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Introduction to the Pedant

Recently, I’ve been racking up on hobbyist electronics components from Sparkfun. Actually, this has been going on for quite a while, and most of that spending was justified by this project, which currently has the working name of the “pedant” (which is like at least a three-layered pun). I won’t say that it’s my very first foray into building some actual piece of hardware, but it’s probably the biggest and most original hardware project I’ve ever attempted.

I probably won’t be able to sell you on what it is, because it’s actually quite simple and uninteresting in principle. So instead of selling you on the cynical summary of its functionality, I’ll gild the concept with buzz words and try my very best to instill the same kind of enthusiasm I have for this project (which might just be because I haven’t done anything before with e-textiles or other electronics stuff).

The pedant is my foray into augmented reality, hopefully that means that it’s, at least some ways, original. It’s cheap, though actually in retrospect, not nearly as cheap as it should have been. And probably the most interesting aspect is that it skips through the whole perceived evolution of augmented reality from some bulky extremity into something sleek and unobtrusive. That’s not technically untrue, because the actual device will be fairly bulky, but it would exist in an already considerably bulky device (a shoe), so the net effect is that it’s sleek and unobtrusive.

I can’t say I was into that whole augmented reality thing before it was hip and cool. I only got interested in it fairly recently, likely due to somewhat high profile forays by Google and others. In mid-to-late 2008, I had just gotten my iPhone and I was deeply attached to it. At one point, I was on a vacation and at one point there was some arbitrary fact which came into question, at which point I pulled out my glorious first generation iPhone with its pristine anodized aluminium backing and loaded an app which searched an offline copy of all the textual content in the English Wikipedia (a concept which I had become so attached with that I ended up making Offline Wiki for the same reasons). And as the question was settled, the new subject of conversation was how incredible it is to keep all the world’s knowledge in a palm sized device.

But that’s not just an anecdote about the marvels of technology, it’s also a sad tale about how distracting it was. Somehow having access to that information allowed whatever pedantic instincts to prevail, shifting the conversation from a meaningful discussion into an artless digital query. And even forgiving that fact, it was slow and distracting, destroying the asynchronous exchange of ideas by creating this handheld bottleneck. Yes, we got an answer, but at what cost?

And I think that is a beautiful way to frame the argument for augmented reality. That whatever reality we have now is already being corrupted by the influence of the virtual world, and that only by willfully acknowledging that they both share the same space, can we start in the right direction of fixing it. That’s the direction Google’s Project Glass is headed, and I think that’s the right way.

The approach taken by the SixthSense project and by Google Glass mainly interacts with the user in a visual manner. And for the latter, there isn’t any really “good” and unobtrusive way to interact with that information. Both of the projects have extremely high output bandwidth (conveying information by projecting it into the user’s eye in one way or another), but limited input bandwidth and still fairly non-discreet (waving hands around to form shapes and sliding a bar on the frame, respectively). The Pedant takes a different approach by focusing on tactile input and output. This places the project more in the league of people who implant magnets under their skin by hijacking the sense of touch to convey information about the surroundings.

It’s going to be a tiny device which fits within the dimensions of a shoe insole including an Arduino Pro, a Bluetooth Mate, an Accelerometer, 2000mAh LiPo battery, and three or more vibration motors. By tapping the foot (or by orienting it in slightly different ways) the user can input data in a manner similar to the telegraph. However, nothing necessarily restricts it to being sent through a single “stream”, so it could end up more like a chorded telegraph (a la chorded keyboard). The great thing is that with chording, it becomes much more practical to receive information at reasonable rates.

Just like how a cell phone can vibrate to signal that the user has been left a message, the pedant would be used primarily to handle notifications, but rather than indistinguishable general sensations on the thigh, it’ll portray the type of notifications as well as the content, and the user even has the possibility to respond without changing the environment.

Without weird tactile abstract character sets, the Pedant could be interesting just as a sort of social network where users can feel the presence of other users in their general vicinity. It could monitor the footsteps of all nearby Pedant wearers and as it’s connected via a cellular data network and a smartphone GPS to trigger the specific vibration motors to evoke an awareness of how fast they’re walking and what general direction they are. In a sense, a social network of pedometers.

