Saturday, December 29, 2007

Hot Chips Conference archives

Curious about the internal designs of GPUs, CPUs, and game consoles? Tired of lame articles full of uninformed speculation and fanboy rants? Then check out the archives of the "Hot Chips" conference, an annual conference where computer chip designers get together to brag about their latest chips. The conference presentation slides are all online, and they're full of good technical information on GPUs, CPUs. and even game consoles. Of course, presenters often gloss over any technical problems with their chips, so you won't get the full picture. But these presentations offer a detailed technical look inside otherwise secret system architectures.

(For what it's worth the web site is poorly organized, and many links are broken -- you sometimes have to edit the URLs slightly to find the correct links.)

Some highlights:

Reality Co-Processor, Ken Hayes (Silicon Graphics, Inc.)
- All about the Nintendo 64.

Gekko: A PowerPC compatible processor supporting high-performance 3D Graphics - Gamecube CPU

Multiple Cell Papers (PS3)


Xbox 360 System Architecture

Nintendo Wii security defeated by the Tweezer Attack

According to a presentation at the 24th Chaos Communication Congress, hackers have apparently been able to defeat the Nintendo Wii game console's security system using tweezers to bypass the hardware memory protection.

The way it works is that the Wii runs in two modes: a GameCube emulation mode, which has access to just 1/8th of the total memory, and Wii mode, that has access to all the memory.

Hackers had already figured out how to run their own code in GameCube mode. So the trick was to run their code in GameCube mode, then use the tweezers to short out the address lines to allow the hacker's code to access parts of rest of the memory. By shorting different address lines different portions of memory were made available. By collecting enough shards they eventually mapped all of memory.

Apparently the Wii operating system keeps its digital signature keys in this protected memory, and once the digital signatures were found it was possible to sign and run homebrew code on the Wii.

It is not clear to me whether the attack is a per-machine attack or a break-once-run-everywhere attack.

Searching for old web pages: The Wayback machine is cool!

I was searching for information on LINJ, a Lisp language that compiles into human-readable Java code. Unfortunately, the LINJ web site http://www.evaluator.pt/linj.html, is currently offline.

Luckily, it turned out that the Internet Archive Wayback machine had cached both that page, and the download files that that page had pointed to. Very cool!

Similarly, I was looking for the source to the Windows CE port of Quake 3, and found that the project's web site http://www.noctemware.com/q3ce.html had been abandoned and taken over by spammers. Luckily the Wayback machine had cached both the original web page and the downloads.

Let this be a lesson to you aspiring open source developers out there: It's better to store small open-source projects in a large "won't-ever-go-away" source repository like SourceForge or Google Code than to use your own vanity domain hosting. Of course, even using a large popular repository is not failure-proof. Some large code repositories from the early days of the Internet, like DEC's ftp site, have gone away after their owning company was bought by another company. Perhaps some sort of distributed system of discoverable git repositories is the answer.

In the case of Quake 3 for Windows CE, I've contacted the author, Christien Rioux, and with his kind permission I've set up a code.google.com project so that other people can more easily find the sources (and binaries): http://code.google.com/p/q3ce .

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Why the Farmers won

I've been thinking about Lisp lately. A powerful language, with many excellent features, but not hugely successful. And I thought of one reason why:

The excellent book Guns, Germs and Steel hypothesizes that agriculture displaced hunting and gathering because people who practiced agriculture stayed in one place, and were able to have one child per year, as opposed to the hunter-gatherers, who had to wait until their children were old enough to walk before having another child. This reproductive rate difference was amplified by the ability for a given unit of land to support more farmers than hunters. As a result, agriculture displaced hunting even though individual hunters were far healthier (as seen by their skeleton height) than the farmers that displaced them.

So it is possible for a poorer technology to displace a better one, if it has compensating advantages. And I think that's what's hit Lisp. C and Java, which are each less powerful and more wordy than Lisp, are more successful for reasons other than power and brevity. Perhaps because both languages allow lots of reusable code to be written by ordinary programmers. Maybe Lispers are like healthy hunters, being displaced by hordes of sickly farmers.

