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Something Broke!

Linux has come a long way since the days of non-existent wifi drivers and flash plugins. I dare say Linux is ready for non-technical users. At least I would say this if I didn’t still occasionally get random errors. You know, like this one:

thanks for letting me know

Awesome, something broke! Thanks for letting me know! Twice!

This one is a common one, and easily fixed. However, I never remember what the specific incantation for this one is, so I always have to Google it. But no more! Today I record the solution in my log!

The Solution

This one is caused by some process crashing. When a process crashes, apparently it dumps some junk into /var/crash that presumably the developer of said process knows about and cares about. Unfortunately I’m not said developer, and I don’t care about a one time crash of some random process. I do care that I’m getting 2-3 useless popups whenever I boot my Linux partition up. Let’s fix this:

NOTE: Consider looking in /var/crash to see what happened before randomly deleting all the stuff in it.

$ sudo rm /var/crash/* $ sudo init 6

After your machine reboots, you should be good to go.

Now For Something Completely Different

For as long as I’ve been trying (successfully or not) to program, I’ve been using C like languages. When I was a kid, I struggled in vain to learn C++. As an adult, I learned Java. After that, I used Java as a spring-board into the wonderful world of C Like Languages: C, C++, Perl, Lua. I wrote hello world in dozens of others as well. I found myself proudly proclaiming that “I’m confident I could pick up any C Like Language!”

Then one day I thought “what about the rest of them?” Sure, maybe I can speak Latin. Maybe I can pick up any Latin based language with relative ease. But what if I need to move to China? I speak C, but what if C falls out of favor for something else? I decided it was time to try something else.

But What?

C and it’s cousins broadly represent the Procedural and Object Oriented paradigms. We’ve all been there and done that. Procedures and Subroutines may or may not take arguments, do something, and may or may not return a result. The global or local state may or may not change. Loops happen. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that these are the two most mainstream paradigms. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to lump the Procedural and Imperative paradigms together. I understand that they are not the same thing, but roughly speaking, the Procedural paradigm is an evolution of the Imperative paradigm.

This leaves us with Functional Programming. Unlike the functions of an Object Oriented or Procedural language, the functions of a Functional language closely resemble those in math. In math, f(x+2), where x = 2, will always return 4. Similarly, a function in a Functional language will always return the same result given the same input. Where a function in a Procedural or Object Oriented language describes the steps to perform some task (usually, this involves some sort of loop construct), a function in a functional language just describes what the result of some function is. (usually involving recursion) f(x+f(x-1)) adds x to the result of f(x-1), which recursively adds x-1 to f(x'-1) and so on until the end of time.

So, what programming language to choose? Many languages support functional programming to an extent. Python, Lua, and even C# if you squint hard enough. However, these languages are multi-paradigm. As such, it will be easy to fall back into my C Like ways. What about Lisp?

Lisp is a family of languages: Common Lisp, Scheme, Clojure, Emacs Lisp. Sure, I could learn one, and theoretically be able to transition with ease, but this isn’t a level of fragmentation that I’m comfortable with. In addition, Lisps are multi-paradigm, so I’m more likely to not keep the faith. Which leaves me with…


Haskell is a “pure” Functional programming language. While any useful program must have the side effect of reading from or writing to some external source, Haskell places that part of the program neatly in a corner. Let’s talk about some of the neat features of Haskell:

Lazy Evaluation

Expressions in Haskell are evaluated lazily. What this means is that a value isn’t computed until it’s needed. Let’s take a look at an example:

embiggen :: Int -> [Int] embiggen x = x:embiggen (x + 1)

This function takes an integer, and creates a list out of it. (Lists in Haskell behave much the same way as a normal linked list: O(1) insertion, O(n) traversal) The passed-in integer is pushed on to the front of the list resulting from embiggen (x + 1). You may have noticed that this function will go on forever. While maybe not ideal, this is ok in Haskell because of Lazy evaluation. The infinityeth element of this list will not be evaluated until it’s needed!

show (take 5 (embiggen 5)) [5,6,7,8,9] show (embiggen 5) !! 17 22 show (embiggen 5) [OMG INFINITE RECURSION!!!!!]

In the first example, we call the library function take, which returns a list containing the first n elements of the passed in list. In the second example, we call the library function !! (all operators are functions), which is the list indexing operator, which returns the nth element of the list. In a language with strict evaluation, the list would need to be completely evaluated before these things could happen. In Haskell, it doesn’t! Only in the third example, where we attempt to call show on the entire list, does infinite recursion occur.

Tail Call Optimization

This is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean? The short answer is that it prevents a recursive function call from consuming a new stack frame. In a language without this feature, if foo() calls itself, the new call will consume a new stack frame. This will cause a stack overflow if allowed to go on too long. In Haskell, this isn’t a problem because of Tail Call Optimization.

