Sunday, December 19

Lithuanian (AltGr) keyboard for Windows

In GNU/Linux I usually use an AltGr-based keyboard layout for entering Lithuanian characters. That is, you can enter Lithuanian diacritics by holding down AltGr (right Alt)). I had lived with separate modes for entering English and Lithuanian until I found out that having a single layout was a huge relief.

Windows does ship with a Lithuanian layout where AltGr switches to English characters, but I use the English layout much more, so I need it the other way around. So, I grabbed Microsoft's Keyboard Layout Creator and made the layout I needed. The result is available on a GitHub repository. You may also download the installer directly.

In Linux, keymaps, being plain text files, are more transparent, but to be fair, in this case the Windows way wins. Not only do you get a GUI tool to create the layout, but also an installer can be generated automatically for deployment of the layout.

Mobile App Camp

On the last weekend my team and I participated in the Mobile App Camp (link in Lithuanian) organized by Omnitel, which is one of the dominant mobile operators in Lithuania. The event seems to be part of Omnitel's push for increasing the share of smartphones in the Lithuanian market, which has been lagging behind the European trends.

Our team consisted of Povilas Kytra, who is behind the TV.LT project, Mantas Kanaporis from A-Gain and me. In the weekend we built an app that shows the TV programme for the coming day for all the Lithuanian TV channels. (The app is not yet available on the Android Market, but we are working on it.)

Here's a screenshot of the main screen of the application:


The app was built using the standard Android Development Toolkit on Eclipse. The app gets the content from a Rails-based server containing a simple database and couple JSON views.

I had some experience of developing for Android before, but it was mostly about working with graphics on canvas, while in this app we used some standard GUI controls (with some nifty styling).

For the source control, we used a private repository on bitbucket.org. That one was a huge letdown: a 'hg push' or 'hg pull' would take ages (or at least that's how it seemed to me in comparison to GitHub), and we had no end of trouble with merging, partly due to the number of commands needed to get the repositories in sync (hg pull; hg update; hg merge; hg commit; hg push). Even Subversion would probably have worked better.

The event itself was great fun. It had been a while since I had last coded intensively for the entire weekend. There were quite a few decent ideas presented by the participants, and some of them were successfully implemented.

The rating system was somewhat disappointing though. The event was supposed to be a contest, with four predefined criteria for winning apps (still available on the website): uniqueness in the Lithuanian market, magnitude of the target group, value provided to the user and creativity. In the end, however, the jury nominated apps for three different awards (best app built on an existing database, best app built anew, and the "hope" nomination) with one app awarded from each category. Our app scored second in the first nomination, so we did not get an award, even though we would probably have been in the global top three, were the original criteria upheld.

To be fair, we did not stand much chance against the winner in our category, an app based on vaistai.lt, which sported a database of pharmaceuticals with detailed usage instructions, information about drug stores in Lithuania with maps and inventory status, and even a barcode scanner. Hats off to them. Another winner was "Alaus radaras" ("Beer radar") with locations of local beer bars and inventory info. The third one was "3 milijonai teisėjų" (Three million judges"), which, as far as I understood, was a conception for a basketball-throwing game (basketball is very big in Lithuania, it is a second national religion).

To conclude, it was a fun event and I wish we will be having more of those in Vilnius, even though the Monday after the long weekend was very unproductive.

Tuesday, December 7

Windows (III): Packaging & nitpicks

(This is a part of a series of posts on my recent experience with Windows; see Windows (I)  and Windows (II): User Interface.)

Every GNU/Linux desktop distribution hangs on a package management system as a foundation, and as a result the packaging systems are quite advanced, while Windows is stuck with those pesky installation wizards. There have been several stabs to implement a package system for Windows (see here), but none seem to have caught on.

There are three main disadvantages on not having good package management: tedium of manual installation, no dependency resolution and no system-wide automatic updates. In practice they are less important than it might seem. Installation wizards are indeed tedious, but in terms of time I found them to be quick enough to get through. Moreover, apps tend to be less specialized and more encompassing than Linux utilities, and as a result you do not need to install as many things as in Linux. For the same reason dependency resolution is not as important: there are few dependencies in general. As for automatic updates, most high-profile apps have integrated mechanisms to deal with that, however, I found that those mechanisms tended to result in nagging the user with messages. After a while I started ignoring the update notifications. I suspect that happens to many users.

