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Connecting Mavericks to a Freebox: Oh the pain!

I’m very frustrated. Today, I wasted basically two or three hours fighting unreliable software implementing one of the most basic features in the world of networking, namely file sharing. I ought to be simple, it used to work, but if my experience is representative, it’s complexly broken nowadays. Grenouille bouillie.

What I tried to do is not that complicated. We have a Freebox at home, it’s basically a DSL modem with many features, including the possibility to act as a NAS. So I connected my external drives, and tried to connect to them with my Macs.

It worked. I was happy. I started copying my files around. I noticed that it was very reactive. For example, I could eject a disk from the NAS user interface (a web GUI that is relatively well designed), and instantly, the file server would restart. I saw a message on the Macs saying that the server had shut down, and a couple of seconds later, I was back in business.

Then something happened, and everything stopped working at once.

It’s frustrating, because I know exactly what I did at that moment. I reformatted a disk with the NAS user interface. That disk was initially formatted as HFS+, which the NAS would expose as read only. So I reformatted it as Ext4.

And suddenly, the file server stopped working, even when I removed the disk in question. That leads me to believe I changed something else without knowing it. Maybe the GUI changed some configuration behind my back? I have no idea. All I know is that I spent the last two hours trying to understand how to revert my configuration so that I would be able to share disks again.

Symptoms: I connect to the NAS, and it refuses to show my disks. If I disable Mac sharing (AFP) and only enable PC sharing (SMB), then I can connect to the NAS, but somewhat unreliably.

I suspect the problem is on the Mavericks side of things, because connexions to another NAS I have at home are equally flaky. One minute it transfers dozen of files per second, the next it’s as if I was writing to a floppy disk. Transfers from other protocols (e.g. using a web browser) are fast and reliable, so I don’t think it’s a Wifi or network issue.

How annoying.

 

Apple backups and RAID are not reliable

You’d think that if you use RAID1 and multiple redundant, distributed backups with hourly backups, daily backups, etc, you’d be safe? Think again. If your backup software lies to you, you may not realize it until it’s way too late. If you RAID software does not deem it worthy to mention that a disk failed, what good is it?

Read more…

Everything is broken and no one cares

February 10, 2013 1 comment

Everything is broken and no one cares

This post from Dear Apple is just so true, and so clearly on topic for Grenouille Bouillie!

Have we reached the point in complexity where we can’t make good quality products anymore? Or is that some kind of strategic choice?

The original post is mostly about Apple products, but the same is true with Linux, with Android, with Windows.

Here is my own list of additional bugs, focusing on those that can easily be reproduced:

  1. Open a file named X in any of the new Apple applications, those without Save As. Open another file named Y. Save Y as X. Beachball. For every application. Worse yet, since applications often remember which windows were open, you get the beachball again when you reopen the application. It takes another force quit for the application to (fortunately) offer to not reopen the windows.
  2. A relatively well known one now: Type F i l e : / / / in practically any OSX application. Without the spaces. Hang or assert depending on your luck.
  3. Use a stereoscopic application like Tao Presentations (http://www.taodyne.com). Activate stereoscopy. Switch spaces or unplug an external monitor. Kernel panic or hang to be expected. Go tell to your customers that the kernel panic is Apple’s fault, not ours…
  4. If you backup over the network, set your computer to sleep after say 1 hour while on power. Change your disk enough that the backup takes more than one hour. Backup disk will come up as corrupt after a couple of days, and OSX will suggest you start a new one (and the cycle will repeat).
  5. Use the “Share” button. It takes forever to show up the window (like 2-3 seconds in general on my 2.6GHz quad-core i7 with 8GB of RAM). Since what I type generally begins with an uppercase letter, I usually prepare myself by having the finger on the shift key. But to that stupid animation framework, “shift” means “slow animation down so that Steve can demo it”. Steve is dead, but the “shift” behavior is still there.

I’ll keep updating this list as more come to mind. Add your own favorite bugs in the comments.

First update (Feb 13, 2013):

  1. Safari often fails to refresh various portions of the screen. Visible in particular when used in combination with Redmine. This used to be very annoying, but it has gotten much better in more recent updates of Safari.
  2. iTunes 11 no longer has Coverflow. It was a neat way to navigate in your music, which wasn’t even the default, why remove it?
  3. Valgrind on OSX 10.8 is completely broken. I have no idea what’s wrong, but it’s a pretty useful tool for developers, and Apple has nothing in its own development tools that is even remotely close.
  4. “Detect displays” is gone, both from the Monitors control panel and from the Monitors menu icon. Combine that with the fact that OSX 10.8, unlike its predecessors, sometimes totally fails to detect that you unplug a monitor. And you find yourself with windows stuck on a screen that is no longer there…
  5. That little Monitor menu icon used to be quite handy, e.g. to select the right resolution when connecting to an external projector for the first time. Now, it’s entirely useless. It only offers mirroring, fails to show up 90% of the time when there is a possibility to do mirroring, shows up when mirroring is impossible (e.g. after you disconnected the projector). It used to be working and useful, it’s now broken and useless. What’s not to love?
  6. Contacts used to have a way for me to format phone numbers the way I like. That’s gone. Now I have to accept the (broken) way it formats all phone numbers for me.
  7. I used to be able to sync between iPhone and Contacts relatively reliably. Now, if there’s a way to remove a phone number, I’ve not found it. Old numbers I removed keep reappearing at the next sync, ensuring that I never know which of the 2, 3 or 4 phone numbers I have is the not dead one.
  8. Still in Contacts, putting Facebook e-mail addresses as the first choice for my contacts? No thanks, it was heinous enough that Facebook replaced all genuine email addresses with @facebook.com aliases. But having that as the first one that pops up is really annoying.
  9. Now fixed, but in the early 10.8, connecting a wired network when I also had Wifi on the same network would not give me higher speed. It would just drop all network connectivity.

