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.