Well, no doubt the Lispers will take some comfort in the Java and C programmers being displaced in turn by whatever language next becomes even more successful, just as hunter-gatherers may take pleasure in the trend that farmers are gradually being displaced by urban dwellers. (Come to think of it, Lispers have already seen their original competitor Fortran displaced by C/C++, and in turn much of C++ has been displaced by Java and C#.)

I think something similar is happening in productivity applications, as a generation of not-very-good-but-web-based productivity applications is displacing the Microsoft Office suite. (For example, I am typing this blog entry into a simple and ugly HTML-based web form rather than a beautiful Word document.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Back to Mac

This week I converted my family's main computer from Vista to OS X. (It's a Mac Mini).

We pretty much use it for web surfing, web email, really old DOS children's games, and photo editing. Macs do that pretty well.

I still have a Vista machine that I use for the excellent Windows Media Center -- love the record-by-keyword feature and the free programming guide.

But for day-to-day use we're back to the Mac.

Alternative language blues

I've spent roughly 4 years of midnight-engineering time looking into the cool languages to see if they would make game programming easier or more fun. Haskell, Ocaml, F#, Erlang, Scheme, Lisp, D, Factor, Scala, Python, I've looked at them all.

F# held my attention for quite a while, but now my platform-of-choice has moved away from F#'s design center. (I'm into Linux-based mobile platforms now.) And to be honest, I'm still happier in a C-like language.

I'm depressed. Sure, I learned a lot about fancy language features, but I could have written quite a few games in plain-old-C++ (or C#, or Java or Flash or Basic) in the same time.

P.S. Someone else has done this more impressively than I have. Do a Google Groups search for Brandon van Every, who has had a five year odyssey to find the perfect non-C++ game programming language. I corresponded with him back when we were both interested in O'Caml. Since then he's managed to annoy pretty much everyone by harping on their favorite language's shortcomings. In the end (at least as of six months ago) he'd given up and gone back to C++. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Lisp Hacking and Science Fiction

I've been poking around with Lisp and Scheme again, and am reminded of some of my favorite science fiction books (warning, plot spoilers follow):

  • Verner Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" begins with a group of scientists mining an ancient civilization's web archives. They need to build interpreters for the ancient civilization's programs. All goes well until they reconstitute a malevolent AI that they spend the rest of the book fighting.
  • Piers Anthony's Macroscope involves a group of people trying to decode an Extra-Terestrial message, that other ETs are trying to jam. Over the course of the book your opinion as to which group of ETs has humanity's best interests at heart changes back and forth several times.
  • Any number of SF stories are set in the far future where people poke around in the ruins of a once-great civilization. (See Gene Wolfe, Cordwainer Smith.)

Working with Lisp reminds me of these books. Lisp's a seductive, ancient, powerful language that has been worked on for years by very smart, very motivated hackers. Pretty much everything one can think of to do with Lisp has been done, multiple times, by really smart people.

For example, I want to have a system where I can interactively write a game, changing code on the fly while the game is running. I want to be able to use macros and garbage collection and free serialization and inspection and all that cool stuff that Lisp provides.

And Naughty Dog had all that, in GOAL, for the PS2. Their implementation was apparently much better (more efficient, less buggy, more features) than one I could cobble together out of open-source-Lisp parts. And they had used it to successfully write two or three games. But they they walked away from it. Gave it up. Went back to C++.

They said it was because they had a lot of pressure from their parent company to make their engine more reusable. But I think it's also because the results they were getting just weren't that much better than the results that all the other developers, who use C++-and-some-cheap-scripting-language-like-Lua, were getting.

I think Lisp is like a powerful alien technology that may not be in your best interests to use.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

More evidence that garbage collection is expensive

As seen on Lambda the Ultimate.org

Quantifying the Performance of Garbage Collection vs. Explicit Memory Management

We compare explicit memory management to both copying and non-copying garbage collectors across a range of benchmarks, and include real (non-simulated) runs that validate our results. These results quantify the time-space tradeoff of garbage collection: with five times as much memory, an Appel-style generational garbage collector with a non-copying mature space matches the performance of explicit memory management. With only three times as much memory, it runs on average 17% slower than explicit memory management. However, with only twice as much memory, garbage collection degrades performance by nearly 70%. When physical memory is scarce, paging causes garbage collection to run an order of magnitude slower than explicit memory management.


