Jan 02

Building a living photo frame with a Raspberry Pi and a motion detector

Every hardware hacker has a start, and this one is mine. My girlfriend bought me a Raspberry Pi for my birthday, and so I became determined to build something with it for her birthday two months later.

As you can see above, I built a photo frame that has a few interesting parts. For one, the software which runs the photo frame, which I explore below, keeps the photos fresh from Instagram and Flickr. It then displays a random photo for a configurable six seconds. Secondly, there is a motion detector, built using a PIR sensor, which only turns the monitor on when somebody walks by.

This photo frame is easy to build, but it does take a bit of know-how. Mainly, you should feel comfortable soldering wires and mounting the screen and Raspberry Pi to a board or other object. The hard part for me was figuring out how to turn the monitor on and off through the command line.

Everything else is gravy, from configuring wifi and autoboot/auto-login on the device to attaching and setting up the motion detecting PIR sensor. You can also use the eLinux guide to Raspberry Pi and its handy RPi Hardware Basic Setup wiki.


Raspberry Pi

I chose to use a Raspberry Pi for its simple wifi integration so that photos could be automatically updated. I didn't want to have to load photos on to an SD card which could then be read by an Arduino.

Connecting the monitor was also trivial on a Raspberry Pi, where an Arduino, Maple, or Beagle Bone would require sourcing a connection between the monitor's composite input and an output from the device.

Raspberry Pi, $29 on Adafruit.

Make note of the fact that you actually don't see any of my connections on the top of the board (pictured below). In the below photo, where the Raspberry Pi is flipped vertically to show off the electrical connections, the monitor's composite cable and the motion detecting PIR sensor's red wires are soldered underneath.

This way the photo frame looks cleaner. If I had connected the monitor using the yellow composite cable, it would have to be with a male-to-male composite adapter, since both the Raspberry Pi and the monitor have a male RCA connection. This would jut out about 2 inches below the device, resulting in a messy look for the frame.

3.5" LCD Monitor

3.5" LCD Monitor, $45 on Adafruit

Note that if you do not plan to solder the composite cable's two wires, you will need the ugly male-to-male adapter, sold for $1.50 on Adafruit.

There are a number of different sized LCD monitors:

1.5" LCD, $40
2" LCD, $40
2.5" LCD, $45
4.3" LCD, $50
7" LCD, $75
10" LCD, $150

4GB SD Card with Raspbian (Raspberry Pi + Debian)

4GB SD Card, $10 on Adafruit

This tiny SD card comes pre-loaded with Raspbian. If you prefer to use your own SD card and want to bootload it, just follow eLinux's Easy SD Card Setup wiki.

Miniature Wifi on USB

USB Wifi, $11 on Adafruit

Unless you're planning to use an ugly ethernet cable, this tiny wifi USB device works perfectly. It's easy to setup as well. I followed Adafruit's tutorial for setting up wifi on a Raspberry Pi.

Passive Infrared Motion Sensor

PIR sensor, $10 on Adafruit

This is a simple and inexpensive component that is responsible for turning the monitor on and off. The accuracy is great, as it never misses a beat, yet I haven't found it to accidentally trigger in the night unless we walk by. It also has two adjustable dials on the back that allow you to control its sensitivity and delay before firing. Ladyada covers how it works.

Soldering Iron

Aoyue 937+, $60 on Amazon

In order to connect the PIR motion detector and the composite cables, without resorting to the ugly male-to-male adapter, you will need to use a soldering iron. I chose the Aoyue 937+ Digital Soldering Station. Works great and I'm quite happy with it. I should have bought more tips, though.


This is where you get creative. You effectively just need an enclosure, but I found that picture frames offer the greatest aesthetics-to-enclosure ratio. You just need something that can hold a Raspberry Pi and monitor taped to it. I used double-sided mounting tape as an adhesive, although the wires are being held up by the frame itself.


Raspberry Pi setup

You'll want to make sure you're setup with the following:

  • Auto-login, so your Raspberry Pi doesn't sit at a login prompt.
  • Auto-wifi, so you can download images automatically whenever your Raspberry Pi is turned on.
  • Disabled sleep, so your photo frame doesn't shut off when you don't want it to.

Downloading personal photos from Flickr

You'll need to register your Flickr API app, which is a quick process. That way you can get a Flickr API key that you can then use to walk the photos from your account. You will also need your Flickr user id.

