What’s better, small or big?

Sunday, February 12th, 2006

To start out at a small software firm, or to go with one of the big guys? I’m wondering myself what the right decision is, what advice I’d give someone.

On the one hand, big guys mean bigger projects, more formally managed projects, and at least from that point of view, harder “software engineering” problems.

Small firms are less formally managed, but you may be pushing some technology to the limit, rather than just providing some service (however essential it might be) to the company. It’s the software that matters, not “the System.” And you’ll probably be working with better coders. (The best coders fill up the small shops, whereas they are just diamonds in the rough at the bigger shops).

In either case, this is turning into one of those things your parents always warned you about. You know, when they say it isn’t about the company, but it’s about you and what you put into it. Just like college was. I honestly could have gotten just as much out of college with a library card and Internet connection, and lots of free time.

Now that I’m moving up to the “real world,” I keep thinking: no matter what I do, it’s gonna be my responsibility to grow my skills and knowledge, and no one else’s.

It’s definitely going to be an interesting year…

Site cross-pollination – check out h2h

Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

I just wanted to mention that earlier today I finally got hand tracking working on my final project for my Motion Capture / Computer Vision class. You can now connect a webcam to your computer, load up my GTK+ program, and watch boxes with crosshairs follow your hands accurately as you move them across the screen.

Pretty awesome, no? Check out the project if you haven’t yet, its MoinMoin wiki is here. I might post up a video of it in action soon.

It uses a clever skintone detection algorithm across the RGB colorspace, along with clever segmentation of the regions of interest to determine the cardinal direction a hand is moving in and retargeting the box to the new area and running the algorithm again. I am quite happy with the results. It can only get better, but it’s already pretty fun to play with.

Disclosure: I have never read “Design Patterns”

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

But I decided I will now. Gonna buy this introduction plus the original by the Gang of Four in the next couple of days. Shame on me for waiting this long.

Slashdot comes through for once: on the viability of open source “business”

Monday, November 21st, 2005

There’s also a larger problem with this approach – it sucks for small companies trying to become bigger.

If you are only able to profit off of service contracts, you can’t ‘write once, reach many’ like you can with COTS software. Moreover, companies like IBM and Novell which have large established sales and service teams will win all the larger contracts.

If you write a great peice of software, and then have to sell, educate the customer AND hire/train all the workforce, how much time are you going to have to devote to Rev. 2 of your world beating product?

Whenever folks talk about OSS in the context of markets, I think it should be with a jaundiced eye towards our “helpmates” at IBM, Novell, SAP/MySQL and Sun.

Ultimately, IBM et al are about making money for shareholders, if they didn’t see that as the likley outcome, they would not be out there pimping OSS.

I think a world where software is only ‘sold’ in the context of a service contract is bad for the next great idea. OSS is great in its place, but to preclude software for sale isn’t the answer.

The truth hurts for Free Software zealots, but it’s the truth.

Free Software isn’t about eliminating proprietary software, at least it shouldn’t be. It should be about developing a free system for development, learning, and sharing, because we can.

The MDI Plague and Window Management Woes

Saturday, November 19th, 2005

There is a nice article on Wikipedia that discusses the multiple document interface, a horrible hack that took hold in the Windows world to deal with the fact that Microsoft’s default window manager was inadequate to handle multiple windows existing under the same application.

I think Mac OS/OS X handles the MDI plague best by simply grouping all application windows under a single application class, with a single menubar. But usability experts have debated whether that makes the most sense, since the menubar can change, for example, depending on what window is in focus. I think users get used to that, and it also allows the menubar to be as long as necessary while the window can remain as small as necessary. That’s a nice win.

However, given our current model on *nix/Windows of menubars for every reasonably complex window, and given the lack of the MDI hack in GTK+, we do have a mess for applications that need more than one window to operate properly, i.e. Glade and The Gimp.

