Archive for 2008

A small XBList update to 3.2.1

Yesterday I updated XBList to 3.2.1. This release is mostly bugfixes - it fixes a problem where Xbox Gamer Tiles wouldn’t load because xbox.com changed the format they stored pics in, and it fixes an issue where gamers who are away but in a game would show up as on the dashboard. The only new feature is that I’ve changed the sound that’s played when your friends come online. It’s now the same as the Xbox 360’s notification sound, and is much less jarring than the old sound. I hope that comes as a welcome change. Grab the new version and let me know what you think.

360Voice.com Challenges Windows Sidebar Gadget

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In my post introducing the Bungie Card Windows Sidebar Gadget I mentioned that I was making one more gadget that would be of somewhat more limited interest. Well, I’m finally finished with it: the 360Voice.com Challenges gadget! 360Voice.com is a fun little site that started off by giving your Xbox 360 a blog that would summarize each day’s gameplay. It’s since grown far beyond that, but the feature I like most is the “challenges”. Challenges are a little meta-game where you get some friends together and see who can win the most gamerscore via unlocking achievements over a set period of time.

I do a lot of these challenges, so I wanted to be able to keep track of their progress on my sidebar. The gadget shows you the time left in the challenge, the current standings, and the “live score”, which is the gamerscore each player has earned that day that hasn’t been counted in the official standings yet (gamerscore is sampled by 360Voice.com at midnight PST each day). Once the challenge is over, the winner is given a little crown and the gadget waits for the next challenge.

Fortunately, the 360Voice.com developers had the good sense to provide an XML web services API to their challenge data (and a lot of other stuff too!) so it’s not too hard to make cool things like this gadget that tie into their site. For this project I went ahead and included my favorite JavaScript library, jQuery, and a neat jQuery-based databinding library called chain.js. Using these made development a lot smoother - the old familiar Sidebar bugs and Internet Explorer weirdness was still there, but overall it wasn’t too bad. I’ve specifically designed it to be as light as possible on 360Voice.com’s API too, so hopefully it won’t impact their service.

I think this is the most attractive gadget I’ve made - it’s certainly the most data-rich. I’m really proud of how it came out. I hope everybody enjoys it, and if you haven’t ever done a 360Voice challenge, go start one! Also, if you like it, please rate it at Windows Live Gallery.

P.S.: While I was monkeying around with gadgets, I’ve made some minor changes to my Top Process gadget - the text-fade option is no longer there since it really didn’t add anything, and I may have fixed a couple minor bugs.

Bungie Card Windows Sidebar Gadget

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I suppose I’m a glutton for punishment. After writing my last two Windows Sidebar gadgets, I really meant to swear them off entirely. They’re really a pain to develop. But when my favorite video game developer, Bungie (recently of Halo fame) launched their new “Bungie Cards”, I knew I had to support them. Bungie Cards are basically like Xbox Gamer Cards, but for Halo 3. I assume when new Bungie games get released, they’ll feed into the Bungie Card system as well. My new gadget is not terribly complicated - it just displays your Halo 3 Bungie Card, in either the small or wide form.

Bungie Card Gadget (thumbnail)

When it’s floating, you can choose either form of the Bungie Card. It’s a little weirder when it’s docked to the sidebar. First, it scales down to fit the sidebar. Then, to see the wide version, you just click on the gadget and the wide card shows up in a flyout. It’s a nice way to keep track of things without taking up too much space. As a bonus, double-clicking on either form will take you to your Halo 3 stats page.

Like the other gadgets I’ve done, this was much more difficult to develop than it should have been. The hardest part was getting the scaled-down card for when the sidebar is docked. At first I just zoomed out the page, like I had done for my Xbox Live Gamercard gadget, but it looked absolutely awful. With the exception of newer browsers like Firefox 3 and Safari, “resizing” an image by just changing the HTML element’s dimensions has always used nearest-neighbor filtering, resulting in a truly horrid image. My first instinct was to try and use the MS-proprietary “filter” CSS property to apply a Matrix DXImageTransform that would do the scaling, since that transform has an argument that’ll get it to use bilinear filtering, which is at least decent. However, Sidebar seems to think that that is a dangerous “active content” operation and blocks it. I tweaked it around for a while before stumbling on a workaround - the BasicImage filter was not blocked, and if I applied any transform at all, the basic zoom scaling would filter the image in a more pleasant way. So right now I’m using an opacity filter set to make the image completely opaque. It’s silly, but it works, and I guess this is what I should expect at this point. Trust me, you wouldn’t have liked it before - the image on the left is the way it looks now, the image on the right is with the original smoothing method:

I actually have another Xbox-related Sidebar gadget in development which is more complex but of limited interest. I hope everyone enjoys the Bungie Card gadget - feel free to send me feedback directly, and please rate the gadget at Windows Live Gallery.