Updated February 28th after restoring a machine following a serious problem:

  1. Time machine restores are only good if your target disk is at least as big. But with Apple’s recent move to SSD, this may no longer be affordable to you. In my case, I’d like to squeeze 1TB of data into 512G. Time machine does not give me the level of fine-grained control I’d need to restore what I really need. So I need to try and do it manually, which is a real pain.
  2. Calendar sync is a real mess. Restoring calendars from a backup is worse.
  3. Spaces? Where are my good old spaces? Why is it I had spaces on the original machine, no longer have them, and find myself unable to say “I want 6 spaces” or to setup keyboard shortcuts for them as they used to be.

Adding chapter numbering in Apple Pages

At Taodyne, we mostly use Apple Pages to create our documents. For large documents, I’d like to be able to create numbered chapters, something like “Chapter 1″, “Chapter 2″, and so on. Apple Pages does not seem to have that feature. Let’s not get used to it,  and let’s fix it.

Apple Pages can read numbered chapters from Word

One thing that I observed is that when you read a Microsoft Word document that contains numbered chapters, Apple Pages preserves that formatting. In other words, if the user interface may not know how to edit numbered lists with text in them, the rendering engine knows how to render them, and the regular editing within Pages will correctly renumber these documents.

To verify that my recollection of this capability of Pages was correct, I first created a document in Microsoft Word that looks like this:

Section 1 – Hello

Chapter 1 – This is a chapter

I. This is a numbered section

1. This is a numbered sub-section

It doesn’t just “look like” this. The Section and Chapter text were edited in the Numbering section of Microsoft Word, so this is auto-numbering.

Then I saved this document to disk, and imported it into Pages. And indeed, when I edit it in Pages, numbering works just like in Microsoft Word.

The Pages XML format

Let’s look inside the document to see what’s there. A quick tour through the command line shows that Apple Pages documents are really zipped collections of files, including XML files representing the document itself:

% unzip Hello.pages 
Archive:  Hello.pages
 extracting: thumbs/PageCapThumbV2-1.tiff  
 extracting: QuickLook/Thumbnail.jpg  
 extracting: QuickLook/Preview.pdf   
 extracting: buildVersionHistory.plist  
  inflating: index.xml

The most interesting of these documents is the index.xml file. It contains the actual description of the document in XML format. And if I look inside, I see something interesting:

<sf:list-label-typeinfo sf:type="text"><sf:text-label sf:type="decimal" sf:format="Section %L -" sf:first="1"/>

So this sf:format= accepts a rather general format, with %L serving as the marker for where the number should go.

The solution for adding chapter numbers

So the solution for adding chapter numbers is simple:

  1. Once, you will need Microsoft Word to create a document that has the kind of chapter numbering that you need. You may have multiple levels of numbering (e.g. chapter, section, etc).
  2. Import this document in Pages. This will give you a new list style.
  3. When you want to number chapters, select the given list style.
  4. To edit the formatting of the numbering text, select the whole line, change colors or fonts, and in the list style, select “Redefine style for selection”. In other words, the list style defines the font and color for the numbering independently from the paragraph style, and can do that for multiple levels.

Now, you have proper chapter numbering in Apple Pages.

Apple started decaying before Steve Jobs’ death

Sad MacMany have wondered what would happen to Apple after Steve Job’s death. I’m afraid things started to go south at Infinite Loop long before Steve passed away. Case in point: Mac OSX Lion, which I think is the worst version of MacOSX ever (and I’ve used all of them since Rhapsody).

What’s wrong with MacOSX Lion?

While there are a number of relatively useful features in OSX Lion, like being able to resize a window from all sides (granted, not exactly a new feature in the computer world), the general philosophy of that OS seems to be “We know better“. A computer company that thinks it knows better than me how I should use my own computer? Let’s not get used to it.

I will illustrate this with three real-life cases:

  • Ten minutes to reboot on a Core i7 laptop is not cool.
  • How I came to positively hate the mandatory auto-save feature.
  • The sad story of Quit, Select All, Undo and Close Window.

There are a few other smaller cases that I will brush on quickly at the end. Like the broken replacement for good ol’ Save-As, the stereoscopy crashes, the mysterious unimprovements to Spaces, the Screen Saver of Doom…

Ten minutes to reboot is not cool

Many know the great story of Steve Jobs telling an early Mac engineer that making Macs boot faster would save lives. This lesson seems to have been forgotten these days.

This morning, I had a kernel panic in Lion (a not so uncommon occurrence, sadly). So I was forced to reboot. And what happened next prompted me to write this blog entry. Crashing is enough of a waste of time. But then, MacOS X Lion aggravated that by reloading every single tiny window I happened to have open at the time of the crash. And not letting me do anything in the meantime, because you see, it was busy, it had better things to do than even letting me quit an application.

Being able to quit an application is what I took as an indication that the system was done booting. It’s as good a measure as any, since if you can’t quit an application, you can’t do much else. And it took more than 10 minutes for me to be able to quit Firefox: I booted the machine at 7:02 (according to uptime), Firefox accepted to quit at 7:14.

