Ubuntu Unity is a really cool and innovative approach for Ubuntu UI. There are many people who love it and many who hate it. I fall somewhere in the middle. I am really fascinated by the possibilities that Unity offers and hope that it becomes better as it matures. Lenses are one of the coolest pieces in Unity and unfortunately not much tutorial is written. So this is my stab to fill that void. I have tried to organize as many material as possible. Your comments on improving the article is always welcome !

In my tutorial on Unity , I mentioned that if no one else writes a Lens tutorial, I will write one and here it is 🙂 Lenses in Ubuntu are a really neat idea – One simplistic way is to view them as specialized search tools. You open the appropriate lens, type something and you get a list of results. But this explanation does not really do justice to the incredible amount of flexibility that they give. Lenses can group their results, have Unity render the results in different styles, have multiple sections that influence they way search is done and so on. Unity also provides a very powerful API that allows you to write literally anything that you can think of. This post will discuss the architecture, components and their potential capabilities in detail.

Ubuntu Lens Terminology

If you are using Unity, then you must be familiar with two default lens that come with it : Application lens and Files & Folders lens. Let me use that to explain the various parts of a Lens.

Places/Lenses : Both these words represent the same idea. Places is a terminology that was primarily used when Unity was introduced. Its usage is now slowly deprecated and the word Lenses is preferred. In the rest of this blog post, I will refer it as Lenses for uniformity. Let us take a look at the various parts of lens by taking the application lens as an example.

If you click on the Application lens, you can see that it is split into two important pieces. At the top, is a search textbox like entity that allows you to enter the query. At the bottom is the results pane that shows results of your query. At the left end of the search textbox is a search result indicator. When the search is still going on, the indicator will show a spinning circle. Once the search is done, it reverts to its default icon of a cross.

Sections : The simplest way to describe sections is that they behave like categories that are non overlapping. So if a given search query might result in different results when searched under different categories, each of the qualify as a section.

Consider a simple example – You are writing a lens for StackOverflow. You may want to search questions, tags, users and so on. The results of search query q as a question is not the same as when searching q as a tag. Hence questions, tags, users become sections. Unity allows you to easily have different sections and switch between them.

Sections are the entries in the dropdown list  at the right end of the search textbox. They are optional and many places need not have it. You can see all sections of a lens by clicking on the dropdown. Taking the example of Application lens, some of the sections are “All Applications”, “Accessories”, “Games”, “Graphics” etc.

Groups : Groups is a mechanism by which you can club certain search results under a meaningful entity. Each search result, might have one or more groups that allow you to organize the results. For eg, when you search in Application lens, the groups are “Most frequently used”, “Installed”, “Available for download” etc. Groups need not be non overlapping like sections. Given a search query, same result can occur in different groups. In addition, Unity allows you to have different icons for different groups. Also, each group can be rendered in a different style. I will discuss further details later in the blog post.

Difference between Sections and Groups : There are lot of differences between groups and sections. Sections are mostly non overlapping set of entries. Each section provides a different perspective of the same search query. In contrast, groups allow you to classify the search results from a query (and a section). Groups can be considered as a way to organize the results rather than influencing how the results are obtained (which the sections do).

Results : These are the output of a search query in a lens. Given a query and a section, you get a list of entries for results. Each of them can optionally be assigned to a group. Each result entry can display information about themselves in a concise way. In addition, Unity allows them to have any URI and a mime type. So the results of one lens might be files clicking which executes them. Or it can be results from web and clicking on them opens the link in a browser and so on. Unity also allows them to have custom icons.

Unity Lens – Technical Terminology

In the following section, we will discuss some terms used in Lens development.

DBUS : DBUS is one of the most important component in the development of lens. One way to view a lens is as a daemon that accepts a search query from Unity, does some processing and returns a result along with information on how to display them. DBUS is the conduit through which the entire communication between the daemon and Unity happens. For the purpose of the lens, you need to own a bus which will be used by Unity for communication.

Lens/Place Daemon : Lens/Place daemon is a program that exposes lens functionality. A single daemon can expose multiple lens functionalities. Each lens is identified by an entry. It accepts search string from Unity and sends out search results that annotated with group and other additional information.

Place File : A place file is how you inform Unity about the various lenses that your daemon is going to expose. It is a text file that ends with .place extension and usually placed in /usr/share/unity/places . It contains different groups of entries that describe the different lenses that are exposed.

Lens Entry : A lens or an entry in the place file is distinct entity that can accept a search query and provide appropriate results. Every place file contains atleast one lens entry. Every entry has a distinct location for itself in the Unity places bar (the vertical strip) on the left. The lens entry has 3 broad components : A model each for sections, groups and results. Results contain information about the groups they fall in and how to display themselves.

Results : As discussed above, a result is an entry that is the response to a query. A result can be assigned to one or more groups. In the most general sense, a result consists of 5 subparts :
(a) URI : This is a resource identifier to uniquely denote the location of search result. It can be a local item (file://) , web item (http://) and so on.
(b) Display Name : This is a name for the result that the user will see in the results pane.
(c) Comment : This is additional information about the result entry.
(d) MimeType : Since the URI can point to anything, it is important to inform Unity what action to perform when the user clicks on the result. The mimetype allows Unity to invoke the appropriate launcher.
(e) Icon : Each result can have its own icon to represent it visually. It can be an icon file or the generic name of the icon (eg video).

Renderer : Unity provides some flexibility in how the results are displayed. Each result falls into some group. We can request Unity to display each group in a specific way. This is accomplished by the use of renderers. When you setup the model for groups for the lens, we also specify how each group will be rendered. Some common renderers are :

(a) UnityDefaultRenderer : This is the default way to display the results. In this renderer, each result shows the icon and the display name beneath it.

Ubuntu Unity Lens results under UnityDefaultRenderer
(b) UnityHorizontalTileRenderer : In this renderer, the icon and display name for each result is shown. In addition, it also displays the comment associated with the result.

Ubuntu Unity Lens results under UnityHorizontalTileRenderer
(c) UnityEmptySearchRenderer : This renderer is used when the current search query returned no results. The result item construction is very similar to the results above. But the display name is displayed across the results pane.

Ubuntu Unity Lens results under UnityEmptySearchRenderer
(d) UnityShowcaseRenderer : I tried using it and the result was not much different from UnityDefaultRenderer. But according to the documentation, it should have a bigger icon.

Ubuntu Unity Lens results under UnityShowcaseRenderer
(e) UnityEmptySectionRenderer : I did not try this as it not make sense in the application I developed. Supposedly, it is used to imply that the current section is empty. If my interpretation is correct, then this is used when the current section returned no results for query but a different section might produce results. UnityEmptySearchRenderer on the other hand is used to imply that the current search query itself (regardless of the section) provides zero results.
(f) UnityFileInfoRenderer : Copying from the reference, this renderer is used in files place to show search results. Expects a valid URI, and will show extra information such as the parent folder and whatever data is in the comment column of the results.

Steps to write a Lens :

There are three major steps in writing a Lens.
(1) Writing a .place file
(2) Writing a Lens daemon
(3) If you want to distribute , Writing a service file

As an example, let us develop a Lens that does the following :
(1) It has two sections – In “Movie Names” section, only the names of the movie are shown. In “Genre” section, all movies are clubbed according to their genre which act as a groups. So if movie X is in genres Y and Z, X will be displayed in both groups Y and Z.
(2) Clicking on the result will open a browser and redirect to the IMDB page for the movie.
(3) The lens accepts queries from two places – When entered directly in the IMDB Lens and also from the dash. When searched from Dash , it will display movie names as a separate group.