Posts I haven't written

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I haven’t been updating this blog too much recently. I never meant for this blog to run on a schedule, but I did intend to post more frequently than this. My original idea was that the blog would serve two major purposes. First, it is a place for me to announce new projects or updates to software and websites I’ve already released. It’s done that quite well, though I haven’t had much to announce recently. My job has been taking the majority of my development time, and most of the projects I’ve been working on at home are either private or haven’t been released in the form I’d like to because my employer hasn’t approved them for release yet.

The second major purpose for my blog is as a place for me to record the solution to problems I run across while developing software, so that others won’t have to spend hours Googling or using trial and error to come to the same conclusion. I didn’t intend to rehash things that were easily found or that had already been discussed - only to post when I felt it was something that added value to the internet that hadn’t been there before. So a lot of the blog posts are not really a narrative or running commentary - they’re not meant to be subscribed to, but found individually. It’s for this reason that my most popular posts tend to include the exact text of error messages. This type of post has suffered both because I haven’t been doing as much development, because I can’t discuss a lot of what I’ve learned due to the nature of the projects I’m working on, and because I’ve been learning new stuff (like Ruby on Rails) and haven’t done enough to have solved problems others haven’t already posted solutions for.

The third reason I have this blog is to occasionally talk about my thoughts on different technical topics, from web development to video games. Again, I don’t like to make a post unless I think I’m adding something new, and most of the topics I’ve wanted to talk about have already been covered. I had a lot of draft posts sitting around about web development, web standards, and the evolution of browsers, but then I discovered Alex Russell’s blog and it turns out he’s already said most of what I wanted to say, and better than I could. Other stuff, like my impressions of Windows Vista, critique of stackoverflow.com and suggestions for the Xbox Live Arcade lineup, have been covered to my satisfaction in plenty of places. Maybe some of them will end up posted, but probably not.

Another part of the reason I haven’t posted much is the sheer weight of unfinished posts I have. Right now I have 64 drafts and only 52 real posts! So I’m going to attempt to clear things out by writing a little about what I haven’t posted. A lot of this stuff wasn’t posted because it fell under that third point above, but some of it I was just too lazy to flesh out into real posts. Some of it’s just random stuff. So here’s what’s been happening in the last year:

I got on the bandwagon and picked up iPhone 3Gs for myself and my wife. Everything good you’ve heard about the iPhone is true. Also, almost everything bad you’ve heard about them is true. I really like the device, the UI, and the web browsing, and now that the NDA over the SDK is gone, I might even try to write an app if I get an idea.

I built a new computer in March of ‘07 to replace the machine I had built for college. The new machine is set up as a developer machine primarily, with the additional goal of being as quiet as possible. I can’t say I’m entirely happy with it, since I’ve had some trouble with the hardware and overheating issues mean I have to run the fans above “totally silent” mode. It does its job well enough but I might just buy a Dell next time. The huge CPU heatsink I used is awesome, though.

I’ve been running Windows Vista x64 since my new machine came online. While I think it’s a disappointing release given the 5-year gap between it and Windows XP, I generally like it. It’s certainly better than Windows XP and I wouldn’t go back. I’ve hit some trouble related to using x64, but overall it’s pleasant.