The one thing that Windows has going for it is simplicity. You download installation binaries and you run them, and that's it. Linux package systems tend to be very complicated, and if (when) they break, you will need serious sysadmin chops to deal with the problem. Also installing specific versions (either older ones, or newer ones not yet available in the distro) of specific apps/libraries can be unnecessarily complicated, and the dependency graph limits your actions. In my experience, Windows does well enough without all this complexity as long as you don't reinstall your system too often.

As for the other complaints, I frequently run into the restriction of moving/editing files opened by another application. Coming from Linux, that one is stupidly annoying. Furthermore, it is frustrating not to be able to move inactive (or stuck) background windows. I really miss my unified filesystem namespace. Also there's quite a bit of nagging in general on Windows which I would rather do without. In the end, these are not dealbreakers though.

In my next (and probably final) post I will discuss software development on Windows.

Wednesday, December 1

Windows (II): User Interface

(This is a part of a series of posts on my recent experience with Windows. See Windows (I) for the first post.)

The Windows user interface is definitely acceptable. The charge that it is too colorful or toy-like is completely unfounded. Rather, perhaps geeks should spend less time looking at their gray Motif boxy controls. In terms of speed, the UI is generally more responsive than on Linux, though maybe less so than previous versions of Windows (that could be because my Intel video IGP is a slouch).

An interesting observation is that apps are almost as heterogeneous in terms of interface as in GNU/Linux, even though the standard controls are ubiquitous. Even apps by Microsoft can be separated into different "generations" of UI (e.g., folder windows, Control Panel, Microsoft Office).  Also it is clear that generally more attention is paid to UI and usability by app developers, although perhaps not as much as in Apple products.

The greatest asset and the worst offender at the same time, by far, is the overall GUI orientation of the system. Needless to say, it aids discoverability, but reduces scripting capabilities. Problem is, even if you do not need to write scripts per se, command-line actions are useful because they can be repeated and chained very easily, using shell history. In Windows, I occasionally find myself doing much repetitive clicking that would likely be an "Alt-Tab Up Enter" (or sometimes just one key) sequence in Linux. Moreover, the lack of good standartized scripting is a huge pain during app deployments which tend be repetetive. I did not like Windows on servers before, and I do not like it now.

To be fair, my complaints about scripting capabilities may be partly moot because I have only used vanilla Windows batch files, and have not looked at all into Windows PowerShell, which is a new-generation scripting tool. The examples are fairly impressive. The language has a nice look and is clearly powerful, but also looks somewhat complicated which keeps me away until I find a good reason to learn it.

Initially I missed workspaces. The one app I found that was supposed to emulate workspaces would take several seconds to switch the workspace, so it was completely unusable. I learned to do without them rather quickly though. Actually I'm starting to think that using many workspaces is a sign that you are doing too many things at once and also they are an invitation to distraction (how many of you have a "blog reader" workspace right aside your "work" workspace, ready at your fingertips at a moment's notice?). Workspaces do have one killer feature: you can jump directly to a given workspace instead of cycling through windows. This is very useful when working with more than two apps, in which case without workspaces you are forced to think about the morphing Alt-Tab queue when switching windows.

Speaking about UI generations, I much prefer the ribbon toolbars of the new Office. The still-prevalent toolbars with zillions of old-style 32x32 (or 16x16) toolbar icons are really ugly. Typically only a few of the toolbar buttons are actually useful, and they make the user interface unnecessarily cramped and busy. The move to fewer and larger toolbar buttons is definitely on the right track.

The explorer context menus also tend to grow crazy long. Every app wants to get in there, and in the end you have a context menu that takes up half a screen vertically. Needless to say, most of those items are not used much. Sure, you can opt out during app installation, but at that time it is difficult to say how useful the context menu item will be, and there's no easy way (i.e. easier than just ignoring the cruft) to remove the entries afterwards.