At the initial state, the lens will look like this :

Ubuntu Unity Lens Initial state

For the sake of completeness, here is now it looks when you just search for Movie Names. Ubuntu Unity Lens Search for Movie Names

For the sake of completeness, here is now it looks when you just search for Genres. Basically, the results are grouped using the Genre. If a movie falls under multiple genres, it also falls into different groups. Ubuntu Unity Lens Search for Movie Genre

Let us take a look at how to write the IMDB lens as per the major steps above.

Writing a Place File :

As discussed above a place file contains the information that allows Unity to display the entries in the places bar. Information like which bus to use for communication, what shortcut to use etc are also involved. For the purpose of this tutorial, I will put up the place file I used for the IMDB lens. I will then explain the significance of each line. The file is named as imdbSearch.place and is placed in /usr/share/unity/places/ .


Name=IMDB Search
Description=Search Movies using IMDB
SearchHint=Seach Movies using IMDB

[Desktop Entry]

As you can see, the file has three sections. Each section contains a set of key-value pairs.

Place Section :
This is the simplest section and contains two key values – DBusName and DBusObjectPath. DBusName gives the name of the bus under which this entry can be found while DBusObjectPath provides the actual dbus object path. The names can be any valid DBus names.

Entry Section :
A place file can contain one or more entries. Each entry must contain a section that corresponds to it. Each entry will occupy a distinct location in the places bar. If there are multiple entries, each of them must have a unique name and object path. In the daemon code, all those entries must be added individually.

The various keys are :
DBusObjectPath : This is the DBus path used to communicate with this specific entry. Note that this path must be a child of mail DBusObjectPath. In our case, there is only one entry and hence we put it under the path “mainentry” of the original path.
Icon : Link to the icon file
Name : Name of the entry. When you hover over the entry in the places bar, this will be displayed.
Description : A long description of the lens. I am not sure where this is used.
SearchHint : This is the text that is displayed by default in the lens when the user selects it. In the image above, the search hint “Search Movies using IMDB”is displayed when the user selects the IMDB lens.
Shortcut : This gives the key which is used to trigger the lens. Of course, you can always use the mouse to select it. If this key is specified,then pressing Super+shortcut operns the lens. For the IMDB lens, pressing Super+i opens it.
ShowGlobal : This is an optional key and defaults to true. If it is set to false, then searches from the main dash are not sent to the lens. This seems to override the specification inside the lens daemon. ie If the place file specifies ShowGlobal as false and the daemon adds a listener to the event where user enters a query in the main dash, it is not invoked. Most of the time, I think it makes more sense for the lens to set this as false. For eg, it certainly does not make sense for IMDB lens to offer its service in the dash. Most of the time, when the user is searching in the dash, he is looking for some file or application. Polluting those results with IMDB results may not be wise. This is even more true if your lens takes a while to provide all the results.
ShowEntry : This is an optional key and defaults to true. If it is set to false, then the entry will not be displayed in the places bar. If this is set to false, then the Shortcut key becomes useless as well. Pressing the shortcut key does not invoke the lens. But if the ShowGlobal is set to true, then the lens will still be searchable via the dash. For eg, if for some reason, I decide that IMDB lens must only provide results to queries from dash I will set ShowGlobal to true and ShowEntry to false.

Desktop Entry Section :

This section is mostly optional. The most used key is that X-Ubuntu-Gettext-Domain. This key is used for internationalization purposes. If you want the lens should support internationalization, provide the appropriate entry name. If you are not familiar with internationalization in Ubuntu, there are two broad ways of achieving it : Either put all the translations statically in the file. Or put it in the appropriate .mo file which will then be put in some language-pack file. I included this line because Unity whines as “** Message: PlaceEntry Entry:IMDBSearch does not contain a translation gettext name: Key file does not have group ‘Desktop Entry'”.

Writing a Lens Daemon

The next step is to write a daemon that communicates with Unity over dbus path, does the search and returns annotated search results so that Unity can render them meaningfully. The daemon can be written in any language that support GObject introspection. Most common languages include C, Vala and Python. Vey informally, GOject is a mechanism by which bindings for other languages can be done relatively easily. The actual process needs multiple components. Based on the reference [2], this means that you must verify if the following packages are installed in the system – gir1.2-unity-3.0 , gir1.2-dee-0.5 and gir1.2-dbusmenu-glib-0.4 . Of course, the actual version numbers may change in the future. If installing does not make it work, look at the reference for additional instructions [2].

I will use the IMDB Search lens as an example to explain writing a lens daemon in Python. The full source code is in [1]. I will use snippets of the code to make the appropriate points. The first step is of course importing the appropriate libraries. If you see other Python lens file, they used to have a hack that probes Dee before importing Unity. In my tests I found it unnecessary. If you get some error in importing Unity, then take a look at other sample files [3] and do accordingly.

from gi.repository import GLib, GObject, Gio, Dee, Unity

The next step is to define the name of the bus that we will use to communicate with Unity. Note that this must exactly match the “DBusName” key in the place file.

BUS_NAME = "net.launchpad.IMDBSearchLens"

The next step is to define some constants for the sections in your lens. If your lens contain only one section, feel free to ignore the initial lines. Else define section constants appropriately. The only place where you will use these constants is to figure out which section the lens currently is in. The section ids are integers and are ordered from 0. Note that the order given here is the *exact* order in which the sections must be added to our lens in Unity.

Similarly, we can have constants for groups. Instead of creating lot of constants, I created the group ids dynamically. First, I create a list of all IMDB genres and use a hash to map the name to an integer (group id). Also note that I also have constants for groups – GROUP_EMPTY, GROUP_MOVIE_NAMES_ONLY and GROUP_OTHER.

One thing to notice is that if different sections have non overlapping groups, all of them must be defined here. Then based on current section, use the appropriate group. As an example, GROUP_MOVIE_NAMES_ONLY is used only with SECTION_NAME_ONLY. But we define it alongside other groups. Also note the group for empty, GROUP_EMPTY. This will be used if the search query returns no results.  As with sections, the order of groups defined here must exactly match the order in which they are added to group model. If you have reasonably small number of sections and groups, you can avoid the elaborate setup of writing constants.


allGenreGroupNames = [ "Action", "Adventure", "Animation", "Biography", "Comedy", "Crime", "Documentary", "Drama", "Family",    "Fantasy", "Film-Noir", "Game-Show", "History", "Horror", "Music",  "Musical", "Mystery", "News", "Reality-TV", "Romance", "Sci-Fi", "Sport", "Talk-Show", "Thriller", "War", "Western"]

numGenreGroups = len(allGenreGroupNames)
GROUP_EMPTY = numGenreGroups
GROUP_MOVIE_NAMES_ONLY = numGenreGroups + 1
GROUP_OTHER = numGenreGroups + 2

groupNameTogroupId = {}
#We create a hash which allows to find the group name from genre.
for i in range(len(allGenreGroupNames)):
        groupName = allGenreGroupNames[i]
        groupID = i
        groupNameTogroupId[groupName] = groupID

The next step is to define the skeleton of the lens daemon. It is a simple Python class. In the constructor, you define the entire model corresponding to each entry in the Lens. If you place file contains n entries, you will be defining n different PlaceEntryInfo. In our case we have only one. Hence we create a variable that points to the corresponding DBusObjectPath. It is impertative that the path exactly match DBusObjectPath of the entry.