In the meantime, OSX Lion had reloaded, for my own good:

  1. Mail, with 7 windows
  2. Pages, with 4 documents
  3. Numbers, with 6 documents
  4. Keynote, without any document open, but hey, what’s wrong with launching it anyway?
  5. Terminal, with 2 windows, one of them was running a build. There’s a severe bug in OSX Lion restore-everything-at-reboot-time functionality: it didn’t restart my build!
  6. Safari, with 8 web sites, including two with videos I had already seen.
  7. Firefox, with 2 web sites, which I certainly didn’t wan tot re-open since they were payments.
  8. iTunes (which helpfully started downloading new contents)

While the system attempts to “please” you in some demented sense of “pleasing”, there’s very little you can do but wait. Actually, you need to do a little more than that, because the machine will occasionally ask for passwords or pop up some dialog box. And it does so in such a random fashion that even reading mail is difficult. All the more so because the machine is so busy re-indexing its Spotlight database and downloading iTunes contents you really don’t care about right now that everything crawls.

Even switching windows is difficult, even borderline hazardous. You think you brought up one window, but then the system shows another one right at the moment you click or close something or do something dangerous, and bam, the one and only window you didn’t want to close vanishes from the screen!

What is so infuriating about this incredibly stupid behavior of OSX Lion is that practically every single time I rebooted my machine, I unchecked that little box asking if I want to re-open my windows when I log back in. Can’t OSX Lion get the hint? If it’s smart enough to save my windows at the time of a kernel panic (of all times), can’t it save a little preference like “I don’t want you to re-open windows at boot time, ever”, without forcing me to resort to command line hacks.

Yes, I know how to fix it. It’s a script like this one:

#!/bin/bash
echo "#!/bin/bash" > /tmp/loginfix.sh
echo "rm /Users/*/Library/Preferences/ByHost/com.apple.loginwindow.*" >> /tmp/loginfix.sh
mv /tmp/loginfix.sh /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
chmod +x /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
defaults write com.apple.loginwindow LoginHook /usr/bin/loginfix.sh

Having to resort to something like is really annoying. And if Apple really didn’t want to store the “reopen windows” user choice in preferences, then it shouldn’t be a check-box. It should have been a separate action button, just like “Shutdown” and “Restart”.

I’m clearly not the only one who dislikes that features. If you look up on the web, you’d be hard pressed to find any site that explains how great that feature is. Instead, you’ll find dozen of places telling you how to disable it. So it’s a useless feature compounded with a bad UI made more annoying by a blatant disrespect for user preferences. That seems to be the general theme for changes in OSX Lion. Let’s not get used to it.

How I came to hate the mandatory auto-save feature

Another feature that follows the exact same pattern is the mandatory auto-save feature in applications like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, etc. What this feature does looks good on paper. It helpfully saves things for you at regular interval. Since Apple implemented for Time Machine a relatively nice way to version files, Apple used that to offer a kind of per-document Time Machine. Isn’t that a great idea?

The problem with that auto-save is that it doesn’t scale, and that there is no way to turn it off, even temporarily. So here is what happened to me once. I was animating an event, and for some reason, they decided to use my laptop as the main machine connected to the projector. So they gave me this 150 pages Keynote made by copy-pasting together a dozen or so slide decks. So far, so good.

Then, various people started coming to me asking if they could change a word here, copy a new slide there, etc. Guess what: it took over one minute to save the 150 pages document. My guess is that Keynote uses a brain-dead algorithm to decide when to auto-save, something like “if something changed and if the last auto-stave started more than 30 seconds ago”. Just a wild guess. What I observed, though, is that it doesn’t check that after you do an operation, but before executing the next operation you request.

All these harebrained design decisions blend together in a perfectly distasteful mix. You hit a key. Keynote shows your keypress. You hit another key. Keynote detects it should auto-save. The save takes more than one minute. The “saving takes a long time” progress dialog shows up and eats the key you typed! So you need to type again, very fast. But usually you don’t succeed. Same with mouse clicks. You send mouse clicks that get eaten by the stupid “Please wait while I’m saving” progress dialog. Who decided to call this a “progress” dialog? It’s not progress!

Anyway, after a very painful 15 minutes trying to make this work, here is how I ended up doing things: I started another Keynote instance, edited slides one at a time there, and once it was done, I would copy things back in the original Keynote document. But talk about a counter-productive exercise fighting a badly designed UI that won’t accept my preferences (namely: I don’t want to auto-save. Period. I hit Command-S when I’m happy. I know what I’m doing.)

Quit, Select All, Close and Undo

The third scenario I came to hate in OSX Lion is much more specific. See, I’m French, so I often have to type French text. And I’m a coder, so I often have to write English text or computer code. At some point in my past, I started taking the habit of typing French text in the native French keyboard, which is AZERTY, and English text in QWERTY

I don’t think many other people do this, but to me, that means faster typing in both cases. In English, I can type all the wonderful special characters used in code, like [ and ]. In French, I have easy access to all the wonderful àccénts that pepper our language (and, by the way, in defense of Jean Dujardin, “Putain” is more like an accent than a swear word in French; it doesn’t really mean “Whore” anymore than, say, “OK” means “all correct” or “gay” means “in a good mood”). A and Qs flip automatically when I’m typing French. If anything, that shows how flexible the human brain is.

There’s just one little problem with that clever scheme: keyboard shortcuts. It so happens that Command-Q (Quit), Command-A (Select All), Command-Z (Undo) and Command-W (Close window) are some of the most frequently used shortcuts of all. And unfortunately, they flip places when I switch languages. And unlike complete words, which my brain has “short-circuited” to the correct keyboard layout depending on language, they have no context, no language associated with them. So often, I want to Undo, and instead I Close the Window.