Type System

Haskell’s type system is quite different from the usual type systems. Sure there are Ints, Chars, Floats, Bools, and the like, but there’s more to it than that. Haskell is very strongly typed. There is no casting in Haskell, if a function takes an Int, there’s no getting around giving it an Int. However, the whole type system operates in a manner similar to generics in languages like C++ or Java. Take the following examples:

putInList :: a -> [a] putInList thing = [thing] addStuff :: (Num a) => a -> a -> a addStuff lhs rhs = lhs + rhs

The first function takes some arbitrary type, and returns a singleton list containing the passed-in argument. Much like generics, the argument shouldn’t depend on any type-specific behavior.

The second function takes two arguments of the same type that behaves like a number (Int, Float, Double, and friends) adds them, and returns the result. the addStuff function accomplishes this by specifying that arguments of type a should be members of the Num Typeclass. Despite the word “class”, Typeclasses aren’t the same as classes in Object Oriented languages. You CAN think of them as being the same as Java’s interfaces. When you create a type, you can make it a member of any number of Typeclasses. You must then implement the functions specified by the Typeclass, just like when a class in Java implements some interface, it must define the methods of that interface.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I’m sure you’re beginning to see how you can make very general functions in a very type-safe way.

Partial Function Application

A feature of functional programming is higher order functions. This means that functions can take functions as arguments, and functions can return functions. While nice, this isn’t exactly a new concept. Even C supports this to an extent with function pointers. What is new is partial application of functions. Recall the addStuff function above. It takes two arguments of type a and returns a result of type a. Now let’s look at an example:

doNumFunc :: (Num a) => (a -> a) -> a -> a doNumFunc f a = f a addThree :: (Num a) => a -> a addThree a = addStuff 3 a

The doNumFunc function takes a function that takes a type a and returns a type a (This is what (a -> a) means), and a second type a, and returns a type a. doNumFunc calls the passed in function with the second passed in argument. The addThree function takes a type a and returns a type a. addThree takes an argument, and calls the addStuff function we defined earlier with its argument and 3. How does this all pan out?

addThree 3 6 doNumFunc addThree 3 6

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Though, this isn’t very re-usable. What if I want to add 4? Do I need to define a function addFour? No, I can partially apply addStuff. If you call a function in Haskell with less arguments than it takes, it will return a function that takes the remaining arguments and returns a result! Observe:

doNumFunc (addStuff 3) 3 6

Now things are getting cool. By calling (addStuff 3), we’ve created a function that takes a type a, adds 3 to it, and returns the result! You can’t do that in C!

Getting Started

Excited yet? You know you are, don’t try to act like you’re not. But how does one get started? Like any language, you need two things to begin: a compiler/interpreter and some reading material.


First up, you should go download the Haskell Platform. This package contains your compiler/interpreter and all the standard libraries. Haskell can be compiled, or interpreted. Or, you could use ghci, the interactive interpreter, if you just want to doop around and try stuff.

If you’re running a Linux distro, haskell-platform is likely in the repositories. In Debian or Ubuntu, it’s a simple:

sudo apt-get install haskell-platform

… and you’re set! Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a great IDE for Haskell. NetBeans definitely has nothing to offer in this regard. Luckily for us, Haskell is simple enough to not really need an IDE. GEdit, the default text editor that ships with Gnome, has built-in syntax highlighting for Haskell. Just enable the built-in terminal in GEdit to test stuff and you should be good to go. I like to run ghci in the embedded terminal to test functions as I write them. Plus, as you code, you can periodically attempt to load the script in ghci to make sure everything is formatted correctly and you haven’t messed up your syntax/types.


One of the biggest barriers to learning a new language is money. Nobody wants to put down cold hard cash on learning something new when what they have is working just fine. Luckily for us, you can learn you a Haskell for free! Learn You A Haskell For Great Good is a beginner’s guide to learning Haskell aimed at developers coming from C Like Languages. The best part is that the whole book is available to read online for free! You can check it out for the low-low price of zero dollars. If you like it, maybe you buy a copy for your bookshelf. Or maybe you just spread the word.

Whatever you do, you should have a good base of knowledge in Haskell. At that point, you can just consult Hoogle to learn more.

I Installed Something Called “Debian Unstable”

So, after weeks of procrastinating, the day finally came; it was time to upgrade Ubuntu. As many of you likely know, Ubuntu has a 6 month release cycle. New versions come out in November and April. The release of Saucy Salamander marked the first time I’ve had to deal with a Linux distro upgrade since I was running Fedora 8 back in 2008 (Not counting a brief encounter with Debian Squeeze just prior to using Ubuntu). As I recall, my attempt to upgrade to Fedora 9 was a disaster. Nothing worked, and it was a huge amount of effort. It was so bad that I decided to cut my losses and just go back to Windows Vista.

