Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Library of Babel and the Death of Art

Recently, I've been spending a lot of time talking with IPLv70 about writing. As one of the many coincidences we have in common, we both were in the process of writing trilogies when we first met. IPLv70 has been writing hers much longer than I have been writing my own story; but we have eerie similarities in our plot and character constructions. Anyway, we spend a lot of time talking about books and our own writing; and a topic that comes up quite frequently is the poor quality of most modern fiction...

It's something I've noticed everywhere in the last few years: photography, painting, writing, research publications, web design are all being inundated with crap. Having spent a few years shooting photos, working in mathematical research and attempting to write my own fictional trilogy and mathematical textbook, I've experienced first hand the challenges of creating something that is worth a damn. It's not that I think my work is awesome; it's just that I know the things I create come from me; they are a true reflection of who and what I am, as pretty or ugly as that may be.

Back in the day before the ability to write, take photos, paint, etc etc wasn't immediately accessible to everyone on the planet, creation in these mediums gave a truer reflection of the artists than today (on the whole). The fact is, in history, those who create, had to fight to do so... they had to believe in it and be idealistic about it as the means to create weren't readily obtained or came at a high social cost. Today, almost anyone can get a book published, buy a digital camera, or paints, clay, whatever. Art is a hobby today... most who proclaim to do it either do so as a hobby, do it for money, or do it for the novelty of having the label 'artist', 'author', 'scientist', whatever. There is no ideal and no desire to project oneself in a creative way for 99% of the people endeavoring to create something. Painters and sculptures today become famous due to their PR work and not their actual creations. I mean when shit in a can from the 1960s can be literally proclaimed as art and sold for over $140k a god damn can, you can't tell me that the world of art is about creating... it's about fucking PR.

Art is a very emotional and cerebral thing. It's supposed to make you think and reflect. Unfortunately, the ability to think on any level deeper than the utterly superficial is severely discouraged in society. After all, it's easier to control a mass of idiots than a mass of thinking people. Thus drivel proclaiming to be art is embraced by the masses (i.e. Transformers the movie, the DaVinci code, and most modern works of fiction). Case in point, there is only ONE movie made in the last twenty years that is in the top 50 of all time (the lord of the rings). It has been admitted by many publishers that works like "War and Peace", "Moby Dick", etc. could NOT get a publisher in today's market. It's not even an issue of the general public embracing crap; they also reject quality because it takes more of them mentally to see it's value, as it's not superficial.

It is said, that if you give an infinite amount of hillbillies an infinite number of shotguns and roadsigns, you'll eventually get a replication of the Mona Lisa. A similar saying has been around relating monkeys, typewriters and Shakespeare. These come under the idea of the Library of Babel; a library whose books represent every combination of letters for a particular language. All the knowledge is there, but how does one find it in the mountain of jibberish? You can't; you will go insane trying to do so. That is my worry about all the creative subjects in the world subject to the whims of those who don't give a fuck about art actually being art. Art is made to be seen and appreciated (notice I'm not saying acknowledged)... how can one do this when the art is buried in a sea of shit?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Rowling's Decision

I've been a Harry Potter fan for the last few years; I even got IPLv70 to read the series earlier this month. We both were there early July 21st to get our copy of "Deathly Hallows"; we were that excited to read the final book in the series. Those of you who know me personally, know that I have a fondness for classical literature and dislike most modern works of fiction. So why did I like Harry Potter? And note that I'm using *DID* instead of *DO*. I liked the earlier Harry Potter books because they focused more on character development than most works of modern fiction do. Also, anything that helps encourage kids to read, is OK in my book. That being said, Harry Potter is a fairytale for children. It is NOT adult literature and it is NOT a classic. Rowling solidified this synopsis with the writing of "Deathly Hallows", as I will explain below.

First, I will say it's not an easy decision Rowling made. She could have written book seven in a way that would have made her book a classic piece of young-adult or perhaps even adult literature. Or she could have written the book to be a fairytale, i.e. literally mediocre but appealing to the masses who want a feel-good wrap up to the story. She chose the latter and executed the decision poorly.

Before I go into the specifics of WHY "Deathly Hallows" was one of the biggest literary disappointments I've ever read, I will recall an interesting point made in the movie "Stranger than Fiction". Yes, the Wil Farell movie. The thing I loved about this movie was that, near the end, the literary professor (played by Dustin Hoffman) makes a very important literary observation. For those of you unfamiliar, the movie surrounds a novel being written by an author. I won't give away the plot, but the lit. professor says the novel is a masterpiece where it's been written the main character dies; and is merely "OK" when it was rewritten with the character surviving. This obviously isn't a black-and-white rule; but it's a damn good guide for many serious literary works. I.e. there has to be CONSEQUENCES for the actions in the story. A story without consequences is children's literature and nothing more than poorly-executed fantasy. Consequences in literature have to be real and without exception; it is a key point that makes fiction believable and timeless. Few things are timeless in life, but consequences (and in particular, death) are timeless. This is my fast and loose explanation why death is such an important part in many serious works of literary/film art. Death is something that every single living thing holds in common; it is common ground by which we can relate to the fictional world; the emotions it inspires are real to us and provides one of the strongest links we can have to characters in a fictional universe.