Posted in Pedant.

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Whammy: A Real Time Javascript WebM Encoder

This is sort of a conceptual reversal (or not, this might just be making the description needlessly confusing) of one of my older projects,Weppy. First, what Weppy did was it added support for WebP in browsers which didn’t support it by converting it into a single-frame video. This is instead predicated on the assumption that the browser already has support for WebP (at this point, it means it only works on Chrome since it’s the only browser which actually supports WebP), not only decoding WebP but encoding it as well.

The cool thing about WebP which was exploited in Weppy is that it’s actually based on the same codec as WebM, On2′s VP8. That means the actual image data, when the container formats are ignored, are virtually interchangable. With a catch: it’s intraframe only.

So it’s a video encoder in that it generates .webm files which should play in just about any program or device which supports the WebM format. But interframe compression is actually a fairly important thing which could reduce the file size by an order of magnitude or more.

But, there isn’t too much you can do on the client side in the ways of encoding stuff. And whatever you do, you basically can’t do interframe compression (aside from some really rudimentary delta encoding). More or less, when your only alternative is to maintain an array of DataURL encoded frames or encoding it (rather slowly) as a GIF, a fast but inefficient WebM encoder stops looking too bad.

This was actually Kevin Geng‘s idea, and he contributed some code too, but in the end most of the code was just leftovers from Weppy.


Basic Usage

First, let’s include the JS file. It’s self contained and basically namespaced, which is pretty good I guess. And it’s not too big, minified it’s only about 4KB and gzipped, it’s under 2KB. That’s like really really tiny.

<script src="whammy.js"></script> 

The API isn’t terrible either (at least, that’s what I’d like to hope)

var encoder = new Whammy.Video(15); 

That 15 over there is the frame rate. There’s a way to set the individual duration of each frame manually, but you can look in the code for that.

encoder.add(context or canvas or dataURL); 

Here, you can add a frame, this happens fairly quickly because basically all it’s doing is running .toDataURL() on the canvas (which isn’t exactly a speed-demon either, but it’s acceptable enough most of the time) and plopping the result onto an array (no computation or anything). The actual encoding only happens when you call .compile()

var output = encoder.compile(); 

Here, output is set to a Blob. In order to get a nice URL which you can use to stick in a <video> element, you need to send it over tocreateObjectURL

var url = (window.webkitURL || window.URL).createObjectURL(output); 

And you’re done. Awesome.


Weppy.fromImageArray(image[], fps) this is a simple function that takes a list of DataURL encoded frames and returns a WebM video. Note that the images have to all be encoded with WebP.

new Weppy.Video(optional fps, optional quality) this is the constructor for the main API. quality only applies if you’re sending in contexts or canvas objects and doesn’t matter if you’re sending in encoded stuff

.add(canvas or context or dataURL, optional duration) if fps isn’t specified in the constructor, you can stick a duration (in milliseconds) here.


This pretty much works as well as it possibly could at this point. Maybe one day it should support WebWorkers or something, but unlike the GIF Encoder, it doesn’t actually require much real computation. So doing that probably wouldn’t net any performance benefits, especially since it can stitch together a 120-frame animation in like 20 milliseconds already.

But one of the sad things about it is that now it uses Blobs instead of strings, which is great and all except that blobs are actually slower than strings because it still has to do the DataURL conversion from string to Blob. That’s pretty lame. Firefox supports the canvas toBlob thing, but for some reason Chrome doesn’t, but eventually it probably might, and that might be useful to add.

Also, if someone ever makes a Javascript Vorbis encoder, it would be nice to integrate that in, since this currently only does the video part, but audio’s also a pretty big part.

Posted in Multimedia Codecs, Whammy.

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Upcoming Changes

This post has been hinted at by the past few blog posts, but I guess eventually it has to be written. But the basic gist is that rather than making this the home of random announcements of mostly finished projects, it’ll be the home of mostly daily (or weekly, whenever significant progress is made) and probably shorter updates on the progress certain projects. That is, the blog is transitioning back into something more like the olden days (circa 2008-ish) but without falling into the trap of using this as an alternative to having commit messages and still supporting the fact I’m now working on quite a bit more than one project at a time.

