benad is currently certified at Apprentice level.

Name: Benoit Nadeau
Member since: 2002-04-03 17:23:09
Last Login: 2014-04-22 17:48:00

FOAF RDF Share This

Homepage: http://benad.me/

Notes:

I am Benoit Nadeau, jr. eng. in Software Engineering,
living and working in Montreal, Canada.

Projects

Recent blog entries by benad

Syndication: RSS 2.0

The Case for Complexity

Like clockwork, there is a point in a programmer's career where one realizes that most programming tools suck, that not only they hinder the programmer's productivity, but worse may have an impact on the quality of the product for end users. And so, there are cries of the absurdity of it all, some posit that complex software development tools must exist because some programmers like complexity above productivity, while others long for the days where programming was easier.

I find these reactions amusing. Kind of a middle-life crisis for programmers. Trying to rationalize their careers, most just end up admitting defeat for a professional life of mediocrity, by using dumber tools and hoping to avoid the main reason why programming can be challenging. I went into that "programmer's existential crisis" in my third year as a programmer, just before deciding on making it a career, but I went out of it with what seems to be a conclusion seldom shared by my fellow programmers. To some extent this is why I don't really consider myself a programmer but rather a software designer.

The fundamental issue isn't the fact that software is (seemingly) unnecessarily complex, but rather trying to understand the source of that complexity. Too many programmers assume that programming is based on applied mathematics. Well, it ought to be, but programming as practiced in the industry is quite far from its computer science roots. That deviation isn't due only from programming mistakes, but due to the more irrational external constraints and requirements. Even existing bugs become part of the external constraints if they are in things you cannot fix but must "work around".

Those absurdities can come from two directions: Top-down, based on human need and mental models, or Bottom-up, based on faulty mathematical or software design models. Productive and efficient software development tools, by themselves, bring complexity above the programming language. Absurd business requirements, including cost-saving measures and dealing with buggy legacy systems not only bring complexity, but the workarounds they require bring even more absurd code.

Now, you may argue that abstractions make things simpler, and to some extent, they are. But abstractions only tend to mask complexity, and when things break or don't work as expected, that complexity re-surfaces. From the point of view of a typical user, if it's broken, you ask somebody else to fix it or replace it. But being a programmer is being that "somebody else" that takes responsibility into understanding, to some extent, that complexity.

You could argue that software should always be more usable first. And yet, usable software can be far more difficult to implement than software that is more "native" to its computing environment. All those manual pages, the flexible command-line parameters, those adaptive GUIs, pseudo-AIs, Clippy, and so on, bring enormous challenges to the implementation of any software because humans don't think like machines, and vice-versa. As long as users are involved, software cannot be fully "intuitive" for both users and computers at the same time. Computers are not "computing machines", but more sophisticated state machines made to run useful software for users. Gone are the days where room-sized computers just do "math stuff" for banks, where user interaction was limited to numbers and programmers. The moment there were personal computers, people didn't write "math-based software", but rather text-based games with code of dubious quality.

Complexity of software will always increase, because it can. Higher-level programming languages become more and more removed from the hardware execution model. Users keep asking for more features that don't necessarily "fit well", so either you add more buttons to that toolbar, or you create a brand new piece of software with its own interfaces. Even if by some reason computers stopped getting so much faster over time, it wouldn't stop users from asking for "more", and programmers from asking for "productivity".

My realization was that there has to be a balance between always increasing complexity and our ability to understand it. Sure, fifty years ago it would be reasonable to have a single person spend a few years to fully understand a complete computer system, but nowadays we just have to become specialized. Still, specialization is possible because we can understand a higher-level conceptual design of the other components rather than just an inconsistent mash up of absurdity. Design is the solution. Yes, things in software will always get bigger, but we can make it more reasonable to attempt to understand it all if, from afar, it was designed soundly rather than just accidentally "became". With design, complexity becomes a bit smaller and manageable, and even though only the programmers will have to deal with most of that complexity, good design produce qualities that become visible up to the end users. Good design makes tighter "vertical integration" easier since making sense of the whole system is easier.

Ultimately, making a better software product for the end users requires the programmer to take responsibility for the complexity of not only the software's code, but also of its environment. That means using sound design for any new code introduced, and accepting the potential absurdity of the rest. If you can't do that, then you'll never be more than a "code monkey".

Notes

  1. Many programmers tend to assume that their code is logically sound, and that their errors are mostly due to menial mistakes. In my experience, it's the other way around: The buggiest code is produced when code isn't logically sound, and this is what happens most of the time, especially in scripting languages that have weak or implicit typing.
  2. I use the term "complexity" more as the number of module connections than the average of module coupling. I find "complexity as a sum" more intuitive from the point of view of somebody that has to be aware of the complete system: Adding an abstraction layer still adds a new integration point between the old and new code, adding more things that could break. This is why I normally consider programming tools added complexity, even though their code completion and generation can make the programmers more productive.