There are two Python library dependencies for this code:

pip install flickrapi
pip install requests

Once those are installed, save this script as download_flickr.py

#!/usr/bin/env python

import flickrapi
import requests

FLICKR_KEY = "xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx"
USER_ID = "25704617@N04"

def make_url(photo):
    # url_template = "http://farm{farm-id}.staticflickr.com/
    #                 {server-id}/{id}_{secret}_[mstzb].jpg"
    photo['filename'] = "%(id)s_%(secret)s_z.jpg" % photo
    url = ("http://farm%(farm)s.staticflickr.com/%(server)s/%(filename)s" 
           % photo)
    return url, photo['filename']

def main():
    print " ---> Requesting photos..."
    flickr = flickrapi.FlickrAPI(FLICKR_KEY)
    photos = flickr.walk(user_id=USER_ID)
    for photo in photos:
        url, filename = make_url(photo.__dict__['attrib'])
        path = '/home/pi/photoframe/flickr/%s' % filename
            image_file = open(path)
            print " ---> Already have %s" % url
        except IOError:
            print " ---> Downloading %s" % url
            r = requests.get(url)      
            image_file = open(path, 'w')

if __name__ == '__main__':

Downloading extra photos from Flickr by tag name

Part of the fun of this photo frame is that not only do all of my photos get shown randomly, but I introduced a hodgepodge of random photos by downloading photos from a specific Flickr tag. In this case, I added koala photos, which makes for a pleasant randomness.

Save the following command as download_koalas.sh or whatever you like as a tag.

FLICKR_TAG=koala && \
wget 'http://api.flickr.com/services/feeds/photos_public.gne?tags=$FLICKR_TAG' -O- \
| grep -Po 'http://[^.]+\.staticflickr[^"]+(_b.jpg|_z.jpg)' \
| wget -P /home/pi/photoframe/$FLICKR_TAG -nc -i-

Automatic downloading of new photos

In order to have the photos refreshed, you'll need to have them download in the background. Add these two lines to your crontab with crontab -e if you're using both the Flickr photo downloader and the Flickr tag downloader.

0 * * * * python /home/pi/photoframe/download_flickr.py
30 * * * * /home/pi/photoframe/download_koalas.sh


Now that we have the photos downloaded and refreshed at a regular interval, we need to get the slideshow running. We'll use a simple app called the Linux framebuffer imageviewer. Stick this command into a slideshow.sh.

fbi -noverbose -m 640x480 -a -u -t 6 /home/pi/art/**/*

The option for time is set to 6 seconds, and it uses autozoom to automagically pick a reasonable zoom factor when loading images. The -u option randomizes the order.

Detecting movement

The slideshow is now running at fullscreen with a randomized assortment of Flickr photos, both your own and from favorite tags. But it's running even when you're not there! let's use the PIR (motion) sensor to turn off the monitor after no movement has been detected for 60 seconds.

Save this file as pir.py.

#!/usr/bin/env python

import sys
import time
import RPi.GPIO as io
import subprocess

SHUTOFF_DELAY = 60 # seconds
PIR_PIN = 25       # 22 on the board
LED_PIN = 16

def main():
    io.setup(PIR_PIN, io.IN)
    io.setup(LED_PIN, io.OUT)
    turned_off = False
    last_motion_time = time.time()

    while True:
        if io.input(PIR_PIN):
            last_motion_time = time.time()
            io.output(LED_PIN, io.LOW)
            print ".",
            if turned_off:
                turned_off = False
            if not turned_off and time.time() > (last_motion_time + 
                turned_off = True
            if not turned_off and time.time() > (last_motion_time + 1):
                io.output(LED_PIN, io.HIGH)

def turn_on():
    subprocess.call("sh /home/pi/photoframe/monitor_on.sh", shell=True)

def turn_off():
    subprocess.call("sh /home/pi/photoframe/monitor_off.sh", shell=True)

if __name__ == '__main__':
    except KeyboardInterrupt:

Turning the monitor on and off

There are two ways to turn the monitor on and off. Use the tvservice command to turn off the monitor port.

pi@raspberrypi ~/photoframe $ chmod 0744 monitor_off.sh 
pi@raspberrypi ~/photoframe $ cat monitor_off.sh 
tvservice -o

pi@raspberrypi ~/photoframe $ chmod 0744 monitor_on.sh 
pi@raspberrypi ~/photoframe $ cat monitor_on.sh 
tvservice -c "PAL 4:3" && fbset -depth 8 && fbset -depth 16

This method actually turns off the port, which works great except when you're connected to an HDMI monitor and it shuts off when the port is turned off. When you walk into the room, the port is turned back on but the monitor is off, so it doesn't come right back up. In this case, simply switch virtual terminals to blank out the screen using the chvt command.

pi@raspberrypi ~/photoframe $ chmod 0744 monitor_off.sh 
pi@raspberrypi ~/photoframe $ cat monitor_off.sh 
chvt 2

pi@raspberrypi ~/photoframe $ chmod 0744 monitor_on.sh 
pi@raspberrypi ~/photoframe $ cat monitor_on.sh 
chvt 7

Fixing the monitor edges

By default, the image won't stretch to the edges of your monitor without cajoling.

