April 20, 2014

Complexity Is Irreversible

Once again, programming language flame wars are erupting over the internet. This latest one gives us a helpful list of "harmful things" and "less harmful things". Unfortunately, I felt that it was a little inaccurate, so I decided to improve it:

Harmful thingsLess Harmful Things
Things That ExistThings That Don't Exist

Just to clear up any confusion, here is a helpful diagram:

This alt intentionally left blank

As many very smart people have pointed out over the years, the ultimate enemy of software development is complexity. Unfortunately, you can't get rid of complexity if the thing you are making is inherently dependent on something complicated. I think most people will agree that real life is a pretty complicated place, and the human brain is an awfully complex irrational thing that is trying to interact with real life.

This can't end well, and it doesn't. When we try to do anything, we wind up with something complicated. This isn't because all problems are complicated. The issue here is that in order to push a button on your calculator application, you have to go through a UI thread to the software through 10 different functions each calling into the operating system which is on top of the kernel which is on top of the microkernel which is on top of the BIOS which is on top of the motherboard which is controlling the CPU which is built using microcode which is executed using a bunch of extremely tiny logic gates on a chip.

Now, we could build a computer whose entire purpose is to let us push a button on our calculator application, and it would be much simpler! All we would need is a button command built into the motherboard to a RISC CPU that operates a few logic gates on a chip. This mysterious object is called a calculator. You know, the real, physical calculators that nobody uses anymore.

The reason we don't use them anymore is that we need our computer to do a lot more than simply be a calculator. This is why everything is so complex - if you want something that does several different simple tasks, you will end up with something complicated, even if the tasks are themselves simple. We can, of course, still pretend that everything is simple, just as the OS abstracts away all the low-level nonsense required to make your computer work properly, like setting that goddamn A20 gate on the CPU every time it boots. However, simply pretending something doesn't exist does not make it go away, which is why that stupid A20 gate still causes mysterious boot errors. Hence, any simple program written in any language imaginable is still subject to mysterious bugs and memory leaks that don't make any sense because they are caused by the inherent complexity of the system they are built on top of. You can't un-complicate something. Complexity is irreversible.

Nothing you do will fix this. If you use C to try and keep everything simple, you'll destroy the entire internet's secure infrastructure because of a completely retarded mistake involving an asinine and ultimately useless memory allocator. But if you use a managed language, before long you're writing a UI in XAML and suddenly you're looking at a call stack the size of Mount Everest.
What the fuck
Despite this, there is no end to the deluge of misdirected attempts at "solving" or "reducing" complexity, despite the impossibility of the task. What happens is that a programmer makes a bunch of mistakes, and notices a pattern. Because they're a programmer, they immediately invent a language that prevents them from making those mistakes, and then claim it's the solution to all the world's problems, while conveniently forgetting that the rest of the world has completely different problems.

But, I digress. My point is that the only way to write a piece of software that doesn't break is to hire someone who's so incredibly smart they can deal with all this complexity.

The problem is, no one is that smart.

April 6, 2014


I was reading a story on the plane today. It was the tale of a terrible war, a battle between two civilizations bent on the destruction of the other. It spoke of barbaric acts, of unspeakable horrors, of cruelty and pain on such a magnitude it could only exist in a place devoid of morality.

None of it is real. No one is really dying, no one is having their heart broken, no one's lives are really being destroyed. And yet, it bothers me. It bothers me because I know such tales of war were not composed in a vacuum. The power that story holds over me does not come from the imaginary characters it paints, but of the real people it is based off of. The lives that really were lost, the tragedies that tore us apart, the chapters of human history most of us would prefer to forget.

I sometimes find it difficult to keep reading, to discover the horrors I know are lying in wait for our beloved protagonist. With each tragedy that befalls them, I find myself feeling sorry for the character in the story, even though they aren't real. Yet, I'm also feeling sorry for the millions of people I have never met who suffered the same fate. It's difficult to continue because every chapter reminds me of the perils of human existence. I'm not sure there is a happy ending to this tale, or if there is, what the tremendous costs might be.

Perhaps we seek happy endings in our stories because we care about these imaginary characters that have been invented for our benefit. Or perhaps it is because we desperately want to believe that our lives also have a happy ending. We project our troubles and battles into what we read, wanting to believe that we can be the protagonist in our own tales.

This story speaks of tremendous struggles, of soldiers who lost everything and fought to save their nation from being lost to the sands of time. It is brutally effective in reminding us of what we truly hold dear, of what really matters in the end. It puts you in the armor of a new recruit who is suddenly left wondering if he should have spent more time enjoying life now that his could very well be extinguished in a moment. You watch a soldier die by the hand of his own commander simply because he refused to obey a command he knew was wrong.

