Archive for Life

Going Apples

2013-01-24 8:42

So, I got myself a new laptop.

The main reason was that I wanted more powerful and – most importantly – slightly bigger portable computer. Up until now I used a cute 11.6″ machine that claimed to be a gaming laptop but worked pretty well as all-around development kit. The various trials and tribulations I had to overcome to make Ubuntu work reasonably well on this thing (it’s officially “not supported”) significantly increased my skills in tweaking Linux. And sometimes things worked so well that I actually managed to accomplish some work!

Nevertheless, the small size started to irk me quite a bit; the (small) additional mobility just wasn’t worth it. So this time I went for something just slightly bigger, but with a lot more pixels.


Alas, I got a 13″ Retina display MacBook Pro. Admittedly, I was a bit reluctant to be a semi-early adopter here, because the way increased resolution seems to work on these screens is a bit confusing. I mean, it’s apparently very natural to almost anyone: things look nicer, end of story. However, for someone who remembers how back in the days the difference between, say, 800×600 and 1024×768 made such a huge impact on UI scaling, the Retina’s quadrupling of pixel count may sounds pretty scary.

Just recall that the standard width for many website layouts is still around 960px, which translates to a little more than 1/3 (!) of Retina display’s width. Does it mean the web comes with big slabs of wasted whitespace and tiny column of content in between?…

Not really, as it turns out. By default, Retina cheats: the real (millimeter) size of UI elements is still roughly the same as on normal 13″ display running something around 1280×800. For typical GUI applications involving standard components and some text rendering, it’s indeed just making the interface sharper and more vivid. For pixel-perfect apps (such as games with set resolution), it seems the default solution is to stretch them proportionately; things might not look as nice then but they still work well.

Where the Retina display really shines is any serious text “processing”, be it reading websites, writing articles or – of course – programming. The additional level of detail might not be noticeable at first, however the difference becomes apparent when you look again on a screen with lower pixel density. There’s still some way to go in order to fluidly present even the smallest noticeable details to the sharpest of eyes, but it’s pretty short way.

I just shudder to think what resolution is needed to replicate the same sensation on 27″ or 30″ monitor :)

It’s Linux on the desktop, essentially

What about the operating system, though, the glorified OS X?

Besides handling that precious little screen very well – which cannot be said of some other systems – I don’t actually have much to say about it. With the rampant scavenging of UX concepts that goes back-and-forth between today’s platforms, the differences in look & feel of their graphical interfaces are mostly superficial. Whatever it is in the upper-right corner of your desktop – be it half-bitten apple, a rotated square or circle with dots – is unlikely to dictate the shape of your UI experience.

…Once you move the Dock to its proper position on the side, that is.

Under the hood, OS X is just a *nix, some say even more POSIX-y than what Linux currently is. This makes it a viable native choice for most developers, while the rest (i.e. those working with Microsoft products) can be accommodated via outstanding virtualization options. But all this goodness doesn’t come without few caveats.

Probably the biggest one is the horrendous functionality gap: lack of built-in package manager and installer. Life without apt-get really sucks, and the bottom-up effort coalesced into Homebrew cannot really make up for it. I was especially appalled when I had to revert to the old google-download-unpack method for installing new programs. Amazingly, the Mac App Store is still mostly useless some two years after its inception.

Will it blend?

Although I’m readily pointing out various quirks of the OS X platform here, I must say I’m not particularly concerned with them in the long term. I do not intended the Mac to become my primary system of choice, especially for development purposes. Its goal is to serve as handy portable computer, while simultaneously providing access to the third important platform to address any testing needs.

But that’s all aside of the most important perk: finally being able to visit those trendy coffee shops, of course! ;-)

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Author: Xion, posted under Computer Science & IT, Life » 3 comments

California State of Mind

2013-01-19 9:29

I can think of multiple ways to spend half a day – twelve hours – enjoyably and/or productively. Sitting in a slightly uncomfortable position inside a scarcely lit tin can soaring a few miles above the ground is unlikely to make it into top 10. But if that’s what is needed to get to the other side of the planet, so be it. Slightly torpid back muscles are hardly a set back, after all :)

San Francisco International AirportThat other side is San Francisco Bay Area, of course, where I’ve went to visit the Google mothership. Finding yourself so far away from home is uniquely surreal experience, I must say, but this place makes it a whole lot more unusual.

For a European like me, it’s nothing short of bizarre.

Imagine a fairly typical, middle-class suburban area, where buildings reach at most three or four floors. Some apartment complexes, detached houses, shops, restaurants, cinemas, maybe a mall and a park… Now imagine this goes on and on, for dozens of miles, all with the same low housing density and without an easy way to tell where one town ends and the other begins.
It sounds like a poorly thought-out result of uncontrolled urban sprawl in some mildly developed, emerging country. Except that there are four-line highways going across the whole area, regularly passed through by one of the fanciest, most luxurious and modern cars. A good number of them is powered by electric engines, by the way, and it’s not exactly problematic to find a parking spot where you could charge such a vehicle.