The Economics of Selling a MacBook on Craig's List vs. Ebay

I just sold my MacBook over the web. I sold it on Craig's List. I also considered using eBay, but Craig's List turned out to be a better deal, for both buyer and seller.

The reason is that listing and selling on Craig's List is free, while selling on eBay is expensive, especially for items priced higher than $500. First, there's the listing fee of $0.20, then the Final Value fee of $0.50 + 3.25% * price. But wait, there's more: EBay all-but-requires you to use their PayPal service to settle transactions, and PayPal in turn requires you to use a "Premier" account if you receive more than $500 in eBay payments in one month, which you automatically would if the item you're selling is more than $500. Using a "Premier" account requires that you pay PayPal 2.9%+$0.30 per transaction, even for cash transactions. (The processing fee is less if you are doing a high volume of business through them.)

So the total eBay selling cost is in the range of 6.15%. That's $50 on a $800 item.

You could avoid accepting PayPal, but since accepting PayPal is the norm on eBay, it's very likely that your auction will be shunned, and you will receive a lower price.

Besides the hefty fees, using PayPal is riskier for the seller than using cash. This is because it is possible for a disgruntled buyer to reverse the transaction. (Of course this same ability is a plus for the buyer, as is the ability to use credit cards.)

Even without using eBay to sell the product, it makes sense to use eBay as a price setter. eBay makes this easy to do by reporting the final price for closed auctions that you are "watching". Since auctions last between 3 and 10 days, and an auction must be active in order for you to watch it, you will need at least a week to track enough auctions of similar items to make a fairly accurate estimate of the market price.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Xbox 360 Fall 2007 update adds DIVX/MP4 video support

The Fall 2007 Xbox 360 dashboard update (coming December 4th) will add support for DivX and MP4 playback.

Video FAQ

This is great news for Xbox 360 owners who want to watch video encoded in these formats. I'm surprised that Microsoft did this, because these formats compete with Microsoft's own WMV format. While the benefit to consumers is obvious, I'm not sure what the benefit is to Microsoft. I'm guessing they did this to both improve the "watch your PC's videos on your Xbox" story, and also to match an existing PS3 feature.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Game resolution issues

This morning I fired up Mario Galaxy 64 on my new Wii for some early-morning platforming. I happened to sit closer to the screen than I normally do. Yuck! The jaggies were suddenly very apparent and very distracting. But when I moved back to my normal viewing distance, the jaggies were gone, blurred out by my poor vision.

It's no wonder that HDTV and HD gaming in general is not taking off as quickly as consumer electronics companies hoped -- the benefits are just not that apparent to normal eyes at normal viewing distance.

Jaggies aside, Mario Galaxy 64 is great fun! A very smooth difficulty curve, and gorgeous graphics. Right now I'm working my way through the candy level. (I have seven stars.)

Had brunch at Salty's

I had a very nice birthday brunch at Salty's on Alki.

Here's a variety of different ways of linking to Salty's on Google Maps:

Search Result
Search Result with traffic

A place that isn't Salty's at all

Monday, November 12, 2007

My initial Wii impressions

I finally got a Nintendo Wii this weekend. Wii's are in fairly short supply right now, so I couldn't find one at a reasonable price on-line. If you live in the Seattle area, here's my Wii-finding tip: Fred Meyer stores get deliveries on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, meaning that calling a Fred Meyer store at 7am on Sunday morning to check if they received a new shipment is a good way to find a Wii.

The total cost, with tax, an extra controller, and a component video cable was around $350.

I've got Wii Sports, Wii Play, and will be picking up Mario Galaxy this week. The primary users will probably be my kids, although I am very interested in trying out Mario Galaxy.

