Mail for Windows 10 – Pretty but poorly designed.

Mail for Windows 10I upgraded to Windows 10 a month back. Yeah I know it’s late, but hey, it’s difficult to switch in the middle of a large project. Windows 10 is probably the best windows version since XP, at least from a programmer’s point of view. Oh yes, thank you for bringing back the start menu! That Windows 8 Start Page thingy was really annoying and was the single thing which prevented me from upgrading. The other reason being, no DirectX 12 for Windows 7. Having said that, probably the worst thing on Windows 10 is the Mail application. I am using it for a month now and with each passing day, I get annoyed at it a bit more. Yes I know it’s pretty, but it’s poorly designed. I don’t know what the exact reason was, but by the looks of it every attempt was made to simplify the interface. Well, simplicity is fine, but not when it comes at the cost of efficiency or for that matter legibility. A wise man once said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, not not any simpler.”

Some basic UI mistakes seem to have been made in the app. The mail writer can be confusing to understand with little separation between the mail fields and the message. A small line separation in-between would have been great. It’s get slow as turtle – walking on top of a turtle when a email thread gets large. The incoming-outgoing mail list tree is just a mess with little or no options, no way to resize, no way to switch between list, no quick sorting header, and many more things that I just can’t believe were all taken out. This may work for a phone app, but for a desktop, the mail for windows 10 just doesn’t measure up. One more thing — the icons are just ridiculously big and so are the fonts for the UI in general. They may look good on a phone, but are unnecessary for the desktop. All this could have been tolerated had it not been for the ridiculous bugs in the software. Mails not syncing right, sent mails disappearing, poor IMAP syncing, are just some of them. All this from a company that makes Outlook!

So, for me it’s back to Thunderbird, my good old faithful mail app. It’s been there with me ever since I can remember. Old is apparently gold!

When s#!t happens!

It’s painful when your graphics card dies out, but even more so when it dies out not because you pushed it too hard (overclocked it), but because of a power-surge. I had a trusty HD 4870, and though it wasn’t the newest of the cards it did serve me well for over 4 years now and could still push most games I play at decent framerates. Plus and more importantly, it worked very well for all my current graphics needs. I mostly target DX-9 to DX-10 level hardware and the 4870 was more than enough for that task. Sigh! … it’s dead now!

It so happened that while I was away one weekend, an electrical fault caused current to leak into the earthing terminal (probably busted earthing of the power co.). Since the earthing terminals of most electrical equipment (including most PCs) don’t break when you turn off the switch, the current flowed into my PC and destroyed one of the PSU caps. As a result PCIe supply of PSU shorted out killing the graphics card. Fortunately (and thank God) no data was lost and the HDDs seem quite OK when I ran tests on them.

The only option left was to get a new card and I opted for the R9 270X. No point in going for an older card now that the R9s are DX-12 compatible. Unfortunately The R9s don’t play well with older MoBos and … so I had to get a new MoBo with a new CPU, and a new PSU, with a new cabinet and basically build a new dev machine from scratch, not to mention another 20-hour dev setup after installing a new OS.

Well to anyone who is reading this, my advise is to at the very least have a stabilizer for your PC. A UPS can go a long way in preventing such a thing and the most important thing is to have a good PSU. Go for the known brands – Corsair, Cooler Master, Antec, etc.

The Hobbit – The Battle Of The Five Armies in 4DX.

The-Hobbit-Battle-5-Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Fourteen years is a long time, but the last and final chapter of the Hobbit trilogy The Battle of the Five Armies brings to conclusion an incredibly brilliant and successful series of the films (6 in total, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy), all of which were a truly remarkable experience. I am a fan of J.R.R Tolkien, a masterful story teller and a great writer — and of Peter Jackson who has been equally remarkable at bringing to life Tolkien’s Middle Earth in all it’s grandeur!

The third Hobbit movie starts off where the previous one (“The Desolation of Smaug”) ends and without giving out too many spoilers, let me just say that the start of the movie is not something to miss out on. The special effects, like in the previous films were, are beautiful.  Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin) play their parts to perfection. The performance of the rest of the cast is equally impressive. Martin (Bilbo) has been particularly successful at growing the character of Bilbo from an unsure, uncaring, fumbling little hobbit to someone whose council is heeded to even by an egotistic King Thranduil (Lee Pace). If I had ever pictured a hobbit (Bilbo) while reading the “The Hobbit”, Martin would have been him.  Kudos to him for keeping the soul of Tolkien’s work alive though-out the trilogy.