Here's the before photo:

And here's with margin correction on the monitor:

To fix this, take a look at using RPiconfig. All you need to do is edit /boot/config.txt directly on the Raspberry Pi. The values you need to set are:

overscan_left=-6    # number of pixels to skip on left
overscan_right=-6   # number of pixels to skip on right
overscan_top=24     # number of pixels to skip on top
overscan_bottom=24  # number of pixels to skip on bottom

These are my values, but every monitor is different. In order to figure out the values, I would set the values using a binary search (set high then low then halfway between the two and repeat with the new halfway point being the high/low on the correct side), and then rebooting. Eventually I found optimal values.

Note that the values will be different from the boot screen to the photo viewer. Obviously, I optimized for the photo viewer, but that means the top and bottom of the boot screen is cut off. Not much better you can expect from a tiny $50 LCD monitor.

Also, if you need to rotate or flip the display, it's easy.

display_rotate=0        Normal
display_rotate=1        90 degrees
display_rotate=2        180 degrees
display_rotate=3        270 degrees
display_rotate=0x10000  horizontal flip
display_rotate=0x20000  vertical flip

Automatic start of the photo frame software

You'll want the software to start automatically on boot, so create a new init.d file at /etc/init.d/flickrd, and add the motion sensor and slideshow scripts to that new file:

sudo python /home/pi/photoframe/pir.py

Then set the permissions with:

sudo chmod 755 /etc/init.d/flickrd

and finally register the script to be run at startup:

sudo update-rc.d flickrd defaults

Don't forget to run the pir.py script as root, since you'll need permissions to turn the monitor on and off.


Everything above should leave you with a photo slideshow that automatically updates your photos, displays them zoomed in and fullscreen in random order, shutting off the monitor when nobody is around.

If you used the code above with no issues, congratulations! You're in a minority that can work with hardware and get everything right on the first try. For everybody else, we have to troubleshoot. Here are the issues that I ran into.

Test your LED

Just getting the Raspberry Pi to respond to my commands was tricky enough, so I wrote this basic program to just blink the onboard LED. This is the Hello, World of the Raspberry Pi.

import RPi.GPIO as GPIO
import time

LED_PIN = 18
def blink(pin):
    print " ---> On"
    print " ---> Off"

# to use Raspberry Pi board pin numbers
# set up GPIO output channel
for _ in range(0,3):

SSH'ing into your Raspberry Pi

You shouldn't have to rely on an external keyboard and a tiny screen to debug your Raspberry Pi. I suggest using Pi Finder to locate the IP address, if it's on your local network.

You can also use arp -a to find it.

Getting additional help

Turn to Stack Exchange's new Raspberry Pi section. It's still in beta as of early 2014, but there's a whole lot of great questions.

Nov 13

Backbonification: migrating a large JavaScript project from DOM spaghetti to Backbone.js

We've all done it. Our code base has one huge monolithic file, packed full of JavaScript spaghetti. It's unwieldy, hard-to-debug, and has little to no separation of concerns. It is a nightmare to bring new engineers up to speed.

This blog post is about decomposing NewsBlur's single-file 8,500 line JavaScript application into its component parts: 8 models, 12 views, 3 routers, 3 collections. This post explores patterns, techniques, and common pitfalls in migrating from vanilla JavaScript to Backbone.js. It covers moving routers, models, and views, and the process used to migrate a living app.

NewsBlur is a free RSS feed reader and is open-source. The benefit of being open-source is that you can see all of the changes I made in this migration by looking through the commit history.

As a bit of background, I worked on Backbone.js in its infancy, when Jeremy Ashkenas and I worked on DocumentCloud's many open-source projects.

The Presentation

This post was written concurrently with a presentation. Depending on your style, you can either read on or flip through this deck. Both have the same content, but this post expands on every concept in the presentation.

There's no need to go through the presentation. Just read on for the whole kaboodle.

Pre-reqs: Libraries

There are only two libraries you need to be intimately familiar with in order to make the most of your Backbone transition: Underscore.js and Backbone.js. That means not only being comfortable with reading the source code of these two libraries, but also knowing all of the methods exposed so you can reach into your grab-bag of tricks and pull out the appropriate function.


Underscore.js is another DocumentCloud library that makes your code more readable and compact by providing useful functions that massage, filter, and jumble data.