Syndicated 2014-07-31 02:14:53 from Benad's Blog

Running Final Fantasy VII (Steam) on Mac

The recent re-release of Final Fantasy VII on PC and Steam at last made the game easily accessible on modern computers. No need for MIDI drivers or the Truemotion codec, since they were replaced with Ogg-vorbis music and On2 VP8 video files. As an added bonus, the game can sync the save files "to the cloud", and has a way of "boosting" the character stats in those save files to make the game easier if necessary.

But then, the game is made only for Windows, and I only have a Mac. Sure, I can use Bootcamp or a virtual machine, but I'd rather play it on the Mac itself than install and maintain a Windows machine. And not everybody has spare Windows licenses anyway.

So I attempted to use Wine, the "not a Windows emulator". I don't know why each time I use Wine, I'm still pleasantly surprised at how well it works. Sure, the very early versions of Wine were quite unstable, but that was a decade ago. Nowadays, at least 90% of Windows software can run quite well in Wine, without too much effort or hacking, and it just keeps getting better each time I try it.

Now, the latest version of Wine can run Steam quite well. Inside of that Steam, installing and running Final Fantasy VII worked flawlessly.

Setting up Wine and Steam on Macs is quite easy:

  1. Install Xcode. Go in Xcode, Preferences, Downloads and install the command-line tools.
  2. Install MacPorts.
  3. In the Terminal, run sudo port install wine-devel winetricks.
  4. Run winecfg, and close the window.
  5. Run winetricks steam.
  6. Run env WINEPREFIX="$HOME/.local/share/wineprefixes/steam" wine C:\\windows\\command\\start.exe /Unix ~/.local/share/wineprefixes/steam/dosdevices/c:/users/Public/Start\ Menu/Programs/Steam/Steam.lnk

And that's it. When installing the game I checked the option to install a shortcut in the Start menu, and I've made a small tool called run_desktop.pl to launch the game directly from the Mac. For example, I would start it with perl run_desktop.pl ~/.local/share/applications/wine/Programs/Steam/FINAL\ FANTASY\ VII.desktop.

Syndicated 2014-07-12 17:50:24 from Benad's Blog

Resuming Final Fantasy with VII

I've never played Final Fantasy VII. Why? Simply put, I've never owned a PlayStation. Considering that countless players say it is the best Final Fantasy game, if not the dubious claim that it's the best video game ever made, I have to try it. Since both FF VII and FF VIII were released on Steam (though Windows-only), they are now finally easily (and legally) accessible to me without having to own a PlayStation console.

I'm skipping too much context. FF VII was a highly influential game. Not only was it the first 3D Final Fantasy, but also one of the first (Japanese) RPG played by a new generation of video game players. It was one of the highest sold video game and was hugely popular outside of Japan. So how come I avoided it for all those years?

Back then, I played pretty much all Final Fantasy games available in North America up to Final Fantasy VI, and since then I played the previously unreleased ones (FF II, III and V). I even played many of the side-franchises of Final Fantasy (Legend, Mystic Quest, and so on), and pretty much all RPGs made by Square available on Nintendo consoles.

But then, in a shrewd move, Square became Sony-exclusive. In exchange, Sony would create a huge marketing campaign to promote FF VII across all of its product lines (movies, music, publications, electronics, DVDs...). At the same time, it heralded a generation of early 3D games that were mixed with pre-rendered backdrops (akin to classical animation) and FMV cut scenes, making video games more accessible, movie-like and appealing to non-gamers. Basically, it became the forbearer of everything I hated about high-budgeted video games that were more movies "for the masses" than games.

Over the years, I couldn't escape its influence, even in other media. I had the misfortune of seeing the overly pretentious Final Fantasy movies (Spirits Within and that FF VII sequel/thing), and the effect it had on Square porting their Nintendo-based RPGs to the PlayStation by replacing important cut scenes with ill-conceived FMVs. Not playing anything else from the Final Fantasy series was my own kind of "rebellion".

What made it infuriating to me was that so many people considered FF VII the "best video game ever", but without having played any previous game in the series, summarily dismissed because they don't contain FMVs or because they aren't in 3D. Those that would defend FF VI as being objectively the better game would also be dismissed using the dubious argument that people prefer the first Final Fantasy they played. I'm fortunate enough that the first Final Fantasy game I played was the original game in the series (the one released in the NES in North America), and I clearly don't consider it the best, far from it. At the same time, I do hold Final Fantasy VI as the best Final Fantasy game up to that point in the series, the best RPG that I've ever played and a masterpiece. I'd be pleasantly surprised if FF VII was better than VI and lived up to its hype and marketing.

