somewhere to talk about random ideas and projects like everyone else



CloudFall: A Text Editor 06 July 2012

This is probably a horrible time to think of writing an online text editor. The “market”, if you can call it that, is virtually saturated with worthy contenders and (figuratively) every day is marked by the entrance of some other text editor to the already crowded space. Part of the problem is that now, web based text editing components are actually pretty awesome. Ace and CodeMirror work really quite well and each have associated with them some very formidable integrated development environments, referring to Cloud9 and LightTable, respectively (albeit there are quite a few others, these seem to be probably the most funded). And at Google I/O 2012, they announced the new Chrome Packaged Apps, which expose new functionality (most relevant being the ability to open and save files from the local disk and operating offline by default), and their sample apps include no less than two text editors.

Nevertheless, I’ve always pined (probably an exaggeration) for the opportunity to indulge in something as meta as writing a text editor which I could use as a text editor for the text editor (which is, if you did not notice, that text editor). It’s probably the pinnacle of dogfooding (probably nice coming after a streak of making extensions that I never actually use). But this doesn’t really go anywhere in terms of explaining why I’m doing this rather than using someone else’s rather better developed text editor package. It really comes down to this chrome app which I was quite a fan of almost a year ago, called SourceKit. SourceKit is a text editor which runs in Chrome that synced with Dropbox. The version which was distributed on the Chrome Web Store never supported offline, which is sort of sad because that’s the one feature I really wanted. The other source of inspiration was Streamie, the real time node based twitter client which had an absolutely phenomenal scheme for contributing. You just needed to fork the repo on github and all your commits would be visible live on your own subdomain of the site.

Also, in the mean time, I had discovered this pretty awesome text editor (no, it’s not VI or Emacs, because I’m not nearly cool enough or dedicated enough to approach that steep precipice of a learning curve) called Sublime Text 2. I have a pretty good picture now of what exactly I want from a text editor based on that (actually, I don’t know if this is just some delusion which has manifested in my mind because I probably thought the same way about gedit and krita and komodo and aptana and notepad2 and notepad++ and dreamweaver before that).

The real drive to creating that text editor happened in the week before I was scheduled to attend Google I/O 2012. I knew I’d be in some situations lacking Internet, and I felt like writing words or code or something in that time. So in a few days I hacked together this text editor which had a vague resemblance to Sublime Text. It was based on Ace, like SourceKit before it, but obviously a newer version with a whole bunch of syntax and themes included. It used a modified version of the Dropbox component from SourceKit (it was changed moderately to accommodate Dropbox API 2.0 and to deal with binary things like array buffers and blobs). And I added a little heads-up-menu-esque file and command picker, quite reminiscent of Sublime Text (and to a lesser extent Ubuntu Unity).

And then I headed for the airplane having not actually used it much in practice hoping to be super productive while using it, which you could have probably been able to tell by the beginning of this sentence wouldn’t pan out. The first (quite major) flaw which I encountered was some bug which would end up wiping out any file that I tried to edit, and left me with a gaping chasm in my hard drive (this is a metaphor, because my Chromebook is solid state). I just hope nothing of value was lost, but it remains quite likely that it was the otherwise.

I had no real system for testing out changes to my own extension, and I was too paralyzed of the fear of deleting my own extension to try changing it. So the end result was that the entire duration passed with me hardly doing anything productive on the project, or using it for any productive means in itself. All that happened was my discovery that everyone is working on a text editor right now and I should probably quit right then and there and work on something perhaps more novel or productive. But I came back and fixed it and did some more on it, and I’m finally at the point at which I feel comfortable using it for some mostly useless things, like writing a blog post inside the project’s readme about the project itself.

Welcome to CloudFall. Yeah, I’m aware how dumb it sounds, but the fact that the new James Bond movie is going to be called Skyfall essentially demolishes any hope of using that name. But rather than using this as a vindication of how cool that name would be and abandoning it for some novel name, I’m just going to contrive something in a similar vain, hence the current working name. But rather than spending the first few lines complaining about the name of the product, I should probably lay down what exactly this project aims to be. It’s a text editor, not a terribly glamorous concept, I know, and this is especially not a terribly great time to start. This is hardly the first text editor, and certainly will not be the last (until this either never finishes or the world actually does end by the end of this year). It’s not the most full featured, but I guess it does need to have something which distinguishes it.