You don't need a sword to tear the life out of your closest friend. A drunk driver could do the same. A rare disease. Cancer. We may frame heartbreak in many different ways, but the emotion stays the same. The pain of loss is something that transcends mere words, and we can feel it's power even when we're reading about people who never existed.

Sometimes, stories are hard to read because they remind us too much of the world we were trying to escape in the first place. They remind us of everything—and everyone—we could lose.

And those... those are the most precious stories of all.

March 18, 2014

The Problem With Photorealism

Many people assume that modern graphics technology is now capable of rendering photorealistic video games. If you define photorealistic as any still frame is indistinguishable from a real photo, then we can get pretty close. Unfortunately, the problem with video games is that they are not still frames - they move.

What people don't realize is that modern games rely on faking a lot of stuff, and that means they only look photorealistic in a very tight set of circumstances. They rely on you not paying close attention to environmental details so you don't notice that the grass is actually just painted on to the terrain. They precompute environmental convolution maps and bake ambient occlusion and radiance information into level architecture. You can't knock down a building in a game unless it is specifically programmed to be breakable and all the necessary preparations are made. Changes in levels are often scripted, with complex physical changes and graphical consequences being largely precomputed and simply triggered at the appropriate time.

Modern photorealism, like the 3D graphics of ages past, is smoke and mirrors, the result of very talented programmers and artists using tricks of the eye to convince you that a level is much more detailed and interactive than it really is. There's nothing wrong with this, but we're so good at doing it that people think we're a heck of a lot closer to photorealistic games then we really are.

If you want to go beyond simple photorealism and build a game that feels real, you have to deal with a lot of extremely difficult problems. Our best antialiasing methods are perceptual, because doing real antialiasing is prohibitively expensive. Global illumination is achieved by deconstructing a level's polygons into an octree and using the GPU to cubify moving objects in realtime. Many advanced graphical techniques in use today depend on precomputed values and static geometry. The assumption that most of the world is probably going to stay the same is a powerful one, and enables huge amounts of optimization. Unfortunately, as long as we make that assumption, none of it will ever feel truly real.

Trying to build a world that does not take anything for granted rapidly spirals out of control. Where do you draw the line? Does gravity always point down? Does the atmosphere always behave the same way? Is the sun always yellow? What counts as solid ground? What happens when you blow it up? Is the object you're standing on even a planet? Imagine trying to code an engine that can take into account all of these possibilities in realtime. This is clearly horrendously inefficient, and yet there is no other way to achieve a true dynamic environment. At some point, we will have to make assumptions about what will and will not change, and these sometimes have surprising consequences. A volcanic eruption, for example, drastically changes the atmospheric composition and completely messes up the ambient lighting and radiosity.

Ok, well, at least we have dynamic animations, right? Wrong. Almost all modern games still use precomputed animations. Some fancy technology can occasionally try to interpolate between them, but that's about it. We have no reliable method of generating animations on the fly that don't look horrendously awkward and stiff. It turns out that trying to calculate a limb's shortest path from point A to point B while avoiding awkward positions and obstacles amounts to solving the Euler-Lagrange equation over an n-dimensional manifold! As a result, it's incredibly difficult to create smooth animations, because our ability to fluidly shift from one animation to another is extremely limited. This is why we still have weird looking walk animations and occasional animation jumping.

The worst problem, however, is that of content creation. The simple fact is that at photorealistic detail levels, it takes way too long for a team of artists to build a believable world. Even if we had super amazing 3D modelers that would allow an artist to craft any small object in a matter of minutes (which we don't), artists aren't machines. Things look real because they have a history behind them, a reason for their current state of being. We can make photorealistic CGI for movies because each scene is scripted and has a well-defined scope. If you're building GTA V, you can't somehow manage to come up with three hundred unique histories for every single suburban house you're building.

Even if we did invent a way to render photorealistic graphics, it would all be for naught until we figured out a way to generate obscene amounts of content at incredibly high levels of detail. Older games weren't just easier to render, they were easier to make. There comes a point where no matter how many artists you hire, you simply can't build an expansive game world at a photorealistic level of detail in just 3 years.

People always talk about realtime raytracing as the holy grail of graphics programming without realizing just what is required to take advantage of it. Photorealism isn't just about processing power, it's about content.

February 20, 2014

Success Is Relative

It seems that many people view success as some sort of absolute value, usually inextricably tied to how much money you make. Ignoring the fact that we should not be tying success to monetary value, we should also not be treating success as some sort of absolute value based on where you end up. What really matters is where you started from.

Climbing a mountain is not that impressive when you start half a mile from the peak. On the other hand, if you start all the way at the bottom, climbing the whole thing is very impressive, indeed. A blogger once said that being born as a middle-class straight white male is like playing life on easy mode. Minorities have many cultural barriers they must break down to reach the same level as a white male, often because they are born poor.