One popular use of Underscore is creating short pipelines that take a large collection of models and filters it based on conditions. That much is easy. But there are other uses that are beneficial to know.

You should be comfortable with all enumerable methods. Think about all of your model collections as reduce-able, filterable, and selectable.

Here are two examples of Underscore.js at work:

// Get ids of all active feeds
_.pluck(this.feeds.select(function(feed) {
    return feed.get('active');
}), 'id');
// Returns: [42, 36, 72, ...]

// Count fetched/unfetched feeds
var counts = this.feeds.reduce(function(counts, feed) {
    if (feed.get('active')) {
        if (!feed.get('not_yet_fetched') || feed.get('has_exception')) {
            counts['fetched_feeds'] += 1;
        } else {
            counts['unfetched_feeds'] += 1;
    return counts;
}, {
    'unfetched_feeds': 0,
    'fetched_feeds': 0
// Returns: {'unfetched_feeds': 3, 'fetched_feeds': 42}


The star of the show is Backbone.js. The entire backbone.js file is fewer than 1,500 lines long, and that's with 228/1478 lines of whitespace (15%) and 389/1478 lines of comments (26%).

This is a basic example of the layout of the four main classes: models, views, collections, and routers. A fifth meta-class called Events is mixed in to each of these classes.

How to start

The first step is no easy task. Take your existing design and visually decompose it into its component views. Each view will be represented by either a single model or a combination of models. In fact, you can even have a view not be backed by a model at all.

Take the NewsBlur UI for example. It's a standard three-pane view, with feeds, stories, and story detail:

Notice that there are multiple views inside other views. Some views are meant to be simple wrappers around other, more functional views.

On the left there is a list of feeds inside a list of folders. These folders and feeds can be embedded inside each other, creating a recursive structure that can be easily assembled by Backbone.js. Each feed view also contains an unread count, a feed title, a favicon, and a feed menu. All of these views are generated by their respective parents. Your job at this stage is to simply figure out what those views are so you can create the appropriate models, views, and controllers (routers).

Here's another example, coming from the DocumentCloud workspace, the original Backbone.js site:

A bit simpler than NewsBlur, this is a classic dual-pane view, with an organizer on the left and a detail pane on the right. Notice that there is a view collection, the document list, that holds numerous document views. It's important to consider each view as granular as possible and then bring them together in collections that are simply views of model collections.

Moving routers

You have routers, even if you don't realize it yet. Not only that, but you probably have multiple routers. Routers are the smallest part of a Backbone.js project, but are vital because they serve as the entry point for execution.

Anytime a URL is involved, your router should be handling it. You can also have multiple routers in a project. Before version 0.5.0 routers used to be called controllers, if that shines a light on their purpose.

If an out-of-band AJAX call is necessary, and it doesn't correspond to a specific model, then the router is a great place to put it.

There's a lot written on conventions for writing your router. I suggest going directly to the source: the original router from the DocumentCloud workspace. This is the first router ever written and should give you as canonical an idea as possible for what your router should and can include.

// Main controller for the journalist workspace. Orchestrates subviews.
dc.controllers.Workspace = Backbone.Router.extend({

  routes : {...},

  // Initializes the workspace, binding it to body.
  initialize : function() {
        pushState : true, 
        root : dc.account ? '/' : '/public/'

  // Create all of the requisite subviews.
  createSubViews : function() {
    dc.app.paginator  = new dc.ui.Paginator();
    dc.app.navigation = new dc.ui.Navigation();
    dc.app.toolbar    = new dc.ui.Toolbar();
    dc.app.organizer  = new dc.ui.Organizer();
    dc.app.searchBox  = VS.init(this.searchOptions());
    this.sidebar      = new dc.ui.Sidebar();
    this.documentList = new dc.ui.DocumentList();

    if (!dc.account) return;

    dc.app.uploader   = new dc.ui.UploadDialog();
    dc.app.accounts   = new dc.ui.AccountDialog();

  // Render all of the existing subviews and place them in the DOM.
  renderSubViews : function() {
    var content   = $('#content');
    this.panel.add('search_box', dc.app.searchBox.render().el);
    this.panel.add('pagination', dc.app.paginator.el);
    this.panel.add('document_list', this.documentList.render().el);

    if (!dc.account) return;

    this.sidebar.add('account_badge', this.accountBadge.render().el);


The router is used for laying out all of the workspace-level subviews. Each of these subviews is then responsible for laying out specific instances of documents, collections, toolbar items, search facets, etc.