The main feature is largely inherited from SourceKit, which is the ability to sync with Dropbox. And instead of editing “live” off of Dropbox’s servers, it really is more of a sync. It’s built around Chrome’s FileSystem API, so it has its own sandboxed imaginary folder where it sticks all the files. Every time a file is loaded, it’s first downloaded onto its spot on the imaginary folder and subsequent edits get sent to both the local copy and the server. This architecture, in theory, means it probably won’t inadvertently overwrite, corrupt or delete your important data in the advent of some syncing issues. It keeps track of the latest synced revisions and tells Dropbox’s API that information so that it won’t try overwriting a newer version from elsewhere and It’ll somewhat gracefully save to a different file in such a circumstance (though that routine can hardly be declared well tested, so beware of complications). It should in that way retain very close to full functionality while offline, since just about everything it does is entirely offline (including the compilation of CoffeeScript and LESS, which is explained later on).

Built into the extension are a few of the tiny tweaks that I have installed on Sublime Text which I find fairly useful. For instance, the app includes a copy of the CoffeeScript and LESS compilers, and so whenever you are editing one of those types of files in the text editor, it’ll automatically compile and save it into the same directory whenever you hit the save key. That’s actually pretty useful because it gives CoffeeScript back that REPL (almost certainly a malapropism, but I’m not too familiar with developer work-cycle jargon, so please excuse that grievous offense) dynamic that JS developers are so familiar with. And to aid that sort of work, it can preview your files “live”, even offline. While it can’t open and edit binary files like pictures, it can still download and display them fine.

For writing walls of text which don’t really need syntax highlighting (I wonder if someone has a package on mainstream text editors that syntax highlights free form English grammar, sort of like giving people synesthesia for no real reason), it includes a word count widget. Also, because I feel like encouraging unhealthy behavior, right next to the word count is an indication of your current typing speed. I’m pretty sure someone could go into some moral discussion into why it’s a completely detrimental addition to create something which displays how quickly the author is typing because it encourages a mindset which doesn’t focus on creating the most concise or effective means of delivery for some message, but rather promotes meaningless verbosity. But sometimes I would imagine using this for school assignments and the ilk, and maybe it would be nice to know when I’m reaching my designated quota filling some unwritten word requirement. I’m not quite sure how reliable of a word count it gives, since the algorithm is primitive and by no means nuanced, but it should be able to give a sort of rough estimate of the number of words on a page.

I may have mentioned earlier that there are two primary systems for interacting with the application, both of which are keyboard shortcuts: Ctrl-O and Ctrl-P, meaning the file browser and the command palette, respectively. They both appear in the same sort of interface component and generally behave the same, but there are some slight differences in how they operate (obviously). There are actually two “browsing modes” for the file browser, where it shows files either from the local stored cache or online in Dropbox. That can be switched by selecting either “Browse Mode: Local Copy” or “Browse Mode: Remote Dropbox” from the command palette (though there should probably be some better interface logically placed on the file browser panel itself). Remote Dropbox only works when the user is online, so the default mode is the local one. The sole interface to this list of files is the filter search box on the bottom of that widget, where typing in stuff filters out things. Of the visible items, the cursor can be manipulated by using the arrow keys, and one of the options can be executed by hitting the enter key. The widget needs to be manually dismissed by hitting the Esc key (which allows you to semi-rapidly open several files or try different commands, like changing themes). When a folder is activated, the context then shifts to what is inside the folder, descending into the hierarchy. It’s possible to ascend by entering the directory “../“. To create a file or folder (Note that at time of writing, creating folders does not sync to Dropbox), just type “+yourfile.txt” (or if there are no search results, it’ll automatically select the option to create a file with that name). To delete a file, you likewise just prepend your command with a minus instead, for instance “-oldfile.txt”. It’s not nearly as counterintuitive or confusing as I presume this description is making it sound.

The command palette, given that the interface is basically the same has much in common with the file system, but it’s entirely flat and linear. It lacks the hierarchy that plagues the file system, and navigating it is considerably simpler. Since the list is filtered and updated live with every keystoke, it’s fairly easy to find whatever command you’re looking for. The filtering algorithm only searches for characters but disregards gaps, only paying attention to order. In other words, the query “seals”, may match “SEt SyntAx: coLdfuSion”, it also means that you can construct very short queries to find what you want.