Now, 15 years later, I'm emotionally distanced enough from that teen rebellion to attempt to play this game more objectively and on its own merit, apart from the Sony hype (and my hate of Sony) and the opinion of other uneducated players. I already played a few hours of the game and I already have lots to say, but I reserve judgment until I complete the game. For now, I'll follow up on how I'm able to play that game on my Mac in the first place.

Syndicated 2014-07-12 17:23:36 from Benad's Blog

Google Play Music in Canada

One of the things I noticed when I got the Nexus 5 phone was that it pales as an audio player compared to the iPhone. What I didn't mention is also how much the built-in Google Play Music app was spartan. All I could do to play music was to transfer audio files by a USB cable. While it is nice that it auto-scans the storage for music file, I would have preferred a cleaner approach where I could manually add to my music collection specific audio files.

Since I recycled my iPhone 4S as my main music and podcast player, I seldom looked at the Play Music app, until in early June I casually looked at it after an app update and noticed it had quite a few more options. Basically, "Google Play Music All Access" was now available in Canada.

The first thing that jumped at me is that you can upload your music files in your Play Music library, for free. It can even automatically import your entire iTunes library. I tried it with mine, which has about 3800 songs and two dozen playlists, and it worked quite well. There was a minor issue with the file importer ignoring all music files that had accents in their file names, so I had to import those files manually, but still, compared to the non-free iTunes Match service, the experience was amazingly smooth. To compare, Play Music never, ever had any issue importing and playing back my non-matched audio files (meaning, songs not part of the Play Music store), while I constantly run into issues and general slowness with iTunes Match. Yes, the $30 / year service from iTunes is worse than the free Google service, and the Google service doesn't require you to install iTunes in the first place, for all you iTunes haters out there.

So, for the "All Access" thing, it is quite similar to Rdio. I talked about music streaming services in the past, but to give you a summary of the what happened since in Canada, not much. There's still only Rdio, Deezer, and a few small ones with even smaller libraries. So, doing the legal thing with copyright in Canada still sucks.

After using Rdio for a few years, there are still a few things that annoy me, especially given that it's quite an expensive service ($10 per month):

  • By default, Rdio is still highly "social", with everything shared and public by default. And by that I mean your playback history, playlists, listening habits, what you're listening to right now, and more. They compromised by introducing a "private" mode where things are shared with your Rdio friends, but still that sucks.
  • The music collection oddly seems to be shrinking over time. Sure, I noticed that a lot of albums have exact duplicates, with the only distinction being the label that published the album. This creates the weird effect that if you add to your collection one of those albums, but chance it may get delisted and you'll have to hunt the new "owner". Still, half the time stuff gets delisted and never comes back, almost as often as those "1-year contracts" you see on Netflix Canada.
  • Playlist management sucks. Sure, they just added the functionality to manage playlists on iOS, but still, on all platforms you cannot manipulate more than a song at the same time. For example, breaking the album "Mozart: The Complete Operas" into manageable playlists took hours, moving songs one by one. Shift-click?
  • Search, and pretty much the entire GUI on desktop or iOS, is somehow slow. Looking for "that song" doesn't work well and can be frustrating.
  • If you mark songs to be synchronized to mobile devices, it will be so for all your devices. Doesn't make sense if you only carry one device with you, and on top of that the massive bandwidth usage this can generate if you have four devices downloading songs at the same time.

So, I had to try "All Access" from Google, at least to compare. Also, because the first month is free and if you sign up before June 30 (meaning, today or tomorrow), it is $8 instead of $10 per month, for life.

So, how does it stack up compared to Rdio? Let's start with the cons first, to be fair.

Cons

  • The user reviews from the Play Music store don't show up in the player view. I miss the inline user reviews from Rdio.
  • No global playback history. Sure, history of radios show up in the current queue, but once the queue is cleared, it is gone. Also, playback queues aren't shared across devices, unless you save them as playlists each time.
  • Mobile support is limited to iOS and Android.
  • The "Thumbs up" automatic playlist isn't sorted the same way across devices for some reason.

Pros

  • All your music is there. Personal, bought on Play Music, or "All Access".
  • Search. It's Google. Search is amazing and instant.
  • The GUI is amazingly fast on all platforms.
  • The album library is cleaner (no label duplicates).
  • The library is somewhat bigger than Rdio. For every one "vanishing" album on Rdio, there are three or four that exist only on All Access.
  • Playlist and metadata editing is great. Shift-click to select multiple songs works, and it quite powerful.
  • Song caching for offline playback is done per-device, not as a global setting as on Rdio.

Overall, Google Play Music All Access, apart from its stupid name ("Rdio" has four letters) wins hands down. I think I'll transition from Rdio to All Access in the next few months. Pricing is identical, for feature-wise, All Access is much cleaner, faster and bigger that Rdio. And the (amazingly) completely free "My Library" music upload service is just icing on the cake.

