy shop) and has saved me hours and hours of time and frustration.

Syndicated 2011-11-18 15:53:36 from Masala Labs

Measuring what the user sees

I’ve been spending the last month or so at Mozilla prototyping a new project called Eideticker which aims to use video capture data and image/frame analysis for performance measurement of Firefox Mobile. It’s still in quite a rough state, but it’s now complete enough that I thought it would be worth spending a bit of time describing both its motivation and how it works.

First, a bit of an introduction. Up to now, our automated performance tools have used entirely synthetic benchmarks (how long til we get the onload event? how many ms since we last hit the main loop?) to gather performance information. As we’ve found out, there’s a lot you can measure with synthetic benchmarks. Tools like Talos have proven themselves by catching performance regressions on a very regular basis.

Still, there’s many things that synthetic benchmarks can’t easily or reliably measure. For example, it’s nice to know that a page has triggered an “onload” event (and the sooner it does that, the better), but what does the browser look like before then? If it’s a complicated or image intensive page, it might take 10 or 15 seconds to load. In this interval, user studies have clearly shown that an application displaying something sooner rather than later is always desirable if it’s not possible to display everything immediately (due to network traffic, CPU constraints, whatever). It’s this area of user-perceived performance that Eideticker aims to help with. Eideticker creates a system to capture live data of what the browser is displaying, then performs image/frame analysis on the result to see how we’re actually doing on these inherently subjective metrics. The above was just one example, others might include:

  • Measuring amount of time it takes to actually see the start page from time of launch.
  • Measuring amount of time you see the checkboard pattern after panning the browser.
  • Measuring the visual artifacts while loading a complicated page (how long does it take to display something? how long until we get something close to the final expected result? how long until we get the actual final result?)

It turns out that it’s possible to put together a system that does this type of analysis using off-the-shelf components. We’re still very much in the early phase, but initial signs are promising. The initial test system has the following pieces:

  1. A Linux workstation equipped with a Decklink extreme 3D video capture card
  2. An Android phone with HDMI output (currently using the LG G2X)
  3. A version of talos modified to video capture the results of a test.
  4. A bit of python code to actually analyze the video capture data.

So far, I’ve got the system working end-to-end for two simple cases. The first is the “pageload” case. This lets you capture the results of loading any page within a talos pageset. Here’s a quick example of the movie we generate from a tsvg test:

Here’s another example, a color cycle test (actually the first test case I created, as a throwaway):

After the video is captured, the next step is to analyze it! As described above (and in further detail on the Eideticker wiki page), there’s lots of things we could measure but the easiest thing is probably just to count the number of unique frames and derive a frame rate for the capture based on that (the higher the better, obviously). Based on an initial prototype from Chris Jones, I’ve started work on a python library to do exactly this. Assuming you have an eideticker capture handy, you can run a tool called “analyze.py” on the command line, and it’ll give you its best guess of the # of unique frames:


(eideticker)wlach@eideticker:~/src/eideticker$ bin/analyze.py ./src/talos/talos/captures/capture-2011-11-11T11:23:51.627183.zip
Unique frames: 121/272

(There are currently some rough edges with this: we’re doing frame comparisons based on per-pixel changes, but the video capture data is slightly noisy so sometimes a pixel changes its value even when nothing has actually happened in the browser)

So that’s what I’ve got working so far. What’s next? Short term, we have some specific high-level goals about where we want to be with the system by the end of the quarter. The big unfinished pieces are getting an end-to-end test involving real user interaction (typing into the URL bar, etc.) going and turning this prototype system into something that’s easy for others to duplicate and is robust enough to be easily extended. Hopefully this will come together fairly quickly now that the basics are in place.

The longer term picture really depends on feedback from the community. Unlike many of the projects we work on in automation & tools, Eideticker is not meant to be something that’s run on every checkin. Rather, it’s intended to be a useful tool that can be run on an as needed basis by developers and QA. We obviously have our own ideas on how something like this might be useful (and what a reasonable user interface might be), but I’ve found in cases like this it’s much better to go to the people who will actually be using this thing. So with that in mind, here’s a call for feedback. I have two very specific questions:

  • Is there a specific problem you’ve been working on that a framework like this might be helpful for?
  • What do you think of the current workflow model described in the README?