I have quite a few problems with "Deathly Hallows"; but first, let me point out the one good thing about this book. Serverus Snape's character was very well done in my opinion. This character's actions and his personality all came into razor-sharp perspective by the end of book seven. Serverus was indeed written to be a character who was very consistent throughout the entire series and became truly believable and admirable by the end of book seven. You can tell that Rowling knew exactly what she was going to do with Snape throughout the entire Harry Potter series. I was very pleased with how she tied up Serverus' arc in the story.

Now, for my critiques of book seven. I'll start with the most transparent: Rowling's liberal use of a device referred to as Deus ex Machina which literally means “God out of the Machine”. Plagiarizing from wikipedia: The phrase deus ex machina describes an unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot. DeM is one of the primary reasons why I dislike most modern fiction. The fact is DeM is the result of authors being too lazy or unskilled to properly think out aspects of their characters, setting or plot. The resulting inconsistencies in the story are then remedied by totally arbitrary devices that the authors has not properly foreshadowed. DeM is pretty much rampant in modern literature to the point that many “critics” won't even acknowledge them being applied to main plot arcs of a novel. Rowling employs DeM shamelessly across the entire “Deathly Hallows” novel. Some specific examples of Rowling's use of DeM are the Deathly Hallows themselves, the rules governing wand ownership, Harry's wand acting on its own, Harry not actually dying when Voldemort casts Avada Kedavra on him and intricacies of goblin and house-elf magic. None of these ideas were ever foreshadowed in previous books and were employed in a precise (and arbitrary way) so as to make the plot of “Deathly Hallows” work. The reason why Rowling had to employee DeM at key points in the book is the result of the inconsistencies arising from her construction of magic in the Harry Potter universe. It is an underlying problem with many RPGs and MMOs. Essentially, the problem comes from the complexities arising from the creation of many varied and powerful entities. That is, Rowling has created the many powerful spells in the HP universe and not enough rules to make her portrayal of magic feasible. IPLv70 had the funny example 'accio balls'; this is one of many examples of how magic in HP can be manipulated in a dueling scenario. The presence of the Imperius curse was also never sufficiently controlled. The reality is: if this spell existed as Rowling portrayed, the head of the ministry would constantly have this cast upon them. The seeming inability for anyone to detect someone under the Imperius curse renders it simply too powerful to exist in the HP universe as it is portrayed. Avada Kedavra is like shooting someone; Crucio is the equivalent of torture; but there is no real world equivalent of the Imperius curse. If there was an analogy of the Imperius curse in the real world, the world would be VERY different. It isn't hard to think of consequences of having such powerful magic around and how it ultimately undermines the stability of the society Rowling portrays. So to deal with the resulting complications of her creation of magic, Rowling employs DeM in the form of completely arbitrary new rules and phenomena that do little more than save Harry's ass. None of her DeMs seem to stabilize her use of overpowering spells. This is in contrast to Tolkien who made magic much more subtle in the LoTR universe. Gandalf had immense magical power, but he still needed to ride a horse to get around. Gandalf's ring gave him the ability to rally people's bravery and unite them to battle; this is incredibly powerful but subtle. Magic in the LoTR universe was consistent and well thought out because it's effects were powerful YET subtle. Yes, there were fireballs and whatnot in LoTR; but there was a very good reason why such spells aren't used. Tolkien designed magic to have a CONSEQUENCE. Every spell a person casts takes a part of their soul, will and mind. This is explained outside of the LoTR but in other Tolkien works. Tolkien understood that something so strong as magic had to have a consequence to it's usage to keep in controled in his universe. Again, for the battle scenarios in LoTR, magic was used in intelligent and important ways. I was hoping that some of these inconsistencies in the magic of the HP universe would have been reconciled in book seven; but I was wrong. Instead, we get situations like Harry's wand literally acting on its own will to fend off Voldemort... again... Voldemort essentially dying due to a technicality in wand ownership... and Avada Kedavra not really being unblockable as has been stated so many times in the HP series. All are DeM. One final word about the magic in HP. At the end of "Deathly Hallows" Voldemorts spells are rendered useless on the people at Hogwarts because he supposedly sacrificed himself out of a feeling of love, just like his parents. This is the reason why he didn't feel the crucius curse supposedly. So, it seems like sacraficing oneself for another protects that person from harm. Before the last book, this was a special unique act; but now, it seems like it can be readily replicated by sacrificing oneself. That's all it takes. So, you're telling me out of all the people Voldemort killed, not ONE sacrificed themselves to protect another that they loved. BULLSHIT!