The problem is that I can’t exactly stay true to that because I actually have quite a bit of backlog in terms of stuff I have to write about, stuff which is for the most part done (so it’s not particularly viable for me to make up progress updates retroactively, and I’ll probably have to stick with writing a big blog post about it).

This should be the culmination of tons of factors and trends building up for the past year or so. I’ve always felt that the blog needed to be overhauled eventually (or end up rotting as nothing more than a backup kept in the eternal resting spot which is the Internet Archive, leaching fluids into the soil as bacterium leave the corpse punctured by holes and missing vital organs, a sure sign that I’m probably going too far into this metaphor, but in the end that’s the way many of the forums I used to visit have become). But the real spark came in the form of a migration to a new web host, something which I still alas have yet to blog about despite it happening over a week ago.

Those changes are hardly precipitous (however much anyone wants to unveil something in one flash of an instant in order to feign the appearance that everything happened suddenly and approached new heights of grandeur, that never actually happens, and it’s simply harder to work in that sort of manner – slow and steady doesn’t always lose the race). The first part was the change of the web host itself which was actually not exactly planned (I was testing out it, and unexpectedly on a whim cancelled my old web host and migrated over over the course of an afternoon and left the site down for a few hours). The second front at which this evolution occurred was a slight redesign, changing the color scheme a bit, upgrading the theme, reorganizing the categories and menus (this is meant to be chronicled in detail in some other blog post which I have yet to written). And the third and last one (which was meant to be the topic of this blog post) is a change in content.

In summary, three inevitable changes on three different fronts. Content, Frontend, and Backend. All in a not-so-grand gesture to save this blog from decaying into a moldy blob of feces on the internet’s great sidewalk.

Posted in Meta.

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Meta Analytics

I’ve been maintaining this blog, or at least the content inside it for about five years now. It’s been through a handful of incarnations, often paired with significant changes in web hosting. I’ve had a blog for a little bit longer, but I don’t think I have the medium figured out. The structure of the posts and the style has changed over the past few years, but I can’t at this point call it evolution, a positive progression. Part of the power which lies in analyzing data is the ability to realize patterns, often at a different scale from human observation (spans of months or years) which are equally if not more insightful.

That’s been my personal attraction to data science. I’ve had a couple of personal experiments involving collecting data about my daily activities, my old writing and code in hopes of distilling the changes that I’m too conceited to admit without the infallible hand of statistics. For nearly two years now, I’ve logged my entire life within precision of approximately 30 minutes from Google Calendar (or the Calendar app on iPad which syncs to Google Calendar). Actually, the label is slightly off, I quite often dedicate large spans of time to more or less useless labels like “not productive”. But this temporal information falls apart in terms of its richness, for my schedule is dictated more so by the mandatory rhythms of school life than the drifting cadence of other behavior.

But I digress. This isn’t about why I collect data so much as “I have this data, now what?”. In this case, I had a hypothesis, a rather simple albeit morbid one at that “my blog is dying”. It’s not hard to see how I’m coming at the conclusion. I’m pretty much struggling at this point to meet my goal of one post per month (itself not a particularly difficult goal, but as time has gone on and my posts have become more infrequent, I feel more compelled to write obscenely long posts to compensate, but of course this also leads to big posts sitting there unfinished for long durations losing the sort of one post = one sitting mentality). But before I ramble for too long, I’ll cut to the chase and answer the question posed at the beginning of this paragraph: “Graphs.” (you could imagine those haunting glyphs levitating in the midst of air caught in the invisible grasp of Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, or better yet, I can spare your cognitive abilities by making it real)

Here’s a pretty little graph I made in R (sorry for the mess on the horizontal axis, and I just realized I have no idea as to how to interpret the dates, I’m assuming that they’re linear and it’s just some odd aliasing issue that makes even-numbered years repeat twice), it’s a histogram of the dates of posts that I’ve made to this blog (extracted with a simple Python script and WordPress’s built-in Export button).You can probably actually tell that the blog’s demise is quite a long way’s coming. Every annual peak ends up shallower the following year and the first time gaps have actually existed was this fateful year, 2012.

