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Name: Benoit Nadeau
Member since: 2002-04-03 17:23:09
Last Login: 2014-04-22 17:48:00

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I am Benoit Nadeau, jr. eng. in Software Engineering,
living and working in Montreal, Canada.


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10s Everywhere

So recently I installed Windows 10 on my MacBook Pro alongside Mac OS X Yosemite 10.10. If you're keeping count, that's four 10s.

Upgrading Windows 8.1 to 10 was a strange experience. First, the Windows 10 notification icon never showed up. Looking at the Event Logs of GWX.exe ("Get Windows 10", I guess), it kept crashing with "data is invalid" for the past few months. Yet, the same logs showed clearly that my license was valid and ready to be upgraded to 10. Luckily, Microsoft now offers the Windows 10 ISO download, and the software used to download and "burn" a USB key also allowed for an in-place upgrade with no need for a USB key or DVD.

Yet, after the upgrade, I noticed that all network connections were disabled. Yes, the Boot Camp drivers were installed correctly, and Windows insisted the drivers were correctly working, but it's as if the entire TCP stack was removed. I tried everything for a few hours, getting lost in regedit, so I gave up and used the option to revert back to Windows 8.1. Once back, it was now worse, with even all keyboards disabled.

Before reverting back to 8.1, I attempted to remove all 3rd-party software that could have an impact on the network, including an old copy of the Cisco VPN client and the Avast anti-virus. The Cisco VPN client refused to be uninstalled for some reason. Back on 8.1, I could easily remove the VPN client (using the on-screen keyboard), but it's as if 8.1 kept trace of the Avast install even though Avast was not there anymore. Luckily, I found the download link to the full offline Avast 2015 installer in the user forums. After doing so, both the keyboard and the network were enabled.

Having learned that VPN and Anti-virus software can break things in Windows 10, I uninstalled all of these, and then upgraded to 10 again. I had to reinstall the Boot Camp drivers for my model of MacBook Pro, and this time everything was working fine. I could restore easily Avast, but the old Cisco VPN driver clearly couldn't work anymore. This isn't a big issue, since I keep a Windows 7 virtual machine for that.

What about using Boot Camp in a virtual machine? Well, there are two workarounds I had to do to make it work with Parallels Desktop. First, Article ID 122808 describes how to patch the file C:\Windows\inf\volume.inf so that Parallels can detect the Windows 10 partition. It just so happens that I already had my copy of Paragon NTFS for Mac, so changing the file when booted in the Mac partition was easy. Then, from Article ID 116582, since I'm using a 64-bit EFI installation of Windows, I had to run their strange script. It needs administrator privileges, so I temporarily enabled that on my user account to run it. After all of this, Windows got a bit confused about the product activation, but after a few reboots between native and virtual machine modes, it somehow picked up the activation.

So, what about Windows 10 itself? For me, It worked fine. It isn't a huge upgrade compared to Windows 8.1, but it's more usable in a desktop environment. For Windows 7 users, I would definitively recommend it, maybe after a few months until they fix the remaining bugs. As usual, backing up your files is highly recommended (even if you don't upgrade).

Syndicated 2015-08-02 19:57:31 from Benad's Blog

A Code's First Draft

Incremental software development, or evolutions of it, is now pretty much the standard approach, as we now expect requirements to be changed all the time. But this too easily leads to "over engineering", as since we expect change at all times, we spend too much effort on maximizing the flexibility of the code over any other quality.

I admit that in the past I too fell into the trap of over engineering my code, for the sake of "beautiful design" over functionality, making the code far too unnecessarily difficult to understand. From that experience, I now make incremental design changes more reactively.

Practically, it means that I always make a "first draft" of my code with minimal design, and then, based on that experience, make a second draft with a first draft of the design, all that before the first wave of requirements changes. This is quite different than software prototyping, where the first iteration is expected to be deleted or completely rewritten over time. In my case, most of the code of the first draft remains, but moved and refactored to fit the first design change.

