Solipsism Gradient

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Year++

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It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post, but I haven’t been idle. Well, a few of the holidays excepted, of course. Here’s what’s on my radar for the new year, or at least for the first months.

I’ve finally had time to look at the SnowLeopard (Mac OS X 10.6) beta. Can’t say much about it, except that there are interesting and significant changes in the infrastructure – important for programmers. I really hope that, once out, a majority of users will adopt it.

A consequence of seeing the 10.6 APIs is that I decided to do a serious rework of Klicko and Quay, so they’ll be ultimately easier to migrate to 10.6 and a 64-bit environment. Klicko inherited a lot of code, and I’m really glad that I decided to do it as a training exercise, since I’ll very soon back-port much of that back to Quay, after enhancing and optimizing.

If all goes well, Klicko 1.1 will be out soon. I’ve got all but installation and updating procedures done. Most notably, it’s now a System Preferences panel that installs a background process. While this is a departure from the easy-to-run, simple-Cocoa-app mantra, splitting this type of application into a faceless background process and a foreground GUI will soon be mandatory for all practical purposes, and there are advantages; for the user, once properly installed and configured, Klicko will “just work” automatically and in the background, and use very few resources.

One new Klicko feature was requested by several users (and others who have emailed me in the past). There will be a (configurable) preference to have the window’s “zoom” button do a true maximize – or at least attempt to, not all applications will support it properly. While I find the importance that Windows users attach to maximizing everything all the time a little puzzling, trying it out convinced me that it’s useful now and then. I always maximize NetNewsWire, Xcode, and a few other application windows, for instance. I also decided that it may be useful in pointing users that are new to the Mac to shareware software in general and to my own applications.

Once that is done – hopefully with very few build updates – it’s back to reimplementing everything I learned into Quay (probably 1.2). I’m not decided whether that will become a preferences panel too, but it may be possible. More importantly, I’m now pretty fluent with the event tap and accessibility APIs that both Quay and Klicko use.

The major new feature of Quay will be that Quay menus will also pop up for Finder icons. Ultimately, I’d like to make this work in any and all Finder window modes – icon, list and column – and in all circumstances where the Finder’s own contextual menus pop up. I’ve done some preliminary testing and it looks like it might be possible. There are a few edge cases where I’m not sure that I’ll be able to compute the correct path for the icon.

Anyway, if all works as planned, I’ll be able to introduce more flexibility through plug-ins. A plug-in would get a file or folder handed to it and would produce either a popup menu, or an information window. This would allow me to finally declare XRay entirely defunct (it already runs very poorly on Leopard), and replace it with many small, specialized plug-ins. My older contextual menu plug-ins, like Zingg! and Nudge would also be trivial to rewrite as Quay plug-ins.

A similar, much more ambitious plug-in scheme, was planned for XRay II, and I can reuse some of that code… there are still some complex issues to decide, however. Opening the plug-in interface to other developers is of course what I’d like to do, but licensing, updating, keeping plug-ins from interfering with each other will be very tricky.

All in all there’s lots of ideas to implement and this should keep me busy for most of the year. I’m not considering going into iPhone/iPod development for now; there’s a glut of $0.99 applications and the way the App Store is working seems overly opaque to me.

More soon! Stay tuned.

Found an error in the code signature for both Klicko and Quay, induced by the presence of a newer signing certificate for iPhone apps.

So I pushed out new builds for Quay 1.1.1 (285) and Klicko 1.0.1 (103). Klicko also has other small improvements; see the release notes.

Cocoa musings pt.1

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One of the reasons for my taking a week or two off to work mostly on the just-released Klicko was that I like to rework, and group together, code snippets that worked well for me in earlier applications, and see if I can update them to conform to my slowly growing experience. I’m also prone to digress; one such digression (several months!) resulted in the release of the unexpectedly popular RBSplitView.

Both Klicko and Quay use code that, like RBSplitView, were destined for XRay II, the supposed successor of XRay, which sadly is not reliable under Leopard. Alas, at this writing, it sounds like XRay II will remain in the freezer, its mummy mined for code snippets and general philosophical experience… but the basic idea persists, and something quite equivalent (but also quite different in detail) is already being conceived.

Both Quay and Klicko do part of their seeming magic with a technology called “Quarz Event Taps” (PDF file). This was introduced in Tiger, and perfected in Leopard. Briefly, an event tap is a C callback routine that is called to filter low-level user input events at some points in the system’s event processing, which is actually quite complex. Events can be generated, examined, modified or even suppressed before they’re delivered to an application. Since user input events are usually routed to the foreground window (that is, to the foreground application, even if it has no window), this makes event taps quite powerful.