At this point, I don’t think it’s a final project per se, there are still a few features are woefully dysfunctional like Find and Replace. But I think it fits my own use case, editing files on my Chromebook, even when offline. It’s fast and doesn’t take too many steps to start. But the interface isn’t exceedingly intuitive (Basically everything is accessed through two keyboard shortcuts). I haven’t found a witty logo for it (I just haven’t bothered looking), and at this point I’m just writing a blog post about it because I feel obligated to document whatever it is that I just did.

Maybe some day I’ll pick it up again, or if there’s some response at all to this blog post, and add those awesome collaboration features (which probably won’t be very useful because the entire thing is quite hackish and not particularly kind to the prospect of improvements). Maybe I’ll fix up the search and replace interface (read: get rid of whatever horrid mess exists and replace it with a new one from scratch). And maybe I might publish it in some form that is significantly less involved than cloning off github and packaging the app yourself.

Cloud Save 07 March 2011


I didn’t really want to write a post about yet another chrome extension, as the last five posts have somehow or another related to Google Chrome. Actually, the post I was planning to write before this was “Why the Chrome Webstore is broken”, which would be sort of less fanboy-ish. Anyway, this extension is rather simple, so I’ll probably go into the reasoning as to why I made it, where it might be headed and how I made it. There probably won’t be too much interesting information here.

I wanted a Cr-48. Why? I’m not sure, partially because I don’t actually have a laptop of my own, though my brother’s Macbook Pro (which I’m typing this post on) is pretty awesome. Plus, the platform is new, non-intimidating, more or less open, and there’s such a lack of the most basic tools, that I could probably get a few twitter followers by creating web apps which did things that are really basic yet somehow the web is lacking with. Things like an offline dictionary or wikipedia dump reader. So, Chrome OS seemed cool, and probably guaranteed bragging rights, at least more so than a Google TV probably would. Due partially to my age, I’m pretty scared of using money and have this feeling that I shouldn’t spend anything on anything more than a can of soda. I guess I’ve gotten off-topic enough, and so, I wanted a Cr-48 (for free, of course).

In my opinion, Google’s pretty good at copying Apple. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I wouldn’t say it’s the intention, but at least they can recognize a good feature and can copy the essence of it in a pretty functional way while for the most part, distancing from the less good parts. Unlike my feelings of what Microsoft would do, which would be to copy most of the bad parts wholesale and add some pretty fascinating and novel parts. So, if any company were to give me a free laptop, that would be awesome, but Apple certainly isn’t going to give things away, and Google’s the only company I think can properly copy the trackpad (though it appears they can’t even do that, from what I’ve read).

So, that’s probably random enough, and you’re wondering how this relates to anything at all. Well, part of my quest to attain a Cr-48 involved building some pretty interesting pieces of software targeted at chrome os (but not by any means exclusive to chrome os). This included the offline dictionary and wikipedia reader. That way, if I didn’t get a Cr-48, I could have an excuse to hate Google and I might be less frequently arguing in their support. But this backup plan failed (fortunately), and I won the LucidChart Cr-48 competition by drawing a picture of a Cr48 out of flow chart components.

I started using Google Groups because I could. I wasn’t spammed by google in the great spamming of some time in february, which means Google hadn’t magically picked for me to have one of those devices (I think this was before I won the LucidChart competition). So I later joined the non-involuntary group for chrome notebook pilots so I could eagerly await the knock on my door from UPS and be prepared for what to do when that happened.

I skimmed through tons of random posts and eventually I noticed a pattern. People hated the file system and wanted a way to basically get rid of it. The irony is that this new Cloud that is being created, is a static collection of walled gardens. So much for progress. There’s no standard for interoperability and it hasn’t really been too important, but somehow, because of Chrome OS’s probably bad file system, people are recognizing that that this isn’t right to have an intermediary step to get data from one application to another.

I’ve always held that Browsers are to improve the user experience as much as possible while keeping all of the internet on a balanced and equal platform. I felt that Extensions were the means to trigger change to a specific group of websites or a general heuristic in order to make a more perfect experience. I thought of that while making drag2up, which creates a novel and useful feature which should be used by everybody. As part of building it, I ended up with a sort of OCD toward creating an implementation of every imaginable file host.