The first code draft is done primarily as a proof of concept that demonstrates feasibility, to reduce future risk as much as possible. That way, regardless of future design or functional changes, at least we have a simple functional version of the code. That first draft could even be used as some "sample pseudo-code" to document the functional mechanism of the code, outside of the design and architectural complexities that are added later on as the software grows. That implies that the first code draft should be so clear and simple that it is (almost fully) self-documented.

Secondarily, it helps in making worthwhile design decisions early. Once you have working code, it's easier to see what design patterns would be useful, and precisely where. You can see in context the costs and benefits of each design pattern, and only those that are worth it are applied as a first design iteration. Once additional features are added or existing one changed some new design decisions may be needed, but if by the time of the second draft you have sound code and design, it will be easier to adapt than if you greedily made inappropriate or unnecessary design choice.

At some point, though, the extra effort in doing design changes on top of purely functional coding changes may be too costly if requirements changes are chaotic or indisciplined. This may be why so many programmers invest in design upfront while they have the chance, dooming the code to over engineering. The software engineers may be the only ones in the software development process that can present (and defend) the impact of endless changes on quality (bad code, inappropriate design, etc.), so over-design may be indicative of greater organizational issues.

Syndicated 2015-06-01 02:18:25 from Benad's Blog

The Mystery of Logitech Wireless Interferences

As I mentioned before, I got a new gaming PC a few months ago. Since it sits below my TV, I also bought with it a new wireless keyboard and mouse, the Logitech K360 and M510, respectively. I'm used to Bluetooth mice and keyboards, but it seems that in the PC world Bluetooth is not as commonplace as in Macs, so the standard is to use some dongle. Luckily, Logitech use a "Unifying Receiver" so that both the keyboard and mouse can share a single USB receiver, freeing an additional port. In addition, the Alienware Alpha has a hidden USB 2.0 port underneath it, which seems to be the ideal place for the dongle and freeing all the external ports.

My luck stopped there though. Playing some first-person shooters, I noticed that the mouse was quite imprecise, and from time to time the keyboard would lag for a second or so. Is that why "PC gaming purists" swear by wired mice and keyboards? I moved the dongle to the back or front USB ports, and the issue remained. As a test, I plugged in my wired Logitech G500 mouse with the help of a ridiculously long 3-meter USB cable, and it seems to have solved that problem. But I remained with this half-working wireless keyboard, and with that USB cable an annoying setup.

I couldn't figure out what was wrong, and willing to absorb the costs, until I found this post on the Logitech forums. Essentially, it doesn't play well with USB 3.0. I'm not talking about issues when you plus it the receiver in a USB 3.0 port, since that would have been a non-issue with the USB 2.0 port I was using underneath the Alpha. Nope. Just the mere presence of a USB 3.0 in the proximity of the receiver creates "significant amount of RF noise in the 2.4GHz band" used by Logitech. To be fair (and they insist on mentioning it), this seems to be a systemic issue with all 2.4GHz devices, and not just Logitech.

So I did a test. I took this really long USB cable and connected the receiver to it, making the receiver sit right next to the mouse and keyboard at the opposite side of the room where the TV and Alpha are located. And that solved the issue. Of course, to avoid that new "USB cable across the room" issue, I used a combination of a short half-meter USB cable and a USB hub with another half-meter cable to place the receiver at the opposite side of the TV cabinet. Again, the interference was removed.

OK, I guess all is fine and my mouse and keyboard are fully functional, but what about those new laptops with USB 3.0 on each port? Oh well, next time I'll stick to Bluetooth.

Syndicated 2015-05-03 21:48:04 from Benad's Blog

Electricity Savings: All Those Blinking Lights

As part of my "spring cleaning", and partly inspired by this "Earth Hour" thing, I did an inventory of all the connected electrical devices around my apartment.

I basically categorized them this way:

  1. Devices that are used all the time and must be connected: Lights, electrical heating, fridge, water heater and so on.
  2. Devices that are seldom used, but cannot be turned off completely or disconnected easily: Oven, washer, dryer, and so on.
  3. Devices that are on all the time, for some reason.
  4. Devices that are used enough to warrant leaving them in "low-power standby mode".
  5. Devices I should turn off completely or disconnect when not used.