As a former Xbox 360 developer, I couldn't help comparing the Wii to the Xbox 360. So far I give the Wii high marks for:
  • It's small and quiet.
  • It starts up quickly.
  • The dashboard UI is very clean and pleasant.
  • The low-res (480p component) graphics are quite good. I did occasionally see jaggies, for example on the edges of the bowling pins during close-ups in Wii bowling. But the Wii encourages you to play fairly far away from the screen, which masks the lower resolution.
  • The Wii remotes are great! I love the new gesture "verbs" that are available for game play, and I found it much easier to enter text with the Wii than with an Xbox controller.
  • The TV station metaphor for the top-level UI is a good metaphor. It makes it easy to take in the available options at a glance. And the Wii remote makes it low-effort to pick the channel you want.
  • Having built-in wireless was a nice touch.
  • The Mii avatars are pure genius. Both the fun of designing them and then having them appear in the sports-style games. This is something that the other consoles should copy, and I'm surprised they haven't. Maybe it's patented in some way that makes it difficult to copy.
  • I thought it was a nice touch that I could name my console, but I didn't see the name used anywhere.
  • My two three-year-old daughters were strongly attracted to the Wii dashboard and games' graphics and sounds, saying things like "pretty!" and "I like it!" They never said this about the Xbox 360 dashboard or games.
  • My five-year-old son really got into acting out the moves in the baseball game. And he has not yet played real-world baseball. It will be interesting to see how he does when he starts playing real-world baseball next spring.
  • The UI of the Wii online store is very good. The Mario themed downloading bar is pure genius -- you know you have a good UI when people _enjoy_ watching the download progress bar.
Some things I didn't like about the Wii:
  • The UI for pairing a second wireless controller to the console was hard to discover. (I will give Nintendo big props for pre-pairing the in-the-box controller with the console. I'm sure that adds cost to manufacturing, but it makes for a great out-of-box experience.)
  • The network connection UI gave very little feedback on why the network connection failed. When you test network connectivity you get a 20 second "testing" animation, followed by a cryptic five-digit error code. I had to make two changes to my router configuration to get networking to work. I would have preferred the Xbox 360's UI, that gives more step-by-step information about network connectivity issues.
  • My three-year-olds can't handle the Wii controller very well. There are too many buttons to accidentally press, and the required gestures are too complicated for them.
  • No downloadable games demos. And very few downloadable games at all.
  • The walled-garden Internet channels are pretty weak, especially the Everybody Votes channel.
  • Not many current or upcoming games that I want to play. After Mario Galaxy, I don't know what my next purchase will be. Luckily, the current games should keep my kids happy for quite a while. (My son's been working his way through Cloning Clyde on Xbox 360 for the past year, I can only imagine how much fun he's going to have with Mario Galaxy!)
In conclusion, I'd have to rate the Wii as a much better "family" console than either the Xbox 360 or the PS3. And by family I mean "small children". I'm lucky that I like the Wii's UI and game style, because I have a feeling I'll be hearing and seeing a lot of it over the next few years. As for my trusty 360, I suspect it will be mostly relegated to "Media Center Extender" status. (Although I am definitely looking forward to Alan Wake and I have high hopes for the next Banjo game. And I might get "The Orange Box" -- Portal and Team Fortress 2 look like a lot of fun.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Macbook Ubuntu Woes, back to OS X

Well, for what it's worth, I've switched my MacBook from Ubuntu Linux back to OS X. Ubuntu Linux worked, but had lots of little problems:
  • The wireless driver worked, but it's range and speed was much less than under OS X. For example, sitting on the couch in my living room I got 4 bars with OS X but just two bars with Ubuntu. (Now, of course, the two operating systems could be reporting the same information in different ways. But actual network activities OS X seems faster and more reliable.)
  • The connectivity to Windows file shares is much more reliable. With Ubuntu I could not reliably use VLC to play AVI movies off of a Windows Vista file share. The AVI movies would always timeout sometime in the first few minutes of play. With OS X I have no problem.
  • I couldn't figure out how to get suspend and resume to work right in Ubuntu. As a result, battery life was not as good.
  • The trackpad never felt good. And a single-button computer will always be a second-class citizen in Linux.
  • The Linux UI experience wasn't as solid. (The fit and finish, and how much flickering went on.)
  • The UI quality of add-on applications was somewhat lacking. And the use of three or four different UI widget sets was downright confusing. To be fair, OS X and Vista have issues with this as well, but in OS X and Vista the issue is a generational one, while in Linux the issue is a civil war: there are three competing UI widget sets.
So it's back to OS X for me, for now.

