Christophe Weblog Wiki Code Publications Music

A long, long time ago, I configured my window manager. What can I say? I was a student, with too much free time; obviously hoursdays spent learning some configuration file format and tweaking some aspect of behaviour would be repaid many times over the course of a working life. I suppose one thing it led to was my current career, so it’s probably not all a loss.

However, the direct productivity benefits almost certainly were a chimera; unfortunately, systems (hardware and software) changed too often for the productivity benefit (if any) to amortize the fixed set-up time, and so as a reaction I stopped configuring my window manager. In fact, I went the other way, becoming extremely conservative about upgrades of anything at all; I had made my peace with GNOME 2, accepting that there was maybe enough configurability and robustness in the 2.8 era or so for me not to have to change too much, and then not changing anything.

Along comes GNOME 3, and there are howls all over the Internet about the lack of friendly behaviour – “friendly” to people like me, who like lots of terminals and lots of editor buffers; there wasn’t much of an outcry from other people with more “normal” computing needs; who knows why? In any case, I stuck with GNOME 2 for a long time, eventually succumbing at the point of an inadvisable apt-get upgrade and not quite hitting the big red ABORT button in time.

So, GNOME 3. I found that I shared a certain amount of frustration with the vocal crowd: dynamic, vertically-arranged workspaces didn’t fit my model; I felt that clicking icons should generate new instances of applications rather than switch to existing instances, and so on. But, in the same timeframe, I adopted a more emacs-centric workflow, and the improvements of the emacs daemon meant that I was less dependent on particular behaviours of window manager and shell, so I gave it another try, and, with the right extensions, it stuck.

The right extensions? “What are those?” I hear you cry. Well, in common with illustrious Debian Project Leaders past, I found that a tiling extension made many of the old focus issues less pressing. My laptop is big enough, and I have enough (fixed) workspaces, that dividing up each screen between applications mostly works. I also have a bottom panel, customized to a height of 0 pixels, purely to give me the fixed number of workspaces; the overview shows them in a vertical arrangement, but the actual workspace arrangement is the 2x4 that I’m used to.

One issue with a tiled window arrangement, though, is an obvious cue to which window has focus. I have also removed all window decorations, so the titlebar or border don’t help with this; instead, a further extension to shade inactive windows helps to minimize visual distraction. And that’s where the technical part of this blog entry starts...

One of the things I do for my employer is deliver a module on Perception and Multimedia Computing. In the course of developing that module, I learnt a lot about how we see what we see, and also how digital displays work. And one of the things I learnt to be more conscious about was attention: in particular, how my attention can be drawn (for example, I can not concentrate on anything where there are animated displays, such as are often present in semi-public spaces, such as bars or London City airport.)

The shade inactive windows extension adds a brightness-reducing effect to windows without focus. So, that was definitely useful, but after a while I noticed that emacs windows with some text in error-face (bold, bright red) in them were still diverting my attention, even when they were unfocussed and therefore substantially dimmed.

So I worked on a patch to the extension to add a saturation-reducing effect in addition to reducing the brightness. And that was all very well – a classic example of taking code that almost does what you want it to do, and then maintenance-programming it into what you really want it to do – until I also found that the hard-wired time over which the effect took hold (300ms) was a bit too long for my taste, and I started investigating what it would take to make these things configurable.

Some time later, after exploring the world with my most finely-crafted google queries, I came to the conclusion that there was in fact no documentation for this at all. The tutorials that I found were clearly out-dated, and there were answers to questions on various forums whose applicability was unclear. This is an attempt to document the approach that worked for me; I make no claims that this is ‘good’ or even acceptable, but maybe there’s some chance that it will amortize the cost of the time I spent flailing about over other people wanting to customize their GNOME shell.

The first thing that something, anything with a preference needs, is a schema for that preference. In this instance, we’re starting with the shade-inactive-windows in the hepaajan.iki.fi namespace, so our schema will have a path that begins “/fi/iki/hepaajan/shade-inactive-windows”, and we're defining preferences, so let’s add “/preferences” to that.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<schemalist>
  <schema path="/fi/iki/hepaajan/shade-inactive-windows/preferences/"

a schema also needs an id, which should probably resemble the path

          id="fi.iki.hepaajan.shade-inactive-windows.preferences"

except that there are different conventions for hierarchy (. vs /).

          gettext-domain="gsettings-desktop-schemas">

and then here’s a cargo-culted gettext thing, which is probably relevant if the rest of the schema will ever be translated into any non-English language.

