August 8, 2014

Can We Choose What We Enjoy?

One of the most bizarre arguments I have ever heard in ethics is whether or not people can choose to be gay or not. The idea is, if being gay is genetically predetermined, it's not their fault, therefore you can't prosecute them for something they have no control over.

Since when did anyone get to choose what makes them happy? Can you choose to like strawberries? Can you choose to enjoy the smell of dandelions? At best, you can subject yourself to something over and over and over again and enjoy it as a sort of acquired taste, but this doesn't always work, and the fact remains that you are still predisposed to enjoying certain experiences. Unless we make a concentrated effort to change our preferences, all enjoyable sensory experiences occur without our consent. We are not in charge of what combination of neural impulses our brain happens to find enjoyable. All we can do is slowly influence those preferences, and even then, only sometimes.

This concept of people choosing what they enjoy seems to have infected society, and is often at the root of much bizarre and often unfair prosecution. If we assume that people cannot significantly change the preferences they were dealt by life, either as a result of genetic or environmental influences, a host of moral issues become apparent.

Gender roles stop making sense. In fact, prosecuting anyone on the LGTB spectrum immediately becomes invalid. Attacking anyone's sexual preferences, provided they are harmless, becomes unacceptable. Trying to attack anyone's artistic or musical preferences becomes difficult, at best. We know for a fact that someone's culinary preferences are influenced by the genetic distribution of taste buds in their mouth. It's even hard to properly critique someone's fashion choices if they happened to despise denim or some other fabric.

As far as I'm concerned, the answer to the question "why would someone like [x]" is always "because their brain is wired in a way that enjoys it." Humans are, at a fundamental level, sensory processing machines that accidentally achieved self-awareness. We enjoy something because we are programmed to enjoy it. To insult what kinds of sensory input someone enjoys simply because they do not match up with your own is laughably juvenile. The only time this kind of critique is valid is when someone's preferences cause harm to another person. We all have our own unique ways of processing sensory input, and so we will naturally enjoy different things, through no fault of our own. Sometimes, with a substantial amount of effort, we can slowly change some of those preferences, but most of the time, we're stuck with whatever we were born with (or whatever environmental factors shaped our perception in our childhood).

Instead of accusing someone of liking something you don't approve of, maybe next time you should try to understand why they like it, instead. Maybe you'll find a new friend.

July 6, 2014

I Don't Care Anymore

This weekend, I went to a convention and bought a ton of stuff. This was unusual for me, because I am not normally someone who invests in materialism. Having a lot of stuff is not something that is important to me. Two things changed this year: I now have an obscene amount of disposable income, and I stopped caring about what other people think is important, because they don't care about what I think is important.

Respect is, inherently, a two-way street. When we are talking about things that are inherently subjective, like what kind of food I enjoy eating, or what books I like to read, I will not respect your opinion if you refuse to respect mine. There is absolutely no reason for me to care about what you think if you don't care about what I think. On the flipside, if you respect my opinion, but disagree with me, I will also respect your opinion, even if I disagree with it.

I buy art prints because I want to support artists. I want to support artists because I think art is more important than anything else, but few people share this view. Furthermore, most people don't care what I think, and expect me to conform to whatever vision of importance they subscribe to.

Before, I grudgingly tried to give society the benefit of the doubt. I tried to show respect to other people's admittedly bizarre concept of what is important in a human life, in the hopes that this respect would be reciprocated. It is now clear to me that society at large is dumber than a rock and isn't worth my time, so I'm not even trying to appease it. I simply don't care anymore.

I do not have time for meaningless debates about my life choices. If people don't understand how I spend my money or my time, it's because they don't see the world the way I see it. They don't value the same things I value. This does not automatically make me wrong, it makes me different, and I don't give a shit about stupid ideological bullcrap. I don't care about what they think is important because they don't care about what I think is important. They can sit there all day long, writing stupid comments about how I am wasting my talents, or how I should join a startup, or work for some company they love, or how I'm depriving humanity of some stupid thing I don't care about. I don't care.

I may like art that you think is stupid. I don't care, I like it, and I think it's important. I think every facet of human diversity is a beautiful thing that should be encouraged instead of brutally stamped out in elementary school. I think creativity is what makes us human, and what will ultimately be our last useful skill after robots have taken over everything else. I think we have better things to do then argue about shows for little girls.

I'm going to do everything in my power to support those artists, because other people won't. I will spend my entire life fighting with every fiber of my being for better welfare and support for artists that live in poverty. These artists aren't poor because they're lazy, they're poor because people won't support them. They're poor because society doesn't think they're important.