It’s actually sort of interesting that these peaks exist, but I can’t really tell during what months that happened during (since these axes are labeled so terribly, it’d be nice if I knew some nice interactive graph engine that worked with histograms, something like that cool time series viewer that Google had for Finance for like ever but for histograms, but I guess that just shows how much of a non-scientist I am, to have no idea how to fluently articulate in a statistical or graphical language of my choice).

For more graph fun, here’s a scatter plot of word lengths as a function of year. I wasn’t dedicated enough to figure out how to get NLTK to tell me the Gunning-Fog, Flesch-Kincaid or ARI value for individual posts, and I doubt that would end up showing anything particularly insightful. But yeah, so here it is. Charts. Charts of words. Note that thing that sticks out clocking in at around 3724 words is my first Music Alpha post.

Actually, I won’t mind that WordPress isn’t yet self aware (‘ello Skynet) and still sends trackbacks and pings (whatever they are) to me when I link to myself. Seriously, you don’t actually need to have a self-aware artificial intelligence in order to learn how to not spam me with emails when I’m quite probably as in super definitely aware of its existence. But anyway, I guess I’ll stomach the lurching pain of a thousand emails (I’m using hyperbole here, in case your rudimentary artificial intelligence algorithms can’t quite distinguish them, but I’m also pretty sure your algorithms wouldn’t be able to handle n-th degrees of meta, so this excruciatingly useless parenthetical wouldn’t be much other than that: excruciatingly useless) and post the last part of the list here.

1340133957.0 , 2012-06-19 19:25:57 , 1178
1333025085.0 , 2012-03-29 12:44:45 , 1302
1293394934.0 , 2010-12-26 20:22:14 , 1409
1317686582.0 , 2011-10-04 00:03:02 , 1565 [Haven't actually published this yet, hmm]
1341591648.0 , 2012-07-06 16:20:48 , 2117
1307064165.0 , 2011-06-03 01:22:45 , 2180
1277922545.0 , 2010-06-30 18:29:05 , 2319
1294958307.0 , 2011-01-13 22:38:27 , 2762
1308832860.0 , 2011-06-23 12:41:00 , 2872
1305426252.0 , 2011-05-15 02:24:12 , 3724

That list was compiled by the command cat blogtimes.csv | sort -t',' -k3n | tail, and that’s quite an accomplishment because I had to look up the arguments for the sort command in order to figure that out. Of course, blogtimes.csv is the output of my magical six line python script (which uses BeautifulSoup to extract all the wp:post_dates).

So, with 10 blog posts in that list, every single 8 of them happened after 2011 and 3 of them happened in 2012. Considering that there were 10 things published in 2012 (according to my dataset) and 21 in 2011, that’s a rather significant fraction of the stuff which has been written recently to be insanely long.

WordPress tells me this post is now at 948 words, so I guess I’ll add a bit of concluding at the end to push it over the magical power-of-ten barrier, so presumably you should brace for the terrible boom which occurs at this point (oh, what’s that? I think that’s my imaginary telephone operator who informs me when I make a factual error, apparently those kinds of booms only happen with waves, and apparently words flowing through word count orders of magnitude don’t count).

The original title of this post was “Meta Analytics & Upcoming Changes”, but in the spirit of the upcoming changes, I’ve moved the “Upcoming Changes” part into its own post (tentatively titled “Upcoming Changes”). You can probably at this point guess that “Upcoming Changes” involves something to tackle the excessive verbosity and to mitigate the absurdly infrequent posts. This probably doesn’t sound nearly as heroic to you as it does to me, because I’m listening to The Avengers soundtrack right now, and “A Promise” is pretty dramatic.

Posted in Data, Meta.