Moving on from DeM; probably the most damning critique I have of book seven is what Rowling decided to do to some of the main characters in the book. First, Rowling flat-out assassinated the character of Albus Dumbledore. Some may see her as trying to humanize him in book seven; but IPLv70 put a fine point on it: you humanize a character when they are alive... to do so after death is just character assassination. I agree. The fact is Albus' character is attacked, at length, in book seven with no one really defending him. By the end, Albus is painted as little more than a very powerful and cunning manipulator. Rowling tries to re-endear him to readers upon Harry's death-dream scene where he has a discussion with Harry explaining “everything”. First, the whole death-dream sequence is another incarnation of DeM; of course, Harry was a horcrux; but no concrete reason was given as to why he didn't actually die (as he should have by the rules in the Rowling universe). In this death-dream scene Albus gives Harry very little in the way of new information; and I'm sorry I don't buy that Harry's feelings toward Dumbledore are all A-OK after this scene. Harry was the first to doubt Dumbledore when reading Skeeter's biography of him; yet when he has a dream sequence with Dumbledore, he now miraculously has regains faith in Dumbledore. In reality, it could have been a further manipulation of Dumbledore to drive Harry to go and kill Voldemort. The reality is: you simply have no logical reason to believe that Dumbledore sees Harry little more than a tool to complete a task. That's how he regarded Harry in front of Serverus; and his history dictates his desires for power and control. Again, Harry showed that he truly had little faith in Dumbledore; why the fuck are we supposed to believe that Harry is cool with Dumbledore just because he had a chummy dream with him? It doesn't fucking matter if the dream was real or not! There is no reason to believe that Harry should put any weight on that scene given how quickly he lost faith in Dumbledore earlier in the book. There was no grand revelation in the dream; Dumbledore was pretty much as depicted earlier. WHAT CHANGED? The idea that a near death experience changed Harry's feelings so fundamentally is absurd. How many near-death experiences has Harry had?! Guess what? The experience of nearly dying shouldn't mean anything to Harry because he's experienced it so many times before. Yet this time, his character miraculously matures and embraces Dumbledore again. Bullshit. The fact is Rowling paints Dumbledore as a manipulator and never successfully redeems him. She also made him out to be an idiot. I'm sorry, the wisest wizard of the ages is so stupid it put on a ring possessed by Voldemort not fucking thinking it MAY be cursed? Bullshit. Rowling made Dumbledore's death an act of fucking blatant stupidity. Also, given his seemingly infinite abilities to communicate with Harry, Ron and Hermione under the ministry's nose; one would think that he would have the sense to WRITE A FUCKING LETTER! MAYBE!

Moving on to Voldemort. Again, I was hoping Rowling would add some depth to this character in book seven; instead she made him to be an idiotic bully. IPLv70 made a good observation: he essentially became a comic book villain. Here we have one of the most powerful, supposedly most intelligent wizards of all time; and he's a fucking idiot. Voldemort managed to reign terror for years but NOT ONE OF HIS FOLLOWERS MENTIONS THE DEATHLY HOLLOWS TO HIM. Bullshit! In the end, he's stupid enough to attack Harry despite the fact that Harry essentially says that he'll die if he does so. Hmmm... you have someone who you haven't been able to kill the last three times you've encountered them, telling you that what you are about to do is going to kill you... so what do you do... you try to kill him anyway. Fucking dumbass. So Voldemort dies from a mixture of stupidity and a DeM driven technicality of wand ownership. That's fucking lame. Voldemort was nothing more than an idiotic bully. Which bring me to... the deatheaters. So, we have this group of ruthless, highly-skilled wizards, who lust for power all surrounding Voldemort. All but the LeStranges are harboring some doubts and fears toward Voldemort as he threatens their families with torture/death and can't seem to kill Harry. Of course, no mutiny would ever happen at this stage. Bullshit! Avada Kedavra is supposedly unblockable... so why the fuck didn't any of the deatheaters gang-up and try to kill them. It's bullshit; Voldemort was such an idiotic villain at the end, he was a grave threat to all the deatheaters and their families. Yet there was no internal mutiny. That's crap.

Let's move on to Hermione. She too became an idiot as demonstrate by the fiendfyre scene. Here you have a spell that is able to destroy Horcruxes; but she doesn't use it because it's “too dangerous”. This despite the fact that she apparently knows how to stop the spell. Bullshit. It really makes no sense.

Let's move on to Ron. He does the exact same thing he did in Goblet of Fire. He gets all emo and ditches Harry; then he feels remorse and comes back to apologize. Great, he's essentially little more than a rehashing of himself in book four.

Harry gets emo then sucks it up in the end to save the day just like he does in every other book. I don't see any major character development in Ron or Harry. It seems Rowling took the tactic of de-evolving many of the characters to make Harry exceptional.