Each PlaceEntryInfo consists of different models : sections_model, groups_model and results_model.  If you want the lens to respond to searches in dash, you will also need to setup global_groups_model and global_results_model . The code below contains information about the schema of the different models. You can consider them as more or less a code that can be blindly copied. If you want additional information about things that you can tweak in PlaceEntryInfo, take a look this url .

Note on Property based access :
One important thing to notice is that all the access is done using properties. There are two methods to do that :
(1) x.props.y
(2) x.get_property(“y”)

Choosing one of them is mostly based on your coding style. Choose one use it consistently.

class Daemon:
        def __init__ (self):
                self._entry = Unity.PlaceEntryInfo.new ("/net/launchpad/imdbsearchlens/mainentry")

                #set_schema("s","s") corresponds to display name for section , the icon used to display
                sections_model = Dee.SharedModel.new (BUS_NAME + ".SectionsModel");
                sections_model.set_schema ("s", "s");
                self._entry.props.sections_model = sections_model

                #set_schema("s","s") corresponds to renderer used to display group, display name for group , the icon used to display
                groups_model = Dee.SharedModel.new (BUS_NAME + ".GroupsModel");
                groups_model.set_schema ("s", "s", "s");
                self._entry.props.entry_renderer_info.props.groups_model = groups_model

                #Same as above
                global_groups_model = Dee.SharedModel.new (BUS_NAME + ".GlobalGroupsModel");
                global_groups_model.set_schema ("s", "s", "s");
                self._entry.props.global_renderer_info.props.groups_model = global_groups_model

                #set_schema(s,s,u,s,s,s) corresponds to URI, Icon name, Group id, MIME type, display name for entry, comment
                results_model = Dee.SharedModel.new (BUS_NAME + ".ResultsModel");
                results_model.set_schema ("s", "s", "u", "s", "s", "s");
                self._entry.props.entry_renderer_info.props.results_model = results_model

                #Same as above
                global_results_model = Dee.SharedModel.new (BUS_NAME + ".GlobalResultsModel");
                global_results_model.set_schema ("s", "s", "u", "s", "s", "s");
                self._entry.props.global_renderer_info.props.results_model = global_results_model

Once you have setup the models, you need to add listeners to events that you want to catch. The most important one is “notify::synchronized”. This called when Unity sets up your lens and wants to know the various groups and sections in your entry. In the code below, we add three different functions to that event. One gives the sections in the lens, other gives the groups and last gives the groups in dash.

Next we catch two events that are core to Lens – notify::active-search and notify::active-global-search . The first is triggered when the user searches something in the search textbox of the place while the second is triggered when user searches something in the dash. It is important to notice that the same search can trigger the events multiple times. By default, Unity does a decent job of batching calls providing search strings, but it is an important thing to consider if your lens does expensive operations. Take a look at the section of caching for additional details.

The event notify::active-section is triggered when the user changes the section of the lens by using the dropdown. You can then use your section constants to decide which section is currently selected.

notify::active is triggered when the user selects and leaves your place. Hence its an indirect way for your daemon to know if the lens is being visible to the user.

                # Populate the sections and groups once we are in sync with Unity
                sections_model.connect ("notify::synchronized", self._on_sections_synchronized)
                groups_model.connect ("notify::synchronized", self._on_groups_synchronized)

                #Comment the next line if you do not want your lens to be searched in dash
                global_groups_model.connect ("notify::synchronized", self._on_global_groups_synchronized)

                # Set up the signals we'll receive when Unity starts to talk to us

                # The 'active-search' property is changed when the users searches within this particular place
                self._entry.connect ("notify::active-search", self._on_search_changed)

                # The 'active-global-search' property is changed when the users searches from the Dash aka Home Screen
                #       Every place can provide results for the search query.

                #Comment the next line if you do not want your lens to be searched in dash
                self._entry.connect ("notify::active-global-search", self._on_global_search_changed)

                # Listen for changes to the section.
                self._entry.connect("notify::active-section", self._on_section_change)

                # Listen for changes to the status - Is our place active or hidden?
                self._entry.connect("notify::active", self._on_active_change)

Once you have set up the different models and functions to populate them, you need to add the entry to a PlaceController. If your lens has multiple entries, repeat the above process for each entry and once constructed call the add_entry of PlaceController to set them up. Note that the argument to PlaceController’s constructor is same as the DBusObjectPath for the Place section in your .place file.

                self._ctrl = Unity.PlaceController.new ("/net/launchpad/imdbsearchlens")
                self._ctrl.add_entry (self._entry)
                self._ctrl.export ()

Once we have setup all the models, the next step is to define the functions that are used.The first is to define the function that populates the entry’s section model. Note that we call append on the sections_model with two parameters : the name of the genre and an icon for it. You can also observe that when defined the “schema” of the sections_model, it accepted two strings. One other thing to note is the lack of use of any section constants – You must be careful to define the sections in the exact same order as the constants. In our case, it means that SECTION_NAME_ONLY followed by SECTION_GENRE_INFO.

        def _on_sections_synchronized (self, sections_model, *args):
                # Column0: display name
                # Column1: GIcon in string format. Or you can pass entire path (or use GIcon).
                sections_model.clear ()
                sections_model.append ("Movie Names", Gio.ThemedIcon.new ("video").to_string())
                sections_model.append ("Movie Genre", Gio.ThemedIcon.new ("video").to_string())

The next step is to define a set of groups. Due to the nature of this lens, we reuse the list to form it. Notice the use of UnityEmptySearchRenderer for the GROUP_EMPTY. For this example, I have used UnityHorizontalTileRenderer. Your lens might need some other renderer – Take a look at the renderer section above for a discussion of the different renderers.

                # Column0: group renderer, # Column1: display name, # Column2: GIcon in string format Or you can pass entire path (or use GIcon).
                groups_model.clear ()

                #Remember to add groups in the order you defined above (ie when defining constants)
                for groupName in allGenreGroupNames:
                        groups_model.append ("UnityHorizontalTileRenderer", groupName, Gio.ThemedIcon.new ("sound").to_string())
                groups_model.append ("UnityEmptySearchRenderer", "No results found from IMDB", Gio.ThemedIcon.new ("sound").to_string())
                groups_model.append ("UnityHorizontalTileRenderer", "Movie Names", Gio.ThemedIcon.new ("sound").to_string())
                groups_model.append ("UnityHorizontalTileRenderer", "Other", Gio.ThemedIcon.new ("sound").to_string())

The next step is to define the function that is called when the search changes in the place search box. Notice how we use the entry object to get the current section, the current results, current search query and so on. Finally, we invoke search_finished function which calls search.finished() which signals to Unity that we are done processing the query.

        def _on_search_changed (self, *args):
                entry = self._entry
                self.active_section = entry.get_property("active-section")
                search = self.get_search_string()
                results = self._entry.props.entry_renderer_info.props.results_model
                print "Search changed to: '%s'" % search
                self._update_results_model (search, results)
                #Signal completion of search

There are other functions which we can detail. But mostly, they are very similar to code shown here. You can take a look at the python file linked below [1] for full glory.

So far all we have done is using some boilerplate code. From now on though, the code starts to differ based on the application. So I have not included the code that actually produces the results here. Take a look at the python file for details.