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Swipe Gesture 2 Development

So I’m trying something new, returning to quasi-daily somewhat short updates about the development of whatever I’m working on rather than withholding everything until something of somewhat acceptable release quality is achieved. I have a blog post about that transition, but I’m still working on it (as in, writing it is somewhat boring). It’s probably better given my development cycle is quite nonlinear, usually I get something somewhat promising made in the first few days or so and pause for long and possibly indefinite durations doing other stuff in the process. Probably, writing short blog posts about what I have yet to finish will remind me to, well, finish them. Just maybe. But I’m probably going to have to preface every post that I write with this kind of disclaimer until I actually get that post finished and published so I have something to reference rather than pointing crazily into the air and saying “oh yeah, it’s coming, now, someday, maybe.”.

Starting about yesterday, I started working on the successor to Swipe Gesture. The new version tries to mimic the actual behavior of Chrome on Lion, which I think is really quite cool. Here’s a video I found on YouTube which shows how it basically looks like if you aren’t familiar with it. The first thing to notice that it’s substantially less trivial, code-wise. No more is it a 30-line software lightweight, but it’s not too complex and arcane to forbid any kind of comprehension. Now, the simple prototype of its functionality is already nearing 300 lines of code.

Another big difference is now it’s no longer designed strictly for Chromebooks. In fact, one of the reasons for starting this was that I was informed that the kind of functionality might be useful on Macbooks running Windows via Bootcamp. In fact, it’s meant to be as general as possible, to work on pretty much any kind of platform. And it’s not even bound strictly to the horizontal axis: the code is meant to work with linear swipes in any direction including diagonally (although some experimentation on my chromebook seems to indicate that swiping at angles isn’t terribly useful).

The most significant conceptual change is the transition between a speed/acceleration metric to a distance metric. That is, in the old version, an action was triggered when there was a swipe in one direction vigorous enough to be considered. This was a fairly simple way to avoid the problem of distinguishing between a horizontal scroll action and a swipe by not making a distinction. In a sense, cheating. The new version instead does things “the right way™” by observing events carefully to determine if a swiping action actually results in scrolling. If that’s your kind of thing, the technical nitty gritty details have their own dedicated blog post, so feel free to click through if you’re interested.

Once it’s determined that that scroll thing is actually probably a swipe gesture, it renders a nice little arrow in canvas. I considered using a unicode arrow and setting the font to huge, but that didn’t turn out quite as well as I expected (plus, it makes rotations and interactions with the embedding page CSS a little less predictable).

Also another thing is that it turns out that it’s a bad idea to set a css transition on something which is meant to hook with mouse or scroll movements because, while this ends up smoothing things out (which is good for mouse wheels because they click to the nearest 120 magical click units) it ends up producing a significant amount of lag and just feels so awkward.

Another thing (since this post is written over the course of several days, and the actual update has already been published at time of writing) is the cool redesign of the Settings page. The first thing to notice is that the settings page for once actually has settings, which is quite an accomplishment by itself. Also, it has a visual refresh that makes it look somewhat bootstrap-esque. That’s because ever since using Bootstrap in the making of Protobowl (a rather big project that I have yet to blog about), I’ve pretty much fallen in love with the color whiteSmoke. Partly because it has a name, which means I don’t have to google it or tattoo it on my arm for a mnemonic’s sake, and also because it’s a pretty nice color.

Posted in Chrome Extensions, Swipe Gesture.

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Etch-A-Sketch on a Trackpad

So I was testing the responsiveness of the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook touchpad and made a short little script which basically continuously adds the mousewheel changes and draws them using canvas. But it appears that the trackpad does some kind of fitting to make things tend to be at right angles, though it’s not hard to get something diagonal or even somewhat circular.

Posted in Chrome Extensions, Swipe Gesture.

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Determining if a Mousewheel Event Results in Scroll

So here’s a somewhat technical post, actually it’s pretty technical. But either way the premise is sort of simple to understand, and probably so is the context. I’m working on Swipe Gesture 2.0, which basically tries to take Chrome and Safari on OS X Lion’s awesome back-forward transitions and make them work on other operating systems. See, the thing is that multitouch isn’t strictly a requirement for it to work, a lot of computers just have the little bars on the bottom and right of the track bar (often with a little somewhat abrasive textured surface so you don’t accidentally tread upon it). Regardless, the title is a bit of a misnomer, because even though the event is called the “mousewheel”, it’s hardly meant to be observed from an actual mouse (or a wheel), instead it means the scrolling gesture on some kind of trackpad, either multitouch or not.