So what does this have to do with OSX Lion, you may ask? Well, the auto-save feature has, for me, a very nasty side effect. If a document has been modified, OSX Lion no longer asks if you want to close it or save it. That dialog box that used to pop was my saving grace in the old days. If I hit Command-W instead of Command-Z, then the dialog box would pop up, I’d hit ESC and hit Command-Z. No harm done. Nowadays, my window vanishes, and with it, all my undo history. In other words, at the exact time I want to undo something, MacOSX Lion finds a way to erase the entire undo history!

Of course, Apple engineers know better. Their reasoning must have been that the auto-save feature is like a kind of persistent undo to disk. Unfortunately, auto-save and Time Machine are nothing like undo. Undo remembers the actions. Auto-save remembers the result. So Time Machine is way way slower to activate, and it makes it harder to find where a document actually changed.

So a couple of times a day, I close a document by mistake, and I swear. Nothing has been closer to turining my Macbook into some unidentified flying object than this feature. At some point, I’ll find the time to disable that auto-save feature as well, in a way that doesn’t break other things.

Then, there’s the small stuff

OSX Lion’s disregard for users’ taste and preferences permeates throughout. It looks more like a design philosophy than an accident.

There’s the odd reversal of the trackpad scrolling behavior. This one at least can be configured. But either you stick with the default, and you are backwards each time you return to a Windows, Linux, older MacOSX machine. Or you change it, and you are backwards each time you return to a Lion box that is configured with the default.

There’s the new technique for “Save As”. It used to be “Save As”, Command-Shift-S, select the new file name (defaults to the document’s directory). Basically, one keystroke. Now, it is “Duplicate” (no keyboard shortcut), close the old window, Save (which now defaults to the Desktop rather than where the original document was), find the original location, save. So you have replaced one keyboards shortcut with 4 to a good dozen clicks depending on where your original document was. And “Duplicate” seems to use more memory and take more time than Save As (maybe it saves the document somewhere?) The benefits? Hmmm. I don’t see any, it seems like a less intelligent way to do the same thing as before.

Stereoscopy is a minor nuisance to the majority of people. But it turns out Taodyne, my company, produces a 3D presentation software. Something like Flash blending with Avatar. One of the ways we generate stereoscopic images is with the OpenGL Quad buffer support. It was broken in 10.6.1: when our application ran, switching spaces would kill the window server. I reported it to Apple, it was fixed in 10.6.2. It was broken again in Lion (10.7.0). Only this time the crash is a random kernel panic or system freeze, a bit more serious. I reported it three times to Apple. It’s still there.

Overall, Spaces and the Window server are nowhere as good as they used to be. When you switch spaces, it used to be smooth. You used to have a single desktop background. Now, it’s not smooth. Sometimes, windows won’t drag from one space to another. Spaces can be “out of order” (i.e. the number keyboard shortcuts no longer correspond to the logical layout of the spaces). The windows that MacOSX Lion insists on reopening at startup don’t reopen in their original space. And so on.

It’s more than just spaces. For example, using full screen app mode on dual-screen setups makes one of the monitors become unusable (covered with a oh-so-nice Lionesque background). Try watching a DVD full screen on one monitor while you do something on the other. Worked like a charm in Snow Leopard, impossible to do in Lion. Try putting the DVD player full screen on your TV while the menu is on the main screen of your laptop (just because most HD TVs overscan, so putting the menu there means you don’t see it). Nope, Lion knows better, it will bring the full screen picture where the menu is, not when the window is. That also worked in Snow Leopard.

And there’s another one of my favorites, the Screen Saver of Doom. Some screen savers in OSX Lion consume all the memory they can. They evict all the useful stuff away. So when it’s time to log back in, you see your keystrokes show up. one. at. a. time. And by the time you logged back in, you see that 5G of your 8G of RAM are now free. For the next few minutes, every single application you will try to use will page stuff back in and be extremely unresponsive. That too is a nuisance. Let’s not get used to it.

Conclusion

OSX Snow Leopard was a lean and mean operating system, just like its feline counterpart. OSX Lion takes on its role model as well: it’s big, heavy, slow, lazy, and it doesn’t care about you a tiny bit.

Let’s just hope that Apple’s next OSX version, Mountain Lion, will not be smaller, less powerful but more dangerous than its predecessor… Unfortunately, I won’t hold my breath based on what we can gather from Apple’s sneak peek Making it more difficult to download third-party applications in the name of security? A chat application? Twitter support? A features page that has so little to show that it needs to boast on the US web site about stuff designed specifically for China? Seriously?

I still want to believe that Apple will soon focus again on making their OS lean, mean and efficient like it used to be.

Steve Jobs forgot how hard it was to create a company

The following video shows Steve Jobs as an entrepreneur, starting over with NeXT. To me, it’s reassuring to see that the Great Steve Jobs himself sometimes found the task overwhelming, despite having $7M (1990′s dollars) in the bank.

If you only have 10 seconds, look at 13:18 into the video. Steve Jobs says:

I forgot how much work it actually is to create a company. It’s a lot of work. You got to do everything.

This is exactly how I feel right now. Doing everything. Vaporized, atomized. It’s fun, but it’s hard. I had not forgotten, I plain didn’t know.

Steve Jobs was also known for his focus on focus. If you are creating a company, you should probably read this.

When your product is not even built yet, none of this stuff matters.  But your startup, in the pre-product phase, is basically a ticking time bomb.  The only thing that can prevent it from exploding is user delight.  User delight attracts funding, enhances morale, builds determination, earns revenue…Until you get to user delight, you’re always at risk of running out of money or, much more likely, losing a key engineer to something more interesting.  Time is your most precious resource.