As for secondary characters not much really happened. The fact is characters like Percy were neglected for so long in the series, that it isn't possible to judge whether his decision to come back was consistent with his character; you don't know what was happening with him for so long. That being said, his return should have been met with skepticism as he'd been an ideal deatheater spy; but no, he came in as a band aid to lessen the killing off of Fred. Of course, he was instantly accepted.

One important action of a secondary character that I found really inconsistent was when Narcissa lied to Voldemort about Harry being dead. I know her maternal instinct was supposed to drive her to lie; but this just doesn't make sense. Draco's safety had nothing to do regarding whether or not Harry was alive or dead; on the contrary, Narcissa could be assured Voldemort would kill Draco when (not if) he found out Harry was alive because she lied about it. So we have, Narcissa, a syltherin deatheater; she's supposed to be cool, cunning and calculating; but she makes an emotional decision that actively jeopardizes the life of her son for no apparent reason.

Lastly, I'll just mention Lupin. Lupin essentially becomes a coward who reduces himself to little more than a deadbeat father. He already had doubts before about getting together with Tonks, and he pulls the same shit in this book. Rowling degrades Lupin's character simply to trivialize the blow of his death at the end of the book.

It is ashame to see one of the strongest points in the HP series be so grossly undermined in this last book. Snape's character is the only exception; again, I really liked how his character turned out. Unfortunately, no other character rose to the status of being more than mediocre; it's really sad given that they could have easily been so much more.

The last thing I want to talk about is the idea of death. I explained at the beginning how consequences and death are such important parts of serious literature. Consequences are the strongest ways in which we can relate to the characters in a fictional story. The concept of death is the strongest of these consequences as it inspires the deepest and most universal emotions of loss, sadness, fear and indeed, happiness. Unfortunately, death has no real meaning in the HP universe. It is so grossly marginalized in this last book that it looses virtually all of it's value. Death has meaning because it is irrevocable; a final goodbye if you will. In book seven, you have Albus coming back to Harry through a DeM dream, Serverus getting orders from Albus via a painting, and the second deathly Hallow raising the dead with the caveat of them being behind some veil (and this veil really has no actual literary meaning in this final HP book). Rowling had already marginalized death a little with the Prior Incantatum at the end of book four. I'm sorry, the dead can't fucking talk to you. If they can talk to you; it defeats the literary concept of death. So, the underlying concept of death isn't present in the HP universe because death has exceptions. Even with this, Rowling never killed off any main characters, not one. Every character that died in book seven was a secondary character at best and had little consequence to the main characters. Dumbledore's death was betrayed because he was able to come back and talk to Harry and set things right. Forget killing main characters; Rowling didn't make one single death in the HP series a direct consequence of Harry nor of any good guy. Sirus died because Voldemort possessed Harry. Dumbledore's death was stated as being pre-planned in this last book, alleviating Harry of any responsibility. In reality every single death in the HP series was a direct result of a deatheater killing them. It's bullshit. A mark of a good leader is making hard decisions; and the hardest decisions come when one has to consider the lives of those close to them. Not once did Harry have to endure the brutal consequence of this. Fuck, Dumbledore never had to deal with sending Harry to his death even. Yes, Harry lost his parents; but they were never part of the story and it was Voldemort's doing. Again, let's look at LoTR. At the end of that trilogy; Frodo and Gandalf essentially die; i.e. they will never be seen by their friends again. Tolkien actually did something worse to Frodo: the one thing he loved, The Shire, was forever gone to him. He would never be able to feel as he once did; he lost his innocence and his one love as a reward for his actions. THAT IS A TRUE CONSEQUENCE FOR CHANGING THE WORLD. Jesus, even in the Matrix, Trinity and Neo essentially die in the end. We don't know what exactly happened to Neo; but his physical incarnation is forever gone. Again, a real consequence for changing his world so much. The idea of consequence had been completely lost in this last book; and it's this key point that makes the Harry Potter series a fairytale and nothing more. There are some saying that the epilogue to the story was a dream that Harry had in death. There is NOTHING in the story to indicate this. If this was indeed the intention of Rowling; it's the most chickenshit way to kill a character as you know most rationally thinking readers will read it as a fairytale ending. I am assuming Rowling has more conviction in what she is writing than to do something like that.

In the end, Rowling chose the easy literary path for Harry Potter. She could have made the series truly great in the literary sense. Instead she chose to write the story with a movie screen in her head and an eye on future sequels, at the cost of writing a story that sunk to the realm of mediocre fairytale pop-fiction. It's nothing compared to LoTR; it's not a classic; and it certainly isn't adult fiction. Harry Potter is a children's fairytale and will never be anything more.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Compiz-fusion vs. Beryl

I know I don't blog that often; but every once in awhile I think I have an opinion/perspective worth publicizing on some level, as it is somewhat contrary to the norm. Some time ago I had posted about how much I liked Beryl as a 3D window manager; it's something that Vista wants to be but will never become in its current inception. Well, here I am again posting about Beryl, which has recently been consumed by Compiz to become Compiz-fusion.