Well, first, I guess I’ll talk about the difference between how Lion and Leopard do it. The way Leopard did it was pretty cool but not particularly applicable to other platforms since it relied on the existence of a three-finger gesture. As in, you needed some kind of touchpad which was cool enough to support three-finger multiouch, reliably. It also behaved completely independent of the current zoom or scroll position, which makes implementation in software entirely trivial given access to some drivers which can recognize three fingers on a touchpad.

Lion did it a completely different way. Instead of creating an entirely new gesture which was entirely dedicated to the singular task of navigating through history, it conflated the notions of scrolling with navigating, which sort of makes sense. Apple’s quite dedicated to skeuomorphic metaphors, and they want to treat the web more like literal pages. A user can move it around to better keep certain things in view, and the physical movement to slide a sheet out of view is just an extension of that panning gesture.

However, technically this poses a completely different challenge, because this requires you to distinguish between scrolls and navigation requests. Scrolling is always the default behavior, but the navigation swipe gesture happens when scrolling wouldn’t actually result in anything. However, many implementations of scrolling are at least somewhat kinetic, often it’s emphasized in software (in the form of smooth-scrolling) or hardware (scroll wheels that don’t click but instead move basically freely) or because your arm has to obey the laws of kinematics (unless it doesn’t, in which case that’s certainly fascinating). So not only does the software have to determine when a mouse wheel action results manifests as a scroll, it has to see if it was the user’s intent to do the extraneous scrolling.

This is done by clustering the mouse wheel movements together temporally. Scroll events flow in in discrete chunks, and you can split events off into little buckets (in a sense), where if there isn’t any event sent within some arbitrary threshold (say, 500msecs or half a second), you stick stuff in a new bucket. This way, lets say you scroll from the top of the page to the bottom and you’re sort of excited, and spin the wheel as fast as possible, you hit the bottom of the page but it’s not some instant stop. You continue scrolling (because you’re just that excited, and just can’t stop) for a little bit more. Ignoring the fact that you probably won’t have a vertical/horizontal event handler (though there are some sort of intriguing possibilities for this, one idea is to have the upper threshold trigger full screen). Without segmenting them into certain buckets, it doesn’t recognize that the time when you’re ramming into the top of the page is part of the same general gesture as when you were scrolling, and it may interpret that as an intentional gesture. So that’s one part which makes it a bit more complex.

So now, you have these series of mousewheel events conveniently delimited into little gesture-chunks. The next part is determining whether or not the gesture-chunks are part of a scroll action or not.

Thankfully that’s a really simple thing to do. Just look at the document’s scrollTop and check if it’s zero (or scrollLeft for horizontal stuff) or whatever value is the width of the element. If it can’t scroll no more, then you have a winner and you can start the falling balloons and confetti.

Except it’s not that easy, because the document isn’t the only thing which can scroll. Thanks to the glory of overflow:scroll, there are lots of things which can scroll. Things which aren’t necessarily documents may be in arbitrary scroll positions to wreak havoc on your well-meaning heuristics.

So back to the drawing board, I guess. Actually, to think of it, maybe it’s simpler to listen for the scroll event, which fires when a scroll happens, and quite intuitively doesn’t fire when a scroll doesn’t happen. And mouse wheel actions always precede scroll ones (because the wheel events bubble and are cancelable, so you can prevent a scroll from happening). The only problem is that scroll events don’t bubble. As in, when a scroll event happens on some element, it’s not going to show up on the document, it’s only going to show up if you’re listening on that specific element at the right point in time.

The naive approach to this dilemma is just to attach a scroll listener to every single event on the document, and to reattach to some other elements whenever the DOM tree is modified in some way. This means the overhead grows rather significantly when pages are larger, in a way which could be likened to O(n) time where n represents the number of nodes in the document. If you want, you could lazily do it by attaching the scroll listener only once the wheel event has fired, but that would cause a significant delay when attempting to legitimately scroll.