Not to mention that some of them actually drive by themselves

But you don’t have to be on the lookout for Google’s Priuses in order to see the logos of IT companies. They are literally everywhere. A hip startup might still be in the garage, but they will have billboard next to the freeway. (I’ve seen one from, for example).
Meanwhile, more established companies will have their buildings and campuses pretty much next to each other, often with big swaths of land left around for further expansion. And the most successful ones will make their hometowns’ names known worldwide, with Cupertino (Apple), Mountain View (Google) and Palo Alto (Facebook) standing out as prominent examples.

In all this high-tech and Web-crazed environment, I cannot help but wonder where’s one thing that you would surely expect to see here. Something that the IT crowd babbles about for quite some time now and doesn’t seem to stop anytime soon. That crucial stuff that makes the Internet go round.

Clouds. So far, I haven’t seen any.

The Year Gone By

2012-12-31 17:17

Times are tough. Everyone needs to spend most of their time scavenging food, warding off zombies and searching for survivors, so I’ll be brief with my obligatory, almost-traditional new year’s summary post.

The life

This will be in stark contrast with how freaking long this year has been for me, too. Long and very eventful, especially in the travel, relocation and job department. Suffice it to say, I switched countries more than once: from Poland to Netherlands, and then directly to Switzerland. Even with (supposedly) free movement of people in and around EU, this is still quite a cumbersome and time-consuming process.

When it comes to work, I discovered that I’m not actually very fond of squeezing UI and logic into tiny pocket devices. Distributed, server-side systems are turned out to be much more interesting and important to me, so I adjusted my job choices accordingly. And I like it a lot, especially since I started working in that hot new Internet startup ;)

The blog

Over the year, I’ve been trying to keep up with posting interesting stuff on regular basis. Although sometimes reality got in the way, I think I managed to publish at least a few nice pieces. I’m especially satisfied with:

End of 2012 also marks the period of (little over) a year when I’m writing this blog in English. As I’ve expected, making the language switch didn’t really have a negative impact on readership numbers.

However, I’m still getting occasional complaints about this very move, which is rather astonishing at this point. Nevertheless, I’ve spent some time thinking about this issue, the ways to reach out to non-international audience. Not promising anything at this point, but maybe in 2013 there will be something for you too :)

In meantime, enjoy the new year!

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Author: Xion, posted under Computer Science & IT, Life » 1 comment

Ultimate Tea Solution

2012-12-05 22:15

Programmers are known for using various, ahem, cognitive enhancers (all legal, of course), with coffee as probably the most popular. Well, I’m an avid tea drinker instead, and I’m always on lookout for new flavors, brewing techniques and equipment.

Today I’d like to present a perfect example of from the last category. I’ve found it purely by accident while on one of the many trips to IKEA that I’ve undertaken in the last few days. It’s an ingenious teapot that makes it super easy to brew tea, pour it and – finally – get rid of used-up leaves.
In the past I used several different types of pots with built-in strainers, as well as standalone infusers, and it was always the cleanup part that turned out to be the most cumbersome. Soaked tea leaves don’t come off easily from infusers’ metallic lattice, requiring to flush the remnants out with direct water stream and risk clogging up the sink (eventually).

Overall, it’s just messy, not very clever and hardly user-friendly.

They say it helps with coffee too,
but I find this fact irrelevant.

Fortunately, the teapot I have found has solved it in a much smarter way. There is no separate insert where the leaves should go. Instead, you are supposed to put them directly inside the glass container and pour water straight into it.

This, obviously, seems like an extremely old-fashioned way of brewing tea, but it is also one of the best ones. Leaves are given plenty of space here to spread the flavor throughout the whole pot, rather than being crumpled and confined to the small volume of typical infusers. As a result you may often shorten the brewing time while still getting a richer taste in the end.

Problems arise when you’d like to pour some tea into your cup or glass and you don’t fancy getting some of those pesky leaves alongside with it. This is also where the teapot in question shows its ingenuity – or more precisely, it’s the cap of it that does.

Designers have equipped it with a piston made of fine-grained lattice that goes up and down the pot’s cylindrical body. The idea is just bizarrely simple: once your tea has extracted enough goodness from the leaves floating within, you can just press the piston all the way down. This collects all stray leaves and keeps them conveniently at the bottom of the pot, so that nothing gets through when you try to fill your cup.

Cleaning is also very easy: you simply run some tap water through the piston and into the glass, flushing the former while keeping all the leaves inside the pot. Afterwards, you just flush everything down the toilet and wash the teapot normally (e.g. in dishwasher). It’s effective, clean and simple.