Testing Instructions

Once you have written the python file , you want to test your baby. Here are the steps :

(1) Include the following code in your daemon. This code was literaly copied from Unity Sample Place [3] code.

if __name__ == "__main__":
        session_bus_connection = Gio.bus_get_sync (Gio.BusType.SESSION, None)
        session_bus = Gio.DBusProxy.new_sync (session_bus_connection, 0, None, 'org.freedesktop.DBus', '/org/freedesktop/DBus', 'org.freedesktop.DBus', None)
        result = session_bus.call_sync('RequestName', GLib.Variant ("(su)", (BUS_NAME, 0x4)), 0, -1, None)

        # Unpack variant response with signature "(u)". 1 means we got it.
        result = result.unpack()[0]

        if result != 1 :
                print >> sys.stderr, "Failed to own name %s. Bailing out." % BUS_NAME
                raise SystemExit (1)

        daemon = Daemon()

(2) Copy your place file to /usr/share/unity/places/ . If you have any custom icons, copy them to the location specified in your .place file.
(3) Open up a new terminal and invoke your daemon file. Also remember to set the executable bit on.
(4) Open up another terminal and type “setsid unity”. Using setsid is a very neat trick I learnt from the sample place file. Basically, it starts Unity in a new session. This forces it to read all the place files again. Also if you make any change to the daemon code, you can kill it and restart it. Unity will start communicating with your new daemon. Additionally, setsid will also ensure that Unity does not have controlling terminal but will still dump all debug information in the terminal it was opened.
(5) Open the lens and type your query and watch the results appear !

Debugging Checklist

If your lens is not working as expected, here are somethings to verify :

(1) Make sure that your place file is copied to /usr/share/unity/places .
(2) Make sure that busname and object path match exactly in your place file and your daemon file.
(3) Make sure that Python file has its executable bit on. This is important if you want to run it a service/daemon that runs automatically. More on that below.
(4) If you are simply testing it, then is your Daemon file running ? If you are running it as a service, is your service file contain information that match your place and daemon file ?
(5) Did you restart Unity  – preferably as “setsid unity”
(6) Did you make any recent changes to place file ? If so make sure it is copied and restart Unity.
(7) Check for any exception information in the terminal that you started your daemon. If its a service, enable logging and examing the log files.
(8) Check if your lens is actually started. If you used “setsid unity” in a terminal, it would be logging the various steps it does. One sample invocation showing successful starting of lenses is this :

    ** (<unknown>:6114): DEBUG: PlaceEntry: Applications
** (<unknown>:6114): DEBUG: PlaceEntry: Commands
** (<unknown>:6114): DEBUG: PlaceEntry: Files & Folders
** (<unknown>:6114): DEBUG: PlaceEntry: IMDB Search
** (<unknown>:6114): DEBUG: /com/canonical/unity/ applicationsplace
** (<unknown>:6114): DEBUG: /com/canonical/unity/filesplace
** (<unknown>:6114): DEBUG: /net/launchpad/imdbsearchlens

(9) If your lens works but puts results in strange groups, make sure that order of groups in synchronize and the constants are same.
(10) Common errors and fixes :

** Message: PlaceEntry Entry:IMDBSearch does not contain a translation gettext name: Key file does not have group ‘Desktop Entry’ :

This is not an error. If this annoys you add a [Desktop Entry] section. See above for details.

** (<unknown>:6114): WARNING **: Unable to connect to PlaceEntryRemote net.launchpad.IMDBSearchLens: No name owner

This is again not an error but indicates that either your daemon program is not running or is not able to own the bus specified in the .place file.

Installation Instructions

Since I primarily wrote the IMDB lens for learning Unity, I do not know much about the actual installation process. Here are some generic tips :

(1) If you want a simple method of installation, use distutils. It accepts a list of files and the location where they must be copied. This is the cleanest way.
(2) If you are going to install it and expect the lens to start automatically, then you should write a .service file that knows which bus start and which file to invoke to make that happen. The service file is usually put in “/usr/share/dbus-1/services/” . In this case, also make sure that the daemon file is actually executable !

[D-BUS Service]

Various Tips On Writing Lenses

(1) Most of the simple daemons use constants for sections and groups. If you want them to setup them up dynamically, take a look how it is done in the IMDB lens.
(2) Avoiding repeated searches :
When the user enters a query in the lens, it is not necessary that the search function will be called only once. Remember that there is no concept of return key to indicate that query is complete. In fact, if the user presses the return key, it selects (and opens) the first result. The way Unity handles this scenario is by batching the calls. Lets say the user wants to search “blah blah2”. If the user continuously types the query with minimal interruption of the keyword, then the entire query will be sent to lens in one shot. On the other hand, if the user is a slow typer and enters “blah b” before waiting for a second or so, Unity will call the search function with partial query. When the user completes the query , the lens will be called with the entire query.

This behavior complicates your lens behavior, especially if the processing is time consuming. There are different techniques to avoid running calculations repeatedly (IMDB lens uses the first two techniques):
(a) Have a cutoff : Your code might decide not to search if the length of string is less that say 4 characters.
(b) Have a cache with timeout : You can use a local cache that stores your previous results . When you get a new query, check your cache first and return the results from it. For added benefit, have a cache timeout that removes elements that were added long time ago.
(c) Memoize using functools : A very cool technique that is used in other lenses is to memoize the function call. This technique works if the function is reasonably simple – the key is the function argument and the value is the return value of the function. One simple example is shown below. In the example, we defined a decorator called memoize_infinitely and apply it to function foo. Foo accepts an input and returns an output. This decorator, automagically creates a cache for each function. When the function is called with some argument, it is first checked in the cache. If it is found, then it is returned without invoking the function. Else the function is called and the result is stored in the cache. This technique is widely used. For a specific example,take a look at the AskUbuntu lens [3] .

import functools
def memoize_infinitely(function):
    cache = {}
    def wrapped(*args):
        if not args in cache:
            cache[args] = function(*args)
        return cache[args]
    return wrapped

def foo(input):
	return input + 1

(3) Handling long computations :
If your lens returns lot of results or the processing for each result entry takes a lot of time, then its a good idea to display the information as it arrives. The results model has a function called flush_revision_queue which periodically sends the data so far to Unity. For eg, in the case of IMDB lens , fetching the genre information is expensive. So, the code flushes the results every time five movies were processed. This allows the user to see some results without waiting for eternity to get complete results.


    [1] The code for IMDB lens which I have tried to comment as much as possible is my github page. For convenience, I have also given the individual files : Readme, imdb-search.py, imdbSearch.place .

    [2] Unity Places – now with 100% More Python : This blog post contains a brief discussion on developing Unity lenses in Python. It has some info on installation and links to a sample lens in Python. I would advise you to start with the sample lens code given in this blog post before making drastic changes. This way you can make sure that the initial lens setup is fine and the issue is really in your code 🙂
[3] Link to some Good Unity Python Lens codes : As of now there are few other good Unity lenses written in Python. Here are some of  my favorites – AskUbuntu lens, Launchpad lens, Evernote lens, Book-Search lens, Music search lens , Spotify lens . I have tried to incorporate all cool features in IMDB Search lens , so that it will become a one stop place for most important Lens features 🙂

    [4] Ubuntu Unity Architecture : This contains some language independent discussion of Unity architecture and additional information of the data structure it uses.
[4] IMDbPy : The IMDB search lens was developed using the excellent IMDbPy library. It has very convenient API that allows development of IMDB based applications a snap.