This is why building a company is an exercise in humility. It’s a case where you don’t need to assume you are below average: you are. You have less funding than your competitors. Your product has less features. Your have less customers, less engineers, less press coverage. If you do something really innovative, most people will think it’s stupid and explain why you are doing it wrong. And most of the time, they are right, you are doing it wrong.

But here is the difference compared to my past experiences in larger companies. In a startup, when you do it wrong, you fix it, and you fix it so quickly you sometimes don’t even realize it. In my opinion, that’s the single reason why startups sometimes succeed. They fall a lot, but then they learn how to walk, and once they get the gist of it, they run circles around more “adult” companies.

Happy customers return, unhappy customers leave

Some companies know how to provide an excellent customer experience. Most companies just don’t get it. Two experiences in the past weeks.

Orange is a large mobile phone provider in France. In over one month, I have been unable to have them to replace a cell phone I lost in a storm. I had to wait in a store only to be insulted by angry store representatives. Then I had to wait on the phone only to have them hang up on me. I had to write and call and write again, to receive only automated replies or replies that simply ignored the insurance contract I had. As a result, I cancelled my contract with them and went to another company.

Apple is another large company. They recently opened an Apple Store at CAP3000 in Nice. I went there to get a hard disk replaced in a 20″ iMac. I was greeted by a dedicated person at the store’s entrance. I was greeted by another person at the Genius bar. After I waited a little, this other person helpfully explained to me that I was waiting for a Mac Genius, that the only folks at the bar at the moment where specialized in the iPhone. In other words, he cared that I waited. Then the repair was quick and efficient. The next day, it took less than 5 minutes to get my repaired machine back, despite a crowd in the store that would make the Orange stores cry with envy. And when my wife didn’t show up at our rendez vous, another representative asked me if I needed a cell phone to call her. This is the reason I stick with Apple, time and time again.

Apple and Orange are only two examples. Darty, for example, always served me well. Unlike Orange, they honor their insurance contracts when you need them. I had so far a pleasant experience with Bouygues Telecom.

Vote with your wallet.

Categories: Apple, Sociology

Stereoscopy: What works, what doesn’t

In the past months, we have been looking for a relatively cheap way to present the output of a 3D application using stereoscopy. Our objective was to see how an application could generate stereoscopic output using commercially-available low-cost hardware. Our expectation was that a budget 3D laptop and a budget 3D projector would make for a budget 3D presentation solution.

The solution that ended up working was a total surprise to us, so I thought I’d share…

Budget 3D laptop and projector

We recently purchased two pieces of equipment with a “3D” sticker on them. One was an ACER Aspire 5740D laptop, the other was an Optoma DW318 projector. Both can be considered entry level hardware, around $700 each with glasses.

This family of Acer laptops uses a polarized display and passive glasses. Even and odd scan-lines are polarized differently, meaning that you get half the vertical resolution when using stereoscopy. Native resolution is 1366×768. It comes equipped with an ATI Radeon 4570 and some 3D software from TriDef. It is also covered with at least 5 stickers and littered with various nagware (software based on the “we’ll bug you until you pay” school of design) and other software nuisances, almost guaranteeing a supremely annoying unpacking experience.

The Optoma is labelled as “3D-ready”. It uses active glasses based on Texas Instrument’s DLP-Link technology. Native resolution is 1280×800. The active glasses mean that you get the full resolution with 120Hz frame-sequential input, with only a barely noticeable decrease in frame rate (60Hz for each eye). It can also reportedly take 60Hz field-sequential input up to 480i, but we didn’t test that. There is practically no manual (at least as far as 3D is concerned), and the manual that came with the glasses didn’t help much either (I’m still not sure I know how to switch the glasses off).

No OpenGL stereoscopy on Windows

Our test application uses standard OpenGL quad-buffer support. We need OpenGL because we want the application to run on Macs and Linux machines as well, not just Windows. So DirectX is a no-go. However, we also evaluated how things worked with DirectX just in case we had no other choice.

With the Acer, the ATI “Catalyst” drivers simply tell us that there is no OpenGL quad buffer support. As soon as we try to use the buffers, we get an error (1282: Invalid operation). This is a disappointment, as quad-buffer support for DirectX was one of the advertised features for recent Catalyst drivers. Apparently, this only means that a third-party driver, either from iZ3D or TriDef, can silently convert non-stereoscopic games into stereoscopic games.

It makes sense from a business point of view, since all the majority of users will care about is 3D games, which mostly use DirectX nowadays. But if you want to programmatically produce stereoscopic 3D-accelerated output using OpenGL, which should theoretically be simpler, it just doesn’t work out of the box.

I spent a little bit of time trying to find drivers from iZ3D or TriDef that would support OpenGL quad-buffer on this machine. No such luck.

  • The iZ3D setup page prominently shows “OpenGL QB driver for iZ3D”. However, when I installed the driver, it didn’t work for me. Only DirectX would show up. It took me a while to see this little note somewhere:

Note! OpenGL QB is for 32-bit systems only and can not be run properly on 64-bit systems.

You guessed it: my system is 64-bit, so no OpenGL for me.

  • The experience with the TriDef setup was exactly similar. At first, it looks promising: “The DDD TriDef Visualizer Program is ideal for anyone interested in enabling their application for output to stereoscopic displays.” That is, until you click on the link to get the SDK, only to be told:

PLEASE NOTE: TriDef Visualizer OpenGL SDK has been RETIRED and is no longer available for sale.

