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25 February 2012

Random Hubble Desktop Wallpaper

As I settle into my new Arch workstation, I find myself going through all the little nesting behaviors that any user would demonstrate. Only it's a little more challenging this time around, because instead of a user-coddling operating system like Windows or Ubuntu, I'm using Arch Linux. And instead of using a familiar desktop environment like Gnome, I'm using KDE 4.8. So the most basic of things provides an opportunity for learning. For example, I spent a good 30 minutes trying to figure out how to set up the screensaver the other day. It's easy, and very similar to how every other operating system does it; but I just didn't know where to look.

One of my computing goals this year is to stop taking the features and options spoon-fed to me by the desktop environment and instead be willing to step up and exert my own will on the environment. Arch/KDE is a perfect combination for this, because they are both all about basic building blocks and customization. In my previous installation (Ubuntu 10.10), I had a little python script that I grabbed from Christian Stefanescu that will download the NASA image of the day and make it your desktop wallpaper. I still have that script, and I could use it with a few modifications for KDE instead of Gnome. But NASA's image of the day is hardly ever cool things like stars and galaxies, and instead is usually pictures of people smiling for the camera, or close-ups of a really important and boring piece of metal. I want something with some curb appeal.

I looked into a few other daily-image sites, like Alta Ski Area and National Geographic, but they just aren't designed to be wallpapers - the resolution is too small to look good at 2048x1152, and they're frequently in portrait-mode, which looks terrible on my widescreen monitor. Of course, Murphy's Law dictates that today when I go look at those sites to get the links above, they both are showing images that would look great as wallpapers. Trust me, they're the exception, not the rule. But I digress.

The official Hubble Site has a bunch of fantastic images in its gallery, but they don't pick one a day for you. There is a main page that shows thumbnails of all the images, a resolution-selection page when you click on a particular image, and finally another page that displays the image inline. I figured I could probably handle this with a Perl script, so I grabbed the HTML::Parser package from CPAN to do the heavy lifting, and did a little reading of its description page. It treats the incoming HTML document like a hierarchical tag system, just like most XML parsers do. I've never used an HTML parser before, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this is standard - it makes the most sense. You start by deriving your own class from HTML::Parser, and write start() and end() callbacks. Then as each tag (<div>, <a>, <img>, etc) is opened by the parser, it sends interesting info to the start() callback. When it closes, it calls the end() callback. In this way the entire tree of HTML is traversed, in a depth-first fashion.

Wallpaper Thumbnails Resolution-selection 2048-wide image

Being a Perl newb as well as an HTML::Parser newb, I did the easiest possible thing, which was to define three different classes - each tailor-made for one of the three pages that were required for finally getting the image. There is no error-checking or customization capability - paths are all hard-coded, and if anything goes wrong the script will probably just crash. But that means my wallpaper won't change for a couple days, or until I have time to investigate -- not exactly life-threatening. This is another example of utility code that simple doesn't warrant any more attention than is necessary to get it running. I finished it in about an hour.

I have this script scheduled to run every day at 4:00 pm, because that's about the time I get home from work and turn on the computer. It makes me happy to see a new wallpaper appear out of nowhere as I'm getting my email and paying bills. And after all, isn't that the point?

Download the source code if you're interested.

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