Moving models

Before you can even start playing with Backbone models, you'll need to get your data in a format that Backbone can vivify. Your server should be sending arrays of dictionaries, each array consisting of a single parent model. This may cause versioning on your server end due to having to change the format of your API's response.

Versioning: Objects as dicts vs. arrays

Perhaps you were giving data in a format that made it easy for you to key into the dictionary to retrieve a model, like so:

    64: {
        'id': 64,
        'title': "The NewsBlur Blog"
    128: { ... }

However, in order to vivify these models, Backbone expects an array of dictionaries. We can modify the backend to provide models in this format, by adding a v=2 query paramter:

        'id': 64,
        'title': "The NewsBlur Blog"
    { ... }

Backbone reads through and finds all id attributes and hashes them into the _byId object on the model. You can do this client-side instead of versioning your API, but that would require you to write a custom parse method.

You can then override your collections fetch method to add in the version information. This transparently handles appending a version parameter to your requests.

fetch: function(options) {
    var data = {
        'v': 2

    options = _.extend({
        data: data,
        silent: true
    }, options);
    return Backbone.Collection.prototype.fetch.call(this, options);

Notice, by the way, the last line is how you call super() in JavaScript. This is a clear demonstration of over-riding methods in Backbone and then calling super at the appropriate time.


If your models were simple JavaScript object literals (dictionaries), then you were using one of these styles to work with attributes:

// JavaScript:


var attr = 'title';

However, Backbone uses a get method to retrieve an attribute from a model:

// Backbone.js:

The trick here is that during a large-scale refactor, you want to change as few things as possible. In this case, you can pass a Backbone model's model.attributes to old Javascript methods. Then when done, clean up by looking for .attributes.

var iconSrc = $.favicon(socialFeed.attributes);
this.$('.NB-header-icon').attr('src', iconSrc);

This way you do not have to immediately rewrite all of your model attribute getters until you have tested the modified parts of your code.

Populating a collection that has side-effects

Looking at feeds and folders above, in order to populate the list of folders you need the feed models. But when populating the feed models, their view is bound to the reset event, which will try to render the feeds, but there are no folders yet!

Pass {silent: true} to the initial reset for feeds, then manually trigger the reset event after the dependencies are met.

Listening for events on a collection's models

Any event that is triggered on a model in a collection will also be triggered on the collection directly, for convenience. This allows you to listen for changes to specific attributes in any model in a collection.

// Bind to all models
Documents.bind('reset',  this.reset);
Documents.bind('add',    this._addDocument);
Documents.bind('remove', this._removeDocument);

// Bind to specific attributes on the collection's models
Documents.bind('change:pages', this._renderPageCount);

The Documents collection contains all of the documents on the page, but you could also create specialized collections with a subset of those models that respond to change events without having to filter the change event on the bigger collection to only apply to those specific models.

Seeing changed attributes

In this case, a model is updated from elsewhere, so it needs to be refreshed on the page. Use model.hasChanged() and model.previousAttributes() to see what's changed.

However, before you may have iterated over all new values and compared to existing values. Backbone has this built in.

// The collection is selective about changing attributes
this.bind('change', this._onModelChanged);
_onModelChanged : function(doc) {
    if (doc.hasChanged('access') && doc.isPending())
// The view is also selective about changing attributes.
// Re-renders the tile if an server-backed attribute changes.
_onDocumentChange : function() {
    if (this.model.hasChanged('selected')) return;

You can short-circuit the change event if you are looking for a specific attribute. But sometimes you want the change event fired only once yet you're looking to do different things based on which attribute has been changed. So instead of relying on each attribute's individual change event, you can wait for the bundled change event.

Naturally, you may be wondering what gets fired first? Each individual change event or the bundled change event? Well, to figure that out we just turn to the Backbone.js source code:

// Call this method to manually fire a `"change"` event for this model and
// a `"change:attribute"` event for each changed attribute.
// Calling this will cause all objects observing the model to update.
change: function(options) {
  for (var i=0, l=triggers.length; i < l; i++) {
    this.trigger('change:' + triggers[i], this, 
                 current[triggers[i]], options);
  this.trigger('change', this, options);

Notice that the individual change attributes are guaranteed to fire before the bundled change event. This goes to show that the source code for Backbone.js is not as thorny and cumbersome to read as other libraries may have led you to believe about all libraries. Backbone.js's source code is easy to follow and is written as close to plain english as possible

Intermediary models

Sometimes an active item needs a bit more meta-data than the non-active counterpart. Take the feed list, for instance. When a feed becomes selected, it needs to be referred to by many other components, each of which needs to know about the active feed. Storing a reference to this model, say ActiveFeed, then allows you to add view-specific meta-data that would be helpful in other views.