Another thing you could do, is to make another assumption: that the element which gets scrolled has to be some parent of the element which the mouse is currently over. Making that assumption, we can add a mousewheel listener to the root of the document, as those kinds of events actually do bubble. And since they’re mouse events, once you capture it, you can get a clientX and clientY, comprising the current coordinates of the mouse. And with that, you can get the element immediately below the cursor with document.elementFromPoint. And since the scroll might fire on any one of the elements which are parents of the current element, you ascend up the tree and add a listener on all of those (until, of course you hit the document element, at which point you can’t go any further up). This yields performance which could essentially be modeled with O(log n), quite a bit better than O(n).

So now the finished process is fairly simple, you listen for a mousewheel event, and when it happens we determine the element, and ascend the tree, yada yada. That scroll listener, when fired, sets a global variable lastDetectedScroll to the current timestamp. We set a little temporary variable set to the before time and then we set a little timer, 150 milliseconds. It usually only takes like four to see if a scroll thingy happened, but let’s be safe by having an order-of-magnitude threshold. The Cuckoo clock rings, and we check if the lastDetectedScroll is the same thing, and if it is, it’s a swipe, and otherwise, it’s a scroll.

Here’s a little demo:

Posted in Chrome Extensions, Swipe Gesture.

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Raspberry Pi

As part of the shift between long multi-kiloword blog posts which are somewhat more like press releases back into a sort of more personal (i.e. blog-esque) format, I guess I’ll talk about my newly-arrived Raspberry Pi. Right now, there isn’t terribly much to talk about since I’ve only had it for about two weeks.

I’ve been planning on getting a Raspberry Pi for a pretty long time, and I was actually pretty excited about that. For the weeks preceding the official announcement, I built a tiny script which ran in a ten-minutely cron job which would basically download the purported Raspberry Pi store (, note the dot-com rather than dot-org, which their homepage is situated at) and compare the hash, notifying me via Ubuntu’s built in notification system.

On that sleepless night when the actual pre-sale announcement was being made, I was incessantly checking, which had suddenly morphed into a server maintenance message (which remains to this very day). The anticipation was intense, and some twenty minutes after it was supposed to happen was when I realized that the whole time I had been checking the wrong page. The announcement came instead on, their main blog, and by that time, it was certain that all the distributor’s sites were already collapsing under the crushing load of a million souls crying out for a taste of berry-scented silicon pastry.

On the next day, I checked the sites again, and all the order pages were already closed. Either way, it wasn’t terribly useful for me because most of them didn’t support Paypal. Fast forward a veritable eternity, on June 16th, I was notified via email that RS Components that I would be allowed to order the device some time in the near future. Sure enough, on the 22nd, another email gave me a link to the order form, which I promptly filled out and I began the process of waiting. Not really, since I had other stuff to do and most of my interest had already vaporized at the daunting 7 weeks it was supposed to take.

Another eternity later, it arrived in some rather nice packaging. It actually came as a bit of a surprise, because I had become so accustomed to waiting that I had never really expected it to materialize so suddenly. But when it did, it was everything I imagined and more. It came in this rather nice cardboard box, which I eventually cut in half with an X-Acto knife (which nowadays, I use for all my paper splicing needs) to build a makeshift case. I fumbled around in a closet and found a neglected 16GB SD card (probably back from the era when point-and-shoots were actually preferable to mobile phones) and installed that weird Debian distro (after having a little internal debate on what to install). But the first thing I had done was plugged it into a monitor through a HDMI-to-DVI converter. I took the charger from my Galaxy Nexus (I wasn’t using it for anything since I charge it in my room from my HP Touchpad Charger, and my Touchpad idly draining power from a cool inductive stand, the standardization of chargers is really pretty awesome), and used that as my Pi’s permanent power supply.