Needless to say, I wasn’t terribly excited about upgrading to Saucy. Finally, about a week ago I decided to stop being lazy and just do it. While it wasn’t quite the disaster that Fedora 9 was, I wouldn’t call the upgrade “smooth”. The first thing that I noticed was the fact that I could no longer lock the display. Since my cat likes to perform unauthorized refactoring of my code if I leave the display unlocked, this would not do. I did some googling, and it turns out that Gnome removed gnome-screensaver in Gnome 3.8. Gnome-screensaver controlled, among other things, locking the screen. All of the functionality was rolled into GDM. Ubuntu uses LightDM, so in order to protect my precious codebase I have to either switch it out for GDM, or use a Gnome shell plugin. First, I tried to install GDM, but every time I logged in I would get a popup saying that GDM crashed. I switched back to LightDM and installed the plugin. Everything seemed to be going fine, but things were just a bit more wonky. Every so often, when I’d go to unlock, the screen would freeze. I could just hope it was working and type my password and press enter to unlock it, but I like things to work right.

Not a huge deal though, I thought. I decided that I’d just grin and bear it. However, things continued to come apart. I went about re-compiling DMP Photo Booth and its modules to make sure everything was working correctly with the updated software versions. For the most part it was, but my working splash screen was broken. When shown, the window would pop, but the image on the window would not show. It seemed my call to while (gtk_events_pending()) gtk_main_iteration(); was returning early. In the course of my investigation I decided to open the Glade UI file to make sure everything was right. The only problem? The version of Glade shipped with Saucy has a major bug that causes it to crash when you open a file with a dialog in it. You can read the bug report here.

For me, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was time to try a new distro.

Let’s Meet Our Contestants!

Ubuntu GNOME

I’ve been running Ubuntu for a while now, and have been mostly satisfied with it. I do have some concerns about their direction, but I’m not quite ready to break out the torches and pitch forks. However, I much prefer Gnome 3 to Unity, so I figured it was time to switch to a Gnome-centric distro. Luckily, there is a Ubuntu distro that focuses on Gnome: Ubuntu GNOME. My concern with this is that they seem to have manpower issues. I don’t feel like getting attached, just to have the rug pulled out from under me, so I won’t be using Ubuntu GNOME.

Fedora 20

I feel that it is fair to say that Fedora is to Red Hat as Ubuntu is to Debian. Fedora is an old, mainstream Linux distro that has the financial backing of a large company behind it. It is likely to be around for years to come. Better yet; Fedora is a Gnome distro. Fedora 20 ships with Gnome 3.10, the current latest and greatest.

Back in 2008, I tried to run Ubuntu. Back then, it didn’t “just work”. Fedora did. Maybe it was time to don my Fedora and come home to my first Linux distro. I downloaded the live DVD for Fedora 20, and booted it up. Everything seemed great; Gnome 3.10’s fancy new UI elements were incredibly profound. Mozart and Da Vinci would surely be reduced to tears at the sight of their magnificence. I was sold. I started the installer and got to work. I set my language, hostname, and then went to configure my partitions. …aaaaaaand no hard drives detected. Crud. After some googling around, this seems to be a known issue. The Googler told me that I could disable SELinux and it would work, but no luck. I was told that I could use the non-live image and it would work, but no luck. Well, so much for that idea. I filed my Fedora installation media in the round file and decided what to do next.

Debian Sid

It seems that the cool kids are running Debian these days. I’ve used Debian before, and had good experiences with it (uptime on my Debian Squeeze home server shows 102 days). The one sticking point is how old the software is. That is, old in the stable release; Debian Unstable has up-to-date software. The cool kids assure me that Sid is still more stable than Ubuntu or Fedora, so I decided to give it a shot.

The Installation

Installing Sid is slightly more tricky than Ubuntu or Fedora. Here’s the installation blurb on the Debian Wiki:

Use the stable installer to install a minimal stable system and then change your /etc/apt/sources.list file to testing and do an update and a dist-upgrade, and then again change your /etc/apt/sources.list file to unstable and again do an update and a dist-upgrade. ... If this seems too complicated you should probably not be using unstable.

With those words of encouragement, I set off to work. I downloaded the Debian 7 net install media, and installed. I followed the wizard, setting up the usual things. For partitioning, I formatted my /boot and / partitions, and preserved my /home partition. I spoke about this before in a previous post, but the short answer is that this keeps you from having to back up your data and settings. You should probably still do that stuff in case you do something stupid, but if all goes well you won’t need to.

When the time came to select additional software, I deselected everything. I finished the install and rebooted. The system booted up to the command line, and I logged in and su‘d to root. Now that my Wheezy install was complete, it was time to upgrade to Jessie. This is accomplished by editing /etc/apt/sources.list and changing every instance of the word wheezy to testing. While I was at it, I added contrib and non-free so I could get things like my wifi driver and flash. Next order of business was to install apt-listbugs and apt-listchanges. These two packages change apt-get to warn you of bugs in software, so you don’t blindly install some software that will light your computer on fire. After that:

apt-get update apt-get dist-upgrade

…then I ate lunch. This process will upgrade my system to testing, and it takes a while. After it’s done, I repeated the steps above, replacing all instances of testing with unstable in my sources.list. Additionally I had to delete the lines:

deb http://URL/ testing/updates main deb-src http://URL/ testing/updates main deb http://URL/debian/ testing-updates main deb-src http://URL/debian/ testing-updates main

…these don’t exist in Unstable.

While the apt-get dist-upgrade was running, it was time to watch some TV.