NEWSBLUR.Models.Feed.prototype.setSelected = function() {
    NEWSBLUR.app.activeFeed = this;

NEWSBLUR.Views.FeedList.prototype.findSelected = function() {
    return _.pluck(NEWSBLUR.app.activeFeed.views, '$el');

If you are operating in a loop, then you'll definitely want to cache a reference to a model like this.

Moving views

This part of the process is a bit more involved than moving models or simply constructing routers. This is where most of the cleanup is involved.

Writing Templates

The first thing that needs to be changed is how DOM fragments are constructed. In NewsBlur's case, we're moving from JavaScript element creation to interpolated templates.

Old style: Manual DOM element creation

This style is simply a wrapper around a variety of document.createElement calls, where $.make will take attributes and add them correctly to the newly created element, as well as appending each of the children in a easy-to-read function.

openSocialCommentReplyForm: function($comment) {
    var profile = this.model.userProfile;
    var $form = $.make('div', { className: '...' }, [
        $.make('img',   { className: '...',   src: profile.get('url') }),
        $.make('div',   { className: '...' }, profile.get('username')),
        $.make('input', { className: '...',   type: 'text' }),
        $.make('div',   { className: '...' }, 'Post')
    $('.story-comment-reply-form', $comment).remove();

    $('.comments', $form).bind('keydown', 'enter, return', 
        _.bind(this.saveSocialCommentReply, this, $comment));
    $('.comments', $form).bind('keydown', 'esc', function() {
        $('.NB-story-comment-reply-form', $comment).remove();
    $('input', $form).focus();


While it's easy to read and write, it is not fast. This method is an order of magnitude slower than the better methods described below, each of which use string interpolation to inject data into the template.

Template option #1: inline strings

This is the option that I eventually chose, if only because it was the simplest, could be easily cached by the browser, and was inline with the view code.

render: function() {
    var $feed = $(_.template('\
    <<%= listType %> class="feed">\
      <img class="feed-favicon" src="<%= $.favicon(feed) %>">\
      <span class="feed-title">\
        <%= feed.get("feed_title") %>\
      <div class="feed-exception-icon"></div>\
      <div class="feed-manage-icon"></div>\
    </<%= listType %>>\
    ', {
        feed      : this.model,
        listType  : this.options.type == 'feed' ? 'li' : 'div',


    return this;

Notice that this.setElement is used on the new $feed. The reason for this is because of listType changing the top-level element depending on the location of the feed. In some cases it's part of a list, and in other cases it's a stand-alone feed title. In order to make it semantically correct, different top-level tags are needed, so you can't just use this.$el.html(), otherwise there will still be a top-most div wrapping your view (which can be customized by setting this.tagName).

Also, note that a better way to create these multi-line strings is to use the heredoc (multiline) strings in CoffeeScript. However, the template string still goes inline, which means you do not have to do any asset pre-compiling, which can be more or less difficult depending on your framework.

Template option #2: inline templates

These templates are just <script> tags that go in your HTML templates. The downside to this method is that your JavaScript templates are not cached by the browser and have to be downloaded as part of every page load.

<script type="text/html" id="feed-template">
    <<%= listType %> class="feed">
      <img class="feed-favicon" src="<%= $.favicon(feed) %>" />
      <span class="feed-title">
        <%= feed.get("feed_title") %>
      <div class="feed-exception-icon"></div>
      <div class="feed-manage-icon"></div>
    </<%= listType %>>


render: function() {
    this.template = this.template || $('#feed-template').html();
    var $feed = _.template(this.template, {
        feed      : this.model,
        listType  : this.options.type == 'feed' ? 'li' : 'div',
    return this;

Not recommended, but easy enough to do without a pre-compiler or asset pipeline.

Template option #3: JSTs

This is the recommended method, but it requires you to have a pre-compiler that works in both development and production, referring to your templates individual in development and as a concatenated file in production. Not a big deal to implement, but many asset packagers do not handle JavaScript templates and allow you to wrap them in the appropriate interpolater, such as Underscore.js' _.template.

window.JSTs['feed'] = _.template('<script type="text/html" id="feed-template">'+
                                 '<<%= listType %> class="feed"><img class="feed-favicon" '+
                                 'src="<%= $.favicon(feed) %>" /><span class="feed-title">'+
                                 '<%= feed.get("feed_title") %></span>'+
                                 '<div class="feed-exception-icon"></div>'+
                                 '<div class="feed-manage-icon"></div>'+
                                 '</<%= listType %>></script>');
render: function() {
    var $feed = JSTs['feed']({
        feed      : this.model,
        listType  : this.options.type == 'feed' ? 'li' : 'div',
    return this;

If you are on Ruby on Rails, you can use Jammit, another DocumentCloud project, to automatically handle JavaScript templates. Alternatively, node-jst and sprockets are worth a look.