My goal is to make something that people will love, so please do let me know what you think. :) Nothing about this project is cast in stone and the last thing I want is to deliver a product that people don’t actually want to use.

Equally, while Eideticker is being written primarily with the goal of making Mobile Firefox better (and in the slightly-less short term, desktop Firefox and Boot to Gecko), much of it is broadly applicable to any user-facing mobile or desktop application. If you think some component of Eideticker might be interesting to your project and want to collaborate, feel free to get in touch.

Syndicated 2011-11-11 20:57:13 from Masala Labs

Weirdest (and saddest) unsolicited email ever

Got this exceedingly strange e-mail yesterday. It’s almost a bit tragic. Anyone else seen gotten this?

(BTW, the writing samples, which I won’t link to, weren’t half bad)

Hi there,

Hope keeping well. I’m just getting in touch to ask if you’re open to reviewing content from freelance writers at Ginger Tea and Channa Masala – if so, I’d love to put together a high-quality article written specifically for the site. I’m 29 and have been working as a professional writer and researcher for five years now, and in that time there isn’t a lot I haven’t already covered (I’ve attached a few samples below for you to check out).

As long as you’re happy with the resulting material, you’d be welcome to publish it as you see fit and the content will be owned by you entirely (in that I won’t send it to anyone else, either before or after publication).

There is absolutely no charge for this and no strings attached; the only thing I would ask in return is that I’m able to include a link to a site of my choosing within the article – nothing shady or unethical, just one of the professional businesses I freelance for.

Do let me know if you’re interested, and if so I can get something written for you over the course of the next few days. Needless to say, the offer is open to any other sites you might own as well as masalalabs.ca. I appreciate you may not be interested in this kind of mutual back-scratching however, so if I don’t hear from you, no offence taken and I won’t trouble you again.

Very best,
XXXXXX

Syndicated 2011-11-01 14:21:36 from Masala Labs

Faster, but not quite there yet…

So as others have been posting about, we’ve been making some headway on our progress on the GoFaster project. Unfortunately it seems like we’re still some distance away from reaching our magic number of a 2 hour turnaround for each revision pushed.

It’s a bit hard to see the exact number on the graph (someone should fix that), but we seem to teetering around an average of 3 hours at this point. Looking at our build charts, it seems like the critical path has shifted in many cases from Windows to MacOS X. Is there something we can do to close the gap there? Or is there a more general fix which would lead to substantial savings? If you have any thoughts, or would like to help out, we’re scheduled to have a short meeting tomorrow.

Anyone is welcome to join, but note that we’re practical, results-oriented people. Crazy ideas are fun, but we’re most interested in proposals that have measurable data behind them and can be implemented in reasonable amounts of time. :)

Syndicated 2011-10-25 22:13:53 from Ginger Tea and Channa Masala

“Developers can’t do UI”

Despite making a dramatic shift from front-end development to back-end stuff since I started at Mozilla a few months ago, I’ve still had occasion to have to do a fair bit of user-facing code, even if an audience of other developers is a bit more limited than what I’ve been used to. Since my mission is to make the rest of Mozilla more productive, it’s worth putting a bit of time and intention into the user interface for my stuff. If I can reduce learning curves or streamline day-to-day workflows, that’s a win for everyone since they can spend that much more time rocking at their jobs (whether that be release engineering, platform work, or whatever). This brings up a point that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while:

Despite conventional wisdom, developers can design half-decent user interfaces (if they try)!