  [5] Ubuntu Unity Lens Python API Links : Here are some links for documentation that I found  – Dee API, Unity API . The document for Unity also encompasses the documentation for Places.


I released a new version of Chrome Nanny that incorporated few requested features. They are:


1. Validate regular expressions when they are entered in blockset.

2. More robust error handling inside the extension.

3. Always allow access to Chrome extension links even if you block *.*

4. Disallow *.* from White list.

5. Do not strip www/http from the blocksite. So a block url of www.ft.com will not block www.microsoft.com unless the url is ft.com.

6. Multiple internal changes that will allow implementation of other Chrome Nanny features faster.


Let me know how this version works !

In this post, I plan to discuss about two very simple inequalities – Markov and Chebyshev. These are topics that are covered in any elementary probability course. In this post, I plan to give some intuitive explanation about them and also try to show them in different perspectives. Also, the following discussion is closer to discrete random variables even though most of them can be extended to continuous ones.

Inequalities from an Adversarial Perspective

One interesting way of looking at the inequalities is from an adversarial perspective. The adversary has given you some limited information and you are expected to come up with some bound on the probability of an event. For eg, in the case of Markov inequality, all you know is that the random variable is non negative and its (finite) expected value. Based on this information, Markov inequality allows you to provide some bound on the tail inequalities. Similarly, in the case of Chebyshev inequality, you know that the random variable has a finite expected value and variance. Armed with this information Chebyshev inequality allows you to provide some bound on the tail inequalities. The most fascinating this about these inequalities is that you do not have to know the probabilistic mass function(pmf). For any arbitrary pmf satisfying some mild conditions, Markov and Chebyshev inequalities allow you to make intelligent guesses about the tail probability.

A Tail Inequality perspective

Another way of looking at these inequalities is this. Supposed we do not know anything about the pmf of a random variable and we are forced to make some prediction about the value it takes. If the expected value is known, a reasonable strategy is to use it. But then the actual value might deviate from our prediction. Markov and Chebyshev inequalities are very useful tools that allow us to estimate how likely or unlikely that the actual value varies from our prediction. For eg, we can use Markov inequality to bound the probability that the actual varies by some multiple of the expected value from the mean. Similarly, using Chebyshev we can bound the probability that the difference from mean is some multiple of its standard deviation.

One thing to notice is that you really do not need the pmf of the random variable to bound the probability of the deviations. Both these inequalities allow you to make deterministic statements of probabilistic bounds without knowing much about the pmf.

Markov Inequality

Let us first take a look at the Markov Inequality. Even though the statement looks very simple, clever application of the inequality is at the heart of more powerful inequalities like Chebyshev or Chernoff. Initially, we will see the simplest version of the inequality and then we will discuss the more general version. The basic Markov inequality states that given a random variable X that can only take non negative values, then

    Pr(X \geq k E[X]) \leq \frac{1}{k}

There are some basic things to note here. First the term P(X >= k E(X)) estimates the probability that the random variable will take the value that exceeds k times the expected value. The term P(X >= E(X)) is related to the cumulative density function as 1 – P(X < E(X)). Since the variable is non negative, this estimates the deviation on one side of the error.

Intuitive Explanation of Markov Inequality

Intuitively, what this means is that , given a non negative random variable and its expected value E(X)
(1) The probability that X takes a value that is greater than twice the expected value is atmost half. In other words, if you consider the pmf curve, the area under the curve for values that are beyond 2*E(X) is atmost half.
(2) The probability that X takes a value that is greater than thrice the expected value is atmost one third.
and so on.

Let us see why that makes sense. Let X be a random variable corresponding to the scores of 100 students in an exam. The variable is clearly non negative as the lowest score is 0. Tentatively lets assume the highest value is 100 (even though we will not need it). Let us see how we can derive the bounds given by Markov inequality in this scenario. Let us also assume that the average score is 20 (must be a lousy class!). By definition, we know that the combined score of all students is 2000 (20*100).

Let us take the first claim – The probability that X takes a value that is greater than twice the expected value is atmost half. In this example, it means the fraction of students who have score greater than 40 (2*20) is atmost 0.5. In other words atmost 50 students could have scored 40 or more. It is very clear that it must be the case. If 50 students got exactly 40 and the remaining students all got 0, then the average of the whole class is 20. Now , if even one additional student got a score greater than 40, then the total score of 100 students become 2040 and the average becomes 20.4 which is a contradiction to our original information. Note that the scores of other students that we assumed to be 0 is an over simplification and we can do without that. For eg, we can argue that if 50 students got 40 then the total score is atleast 2000 and hence the mean is atleast 20.

We can also see how the second claim is true. The probability that X takes a value that is greater than thrice the expected value is atmost one third. If 33.3 students got 60 and others got 0 , then we get the total score as around 2000 and the average remains the same. Similarly, regardless of the scores of other 66.6 students, we know that the mean is atleast 20 now.

This also must have made clear why the variable must be non negative. If some of the values are negative, then we cannot claim that mean is atleast some constant C. The values that do not exceed the threshold may well be negative and hence can pull the mean below the estimated value.

Let us look at it from the other perspective : Let p be the fraction of students who have a score of atleast a . Then it is very clear to us that the mean is atleast a*p. What Markov inequality does is to turn this around. It says, if the mean is a*p  then the fraction of students with a score greater than a is atmost p. That is, we know the mean here and hence use the threshold to estimate the fraction .

Generalized Markov Inequality

The probability that the random variable takes a value thats greater than k*E(X) is at most 1/k. The fraction 1/k act as some kind of a limit. Taking this further, you can observe that given an arbitrary constant a, the probability that the random variable X takes a value >= a ie P(X >= a) is atmost 1/a times the expected value. This gives the general version of Markov inequality.

    Pr(X \geq a) \leq \frac{1}{a} E[X]

In the equation above, I seperated the fraction 1/a because that is the only varying part. We will later see that for Chebyshev we get a similar fraction. The proof of this inequality is straightforward. There are multiple proofs even though we will use the follow proof as it allows us to show Markov inequality graphically.This proof is partly taken from Mitzenmacher and Upfal’s exceptional book on Randomized Algorithms.

Consider a constant a >= 0. Then define an indicator random variable I which takes value of 1 is X >=a . ie

    \displaystyle I = \begin{cases} 1, & \mbox{if } \mbox{ X} \geq \mbox{a} \\ 0, & \mbox{otherwise } \end{cases}

  Now we make a clever observation. We know that X is non negative. ie X >= 0. This means that the fraction X/a is atleast 0 and atmost can be infinty. Also, if X < a, then X/a < 1. When X > a, X/a > 1. Using these facts,

     I \leq \frac{X}{a}

If we take expectation on both sides, we get

     E[I] \leq \frac{1}{a} E[X]

But we also know that the expectation of indicator random variable is also the probability that it takes the value 1. This means E[I] = Pr(X>=a). Putting it all together, we get the Markov inequality.

    Pr(X \geq a) \leq \frac{1}{a} E[X]

Even more generalized Markov Inequality

Sometimes, it might happen that the random variable is not non-negative. In cases like this, a clever hack helps. Design a function f(x) such that f(x) is non negative. Then we can apply Markov inequality on the modified random variable f(X). The Markov inequality for this special case is :

Pr(f(X) \geq a) \leq \frac{1}{a} E[f(X)]

This is a very powerful technique. Careful selection of f(X) allows you to derive more powerful bounds.
(1) One of the simplest examples is f(X) = |X| which guarantees f(X) to be non negative.
(2) Later we will show that Chebyshev inequality is nothing but Markov inequality that uses f(X) = |X-E(X)|^2
(3) Under some additional constraints, Chernoff inequality uses f(X) = e^{tX} .