A Paper Leopard

I am disappointed by the new version of Apple OS X that was released this weekend. The UI has gone backwards in several areas. In particular, the translucent menus are hard to read, and the default "space theme" wall paper is ugly. So far it feels like a service pack with a bonus backup program.

I suspect that Apple is suffering from the same problem that Microsoft was with Vista, namely  "How do you improve on a very good existing product?" In addition, I suspect the company's attention over the past year was focused on developing the iPhone, and perhaps not enough attention was paid to Leopard.

Still, I'm not sure what they could have done better -- Desktop OSs are pretty much of a solved problem.  But I suspect that as the hype wears off people will start to question whether Leopard is a significant improvement.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ubuntu Studio - nice idea, poor execution

Ubuntu Studio is a nice idea in theory, but the execution is lacking. The goal is to create a version of Ubuntu optimized for media creation by:
  • Bundling the best available open-source media creation tools.
  • Using the real-time Linux kernel, for reduced latency when mixing audio.
  • Using a desktop color scheme that doesn't make artistic people ill.
The problem is that there are a lot of rough edges:
  • By using a non-standard kernel, the release has problems supporting wireless hardware, such as the wireless hardware present on my first-gen Intel Macbook.
  • By using a cool-but-low-contrast color scheme, the UI is difficult to read on a screen-dimmed laptop.
  • Some of the bundled free content creation tools are pretty weak compared to the commercial equivalents. (I'm thinking of GIMP and Blender in particular.)
The wireless hardware support issues make this a non-starter release for me, but I enjoyed giving it a whirl.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Never trust a Doctor on how easy it is to use Linux

I recently read a positive review of Linux by a man who said he was a doctor, not a programmer, and that he found Linux very easy to set up and use.

That's great, but you have to take recommendations like that with a grain of salt. I'm not a doctor, but three of my siblings-in-law are doctors, and a fourth is a nurse, and one thing I've noticed is that medical professionals are extremely good at following technical directions. I think it's a skill that comes from how medicine is practiced -- you diagnose the patient, then apply a recommended treatment. Just like debugging a computer problem!

Maintaining Linux, like maintaining a patient's health, requires researching a scattered body of knowledge and deciding how to apply a mass of conflicting advice. Both tasks reward careful study, and exact replication of the recommended treatment. For doctors this way of working is second nature, but I don't think laymen will find it so easy.

Customizing Ubuntu 7.10 on Macbook

I've been tearing down and reinstalling Ubuntu 7.10 all weekend, trying to get wireless video playback to work well. Here's my list of tweaks, all of which are unrelated to wireless video playback:
  1. I personally like the Edubuntu 7.10 distribution more than the stock Ubuntu distribution. Edubuntu has a nicer default visual theme and some nice educational games.
  2. Apply customizations from the MacBook Ubuntu Forum
    1. I just set up my keyboard so that the lower Enter button acts as the right mouse button.
  3. Make text better:
    1. System:Preferences:Appearence:Fonts:Subpixel Smoothing
  4. The Google Toolbar for Firefox has a bug where bookmarks won't load. A work-around is to use the Synaptic Package Manager to install libstdc++5 and its dependencies.
  5. In order to get the keyboard "Mute" button to work, open System:Preferences:Sound and select all the channels in the "Default Mixer Tracks" list. (Hold down the Control key while clicking on each channel.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I've Installed Ubuntu 7.10 Final on my Macbook

I was up early this morning to get the Ubuntu 7.10 final release. I used the Ubuntu torrent (1700 downloaders) to download the file, and had the ISO image within an hour. Pretty neat!

In theory I didn't actually need to install Ubuntu 7.10 final. In theory it would be just as good to start with a late release candidate and apply patches. But I wanted a clean start.