Event delegation

The most common view change you'll make is moving from event binding to event delegation.

// From:
$(".feed", $feedList).bind('click', function(e) { ... });

// To:
NEWSBLUR.Views.FeedView = Backbone.View.extend({
    events: {
        "click" : "open"

One of the biggest benefits you'll receive by moving to Backbone.js is going from event binding to event delegation. If you're not already familiar with what this is, it is simply attaching all events to the top-level view element and then bubbling any events that happen to a child element up to the parent, where it is caught and delegated to the appropriate method.

This also means that you won't have events bound all over the DOM. And when you destroy views, you know where all of the events are bound and will not have as much work to do in order to prevent memory leaks from events bound to missing elements.

Delegating the same object from multiple views

Sometimes an object on your page can be better represented by different views attached to the same element.

NEWSBLUR.Views.FeedView = Backbone.View.extend({
    initialize: function() {
        this.menu = new NEWSBLUR.Views.FeedMenuView({el: this.el});

NEWSBLUR.Views.FeedMenuView = Backbone.View.extend({
    events: {
        "click" : "open"

In this case it's important to remember that both of these views will be listening for bubbling events. That means that it is possible to create a race condition if you do not know the order these views are instantiated. You will want to be careful in that the separated views do not step on each other's toes.

In this instance the feed title view and the feed menu view are attached at the same place but serve completely different purposes. The feed title view is the "parent" of the menu view, even though they exist at the same level in the DOM hierarchy.

Which element to use

If your top-level element is complicated and you are creating it as part of your render, then you can use setElement instead of $(this.el).html().

var $feed = _.template('<li class="feed"> ... </li>', {

// Would include a surrounding <div>
// $(this.el).html($feed)

But you can't just perform a setElement, because you need to replace the $el if it is on the page:


This is meant for switching between element types. For example, a view that will sometimes go into a list as a list item, but then also be displayed solo, then you will want to control the tagName or just include it as part of your template and use setElement.

View collections

Models should not know about views. So in order to keep track of views, a parent view should encapsulate them and store references.

findFeedInFeedList: function(feedId) {
    var $feeds = $('.feed', $feedList).map(function() {
        var dataId = $(this).data('id');
        if (dataId == feedId) {
            return this;

    return $feeds;

[turns into a view collection on FeedListView]

Recursive subviews

This is a typical case where you want to have a recursive subview that can contain more of itself. In this case, we have feeds and folders, and both can be children of folders. To accomplish this hierarchy, we just have to descend down the chain, rendering each subview and keeping track of each child view.

NEWSBLUR.Views.Folder = Backbone.View.extend({
    render: function() {
        var depth = this.options.depth;
        var $feeds = this.collection.map(function(item) {
            if (item.isFeed()) {
                var feed = new NEWSBLUR.Views.Feed({
                    model: item.feed, 
                    depth: depth
                return feed.el;
            } else {
                var folder = new NEWSBLUR.Views.Folder({
                    model: item,
                    collection: item.folders,
                    depth: depth + 1
                return folder.el;

        var $folder = this.renderFolder();
        return this;

Traversing a view

When moving from story to story or feed to feed, you want to move in the order of what's on screen. The order is handled by the collection, but keeping track of the active model is something you have to do manually.

// Go to the next feed. Old style:

// New style:
Feeds.activeFeed = Feeds.next();
Feeds.activeFeed.set('selected', true);

The Feeds.next() method can be a complicated method that walks your recursive hierarchy. But that's hidden away and you can just call that method idempotently.

Action hierarchy

Views handle their own actions, but what about cross-view actions? One view modifies another view. Propagate that up to the Router or parent view that is drawing the views. Have the parent talk to the necessary models, changing appropriate data.

Once the data is changed, the correct views will update, based on their triggers and bindings.

For instance, if you are deleting a feed, the context menu view, which knows which $feed is being deleted, sends that info to the model, which then scans its own views and triggers the removal on the correct one. Finally, an AJAX request is made (this is optimistic) in the Router.

NEWSBLUR.Views.FeedMenu = Backbone.View.extend({
    deleteFeed: function() {

NEWSBLUR.Models.Feed = Backbone.Model.extend({
    removeFeedFromFolder: function(folder) {
        this.feedViews.chain().select(function(feedView) {
            return feedView.folder == folder;
        }).each(function(feedView) {

No need for a model to back a view

Some views just don't have models. They control a visual element on the page but have no corresponding server model. The closest object they have to a model is the page itself or the user.

