HOW many tabs?

My Problem

Everyone I work with at some point mentions my browser tab mismanagement. As of right now, I have 135 tabs open, but that’s definitely at the lower bounds of where I am typically at.

Screenshot of Firefox close tabs dialog.

For years I suffered under of Chrome’s tab Toblerone of death (“Tablerone”?), which constantly reminded me of my dysfunction with only an icon to identify which tab was which.

Recently, I started using Firefox again and it enabled my problem by presenting my open tabs in a carousel UI. So it wasn’t until my Mac told me I had no memory left that I realised how bad it had got.

The carousel obfuscates the exact number of tabs I have open – leaving the quickest (and only obvious) way to find out in Firefox through hitting CMD+Q – which triggers the above dialogue.

It may sound like this is kind of a weird brag, but it’s not. This problem isn’t one I’m delighted with having. My open tabs present a combination of lackadaisicalness (in that sometimes I just plain forget to quit out of them) and flawed aspiration (“I’ll get to reading that imminently”). By the time I get to declaring tab-bankruptcy and bookmarking them (using a combination of the OneTab extension and Pinboard ), they’ve amassed to a point where I sometimes no longer know why they’re there.

The Tool

Yes, I obviously have a problem. And once I’d admitted it, I started looking into ways to manage it. My chosen approach would be to better surface the above number, so at least it would become more quickly apparent that I’d gone too far.

I don’t want to move away from Firefox, and I don’t want to have to threaten to quit anytime that I want an update on my tab count. Nothing obvious was coming up in my searches until a little later I was pursuing another itch (hyper customisable window management, if that matters) where I stumbled upon some articles about a tool called Mjolnir, which had been forked to a more batteries-included tool called Hammerspoon.

The Hammerspoon splash page does a better job of describing it, but the tl;dr is it adds a scripting layer to MacOS using Lua. This seemed powerful enough for me to craft something that might suit my needs here.

Crafting A Solution

So with my hammer in hand, I needed to craft a way to address my “issue”. I’m a big fan of “Quantified Self“, and Continuous Improvement – both philosophies that involve surfacing and using data about yourself to improve a situation. So I figured – if that number is always in my face, shouldn’t I naturally try to optimise it now and again?

With that question in mind, I started looking at the Hammerspoon API, and initially, I figured this would be easy. Hammerspoon surfaces a method on a Window called tabCount, so this should be incredibly easy to integrate. Unfortunately not – the data it returns in Firefox isn’t representative of how many tabs you have open. At a guess, I expect Firefox isn’t using a native macOS tab implementation, and so this was an immediate dead end.

Then I started looking at methods in Firefox for surfacing this number. I’m sure I could automate a brute force counter somehow, but I don’t know how I might implement that in the background without interrupting the user. Firefox tracks “telemetry” for reporting browser usage. I found that stuff dead interesting, I’d encourage you to give it a read (all of the data is viewable in your instance at about:telemetry).

However, the only relevant number I’ve found is `browser.engagement.max_concurrent_tab_count`, and that only reflects the maximum number of tabs you’ve opened in that session. Which isn’t great when you’re trying to get that number down. Also, it doesn’t seem simple to query that data – you can get all sorts from FF’s SQLite databases, but I never landed on this value.

After lots of faffing, I finally discovered the session restore file found in your Firefox Profile directory at `sessionstore-backups/recovery.jsonlz4`. It’s the file that Firefox uses to restore your session when it runs out of memory because you’re an idiot who had too many tabs open. The file is massive – particularly if you have large amounts of tabs open – and in a slightly arcane format – lz4 – which on reading, you’ll see is a suitable compression format for the problem at hand. I expected that if we can parse that file quickly, it should be suitable for the job we have here – reporting regularly on the current number of tabs open.

Implementing a Firefox Tab Counter in Hammerspoon

First of all, I needed a fast way of reading that file. After some digging and pissing on with weird different libraries, I managed to get a fork of lz4json compiling locally – not only did it work, but it was fast:Screenshot showing that running the lz4jsoncat utility on my session backup took 0.011 secondsThen I needed to parse it. Instinct got me going down the “I’ll write some javascript for this” path, but I quickly realised that for fast feedback, I needed something close to the metal, simple, and again fast. So I dived into what describes itself as “sed for JSON data”, jq, and realised that this type of problem was its bread and butter.