I did run into an odd glitch during the install: the Macbook LCD display was corrupted when I first booted up off the LiveCD. I did a cold reboot and all was well. Go figure.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Comparing the Microsoft and Google tool chains

About six months ago I left Microsoft for Google. One of the big differences between the two companies is the tool chains that they use. Microsoft mostly uses its own tools, many of which they also offer to sale to third parties, while Google uses mostly open-source tools. I thought people might be interested in seeing the differences. Note that my experience may not be representative of most Microsoft or Google employees, because I was not working in the main-line part of Microsoft (I was in the Xbox team), and I am not currently working in the main-line part of Google. So in both cases I am not familiar with the specialized tools that each company has developed for doing its mainline work.

Here's a table comparing the tools I used at each company:

Tool
Microsoft
Google
Opinions
IDE
Visual Studio
Eclipse 3.3
I give Visual Studio the edge on debugging UI and IntelliSense. But Eclipse has some nice features, such as showing errors in the scroll bar.
Languages
C++, C#
C/C++, Java
Microsoft C++ is better than Gnu C++, and C# is better than Java. But it's a 10% difference, not a 100% difference.
Build System
NMAKE
GNU make
GNU make's better -- at least it seems to take less code to implement fancy build rules.
Source Code Control System
Internal tool (similar to perforce)
perforce
It's a wash - they're both very similar to each other.
Bug tracking
Internal tool "Project Studio"
Internal tool "Buganizer"
Google's system has more integration into email. For example, if a bug is opened against you, you get an email, and if you reply to the email your reply is automatically appended to the bug report.

Also, Google's system is web-based, which makes it more convenient to use.
Email
Outlook 2007
gmail
Overall I like gmail, but Outlook does have one feature I really miss: I set up a special folder for all the "checkin mails", that was sorted by name. This made it very easy to scan through people's checkins. gmail only allows mail to be sorted by time, which is less convenient for scanning checkin mails.

I'm pretty sure that Google gives employees more email storage space than Microsoft does, but I don't remember the exact numbers at Microsoft. I do know that after 6 months at Google I'm at 1% of my quota, whereas at Microsoft, after 10 years, I was always bumping up against my quota limit.
Web Browser
Internet Explorer
Firefox
Firefox has some great plug-ins, such as Ad Blocker Plus. but IE had the edge on printing and stability.
Office Suite
Office 2007
Google Docs
Office 2007 has a superior UI and far more features. Google Docs is "good enough" for programming docs, and I like the web integration very much.
OS
Vista Ultimate
Mac OS / Ubuntu Linux
I like Ubuntu a lot more than I thought I would. I like Mac OS a lot less than I thought I would. And Vista is fine, too.
Hardware
Dual-Proc Xeon x 2, no laptop
Quad-Proc Xeon, Dual Proc Xeon, Macbook Pro laptop
Google is more generous with hardware, especially in giving most employees their own laptops. And of course Microsoft only gives Mac hardware to people who write Mac apps.
Screens
Dual 1280x1024 21" CRTs
Single 30 inch 2560 x 1600 LCD or two 24-inch 1920 x 1200 LCDs
I love the large LCD screen. Actually I disliked the Microsoft CRTs so much that I went out and bought a 20 inch 1600x1200 LCD with my own money. For $800 (that was a few years ago, when they first came out.)
Office Space
Large private office with a window
Small desk in shared 8-person interior office. No window.
Having a private office is nice, but there are advantages to sharing an office with people who work on the same project. Google issues noise-canceling headphones to help reduce distractions. I'd have to say that Microsoft has the edge here, but Google is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

Overall I'd say the two tool chains are roughly equivalent. I found it pretty easy to transition. I was productive at Google after just a few days of training. By far the biggest qualitative difference is due to the giant HP 2560 x 1600 LCD monitor I'm using now. It's wonderful to have so much contiguous desk space. To be fair to Microsoft, I believe that new employees at Microsoft are now being issued 20" 1600 x 1200 LCDs, and many programmers manage to scrounge a second LCD. But Google's much more generous at outfitting programmers with hardware than Microsoft.

Laptop buying advice

A friend recently asked me for advice on buying a laptop for a college student. Here's the advice I gave them:

These days laptops from different companies are all pretty similar. They use roughly the same parts, and are built in exactly the same Chinese factories. So I would try to figure out roughly what configuration you wanted, and then shop for the best deal, pretty much ignoring the manufacturer.