If someone at Microsoft has been tasked with the job of killing OpenGL on Windows, it looks like they have been doing a rather good job. In any case, we were unable to find any combination of drivers on 64-bit Windows that would allow us to use 3D stereoscopy from OpenGL. If you know of any combination that works, please comment here.

Working around lackluster OpenGL support

The structure of the screen on the Acer is really simple. Every other line on the screen is polarized differently. So in order to produce a stereoscopic image, you don’t really need a driver. All you need is the good old OpenGL stencil buffer, as explained here. You then render one eye with all even lines masked out, and then another eye with all odd lines masked out.

This worked well, and we were soon able to get some basic stereoscopy working. It only took a couple of hours of coding. I only wish this coding had not been necessary on a machine that came littered with 3D stickers and pictures of 3D pirates on the box!

Then, we could start experimenting with stereoscopic rendering and judge by ourselves how the effect played out. Unfortunately, while it worked to some extent, it was not entirely satisfying…

The drawbacks of interlaced stereoscopy

The most annoying issue with this setup, as we quickly discovered, is that you lose half of the vertical resolution. It may not seem like much, but this actually makes text totally unreadable. “Who needs text in a stereoscopic display?“, you may wonder. Well, Google Earth, for one, uses a lot of text. And this is practically the only non-game application I managed to get working on the Acer with the built-in software.

The problem is that the Windows user interface itself uses a fair amount of text and small drawings. Since the glasses actually block every other line, here is what your desktop looks like when you wear the glasses:

Windows 7 desktop, as seen through passive glasses

Windows 7 desktop, as seen through passive glasses

The effect is actually much more annoying than that, because what your left eye and your right eye see is different. I just can’t stand looking at my desktop like this for long. So what happens is that you spend your time putting the glasses on, then removing them, then putting them back on. After a short while, the game stops being funny and you wish you had bought active glasses instead. This probably doesn’t impact gamers much, but in our case, it is almost a deal breaker…

No stereoscopy on Windows with a low-cost projector

In order to address this issue, our next experiment was with the Optoma DW318 projector. I got this projector from Saturn at a bargain price. The vendor was actually quite honest that they had not tried 3D and didn’t know if it worked. Also, this projector is marketed as “3D-ready”, so I wasn’t entirely sure that we’d get anywhere. But we naively hoped that if we connected a “3D-ready” projector to a laptop that has stereoscopic 3D support as its main selling point, we stood a decent change of getting a stereoscopic image on the projector.

Boy! Were we naive last week!

If the built-in stereoscopic software on the Acer laptop has any kind of support for the Optoma projector, it is rather well hidden. I tried various options, but as far as I can tell, stereoscopy on the Acer is meant to be restricted to the built-in screen. That’s rather odd! What would you think of a color laptop than can only supply black-and-white pictures to external displays?

I tried supplementing the anemic built-in software. Downloading drivers from iZ3D, I was able to get a 3D image from their test and setup application. But still, I was not able to get a stereoscopic image from Google maps on the projector, however, something that works on the built-in screen of the Acer laptop.

The overall feeling is that this stuff was rushed out of the door before it’s really ready.

The Good Surprise: on a Mac, It Just Works!

We also have Apple Macbook Pro notebooks and Linux laptops and virtual machines. During testing, Linux didn’t do much better than Windows. However, OpenGL on the Mac accepted quad-buffer (stereoscopic) mode. Compared to Windows, the primary difference was that we did not get the 0×502 = 1282 error (OpenGL invalid operation) when selecting the back-left or back-right buffers. Tweaking a bit, we had gotten what looked like a stereoscopic output on the built-in display of the Mac laptops or on external displays, with fuzzy blurry images.

Of course, without glasses, that’s all these were: fuzzy blurry images, not that useful unless you can blink really really fast.

Actually, everything was not all smooth and fuzzy at first. OpenGL was apparently doing something smart there, but we were clearly pushing it a bit. For example, if running an OpenGL application under the debugger and putting the laptop to sleep, MacOSX would die a little too often for my taste (like: almost every single time). Another interesting issue was that if you had any stereoscopic application running, switching desktops with Spaces would just kill the window server (the MacOSX blue screen of death). That was really annoying. I filed a couple of bug reports with Apple. Stereoscopy was apparently working to some extent, but it still made for a very un-Apple dangerous user experience.

That was last month, when MacOSX 10.6.4 was all the rage. Imagine my surprise when 10.6.5 came out. All the issues I had were fixed with 10.6.5. And this certainly took some work from Apple engineers. Now, when you switch spaces with a stereoscopic application (and only a stereoscopic application), something happens that you can notice visually, almost as if some part of the window server was rebooted or something. It’s just weird, but at least, it’s just solid now. Kudos, Apple for fixing something that could easily have passed for a corner case with exactly one user in the world.

Anyway, I figured that it was worth trying to hook a Macbook Pro to the projector and see what we got. And IT JUST WORKED! We got perfect, high quality stereoscopic images the first time we tried.

Or almost.

How can you make glasses complicated?

Clearly, I had two pictures on the screen. And when I wore the glasses, I had only one picture. So something was working. But the result was still disappointing. It looked boringly flat, nothing like what I expected.

I tried several settings on the projector, checked that 3D was enabled in the firmware menu. I adjusted the eye distance to try to increase the depth. The effect of increasing eye distance was clearly visible with the naked eye, as the left and right pictures became more distant from one another. But with the glasses, still no feeling of depth.

Until I tried to switch off the glasses while wearing them, using the little red button. And I noticed that the picture moved. It was still flat, but it had moved in front of me. Hmmm?!?

