Awasu » 2006 » April
Sunday 30th April 2006 6:02 PM [General]

One of the changes put in place in the 2.2.1 release was support for internationalization (the ability to run Awasu with the user interface in a language other than English).

We're just finishing up an Italian translation now and it's looking pretty good (thanks Marco!). It's totally weird having Awasu in front of me but not really being able to use it. None of my favorite menu accelerators work since the text is all different so I'm reduced to using the toolbar, racking my brain trying to remember what each icon represents. I can't even use the flyover help since it's all in Italian as well :-)

Anyway, if you're interested in doing a bit of translation so you can run Awasu in your favorite language, please let us know and we can talk.

Sunday 30th April 2006 4:47 AM [Awasu News]

It's been a long slog to this 2.2.1 release but it's been worth it. Some of the new features are just great!

If you use Awasu on a computer that is not always online (e.g. on a laptop or over a dialup connection), then you'll love offline feed items and images. Awasu will download linked-to feed items and embedded images while online and let you see them even after you disconnect. No more broken images - woo hoo! :jig:

The other big addition is the new channel templates (screenshots). Thirteen different themes give you a wide range of different looks and as someone said to me recently, the hard thing is deciding which one to use! :-) And it's really easy to come up with your own since everything is done via CSS (more on this in a few days).

Check out the release notes for the full list of changes, it really is as long as my arm (OK, so my eyes are deteriorating so I have to use a very large font but it's still impressive... :roll:).

BTW, there are a few things that need to be done to install this release so please make sure you read the instructions! :-)

Saturday 29th April 2006 11:25 AM [General]

There's an old programmers' saw about premature optimization: don't do it. Meaning don't twist your code totally out of shape in an effort to get it running as lean and mean as it possibly could before you've actually run it to see if performance is a problem.

A few people have reported Awasu's main window blanking out for short periods of time and/or it making the PC difficult to use when it's doing lots of updates. Both of these are almost certainly happening because Awasu is hitting the disk hard as it updates channels and while not wanting to make excuses, managing I/O on a multitasking system is something Windows has never handled very well (just look at how easily and often Explorer hangs when it's trying to access the network or you put a CD in the drive :roll:).

There are a few things I want to try to help alleviate this situation which I'm working on right now so if you're seeing any of the symptoms described above (typically if you have 200 or more channels), please shoot us an email and I'll get an experimental build out to you to have a play with.

Update #1: first change => insanely quicker. w00t! :jig:

Update #2: second change => much more responsive when doing lots of updates and much quicker otherwise. It's such a buzz making changes that have such an impact. It's like running 1.0 again :-)

Monday 24th April 2006 8:54 AM [General]

Continuing on from yesterday...

Overlanding from Yemen to Oman, I had it all figured out. Sana'a to Ma'rib would be the easiest leg, a mere 150 kilometres by shared taxi along a paved road. From Ma'rib I would have to cross the Ramlat as-Sab'atayn desert to reach Wadi Hadramaout - for this, I would have to arrange for a Bedouin guide to take me since there are no roads or public transport across the desert. The eastern-most town in the wadi is Tarim where I would hitch a ride to the coastal town of Al-Ghaida. This is about as far east as the guide books go since no-one gets even this far but apparently the Yemeni are trying to build a road of sorts along the coast to the Omani border. Since there is currently no road, there is no traffic for me to hitch a ride with but I was told that smugglers often make runs across the border and might be willing to take a passenger for the right price. Then all I had to do was bullshit my way across the border, somehow get to Salalah, the nearest Omani town, where I could then get an overnight bus to Muscat, the Omani capital. No problems.