In my coming posts I will cover package management and application development on Windows.

Thursday, November 25

Windows (I)

I have been helping with an overdue web app project lately, and the project uses ASP.NET MVC, so I have had to use Windows for most of my day. Since I had been using GNU/Linux almost exclusively since 2003, this is quite an adventure (imagine trying out GNU/Linux after a seven year break). It is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be, even though I am using the not-so-well-liked Windows Vista which came pre-installed with my computer.

The first thing that struck me is how much less important the OS is when compared to the situation a few years ago: a lot of the applications I depend on are web-based (GMail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Springpad), and the ones that are not web-based are multiplatform and installable with a few clicks (GVim comes to mind). In fact, I do not think there is a single piece of software that I really missed in Windows. (An interesting corollary of this observation is that it should be equally easy to migrate to GNU/Linux nowadays.)

The one thing where the operating system matters is hardware support, and I do not think I have to say much here. After years of whack-a-mole GNU/Linux upgrades which would fix support for one component but break another (for things as essential as video and sound), it was absolutely weird having all hardware work properly at the same time (sound after suspend! no video glitches! high quality webcam picture!). There is no point recounting the reasons why hardware support in Linux is as it is, but now I am starting to think that Linux users do tend to suffer from a sort of Stockholm syndrome regarding hardware support; I know I did.

The other important thing that operating systems do is resource management, and I did not have problems here either. In fact, I liked the virtual memory behaviour much better: when Windows ran out of memory (I had filled up the smallish Windows partition and there was no space left for the swap file to grow), it started rejecting malloc calls from applications, but the system was kept alive and responsive, and I could close apps and clean up the mess without much trouble. In Ubuntu, with the default settings, whenever a runaway process ate too much RAM, the system would start thrashing so hard that it would be very difficult to fix. My standard procedure (switch to text console, log in, find and kill app using command line tools) would take minutes and was so annoying that I would sometimes just reset the computer instead. And in the end, even if I did not reset, an important app would possibly be killed anyway. I know there are kernel parameters for tweaking this behaviour (swappiness?), but I never got around to figuring them out as this situation does not arise that frequently, and testing is painful.

I did not like the Windows FS security model. ACLs are much more complicated and thus less transparent that the Unix approach, even though they are more powerful. My main gripe with them is that I do not know a good way to display them easily (as with ls -l in Unix). I have not had to deal with them much though.

I have had no stability issues. It seems that this argument should be put to rest.

Long blog posts are annoying, so I will leave the user interface, the developer experience and my complaints with the system for separate posts (edit: you can now read my next post about the UI).

Sunday, November 21

Laptop trouble

My trusty somewhat-old laptop has been under the weather lately. It will not boot when it's cold, and it's fairly picky. ~20 °C seems too cold already; so I have to heat it up at little.
Now that winter is coming, this needs to be done almost every morning, and that is extremely annoying. Does anybody have an idea of what could be wrong? It seems that the problem is not just a loose connection, as the laptop goes up in stages:

1) when the power button is pressed the power LED will blink for a split-second and nothing will happen,
2) the LED will light up for slightly longer, but the laptop still will not boot,
3) the laptop starts booting but shuts off spontaneously after while on the BIOS screen,
4) the laptop goes through the BIOS screen, but shuts down before showing the boot menu.
Past that, apparently the CPU generates enough heat for stable operation.
This is fairly complicated behaviour for a hardware problem. I wonder, maybe the power supply is at fault? Any ideas, anyone? This is a good excuse to buy a new laptop, but I would rather not splurge right before Christmas season.

Monday, November 15

Verdi's Requiem

The choir I sing in (Pro Musica) will be performing on January 22nd in Bremen, Germany. Together with two local choirs we will perform Verdi's Requiem, which is absolutely fabulous. See for yourself:

(Also try Solti's version for better sound quality, but no video.)
It's going to be a busy month preparing for the concert. Verdi's melodies are not complicated, but he's crazy with dynamics: I think it's the first time I've seen a quintuple pianissimo (ppppp) or a quadruple fortissimo (ffff) in sheet music.