Finally, when apt-get dist-upgrade completed, I had a Debian Sid system. One problem: it was command line only.

A Few More Things

First things first, I needed to set up sudo:

adduser [username] sudo init 6

After the reboot, my user is set up to use sudo.

I had to install some software. First up is Gnome:

sudo apt-get install gnome

This is starts a 1.3 GB download, so I watched some more TV. When that finished, I needed to install my wifi driver so that I could disconnect my temporary cat-5 cable:

sudo apt-get install firmware-iwlwifi

Next up is the Debian laptop applications. This package installs the software that would be installed by selecting the laptop task in tasksel:

sudo apt-get install task-laptop

I rebooted into Gnome. I logged in and connected to my wifi. Since I preserved my /home partition, all my settings are still set up from Ubuntu, so there is very little asthetic configuration to be done.

The gnome package in Debian installs some other things besides Gnome. Among those things is LibreOffice, so I don’t have to worry about that. However, there are a few usability packages to install:

sudo apt-get install flashplugin-nonfree sudo apt-get install synaptic sudo apt-get install pkg-config

At this point I had a basic system set up. Now it is time to make sure DMP Photo Booth still works. Since I preserved my /home, NetBeans is still installed. However, there is no JDK installed. This was an easy fix:

sudo apt-get install openjdk-7-jdk

Now it is time to install the dependencies for DMP Photo Booth:

sudo apt-get install libmagickwand-dev sudo apt-get install libglib2.0 sudo apt-get install libgtk-3-dev sudo apt-get install cups libcups2-dev

Some of the development tools I need still aren’t installed. GCC is installed, but for some reason gdb isn’t. Also, to do work on the trigger, I’ll need avr-gcc:

sudo apt-get install gdb arduino sudo adduser [username] dialout sudo init 6

Finally, I need to install Glade to modify DMP Photo Booth’s UI:

sudo apt-get instal glade

And that’s it!


It took me a good half of a day to get it all working, but so far so good. Iceweasel is still a thing, but thinks it’s the latest version of firefox, and my addons still work so I’m not going to worry about it. Plus, weasels rule and foxes drool.

Glade is working now, but DMP Photo Booth’s working screen is still broken. However, I’m beginning to think it never was really working right in the first place.

All in all, it’s been a successful load. 1 week in, and I still don’t miss Ubuntu. Hopefully Sid is good to me, and I’ve found my salvation from getting a new Distro version every 6 months.

At The Gates Of Valhalla

In my post the other day, I talked about using Valgrind and GProf to debug DMP Photo Booth. As tends to be the way of most articles on the Internet, I didn’t actually spend any time talking about how to use said programs. You are, however, on notice that they are Good.

Well, I promised I’d tell you how to use them. I may be many things, but a liar I am not. Today, I’ll start with Valgrind.



First things first, we need to install. Once again, Ubuntu comes through for us. It’s just a simple matter of …

sudo apt-get install valgrind

… and we’re off to the races. Unfortunately for those of you in the audience running Windows, Valgrind is not available for Windows.

Valgrind Vs. GLib

You may remember in my last post a lot of talk about difficulties with GTK. Per the Gnome Wiki, the recommended way to launch Valgrind with a GLib/GTK application is:

G_DEBUG=resident-modules valgrind \ --tool=memcheck \ --leak-check=full \ --leak-resolution=high \ --num-callers=20 \ --log-file=vgdump \ [your-program]

Let’s talk about these options.

  • G_DEBUG=resident-modules
    • This is not actually an argument to Valgrind, but an environment variable. This is used by GLib. You need to use this if your application makes use of GModule. For instance, if you’re implementing a module-based Photo Booth application. If you don’t use this, your modules may get unloaded prematurely. If this doesn’t apply to your application, feel free to omit this.
  • valgrind
    • Calls valgrind
  • –tool=memcheck
    • Valgrind is actually a suite of tools. Memcheck is the tool that checks for memory leaks
  • –leak-check=full
    • Enables searching for leaks on exit
  • –leak-resolution=high
    • Sets the detail level of leak stack traces
  • –num-callers=20
    • This sets the depth of the stack traces. For instance, setting this to 20 will show: foo() called by bar() … and so on up to 20 times
  • –log-file=vgdump
    • The file to output to. In its current configuration, a file named vgdump will be placed in the current directory
  • [your-program]
    • Finally, your program. Place in whatever command you’d call to start your program.

…so you do all that and execute your program. Valgrind will monitor your program while you interact with it. Go ahead and run some test cases. It’ll be a little slow due to the monitoring, but that’s ok. Finally, when you’re done, exit your program and open the log file. The first thing you should notice is that it is long. Really long.

This is due to GTK. GTK doesn’t clean up after itself on exit, instead relying on the OS to clean up on process termination. While this behavior is considered to be fine by most, it makes this step difficult. On the Gnome Wiki, you’ll find a Suppression file that is used to mitigate some of this. My experience with this is that it doesn’t do much.

The best way I’ve found is to just search for “definitely lost”. These are most likely to be caused by your program. You can go line by line and check each possibly lost section, but I’ve found that this isn’t practical as 99/100 of these originate from gtk_main().