While I can't do anything for the devices in categories 1 and 2, other than replacing them, my goal was to move as many devices to either standby or turned off as possible. For example, my "home server PC", a Mac mini, doesn't use much power, but do I really need to have to running all the time? So I programmed it to be in standby, and wake up only during the afternoons on weekdays.

For devices already in standby mode, are they used enough? For example, my Panasonic Blu-Ray player kept being warm, since it remained in standby mode, for what? About 10 seconds of boot time? Since my TV takes that much time to "boot up" anyway, I just need to power on both at the same time, and I'll save all the electricity of keeping it in standby all the time.

I am generally less worried about laptops, tables and other battery-operated mobile devices when they stand in standby. They are already quite energy-efficient, running on batteries or not, especially when not actively used. Still, unplugging them from chargers reduces risks if there's an electrical surcharge in the apartment's wiring.

Syndicated 2015-03-30 20:26:00 from Benad's Blog

Alpha: My First PC

The PC port of Final Fantasy VII that I recently completed was the first of many PC-only games I wanted to play, but queued up because playing PC games is inconvenient. I have a 2011 Mac mini that I can dual-boot in Windows, which is what I mostly used for FF VII, but rebooting was slow, the mini was noisy, and its graphics card simply unable to properly play games made after 2010. I have a late-2013 MacBook Pro, but I keep using it for work, it's inconvenient for playing on a TV, and its graphics card could have been better.

I insisted on using Macs, even for PC games, because "gaming PCs" are just too much trouble. Almost all small-form-factor PCs sacrifice graphics performance for size and quieter fans, including the mini. On the other end, even your average "gaming PC" is expensive, a bulky tower with neon lights and require manual assembly. Here's the thing: I can do all of that without problem, from building a PC server to maintaining Windows Server. But that's what I do at work. It's as if there is not such thing as a "casual gaming PC for your TV". Well, at least until the Alienware Alpha, essentially a small-form-factor gaming PC.

The Alienware Alpha is presented as a kind of video game console. While it runs Windows 8.1, its default user account is running a modified version of XBMC that replaces the Windows desktop, and lets you run Steam in "Big Picture" mode. The entire setup can be done (a bit clumsily) using the provided XBox 360 controller (oddly, with its USB dongle for wireless use). For me, though, I already had my wireless mouse and keyboard (and a USB mouse with a long USB extension of FPS games), because I want to play older PC games made for a mouse and keyboard, so I ultimately disabled that "full screen" account and set up a standard desktop Windows account.

And you have to accept that the Alienware Alpha is a PC that isn't that user-friendly and requires tweaking to play games. For example, the frame rate of "Metro: Last Light" was terrible because it was using outdated nvidia libraries; updating the library files made the game much faster. Or Geometry Wars 3 had terrible lag issues, until you run it in windowed mode or manually edit its settings file. Actually, the simple fact that the Alpha's nvidia card is "too new" to be recognized by older games is enough to force you to tweak all the settings. I'm still curious about dual-booting into SteamOS, a Linux distribution of Steam that has a proper "console feel", though most games I want to play are PC-only or not in Steam in the first place (from GOG, actually).

With all that said, the Alpha is a pretty good PC. I was able to plan all the games at maximum settings at at least 30 frames per second, and much more on games made before 2012. It's well optimized for 1080p, which is less than 4K support from current-gen 3D gaming cards, but is perfect for TV use. The hard drive is slower than my MacBook Pro's SSD, but the 3D card is so much better on the Alpha that I don't mind the extra load time. You can still easily replace the hard drive in the Alpha with a SSD, and you can upgrade pretty much everything else but the motherboard and 3D chip, with detailed service manuals. It has an HDMI passthrough, digital optical audio output, many USB 2 and 3 ports (and even a hidden USB port underneath, perfect for my wireless keyboard dongle). Finally, its price is competitive, meaning absurdly cheap compared to similar specifications from Apple.

What I'm saying is that the Alienware Alpha is a good "entry-level" casual gaming PC for use on a TV, without the hassle of a typical PC tower. That, and I now have a PC. I still feel a bit weird about that.

Syndicated 2015-01-14 00:33:59 from Benad's Blog

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