Before that, I was getting pretty sick of the aging Windows XP, so I bought a Mac Mini and ran it, using OS X 10.4, on a second screen next to my XP machine, joined via Synergy. I liked it a lot, but never moved much of my work over there. After getting set up with Windows Vista, the difference between OS X and Windows wasn’t so great, and I unplugged the Mac so I could have both screens for Windows. I moved the Mini up to my TV and used it with Front Row as a media center. Then the Xbox 360 got the ability to play DivX videos, so I stopped using it for that and brought it back downstairs. I was using it for browser testing, but then Apple released a Windows version of Safari. Now it mostly stays off, except when I want to use Handbrake (which won’t work on Vista x64). I still like it, and I really miss having an OS with a real command line, especially now that I’m doing Rails stuff and spelunking through a lot of badly-documented libraries. I’m not sure I’ll ever make the switch though. That said, my trusty old Thinkpad finally died last week, and if I can’t revive it I might look towards the rumored lower-priced MacBooks that should come out soon.

I got two awesome cats named Ozette and Skagit. A lot of my time at home just involves relaxing and petting the cats these days.

After years of using Thunderbird, I switched to GMail as my main mail client so I could use it from the web and use IMAP on my iPhone. I set it up to read all my old POP mailboxes, and I use Google Chrome’s application mode (I used to use Mozilla Prism) to make it look like a standalone app on my desktop. It’s an OK mail reader, especially since I get a lot less email to my personal accounts these days. The main annoyance is spam - I used to use POPFile to filter spam, and it was perfect, with almost no false positives. In contrast, I get maybe 50 pieces of spam leaking through on GMail a week.

Spam has not been limited to my inbox: my support forums are basically nothing but spam and people complaining about stuff I’ve given them for free. It takes a lot of maintenance, and I’m thinking of either trying to transition them to something less attractive to spammers, or just shutting them down entirely.

Back when IE7 was in beta I wrote a handful of bug repro’s for problems I found with it. Recently I’ve been running across all kinds of crazy things in both Firefox and IE, so I’ve been cataloguing them with little examples. Most of them have been fixed with the latest release of each browser, but I figure they’re still useful if anybody’s seeing those problems happen.

I went to Southeast Asia for two and a half weeks. We toured Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It was incredible.

I finally got so sick of CSS that I decided to write a processor that would take an “evolved” CSS syntax that supported named constants, nested selectors, arithmetic, mixins, and such and spit out real CSS. I had it all sketched out and was ready to start implementing when I found SASS, from the same guy who awesome-ified HTML with HAML. SASS is feature-by-feature the exact same thing I wanted to do (except for the whitespace-significant thing, but I can deal). I love it.

I’ve been pretty disillusioned with ASP.NET as a web platform - the web forms are too inflexible and unfriendly to clean markup and unobtrusive JavaScript, and C# feels too rigid and verbose for what I’m doing. LINQ and the other 3.5 features help a lot, but my host is stuck on 2.0. I still haven’t found any templating system that trumps Web Forms, which is why I’m still stuck on Windows hosting for the most part - a lot of my sites are built on ASP.NET for nothing more than the templating. While I’m keeping my eye on ASP.NET MVC, I’m more interested in cross-platform web technologies that give me a bit more choice in hosting.

To that effect, I’ve started a personal project on Ruby on Rails, mostly to learn the platform. So far I’ve really been liking it - having a functional, dynamic language is great, and the structure Rails gives you really helps to quickly get things running. Hopefully I’ll be able to show what I’m making at some point, assuming it works to my satisfaction.

I actually went through a big comparison of different web platforms and different languages, trying to gauge what would be the best for me to develop for. I’m not sure I’ll ever publish my full results, but Ruby on Rails was obviously up there, and Django / Python looked good too.

Speaking of languages, before I discovered jQuery I didn’t really do much JavaScript if I could avoid it. Now I’m writing tons of JavaScript to produce some really nice interactive web apps. I have never been as impressed with a library or platform as I have been with jQuery.

I’ve actually been using Eclipse a lot lately, both for Aptana and for straight Java development, and while it’s slower and buggier than Visual Studio, a free copy of Eclipse plus all the free plugins make it much more compelling than the Visual Studio Express products I use for C# work. Stuff like the outline view, refactoring support, quick fix mode, and real unit testing and source control plugins make all the difference.

I think that’s about all I wanted to get off my chest for now. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to flesh some of that out into full posts sometime, but at least I won’t have so many unwritten drafts staring at me every time I log in to Wordpress.