So I tried again to see if the picture would move again. And I almost fell on my back. The effect was intense, in no small part because I had pushed the eye distance so high. A few adjustments later, I was back to the original setting, and I had true, breathtaking stereoscopy.

Guess what: some bozo working for Optoma or whoever designed the glasses thought it was a good idea to have three settings: left eye only, right eye only and stereoscopic. I’m sure there’s a good reason for that, but as far as I can tell, the manual only talks about on and off settings.

Trying Windows on a Macintosh

Once we knew that the Macs could drive the Optoma projctor in stereoscopic mode, we thought we also had a Windows solution. See, all recent Macs can run Windows using Bootcamp. We figured that it was a simple matter of switching to Windows, installing the latest Nvidia drivers, and boom.

Well, not quite.

First, Nvidia won’t let us install drivers on a Mac. We are supposed to ask Apple. Of course, there are workarounds. So quickly, we were able to get the latest drivers to install on the Mac. These drivers that are ostensibly designed for stereoscopy. But it still doesn’t work with the Optoma projector.

See, Nvidia has their own little 3D project called 3Dvision. You’d think that since 3Dvision is about supporting stereoscopy, we stood a chance of making it work with an Optoma stereoscopic projector.

And you’d be wrong. It doesn’t work. With OpenGL, you get the same dreaded error 1282.

According to some posts on the Internet, it used to work relatively well with much older Nvidia drivers and cards. But apparently, Nvidia is now trying to leverage their position as a key provider of graphics chips to force third parties to “certify” projectors. The Optoma HD67 is certified and reportedly recognized by 3Dvision drivers. The DW318 is not certified, and therefore not recognized.

If this is a trick to try and force me to buy Nvidia glasses, it’s not just a cheap trick, it’s a stupid trick. The Nvidia solution uses a small infrared emitter. If I’m projecting on a large screen, I doubt this emitter would be good enough to cover a medium-sized room. I suspect that the technique used in DLP-Link, which uses data sent on the screen by the projector, is much better suited to sharing with a large audience.

Anyway, the very same Optoma projector just works on the very same Macbook pro when running MacOSX instead of Windows 7. So this is clearly a software block from Nvidia rather than some subtle hardware limitation. If you are the Nvidia or Microsoft bozo who is responsible for this fiasco, here is a hint: why don’t you get it fixed?

Conclusion: Don’t Trust Marketing

To summarize my experience:

  • The Acer 5740DG offers some basic stereoscopy, but support for OpenGL is underwhelming. OpenGL stereoscopy won’t work with the pre-installed 64-bit version of Windows 7. This Acer laptop is designed primarily for games, although it may be a bit underpowered for that purpose. For any windowed 3D application, or any application that shows text, dialog boxes or other small elements, the stereoscopic experience is highly frustrating because you don’t see half of the screen while wearing the glasses.
  • The Optoma DW318 is a very capable 3D projector if you can make it work in your configuration. The picture is actually much better with the glasses in stereoscopy mode, with rich deep blacks and well balanced colors. Without the glasses, the picture looks a bit washed out. Still, it’s a decent value, and a good way to demo stereoscopy to more than one person. I only wish they didn’t charge $100 or so for a pair of cheap plastic glasses with $0.0027 worth of electronics components in them.
  • Nvidia and ATI are both equally incompetent at delivering OpenGL stereoscopy on Windows 7. Part of it may be Microsoft pushing DirectX, but I believe the driver vendors are equally to blame. I couldn’t get OpenGL stereoscopy to work whether with ATI or Nvidia, whether with built-in screens or external projectors.
  • MacOSX 10.6.5 has full support for OpenGL stereoscopy, and when connected to a 3D-ready projector like the Optoma DW318, it just works the way it should. This is advertised nowhere, which makes it even sweeter.

In short, those who talk the most about 3D (Nvidia, Acer) are those who deliver the least. By contrast, Apple, who doesn’t say a word about stereoscopy, delivers flawless OpenGL stereoscopy support as far as I can tell. And Optoma, who labels its DW318 with a rather understated “3D-ready”, has made the process of projecting in 3D both inexpensive and painless.

Steve Jobs decided to knife the baby (oh no, not again!)

There has been some stir around a change in the software development kit for the iPhone. See the Tao Effect Blog for an exchange between an iPhone developer and Steve Jobs on the topic.

Apple decided to change the wording of the license to forbid use of non-approved development tools. I believe that Steve Jobs is dead wrong on this one. Our own application requires an interpreter, which was pretty much already verboten. The new language in the SDK makes it even worse, blocking some workarounds we could have considered. Well, there is no way I would go for a subpar solution and substandard user experience just because Steve Jobs happens to have a beef with Adobe at the moment. So we will skip the iPhone platform entirely.


I can only hope that our application will one day matter enough that people will make it a factor in their choice of mobile phone. But even if it doesn’t (quite likely), I can’t imagine that we are alone in this situation. It only takes a few killer apps that can’t reach the iPhone due to Apple’s control-freakness to tip the balance away to some other platform.

Steve Jobs should know, of all people. Apple was once so dominant in the field of personal computers it could laugh at IBM, much like the iPhone in smartphones today. Well, guess what? A few years down the road, IBM’s presence in the Macintosh core market was no longer laughing matter.

The parallel is striking. Back then, Steve Jobs wanted complete control on the Macintosh, to the point of not allowing expansion slots. The iPhone has no expansion of any kind, no SD card, nothing, except for an Apple-proprietary connector. The Macintosh unique software would not be licensed to anybody. The iPhone OS only powers the iPhone. To program a Macintosh, you had to buy a Lisa. To program an iPhone you need a Macintosh. Apple told you what was OK and not OK on their platform (Inside Macintosh User Interface Guidelines), and still does (SDK license agreement and AppStore approval process). Microsoft got advance notice of the Macintosh, and they loved it. Google got advanced notice of the iPhone, and they loved it.