The first decision, and the only one where the manufacturer matters, is whether you want a Macintosh or a non-Macintosh. The benefits of a Mac are:
  1. Great support if you happen to live near an Apple Store.
    1. Check if you do by looking here: http://www.apple.com/retail/
  2. Macs are fashionable.
  3. Macs can run Apple software in addition to regular Windows software.
  4. Macs have good resale value. (Although laptops in general are very fragile, so it's likely that your laptop will break before you resell it.)
The disadvantages of a Macintosh are:
  1. About 30% more expensive than other brands, especially if you get the other brands on sale. Macs never go on sale.
  2. It is more awkward to use a Mac for Windows software than other laptops. This is due to
    1. The Mac not having a built-in right mouse button.
    2. You have to go through extra steps to buy and install the Windows operating system.
I currently own a MacBook and I also use a MacBook Pro laptop at work. I bought the MacBook because I thought it was pretty, and I wanted to experiment with using Apple software. I like it -- it is a good compromise on size, performance, cost, and so on.

I especially like the service I get from the Apple Store. I live about 2 miles away from the Bellevue Apple Store. I have had two problems with my Macbook since I bought it:
  1. My kids pulled off several of the keys, and even lost three. The Apple Store gave me replacement keys for free, and even put them on the keyboard for me, also for free.
  2. The laptop battery stopped working. In this case the Apple Store gave me a new battery ($100 value) free, no questions asked.
I also use a Macbook Pro loaned to me by my work. They give people a choice between a Macbook Pro and a Leonovo Thinkpad T60. I'd say the split is about 50/50 on which notebook people choose. The Leonovo Thinkpad line, formerly made by IBM is one of the best "no nonsense business computer" laptop lines. They have especially good keyboards.

The Macbook Pro is much larger than the Macbook. It is also much heavier. I find both notebooks are good, and I don't think the Macbook Pro, at around $2500, is 2.5 times better than the Macbook, at around $1000. If it were my own money, I would buy the Macbook rather than the Macbook Pro.

As for non-Macintosh laptops, I would look for a laptop with these features:
  • A good keyboard
  • Built in wireless networking
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • A good screen (bright and easy to read.)
  • 40 GB hard disk
  • CD-ROM/DVD-ROM drive
  • Weight around 4 to 5 pounds.
  • Doesn't get too hot in use, has a quiet fan
  • Price around $800 to $1200
If given a choice between several models with different speeds of CPU, I would choose the cheapest/slowest, because all of the CPUs are really fast these days.

And I would be happy to buy a slightly older laptop model on sale. Laptops typically are only sold for 6 months, they are then replaced by a slightly better model. When a model is replaced, it often goes on sale at a good price.

I would consider laptops by pretty much any brand. And I think I would try to see the laptops in person before buying, as that's the best way to judge whether the screen looks good, or the
keyboard is comfortable to type on.

One frustrating thing about laptops is that the build quality varies greatly from model to model, even within the same company. So just because one model is reliable, doesn't mean another similar model from the same company will be reliable.

A good web site for laptop review information is http://www.notebookreview.com/

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Learning about Git

Lately I've been learning the git source code control system. It's a distributed version control system, which means there is no central repository. It's especially good for working on multiple branches.

Everyday GIT with 20 Commands

Alas, currently it doesn't work well on Windows. (Due to many of its utilities being written in a hodge-podge of Unix shell scripts. Pretty lame. If they'd just used C, Perl, or Python it would have been very easy to port.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Linux Guide for Windows Users

A nice overview of Linux for Windows users. It's a little bit dated, but still contains lots of good advice:

http://www.psychocats.net/essays/linuxguide

He has a number of good Linux-related essays on his site, it's worth poking around.

Linux in a Windows-centric home network

I was a happy Microsoft employee for many years, and as a result, I run multiple Windows Vista machines at home. My family and I are happy with the system, especially the Vista Media Center / Xbox 360 combination that we use as our Digital Video Recorder, so I'm in no hurry to try and replace my Windows servers with a Linux ones.