Bilbo

Martin as Bilbo

For The Battle of the Five armies I got an invite to experience the movie in 4DX thanks to Cinepolis (India). 4DX is a new technology that Cinepolis claims, enhances your movie experience by adding an extra dimension of realism. The movie was released in 3D just like the last two hobbit films were, but the 3D experience was enhanced further by adding multi-sensory motion and environment effects which the company calls “4DX”. 4D as in “an extra dimension along with 3D”. In plain English, it means adding movement, weather, lighting, scent effects which are supposed to make you feel like you are right there — living inside the movie. To achieve this experience, your chair is augmented with motion where it yaws, sways and shakes to mimic the motion of the camera. A scent spray is located in front of your chair to send out a stream of scent effects like sweet smells of flowers, or the smell of fresh grass in an open meadow. A blast of cold air is sent when the camera pans over snow covered peaks and streaks of simulated lightning are displayed out across the ceiling to represent thunder & lightning appearing on the screen.

4DXWas the 4DX experience worth it? For the most part I would say Yes. Again… without giving away spoilers let me say that the start of the movie is probably where I enjoyed the effects the most, followed by the glacial effects (cold air breathing down my neck) and finally the meadows of “The Shire” where the flowery smell of the environment was unmistakable. To be fair though I have to say that the technology is new and some chinks remain. There were sections of the movie where effects were misplaced and some effects felt preempted, defeating the suspense of the action that was about to ensue. A scene where Bilbo was just walking down to an injured “friend” was accompanied by shaking of the chair which did not augment the emotion of the scene. However, these were (according to me) only minor creases that need to be ironed out to make 4DX a truly wholesome experience. I would still vouch for 4DX since it tickles those senses which traditionally remained dormant while watching a movie. As for the final question… Did I enjoy it? … Oh! Absolutely I did! :))

As far as the movie goes I would say that it really did feel like an end of a remarkable experience.The Battle of the Five armies is right up there with all other Tolkien-Jackson movies, well worth the praise the series is know for. For me, watching the last movie in 4DX was the proverbial icing on the cake! To quote King Theoden (figuratively)  “If this is to be the end, then I would have such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.” — and the last of the Hobbit movie was exactly that.

Visual Studio Community Edition (Free).

Microsoft has released free Visual Studio Community Edition. It’s basically a free full featured Visual Studio IDE (apparently with everything included) that can be used to make all kinds of apps. I was even surprised to find support for Python and Git included. Even more surprising was the Apple and Android logos in the “supported platforms” section!

Link: http://www.visualstudio.com/products/visual-studio-community-vs

Yes I am Alive!

WOW!!! it’s been a very long time, and yes, I am alive and well 🙂 . It’s just that I had a lot on my hands lately and I haven’t been able to pay any attention to the blog. Hopefully I will be updating the blog more often from now on.

A Happy New Year.

A Happy New Year to all of you.

It’s been a rather slow and uneventful 2010, but  a lot more exiting 2011 (I hope) 😀 .

A decade as a software engineer.

Me in 2000

  • Favorite Programming Languages – C, C++.
  • Working with (programming languages) – C++.
  • Working with (platforms) – Win32, Linux.
  • Working on – Finance Software, Stock Market (software), Futures and Options (software).
  • Programming Languages – Pascal/Delphi, C, C++.
  • Experimenting with – OpenGL, 3D Graphics, Client Sever communication.

Me in 2010

  • Favorite Programming Languages – Python, Erlang, Haskell.
  • Working with (programming languages) – C++, Python, Lua, HLSL, GLSL.
  • Working with (platforms) – Win32, Linux, Mobile.
  • Working on – Game Development, Misc Finance Software.
  • Programming Languages – Pascal/Delphi, C, C++, Python, Erlang, Haskell, Lua, Javascript, HLSL, GLSL.
  • Experimenting with – Haskell, Erlang, Direct3D 11, HLSL/GLSL.

Hmm… not much of a change there. Surprising (…or not)! 😀

Over-patterning software design.