You can make a global event tap, or a per-process tap. Quay sets up a tap on the Dock process to intercept clicks on Dock icons. Klicko uses a global tap to check for clicks on background windows.

Tapping one application is, in principle, easy: you locate the application to be tapped by its PSN (Process Serial Number), set up the tap, tie it to your application’s main run loop, and that’s it. Here’s what a bare-bones implementation would look like:

// This is the callback routine, called for every tapped event.

CGEventRef ProcessEvent(CGEventTapProxy tapProxy, CGEventType type, CGEventRef event, void *refcon) {
   switch (type) {
      case kCGEventLeftMouseDown:
         // process a mouse down
         break;
      case kCGEventLeftMouseUp:
         // process a mouse down
         break;
   }
   return event;   // return the tapped event (might have been modified, or set to NULL)
               // returning NULL means the event isn't passed forward
}

// Here's how you set up the tap: we're catching mouse-down and mouse-up

...
   ProcessSerialNumber psn;
   // get the PSN for the app to be tapped; usually with the routines in <Processes.h>
...
   CFMachPortRef tapg = CGEventTapCreateForPSN(&psn, kCGTailAppendEventTap, kCGEventTapOptionDefault, 
      CGEventMaskBit(kCGEventLeftMouseDown)|CGEventMaskBit(kCGEventLeftMouseUp),
      ProcessEvent,NULL);
   if (!tapg) {   // bail out if the tap couldn't be created
      NSLog(@"application tap failed");
      [NSApp terminate:nil];
   }
   CFRunLoopSourceRef source = CFMachPortCreateRunLoopSource(kCFAllocatorDefault, tapg, 0);
   if (!source) {   // bail out if the run loop source couldn't be created
      NSLog(@"runloop source failed");
      [NSApp terminate:nil];
   }
   CFRelease(tapg);   // can release the tap here as the source will retain it; see below, however
   CFRunLoopAddSource(CFRunLoopGetCurrent(), source, kCFRunLoopCommonModes);
   CFRelease(source);  // can release the source here as the run loop will retain it

After that, all should work – in principle. The devil is in the details. Here’s how you locate a running application by its application ID and return its PSN:

BOOL GetPSNForApplicationID(NSString* appid, ProcessSerialNumber* outPSN) {
   outPSN.highLongOfPSN = outPSN.lowLongOfPSN = kNoProcess;
   while (GetNextProcess(outPSN)==noErr) {
      NSDictionary* pdict = [(NSDictionary*)ProcessInformationCopyDictionary(&psn,
         kProcessDictionaryIncludeAllInformationMask) autorelease];
      if ([[pdict stringForKey:(id)kCFBundleIdentifierKey] isEqualToString:appid]) {
         return YES;
      }
   }
   return NO;
}

To make a global tap, you don’t need a PSN. Just use the following tap creation call instead:

   CFMachPortRef tapg = CGEventTapCreate(kCGAnnotatedSessionEventTap, kCGEventTapOptionDefault, 
      CGEventMaskBit(kCGEventLeftMouseDown)|CGEventMaskBit(kCGEventLeftMouseUp),
      ProcessEvent,NULL);

More details. If you’re tapping an application, it may not be running; CGEventTapCreateForPSN will return NULL in that case. Or it may quit while you have the tap set up. You probably want to monitor that process and either quit, or rerun the application, or wait for it to come back up. In the latter cases, you’ll have to back out of the now-dead tap carefully:

   CFMachPortInvalidate(tapg);
   CFRunLoopRemoveSource(CFRunLoopGetCurrent(),source,kCFRunLoopDefaultMode);
   CFRelease(tapg);   // this CFRelease has been moved from before the CFRunLoopAddSource

supposing, of course, that you have held on to those two variables. Note how the CFRelease(tapg) should, in such a case, happen only after the source has been removed from the run loop; otherwise invalidating the tap will cause the run loop to crash. You can use the same technique to close a global event tap, though usually there’s no need; if your app crashes or quits, the tap will be closed automatically.

However, there’s a serious problem while debugging an event tap. If you’re tapping a single application, and set a breakpoint inside yours (or break into the debugger anywhere because of a crash or exception), both applications will stop. If the same happens while a global tap is active, the entire system stops accepting user input! The only way to recover is to ssh/telnet in from another machine, and kill Xcode. So even if you prefer NSLog/printf calls to breakpoints, this will be very inconvenient for all but the simplest callback code.