This leaves my poor Ubuntu 7.10 Macbook as something of the odd man out. Over the past few weeks I've been learning how to configure it to work with my mostly Windows network.

Wireless Networking

This worked out-of-the-box. If I recall correctly, I had more trouble connecting to my home wireless network when running Apple Macintosh OS X 10.4.

Hah, for what it's worth, my wireless router is a Linksys router that's running Linux, so effectively there's no Windows involved. But I wanted to mention that wireless networking and Internet connectivity worked well out-of-the-box.

Connecting to a Windows Vista File Share

Here's where I ran into my first problem. It turns out that there are multiple ways of connecting to a Windows server in Linux/Ubuntu, and they don't all work reliably. I found that the UI-based way, using the Ubuntu "Places" menu, didn't work for me. I could connect to my windows server, and view the server's directories, but I couldn't reliably read the files. Accessing files was very slow, and reading large files would always time out.

I was able to access my Windows Vista shares by following these instructions:
Mounting Windows Shares in Ubuntu <-- allowed me to read my Window shares.
Permission issues with smb and cifs <-- allowed me to delete files on my shares.

The downside of the command-line approach is that you don't get a nice icon on your desktop, you have to navigate to /mnt/myshare/... yourself. But it's reliable. You can partially work around this by creating a symbolic link from your desktop to your share. The reason this is a partial work-around is that Nautilus will think that the resulting directory is a "local" directory, so it will try to do i/o intensive things like create preview icons. Oh well.

For what it's worth, the reliability problem with the default way of accessing Windows shares seems to be due to Ubuntu using the older, out-of-date smbfs system instead of the more modern cifs system. You'd think a hip, happening OS like Ubuntu would fix this problem, but it's a long-standing one, so I guess it hasn't made it to the top of their priority list yet.

Windows Printing

This was easy.
  1. First I shared out my printer on my Windows Vista machine. (I never bothered to do that before.)
  2. Then on my Ubuntu machine I choose the System:Administration:Printing menu item.
  3. Clicked on the New Printer icon
  4. Chose "Windows Printer via SAMBA".
  5. Fill in the dialog box. Use the handy "verify" button to verify that you've done it right.
  6. Click on Forward and finish the configuration.
I was pleased to find my printer's model number mentioned in the driver list. Everything worked the first time.

Linux Goes Where?

Now that I have changed jobs, I've decided to try changing blog hosts as well. Older posts can be found here: Grammerjack at Spaces.msn.com

This blog will probably have a lot of "Linux newbie" posts, as I am trying to learn Linux, after a long time away from unix systems.

I hope these posts will prove helpful, or at least entertaining.

Ubuntu 7.10 Beta Issues

I'm still getting used to using Ubuntu 7.10 beta on my Macbook.

Unresolved Bugs
  • The bottom task-switcher bar sometimes disappears.
  • Firefox doesn't quit cleanly - it always crashes.
    • No big deal, this just means that I need to deal with a "do you want to restore" dialog every time Firefox starts up.
  • Macbook Audio can't be muted.
    • This appears to be a long-standing Ubuntu / Macbook bug, due to the way Macbook audio muting is implemented. Someone needs to write a driver, and unfortunately audio driver writers don't seem to care much about Macbook laptops.

Resolved Bugs
  • Support for a one-button trackpad
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic
    • Use synaptic to install the mouseemu package to allow F11,F12 buttons to emulate middle and right mouse clicks.
  • Phantom button clicks while moving the mouse:
    • Choose System:Preferences:Mouse:Touchpad
    • Un-check "Tap to Click".
    • Choose Close.
  • Problems connecting to Windows Vista Printers and Windows Vista Shares:
  • Enable Cleartype-like nice looking anti-aliased fonts:
    • Choose System:Preferences:Appearence:Fonts
    • Choose "Subpixel Smoothing".
  • Enable Java:
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic
    • Install sun-java6-jdk
  • Enable Flash:
    • Choose System:Administration:Synaptic,
    • install ubuntu-restricted-extras.
    • This installs a bunch of useful software that should be in the default Ubuntu install, but isn't due to political differences between the software authors and the Ubuntu packagers.