Ah! Design Patterns! Yes those seemingly magical concoctions of code that appear to solve all of the problems plaguing software design. So profound is the initial impact of design patterns, that the engineer begins to believe that he/she has finally found mythical scrolls of wisdom, bestowed upon him/her by divine beings, so much so that after reading through them every design problem can be automatically deconstructed into a set of familiar design patterns. Using them seems to solve every challenge software engineering has to offer — and the engineer begins to believe that all that is ever needed on his/her desk is a copy of those very patterns. Yes, there was a time when I have been guilty of the very same thing.

There is also the misconception that patterns are drop-in replacements to traditional software design practices. It’s tempting to approach a design problem with a pre-packaged solution that patterns seem to offer. “Oh, we have a Composite, that means we need a Visitor for collaboration. So let’s use a Visitor then.” That was easy, but what was missed was the overhead of designing something as a Visitor. No one asked the question why a Visitor was needed, or if  it was indeed needed. Often the only reason given for such design decisions is, “… because a design pattern says so.” That’s not what design patterns advocate at all. Excess use of design patterns while designing software, inadvertently leads to Over-engineering.

This contradicts the popular perception which is of the view that patterns were created to address most commonly occurring design problems. Yes that is true, and no I am not trying to be a design pattern heretic and declare that patterns are useless. Patterns are in fact very useful when applied correctly. It is true that most software designs can broken down into sub-designs which can be collectively solved using a combination of different design patterns. But just because they can be, doesn’t mean they have to be. A designer well versed in design pattern use can quickly find adaptable patterns for most design problems — and can probably get them to work together if he or she understands the modalities of pattern behavior.  There is a dichotomy here; design patterns lead to over-engineering — and they are useful!! What is it then?

The truth lies somewhere in-between. Most problems with “Over-patterning” begin when there is an overbearing urge on the part of a designer to adapt his/her design, and sometimes downright bend it to fit to a design pattern. Just because a pattern fits or solves a problem, doesn’t mean it has to be used. Loading a software design with patterns is a mistake. One must remember, patterns add cost, and by cost I mean engineering cost. Strange — an engineering solution adding an engineering cost? But, thats how it is with any engineering problem in any engineering domain. Ironically if you refer each pattern you will often see these costs clearly pointed out by the authors. Call them disadvantages, limitations, issues or whatever other name you come up with, but the reality is that these issues aren’t trivial. An oversight or a failure to understand the implications of these in the overall design of a software system is what leads to overly complex  or over-engineered solutions.

An excellent article to read with regards to this is Joshua Kerievsky’s Stop Over-engineering.

Direct3D 10/11 coming to Linux … What about games?

No, April 1st is still more than 6 months away, and yes you heard me right — Direct3D versions 10 and 11 are indeed coming to Linux. How is this even possible?  Well it is possible, since nouveau moved on to Gallium 3D which allows Direct3D API (actually any API) to be exposed via a front end called a state tracker. Interestingly (, and there seems to be a lot of confusion going about on public forums) Direct3D will be a Native API under Gallium, much like OpenGL is currently. It won’t be a something that emulates Direct3D by using wrappers around OpenGL — meaning you will be able to write and compile Direct3D code directly on Linux or BSD based systems that support the nouveau driver. Initially I was a bit skeptical of such an approach since Direct3D API is integrated with Win32 API, but the author seems to have solved this by using Wine headers. I don’t know the pitfalls (if any) of such an approach, but it seems to have worked for him and would seem a logical path to take (instead of breaking API compatibility). He clearly outlines the motivation behind doing the Direct3D port, and kudos to him for doing something that was but inevitable given a no show of Longs Peak.

Naturally a native Direct3D implementation will allow game developers to write code that is cross-platform and even allow existing engines/games that use Direct3D versions 10 and higher to be ported across to platforms that have a Gallium driver. W00t! This is amazing, almost too good to be true isn’t it? But before we gamers jump in joy, there are still a few things that have to fall in place before things can get up and running with regards to Direct3D on Linux. First and foremost is support. Hardware vendors like Nvidia and AMD must support Gallium in their drivers, or OSS drivers must be written (and are being written) to take their place. This is paramount since without such an interface, no front end API (Direct3D or OpenGL) will be able to use hardware acceleration via Gallium. Second, and more importantly, the guys at Redmond must allow such an implementation of their Direct3D API. An API itself can’t be copyrighted. The author seems to have steered clear of any Microsoft code, so theoretically this shouldn’t be a problem. But then again I am no legal eagle, so I can’t really say anything w.r.t. this. There have been rumors that there are patents on sections of Direct3D. I am not sure what that means, or for that matter if it is even possible to patent sections of an API/Library. But, things could get potentially messy if Microsoft were to place a cease and desist on this new development. I doubt this would happen, but you never know.