PNGGauntlet 2.0.2

I thought everything was going well with PNGGauntlet 2 until I got a comment reporting some problems with it at the beginning of the month. It’s taken me almost a month to get a chance to sit down and check out the problem (August is always really busy since people are usually visiting). When I started digging into the code, I realized that I hadn’t actually made some key changes to the code that I thought I had made, and as a consequence, a lot of PNGGauntlet didn’t actually work. For example, the whole PNGOUT Options panel wasn’t actually wired up to anything, and the “Open With” functionality I added in 2.0.1 didn’t actually call the right functions, and didn’t work either. Wow. This is what I get for not having tests set up for this code (it was written before I understood how to write tests). So it is with great humility that I submit to you PNGGauntlet 2.0.2, which I have quite a bit more confidence in. Hopefully most people were using just default settings (like I usually do) and weren’t bitten too bad by the problems in the earlier versions. As usual, you can check out the full list of fixes.

Interestingly, one of the two problems in the original comment that got me working on PNGGauntlet again wasn’t actually a PNGGauntlet or PNGOUT bug. It turns out that Photoshop, Gimp, and Paint Shop Pro all don’t support 8-bit PNGs that have an alpha channel. Who knew? I tend to use either Fireworks or Paint.NET, which both support 8-bit PNGs completely, so I never knew.

Supplying alternate credentials for a network printer

Another crazy little Windows tip – I can’t remember if this was a Windows XP problem or whether I’d also seen it in Vista, but I’m cleaning out my blog drafts and wanted to flesh this out.

Basically I had a network printer set up that would work until I rebooted my machine, then it would fail. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what was going on (I think it said something about me not having permission, though – I should have written down the error message). If I removed and readded the printer it’d work again.

Anyway, the problem turned out to be that my user account name was different on my other machine, and the printer wasn’t shared for just anyone to print on. Because of that, I’d had to present alternate credentials when I added the printer, and each time the computer reset, the credentials would get lost and it’d get confused. I don’t know why it didn’t just ask again, but it didn’t.

The solution is convoluted. I browsed to a shared folder on the other machine, and added it as a mapped drive. There’s an option in there to connect with alternate credentials. Since Windows shares the saved credentials between all shares and printers on a remote machine, and it’ll reconnect the mapped drive at startup using the alternate credentials, the printer will start working again.

PNGGauntlet 2.0.1

Just a quick update, I just uploaded a new version of PNGGauntlet that fixes a couple of annoying bugs, as well as making it so you can use the “Open With” menu to open files in PNGGauntlet. Just right click, select “Open With”, select “Choose Default Program”, and browse for PNGGauntlet.exe in its install folder. Be sure to uncheck “Always use the selected program to open this kind of file” if you want PNGGauntlet to just show up in the menu instead of always opening for that type of file.

Grab the updated file from the PNGGauntlet homepage and enjoy your smaller PNGs.

Announcing PNGGauntlet 2.0

It’s been about three years since I last released an update to PNGGauntlet. This PNG image optimizing tool has been very popular, but has been sorely in need of a refresh. Today I’m excited to announce a major update, PNGGauntlet 2.0.

The most important new feature of PNGGauntlet 2.0 is that it runs on .NET 2.0 (and 3.0, and 3.5). This means that Windows Vista users can just install it without having to download anything else. This has also allowed me to use some more modern .NET features in order to smooth out the program’s internals. I’ve also done a few more things to make PNGGauntlet explicitly compatible with Vista, including the new, high resolution gauntlet icon.

PNGGauntlet Screenshot

The UI is pretty different, making better use of space and finally making every single PNGOUT option accessible. Check out the old 1.1 interface to compare. You’ll see that most of the controls have been moved over to an “Advanced Options” window where you can tweak PNGOUT to your heart’s content. The main window has been greatly simplified and gives much better feedback on the compression job, with individual progress bars for each file, highlighting of the currently compressing file, and a status bar that keeps track of the total kilobytes you’ve saved.

The program itself has had a lot of bugs fixes and inefficiencies stomped out, and some less obvious features have been added. One of those is that dropping a directory onto PNGGauntlet will recursively add all the files in the directory (and its subdirectories) to the current optimization job. Also, you can copy (Ctrl-C) files in Windows Explorer and paste (Ctrl-V) them into PNGGauntlet. This should make it much easier to get the files you want into the app. If you want to see everything that’s changed, take a look at the full changelog.