DMP Photo Booth: Underwater

You’ve heard it before: “Premature optimization is the root of all Evil.” Capital Evil. So you go on about your day, arranging the ones and zeros in pretty christmas tree shapes and suddenly the day arrives: your program is slow as molasses. What are you going to do now?

Last monday was that day for me, and I’ve been underwater ever since. “Why is this happening to me?!” I thought. While not prematurely optimizing, I thought I did things right. I have no nested for loops. I’m not using an array when I need a list. Threads aren’t modifying the UI willy-nilly. Why has God forsaken me?

The Symptoms

I first noticed it while working on the printer module. After the program is open for some length of time, my whole computer begins to lag. Not just a little bit either; things completely fall apart. In the space of about 5 minutes, the computer becomes unusably slow. Killing the Photo Booth process doesn’t help; only physically shutting the computer off helps. Of course, the computer is so slow that I can’t use the shutdown option; I have to press The Button.

At this point, I feel some context is in order. I had been trying to figure out how to make my printer print on photo paper. Apparently printing is one of the areas Linux still hasn’t caught up to windows on, so this was proving to be difficult. After printing a few strips, I realized that my low-res photo strips weren’t going to cut it, so I bumped the resolution from 100 pixels wide to 1000. It was then that I noticed things were off.

Ten years of troubleshooting experience kicked in: “what changed?” I thought. The obvious answer was the image size. Clearly my photo strip assembly algorithm was operating at O(n^n^n) or something. What can be done?

Doing It Wrong

I took a look at my assemble strips function. After poking around for a while, I zeroed in on something that had been bugging me for a while. I had been using a function MagickResetImagePage combined with MagickCoalesceImages to composite images over each other. I had decided to use these functions before I knew this operation was called “compositing”, and I had found them in a tutorial on making animated .gif files in MagickWand. At the time, I was never really happy with this implementation, so I went back to the API docs to see if there was a function with “composite” in its name. There was.

MagickCompositeImage is a lot more intuitive to use than MagickResetImagePage. It doesn’t have that Magickal formatting string that MagickResetImagePage uses, it just takes coordinates. Perhaps this was the solution to my problem. I refactored, and recompiled.

Still broke.

Measure, Don’t Guess

That old gem: I’m sure you’ve heard it too. I decided that maybe this was my best course of action. I decided it was time to learn how to use this Valgrind thing all the Cool Kids are talking about these days. For those of you not in the know, Valgrind is a utility that will tell you various things about your program. The most important/most well-known thing that it can do for you is identify memory leaks. Thinking that prehaps I have a memory leak, I installed Valgrind and got to work.

It turns out that GTK has more than a few memory leaks. Allegedly this is due to the fact that it doesn’t cleanup on exit, relying on the OS to free the memory on program termination. While the general consensus is that this is fine, it doesn’t help us. The folks at Gnome are aware of this, and there is even a Wiki page on ways to mitigate this. The cliff’s notes version of that page being: “Just search for ‘definitely lost'”.

Armed with this piece of wisdom, I set off. I ran the Photo Booth in Valgrind, and examined the results. Valgrind actually turned up some memory leaks, which I corrected. Maybe now we’re set!


Breaking Out The Profiler

This is what they usually want you to do when they tell you to Measure. Unfortunately for me, NetBeans’ built-in profiler is only for Java. After some google searching, I found gprof. Gprof is a pretty bare-bones profiler. It does what it says and not much else, which is fine. I hooked my program into the profiler and got to work. The results? Nothing. My two GTK idle functions ran some 7 million times, returning basically immediately each time as expected. Every other function performed as expected.

What now?

Trying The Process Monitor

Having run through Valgrind and GProf, coming out empty-handed, I was at a loss. I got into development because I wanted to fix my own broken code instead of mitigate somebody else’s, and fix it I will. Luckily I have 10 years of sysadmin experience to fall back on. I dusted off my process monitor and got to work.

I fired up DMP Photo Booth, and watched it in the process monitor. I pushed the button. I pushed it again. And again. memory use rose and fell predictably as the strip was assembled, but CPU usage stayed relatively low. Then boom!

I tried again, this time doing literally nothing. Still my computer sputtered and died. I killed the process, but again it was too late.

But wait, isn’t the OS supposed to clean up after me when my process ends? Something fishy is going on.

Have I Mentioned That Threads Are Hard?

Having eliminated all other possibilities, I was forced to consider that I was having a threading issue. “But I was so careful!” I thought. Shortly thereafter I noticed it: I was getting random pthread mutex errors on my console. Clearly I had a threading issue on my hand. Was I spawning extra threads? Was something not releasing its lock? Was I being victimized by gremlins? I set a break point on line one of main() and fired up my debugger. It was time to see just what was being done when nothing was being done.