Cloud Save’s heritage is probably as much owed to drag2up as it is to Clip It Good, the latter of which I’ve never actually used, but found it inspiring nonetheless (and I ripped the Picasa implementation out of it too). Clip It Good was the general idea for Cloud Save, except that Cloud Save had more hosts. I made Cloud Save in thirty one minutes and thirty nine seconds, give or take a minute or so. The fact it was made in a mere half hour shows how the idea isn’t novel at all. In fact, most of those minutes were spent setting up the directory structure, manifest, installing inkscape, downloading the tango icon set and unzipping the icons to steal the save action icon (much like how I stole the up arrow icon used as drag2up’s logo). Nearly all of Cloud Save was the code needed to create the context menu. The downloading from URL, authentication and upload stuff was already in drag2up (I myself was pretty impressed about this. Evidently, I forgot how many features I had put into drag2up.).

Cloud Save wasn’t meant as a sort of glorified bookmark system. Or as a means to politely reshare images without hotlinking. I thought the need was to bypass the physical filesystem. That’s why the application is target primarily toward services which provide a virtual file system: a directory structure, files, privacy, etc. It wasn’t ever really intended as a means to share files, but I guess this is what people want it to do, so I’ll probably make the extension more sharing oriented in the future.

I realized I just forgot the rest of what I was about to write about, so I guess I’ll end it rather abruptly here. This morning, at 11 AM (though I don’t know if this date has been adjusted for my time zone) when I was still probably in school, Lifehacker posted about it and now people are using it. Awesome. I didn’t expect this to be that significant.

drag2up 2.0 - drag and drop uploading for all sites 26 December 2010

drag2up was a browser extension I built a few months ago, and recently bumped it up to 2.0. The basic idea is to use HTML5 File API and the drag/drop integration that Chrome and Firefox implements to enable uploads to any website by simply dragging and dropping the file from your computer onto the respective site. Instead of the trouble of opening a new tab, navigating to your favorite file provider, waiting for it to load, pressing the browse button, navigating to the folder with your image, pressing “Open”, then hitting the submit button, waiting for the upload to finish, copy the link, find the original tab among the mess of tabs that fills your tab bar and finally scrolling down, selecting the box and pasting the URL. All to share a three megabyte file. drag2up streamlines the process into a single, swift gesture where you drag the file onto the text entry field. The link is instantly added while the file is being uploaded in the background. If someone navigates to the link before it’s done uploading, the page uses the Google App Engine Channel API to stream real time upload status.

It still has a pretty simple user interface that works with zero initial setup. In addition to using gist and imgur for text files and image uploading respectively, it includes many additional services, configurable through a simple drag and drop interface. The new version also sports Firefox support.

New Features

  • Firefox + Chrome
  • Background Uploading
  • imgur,, ImageShack
  • Flickr, Picasa
  • gist, pastebin, mysticpaste
  • Chemical Servers, DAFK, Hotfile
  • Dropbox, CloudApp
  • Built in URL shorteners Right now, the only service that doesn’t quite work is Dropbox. The application hasn’t been approved for production status yet. And a number of the hosts do not work with Chrome 8 because of typed arrays and binary XHR issues.

Try out the extension now :) I would really appreciate any and all feedback.

Technical Information

There’s some pretty cool stuff going on in the new release. This release is really close to the bleeding edge of what’s capable on the web and with browsers. On Chrome, to upload files, the multipart/form-data xhr is being pieced together with array buffers and typed arrays, stuff from the WebGL specification. The Firefox version is based on the latest beta release of Mozilla Jetpack (hacked slightly so that the resulting xpi works with 3.6 as well as 4.0). Transferring data between the background page and the individual content scripts (or pageMods in Jetpack’s terms) is done with the createBlobURL (also called createObjectURL) function and binary XMLHttpRequest. On older versions of Firefox, FileReader is used to load files into base64 encoded data urls. Inter-frame communication is done with postMessage and native JSON serialization and parsing functions. Picasa and Dropbox support are built on Javascript implementations of OAuth (based on Clip It Good and Chromepad). So, yeah, there’s lots of new and super cool stuff in there.