Poor people have a huge range of difficulties that are hard to appreciate unless one experiences them first-hand. To the middle-class, overdraft fees, parking tickets and unexpected taxes are nothing more than an annoyance. To the poor, they are the stuff of nightmares. A single slipup, a single misstep, and they will lose all the spending money they had for the next 3 months, and possibly not be able to buy dinner. They must work demanding, low-paying jobs that leave them physically and mentally exhausted, which itself makes it even harder for them to land a promotion or pursue their hobbies.

Robbed of the mental energy to work on things they find interesting and fun, poor people often slip into depression, or self-destructive lifestyles, because there literally is no way out. The only way out is for them to somehow be less stressed, which requires a better job, which requires them to have more time to spend bettering themselves, which requires them to be less stressed, which requires a better job...

It's the worst kind of catch-22, and it's one whose existence is repeatedly and blatantly denied by a middle-class oblivious to the struggles of the poor. They do not understand the herculean efforts it takes to do things that seem simple and routine for themselves. They do not appreciate how impressive it is when a poor person elevates themselves to a position that they might consider demeaning.

What's worse is that they over-inflate their own progress, and then act as though a poor person could have done the same thing. "Just teach yourself how to do it," they say. "Use the internet," they say. They don't understand that without a decent education, poor people either do not understand the importance of these things and shouldn't be expected to, or they have so much to learn they can't possibly find the time to do so in conjunction with the soul-sucking job that occupies most of their time. Being poor is not a slight disadvantage, it's like starting a race half a mile behind your opponent with a lead weight attached to your ankle, and your opponent has a motorcycle.

Many of my acquaintances, when they hear of my 6-figure salary, automatically assume that I am successful. That I have somehow beaten the odds through concentrated effort and landed an amazing job they can only dream of. The truth is that what I have accomplished is hardly anything special. I won the genetic and environmental lottery. I was gifted with talents that gave me a jump start on skills that happened to be wildly in-demand in today's economy. I went to excellent schools, and had attentive parents that never shielded me from my own failures, but encouraged me to learn from them. I worked just as hard as everyone else, but I didn't even need to. My efforts in making music and building games never accomplished anything. All I had to do was dutifully finish my schoolwork until I graduated with a degree in applied mathematics, and poof, I had a fantastic, cushy job many people would kill for.

This is hardly impressive. I have simply traveled the path that was set up for me, and every attempt I made to excel, to do more than simply walk down the road in front of me me has been met with abject failure. I was given a gift, a free ride halfway up the mountain, and I haven't made it very far at all. The people at the bottom look up to me and see success, without realizing that I have climbed the same distance they have.

They are just as successful as I am - they just started farther down.

When I see an artist just barely managing to make ends meet, I see success. When I see a musician living in a run-down apartment and paying rent, I see accomplishment. When I see a writer making ends meet with a few odd commissions, I see tenacity. Our culture heaps scorn on those who do what they love and barely manage to make a living out of it without realizing how brutally difficult this is to do. Simply managing to feed yourself by following your dream is an accomplishment on par with finishing a master's degree.

I am not writing this to belittle myself, or others, but to elevate those who have accomplished a great deal, and get comparatively little recognition for it. I write this because too often artists set absurd goals for themselves without knowing that the ones they idolize didn't climb nearly as many steps as themselves. Artists look around and see themselves barely surviving off of their art, and wonder if they are a failure, when in fact simply being able to sustain oneself like that is a great accomplishment. Sadly, it seems that it is an accomplishment that does not come with a diploma, or a trophy, or even respect.

I hope that artists, and poor people in general, will eventually realize that they are just as successful as everyone else - they just have more steps to climb.

December 14, 2013

My SteamOS Experience


After quite a bit of fighting, I have managed to create a stable, working SteamOS installation, on which I am writing this blog post. In the interest of science! I will be detailing the steps I took while installing the OS, along with all the issues I had and how I solved them. To help anyone trying to troubleshoot things, here are a list of things that went wrong. If you want to know how they were fixed, keep reading:

  • Initial steam shortcut failed to start the program
  • Recovery partition failed to install and wouldn't shut down properly
  • SteamOS cannot be used with more than 1 monitor!
  • Upon login, steam requires a confirmation code. That's sent to your e-mail. Which you need a web browser for.
  • Steam doesn't have any default repositories
  • Sound doesn't work

To install SteamOS, I essentially followed the steps outlined here, but they weren't all nicely organized for me. I downloaded the zip, extracted it into a FAT32 usb, copied the syslinux files, executed syslinux on the drive, and wrote syslinux.cfg, which is improperly formatted in that post. Here is the proper formatting:

LABEL linux
    kernel install.amd/vmlinuz
    append initrd=install.amd/gtk/initrd.gz preseed/file=/cdrom/default.preseed DEBCONF_DEBUG=developer desktop=steamos auto=true priority=critical video=vesa:ywrap,mtrr vga=788 -- quiet

At this point I had done everything I needed to do from windows. SteamOS cannot be dual-booted, because it obliterates whatever drives are connected to the computer. To work around this, I used a second hard drive and disconnected the first one. To avoid any mistakes, I physically disconnected the drive from the computer to ensure it would be safe. Only after doing that and disabling it in the BIOS did I configure the USB to boot up.