Simple Examples

Let us consider a simple example where it provides a decent bound and one where it does not. A typical example where Markov inequality works well is when the expected value is small but the threshold to test is very large.

Example 1:
Consider a coin that comes up with head with probability 0.2 . Let us toss it n times. Now we can use Markov inequality to bound the probability that we got atleast 80% of heads.

Let X be the random variable indicating the number of heads we got in n tosses. Clearly, X is non negative. Using linearity of expectation, we know that E[X] is 0.2n.We want to bound the probability P(X >= 0.8n). Using Markov inequality , we get

    P(X \geq 0.8n) \leq \frac{0.2n}{0.8n} = 0.25

Of course we can estimate a finer value using the Binomial distribution, but the core idea here is that we do not need to know it !

Example 2:
For an example where Markov inequality gives a bad result, let us the example of a dice. Let X be the face that shows up when we toss it. We know that E[X] is 7/2 = 3.5. Now lets say we want to find the probability that X >= 5. By Markov inequality,

P(X \geq 5) \leq \frac{3.5}{5} = 0.7

The actual answer of course is 2/6 and the answer is quite off. This becomes even more bizarre , for example, if we find P(X >= 3) . By Markov inequality,

P(X \geq 3) \leq \frac{3.5}{3} = \frac{7}{6}

The upper bound is greater than 1 ! Of course using axioms of probability, we can set it to 1 while the actual probability is closer to 0.66 . You can play around with the coin example or the score example to find cases where Markov inequality provides really weak results.

Tightness of Markov

The last example might have made you think that the Markov inequality is useless. On the contrary, it provided a weak bound because the amount of information we provided to it is limited. All we provided to it were that the variable is non negative and that the expected value is known and finite. In this section, we will show that it is indeed tight – that is Markov inequality is already doing as much as it can.

From the previous example, we can see an example where Markov inequality is tight. If the mean of 100 students is 20 and if 50 students got a score of exactly 0, then Markov implies that atmost 50 students can get a score of atleast 40.

Note : I am not 100% sure if the following argument is fully valid – But atleast it seems to me 🙂

Consider a random variable X such that

    X = \displaystyle \begin{cases} k & \mbox{with probability } \frac{1}{k} \\ 0 & \mbox{else} \end{cases}

We can estimate its expected value as

    E[X] = \frac{1}{k} \times k + \frac{k-1}{k} \times 0 = 1

We can see that , Pr(X \geq k E[X]) = Pr(X \geq k) = \frac{1}{k}

This implies that the bound is actually tight ! Of course one of the reasons why it was tight is that the other value is 0 and the value of the random variable is exactly k. This is consistent with the score example we saw above.

Chebyshev Inequality

Chebyshev inequality is another powerful tool that we can use. In this inequality, we remove the restriction that the random variable has to be non negative. As a price, we now need to know additional information about the variable – (finite) expected value and (finite) variance. In contrast to Markov, Chebyshev allows you to estimate the deviation of the random variable from its mean. A common use of it estimates the probability of the deviation from its mean in terms of its standard deviation.

Similar to Markov inequality, we can state two variants of Chebyshev. Let us first take a look at the simplest version. Given a random variable X and its finite mean and variance, we can bound the deviation as

    P(|X-E[X]| \geq k \sigma ) \leq \frac{1}{k^2}

  There are few interesting things to observe here :
(1) In contrast to Markov inequality, Chebyshev inequality allows you to bound the deviation on both sides of the mean.
(2) The length of the deviation is k \sigma on both sides which is usually (but not always) tighter than the bound k E[X]. Similarly, the fraction 1/k^2 is much more tighter than 1/k that we got from Markov inequality.
(3) Intuitively, if the variance of X is small, then Chebyshev inequality tells us that X is close to its expected value with high probability.
(4) Using Chebyshev inequality, we can claim that atmost one fourth of the values that X can take is beyond 2 standard deviation of the mean.

Generalized Chebyshev Inequality

A more general Chebyshev inequality bounds the deviation from mean to any constant a . Given a positive constant a ,

    Pr(|X-E[X]| \geq a) \leq \frac{1}{a^2}\;Var[X]

Proof of Chebyshev Inequality

The proof of this inequality is straightforward and comes from a clever application of Markov inequality. As discussed above we select f(x) = |X-E[X]|^2. Using it we get ,

    Pr(|X-E[X]| \geq a) = Pr( (X-E[X])^2 \geq a^2)
Pr( (X-E[X])^2 \geq a^2) \leq \frac{1}{a^2} E[(X-E[X])^2]

We used the Markov inequality in the second line and used the fact that Var[X] = E[(X-E[X])^2].

Common Pitfalls

It is important to notice that Chebyshev provides bound on both sides of the error. One common mistake to do when applying Chebyshev is to divide the resulting probabilistic bound by 2 to get one sided error. This is valid only if the distribution is symmetric. Else it will give incorrect results. You can refer Wikipedia to see one sided Chebyshev inequalities.

Chebyshev Inequality for higher moments

One of the neat applications of Chebyshev inequality is to use it for higher moments. As you would have observed, in Markov inequality, we used only the first moment. In the Chebyshev inequality, we use the second moment (and first). We can use the proof above to adapt Chebyshev inequality for higher moments. In this post, I will give a simple argument for even moments only. For general argument (odd and even) look at this Math Overflow post.

The proof of Chebyshev for higher moments is almost exactly the same as the one above. The only observation we make is that (X-E[X])^{2k} is always non negative for any k. Of course the next observation is E[(X-E[X])^{2k} gives the 2k^th central moment . Using the statement from Mitzenmacher and Upfal’s book we get ,

    Pr(|X-E[X]| > t \sqrt[2k] {E[(X-E[X])^{2k}]}) \leq \frac{1}{t^{2k}}

It should be intuitive to note that the more information we get the tighter the bound is. For Markov we got 1/t as the fraction. It was 1/a^2 for second order Chebyshev and 1/a^k for k^th order Chebyshev inequality.

Chebyshev Inequality and Confidence Interval

Using Chebyshev inequality, we previously claimed that atmost one fourth of the values that X can take is beyond 2 standard deviation of the mean. It is possible to turn this statement around to get a confidence interval.

If atmost 25% of the population are beyond 2 standard deviations away from mean, then we can be confident that atleast 75% of the population lie in the interval (E[X]-2 \sigma, E[X]+2 \sigma). More generally, we can claim that, 100 * (1-\frac{1}{k}) percentage of the population lies in the interval (E[X]-k. \sigma, E[X]+k \sigma) . We can similarly derive that 94% of the population lie within 4 standard deviations away from mean.

Applications of Chebyshev Inequality

We previously saw two applications of Chebyshev inequality – One to get tighter bounds using higher moments without using complex inequalities. The other is to estimate confidence interval. There are some other cool applications that we will state without providing the proof. For proofs refer the Wikipedia entry on Chebyshev inequality.

(1) Using Chebyshev inequality, we can prove that the median is atmost one standard deviation away from the mean.
(2) Chebyshev inequality also provides the simplest proof for weak law of large numbers.