I also had a 2000mAh LiPo battery which I was going to use with my Arduino LilyPad for some cool foot-operated telegraph which I wanted to use as essentially a UPS for the Pi, but a bit of googling reveals that that might possibly entail actual electronicswork, so maybe that’s something for later.

I turned it on, and lo and behold it didn’t work. I actually never quite figured out why. Then, I tried plugging it into a really old 13 megaton CRT TV, which makes me realize how it’s sort of weird that the unit of megatons is hardly ever used for things other than atomic weapons, and now it feels oddly inappropriate for a hyperbole for the mass of a TV, but maybe it’s actually sort of appropriate because CRTs are terrifying. So analog seemed to work, except for this problem where my keyboard would keep repeating letters and not working well. That wasn’t a good start.

But after a little googling from my Chromebook, it turns out the keyboard issues came from the fact that I had plugged in my only spare USB keyboard which happened to be a Logitech Mouse+Keyboard+Speaker thing and my teensy Galaxy Nexus charger couldn’t eke out enough watts to power it. And the issue with the HDMI-to-DVI thing was just because I needed to restart with the cable plugged in. But neither of them posed a real material issue because I had been intending to use it as a headless rig from the start.

The first thing I really noticed was how surprisingly easy it was to install things. I had expected the ARM repositories to basically lack everything which might be useful, but it turns out that actually almost everything I wanted was available. I didn’t dare compiling anything, but Node (albeit a somewhat old version) was available from the repos, so I never really needed to. I had to manually update to a new version of npm, but that wasn’t that bad. I set up forever to run a few apps, but not much.

One of the main reasons I could justify getting the Raspberry Pi however, was to run my Facebook logging script on something other than my main computer, and aside from getting confused trying to use sendxmpp, it was fairly straightforward.

Posted in Hardware, Raspberry Pi.

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Swipe Gesture for Chrome

Here’s an extension which I actually released some time back, but never got around to writing a blog post for. Part of the reason was that the early reviews didn’t quite pan out, in large part due to not working. But I was using my Chromebook and I somehow felt a vague longing for some kind of multitouch gesture, and remembered that I had made this little extension (which I had disabled for some reason). Anyway, this is as appropriate a time as any to formally announce it to my probably remarkably small blog readership.

There is, however a tad bit of difficulty representing the function of it in pictures because really, it doesn’t have a big UI. It makes hardware more useful, and in its idealized form, should have no interface. But of course, we don’t live in a place where apps are perfectly idealized and either way, Apple has plenty of nice pretty pictures of people swiping fingers to the right.

I really fell in love with the Macbook multitouch gestures, almost at first sight. They just seemed so natural and so beautiful that I sort of felt that that was like the epitome of design or HCI perfection. And from that point, any time I used a laptop which wasn’t made by Apple (or even the ones which were made by Apple but were stuck in the barbaric ages preceding the inclusion of the glass multitouch pad, where its invention might have produced a scene like this), I felt thoroughly disgusted.

Flipping through the Chromium OS design papers, there is one page dedicated specifically to cool multitouch gestures which could be used. And as far as I’m aware the Samsung Series 5 550 (the new chromebook) is the only device which supports these gestures (thus far), and even then it’s only pinch to zoom and forward/back (three finger). All the other Chromebook users have been left out.

Another cool thing about the implementation is that it uses a certain webkitDirectionInvertedFromDevice property of the mousewheel events, which gives you a boolean value about whether or not the platform you’re on has some magical direction inversion like on OS X Lion or if you’ve enabled “simple scrolling” on Chrome OS. But this might not have been a good idea since swipe directions too are sort of inverted on those platforms naturally as well, so it might be better to not compensate for it.

Anyway, the implementation is actually quite simple. The current version doesn’t even break the 40 line mark, because all it does it it listens for mousewheel events on every page (via a content script), and it calculates the current acceleration. If that acceleration ever passes a certain threshold, it triggers a forward or back action. Right now, the threshold is preconfigured based on my own testing on a Samsung Series 5 (note, not 550) chromebook. But for people with other devices, I’m working on a second version which will be slightly more Apple-esque in its implementation.

Posted in Chrome Extensions, Design, Swipe Gesture.

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