Ma'rib to Say'un

I had arranged for a driver to take me across the desert to Wadi Hadramaout and Ahmed turned up depressingly punctually - 4am is an un-godly hour no matter where in the world you are and I blearily crawled out of bed and loaded my gear into the Land Cruiser. We left town and made our way down the highway towards the twinkling lights of Safir, a service town for the oil wells and the end of the road before the desert. I was hoping to be well into the desert by sunrise but instead had to be satisfied with the far less romantic image of the sun coming up over the truck parked by the side of the road, bonnet up, driver poking around under the hood. I hadn't realized it earlier but we were actually already in the desert and I amused myself by making footprints in the sand dunes until Ahmed popped out from under the hood and cheerily informed me that we would have to go back to Mahata, wherever that was.

Mahata turned out to be a garage by the side of the road where Ahmed pulled over, grabbed his rifle and went in search of the owner and some spare parts, leaving me to hang around with a young hitchhiker that we had picked up along the way who kept trying to reassure me with "No problem! No problem!" I eventually found out that we had a broken fan belt and given that there were no spares around, we had to do a quick fix on the old one and set off into the desert like that, hoping that it would hold...

Several hours and a few more breakdowns later, our hitchhiker had changed his tune, pointing vigorously at Ahmed's head, saying "Problem! Problem!" By now, we were being forced to improvise temporary fan belts from old rope, bits of coat-hanger, whatever was at hand and it wasn't until early afternoon when we finally limped into Al-Abr. About halfway between Ma'rib and Say'un, this was one of the largest settlements in the desert but nevertheless it still wasn't much more than a collection of tin shacks clustered around a petrol pump. Lunch was a few boxes of those wonderfully cheap and nasty Abu Waleh Sandwich Biscuits (15 cents for a packet of 8 and kind of cute in that they have "Yemen" stamped all over them) washed down with a bottle of water. We also picked up a few spare fanbelts although none of them were the right size, and so we left Al-Abr still hacking together repairs every twenty klicks or so - at one point, Ahmed even tried cutting one of them open, trimming it down to the correct length and then nailing the two ends together!

But despite all the problems, travelling through the desert was a wonderful experience, not exactly Paris-to-Dakar-bouncing-over-the-sand-dunes but pretty good nevertheless. The defining characteristic of desert travel, I found, would probably be this: you get a lot of sand in your shoes. The stuff was incredibly fine, easy enough to walk over when firmly packed until it gave way beneath your feet and then it was like trying to walk on water. Another thing was the silence, a huge blanket of it covering the desert expanse - it was perfectly quiet save for the sound of Ahmed banging away with a stone, trying to nail another fanbelt together and the only thing that gave away the crows circling overhead were their shadows criss-crossing over the sand dunes.

The battery finally gave out just before sunset. It was certainly picturesque, the sun setting behind the desert mountains as the camels gently pad-padded across the sand on their way home but as the first stars began to come out, it was starting to look kind of bad. Fortunately, the car had expired near some kind of a settlement where we could see house lights but Ahmed found himself in something of a quandary: he couldn't leave me alone while he went to get help in case something happened to me yet he couldn't take me with him and leave the car un-attended. And so we waited. A few trucks passed by but no-one was willing to drive to the next town to get parts for us and so, after a few hours of this, he locked up the car, said a quick prayer and off we set, across the sand and towards the lights.

The farmer there was initially reluctant to help us out but after some serious bargaining (begging, actually) on the part of Ahmed and the right price negotiated, he eventually relented and agreed to go pick up what we needed. He also brought out some food for us - dates and dry bread never tasted so good! - before we headed back to the car and waited for him to return. I tried to catch a few z's on the back seat but that proved to be impossible as Ahmed had got stuck into the qat again. Having tried some myself earlier in the afternoon, I knew that it was good stuff (I was obviously paying him too much) and it made him go quite silly, humming along with himself and occasionally breaking out into song. By the time Farmer Mohammed and his son returned three hours later, I was ready to strangle the lot of them but had to satisfy myself with watching Ahmed put in the new battery and fanbelt and get us back on the road again.

