• Various Cabin Fever Projects

    Due to cabin fever (or whatever you call it), I’ve been working on a lot of oddball programming projects. I mean, I’m working way too much at the day job, because I can’t really leave the house, so I’m always on. But I’ve also been doing various things (and then not finishing them) mostly because I don’t have a basement where I can start building a boat out of matchsticks or something.

    Anyway, here’s a partial list of what’s on the various back burners of my stove. If you’re really insanely curious about any of these, let me know and maybe I’ll actually finish them.

    • I’ve been messing around more on GitHub. I’ve been doing this at my job too, but I’m trying to make an effort to be more active on my personal profile. If you have the time and you use any open source software, I’d encourage you to do the same. Even if you’re not a programmer, it’s good to know how to complain about their documentation and maybe fix a few things if you find them. My personal profile is here: https://github.com/jkonrath
    • GitHub has caused me to dig up all of the various college coding projects and see if they’re worthwhile to post on there, just for kicks. They are all fairly horrible, so no. I’m almost tempted to post the first coding project I actually got paid to do, which I still have. It was for the USGS and it did something with well depth analysis, which I totally don’t understand. The code itself is an exercise on how to not to do what we’d call Big Data analysis now, and would probably be about ten lines of Python. Fun nostalgia though.
    • Just for kicks, I started writing a Markdown to HTML program, but decided to do it all in straight-up C, using C89 ANSI C and the standard library, nothing more. Outside of Arduino C, I haven’t done much C program in… a long time. I realized why when I started working with strings. I have a newfound appreciation for Python’s built-in string support.
    • I also realized, digging through the archives, that I know more XSLT than I realized. I posted a gist about this on GitHub, but I probably should make a whole project that’s a collection of all the dumb little building blocks I used constantly when I did this on a daily basis. (Like I always have to look up how to split one file into many files. I need to write that down somewhere.)
    • I found this giant XSLT I used at a previous job to chop up Doxygen’s XML output and convert it into something I could pull into a structured FrameMaker doc. Looking at it, I’m not sure how useful it is, because I was doing a bunch of arbitrary reordering of the doc because… well, let’s say just because.
    • I also started working on an XSLT to convert WordPress output to a Flare document. I really do love that Flare documents are just XML, and you can do anything with them.
    • I converted this blog to Hugo, but in the process I realized it’s faster for me on a site this small to keep it in WordPress, so I didn’t use the conversion. It was a fun learning process, though.
    • I’ve been messing with ArchiveBox, which is a neat idea. It’s a system where you feed in URLs and it archives them in various formats. It’s sort of a DIY Internet Archive. I’ve been learning more Docker by running it with Docker-compose, and complaining on their GitHub page about various minor problems. I should spend some time helping them rewrite their docs.
    • Another site where I should pay more attention is Stack Overflow. I’m on there at https://stackoverflow.com/users/99038/jon-konrath. Funny to look back at all the FrameMaker and Doxygen posts I was answering way back when.

    Speaking of obsessively building stuff in your basement, this is one of my favorite videos ever: https://vimeo.com/166403522

  • PDF Printing with Headless Chrome

    I’ve got docs for a bunch of products in Jekyll, written mostly in Markdown, but also some HTML output from DITA and Flare. It works great, but doc reviews are a nightmare. We typically use Acrobat shared reviews for doc review, which mostly works, but the question became how to make PDFs of this stuff, especially the Markdown.

    There are a lot of obvious and not-so-obvious half-answers here. Like, why not save as PDF from your Markdown editor? (You don’t get any of the templating from Jekyll, and none of the variables show up. You also have to do it from each file, by hand.) I spent years chasing a good solution for this, and tried Pandoc, Prince, PrawnPDF, wkhtmltopdf, dita-ot, and gotenberg, hitting some roadblock with each one.

    My short-term solution was starting Jekyll locally, going to each page in a browser, doing a Ctrl-P, and printing to a PDF. For every page. Every single page. For every review. That was obviously not a great way to handle it.

    This is when I found something genius: Headless Chrome.

    Basically, headless Chrome runs the Chrome browser in the background, and then you can throw commands at it and get the output. If you ever used the venerable DZBatcher back in the day for non-interactive FrameMaker, it’s a similar concept. If you’re a Node programmer, there’s a bunch of crazy stuff you can do with it. But there’s also a command-line interface where you can do some basic stuff from a shell script.

    If you have a version of Chrome newer than mid-2017, you’re set. You can do something like this:

    chrome --headless --disable-gpu --print-to-pdf https://www.jonkonrath.com/

    Another fun command is --screenshot, which will dump the page to a PNG.

    There are a bunch of caveats, and there is almost no logging or error messages thrown by Chrome, so it’s maddening trying to debug this. So keep the following in mind:

    • Headless Chrome uses the location of your Chrome binary as the working directory, and tries to save files there. If you’re using Windows, chances are you can’t write files in C:\Program Files (x86), but it won’t tell you that if it fails. And if it does work, it will pollute that directory with output as you wonder where it’s putting the PDFs. You can specify an output file with --print-to-pdf="/full/path/file.pdf" and give a full absolute directory there.
    • There is an --enable-logging switch, which is vaguely helpful.
    • The URL you specify has to have a protocol in front of it (http:// or https://) or it will silently fail.
    • If you do something wrong, Chrome will go sideways, but keep running in the background without complaint. You’ll need to stop every Chrome process to get it to work again.

    I can’t publish the Windows CMD script I wrote for two reasons: one, it belongs to my employer because they pay me, and two, it’s the worst piece of garbage you’ve ever seen. The five lines of code I had to write to generate a timestamped directory look like if one of my cats slept on my keyboard for 45 minutes. Anyway, what I basically did:

    1. Pass in a .txt file with a list of URLs in the order I eventually want the output.
    2. Create a new timestamped directory.
    3. Loop through the text file, and run the print-to-pdf command once per line, dumping them into the timestamped directory.