As expected, the installer failed when installing grub. I dropped into the terminal and typed in the magic instructions, which were a lot easier to do after I realized I could just hit tab and have the terminal complete the filenames for me. Once I got back into the setup, though, the guide didn't mention that you actually have to hit continue 3 or 4 times. However, it did indeed work on the second try, and I soon found myself booting into a GNOME environment.

It's important that, when first logging in, you pick the GNOME shell environment. It isn't the default, and it's not the SteamOS environment. Failure to do so will fuck everything up really bad. However, once I did get into the GNOME shell environment, the steam shortcut didn't work. I don't know why, but I had to go into the terminal and manually execute /usr/bin/steam %U. This is exactly what the shortcut did, but for some reason it only worked when I typed it into the terminal. Once steam was installed, I logged off and logged into the desktop account (password: desktop). I was able to run ~/post_logon.sh without a hitch, and the system rebooted.

Then, the recovery creator failed. It failed spectacularly. It spat out a bunch of errors, tried to continue, then dropped into a terminal. I told it to restart, but it failed. It kept reverting back to the terminal because it somehow couldn't disconnect the terminal session despite me telling it to shut-the-fuck-down-right-now-or-else. So I just held the power button down and did a hard shutdown. Once I rebooted, despite not having a recovery partition, it seemed to work just fine. It booted into steamOS and then...

Nothing. Black screen. Complete failure.

This, however, turns out to simply be what happens when Steam's compositor encounters two monitors. Instead of shutting one off, it just completely dies. After unplugging my second monitor, steam worked like a charm, and I logged in, and then... I was prompted to enter a confirmation code sent to my e-mail. Which I needed a web browser to get to, which required that I logged in. Thankfully, I had a laptop sitting next to me, so this wasn't a problem, but fair warning to anyone else who's logging in.

Now I was in the Steam client, but I had no sound. Dropping back to desktop was easy after checking the "Enable Linux Desktop" option under "Interface", but I had to assign a new password while in desktop mode so I could use sudo (this is done using the passwd command).

The problem is that steam's only default repository is for, well, steam. To get anything else that would make my OS usable, like have sound, I needed to add back in the default debian repositories. SteamOS thankfully ships with nano, so I typed sudo nano /etc/apt/sources.list and added the following:
deb http://http.debian.net/debian wheezy main
deb-src http://http.debian.net/debian wheezy main

Now, after running sudo apt-get update, I had access to the default packages, which crucially included ALSA, the linux audio API and low-level driver package. After installing and restarting ALSA, however, I still didn't have sound. Sometimes when this occurs, it's recommended to open a console and run rm -rf ~/.pulse to delete the .pulse configuration files, which can mess things up. In my case, however, the hardware still wasn't being detected. To solve this, I installed alsa-firmware-loaders. After rebooting, my sound still didn't work, so I ran alsa force-reload. This finally did the trick, and I had sound on the desktop! But, not on the steam client, or the games.

Rebooting finally graced me with sound in the steam client, but disabled sound on the desktop. So, now I have sound on Steam, but not on the desktop. This isn't a big problem right now, but hopefully someone can fix it eventually.

Unfortunately, I could not get flash working, and debian comes with a firefox fork, which doesn't support whatever audio API everyone wants to use right now. Luckily, now that we have the default debian packages, we can install things like GNOME tweaker, and other fun things to customize our steamOS experience.

Once I got sound working, I tried out a few games. SpaceChem did not appear to have a fully-working linux client, because it failed to sync my saves from steam cloud, and half it's menu buttons were just gone. Team Fortress 2 worked fine, aside from awkward looking text, but it was running at about 2 FPS until I disabled motion blur. After doing that, it abruptly started running smoothly, with just a few hiccups here and there, so I don't know what that was about.

My computer only has 4 GB of RAM, so TF2 normally has memory issues on windows, which usually cause temporary freezeups. On steamOS, those memory problems still exist, but instead of causing temporary freezeups, the entire game instantly crashes. Given that this is a failure case, it's not really something I'm allowed to complain about, but be warned: don't run out of RAM.

Aside from the occasional whacky interface, playing games on SteamOS feels almost identical to playing them on windows. Performance and load times appear to be identical to windows, controls are responsive, everything usually works. While this is only a beta, I consider this a step in the right direction, and am optimistic about the future of SteamOS.