We didn't roll into Say'un until 2am, 22 hours after leaving Ma'rib and a mere 13 hours late. Luckily, being Ramadan, everyone was still up and so it wasn't too hard finding a hotel. Besides, Ahmed had to get his paperwork signed off by the manager of whichever hotel I checked into and so I made sure that we drove around to look at every place in town before deciding where I was going to stay. I collapsed into bed and wondered how much more difficult this trip was going to get.

Find out how it all ended here...

Sunday 23rd April 2006 3:04 AM [General]

I've been watching Michael Palin's Sahara series and people, I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, it's giving me seriously itchy feet! :-(. I've been in and out of the Middle East quite a few times over the years and seeing all the African mud architecture and Arabs yelling at each other brought back strong memories of when I was last there.

As I did when travelling through S.E.Asia, I did a lot of writing and so for your Sunday afternoon reading pleasure, I've dug up some old stuff I wrote when I was in Yemen at the end of 1998...

Yes, I had to look it up as well. Located on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen must be one of the world's most isolated countries, cut off from the rest of us by the impenetrable bulk of Saudi Arabia. Djibouti in East Africa is actually not all that far away, a short 50-mile hop across the mouth of the Red Sea although, of course, one has to get to Djibouti in the first place. And to the east, there is a land border with Oman - this was by far the most intriguing: it lies in the Ar-Ruba' al-Khali (or "Empty Quarter"), the largest sand desert in the world. There are no roads, no public transport and I was determined to cross it even if I had to buy my own camel and navigate by the stars to do it.

Believe it or not, Yemen was once one of the world's great super-powers, albeit some three thousand years ago. It was an important stopping point on many of the major trade routes between Egypt, India and across Arabia and was also a major producer of frankincense and myrrh. However, the rise of Christianity around the Mediterranean led to the abandonment of such pagan ritual fragrances and as the Greeks and Romans learnt how to use the monsoon winds on their voyages to India, the once great kingdoms of Arabia began to fall into decline.

In more recent times, the importance of Yemen's seaports reasserted itself, the south of the country being occupied first by the Portuguese and then by the British. It was only until the late 60's that the last of the colonialists were forced to leave and even then, the country was left divided, the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south going to war with each other at regular intervals. In the mid-80's, the discovery of Yemen's first (and only) oil field straddling both sides of the border between the two did much to help the reunification of the country and despite a few lapses, the country is once again whole. Nevertheless, marked differences remain between the north and south, towns in the south being noticeably more European, better maintained and with a higher standard of living than those farther north.

The Yemeni

There are two things that make the Yemeni unique amongst Arabs: weapons and qat. There are an estimated 45 million guns in the country, not bad at all for a population of less than 20 million. Men and boys are armed to the teeth with one or more automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, supplemented with a full complement of pistols, ammo belts and jambiya, the traditional Arabian curved dagger.

The other Yemeni passion is chewing qat, the leaves of a small bush that gives a slight narcotic high. The chewed-up paste is not swallowed but pushed to one side of the mouth, forming a bulge inside the cheek (giving rise to the common Yemeni question: "Are you a lefty or a righty?" - most people seem to be lefties and dangle cigarettes out of the right side of their mouth, the nicotine giving a real kick to the hit). Chewing qat is very much a post-prandial activity and most of Yemen closes down after lunch as people crash out for the afternoon, chewing qat and smoking water-pipes. As a result, the Yemeni are some of the fastest eaters on the planet, lunch being a purely functional affair as the food is shovelled down so that they can hurry off and get onto the real business of getting high.

Qat parties take place anywhere and everywhere, on the floor in a shop, out on the street, in moving cars. It can sometimes be a bit of a shock to walk into a room and find a dozen guys slumped up against the walls, discarded qat leaves and branches strewn all over the floor, cigarette ash everywhere, goats poking around for scraps to eat although if you're taking part, you don't really notice it too much - pretty much like college parties, I suppose (even the bit with the goats - I'm told that we had some great parties back then).