This means you need to keep a reference to the view. You can't just rely on the model to update the view. Other times you do have a model. If the model for the view would change depending on the model, you can just render a new view with the correct model and replace it on the page.

Common pitfalls

TypeError: 'undefined' is not an object (evaluating 'func.bind')

This error comes from trying to bind to a method that doesn't exist. But you don't get the name or line of the error, so the only way to debug it is to set a breakpoint and work your way up the stack.

_.bindAll(this, 'render', 'open', 'methodRemovedAndWillThrowTypeError');

Firing a change event while still setting up models and views

Add {silent: true} to a model.set() call if you're not ready to handle the change events.

Selectively re-render/toggle Classes based on specific change events.

Sometimes an attribute change merely results in a changed class on the element, not a full render. One technique you can use is to bind to the bundled change event and then selectively look for attributes that only result in a class change.

onChange: function() {
    var onlyClasses = _.all(_.keys(this.model.changed), function(change) {
        return _.contains(['selected', 'has_exception'], change);

    if (onlyClasses) {


Here, we're checking that every changed attribute is one that results in a class change. Otherwise, do the full render.

Cleanup of ghost views

When removing a view, you need to both remove it from the DOM and then unbind it. The model still has bindings to the destroyed view.

// Parent view:

// View:
initialize: function() {
    this.model.bind('change', this.render);

destroy: function() {
    this.model.unbind('change', this.render);

This has changed in the latest version of Backbone.js, but it's not yet released (the coming version 1.0), so you have to manually destroy both the views and view's event bindings.

The disappearing view

Before Backbone, views would not automatically update from beneath you. Now that views are tied to models, check to see if you are modifying a view post-render, just as inserting a special sub-view that the parent view doesn't know about. Because when the view re-renders, it won't know to re-insert the subview.


A couple resources that I like are:

As always, make sure to read the source of Backbone.js to see if you can just figure out what's happening under the hood.

I'm @samuelclay on GitHub, where you can follow me to watch the development of the NewsBlur front-end, back-end, iOS and Android apps. And I'm @samuelclay on Twitter where you can ask me further questions about Backbone.js.

Jan 09

Old-style Mac OS X Leopard Exposé in Snow Leopard

Progress is progress, except when it gets in the way of your workflow. Let's compare these two screenshots:

Old-style Leopard Exposé

New-style Snow Leopard Exposé

Notice how much more pleasant the old-style Exposé is? Introduced in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, and virtually unchanged until OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, it featured proportional windows. By just looking at the size of the window relative to the other windows, you can get a fair idea of what the application is.

The proportional windows went out the window with the new Exposé. Now it features an inexplicable grid, with windows resized to all different dimensions relative to their original size.

Old-style Exposé in Snow Leopard

The great news is that you can get the old-school Exposé back. The beta builds of Snow Leopard included a new Dock.app that used the old-style exposé. By installing the old Dock.app, you get the new Dock features of Snow Leopard, while preserving the legendary Exposé.


  1. Download the Snow Leopard beta-build of Dock.app
  2. Save to your Desktop and unzip.

Run the following commands in Terminal.app:

sudo chown -R root ~/Desktop/Dock.app;
sudo chgrp -R wheel ~/Desktop/Dock.app;
sudo killall Dock && \
sudo mv /System/Library/CoreServices/Dock.app ~/Desktop/OldDock.app && \
sudo mv ~/Desktop/Dock.app /System/Library/CoreServices/

Easy to do and indispensible now that you have it back. Hat-tip to miknos at MacRumors for the original find.

Note that you will have to repeat this process every time you upgrade your Mac OS to a new patch release (10.6.6 -> 10.6.7).

@samuelclay is on Twitter.

Use Google Reader? I built NewsBlur, a new feed reader with intelligence.

Samuel Clay is the founder of NewsBlur, a trainable and social news reader for web, iOS, and Android. He is also the founder of Turn Touch, a startup building hardware automation devices for the home. He lives in San Francisco, CA, but misses Brooklyn terribly. In another life in New York, he worked at the New York Times on DocumentCloud, an open-source repository of primary source documents contributed by journalists.

Apart from NewsBlur, his latest projects are Hacker Smacker, a friend/foe system for Hacker News, and New York Field Guide, a photo-blog documenting New York City's 90 historic districts. You can read about his past and present projects at samuelclay.com.

Follow @samuelclay on Twitter.

You can email Samuel at samuel@ofbrooklyn.com. He loves receiving email from new people. Who doesn't?