I used to be certain that a project really needed graphic designers and/or usability experts to provide guidance on UI issues, but my experience over the last few years with iOS/web development has made me reconsider. Sure, pixel pushing and vector art is never going to be a programmer’s strong suit (and there’s certain high-level techniques that take years of study to acquire/understand), but the basic principles behind good UI design are accessible to anyone. There’s really only three core skills:

* An ability to put yourself in the shoes of the user. Who are you designing for, and what are they trying to accomplish? How can I streamline my UI to help them quickly solve the task at hand? This is one of the reasons why I find user stories so helpful.

* An understanding of common vocabulary for describing/designing applications and knowing what is “good”. Unfortunately I haven’t found anything like this for the web, but Apple’s human interface guidelines have some good general advice on this (just ignore the stuff specific to phones/tablet apps if that’s not what you’re doing).

* A willingness to iterate. The best ideas usually aren’t apparent immediately, and may only come out of a back forth. It’s been my experience that the more constructive dialog there is between people actively involved in the project on user experience issues, the better the end result is likely to be.

For example, one of the things that release engineering has found most useful in the GoFaster Dashboard has been the build charts. Believe it or not, the idea for that view started out as this useless piece of junk (I can say that because I created it). It was only after a good half hour back and forth on irc between myself, jgriffin, and jmaher (all of us backend/tool developers) that we came up with the view that inspired so much good analysis on the project.

All this is not to say that usability experts and graphic designers don’t have special skills that are worthy of respect. Indeed, if you’re a designer and would like to get involved with our work, please join us, we’d love your help. My only point is that on a project where a design resource isn’t available, thinking explicitly about usability is still worthwhile. And even where you have a UX expert on staff, programmers can have useful feedback too. Good UI is everyone’s responsibility!

Syndicated 2011-10-07 14:48:16 from Ginger Tea and Channa Masala

Updates on my ridiculous pet projects

1. As you may or may not have noticed, hbus.ca has been down for the past few weeks. Halifax updated the data but I didn’t have a chance to update it. Well, I finally did, and hbus is now up in its former glory (minus a small issue with stops named ’6016_merged_3300509′: thanks Metro Transit, time to update that script to massage your data again!) . I still wonder a bit about why I keep putting time into a site oriented around a city I haven’t lived in for over 2 years now (especially when Google Maps arguably does a better job at most things than I do), but there you go!

2. NIXI is still up and being useful to me, though I’m a little bit disappointed by its uptake from the rest of the world (the site gets like 5-12 unique views a day). What do I need to do for you guys? A mobile version? French localization? I just added support for Washington (Capital Bikeshare) and Boston (Hubway), maybe it’ll get some uptake there.

3. Not really my project, but Stephane Guidoin put up an awesome site called zonecone.ca which helps you find out about traffic obstacles that might delay your journey. It even has a nifty feature where you can create an account, specify a route you take regularly (say, your commute), and it’ll automatically notify you if something pops up. As you may have guessed, I’m not the biggest fan of automobiles, but this is still very cool. ;) This site was originally based on the map layout template that I announced a few months ago.

4. I have a lettuce plant growing on my new balcony. It’s doing ok, though it will probably have to be brought in soon due to frost. Will it get enough sun? Can I prevent my cat from eating it? Will it make a delicious salad? Stay tuned!

Syndicated 2011-09-30 03:40:42 from Ginger Tea and Channa Masala

Changes!

A bit quiet here for the last few months. What’s been happening?

1. I got married and had a wonderful honeymoon in France.
2. I started a fantastic new job with Mozilla’s tools & automation group. Currently mostly on bringing down the build/test times for Firefox (part of a project called GoFaster), which has been really interesting.
3. I moved into a fantastic new apartment in an old victorian building near Vendôme metro.

In short, life has been treating me really well! More updates soon.

Syndicated 2011-09-01 16:07:27 from Ginger Tea and Channa Masala

A better BIXI web site

There’s much to like about the BIXI bike-sharing system in Montréal: it’s affordable ($78 for a year of biking), accessible and fun to use. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that it’s made cycling more of a main stream activity here in Montreal, which benefits everyone (even drivers indirectly gain from less congested streets).