But Microsoft didn’t want to become Steve Jobs’ puppet, and after a while they walked, something which Jobs took as a betrayal. Years later, Google didn’t want to become Steve Jobs’ puppet either, and they too walked. And Steve Jobs felt betrayed again. Twenty five years ago, Microsoft ended up developing their own competing platform. Steve Jobs saw that as stealing their IP, and sued. Today, Google ended up developing their own competing platform, and Steve Jobs is suing (HTC).

I can’t help but wonder if there’s something that I’m missing. Steve Jobs must be smarter than this, after all he’s contributed to our daily lives. Yet history is repeating itself. Steve Jobs seems to believe that he’s entitled not just to benefit from his own creativity (perfectly legitimate) but also to control and limit the creativity of others (perfectly not legitimate). That’s quite unfortunate, because the iPhone rocks and keeps getting better, like the original Macintosh did. Still, if the iPhone in a few years turns into a marginal platform with a shrinking market share, Steve Jobs will only need a mirror to look at the person to blame. No amount of suing will repair the predictable result of his own mistakes.

Nothing is irreversible at this point, though. Steve Jobs is smart, and the team at Apple is top-notch. Maybe someone at Apple can convince Steve Jobs that he should return to what he does best, winning by delivering insanely great products, rather than be at his worst by delivering inanely closed products. Please Steve, for the good of your own company, get rid of paragraph 3.3.1 in the iPhone SDK, and then work a plan to attack Android where it would hurt them, e.g. by licensing iPhoneOS (gasp) and allowing other teams to not just use your device but improve it (re-gasp). Otherwise, it’s safe to predict that in a few years, I will be using an Android phone and regret the good old times when the iPhone had a shot, much like I was forced to use Windows for most of my professional life and hated it.

MacOSX Leopard: disappointed…

I finally purchased MacOSX Leopard. For a long time, I had purchased every single update of MacOSX as soon as I could, because they were generally worth it. This was the first time I had some second thoughts. There were a number of mixed reviews over the net, like the excellent Ars Technica review.

The main problems that these reviews were reporting were drops in looks and usability. Looks: folder icons that look bad, inconsistent shadows, translucent menu bar, overly bright window widgets, and so on. Usability: initially, folders placed in the dock would show as “stacks”, in other words a big pile of stuff, and fan out in a way that made it quite hard to pick up anything in the folder. Overall, the new OS was also reported to be much more resource hungry than the older ones, not a big surprise here…

To me, it was annoying to have a trade-off between features I’d get, like Time Machine or Parental Controls, and features I’d lose (something Apple does not advertise much), like Classic (the environment to run MacOS9 applications). In previous releases, there was a net gain in functionality, but the loss of Classic was a pretty big deal to me. In particular, I wanted to have Parental Controls on the kids Mac, an old Dual G4 which contains tons of MacOS9 games.

But a few weeks ago, having learned that 10.5.2 was finally giving users options about the dock icons and menu bar, I thought that it was safe to jump, at least for my Intel-based Powerbook, which can’t run Classic anyways, and which was acting weird lately. In particular, it jut can’t run straight any time I have run any virtual machine with Parallels Desktop. That was most likely a problem with Parallels, not with Apple, but I thought that the latest Apple OS might help. Another problem I kept hitting was that the machine would lock-up when I tried to unlock the screen saver. Hoping to get rid of these annoyances, I went ahead, purchased it and installed it.

The first thing I noticed is that my machine had become quite slower than before. Starting applications, in particular, seems to take quite a bit longer. This is particularly noticeable at login time. I now need something like one minute to log-in, which is too long for my taste. Unfortunately, the problems I had before were both still there: crashes or hangs after running Parallels, and even without running it, I still have the “black screen of death” way too often when I try to get out of the screen saver.

So I decided to try it on another machine, see if the experience would be any better: on the kids computer. Here, the experience is nothing but miserable. First, the installer forced my screen resolution to 640×480 on a flat-panel LCD that normally runs at 1280×1024. No big deal, it’s just the installer, right? Wrong! The screens do not fit at that resolution, so to get anything you have to hit “tab” at random and hope to hit the “Continue” button with the space bar (you can’t reach it with the mouse, since it’s out of the screen…)

Once you went through the whole installation routine, you are greeted with a screen that looks like this:

That’s right: the menu bar is a bright pink, and the background image is pink colored more or less at random. Performance is abysmal, my kids had to downgrade the various tunable parameters of World of Warcraft by a couple of notches. And I got at least one lock-up.

The upgrade process is not smooth either. To install 6 updates on the G4 took me 3 or 4 attempts. It seems to install, but after the install-and-reboot, it still wants to install the same thing. On the Intel PowerBook, I have been unable to update so far, it tells me that it “cannot write to /”. Repairing disk permissions failed. One of my disks, that reads fine with 10.4, appears as “unrepairable” with 10.5. Granted, it was probably damaged in some way, but I’d like to avoid losing 350GB of data, please?

So, overall, MacOSX 10.5 is a disappointment. Apple is probably focusing a lot of energy on the iPhone right now… Or something else happened. Regardless, the quality of that product is not what I am ready to pay for.

Update: I had the same kind of color problem on my MacBook with an external HP monitor. The colors just looked way off, and trying to adjust the ColorSync profile only made things worse. This monitor used to work really well with this machine. What’s going on here?

Categories: Macintosh
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