In this instance, I am interested in a preference that can be used to change the time over which the shading of inactie windows happens. It’s probably easiest to define this as an integer (the "i" here; other GVariant types are possible):

    <key type="i" name="shade-time">

which corresponds to the number of milliseconds

      <summary>Time in milliseconds over which shading occurs</summary>
      <description>
        The time over which the shading effect is applied, in milliseconds.
      </description>

which we will constrain to be between 0 and 1000, so that the actual time is between 0s and 1s, with a default of 0.3s:

      <range min="0" max="1000"/>
      <default>300</default>

and then there's some XML noise

    </key>
  </schema>
</schemalist>

and that completes our schema. For reasons that will become obvious later, we need to store that schema in a directory data/glib-2.0/schemas relative to our base extension directory; giving it a name that corresponds to the schema id (so fi.iki.hepaajan.shade-inactive-windows.preferences.gschema.xml in this case) is wise, but probably not essential. In order for the schema to be useful later, we also need to compile it: that’s as simple as executing glib-compile-schemas . within the schemas directory, which should produce a gschemas.compiled file in the same directory.

Then, we also need to adapt the extension in question to lookup a preference value when needed, rather than hard-coding the default value. I have no mental model of the namespacing, or other aspects of the environment, applied to GNOME shell extensions’ javascript code, so being simultaneously conservative and a javascript novice I added a top-level variable unlikely to collide with anything:

var ShadeInactiveWindowsSettings = {};
function init() {

The extension previously didn’t need to do anything on init(); now, however, we need to initialize the settings object, including looking up our schema to discover what settings there are. But where is our schema? Well, if we’re running this extension in-place, or as part of a user installation, we want to look in data/glib-2.0/schemas/ relative to our own path; if we have performed a global installation, the schema will presumably be in a path that is already searched for by the default schema finding methods. So...

    var schemaDir = ExtensionUtils.getCurrentExtension().dir.get_child('data').get_child('glib-2.0').get_child('schemas');
    var schemaSource = Gio.SettingsSchemaSource.get_default();

    if(schemaDir.query_exists(null)) {
        schemaSource = Gio.SettingsSchemaSource.new_from_directory(schemaDir.get_path(), schemaSource, false);
    }

... we distinguish between those two cases by checking to see if we can find a data/glib-2.0/schemas/ directory relative to the extension’s own directory; if we can, we prepend that directory to the schema source search path. Then, we lookup our schema using the id we gave it, and initialize a new imports.gi.Gio.Settings object with that schema.

    var schemaObj = schemaSource.lookup('fi.iki.hepaajan.shade-inactive-windows.preferences', true);
    if(!schemaObj) {
        throw new Error('failure to look up schema');
    }
    ShadeInactiveWindowsSettings = new Gio.Settings({ settings_schema: schemaObj });
}

Then, whenever we use the shade time in the extension, we must make sure to look it up afresh:

var shade_time = ShadeInactiveWindowsSettings.get_int('shade-time') / 1000;

in order that any changes made by the user take effect immediately. And that’s it. There’s an additional minor wrinkle, in that altering that configuration variable is not totally straightforward; dconf and gettings also need to be told where to look for their schema; that’s done using the XDG_DATA_DIRS configuration variable. For example, once the extension is installed locally, you should be able to run

XDG_DATA_DIRS=$HOME/.local/gnome-shell/extensions/shade-inactive-windows@hepaajan.iki.fi/data:$XDG_DATA_DIRS dconf

and then navigate to the fi/iki/hepaajan/shade-inactive-windows/preferences schema and alter the shade-time preference entry.

Hooray! After doing all of that, we have wrestled things into being configurable: we can use the normal user preferences user interface to change the time over which the shading animation happens. I’m not going to confess how many times I had to restart my gnome session, insert logging code, look at log files that are only readable by root, and otherwise leave my environment; I will merely note that we are quite a long way away from the “scriptable user interface” – and that if you want to do something similar (not identical, but similar) in an all-emacs world, it might be as simple as evaluating these forms in your *scratch* buffer...

(set-face-attribute 'default nil :background "#eeeeee")
(defvar my/current-buffer-background-overlay nil)

(defun my/lighten-current-buffer-background ()
  (unless (window-minibuffer-p (selected-window))
    (unless my/current-buffer-background-overlay
      (setq my/current-buffer-background-overlay (make-overlay 1 1))
      (overlay-put my/current-buffer-background-overlay
       'face '(:background "white")))
    (overlay-put my/current-buffer-background-overlay 'window
                 (selected-window))
    (move-overlay my/current-buffer-background-overlay
                  (point-min) (point-max))))
(defun my/unlighten-current-buffer-background ()
  (when my/current-buffer-background-overlay
    (delete-overlay my/current-buffer-background-overlay)))

(add-hook 'pre-command-hook #'my/unlighten-current-buffer-background) 
(add-hook 'post-command-hook #'my/lighten-current-buffer-background)