Sunday, May 27, 2007

What does the future of the desktop look like?

I installed Compiz on my PC yesterday. Oh my goodness. Eye candy deluxe.

I have a dual-booting laptop with Debian Linux on one partition and Windows XP on another. I installed Compiz on my Linux partition. "Compiz is a compositing window manager that uses 3D graphics acceleration via OpenGL. It provides various new graphical effects and features on any desktop environment, including Gnome and KDE."

To those of you that imagine Linux / UNIX to be a green screen terminal-style command prompt, now's the time to take a closer look. Hell, if you're a Linux/UNIX guru, now's the time to take a closer look!

You know all the eye candy special effects on Mac OS X and Windows Vista? Take a look (a pretty good look at a whole lot of effects very quickly on a high-end 64bit machine) at Linux (Beryl is a downstream fork of Compiz that has now be remerged with the original project):

The cube effect draws on the Linux/Unix "multiple desktop" metaphor. Even in the days of terminals, you could hotkey between visually and logically seperate command lines. The same capability is present in window managers (like KDE), where you can hotkey between seperate GUI desktops. I find this easier than Alt-tabbing between windows or minimising everything to try and sort through hat I have open. It also allows me to group tasks together (such as development on one desktop, mail and producitivity tools on another, and office stuff on another).

This demo shows (with a cool ambient garage beat) a feature-by-feature breakdown - part 1. Part 2.

Another good demo is here.

And another.

This demo shows a dual head (two monitors joined into one desktop) setup with Compiz(now all the traders are going to want fancy GUIs on their trading floors - take a look at the crazy trader pics here).

Crazy trader desktops!

Here's the Novell presentation about Compiz/XGL/Linux (SUSE distro) features.

Here's a narrated demo of a guy running at 2560X1600 - it will give you an idea of how efficient XGL and Compiz are. The guy also shows CPU usage using Compiz.

Obviously it's not really realistic to watch this on Youtube resolution, but it gives you an idea of the effects. You can have a look at some screenshots here which will give you an idea of the higher res effect.

For those of you wondering if this is lifted from Vista - one of those patents you've heard about - if you look at the dates on these Youtube videos, you'll see these features predate Vista.

Is this just eye-candy or is it useful? I've believed for a long time that our computing experience is limited by the screen desktop paradigm. Is your physical desktop really 15-, 17- or even 20 inches? I think these types of efforts to make the desktop more three dimensional help us escape from that trap. I often think about those classic scenes from "The Lawnmower Man" and "Disclosure" where the characters don goggles and conduct their computing experience in a 3D visual world. The 3D library so brilliantly portrayed in Disclosure as a metaphor for filing really works for me.

The virtual reality machine in Disclosure

If you've seen Minority Report, you've already seen a desktop very similar to the Linux one in these demos - it's just been moved to a large transparent flat panel (that technology is also close to being available).

The "desktop" in Minority Report

In fact, compiz with a touchscreen LCD monitor gives a Minority Report like effect. See this Youtube video.

Most of the underlying technology for this stuff exists in pockets. Second Life is a virtual world we use as a community environment. I've got excited about that before. But it is also used to create a 3D commercial experience for businesses. Might businesses also use it for virtual meeting places for multi-national staff? Or as a virtual environment to store data in a visual way a la the library in Disclosure?

I have no doubt that one day visual stuff will be trasmitted to our brain and overlaid on our the view from our retina the way it is in the Terminator. The technology is already available! Be it through an implanted chip, electrodes we wear, or some new wireless technology.

Already, wearable displays allow gamers to see overlays of computer data on their real environment.

While I wait for the world to catch up, I might just buy one of those giant LCD display for my desk and hook it up to Linux....

It's better than doing this:

Is eNatis broken because of IT basics being ignored?

The eNatis scandal has captured South Africa's imagination and been the subject of ire. The reasons are easy to understand. If you were one of those queuing for days waiting for a drivers licence or test that is essential to your getting a job, or missing work for days in order to be there, you'd also be upset. Or if you were a car manufacturer and were losing business (car sales were down 23% after the system introduction due to the inability to process new car registrations) and faced laying off workers, you'd also be upset.

But what bothers me is I can almost see the reasons. I say that having been nowhere near the systems or licensing service. But I can guess. Our minister of transport has told parliment that transactions are up to 619 000 transactions per day on the new system from 287 000 transactions on the old system [source].

What happened to require that increase in transactions? Backlog of work caused by downtime during the implementation could be one cause, but I'm betting on another.

The new systems is apparently a centralised conglomeration of a old systems, allowing better citizen management and supposedly service. So that could certainly account for an increase. but I'm betting on another cause.

The new system appears also to be much more "fat server, thin client" architected. Now that certainly has potential to require a massive increase in "transactions" between branches and datacentre. And I think that's the beginning of the issue. Some IT and PR blokes are feeding the minister stuff to make the system seem less inept. He's talking about IT transactions (e.g. record updates, etc) versus citizen transactions (e.g. new car registrations). Now that is a compeletely meaningless statistic. The relationship between citizen transactions and IT transactions is completely dependent on the system development architecture. In fact, poor development is typically characterised by large numbers of IT transactions to customer transactions. Lack of understanding of scalability and resource requirements usually results in this. I'll bet that the new development is characterised by a massive number of database transactions per citizen transaction and that is at the heart of this mess.