So, I stepped through my program. Whenever I got to a g_thread_new call, I made sure the thread function was solid. Finally, I got to my g_idle_add calls. I had two of them, one to monitor the status indicators, and one to retrieve photo strip thumbnails. Both of these functions pop from a result from a GAsyncQueue. These Queues are fed by worker threads. I thought back to my profiler output and remembered how often these are called. Looking a few lines down I saw a call to g_timeout_add_seconds. This function is basically adds an idle function, but is only called at most X seconds. Maybe replacing the g_idle_add calls with g_timeout_add_seconds was my answer. I refactored and reran.


Well, crud. “Are these functions even my problem?” I thought. I commented them out, recompiled and reran.


“So, what’s the difference?” I wondered. All three of these functions rely on the same basic behavior: pop from a GAsyncQueue some result placed there by a worker thread. I looked at the three threads: the thread that was working properly calls g_async_queue_ref/unref, and the two that don’t work do not take a reference, instead accessing the static global variable in their module. I refactored all thread functions that access a GAsyncQueue to take a reference and work on their local copy only. I recompiled, reran, and went to bed. 46,100 seconds later, everything was humming along just fine.

Wait, So I Just Had To Increment A Reference Count?

It certainly seemed odd. That’s like your car not starting if the headlights are out. Sure, they’re important, but the car should still start right?

Looking through the source of glib didn’t help. So far as I can tell, all that does is increment the reference count, and return a pointer. I turned to the documentation, which says “… Whenever another thread is creating a new reference of (that is, pointer to) the queue, it has to increase the reference count (using g_async_queue_ref()). Also, before removing this reference, the reference count has to be decreased (using g_async_queue_unref()). …” While not definitive, this certainly seems to indicate that taking a reference is important.

Frankly, I’m not happy about this answer. This is just the sort of magic solution that I hate; it’s fixed, but I’m not sure why. For the time being, I won’t dwell on it. Moving forward, I’ll be sure that my threads take a reference of a GAsyncQueue before calling methods on it. At some point when all of this is said and done, perhaps I’ll investigate this mysterious reference count.

I have taken away from this a new appreciation of just how brittle threads are. Sure, they are powerful, but shooting yourself in the foot with a 50 cal hurts a lot more than with a 9 mm. I’ll have to be more careful.

It was also a good introduction to GProf and Valgrind. Expect blog posts on the usage of each of these tools soon!

DMP Photo Booth: Deep Magick

After working on DMP Photo Booth for a few months, the day came when I needed to implement actual functionality. It’s the day we all dread, but for me this was no longer some looming menace; it was time to stop fiddling around in my framework and actually build on it.

More specifically, it was time to figure out how to turn ~5 images and a background into a photo strip. After checking to make sure GLib and GTK didn’t provide this functionality (GdkPixbuf almost cuts it, but as far as I can tell, it can’t layer images over each other), I turned to google. After some time, I settled on my library: ImageMagick.

ImageMagick bills itself as sort of a command-line PhotoShop. I was suspicious as well, but that’s neither here nor there. The thing about ImageMagick that interested me is its language bindings. ImageMagick provides a library for many languages, including two for C: MagickCore for “Wizard-level developers” and MagickWand for us chumps. Being a chump, I decided to go with MagickWand.

NetBeans configuration

This was relatively straightforward. If you got GTK set up, this should be no problem for you. First, ensure you have the WagickWand development headers. On Ubuntu, this can be accomplished by the following command:

sudo apt-get install libmagickwand5 libmagickwand-dev

On my system, libmagickwand5 was already installed, so I downloaded the headers and got to work.

Next, in NetBeans click Tools->Options, click on the C/C++ tab, and click on Code Assistance. Add the location of the ImageMagick headers (/usr/include/ImageMagick for me). Click OK.

Next, we need to set up our project. Right click your project and click Properties. Click Build->C Compiler. Under Additional Options, add MagickWand to your pkg-config --cflags string. Click Build->Linker and do the same with your pkg-config --libs string.

You are now ready to conjure some magick!

Conjuring Some Magick

Now, let us put on our robes and wizard hats; it’s time to do some magick! Let’s go over a function that will overlay a resized image over a larger background. You can find the actual production photo strip function on Github.

void cast_magick_spell() { MagickWandGenesis(); ...

Before we can do anything, we must initialize MagickWand. “MagickWandGenesis()”, you ask? Of course the function would be called MagickWandGenesis, what kind of silly question is that?

... MagickWand * background_wand = NewMagickWand(); MagickWand * working_wand = NewMagickWand(); MagickWand * final_wand = NULL; ...

The MagickWand * is the main object passed around in a MagickWand application. Working with MagickWand requires some juggling of these pointers, which is why we have 3 of them.

... if (!MagickReadImage(background_wand, "/tmp/background.jpg") { ...

This function reads an image from a file. It returns MagickTrue on success, and MagickFalse on failure. If it returns MagickFalse, we have some clean-up to do…

... ExceptionType exception_error_code; char * exception_message = MagickGetException( background_wand, &exception_error_code); ...