And with a steady supply of tea, your code will likely be so too! :)

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Author: Xion, posted under Life, Programming » 6 comments

Don’t Throw Old Books Away

2012-11-29 22:53

When moving in to a new flat just few days ago, I had to find a place for all the various IT books I’ve accumulated over the years. It’s not exactly a copious amount, but it was just enough to fill the shelves of quite big bookcase. Shuffling through them, I was surprised to find some really old ones, straight from the long forgotten era of Windows 9x.

Like these.

Many of the technologies they describe are long outdated (the different techniques for rendering 3D effects age particularly fast, for example). None of them seem to be completely phased out – you need to wait few decades for that, not just one – but I doubt they get used very much outside of maintenance of legacy systems. And definitely no one gets excited about, say, Delphi or Visual Basic now. That boat simply doesn’t float anymore, partially because its ocean – desktop platforms in general and Windows in particular – is slowly leaking away for quite some time now.

Does it mean all the books treating about those nigh-ancient subjects are little more than paper waste now? I wouldn’t be so sure. The whole purpose of IT books is far from being an up-to-date reference of anything. Bits over wire travel much faster than letters on paper, after all. It doesn’t happen very often that a developer needs to consult a book regularly, especially during a coding session. Although some timeless classics can be an exception, online documentation or sites like StackOverflow have replaced books for most intents and purposes.

Most – but not all. Some topics are better tackled practically if you first have a bit of theoretical foundation which you then iteratively refine after gaining more experience. You will finally put the book away, of course, but then you can still use it later to quickly revise your knowledge if need be. It doesn’t matter that it was standing dormant for many months or years, as long as it proves useful when there is urgent need to flip through its pages again.

What if you cannot even conceive how and when that prehistorical literature can be of any use whatsoever?… Well, I still wouldn’t be so quick with getting rid of it all. See, IT as a whole has this surprising tendency of going in circles, and periodically regurgitating old ideas into new forms and shapes. Hence the ability to generalize is important for long-term success in this field – at least the kind of success that’s more palpable than 15 minutes of Hacker News fame.

But to see patterns and connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of technology, you need have at least vague mental trace of all of them. And to verify you are not just seeing things, it’s often necessary to go back and read up again.

More often than not, that new thing will turn out to be just an old new thing.

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Author: Xion, posted under Computer Science & IT, Life, Thoughts » 1 comment

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Switzerland (Again)

2012-11-13 10:38

I had a pretty crazy period for the last week or so, and actually I still have a lot of the boring “real life” stuff to care of. Guess that’s what happens when you are switching states a little too often, at least for most practical purposes. I’m sure it will make for a good wrap-up post at the end of the year, but for now I find it a bit hectic.

Furthermore, it’s not only about getting around in a completely different country and surrounding – even considering how much the lush Dutch plains differ from alpine Switzerland. Mostly it comes to the fact that I have a lot of stuff to absorb, and make myself comfortable with, in order to get up-and-running in the new company I’ve found myself in.

So yeah, it happens that I’ve got a new job, and this one is actually pretty special. While it’s obviously about making nice and useful things technology and code, this time the scope and scale of it all is admittedly quite humbling. For the past few days of running between various different classes and talks, I feel less like a somewhat experienced developer, and more like a freshman at Hogwarts.

I hope, of course, that I will catch up on those new tricks before too long. But even if I fail to do six impossible things in the morning, I can still grab some lunch from the restaurant at the end of the universe :)

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Author: Xion, posted under Computer Science & IT, Life, Work » 1 comment

Prison Escape: Game from IGK Compo

2012-04-03 18:50

Yesterday I came back from IGK conference (Engineering of Computer Games) in Siedlce. Among few interesting lectures and presentations it also featured a traditional, 7-hour long game development contest: Compo. Those unfamiliar with the concept should know that it’s a competition where every team (of max. 4 people) has to produce a playable game, according to particular topic, e.g. theme or genre. When the work is done, results are being presented to the public while a comittee of organizers votes for winners.

As usual, I took part in the competition along with Adam Sawicki “Reg” and Krzystof Kluczek “Krzysiek K.“. Topic for this year revolved around the idea of “escape” or “survival” kind of game, so we designed an old school, pixel-artsy scroller where you play as a prisoner trying to escape detention by running and avoiding numerous obstacles. We coded intensely and passionately, and in the end it paid off really well because we actually managed to snatch the first place! Woohoo!


A whopping amount of 15 teams took part in this year’s Compo, so it might take some time before all the submissions are available online. Meanwhile, I’m mirroring our game here. Please note that it uses DirectX 9 (incl. some shaders), so for best results you should have a non-ancient GPU and Windows OS. (It might work under Wine; we haven’t tested it).

File: [2012-04-01] Prison Escape  [2012-04-01] Prison Escape (5.8 MiB, 938 downloads)

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Author: Xion, posted under Events, Games, Programming » 4 comments

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