    When I named the output files, I stripped off the protocol and hostname from the URL, and numbered the files, and replaced the slashes with dashes in the file. So if I printed http://example.com/this/is/the/index.html, it would create 1-this-is-the-index.html. The path thing is so duplicate files don’t overwrite each other.

    Then when I have that directory of PDFs, I Ctrl-A, right-click, and combine the files into a PDF, then run a shared review on that. The beauty is that when I do round two of the review, I simply run the script again, and the files are in the same order. (Otherwise, the files are going to be in alphabetical order, which probably isn’t what your reviewers want.)

    A handy way to get that file started is with a dir /b > file-list.txt from the command line in your top-level source directory. Don’t forget to edit out the images and directory names from your list.

    This isn’t a great way to do production-ready PDFs, and you’ll have no good control over headers, footers, page layout, or anything else. Also, all of the links in the PDF won’t work right; they’ll go to localhost if you’re running Jekyll locally. But it’s close enough for review purposes.

    More info on Headless Chrome: https://developers.google.com/web/updates/2017/04/headless-chrome

  • xml.etree.ElementTree and OS randomness

    OK, I’ll start by doing something you aren’t supposed to do: parse HTML using a bunch of regular expressions in Python. Don’t do this. Life is too short. Use something like BeautifulSoup. I couldn’t, because I had to use standard libraries only, so here I am.

    Anyway, my program manipulated a tree of XHTML using xml.etree.ElementTree. Typical stuff like any tutorial on it:

    import xml.etree.ElementTree as ET
    root = ET.parse(htmlfname).getroot()
    bod = root.find('body')

    Then after a bunch of scraping, I used a regex like this to get the address in the href of the link:

    anchor_addr = re.search("<a href=\"([^\"]*)\"",anchor_base).group(1)

    (I’m converting HTML to Markdown. Don’t ask why.)

    Anyway, this worked fine on Windows. I pushed the code, and a Unix machine in the CICD pipeline built it, and failed on this line. The match would fail, and anchor_addr wouldn’t have a .group(1), because it was a NoneType.

    At first, I thought it was the typical problem with linefeeds, like my code was splitting strings into arrays with \n and on Windows it had \r\n. After messing around with that, I found it it wasn’t the case.

    Here’s the problem: xml.etree.ElementTree uses a dictionary to store the attributes of an element it parses. Python dictionaries are inherently unordered. Or they can be unordered; it’s an implementation detail. And it looks like the version of Python I was using on Windows was ordering them, but the ones I was using on my home Mac and on this unix build machine were returning the attributes alphabetically. So <a href="foo" alt="hi"> was becoming <a alt="hi" href="foo"> and breaking my regexp.

    My code didn’t really need to find the entire element and pull the value of the attribute, because it was already inside the element. So I was able to change that regexp to "href=\"([^\"]*)\"" and that worked, provided it was never HREF or HREF='foo'.

    Long story short, don’t use regular expressions to parse HTML.

  • A few quick updates

    Five years, five updates. Sounds about right.

    A few quick updates, in the interest in posting more than once a year:

    • I’ve been managing other writers for almost four years now, so I should probably change my byline to reflect that. I’m still writing and working on tool/architecture stuff. But at some point, I should write down some snappy articles with management tips and tricks. Maybe some stuff on synergy and paradigm shifts.
    • My byline also mentioned being a FrameMaker nerd. I’ve barely used FrameMaker in the last five years, except to get stuff out of it. Aside from a few things still lingering in *.fm files, most of my company uses DITA, and some of use Markdown and Jekyll. But the eventual plan is to move everything to MadCap Flare. So maybe I’ll write about that more later. For now, strike FrameMaker from the byline.
    • I’ve been doing some programming lately, mostly in the quest to get a bunch of DITA converted over to Flare. Whenever I’ve run into a conversion or production program that required custom code, I’ve always said “I’m not a programmer” and then spent months trying to get developer time to fix it. I think it’s time I change that to “I’m not a very good programmer” and work on improving that. As of late, that’s involved a lot of Python, so you may see some posts on that.

    Of course, I’m saying all of this, and I may not post again until 2024 because I’m so busy. But, stay tuned.

  • Git choose-your-own-adventure

    I use git on a daily basis. Not to age myself, but I went from rcs to cvs to svn to git, with some Perforce and SourceSafe sprinkled in there, so I have a long background in source control. But git is just different enough to throw me sometimes. And for whatever reason, a lot of git documentary gets a bit, well, academic. It’s hard to find a quick answer sometimes, and they’re often buried in very theoretical arguments about whether or not git submodules are essential or the worst thing since Agent Orange.

    Anyway, here’s my go-to for answers when I break something: http://sethrobertson.github.io/GitFixUm/fixup.html

    There are two things I like about this page. First, it gives you answers without a lot of guff. Less is more, etc.

    The second thing is that it’s presented as a choose-your-own-adventure. Are you trying to do this? Did you do this? Do you want to do this? It’s a simple troubleshooting flowchart, something I’ve written in docs before, and something you’ll run into every time you call tech support. (There it gets a bad rap because the first steps are always “did you try restarting?” and that seems insulting. It’s also the problem 90% of the time. That’s another topic, though.)

    But as a kid who grew up devouring Bantam books from the book fair at my grade school, and memorizing _The Cave of Time _way back then, there’s something very intuitive and appealing about this form of docs. I’m not going to say this makes a git branching disaster where you think you lost everything fun, but it makes it easier to drill through the problem and find a solution. I don’t really have any docs at work where I could pull something like this, but as docs in general become more informal and user-oriented, this would be a great format to use.