First, just a little bit of background for those of you unfamiliar. In the beginning, there was Compiz the original 3D composite window manager that was pushed by Novell in 2006. Now, the developers of Compiz had some rather different perspectives on how Compiz should be handled. In particular, there were issues with how the core would be developed. I am going to avoid names here as it is really unimportant at this point. One camp essentially wanted a rock stable core that essentially was not allowed to be patched outside of one or two developers. Another camp wanted core modifications to accommodate new plugins and hardware features. Essentially, the second camp wanted a faster more feature-rich core at the sacrifice of stability. This is a very fast and loose interpretation of what the thinking was; but it's the general gist. This difference ultimately declined into various arguments and flame-wars until the Beryl project was essentially forked off Compiz.

Beryl essentially correlates to those developers who wanted to patch the core so that more features could be provided by Compiz. I will try to convey the story as succinctly as possible, as I think it reflects some of the personalities that are ultimately hurting the quality of the code being produced.. I will call a spade a spade and say that some of the Compiz people have portrayed themselves to be true arseholes in every sense of the word. There are some of the Compiz developers who come of as so self-important and degrade other's (i.e. Beryl developer's) efforts so baselessly that it's hard to read through sometimes. Anyway, let us move on from my little opinions. So Beryl forked off and existed by using a heavily patched up version of the Compiz core; they developed the patches and plugins that made their window manager essentially what it is. That being said, Beryl did still rely on the Compiz core for it's own heavily modified core. What ended up happening is that Beryl became quite popular while Compiz's support was dwindling; and it was easy to see why. Beryl as compared to Compiz had a better configuration interface (the Beryl manager as opposed to using gconf), a good theme manager, many more plugins (after all eye candy is important in the 3D wm game); and the WM just ran faster (at least in my experience and some others). Compiz from all accounts only held sway with a select few hardcore followers, whereas more and more people were coming to Beryl. Beryl was easy to get up and running, it ran well and looked great. Compiz was more cumbersome to configure and didn't have the 3D features (ie plugins) that Beryl had. Yes, the Compiz core was more stable but I found it to run slower than the Beryl core.

So, why did Beryl and Compiz merge back together? Well, the official response is that the development roadmap for both projects was the same; and so it was better to collaborate than compete. I say the Beryl developers who pushed for the merge didn't fully know what some of the Compiz developers were like. Many Beryl developers came on after the Compiz/Beryl split. There is also the issue that Beryl still needed the Compiz core source; and it wasn't doing any good to remain split, i.e. risking the total collapse of Compiz. Also, the growing popularity of Beryl was raising tensions between the Compiz and Beryl people; obviously this isn't good since Beryl relied on Compiz for it's core development. So, now Compiz and Beryl have decided to merge into Compiz-fusion. Oh and Compiz presents themselves as just being that kind that they were willing to take Beryl developers back despite Beryl betraying them in the split. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that their project was on the path to death; and a merger was a guarantee to get the Beryl user base. Nope that had nothing to do with it, the Compiz people were just so kind and merciful to take pity on the wretches who call themselves Beryl developers to take them back. Sniff, is that sarcasm you smell. You better fucking believe it.

It's easy enough to lookup how the Beryl developers and Compiz developers are already arguing with one another. They couldn't even work out a name without a huge fight. Looking at some of the forum discussions, I have to say that some of the Compiz developers' willingness to belittle the Beryl developers to the point of saying that they essentially haven't done anything of worth since the initial split is quite ridiculous. The fact is, Compiz was dying and Beryl was growing. Beryl needs the Compiz core and couldn't proceed on their current development track if Compiz collapsed and they themselves had to take over the entire core development. But some of the Compiz people will have you believe that Beryl came crawling back to them; that's bullshit. Beryl needed to save Compiz so that a part of their code didn't fall into stagnation. In reality it doesn't even matter who came crawling to whom, but the fact that some of the Compiz developers insist on bringing this point up over and over is ludicrous. I really get the impression that the Beryl people won't be taking seriously in the Compiz-Fusion project, at least not until they get down on their knees and start licking the boots of some of the Compiz people.

Ok ok, that all being said, the personalities of the developers don't really matter. Honestly, if they can produce a good product working together, great. I honestly care about little else. Even though there was a big part of me not liking the Compiz developer's take on things (some of them); I was excited to see if they would produce a faster, more cpu-efficient version of Beryl with some added eye-candy. So, I installed a git version of Compiz-fusion to see how it ran. Well, I was pretty fucking disappointed. Let me reiterate that:

As it stands Compiz-fusion fucking sucks compared to Beryl.