I wrote PNGGauntlet nearly 5 years ago as my very first C# program (and my first Windows app!). At the time, I wanted to be able to run PNGOUT (a commandline tool for optimizing PNGs) and pngrewrite (another commandline tool that could mess with PNG palettes to make PNGOUT more effective) together on large sets of PNG images easily. Then PNGOUT added the features of pngrewrite and I no longer needed that, so I modified PNGGauntlet to run PNGOUT multiple times in order to search for the smallest file size. Since then, PNGOUT has added that feature too. So now PNGGauntlet is really just a fancy GUI for running PNGOUT.

I never really intended for PNGGauntlet to be anything more than a learning exercise for me, but it’s become moderately popular, so I felt obliged to update it (and make it easy for me to install on my own Vista systems). However, in the intervening time Ken Silverman (creator of PNGOUT) has released his own commercial PNGOUT GUI, called PNGOUTWin. I haven’t looked at it too closely, but the program runs PNGOUT in a much more elegant way, and can even compress multiple files at once to take advantage of modern multicore processors. It’s only $15, so I suggest you pick it up if you use PNGOUT or PNGGauntlet a lot. It’s also nice to see that Ken has released Linux and Mac OS X versions of PNGOUT, so I can use it at work too!

Thanks to everyone who’s been emailing me asking about PNGGauntlet and giving me suggestions. I hope this is what you were wanting.

Website work

I’ve been pretty quiet on the blog lately, partly because I went on a long vacation and partly because I’ve been too busy with real work to do anything much on at-home projects (at least, at-home code projects). Another reason is that I’ve been working on a couple websites that hadn’t launched until recently. The first project was a website for Butterfly Haptics, which is my parents’ new company. They’re producing a really cool magnetic levitation haptic interface - a sort of super-high-tech 3D mouse that lets you feel virtual objects as if they were solid. I’m really excited about what they’re building, and I’ll be at SIGGRAPH this year manning their booth in the New Tech Demos area.

Butterfly Haptics Screenshot

The other site, which just launched, is my wife’s new art site. She makes wood-fired ceramic sculptures of bizarre, cute creatures, and the new site was hand-drawn by her to reflect their style. It’s implemented as a Wordpress theme, which gives her a much easier way to manage the content of the site, and it also means that she can now blog about her process and other art topics. Check out some of the cool time-lapse videos of her sculpting the critters.

evafunderburgh.com Screenshot

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to get back to building more cool things and talking about them, as well as clearing out my backlog of draft blog posts.

XBList 3.2.0 works with the new Xbox.com

I read today that Xbox.com had gotten a redesign. I had hoped it wouldn’t impact the friends list page, which XBList uses to get its friend info, but unfortunately it had. The friends list is now split into 16-friend chunks. That meant I had some work ahead of me to make sure XBList could work with the new format. I’m pleased to announce that after only a few hours of work, XBList 3.2.0 has been released, which works just fine with the new site. I’m glad that all the refactoring work I had put into the software in the past allowed me to make a change like that without breaking anything. There is now the possibility of some slight weirdness if a friend changes status in the split-second between XBList loading one page and another, but I don’t think much can be done about that.

Of course, I couldn’t just make the fix and call it a new release. I’ve neglected XBList in the last year as I’ve been deep into work and other projects, but I’ve been accumulating little fixes, and as long as I had the code open today I added a much-asked-for feature: Halo 3 integration. OK, it’s not the best integration, but there are now menu items that link straight to your friends’ Halo 3 Service Record page, and better yet, Halo 3 emblems are now loaded in preference to the old Halo 2 emblems. If your friend has both, they’ll just get the Halo 3 emblem. I was amazed at how many people on my friends list (who hadn’t had Halo 2 emblems) popped up with Halo 3 insignia once I finished the feature. I hope this is enough to tide people over for a while.

I also improved the detection of Xbox.com outages. They seem to be better now, but around December the site was down all the time, and now XBList will be pretty clear about when it’s Xbox.com’s fault that you can’t log in. Hopefully that’ll reduce some confusion.

Please pick up XBList 3.2.0 and let me know what you think! The full changelog may be of some interest also.