Further, given my guess that the new architecture has followed a thin client model, I wouldn't be surprised to find the developer has built a terminal server configuration - meaning that sessions are actually hosted on the server and users are actually seeing a image of the session on their machine. Terminal server implementations mimic the days of mainframes and dumb terminals (some of you may remember those old green screens). Such architectures are great for call centres or data processing shops where people are located in the same building as the server. They're typically lousy for distributed architectures where the design puts a huge load on the network. The admission that many problems are being caused by link failures makes me believe this guess is true.

Finally, I'm shocked at the level of ineptitude that caused this to happen. The developers apparently ignored the auditor general's report that predicted an 80% chance of failure was part of the problem. But way before that report was delivered, testing should have picked up these problems. These days testing is pretty easy to do. Automated scripts can fire transactions at a system far faster than humans can simulate and it should have become quickly apparent whether the system was scaling or not. The project manager's excuse that problems were caused by things that were not able to be tested during development does not wash.

In the mean time, I'll bet that some of the hardware, networking and database suppliers are making a fortune as the government attempts to scale the infrastructure to cope with the bad design.

Of course the above is all conjectre, but I'd place some bets its true.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Which are the best movies of all time?

It's one of those lists everybody likes to make and debate. It's a marketing technique at music and DVD stores. Can one actually make such a list? Or do tastes change? If you look at the Oscars through history, some oscars are clearly better than others.

I don't think you can make one list - I think it has to be split by genre.

Here is mine. I've kept it to movies I've seen/remember. There are others I think I saw when I was a kid that I need to watch again - like "The French Connection," "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" and "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" . I can hardly remember them now.

The following are not an attempt at a best 10 or 5. They are not ordered. They are merely the best as they came to mind. I will update them as I remember more.

Period drama

Howard's End
Remains Of The Day
Room With A View
Pride and Prejudice (2005)


The Wall - Pink Floyd

Romantic Comedies

As Good As It Gets
Notting Hill
Groundhog Day
Love Actually

Best Bond Movies

For Your Eyes Only
Casino Royale
Tomorrow Never Dies


The Bourne Supremacy
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Terminator 2
Die Hard
Fight Club
The Last Boy Scout (probably not on too many "movie buff" lists, but it cracks me up)


The Godfather I
Finding Neverland
Dead Poets' Society
American Beauty
Garden State
A Beautiful Mind
Requiem for a Dream
Stand By Me


Man on Fire
The Fugitive
Gorky Park
Sixth Sense
LA Confidential
Silence Of The Lambs



Science Fiction / Fantasy / Superheroes

The Lord of The Rings - Return of The King
Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back
12 Monkeys
Spiderman 2
The Matrix
Batman Begins


A Fish Called Wanda
Raising Arizona
There's Something About Mary


Jungle Book
Shrek 2
A Bug's Life
Happy Feet
Finding Nemo
The Incredibles

(I have yet to see the Toy Story movies - difficult to believe, I know)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Are copyrights and patents wrong?

It's a question that may come to define the early part of the millennium.

To recap, it is the issue being debated regarding people's right to copy music, software, etc.

On some issues the answer seems simple. However, ask people under 25 what they think of digital rights management technology (DRM) and they might just hiss and spit.

Frankly, I think most of the people insisting that intellectual capital should be free would probably change their tune if they had a major recording contract. And had slaved for 10 years in a garage with some mates, surviving on handouts from family and singing covers in a rowdy pub each night.

Things become a bit more complicated in the world of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). This includes the GNU Linux operating system. And thousands and thousands of other pieces of software running in places as diverse as on PCs in people's homes to mainframes in the datacentres of multinational banks.

It is a truly amazing world where people work half their nights on software they don't see a cent for. Few would predict that such a model could be sustainable - and some believe it isn't. But that's a different post.

A long running legal saga has been the SCO versus Linux suit. SCO alleges that Linux has copied substantial portions of the original UNIX software.

Now the fight has got really big - Microsoft has threatened to sue developers, distributors and users of Linux for 235 patent infringements. The threat culminated in a deal between Microsoft and Novell (distributor of the SUSE flavour) where Microsoft agreed not to sue Novell or users of SUSE in return for a collaborative distribution agreement.

More on the developments with regard to the 235 patents in this Fortune article.

It seems that things are getting nasty now that Microsoft perceives a larger threat from FOSS.

But it does bring up the topic of what can be copyrighted / patented in software. Microsoft refuses to disclose the patents it feels that it feels have been infringed. Do they include the File menu in the upper left corner of the window? Or are they excerpts of source code lifted from Microsoft programmes.

I'm sceptical. The American style of pre-emptive patenting of an idea by people who have no means of implementing it irritates the crap out of me.

Copying code or precise user interfaces is one thing. It should be illegal. But if this is a frivolous attempt launched by Microsoft on competitive grounds, it should be fought hard.

Perhaps FOSS foundations might encourage Apple to sue Microsoft for copying its idea of a GUI operating system....

More on this in the Financial Mail blog.

Torvalds and Moglen agree: MS patent claims are 'FUD'