Why? Well, first let me just say... I thought I had forgot to deinstall Beryl because over 90% of 'Compiz'-fusion looks just like Beryl. Virtually, every single plugin came from Beryl. Yes, of course Beryl developers hadn't done anything on their own; the Compiz developers just decided to be kind and include all their modifications to their own WM. I hope you're smelling the sarcasm now... it's getting good and thick. Oh yes, I can see how the Compiz focus is on core stability... I mean I only had two crashes within 30 minutes of installing Compiz as opposed to that happening MAYBE once a day with Beryl svn releases. Yes, Compiz-fusion is obviously much better. Now I understand I was using a git version of Compiz-fusion, but I had always been using the very latest svn version of Beryl (since January this year) and I never had the stability issues I saw with Compiz-fusion. Also, these projects combining should not lead to a REGRESSION in stability. Yes, I know they are two different code bases; but they only split like a fucking year ago. And they've been in the process of merging code for almost a month now. I really don't see the reason for this digression in performance outside of the usual antics of Compiz not patching it's core to actually run correctly with the Beryl plugins.

The stability wouldn't even bother me IF the WM actually ran better on my machine. It didn't; not even fucking close. My first impression of Compiz was 'wow, this is fucking choppy'. No worries, I figure I'd make all the settings as close to my Beryl settings, then see how she went. Still, Compiz looked way choppy compared to Beryl. So, I started looking at FPS and CPU loads of Compiz. On my machine (nvidia geforce go 6600 128MB of Ram). Compiz would idle at about 85fps and 15% cpu (provided it didn't crash) with all my little plugins running. Under Beryl, the system was idling at 135-150fps with a CPU load between 5-12%. WTF is this?! Ok, this is a simple benchmark; but in the end these are the two things people care most about... is this interface going to kill my CPU and will it run at a decent frame rate. Compiz would drop down to 35 fps moving windows etc with no water effects; Beryl never dropped below 85fps doing the same things WITH water effects. Yeah I know this a new merger between Compiz and Beryl; but this is really unfucking excusable. Given that there was such a huge discrepancy between FPS and CPU load when both WMs were idling indicates to me that there is something very wrong with the core of Compiz. The performance of Compiz-fusion was consistently worse that Beryl and used more CPU cycles. Really, there is no excuse for this; the core code for compiz hasn't changed for the most part; and there is every indication that it's shit compared to the core Beryl was using.

As for the plugins, Compiz-Fusion does add a handful of new goodies in the eye-candy arena. They've also added some more physics to things like wobbly windows. Looking at the plugins present in Compiz-fusion as compared to Beryl, I have to say that I believe all of them to be pretty but not widely useful. For example take the expo mode; yes it looks nice (... even though it's an apple ripoff) but it uses something like 20% of your screen to manage all desktops. After you use expo a few times, you don't use it again because it's so screen inefficient. Bitching aside, I'm glad they included it; I'd rather have choices I don't need than absent choices that I want. Besides, there are plenty of plugins that came from Beryl that are pretty but not too useful. That being said, there are some features missing from Compiz-fusion that I find worrisome. First, the water effects have been really degraded. This was one of my favorite pieces of eyecandy; and it's pretty much gone in the current Compiz-git version. More importantly is that there is no option to turn the desktop cube into an n-sided prism. If you use the desktop cube you have only 4 screens to work with; this just sucks. Being able to have more than 4 screens is an awesome feature; many people use more than 4 desktops at a time for their work. The cube interface to desktops is really nice in that it uses a large percentage of the screen to manage all your desktops, and it also gives you a perception of where all your windows are in a 3d space. This is remarkably useful because people make correlations to placing things in three dimensional space as that is what they do in real life all the time. Using a desktop cube makes it easier for a large number of people to manage many windows effectively. Restricting this plugin to cube and not an n-dimensions prism I view as a huge feature regression in terms of genuine productivity. All in all, there are many superfluous features added to Compiz-fusion as compared to Beryl; but there are a few key features that were present in Beryl that are currently missing in Compiz-fusion.

All in all, I think the current state of Compiz-Fusion is unacceptable. Before I go on; I will say that I have some knowledge in the area of 3D programming. I've written my own surface plotting engine from scratch in OpenGL and C, along with other various 3D visualization interfaces for displaying scientific data. At one point I wrote a parallel 3D render that would animate fusion simulation plasma for General Atomics. These details don't matter outside of the fact that they indicate that I have some clue about what should be possible for a 3D interface on certain hardware. Compiz-fusion falls vastly short of the performance mark of where it indeed needs to be. It's current CPU usage per yielded frame rate is downright abysmal compared to Beryl. The fact is this is a desktop user interface; and the tests I did directly correlate to what people will think if they run Beryl and Compiz side by side. There might be certain configuration where Compiz-fusion is more stable or runs comparably to Beryl; but the fact is, that won't be true on most desktop systems. Part of the beauty of Beryl is that it ran smoothly on my laptop (which isn't particular decked out and over a year and a half old). This fact alone makes Beryl appealing; as so many people have laptops nowadays. I would not run Compiz-fusion on my laptop as it stands; it simply isn't worth the chop I see and the CPU overhead it induces. I'm not talking a few fps either; I'm talking about fps that are on the order of 50% lower on Compiz-fusion as compared to Beryl. So the low down is this, Compiz-fusion gives you some extra eye candy that Beryl doesn't have but in the process has sacrificed

1. Some core Beryl features like the N-sided prism.
2. FPS performance
3. Lower CPU overhead.

In my reckoning, that's not a very good fucking deal at all.

