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mu's views on program and recipe! design

October 2006

Plugging in to Epiphany Posted 2006.10.21 13:13 PDT

I recently decided to try out Epiphany for real after the umpteenth time Firefox went haywire when my gtk theme changed. As a base browser, the only things it has going for it are the ability to drag tabs around, and the tag-based bookmarks system.

On the downside, using that tag-based bookmarks system means starting over when you have hundreds of poorly categorized bookmarks like I did. I'm still not sure if I like it, but it's definitely neat.

On the plus side, Epiphany can be tweaked with Python extensions. In particular Stefan Stuhr's Only One Close Button is a blessing to those of us who don't like scrolling through tabs.

With this in mind, I set out to fix a problem I've been experiencing. One of the sites I visit takes user submitted content, including a link and a comment. Lots of submissions include a link in the comment field. However in order to preserve their table layout without having it overflow, the site embeds U+200B Zero-Width-Space characters into the shown text. When I select the text and paste it to a new tab, the url will contain a '%E2%80%8B' substring (URL-escaped UTF-8 encoded U+200B) which invalidates the destination, and tends to yield either a 404 or a redirection.

I wrote up a simple extension based on the tutorial, but debugging it was a real pain. My initial session of epiphany was running somewhere with no stdout or stderr. My first draft of my extension had several errors which resulted in thrown exceptions. A bug with Epiphany causes it to fail to exit properly when Python extensions throw exceptions. It was not only failing to reload my extension, but when I thought I was running Epiphany in a terminal, it was really resuming the existing session. Let this be a lesson to Epiphany Python extension developers: be willing to kill your running Epiphany process!

After figuring that out with the help of jfr on #epiphany, I was then able to complete the extension handily. It's not ideal: it causes a second automatic page load to happen, and going back to the page with the zero width space in the URL will again trigger the redirect. But it's good enough for me. If anyone else wants it, either to use or to fix, you can get it from EpiphanyExtensions.

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Lament of the Python Developer Posted 2006.10.12 12:22 PDT

I love working in Python. When I was first coming from Perl everything felt weird. Now I can't imagine going back voluntarily. However there are a few laments that come up time and time again to trouble me, the Python using developer.

Cross-version compatibility

The developers of Python have a pretty rigorous backwards-compatible culture, but the actual implementation leaves something to be desired. While many modules, especially those outside of the standard library, but maintained by those who develop Python, are able to be compatible across many versions, the recent new Python 2.5 managed to create two completely separate incompatibilities in Quod Libet and mutagen. As Martin v. Löwis said, someone always notices. If only they had put as much thought into the changes that hit us as they seem to be putting into whether floating point +0.0 and -0.0 can be distinguished.

Quality of bindings

Every binding of a library implemented is implemented separately, and generally by different authors. This leads to python modules that feel wildly different, from different naming conventions, to support for pythonic methods. Support for pythonic methods range themselves from supports iteration to the right mixture of functions and objects with methods. Sometimes collections of similar modules group behind a common API such as the DB API.

When I first started using python, I happened to pick Pygame, a very easy to use binding. It was well documented. The parts you needed regularly were small enough to fit in your head. There were helpers in the right places. It accepted reasonable duck-typing in convenient places, such as accepting any 4-element list or tuple where a pygame.Rectangle was going to be used, implicitly upcasting it.

By contrast, recently I've tried to find a good binding for working with subversion, and have had poor luck. The initial binding, a poorly documented SWIG wrapper, was very tied to a low level C interface. Nobody using the python bindings would want to deal with the APR directly. More recently, pysvn seemed to address this. The functions seemed to expose the right level to let me get my work done.

My Ideal PySvn

After working with it for a couple days, however, I've changed my mind: pysvn still has a long way to go. I'm going to present a couple steps that would bring pysvn closer to my idealized version, shamelessly ignoring that implementing it would require many API-incompatible changes.

While trying write a simple subversion browser, there are two road blocks I keep bumping into.

  1. Revisions are way too hard to use.
  2. Dictionaries of attributes are filled with inconsistent names.

I'm not sure which of the above road blocks bothers me more. On the one hand, the Revision object reads like a straight translation of a C struct with a union inside it. This allows it to represent any of several kinds of revision. But I would contend that it should just accept simple python types.

For simplicity, the constructor should accept these, and any function that requires them should run them through the constructor as necessary. For an attempt at bonus points the constructor could also accept strings like '137' or '1986-01-28 17:39:13.620000' in place of integers or time objects, but it's probably better not to accept those. Better yet, these objects should always be used, and the Revision object should be dropped from the Python interface.

On the other hand, inconsistent names in the properties dictionaries are really hard to keep straight. The info() call returns an Entry object, with attributes including commit_author commit_revision commit_time kind name revision url. The info2() call returns items with attributes including last_changed_author last_changed_rev last_changed_date kind rev URL. Note that the commit prefix became last_changed, the time suffix became date, revision became rev, url became URL, and name disappeared. The log() and ls() calls suffer similar transformations, although the amount of information each contains is smaller.

I'm willing to assume that the actual subversion API is similarly fickle, and that the pysvn authors didn't create this mess, but I really want it to be cleaned up. I'd like to get an object, say a subclass of a mythical PySvnItem, which knows its url and name and revision, and can look up various other items that may not have been returned by the corresponding C API call when you access the appropriate attribute so I don't have to worry about which call provided the original PySvnItem. And the names of these attributes should be normalized so I don't have to worry about last vs last_changed vs commit prefixes.


No lament is complete without mention of at least the one latest bug that delayed some work. In this case it was pysvn's diff() method, which fails with a weird C++ error if you pass it revisions as positional arguments. Peter found that named arguments work fine, so it's no longer in my way.

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