Another thing about the Yemeni is their long tradition of kidnapping each other. Yemen is still very much a tribal society with tribes banding together to form loose alliances and disputes are often settled by one side taking key members hostage from the other. In these modern times, the practice has been to extended to foreigners being kidnapped, especially by the poorer Bedouin, in an attempt to force the government to provide basic services to the less fortunate parts of the country. There have been some one hundred or so cases over the past few years and while no incident has lasted more than a few days and no-one harmed to date, it was still something to keep in mind while travelling around the country. Shortly before I arrived, a group of European tourists had been captured and held for an unusually long time. It was a bit frustrating trying to keep an eye on the situation when the English-language newspapers only came out once a week but it didn't seem to be too serious and no-one really expected any harm to come to them.

More tomorrow...

Saturday 22nd April 2006 5:25 PM [Awasu News]

The third 2.2.1 alpha release (what's this?) is now available here.

The big change here is, of course, the new channel templates. A bunch of bug fixes and other cleaning up closes off this release cycle and so 2.2.1 is not far off.

Have fun :-)

Tuesday 18th April 2006 6:34 PM [General]

I've been accused (usually fairly) of being many things, but never of doing things by halves.

With the new and improved template processing engine now in place, I've added eleven (count 'em, eleven!) new channel templates to Awasu (with more to come) and it's freaking me out how good it all looks! So much so that I just had to give y'all a preview of what Awasu now looks like.

First, the venerable Rusty has been given a face-lift and a more modern aspect (see right).

Joining the crew are a swag of newcomers:



Then there are several homage templates :-)



And a couple of designs on a fruit-based theme...


And please don't argue with me, marshmallows are a fruit. Any takers for how long it'll take this page to become the first Google result for "marshmallows are a fruit" (along with this one)? :-)


Finally, one for the geeks amongst us and one for the girl(s):



The cool thing about these new templates is that they are all done solely via CSS. All the special scripting that pulls the feed content out of Awasu has been put into a separate (shared) file so that designers don't need to worry about it and can focus on the design and layout. The fruit-based themes are even easier. They share the same layout and differ only in the colors they use (and the watermark image) so you can create your own variations by simply tweaking a few color settings in the config file.

Channels can also now be configured to display in a special compact mode which is especially useful for feeds that provide only item titles without any content (see left).

2.2.1.alpha3 will be out in a few days. Can't wait! :jig:

Sunday 9th April 2006 1:18 PM [Awasu News]

The second 2.2.1 alpha release (what's this?) is now available here.

This has been a really tough release.

Support for Atom 1.0 is now complete. Converting the Atom 0.3 parser to support 1.0 only took about two days and I was quite pleased with myself that the code was so well-designed that this work could be done so quickly :-). But upgrading the rest of Awasu to handle the implications of this took quite a bit longer... :-(

See folks, we now have a syndication format that lets publishers unambiguously state whether content is plain-text or HTML. With RSS feeds, you have no idea what anything is and so when it comes time to look at that content, Awasu has no way of knowing how to present it. Most of the time you can get away with it (which is why this state of affairs has lasted as long as it has) but there are common situations where it just doesn't work.

With Atom 1.0, Awasu now has the information it needs to do the job properly. The template processor, in particular, is now much smarter about how it does things. It looks at the type of each piece of content it's inserting and intelligently encodes it according to the type of output it's generating (HTML, XML, plain-text, etc.).

For the non-techies amongst you, the executive summary is this: things now Just Work™ (assuming you're using Atom 1.0).

Another major change is exposing some of the key design concepts we built into Awasu when we implemented the content archiving system. I hinted earlier about how Awasu manages metadata and this is now all available via some new template parameters. This lays the foundations for some powerful new features in the next release (note to Earl: remember asking me ages ago about being able to extract Furl-specific information out of Furl feeds? This is it :cool:).

Like I said, this has been a really tough release and I'm so looking forward to getting back onto some fun stuff... :-)