MagickWand makes use of “Exceptions” throughout, so if a function fails, you can most likely pull an exception out of it using MagickGetException. Like any exception, it is up to you what to do with them. Since I’m using GLib, I’ve been wrapping them in a GError and propagating them up. This is actually very easy to do; your error code and message are already there. All you need to do is G_DEFINE_QUARK your error quark and throw it in there. For the purposes of this function, I’m just going to use printf, do some cleanup, and return.

... printf("Oh no! Exception %d: %s\n", exception_error_code, exception_message); MagickRelinquishMemory(exception_message); DestroyMagickWand(background_wand); DestroyMagickWand(working_wand); return; } ...

Nothing particularly shocking here. We printf our message, free the exception_message string using MagickRelinquishMemory, free our MagickWands using DestroyMagickWand, and return.

Assuming we make it past this block, background_wand now contains the background image. Next, we load the foreground image:

... if (!MagickReadImage(working_wand, "/tmp/foreground.jpg") { /* * Exception handling omitted * for brevity. You should still * do it here... */ } if (!MagickResizeImage(working_wand, [WIDTH], [HEIGHT], LanczosFilter, [BLUR])); { /* More error checking... */ } ...

After loading the foreground image, and doing our error checking we attempt to resize the image using MagickResizeImage. This function takes several parameters:

  • MagickWand * working_wand: The MagickWand to operate on
  • size_t [WIDTH]: the width to set the image to
  • size_t [HEIGHT]: the height to set the image to
  • FilterTypes LanczosFilter: the filter to use to resize. There are a list of them in the API documentation. Discussion of these is outside the scope of this post.
  • double [BLUR]: The blur factor to apply. 1.0 is no change. The further 1.0, the blurrier the resulting image.

Like many calls in this library, this function can return MagickTrue or MagickFalse. If it returns MagickFalse, something threw… Next, we adjust the position of the image…

... if (!MagickResetImagePage(working_wand, [RELATIVE_PAGE_SPECIFIER])) { /* * You'd think one of these wizards * could have written a function that * doesn't throw... */ } ...

This function takes some explaining. The second parameter: char * [RELATIVE_PAGE_SPECIFIER] is what’s doing the work here. This is a Magickally formatted string that looks like this: "100x100+15+15!". Let’s examine this as a printf formatting string:


We have 4 integer tokens here. The first token is canvas width, and the second is the canvas height. Note that these will not resize the image, so don’t get any bright ideas about eliminating the previous resize call. The third and fourth tokens are offset from X and Y respectively. These are what we’re really concerned about here. This will allow us to position our foreground image over the background.

Also, don’t forget to check for exceptions!

... MagickSetLastIterator(background_wand); if (!MagickAddImage(background_wand, working_wand)) { /* exceptional! */ } ...

We’re almost there! Now we have to add the images from working_wand to background_wand. These MagickWand objects are lists of images. Like most lists, they have iterators. The call to MagickSetLastIterator sets background_wand’s iterator to the last image in the list. Any images add will be added after this image. next we call MagickAddImage which adds copies of working_wand’s images into background_wand. As before, don’t forget to check for exceptions.

... final_wand=MagickCoalesceImages(background_wand); if (!final_wand) { /* You guessed it! */ } MagickSetLastIterator(final_wand); ...

Now we need to combine all our images into one single image. This is accomplished by calling MagickCoalesceImages which returns a new MagickWand with all of our images combined into 1. The MagickWand used for this call remains unaffected. Obviously, if final_wand == NULL, something threw.

After this is done, we need to set the iterator of final_wand to the Last Iterator, or the next step doesn’t work as advertised…

... if (!MagickWriteImage(final_wand, "/tmp/final.jpg")) { /* wait for it! */ } ...

Shockingly, this function writes your new image to a file. Make sure you check your exceptions.

... DestroyMagickWand(background_wand); DestroyMagickWand(working_wand); DestroyMagickWand(final_wand); MagickWandTerminus(); }

…and were done! Clean up your pointers and call MagickWandTerminus to finalize the MagickWand library. If you browse to /tmp, you should have a newly created final.jpg if all was well!

Would I Do It Again?


ImageMagick was a decently easy to work with library. The documentation wasn’t amazing, but it was tolerable. I’m still a little hazy on the use of the [RELATIVE_PAGE_SPECIFIER], but it’s working so far. One nice thing about the docs is that there are many examples. If the docs don’t explain something, you can look up an example and get an idea of how things work.

The only really big issue I have with this library is how it handles exceptions. This is an issue that I’ve touched on before; it is all too easy to forget to check a return code. I went down that road with DMP Photo Booth, and I’ve since rejected it. I spent an entire day refactoring my program to use GError.

MagickWand has exceptions, they’re just really easy to ignore. While writing this blog post, I caught several instances of unchecked return values in my 1 function that uses MagickWand. Tomorrow I plan to fix this, but it’s time I could be spending on something else.