But I do, and you can be damn sure I'm going to do something about it.

June 28, 2014

How To Make Your Profiler 10x Faster

Frustrated with C profilers that are either so minimal as to be useless, or giant behemoths that require you to install device drivers, I started writing a lightweight profiler for my utility library. I already had a high precision timer class, so it was just a matter of using a radix trie that didn't blow up the cache. I was very careful about minimizing the impact the profiler had on the code, even going so far as to check if extended precision floating point calculations were slowing it down.

Of course, since I was writing a profiler, I could use the profiler to profile itself. By pretending to profile a random number added to a cache-murdering int stuck in the middle of an array, I could do a fairly good simulation of profiling a function, while also profiling the act of profiling the function. The difference between the two measurements is how much overhead the profiler has. Unfortunately, my initial results were... unfavorable, to say the least.
BSS Profiler Heat Output: 
[main.cpp:3851] test_PROFILE: 1370173 µs   [##########
  [code]: 545902.7 µs   [##########
  [main.cpp:3866] outer: 5530.022 ns   [....      
    [code]: 3872.883 ns   [...       
    [main.cpp:3868] inner: 1653.139 ns   [.         
  [main.cpp:3856] control: 1661.779 ns   [.         
  [main.cpp:3876] beginend: 1645.466 ns   [.         
The profiler had an overhead of almost 4 microseconds. When you're dealing with functions that are called thousands of times a second, you need to be aware of code speed on the scale of nanoseconds, and this profiler would completely ruin the code. At first, I thought it was my fault, but none of my tweaks seemed to have any measureable effect on the speed whatsoever. On a whim, I decided to comment out the actual _querytime function that was calling QueryPerformanceCounter, then run an external profiler on it.
Average control: 35 ns
What?! Well no wonder my tweaks weren't doing anything, all my code was taking a scant 35 nanoseconds to run. The other 99.9% of the time was spent on that single, stupid call, which also happened to be the one call I couldn't get rid of. However, that isn't the end of the story; _querytime() looks like this:
void cHighPrecisionTimer::_querytime(unsigned __int64* _pval)
{
  DWORD procmask=_getaffinity(); 
  HANDLE curthread = GetCurrentThread();
  SetThreadAffinityMask(curthread, 1);
  
  QueryPerformanceCounter((LARGE_INTEGER*)_pval);
  
  SetThreadAffinityMask(curthread, procmask);
}
Years ago, it was standard practice to wrap all calls to QueryPerformanceCounter in a CPU core mask to force it to operate on a single core due to potential glitches in the BIOS messing up your calculations. Microsoft itself had recommended it, and you could find this same code in almost any open-source library that was taking measurements. It turns out that this is no longer necessary:
Do I need to set the thread affinity to a single core to use QPC?
No. For more info, see Guidance for acquiring time stamps. This scenario is neither necessary nor desirable.
I couldn't get rid of the QueryPerformanceCounter call itself, but I could get rid of all that other crap it was doing. I commented it out, and voilà! The overhead had been reduced to a scant 340 nanoseconds, only a tenth of what it had been before. I'm still spending 90% of my calculation time calling that stupid function, but there isn't much I can do about that. Either way, it was a good reminder about the entire reason for using a profiler - bottlenecks tend to crop up in the most unexpected places.
BSS Profiler Heat Output: 
[main.cpp:3851] test_PROFILE: 142416 µs   [##########
  [code]: 56575.4 µs   [##########
  [main.cpp:3866] outer: 515.43 ns   [....      
    [code]: 343.465 ns   [...       
    [main.cpp:3868] inner: 171.965 ns   [.         
  [main.cpp:3876] beginend: 173.025 ns   [.         
  [main.cpp:3856] control: 169.954 ns   [.         
I also tried adding standard deviation measurements, but that ended up giving me ludicrous values of 342±27348 ns, which isn't very helpful. Apparently there's quite a lot of variance in function call times, so much so that while the averages always tend to be the same over time, the statistical variance goes through the roof. This is probably why most profilers don't include the standard deviation. I was able to add in accurate unprofiled code measurements, though, and the profiler uses a dynamic triple magnitude method of displaying how much time a function takes.

The Black Sphere Studios Utility Library for C/C++ is a collection of classes and functions designed for realtime, high-performance applications. It is lightweight, fast, and minimalistic, and if you only use header file specific template code, you won't even need to include the DLL in your project.

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

Fiction

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.