I honestly, hope that Compiz-fusion can get its act together soon; as it stands, the current inception of Compiz-fusion won't be acceptable to people scrutinizing it's performance. The Beryl team has already proven that they can produce a quality piece of software in terms of performances and visual appeal; the Compiz people simply have not produced something on the level of Beryl. Like it or not, there it is; and the proof is in the number of people using Beryl vs. Compiz. At the moment, all things are indicating that the Compiz/Beryl merger is lowering the quality of the Beryl product. If these problems aren't corrected within the next few months, we can only hope that the Beryl people have the good sense to walk away from Compiz (forever) and get their own dedicated core developers. I, for one, won't shed any tears to see the Compiz half of the Beryl/Compiz merger fall into development obscurity.

PS – This rant is a reflection on what I've come to understand going through various forum flame wars etc. I'm not interested in hearing justification for the state of things from either Compiz or Beryl supports. I've read enough from the developer's posts to make my own conclusions. If you disagree with what I've put here, post it on your own blog and don't flame this one.

Monday, April 9, 2007

I told ya...

In case you missed my little rant a few days ago, click here. After reading slashdot today, all I have to say is case in fucking point. Let's recap. Nasa exercised the same level of stupidity when they lost a satellite because they couldn't perform a conversion on imperial units; Intel couldn't get division correct on the Pentium processor when it came out; and apparently, Fermilab can't add force vectors correctly. All these mistakes cost millions of dollars and went through some level of double checking. If you are not afraid by this level of incompetence, you should be.

Saturday, April 7, 2007


I am a fan of personal avatars. My blog avatar was made by IPLv70, who has a knack for making personalized Powerpuff sprites that make great little pics. Yesterday, I was looking around and noticed a lot of people had these personalized South Park avatars. Being a huge fan of South Park, IPLv70 and I set out and found the site people were using to do this. It turns out you can find out how you get rendered "South Park style" at the South Park studio; it's a very cool little web app. Anyway, the following image is what IPLv70 and I ended up drawing from this site (with some minor photoshopping post-processing ;).

I couldn't resist photoshopping myself and my IPLv70 holding hands together. <3 style="text-decoration: underline;">

Monday, April 2, 2007

What Vista should have been.

IPLv70 and I have been living together for a few months and one of the perks of living together (Oh and there are many perks *evil grin*.) is that we've been able to work really well together in getting our machines reinstalled to their full potentials. See IPLv70 is an expert in user interface design and isn't too fond of dealing with low level software and hardware issues (she can though). I am the compliment to this; I don't know much about UI design, but I am pretty keen on working hardware and low level software. So IPLv70 sets up our themes, window managers, and user apps (and this is awesome since we have the same aesthetic tastes... to a scary extent), while I make sure the kernels, filesystems, volume managers, raid etc. are all set up and running as fast as it can be.

IPLv70 uses a nice custom built workstation, and I use a pair of Toshiba laptops. We both run ArchLinux systems with Beryl window manager interfaces; both of which IPLv70 brought to my attention. We both love ArchLinux as it takes a minimalist approach as a Linux distribution. Neither of us want a distro. that is essentially going the way of windows, i.e. developing into it's own proprietary format and interface *cough* Ubuntu *cough*. Personally, if I want to run in the windows paradigm I'll run windows. Anyway, Arch isn't for everyone; but it is awesome in terms of maximizing the potential of your available hardware.

That's all well and good, but I do like the eye-candy. This is where Beryl comes in. Beryl is a true-3D window manager that just looks incredible; it's still pretty early in it's development, but they do have stable releases. Anyway, to convey my sentiments I'm putting up some screenshots.

Here is a simple shot of my desktop. Notice that it is actually translucent. My workspace consists of five desktops arranged on a pentagonal prism.

Before going on, let me say that I don't own a $5K workstation. This interface runs on a laptop that is about a year old (centrino single core 2Ghz). I have no problem running this interface while doing kernel compiles. Usually I have 2-15 applications open at once and the system is still very responsive. I have yet to see this system break 500 megs in consumed memory (I have 1Gig). Ok, here's another plain desktop shot with two terminals.

Ok, here's a screen of an actual workspace view.

Basically, the workspace sits in a super-enclosure called the skydome, which I've given it's own background image. Beryl has eye-candy that gives your desktop water-like elements, waves, raindrops and whatnot (those are ripples in the image).

One of the really nice things about Beryl+Gnome under Arch, is you have the ability to easily fall back to Metacity. Metacity is a typical 2D window manager that requires less system resources then Beryl. This is good for long compiles or conserving battery.