Wednesday, November 3

Living a monastic life for 10 days

About a month ago, at the end of August, I finished a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. This was probably one of the more extreme activities I have ever participated in, and it's well worth a blog post.

I found out about the course in a ridiculously trivial way, by following a link in a Reddit comment (I wonder if I could track down that comment...). The website referenced by the comment contained (almost) no new-agey mumbo-jumbo and looked legit in general. I also appreciated the fact that this was a relatively serious and intensive course, which should be enough to form a reasonably founded opinion on meditation in general. When learning sporadically, in small bits, it is hard to say whether the material itself is no good, or you just do not understand it yet and need to study more; I was quite skeptical towards the practice, but wanted to give it fair trial. I was quite impressed that there was a course available in Lithuania, a few hours by train from where I live. Finally, the course was free (by tradition Vipassana is taught without monetary compensation). I went ahead and signed up for a standard introductory 10-day course.

Vipassana (also called insight meditation) is a meditation technique allegedly coming back from Gautama Buddha himself (well, all the traditions like to claim that origin...). It has been experiencing a renaissance, partly due to an organization set up by a meditation teacher S. N. Goenka which has founded meditation centers all over the world.

The essence of Vipassana is a method of teaching your mind to act instead of merely reacting to outside stimuli such as pain, anger of other people or hardships. The technique provided is to monitor your sensations, watch them with equanimity and suspend any reaction, and slowly it sinks in that all things are temporary and you can choose what to react to and how. That's the basic idea; I don't want to go deep into exposition of Vipassana as there is plenty of information about that (also at the same time the information is almost useless because you have to experience it to really understand it). Instead, I will sure some of the more personal remarks and experiences.

The course took place in an cottage near Kretinga, housing around 50 people. The living conditions were absolutely great, and this would have been a true holiday if not for the regime and the rules. The day would start very early, at 4 AM (ending at around 9:30 PM), and we'd do about 12 hours of meditation in total inbetween, with occasional breaks, but the most gruesome part is that no communication at all was allowed with anyone except the manager of the camp (and the teacher during a specified time). That gets to you after a few days, but still, there are people around you, so it's bearable; on the other side, the senses (touch, smell) become very acute. The food was taken care of by volunteers (students who have finished the course), and I could say it was quite good actually. The goal, of course, was to keep the environment from interfering with meditation, and I think it was done very well.

The presentation of the actual technique also did not disappoint. Each day a new step would be introduced, with the whole day to practice before moving on. Looking back, the pacing worked well. Every day in the evening there were lectures on theory. They were somewhat informative, but also sometimes annoyingly primitive and verbose. The little mistakes, holes in logic and slight doses of mumbo-jumbo almost drove me nuts by the middle of the course, until I learned not to react to them. Despite the shortcomings of presentation, the simplicity and lucidity of the practice and lightness of theoretical baggage really appealed to me. The whole organisation in general gave the impression of complete transparency, with no strings attached, no financial interests in play and no agitation for further involvement.

While there are many meditation techniques, I am happy that I've gone with Vipassana in particular for one reason: Vipassana meditation uses no artificial tools to help you concentrate, such as mantras, visualisations, counting, etc. Such methods make concentration much easier, but they also create a dependence on the methods themselves. I appreciate the purity of Vipassana in this regard.

Not everything in the practice is roses though. First, a particular worldview supported by Vipassana is presented as "scientific" and supposedly "the right way to live", and if even if you don't agree, "the truth" of Vipassana will become obvious to you with time. This is a distinctive mark of ideologies. The thing that makes everything break is the reincarnation, which is generally assumed as true, even if it's not shoved down the student's throat. Every rationalization of a world view has a "white lie" (usually related to the concept of eternity somehow) at the core, and in this context reincarnation is it. Given what we know now about the relationship between the mind and the body, reincarnation is absolutely ridiculous and completely untenable, and that breaks all "moral" reasoning for practicing meditation as opposed to doing something else. I'm not the first to bring up this problem, there's plenty of material about it online.