I have to agree, having Direct3D as a native API via Gallium does open up a lot of possibilities for OSS platforms that have severely lacked games. Accelerated graphics on most systems apart from Windows have had little choice up until now with OpenGL being the only real option. But does this really mean that all of the games that are developed and are being developed will be ported to Linux and other OSS platforms? That’s an interesting question and the answer isn’t quite that simple. Lets look at the macro picture of the industry. For AAA games the PC platform isn’t a priority. Most (maybe all) AAA games are today made with consoles in mind. Yes there maybe a PC port, but it’s the consoles that are the main priority. Most (if not all) gamers that play AAA games on the PC do spend a bang on their systems and most of them already have Windows as their main OS. Some do have *NIX systems but even these few have a Windows partition that they keep around specifically for games. Porting any software to a new platform isn’t a trivial task. Even with the best coding practices and methods, it requires a lot of resources — which aren’t free. Everything from coding, testing, maintaining build setups, writing install scripts and many other things requires time and money. For  a AAA game, or for that matter for any game or software, a port to a new platform should show a robust ROI (return on investment). That’s where the crux of the problem lies. There aren’t that many *NIX gamers out there, and if there are, the big studios aren’t seeing them!

Then there are the casual games, which also is a big market for games. Casual games represent a very different kind of audience. A typical casual gamer is a non technical person who doesn’t even understand what a hardware driver is, let alone jargons like Gallium, Direct3D, OpenGL or for that matter Linux. Most casual gamers will have nothing but a moderately powerful laptop with on-board Intel graphics chips — which came with Windows pre-installed. This is the kind of player that expects the game to install and run with a single click. They don’t understand driver updates or DirectX versions. For them it matters little which API is better or worse or which platform supports which API and which doesn’t. Apart form these two broad segments, there are a whole lot of players who will play radical indie games and this is probably where Linux ports has found some success. This gamer is the tech savvy computer geek who runs Linux as his/her primary system and isn’t afraid to fire up the console now and then. I must say, some radical indie games have found success in this area. But, these games are far from cutting edge. They maybe very good games, but you don’t expect Crysis like graphics from them, and it matters little what API is used or if the underlying API runs 5% slower when your game is not going below the 30FPS barrier.

There have been lots of debates about OpenGL vs Direct3D. I refrain to go into that. However, having a choice of accelerated graphics API for platforms other than Windows is definitely good all around. Direct3D versions 10 and 11 are well designed APIs, closely tied to current generation hardware. But will all this translate into more ports of games to Linux and BSDs is still an open question. The community as always will play a vital role and only time will tell how things pan out.

Can parallel processing really cut it?

When Larrabee was first delayed and then “postponed” most of us weren’t surprised (, at least  I wasn’t).  Parallel computing, though advocated as a world saver, isn’t the easiest model to program to. Doing everything in “software” (graphics, HPC and all) ‘might not’ be as easy as was anticipated. The cold hard reality is that languages like C++, Java and derivatives (mostly OOP ones,) were never really designed for parallelism. A multi-threading-here and a asynchronous-there, doesn’t really cut it. Using the full potential of parallel devices is very challenging indeed. Ironically most of the code that runs todays software isn’t geared for parallel computing at all. Neither are todays programmers.

But experts advocate  a parallel computing model for the future. But, is it easy to switch to? Will an innovation in hardware design, or a radical new compiler that optimizes away your “for() loop” the real answer? A very interesting article to read (even if you are not into graphics and game programming) is :

http://www.brightsideofnews.com/news/2010/5/27/why-intel-larrabee-really-stumbled-developer-analysis.aspx?pageid=0

Very rarely do I quote articles, but this one is really worth a read. Well-written and well said.