What I’ve been doing is giving these programs their own workspace as a workaround. That seems quite greedy of them, and indeed it is. What’s more, however, is that it’s unusable. Even when I switch to my Glade workspace, I see 4 windows in my taskbar, each with the same icon and with the following names: “Glade: h2h”, “Properties: image95”, “Widget Tree”, “h2h”. The first three are actually part of the Glade window class, and if I enable Metacity’s taskbar grouping, I see them as part of the same group. The last one, however, is just my actual window, and so is separate.

This is good–but I only get some form of usability when I actually enable window grouping. The thing is, in Metacity you can’t enable window grouping on a per-application basis. It’s all, sometimes, or nothing. Sometimes means metacity only groups windows when I’m running out of space. Otherwise it’s either on or off.

The thing is, grouping isn’t just about space saving. It’s about being able to perform window manager operations on a group of windows, i.e minimize all and maximize all.

This doesn’t even solve all problems: alt+tab still shows me all 4 glade windows, which can be quite confusing since only one comes into focus at a time. But that’s a separate issue, separate debate.

Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of Metacity just “figuring out” when to group my windows together, it let me just press a hotkey “Group all X windows on this workspace”, where X is the application I’m currently in?

I’ve decided this feature is so valuable, I may just hack metacity to add it. It will at least provide a path for solving the MDI nonsense.

Update: check out these screenies of a “different” approach to MDI written in GTK. It’s called GTK ADI.

Met Runar, Discussed Software

Saturday, November 12th, 2005

I met with Runar (he’ll have a blog soon, I swear) today, and we discussed open source, Python, and all related goodness over coffee and vegetarian lunch free-riding on the ‘sNice wireless network.

We spent about 3 hours there, just talking about Runar’s project, “sqlstring”, my ideas about inferred typing and static source code analysis in Python, Python’s niceness in general, user interface toolkits, AJAX being a big, nasty hack, and web application frameworks in Java and Python. Our discussion really degrenerated into praise of vim once we discovered that we were both happy users. Text editors really bring people together.

Runar kind of convinced me that trying to infer all the types of objects is very “unpythonic,” which I guess is true since it discourages the crazy stuff you can do with Python. Maybe the best thing to do is judiciously eval code, as was my original impulse for getting nice completion out of Python? Not sure.

Or maybe I should just give up the idea and accept the fact that vim plus ipython is just about as good as it gets. That seems like a cop-out, though.

Regardless, Runar seemed somewhat willing (only half-willing) perhaps to give a small talk for Free Coders on Python, I’ll see if I can convince him that it’ll be fun. I suppose I could give the talk myself, but I already do all the talkin’.

User interfaces with GTK+ and Glade

Friday, November 11th, 2005

I’ve been hacking up a user interface for my motion capture/computer vision project called “Hand2Hand,” found here.

At first I was gonna do the user interface in Python and have the image processing done in C, but then I decided that the user interface was simple enough that I should just give GTK+ in “pure C” form a try. Of course, I used Glade, which drastically reduces the amount of annoying code for things like Vboxes and Hboxes and Containers you have to write. In fact, using Glade, interface design becomes somewhat straightforward in C. Which is weird, because C seems like it was never built for user interface design, but the g_signal system makes it easy to catch events that occur in your program, and GTK+ is high enough abstracted that you can do pretty well. I don’t know how well GTK+ scales for large programs (i.e. many dialogs, many lists, etc.)–in that case, I think I’d definitely pick a higher level language.

Looking forward to how this application may turn out. OpenCV looks like a pretty awesome library.

Outfoxed and trust networks, revisted

Monday, November 7th, 2005

I think everyone should revisit Outfoxed, if you’re interested in a truly interesting new approach to bookmarking and web browsing that actually takes advantage of all this “Web 2.0” hype and nonsense.

I just mentioned this to Free Coders on the mailing list yesterday.

The application of “trust-based networks” is very wide. I think it’s the “trust” factor that makes eBay successful (perhaps even viable!). New services like Pandora and recommend music by trusting that users who rate music are being honest. eBay users buy from trusted sellers by assuming that those who rate the sellers are honest. These assumptions may be fallible, but they’re better than nothing. And it’s only natural that this trend would spread to web browsing.