As for iTunes, Apple should get their act together. iTunes Match is plain buggy and slow, searching (local or in the store) is even slower, their Podcasting support is broken beyond repair (avoid it completely), and everybody on Windows hate iTunes, for good reason. Sure, iTunes Radio, Beats, and so on, but they're all US-only, so why should I care if it's going to take until 2016 until we see anything of them in Canada? Same can be said of Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, and so on: Until you show up internationally outside of that Silicon Valley bubble, put up or shut up. Google Play Music All Access is there internationally now.

Syndicated 2014-06-29 00:05:25 from Benad's Blog

iOS and Android Development Tools

As I previously mentioned, I've started doing some iOS and Android development. While I haven't done any App of reasonable size in either, I've read a few books and developed some "beginner's software in both, namely "Android Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide" and "Learn iOS 7 App Development". I've also delved a little bit deeper with both platforms, specifically Core Animation and Android NDK.

And, being opinionated about everything, I quickly formed an opinion of the development tools for iOS, with Xcode, and Android, with Eclipse ADT and Android Studio.

Xcode for iOS

Xcode does represent well Apple's aesthetics in software: Over-simplified GUI, limited, but if you can live within those limits it is highly efficient. The GUI is hit-and-miss, and it lacks a ton of features you can now expect from modern IDEs, for example refactoring. If you want a more advanced IDE for Objective-C, you may want to look at AppCode from JetBrains, the makers of IntelliJ IDEA.

Its build system is similar to Microsoft Visual Studio, in the sense that it has projects with various settings, and it compiles your code with its own proprietary system. You can use the command-line xcodebuild to build an Xcode project from the command-line. If you have to use Makefiles to build some cross-platform code, you may want to look at MacPorts, or use the xcrun command to look for the compiler tools specific to an SDK (xcrun --sdk iphoneos ...). Of course, you can add custom build steps that run custom scripts that in turn will execute your external Makefiles.

Still, you won't want to leave Xcode much. Everything is well integrated in there, including the "Quick Help" in the side bar, simple packaging and signing of the iOS app packages, running and debugging with an emulator or a real device plugged in with a USB cable, and so on. It is a complete, self-contained environment, with no surprises. Considering that most of it is closed-source and that you'd have no other option if it didn't work well, it is comforting that it is quite stable.

It should be noted that Xcode includes a superbly packaged set of documentation. The quality of the documentation is very high and comes very close to MSDN.

ADT and Android Studio

If I were asked a few years ago to develop a mobile OS, I would have surely done something quite similar to Android. Based of Java (at least, its API, so Dalvik), Linux (but with a simplified user-space API, so Bionic), a bunch of XML files, a hacked version of Eclipse, and so on. This sounds like praise, but it's not, considering how wrong I were and how much I didn't know any better back then.

Let's start with the Eclipse-based Android Developer Tool. Whatever was there on Google's web site was broken out of the box. Its update mechanism had missing update server sources, so updating it would break its Android 4.4 support. Usability is garbage, but that's expected from Eclipse. The emulator is shockingly slow, even on my bleeding-edge Intel Haswell i7 with 16 GB or RAM. Of course, you can use the virtualized Android VM for Intel chips, but the version that was there a few months ago would crash Mac OS X 10.9, and once you fix it with a patch from Intel, it's still twice slower than the iPhone simulator. Oh, and rotations in the Android 4.4 simulator don't work. Go figure.

Of course, I could switch one beta-quality IDE, ADT, to another beta-quality IDEA-based one, Android Studio. It sucks and it's buggy, but just slightly less so than ADT. It insists on converting the integrated build system of ADT to a bunch of equally obscure Gradle plugins. In theory this is more flexible, but editing a Gradle build file is as intuitive as Maven, meaning not at all.

Oh, and if after all those dire warnings that you should not attempt to develop native, non-Java code on Android you still do so with the Native Development Kit (NDK), you'll be slapped in the face with a horrible hacked build system built atop Makefiles (ndk-build). Of course, NDK with its Makefiles hack doesn't integrate well with ADT, and can't seem to be integrated at all with Android Studio. You can also forget about your slightly faster virtualized Intel Android VM: Back to the slow ARM emulator.

Basically, Android development tools suck. Plan ahead a few days of work to set it up.

Hey, I could have been a video game programmer for game consoles, so I should stop complaining about crappy development environments.

Syndicated 2014-05-27 00:27:14 from Benad's Blog

102 older entries...

 

benad certified others as follows:

  • benad certified benad as Journeyer
  • benad certified llasram as Journeyer
  • benad certified shlomif as Journeyer

Others have certified benad as follows:

  • benad certified benad as Journeyer
  • llasram certified benad as Journeyer
  • pasky certified benad as Apprentice

[ Certification disabled because you're not logged in. ]

New Advogato Features

New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.

Keep up with the latest Advogato features by reading the Advogato status blog.

If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!

X
Share this page