Anyway, I think it's funny that you can get an interface like this that is truly 3D on a Linux machine given the state of Windows current technology (Vista). I mean, Vista simply would not run on this laptop; not even if I wanted to. Vista still uses some 2D imaging tricks to fake various 3D elements of its interface (like transulcency); that is my current understanding. This isn't to mention 'features' like copy, moving and deleting of files taking up to 100x longer on Vista machines, etc, etc. I have to laugh; I really don't understand how MS is expecting to survive. Anyway, I love Beryl because it is a faster and optimized version of what Vista was meant to be; and it is free... as in not costing literally thousands of dollars just to install. Anyway, enough ranting, I'm closing with a final screenie.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Future...

IPLv70 just finished making this awesome webpage for me to blog on and I figured what better way to christen my blog with a rant eight (count 'em eight) years in the making.

Ok, a bit of context: I am currently a Ph.D. student in Maths; and I have been teaching various parts of courses in university maths and physics for eight years now (starting in my second year of undergrad.). I have run tutorials/recitations on subjects ranging from discrete maths to graduate partial differential equations to quantum mechanics to electromagnetism on two different continents. While this is nothing special, almost every graduate student in any subject has to do some teaching, I have summarized my experience to give weight to the following statement.

I have seen the future for science and engineering and I AM AFRAID.

As you may have guessed, most of the students I've taught are of the engineering/computer science mentality. Yes, some are maths and physics majors; but they are the vast minority of my students. Anyway, I usually end up teaching differential equations to these budding, eager minds of tomorrow; this is usually the last math course many engineering students will ever have to take. It's not important to understand what differential equations are beyond the fact that they play the central role in physics which, in turn, is the base of all engineering sciences.

Let me come back to the reason why I am afraid. I would not be concerned if students struggled with differential equations; it can be a pretty tough course and quite dry for those who are not fascinated by maths like I am. I am afraid because many of these budding engineers can't do simple algebra; some can't even manipulate fractions. This isn't so prevalent with my students in Australia (where I currently go to school/teach), universities are much more selective on this continent than they are in the US (due to the fact that you can still get a nice trade job that's protected by the gov't with a HS or community college degree... but I'll go into that another time). Anyway, by the time students get into one of my classes, they have been weeded down considerably more than anything in the US system; and hence, they typically do very well in my tutorials.

Now, before I tell you about students in the US, keep in mind that is where I did my undergrad. Instead of giving you a whole long spiel, let me give you a snapshot of the last class I taught in the US. The class I was assigned to was a honors level course in partial differential equations. This was a third/fourth year course that only the most outstanding undergraduates were allowed to take. Almost all of my students were engineers. Make no mistake, this course was hard... but these were the brightest students in one of the top applied maths/engineering universities in the US (the campus was 35k-40k students). Not ONE student got a perfect score on ANY homework throughout the entire semester. That's right, there wasn't a single perfect score in that class. What was worse was something like half of those students didn't have basic algebra skills. A few couldn't consistently manipulate fractions.

So, let me recap here. What I last observed was that the very top eschelon of engineering students, students who were being groomed to go into engineering design for disciplines ranging from civil to aerospace engineering could barely do algebra in their final maths course at Uni. This SCARES me. These people will be designing the aeroplanes, cars, bridges and electronics of tomorrow and most of them don't have a mastery of the most basic levels of algebra.

If you think I'm over-reacting, take a look at this:

This was the Tacoma Narrows bridge located in Washington State. This bridge was built in 1940 and literally got blown apart due to bad civil engineering. Essentially, the winds on the canal the bridge spanned caused the bridge to start torquing and oscillating in just the right manner that caused the bridge literally to shake itself apart. Technically, the winds drove a structural resonance in the bridge that caused it to rip itself apart. This phenomena could have been avoided if the engineers did a proper analysis that is essentially based on simple differential equations. Now... if your engineers can't do algebra... they sure as heck can't do differential equations and thus they can't prevent things like this from happening. Scary huh? Now imagine the analogy for aeroplanes: if this type of phenomena isn't properly accounted for, it correlates to the wings on the aeroplane vibrating out of control (yes they can vibrate at very high frequencies) until the literally rip themselves apart. In the case of a passenger jet, this would also mean the fuselage would be ripped apart as the wing goes straight through the body of the plane. Scared yet? Oh oh! Let's not forget how Nasa lost a several million dollar satellite because engineers couldn't convert units in a thrust calculation. Not only that, when they realized the satellite was going off course, THEY DID IT AGAIN! Subsequently, that satellite was permanently lost. Yeah, Nasa engineering couldn't figure out how to multiply by a conversion factor. If you aren't scared by now, there is something wrong with you.

Personally, I love flying and used to have the highest confidence in the structure and design of modern aeroplanes. After teaching so many engineering students; I now can't help tensing up whenever I'm on a plane in turbulence.