The content script was more or less rewritten in order to support Gmail, which led to some interesting design changes. Firstly, the new version establishes a sort of hierarchy, a difference between a root frame and the most subordinated one. Each drag event is sent to the top using postMessage, where the root frame decides whether or not to render the targets or to remove them. Once the decision is made, it trickles downward to each of it’s immediate frames and then trickles back down to each subordinate frame. Whenever a frame is created, a loop detects that one has been added and attempts to access it’s DOM in order to insert a script element that initializes the code. Interestingly, content scripts (in chrome) are unable to access the child frames so a script needs to be inserted into the immediate page in order to insert a script into a child page. The scripts also set document.__drag2up to ensure there aren’t any frames that load themselves twice (interestingly creating an event and dispatching it seeing if there’s a event listener that does preventDefault isn’t a reliable indicator. I wanted to ideally create a system that was mostly undetectable by the parent page, but eventually settled for this simpler and more reliable implementation).

Once the “trickle_reactivate” message (every message happens to be eighteen characters, because of certain really weird design ideas) is recieved by all the frames, they loop through all the elements on the page, searching for elements that meet the isDroppable criteria. It does not trigger on elements who have a width*height < 100, so no really tiny boxes. It needs to be an input element type text or textarea that isn’t read only or disabled, or it needs to be an element whose contents are editable. Then it checks the positioning of the element using the document.elementFromPoint function twice (one accounting for scrolling and one that doesn’t to differentiate fixed positioning from others). The drop target is a div with a massive style attribute. It has rounded corners, css transitions and is positioned either absolutely or fixed based on the positioning of the associated input element. It’s centered around the element or completely covers it for smaller areas. When the user hovers over it, the opacity changes (the behavior is actually reversed from the last version). The original version faded out slightly when hovered over, which, after some thought, I realized made no sense. Similar to the drop target is a purple settings box on the lower right corner. I’m actually quite displeased with it. It’s not a great user experience, but at least it’s noticable. Primarily, it was added because I have no idea how to get the Preferences button to work with Jetpack and Google manages to bury the Options button somewhere deep within the depths of Chrome’s single menu.

Once the file is dropped, the content script decides whether it was a file that was dropped or an image that was dropped from some other page. If it’s an image (because that’s the simpler case to deal with), it does something that’s actually slightly counterintuitive. Using getData(‘text/uri-list’) isn’t reliable as in many cases, the image is wrapped in a link tag and that only gives the link URL instead of that image. So instead, it reads text/html and inserts it into a temporary div and pulls out the source attribute which is then sent to the background page. If the thing that was dropped is a file, first, it checks if the browser supports one of the Blob URI creation methods and if that’s available, it uses that to create a URL. If not, the file is read using FileReader as a base64 encoded data url and sent to the background page. But not immediately, because often the script is running in an unprivledged environment, so it does a postMessage to the topmost parent which should be privileged. The privileged content script sends the message to the even more privileged background page that initiates the actual uploading process.

Before going into what the background page actually does, there’s the settings page. I’m actually pretty proud of how it turned out. With the large number of hosts that are supported, I needed a way for the user to select hosts for different types of files. I could have used select boxes, but they’re not generally great when dealing with image based concepts, because a company’s logo is often more recognizable than the name (odd that I’m saying that, seeing as this blog has neither a distinctive name nor even a favicon). So instead, I built this little grid where the user can drag hosts into boxes on the right. It’s made with jQuery UI, because I don’t particularly like the API’s provided in HTML5.

The background page handles the uploading. Basically, there’s a bunch of javascript files that are loaded into it. The hardest part was by far, OAuth. If anything, this project has only refined my dislike of OAuth. And because this post is already insanely long, I’ll go and rant about the problems of OAuth anyway. There’s already a great article on how terrible of an idea it is for OAuth to be used in any application that runs code on the client. But Photobucket, Picasa and Dropbox still don’t understand that (or don’t care) and only provide OAuth. But that’s not really a problem, I just hate OAuth because even though It’s a standard, each service provider has some little quirks that take hours to debug and ends up being extremely frustrating. Maybe the OAuth gods are angry with me or something, but it’s incredibly troublesome.

Try out the extension now :) I would really appreciate any and all feedback.