The solution I found was to always use an application tap while debugging. An easy way is to define, as I always do, a special macro inside the main project build configuration panel (but for the debug configuration only): inside the “Preprocessor Macros Not Used In Precompiled Headers” (aka GCC_PREPROCESSOR_DEFINITIONS_NOT_USED_IN_PRECOMPS) write “DEBUG”, and then, instead of the global tap, compile in an application tap on some always-present application (like the Finder) by using #ifdef DEBUG/#else/#endif statements.

Even that isn’t always sufficient, as Xcode 3 notoriously may invoke the debugger (even on your release build!) if your app crashes. You must either get used to never clicking on “Build & Go” for your release build, or you must make a runtime check for the debugger. The latter will prevent inadvertent freezes, but if you forget to take it out before deployment, your application will behave oddly if a curious user runs it under a debugger.

This post is already too long, so I’ll talk only briefly about what you can do inside the event tap callback itself. Every possible execution path should be short and contain no long loops or wait points. If you’re just watching events, always return the same event passed in as parameter. Return NULL if you want to suppress an event; however, be careful to suppress entire event groups. For instance, if you decide to suppress a mouse-down, store the event number and also suppress subsequent mouse-dragged and mouse-up events with the same number; otherwise the destination application may behave oddly. Some apps may behave oddly when tapped, by the way.

Update: I previously said here that to intercept or generate keyboard events, your application must run with setgid 0 (the “wheel” group). I was mistaken; my apologies. Your application must run setuid root to make an event tap at the third tap point (which I didn’t mention here), which is where the events enter the window server (kCGHIDEventTap).

Just pushed out Klicko version 1.0 (79) and Quay 1.1.1 (283). Both are just small bug fix releases. Hopefully this will make Quay useable again for everybody while I work on the upcoming 1.2, which should be a huge step forward in functionality. There are still a few outstanding Klicko bugs, so be sure to check for updates over the next days, too.

I just fixed some errors in the French localization of Quay. English-language users need not re-download.

In such a case it’s not really justified to change the version or even the build number, so I just did a silent update of the disk image…

Quay 1.1 is out.

There are very few bugs left, but lots of feature requests. I’ll start work on 1.2 almost immediately, and have great plans for it. Please post suggestions on the support forum, or e-mail me.

Whew, Quay 1.1fc1 is finally out. Too tired to explain details just now. Film at 11.

Blind Cook Attack

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Release of Quay 1.1 has been stuck at the “one more bug” stage, as I’ve mentioned. Today I’ve finally unterstood what is happening, and a fix should be easy – I only have to rebuild most of my inter-thread communication. Herewith the cautionary tale.

Quay 1.01 was (as its help file boasted) “just a simple Cocoa app”. Indeed, clicking on a Quay item in the Dock opened the “QuayMenu” background application (which uses the NSUIElement flag). QuayMenu was optimized for quick startup – it read that item to get the folder it was pointing to, read the folder contents, showed a popup menu with them, and quit again when the menu was closed. Nothing easier; a very linear process.

Then in 1.1, all this changed. Now QuayMenu runs all the time in the background. There are two threads (plus a few more that don’t matter for this discussion). One thread listens (via Quartz Event Taps) for clicks on the Dock’s icons, finds out which icon it was, and if Quay should handle it, does a performSelectorOnMainThread: passing data about the icon to the main thread.

The main thread, in its turn, waits until it gets such an event and then pretty much does what the original 1.01 did: puts up a menu with the folder contents. It also shows an arrow over the clicked icon, both to show which icon it was and to allow the user to distinguish Quay menus from Dock menus.

Of course the arrow has to be in a window to be shown onscreen. 1.01 had an invisible window, since a popup menu has to be associated with a window – but now the window has to be shown only when the menu is onscreen, and hidden again when the menu is taken down.

Then around 1.1b2 I got complaints that, after a menu was canceled, the application that was active at the time of the initial wasn’t properly restored to the background – easy to fix by hiding the QuayMenu app after the menu went down. Soon after that, I thought that it would be prudent to imitate the Dock behavior when successive icons were clicked; that is, clicking on one icon, then on another, would produce two successive menus without any need to cancel the first one. And it also would be nice to be able to cancel a long menu while it was being built.

OK, so I introduced some inter-thread communication – mostly some flags and a cancel message – to take care of that. And after some fiddling it seemed to work, some conveniently ignored exceptions excepted. Then my MacBook Air arrived (my first multi-core Mac), and I noticed that the exceptions were more frequent; in fact, about 1 in 10 times, when I clicked on a second icon the first memu was taken down, and the second one either didn’t appear at all or it only flickered onscreen very briefly.