Tightness of Chebyshev Inequality

Similar to Markov inequality, we can prove the tightness of Chebyshev inequality. I had fun deriving this proof and hopefully some one will find it useful. Define a random variable X as ,

[Note: I could not make the case statement work in WordPress Latex and hence the crude work around]

X = { \mu + C  with probability p

      { \mu – C  with probability p

      { \mu with probability 1-2p

    E[X] = p(\mu +C) + p(\mu -C) + (1-2p) \mu = \mu
Var[X] = E[(X-\mu)^2]
= p (\mu+C-\mu)^2 + p (\mu-C-\mu)^2 + (1-2p)(\mu-\mu)^2
\Rightarrow Var[X] = 2pC^2

If we want to find the probability that the variable deviates from mean by constant C, the bound provided by Chebyshev is ,

    Pr(|X-\mu| \geq C) \leq \frac{Var[X]}{C^2} = \frac{2pC^2}{C^2}=2p

which is tight !


Markov and Chebyshev inequalities are two of the simplest , yet very powerful inequalities. Clever application of them provide very useful bounds without knowing anything about the distribution of the random variable. Markov inequality bounds the probability that a nonnegative random variable exceeds any multiple of its expected value (or any constant). Chebyshev’s inequality , on the other hand, bounds the probability that a random variable deviates from its expected value by any multiple of its standard deviation. Chebyshev does not expect the variable to non negative but needs additional information to provide a tighter bound. Both Markov and Chebyshev inequalities are tight – This means with the information provided, the inequalities provide the most information they can provide.

Hope this post was useful ! Let me know if there is any insight I had missed !


(1) Probability and Computing by Mitzenmacher and Upfal.
(2) An interactive lesson plan on Markov’s inequality – An extremely good discussion on how to teach Markov inequality to students.
(3) This lecture note from Stanford – Treats the inequalities from a prediction perspective.
(4) Found this interesting link from Berkeley recently.

In this post , I assume that you use Ubuntu (with English) and want to use it to read or write Tamil stuff. Hence , I discuss steps to view Tamil web pages and also edit files in Tamil. This post will not tell you how to get a localized Tamil version of Ubuntu.

Reading Web Pages in Tamil

This is the most common requirement. You have Ubuntu and you want to visit and read , say, Tamil newspapers or blog posts. To do that install the following packages :

sudo apt-get install language-support-fonts-ta ttf-tamil-fonts ttf-indic-fonts-core

These three packages should solve the problem of Tamil fonts from multiple websites. ttf-indic-fonts-core  adds some popular Tamil fonts (in addition to other fonts for Indian languages) and ttf-tamil-fonts adds some more additional Tamil fonts.

Writing in Tamil

Writing in Tamil is done by adding Tamil keyboard layout to Ubuntu. If you are in a version before Natty (11.04), then use “System -> Preferences –> Keyboard” . If you are using Natty, then click on the power icon on the right hand top of the screen and select “System Settings”. In the settings dialog, choose Hardware tab and then select Keyboard. This will open up keyboard preferences menu.

Select the “Layouts” tab and click on Add . In the “Choose a Layout” dialog, go to the Language tab and select Tamil as the language. Choose your preferred variant . I have chosen “India Tamil Unicode”.  Click “Add” to add the language.

If you notice, the top panel will automatically get the keyboard layout indicator which highlights the currently selected language. This selection is application specific . For eg, if you selected Tamil when typing in gedit and then went to say LibreOffice, you will be typing in your default language in LibreOffice. Initially this behavior is a bit confusing, but usually makes lot of sense in practice.

In the Layouts tab, click on Options and set an appropriate key combination in the entry “Key(s) to change layout”.  I use “Shift+Caps Lock”. This is useful as otherwise , you need to key toggling in the keyboard indicator. If you are keyboard person, this is the best way to switch over all the languages in your layout. If there are multiple, then pressing “Shift+Caps Lock” cycles through your choices. The keyboard applet/indicator will change appropriately.

Unfortunately, most Tamil keyboard layouts are not mnemonic based and it takes quite a while to get used to. But once it starts working, it’s a great liberating feeling to type in another languages.

Using Tamil

Since Linux has a great internationalization support, you can use Tamil for other purposes also. For eg, I use Tamil to name folders ! Or sometimes even write some personal stuff 🙂 . Most applications including Nautilus has multilingual support and things should seamlessly !

R is one of the coolest language designed and I am having lot of fun using it. It has become my preferred language of programming next only to Python. If you are also using Ubuntu, the rate of update of R in Ubuntu’s official repositories is slightly slow. If you want to get the latest packages as soon as possible, then the best option is to add some CRAN mirror to your Ubuntu repository. This by itself is straightforward. I decided to write this post on how to solve the GPG error if you get it.


(1) Decide on which CRAN repository you want to use. Finding the nearest one usually gives the best speed. Lets say it is http://cran.cnr.berkeley.edu/ . Append "bin/linux/ubuntu". Typically this works. You can confirm this by going to this url in the browser too.
(2) Add this to your Ubuntu repository. There are multiple ways. In the steps, below, replace http://cran.cnr.berkeley.edu/bin/linux/ubuntu with your mirror

(a) Synaptic -> Settings -> Repositories -> Other Software -> Add . In the apt line enter "deb http://cran.cnr.berkeley.edu/bin/linux/ubuntu natty/".
(b) sudo vim /etc/apt/sources.list and add "deb http://cran.cnr.berkeley.edu/bin/linux/ubuntu natty/" at the end. If you are not comfortable with vim, use gedit but instead of sudo , used gksudo.
(c)sudo add-apt-repository deb http://cran.cnr.berkeley.edu/bin/linux/ubuntu natty/


(3) Refresh the source repository by using refresh in Synaptic or using  "sudo apt-get update "
(4) Install R or any other package you want. If you are installing R , I suggest you install r-base-dev instead of r-base. If you are installing some R package , check if it exists with the name r-cran-* . Else, install it using install.packages command inside R.
(5) Enjoy 🙂

Fixing GPG Errors

When I did these steps, I got an error like the following (This occurred when I updated last month, this might be fixed now !):

GPG error: http://cran.cnr.berkeley.edu natty/ Release: The following signatures couldn’t be verified because the public key is not available: NO_PUBKEY 51716619E084DAB9

If you get the error, enter the following commands in the terminal.

     gpg –keyserver keyserver.ubuntu.com –recv-key E084DAB9
     gpg -a –export E084DAB9 | sudo apt-key add –

Repeat the steps above and this should fix the key error.

I am not a big fan of Twitter but lot of geeks I respect seem to use it. I used to follow a few Twitter accounts using RSS in Google Reader. Basically, I will go to the Twitter account’s page and there will be a RSS icon. Clicking it will subscribe the feed in your favorite RSS reader. I can follow the accounts from Google Reader as if it is yet another blog.

Unfortunately, Twitter recently announced that they are not planning to support RSS directly. If you go to the latest Twitter page of the account you want to follow, you will not see a RSS icon. This annoyed me to no end as it used to provide a convenient way for me to follow the accounts in the comfort of Google Reader. The following are are some of the hacks that you can use to get the RSS feed url to subscribe in your reader. I have arranged them from easy to hard.

Method 1 : Using Google Reader’s Add Subscription

This seems to work for me as of now and hopefully will work in the near future. If you are using Google Reader, click on "Add Subscription" button. In the textbox, enter the url as "http://twitter.com/username" . Change the username to the actual account name that you want to follow. This will subscribe you to the account’s feed.