I think trust networks should be applied to political organizing, both to reduce risk of people showing up just to start trouble, and also to enhance the perceived value of a meeting based on the combined trust of its attendees. I’m going to think about this a bit more in the next few days.

(Meanwhile, I got in touch with Runar from the Google talk with Alex Martelli, who is working on an awesome library for Python called sqlstring. Check it out. I’ve also been thinking about expanding on my earlier ideas on Python inferred types; we’ll see if I find the time.)

Talk on Outsourcing

Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

I recently gave a talk on outsourcing for Computer Advocacy @ NYU, entitled:

“Offshore Outsourcing: Roots in Corporate Power.”

It was meant to be an introduction to the subject, to precede the film screening we had of Greg Spotts’ “American Jobs.” I’ve posted the talk’s slides to my web server in SXI (27K) and PDF (212K) formats.

In the talk, I tried to show how outsourcing can be seen as stemming from the gradual ascendancy of corporate power in the world, beginning with the first laws enabling corporate personhood to today, when corporations pit governments against one another for who can provide the least humane economic regulatory system (which are then spun as “pro-business”–think, for example, of China’s inexistent environmental legislation, and how many high-pollution businesses have moved their shops there).

When corporations first gained rights as legal persons, they began to win cases in which they secured their right not to be regulated, and then began to win ideologues with a vision of the corporation which freely moves around the world, hiring all the labor it can find. Key to this vision, however, is that governments are helpless and defenseless–that they should not have the power to regulate corporations, since any such regulation creates an unfair situation in the global neoliberal “free market.” I try to make it clear that the end goal of this experiment is a global corporate state, in which labor laws and life/work balance simply doesn’t exist, as we all strive to be “more competetive” for corporations whose urge to lower cost will never disappear.

p.s. check out the book mentioned in my talk, Gangs of America by Ted Nace.

Got bored with Descartes and Spinoza, wrote a patch to powernowd

Saturday, October 15th, 2005

While I was studying, I noticed that I wasn’t exactly happy with the cooling/cpu frequency scaling on my laptop. I use a nice program called powernowd which scales my CPU speed up and down depending on various factors related to system load. But I didn’t like how my setup was kind of “all or nothing.” When I am plugged into AC, I switch to “performance” mode which just runs me at 100% CPU frequency all the time (making my laptop hot, my fan noisy, but my machine fast), whereas when I’m unplugged I switch to “userspace” mode, which lets powernowd kick in, and he jumps about from 400mhz to the full 1.6Ghz based on load, keeping the machine cool but also making it feel a bit sluggish since if I’m overloading my CPU at 400mhz it’s already “too late” to pump it up, it will have already felt slow for at least an instant.

So I have this conflict: hot and responsive, or cool and sluggish. I thought, well, I must be able to come to a compromise.

I decided to take a look at powernowd’s code, and it turns out it’s written quite straightforwardly. Within 30 minutes of tinkering, I had a patch that did what I wanted. With another 30 minutes, I polished it and made it quite commitable.

Basically, I added a new mode called “COOLING” to powernowd, which runs your CPU a few notches below your full frequency (which I call your “cool_spot”), based on the following approach:

  • if you have two frequencies available, you normally run with the lowest.
  • if you have three frequencies available, you normally run with the second from highest.
  • if you have four frequencies available, you normally run with the third from highest.
  • if you have five or more frequencies available, you normally run with the fourth from highest.
  • if your load goes above your specified trigger (“highwater” in the code), you jump to highest frequency. When it lowers (“lowwater”), you go down to your cool_spot, but not below it.

On my machine, I have 5 frequencies (1.6Ghz, 1.5Ghz, 1.4Ghz, 1.2Ghz, and 400Mhz), and so I normally am running at 1.2Ghz. This new COOLING mode runs while I’m plugged in, and keeps my machine nice and cool but still lets it immediately respond when I want to do something, like a workspace switch.

I then hacked the init.d script to have a BATTERY and AC mode, and switch between AGGRESSIVE and COOLING modes accordingly. Now, when I’m unplugged, I get the best battery life and pretty good performance, and when I’m plugged in I get a cool notebook with good performance.

I’ll probably post the patch after my midterms…