If GError is Java’s checked exceptions with all it’s order and verbosity, then MagickWand’s exceptions are the Wild Wild West of C++’s unchecked exceptions. If you’ve spent any time working with C++, this has almost certainly bit you; some function doesn’t document if it throws, and your program magickally starts crashing because you didn’t catch something. Bad times are had by all. Sure, you could throw a try/catch block in main() and catch all exceptions to keep from crashing, but at that point your program is a dead man walking. Best to put it out of its misery…

Personally, if I ever write a personal project in C++ again, I’m likely to disable exceptions in my program; they’re just more effort than they’re worth. Maybe I’d even use GError in my C++ app if I could convince myself that I’m not a bad person for using a C library in C++.

Regardless, one blemish on an otherwise pleasant experience is no big deal. Here’s to a successful foray into the land of High Adventure!

DMP Photo Booth: First Commit

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but this weekend 45 days of work has culminated in my first milestone: DMP Photo Booth has received its first commit. If you go to this page, you’ll find the newly created Github repository for it. Feel free to go judge all the choices I made, I’ll wait…

…done? Good, now I’d like to use this post to talk about it.

The Story So Far


So far, most of the work is done in the core. There are module stubs for each module, and they are loadable and “function”, but they don’t do much of anything. However, the UI for the core is, for the most part, done. If you build the core (Either open the projects in NetBeans or cd into its directory and enter make build), and run it (as of this writing, it must be run from the project root directory, since the supporting files are located here and referenced by relative paths) it will launch. At this point, you can launch the about window, the config window, or exit the program. From the config window you can load your modules (built stub modules are included for your convenience), and the status indicators on the main window will detect it.

All this is fine and good, but the real story here is the plumbing that has been laid.

Said Plumbing

Not much works at the moment, but the groundwork has been laid for things to come. Going down the list:

Global Defines

In this header, you’ll find all the magic integer constant return values used throughout DMP Photo Booth and friends. I touched on this topic briefly in a previous post, but the cliff’s notes version is that I feel that using a bare integer instead of an enum reduces the burden on module developers, and that the benefits of an enum aren’t great enough to justify this burden.

As this header has no accompanying .c file, it can be #included by module developers so they can make use of it if they like. I do this in my modules.


One of the first things I worked on was module handling. This header holds all the functions required for the loading and unloading of modules, and the calling of module functions. At first I was implementing all of this with POSIX calls, but it occurred to me that I was defeating the purpose of my modular architecture by using non-portable calls. For this reason, I switched to GModule for module handling. I wrote a post about this if you want to hear more.

Module Callbacks

This header contains functions that will be added to modules as callbacks. Currently, this is the function that will be called when the user presses “the button”, and the function that will be called to push a message to the console queue.

Error Handling

My general approach to function design is that functions should not return void. All functions that would, instead return gint. This way, I have a mechanism to detect error conditions. In a language without Exception Handling, this is a nice thing to have. This header contains functions to extend this. Since sometimes you can’t return gint, I’ve created a facility to log error codes, similar to how the POSIX errno function works.

Console Queue

This header contains a thread safe queue to store messages to print to the console. Currently, this is implemented with a GQueue and mutex locking, but I made that choice before I knew about GAsyncQueue. I may refactor this at some point to use GAsyncQueue, but for now it works fine, and I see no immediate issue with my implementation.

The idea behind the console queue is that there should be a generic way to store messages. Currently the console is a GtkTextBuffer, but if I build around this, it limits future functionality. Suppose I wanted to support a command line only option? It’d be silly to require GTK for that, wouldn’t it?

That said, the default implementation uses a function placed in the GtkMainLoop to pop all messages out of the queue and place them into the GtkTextBuffer.

Module Status Watchdog

This header file is in charge of keeping those fancy module status indicators up to date. There are two main moving parts here: a thread that polls the module status, and a function run by the GtkMainLoop.

The Thread polls the modules every 3 seconds and pushes any status changes to a GAsyncQueue. Meanwhile the GtkMainLoop checks the GAsyncQueue for updates, and sets the indicator status accordingly. Why doesn’t the GtkMainLoop just check the module status you ask? I wanted to make sure the GtkMainLoop does as little work as possible. Currently the calls to check module status are pretty trivial, but there is no guarantee that they will stay that way. Since nobody likes an unresponsive interface, I kept them separate.

User Interface

This rather hefty header contains two things: a function to build and launch the UI, and all the callbacks called by said UI. All the callbacks are named according to their glade widget name to maintain some semblance of readability.

The Next Step

Obviously, looking through the User Interface source, there are signals to be hooked up. But aside from that, the core is coming along. The one big portion of the core remaining to be done is the photo booth strip logic. The camera module will take X pictures and download them. At this point it is up to the core to assemble them into on image file to be printed.

For now, I will continue to hook up signals and refine the existing portions of the core. While I do this, I will research image handling libraries. I’d like to keep things within the GLib family, but failing this, I will try to keep it limited to libraries shipped with Ubuntu (The default platform). Windows compatibility will come, but version 1.0 will work on Ubuntu.

Also looming on the horizon are the modules. I have a general idea of how I will deal with these, but nothing is set in stone. The first module that I will likely handle is the trigger module. I plan to implement the trigger module using Arduino. This is a topic that interest me, but I’ve never had a good project idea. Whenever I get tired of dealing with GTK, it should be a nice change of pace.

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