Method 2: Using Account Name in Twitter API

If the above did not work or if you are using other RSS reader , there is an alternative. If you know only the account name, use the following as the feed url :


This technique uses information from Twitter’s dev wiki of the API that returns the last 20 statuses of the user.

Method 3: Using User ID in Twitter API

This method is slightly more advanced and assumes that you know the user id of the account that you want to follow. This number is not easy to find – especially in the new twitter. The following instructions assume you use Chrome, but the instructions for Firefox must be similar. For other browser users, you can use the overall idea given here and adapt it to your browser.

(1) Go to the account that you want to follow. Click on the "Tweets" tab so that the last few tweets are visible.
(2) Now select few of the initial tweets using the mouse.
(3) Right click -> Inspect Element
(4) In the develop tools that is now shown, enter the account name of the user. Find the instance that comes with the user-id field. A sample might be :

<a class="tweet-screen-name user-profile-link" data-user-id="1234567890" href="/#!/accountname" title="Account Name">Account Name</a>

Alternatively, you can search for  "data-user-id" (without quotes) in the search box. Note that entering part of it (say user-id) will not work. It has to be exact. Find the element that corresponds to the user profile.
(5) In the list of elements that are matched, find the number whose length is between 8-10 – eg 1234567890.
(6) This is the user id of the account.

Once you get the user id, there are two methods to subscribe. One uses the variation of previous method. Enter the feed url as (replace 1234567890 with the actual one)


The other alternative is to use the following as the feed url (replace 1234567890 with the actual one)


I hope one of the methods works for you and helps you to follow your favorite Twitter accounts using your greatest RSS reader 🙂

Hamster is one of my favorite apps in Linux. I use it so much that I had previously written a post on it at Time Tracking in Linux using Hamster. One of the problems, I faced when I installed Natty was that it does away with the notification area (or systray). This means that the hamster applet will not be loaded in the panel automatically.

In the Launchpad, there exists a bug that discusses ways to add indicator support to Hamster. The author of Hamster has indicated that ,for now, he is not going to write a version for GNOME 3.0 (using GNOME Shell). I took a look at the code and it seems interesting – although I am not fully familiar with hamster graphics methods. If Unity support is not built into hamster in the near future, I will take a stab at it. In this article, I discuss some workarounds to still use Hamster in Ubuntu Unity or GNOME Shell  . They range from the easiest to hardest.

Method 1

If you are using Ubuntu Unity, the best alternative is to use the hamster version developed by Alberto Milone. The description of his work is this page – Appindicator for Hamster . Basically, he created a child class of HamsterApplet which has appindicator support. Pretty neat ! I browsed through the code and it seems straightforward. Hopefully, it will go into the upstream.

The instructions to use it are given in the linked page. Basically, you download the python code from hamster-appindicator’s github page. If you do not know how to use git , then just download the raw Python file . Put it in some folder and invoke it as "python hamster-indicator.py &". You can also add it to your Ubuntu startup applications !

Method 2

Since hamster applet is nothing but a Python app, you can technically invoke it as a standalone application instead of an applet. Most of the time, the utility must be in your path. You can invoke it as "hamster-time-tracker &" (or "python /usr/bin/hamster-time-tracker &") and by default, it will open a new stand alone window for the tracker. One thing to notice is that, this view does not have the "Add earlier activity" button. So this is only useful , if you want to add tasks starting now. Or you can muck around with Hamster’s use of negative time (-x a@b,c means I have been doing activity a of category b with description c for the last x minutes).

If you want to add earlier activities, invoke hamster as ,

    hamster-time-tracker toggle

  There are other options also. The entire list is overview|statistics|edit|preferences|about|toggle . The overview mode opens the "Overview" window that allows you to browse your activities for this week/month etc. The statistics mode shows a chart of your activities. The edit mode opens a new window that usually shows up when you click on "Add new activity". It allows you to enter activity,category, description, tags starting at arbitrary time.

The only catch is that it does not always visible and hence you might forget that it even exists ! If you are not as absent minded, then this is the best way to go (especially in GNOME 3.0 or GNOME Shell).

Method 3

Use this method, if none of the above works. This is only for masochistic hardcore geeks. The basic idea is to use the hamster-service that runs in the background and use the hamster’s command line utility. Just invoking the command line tool "hamster-cli" will give you a list of options. They are :

(1) list-activities : You can invoke this option to list all the activities and their respective categories. The format of output is activity@category . This is useful if you want to add a category using command line. The invocation is
    hamster-cli list-activities
(2) list-categories : This will show a list of all available categories. Usually this is superfluos as list-activities gives you the categories also.
(3) stop : This stops the task that is currently being tracked by hamster.
(4) list : This , by default(without arguments) , shows all the activities tracked for today. You can also give hh:mm-hh:mm option to display activities between specific time.

    hamster-cli list
    hamster-cli list 00:00-12:00

The first shows all of today’s tracked tasks while the second shows till 12 PM.

(5) start : The most important switch. This allows you to add a new activity – This can start now or at an earlier time. The format of entry is to give a activity with its category, optionally start time and description.

Currently, you cannot add new category or activity types using hamster-cli. You can only add/track a task using existing activity/category. If you want to add new activity/category use "hamster-time-tracker preferences" command to open Hamster’s preferences dialog which will allow you to do that .

    hamster-cli start "Blogging@Blogging"
    hamster-cli start "Blogging@Blogging,Hamster Post" 19:00-21:00
    hamster-cli start "Blogging@Blogging,Hamster Post" -00:40:00

The first invocation starts a new ongoing task of activity type Blogging and category type "Blogging" (after the @). The second invocation adds an earlier task of blogging between 7-9 PM. The third invocation starts a new task of blogging that started 40 minutes ago and still ongoing.

Hamster allows a more sophisticated time specification mechanism for start. I will put the details verbatim from the help of hamster-cli.

Time formats:
    * ‘YYYY-MM-DD hh:mm:ss’: Absolute time. Defaulting to 0 for the time
            values missing, and current day for date values.
            E.g. (considering 2010-03-09 16:30:20 as current date, time):
                2010-03 13:15:40 is 2010-03-09 13:15:40
                2010-03-09 13:15 is 2010-03-09 13:15:00
                2010-03-09 13    is 2010-03-09 00:13:00
                2010-02 13:15:40 is 2010-02-09 13:15:40
                13:20            is 2010-03-09 13:20:00
                20               is 2010-03-09 00:20:00
    * ‘-hh:mm:ss’: Relative time. From the current date and time. Defaulting
            to 0 for the time values missing, same as in absolute time.

To see other information, type "hamster-cli" without any arguments in the command line. It will show a helpful list of commands.

Method 4

One of the comments in the Launchpad asked for Hamster to behave like a docky helper. If thats your thing, follow the instructions at  this page . I have not personally tried it but hopefuly it will work.

Method 5

This is something I tried but did not work. Basically, I tried to add hamster to the whitelist of applications that are allowed to use notification area in Unity. You can find the details of how to enable any application to use systray at this askubuntu question.

I tried entering various incantations like hamster,Hamster,Time Tracker,hamster-time-tracker, hamster-tracker and so on. Somehow none of these worked. If anyone got it to work please let me know in the commands.


In conclusion, Hamster is one of the coolest apps in Linux and this post discusses some workaround for using it in Unity or GNOME 3.0 /GNOME Shell. Hopefully, indicator support will be built in the upstream itself soon. Have fun with Hamster !