Well, this of course indicated a threading problem – as my experience with interthread communication was a little limited, that was to be expected – and I tried to find out where I was doing something dumb like not properly locking a shared resource or whatever. Since the bug never happened when I tried to break somewhere and single-step from there, it was indeed related to timing. But where?

Tons of NSLog()s were sprinkled about and everything seemed to be working properly. The messages from the first thread left at the proper time, the main thread caught them, the first menu was closed when necessary, the second menu was popped up as expected, but it mysteriously closed down immediately (1 in 10 attempts) or not (9 in 10 attempts). Everything else was as expected. Moreover, no canceling message was sent, or left over, that could close the second menu! It… just curled up and closed. Argh.

Finally – and it was really dumb of me not to think of that immediately – it occurred to me to look at the value returned to my Carbon Menu event handler for the kEventMenuEndTracking event. (Yes, I have a Carbon event handler because for complex UI reasons I need more control – and a shorter build time – than a Cocoa menu could give me.) Turns out that 9 out of 10 times the menu gets closed by kHIMenuDismissedBySelection (when the user picks a menu item); by kHIMenuDismissedByUserCancel (when the user closes the menu without selecting any item); or by kHIMenuDismissedByCancelMenuTracking (when my first thread canceled the menu because the user clicked on another Dock icon).

However – and here was the smoking gun – 1 out of 10 times the menu turned out to close by kHIMenuDismissedByAppSwitch (meaning QuayMenu went into hiding to put another application into the foreground). Now, that should indeed be happening briefly after the first menu was closed, but before the second menu was opened QuayMenu should jump into the foreground again. Now that I considered it, that’s a somewhat costly process that should be optimized out. But why was the application hiding after the second menu popped up instead of before? The sequence of events shouldn’t allow that at all!

Well, at least now I had a clue of where to put my NSLog()s and after some hours of sweating I had the answer: putting all that window hiding and showing in with application hiding and showing, and trying to optimize that by balancing the load over two threads – in brief, putting all urgent stuff into the first thread and all the potentially slow stuff and UI into the main thread – was fundamentally broken. It shouldn’t have worked at all, ever! So why was it failing only 1 in 10 times?

At this point I was visiting my mother and I was attempting to explain to her what was going on. Now, my mom is 95 – she’s still very sharp but knows absolutely zilch about programming. On the other hand, she’s an excellent work optimizer. I suppose 80+ years of kitchen duty will do that to you. At any rate, I was trying to explain what I was doing by resorting to a metaphor.

Assume two blind cooks working in a restaurant. The specialty is pancakes. An order for a pancake comes in to the first cook. He checks out (by Braille I suppose) what goes into the pancake, throws the ingredient into his pan, waves them briefly over his stove, then with a practiced flip of his hand he flicks the pancake to the second blind cook who’s supposed to finish the pancake.

Since they’ve practiced this a lot, and worked out some sort of signals, the second cook knows when to put up his frying pan just in time and in the right position to catch the pancake flying into his direction, and after that it’s easy. He tosses the pancake to a waiter who in turn serves it to the client.

Now, what was happening is that when a second order comes in before the first pancake is finished the second cook has to clean his pan. OK, we may have ridden the metaphor here until it breaks down (hehe) but let’s assume that he usually manages to do so, and proceeds to finish the second pancake in peace. Maybe the client has changed his mind about what sort of pancake he wanted, or something.

Only 1 times in 10 something weird happens and the second pancake is also thrown out unfinished. The first cook notices nothing amiss; he’s getting orders, setting up, and throwing the pancakes. The second cook notices nothing amiss; he’s catching the pancakes like he’s supposed to, cleaning his pan and all when necessary. It’s just 1 in 10 clients that complain because they never get their pancake!

Well, said my mom, so who was stealing the pancake then? The only explanation I found was that the kitchen shouldn’t have worked at all – it was working just by coincidence! In other words, the second cook wasn’t tossing the pancake to the waiter; he was tossing it out of the window! It just happened that at that crucial time a providential windmill wing swung by in front of the window, the pancake bounced off that and, who’da thought, right on the waiter’s plate!

Of course such a thing can’t work reliably and now and then one of the cook’s timing was off just enough to make the pancake miss the windmill wing, and the pancake would be gone with none of them noticing.

So my mom and I had a good laugh (“I can’t believe you actually think of your work that way!”, she said) and I went home. Tomorrow I must redo the whole kitchen routine. Stand by for news.

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