The second slippery idea is that the concept of "negative happiness" is central in Vipassana, that is: happiness is defined as lack of suffering. This point is not that unreasonable actually, from personal experience I could indeed call the state of non-suffering happiness, but there is definitely something missing when compared to the state of mind when I'm truly, positively happy. Whether you consider that something important or not, it's definitely there.

Third, Vipassana suggests that it is only you who is at fault when your inner state is disturbed; the world affects you as much as you let it, and in order to find happiness you should learn to control the "interface" rather than the outside world, which will usually not behave as you want. This may be correct, but sometimes it could just be easier to fix the world rather than change yourself, and I have the suspicion that it this is much more frequently the case in the modern world compared to the pre-modern environment. (This is one of the points which break when reincarnation is rejected, as with reincarnation you have the whole eternity to fix yourself.)

While the complaints are serious, they do not mean complete rejection of Vipassana but rather integration among the various other techniques available. The actual meditation technique is still great for gaining and maintaining mental composure, reducing anxiety and improving well-being. Now, if I could only get used to meditating regularly...

If you have the chance, I highly recommend you try out an introductory 10-day course. There is little to lose and a lot to gain. And if you do go ahead, I have two hints. First, do not even think about leaving the course before it's over. Any hardships are temporary and will be overcome quickly. Second, use the time with the teacher, those interactions were very helpful to me. Also, given the "noble silence", talking to someone once in a while will not hurt.

Thursday, July 29

Python course projects

This spring I read a course on Python in Vilnius University, Department of Mathematics and informatics. The course was not mandatory, which I suspect is one of the reasons why my students were quite a bright and motivated bunch. I began the course with a brief introduction to the Python language and the standard library, then dedicated a few lectures to Django and in the remainder I covered various libraries (GUI toolkits, Pygame) and techniques (testing, debugging, optimization).

One of the major tasks of the course (and the deciding factor in the final valuation) was to develop a project using Python. The students were given complete freedom over the topic of the project and the tools used, as long as Python was involved. The quality of the result varied, of course; had I given concrete tasks, the low bar would definitely have been higher. However, I am happy with how things turned out.

Probably the best-executed project was 1000 Online, an online multiplayer card game (see rules). It was developed by Vytautas Karpavičius. Vytautas apparently had prior experience with Python and Django, nevertheless, the quality of the app (and the code behind it) is impressive. Among the other projects, Gegute.lt, a Lithuanian clone of Reddit is still up and running. It's nothing too fancy, but looks quite clean for a university project. Other projects perhaps were not perfectly executed, but were very interesting conceptually. Jonas Keturka developed a bot (BitBucket) for the online strategy game Travian. Marius Damarackas developed a web-based guess-the-song game. He used YouTube for the song material and Last.fm (IIRC) to make you guess among similar songs, so that it would not be too easy. Andrius Chamentauskas developed a Puyo Pop clone (GitHub) with PyGame, complete with multiplayer and an AI. Paulius Budzinskas worked towards his course paper by developing a bacteria movement modelling and visualisation app (GitHub; Lithuanian only). David Abdurachmanov developed a spell-checker bot for WikiAnswers.com, with a really baroque and sophisticated architecture. I believe he has applied to Google Summer of Code with that project; I wonder how that is working out.

For reference, you can find links to all student repositories on GitHub/BitBucket in this list. Beware: some of them may be documented/commented in Lithuanian.

Another interesting effect of the course was that people started using Python in other related courses, for example in Mathematical Modelling and Numeric Methods. I even heard that the lecturer was impressed and expressed interest in learning Python. Another lecturer, this time a statistician, was interested in teaching and using SAGE at lab practice. Feeling such 'ripples' going through the department sure felt nice.

By the way, the university also offers lectures on Ruby, read by Saulius Grigaitis. I took some inspiration from him for the course form and content.

Monday, May 24

Riga marathon

I participated in the Riga marathon and ran the full 42km! The time (4:39) isn't great at all, but I'm happy to have finished at all!