Piping the above catted file into this strange incantation:

| jq 'reduce (.windows[] .tabs | length) as $length (0; . + $length)'

gives you a value that matches up exactly with the dialog box we get when hitting CMD+Q. Woop!

To try and explain the above, `.windows[] .tabs` gives you an array of tabs in each window. `| length` gives you the result of the length method applied to that array. And reduce applies a reduce operation to each of those windows, in our case adding them to get a total amount of tabs open.

Combine all of that into a little shell script, and by applying our ultra scientific `time` method of measuring the speed of it all, we still get sub-tenth of a second times:

timing the shell script gives a result of 0.089 seconds

That strikes me as a fast and feasible way of retrieving a tab count. So next step – surfacing it somewhere obvious. Working through the Hammerspoon getting started guide, you quickly come to a tutorial around simulating Caffeine in the menubar. This was incredibly straightforward and seemed like a nice obvious first step for getting stuff somewhere. So that’s what I did – we run the get open tabs script, and put the result of that in the menubar, using Hammerspoon’s PathWatcher utility to update that number whenever our session restore file changes.

I added a couple of enhancements, but nothing hugely complex – a limit constant that turns our number red when our open tabs are greater than it (at time of writing, I’ve exceeded it by 70 😬). And I had a play with creating an icon, which was incredibly straight forward. It’s based on this “format” (if you can call it that), which is self-documenting enough that I figured it out from looking at a couple of other instances of icons.

The script itself currently lives in my dotfiles, and I’d be happy to help anyone else trying to do something similar if they get stuck trying to replicate any of this. When it all comes together, my menubar looks a little bit like this:

A screenshot of my tab menu in action. Displaying a red

Which is everything I had hoped for. Has it fixed my problem? Goodness me, no. But it has been a fun learning exercise, and it makes me think twice before randomly middle-clicking links.

Personal Technical

Quantified Fatigue

I have had a post in draft since the beginning of the year, all about analysing my running streak as it stands. It picks out the miles I’ve done on it, average mile per run, distributions of milages, that sort of thing. Loads of self indulgent wank, that I felt at the time was “interesting”. Reading back on it now, it’s anything but.

In the middle of composing it (according to WordPress, I last touched it 11th February), I stopped measuring pretty much everything. I just got sick. Sick of weighing myself. Timing myself. Caring how far I had ran.

Measuring shit definitely works – I have no doubt of that. Anytime I’ve measured something, I have consistently optimised towards that metric – be it weight, speed, bacon eaten. In the case of weight, the opposite also holds true – I put on about 2kg in the month following my “sick of this shit” tantrum.

I was still exercising plenty – running at least 30 miles per week in that time, in addition to a couple of BJJ sessions. I just happen to have a better appetite.

All of this has made me think – is the value in the “quantified self” movement that people are explicitly going out of their way to measure and observe things that they would like to optimise? If we were able to get these metrics at any point without installing apps, or buying devices, or just plain writing them in spreadsheets, would this value disappear? Beyond being able to say “oh, I’m fat because I do little exercise and eat too many calories” (unlike all of those other fat people), why is a graph such a motivator?

I understand that the whole thing is more faceted than “MAKE THE GRAPH GO BIGGER” – there is accountability (to both the tech and other people), QS allows you to find patterns and correlations in the data that you might not have otherwise noticed, as well as a billion other reasons for its existence. It can’t be a coincidence that the latest Apple and Samsung products have a “health & fitness” spin on them.

I should note here that I’ve not touched this post since March. The above feelings remain true, but I am a flip-flopper. Picking it back up again in mid-June:

Since I started writing this post, I am once again measuring stuff. I want to lose weight (again) because the metaphorical yoyo has retouched the hand. I’m measuring my calorie intake on MyFitnessPal, and that hooks up passively with Endomondo to measure what I’m burning.

But my reservations about QS and “Quantified Fatigue” stand – measuring everything explicitly is too difficult, and I’m concerned about how useful implicit & ubiquitous measurement would be after the fact. There’s no real conclusion here – implicit & ubiquitous doesn’t exist, it remains to see how iOS8 & the S5 will perform in this area, and I’m likely to lose a bunch of weight, get bored and put it all back on again. I just figured it was about time I did some writing here, terrible or otherwise.