With the arrival of the first BIXI stations in NDG, I decided to subscribe to it this year even though I have a bike of my own. So far, it looks like I’m going to easily use it enough to justify the cost. I still use my regular bike for my commute from NDG to the Plateau, but on the edges there’s a ton of cases where it just makes sense to use something that I don’t have to worry about locking up and returning home. Sometimes I only want to go one way (for weather or whatever other reason). Other times I want to take public transit for one leg of my trip (or day), but need/want to take a quick trip once I’m downtown.

I do have to say though, their new web site drives me crazy. I’ve thought prety deeply about the domain of creating user-friendly transit-focused web sites, so I think I can speak with some authority here.

Leaving aside it’s value as a promotional tool for the service itself (not my area of expertise), the experience of trying to find a nearby station is complicated by a slow, multi-layered UI that requires repeated clicking and searching to find the nearest station that has bikes available. Why bother with this step when we can just display this information outright on the map? iPhone applications like Bixou have been doing this for years. It’s time we brought the same experience to the desktop.

Thus, I present nixi.ca: a clean, useable interface to BIXI’s bike share system that presents the information you care about as cleanly and effectively as possible, without all the clutter. I’ve already found it useful, and I hope you do too. Think you can do better? Fork the source on github and submit your changes back to me! Minus some glue code to fetch station info server side, it’s entirely a client-side application written in HTML/JavaScript.

Note that the site uses a bunch of modern HTML5 features, so currently requires a modern browser like Firefox, Chrome, or Safari to display properly. I may or may not fix this. Other notable omissions include support for other cities with the BIXI system (Toronto, Ottawa, …) and French localization. Patches welcome!

Syndicated 2011-06-10 22:42:57 from Ginger Tea and Channa Masala

Template for a map-based web app

Finally got around doing something I’d meaning to for a while, which is create a simple template for a web-based mapping application based on jQuery and some of my earlier work on routez. I’m hoping this might be useful as a starter for a few open data applications!

Preview Source

Syndicated 2011-06-03 21:40:53 from Ginger Tea and Channa Masala

Routez opensourced

Just a quick note to say that I just opensourced the software behind hbus.ca, nicknamed “Routez” under the Affero GPL. You can get the code on github.

For those new to the project, hbus.ca is a generic trip planning / transit information site for Halifax, Nova Scotia written using the Django web framework. It currently has two main features:

  • A trip planning front-end much like Google Transit (built from the ground up using the libroutez library).
  • A “nearby” routes feature which gives you all the bus departures near a particular location.

On the backend, both of these features are accessible via JSON APIs, for use in transit apps, etc. Transit to Go uses these to great effect.

There is nothing particularly Halifax-specific to the underlying Routez software, aside from various references in the web front end to Halifax and hbus.ca. In fact, we use Routez to provide information for Transit to Go Edmonton right now, with no modification.

Originally my plan was to release something that was completely generic out of the box so that anyone could trivially make up a version of this site for their favourite city. I’ve made some headway towards that goal over the last week or so, but there’s still some ways to go. There’s basically two major issues:

1. The geocoder depends on information gleaned from the geobase road network dataset. The intent behind this is noble (provide an end-to-end solution that doesn’t depend on third parties) but in practice this limits the software’s usefulness. It would be better to optionally allow a Routez-based site to use Google’s geocoder on the front-end. Unfortunately, to comply with Google’s terms of service, we’d also need to use their Maps API for the base map as well. Perhaps the best option here would be to use something like Mapstraction to allow users to select their preferred mapping provider.
2. The trip planning software used in the backend, libroutez, is getting a bit long in the tooth and is quite finicky about what kind of data it will accept. I think the long-term solution to this is to switch to Graphserver (which is more mature and better supported), but some features would have to be added to it to support the kind of things that Routez needs (like a list of upcoming departures at a particular transit stop).

Even with these problems, I figured it would be better to open up what I have for people to check out and play with. Have a look and let me know what you think!

Syndicated 2011-04-19 19:26:29 from Ginger Tea and Channa Masala

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