fhtr

art with code

2017-11-10

Nokia 8 first impressions, iPhone X thoughts

Got the tempered blue version of the Nokia 8. Around US$500 in Hong Kong. The chassis looks and feels great. The phone is very fast. Loud speaker. The LCD screen's great and shows the clock, calendar events and notifications when it's off.

The dark blue matte aluminium gets a bit smudged by fingerprints. Might be less of an issue with a silvery color - my ancient iPod Touch 5 doesn't smudge. The gold-colored iPad does smudge though. (Digression: the iPod Touch 5 is maybe the best-looking phone form factor Apple device. iPhones in comparison are marred by the antenna lines and weird design choices. Apart from the 3G, which is a great design but a bit thick. The new glass-back iPhones are better in terms of the overall design, but they're glassy.)

Back to the Nokia 8. Gmail shows a 9,999+ unread mails red badge. This is solvable, my Samsung Note 5 doesn't have that.

In daylight, the camera quality is great. Indoors, the camera app optimizes for ISO instead of shutter speed, which makes taking photos of a bouncing six-month old an exercise in motion blur (thx 1/14 shutter speed at ISO 250.)

The camera hardware is not bad. Looking at full quality JPEG output, the noise is level is OK up to ISO 800. The camera app screws it up though.

The chassis design is generally excellent, very business-like. Might be the only phone around that doesn't look crazy. The volume and power buttons in particular look great. The shape feels good.

I've got a couple nitpicks though: the NOKIA logo on the back is recessed and looks like a sticker. It could be engraved or flush with the phone. The headphone jack doesn't have a shiny bevel and doesn't look great. The charging port might work with a bevel too. I'm not a fan of the "Designed by HMD, Made in China"-text at the back. The front face off-center Nokia logo placement is retro but grows on you. The front face fingerprint reader is recessed, which makes it gather specks of dust. Having it flush or with an Apple-style bevel would look better. The front-facing camera is a bit off-center from the hole in the face plate, and has a hard plastic looking border. This could be fixed with an alignment guide and a proper border material. Ditto for the back cameras. The front plate black plastic could maybe have a bit matte reflection so that it's not so plastic. The front speaker grille fabric gathers specks of dust. Metal mesh would be nice.

The phone appears as TA-1052 on the local network and Spotify. Which is.. confusing.

The font on the lock screen and on the home screen clock is bolder than the glance screen font, and has a more spread out letter spacing. I prefer the glance screen thin font.

Good battery life.

Ok, that's it for the Nokia 8.

iPhone X. Played with it in the Apple Store. It works surprisingly well given the big hardware and UI overhaul. But, it's just an iPhone. Those were my thoughts, "Oh, it works surprisingly well." followed by ".. that's it?" That's really it. The software is iPhone, the identity is iPhone (with a bit of extra bling from the glass back). It's an iPhone.

The feel is quite Android though, with the bottom swipe to unlock and settings swipe down. The notch sucks in the landscape mode, looks ridiculous. The swipe gestures are invisible but quick to learn.

It's sort of like a Samsung version of the iPhone 4 in terms of the design language. Plus the notch.

The design philosophies are quite different. Samsung Note 8 is a slightly toned-down bling bling design phone. LG G6 is the techy phone searching for an identity. HTC U11 is the crazy night out phone. iPhone is the fancy party phone. Xiaomi Mi Mix 2 is the concept phone. Nokia 8 is the business phone - the dark blue two-piece suit.

Wrap up: Nokia 8 - slightly flawed execution of a great design, needs a better camera app. iPhone X - great execution of a flawed concept.

2017-10-21

Post-Brexit trade numberwaving

Looking at the OEC trade information for the UK and other countries, we can take some wild guesses at UK's future trade prospects. UK's GDP was $2.6T in 2016. UK exported $0.4T worth of goods and services, and imported $0.6T.

Going with the idea that the exports of a country are a pretty good indicator of its economy, let's gaze into our crystal ball.

UK's main export destinations are the EU at roughly 50% of total exports, the US at 15% and China at 4.5%. This is because the UK is located in Europe, so it's easy to export goods to Europe. It's much more difficult to export goods to the US, a country that shares a language with the UK. Indeed, the size of the EU economy without the UK is slightly smaller than the US economy, but the UK exports more than three times as much goods to the rest of the EU compared to the US.

Comparing the US and Chinese exports, we have a 3:1 ratio for the US, but the nominal GDPs are only 2:1. If we look at China vs India (around 1.1% of UK's exports), we have a 4:1 ratio in exports and a 5:1 in GDPs. What does this all mean? Exports are relative to GDP but there's quite a lot of play in ease of doing trade. (Also: Spain vs. Russia. Similar size economies, but the UK exports 4x more to Spain.)

Next, let's compare trade with EU vs. non-EU countries. Hungary and Morocco have economies of a  similar size (Hungary's GDP is 25% larger). The UK exports $1.8bn to Hungary and $1.13bn to Morocco. Each dollar in Hungarian GDP ends up buying 27% more UK exports than a dollar of Moroccan GDP.

How about US trade? Morocco exports $1.06bn to the US, compared to the $5.44bn exported by Hungary. China? Morocco exports $0.55bn to China. Hungary exports $3.46bn to China.

If the Hungary-Morocco comparison is apt (and hey, it probably isn't, how about comparing Austria and Israel (halve EU and China exports, double US exports)), breaking away from the EU might cause a 25% drop in exports to EU countries, and a potential 75% drop in exports to the US and China.

Going by that, the UK's future exports would be $0.17T to the EU, $16bn to the US and $5bn to China. Total exports would fall from $0.4T to $0.3T and the UK GDP would go from $2.6T to $1.95T.

(In the Austria-Israel-case, UK would go to $0.1T to the EU, $0.1T to the US, $0.01T to China, total exports $0.35T, GDP $2.3T.)

2017-10-09

Ethereum algorithmically

Ethereum is a cryptocurrency with a mining process designed to stress random access memory bandwidth. The basic idea in mining Ethereum is to find a a 64-bit number that hashes with a given seed to a 64-bit number that's smaller than the target number.

Think of it like cryptographic lottery. You pick a number, hash it, and compare the hash to the target. If you got a hash that's below the target, you win 5 ETH.

What makes this difficult is the hashing function. Ethereum uses a hashing function that first expands the 32-byte seed into a 16 MB intermediate data structure using a memory-hard hashing function (if you have less than X bytes of RAM, the hash takes exponentially longer to compute), then expands the 16 MB intermediate data structure into a multi-gigabyte main data structure. Hashing a number generates a pseudo-random walk through the main data structure, where you do 64 rounds of "read 128 bytes from location X and update the hash and location X based on the read bytes."

While the computation part of the Ethereum hashing function isn't super cheap, it pales in comparison to the time spent doing random memory accesses. Here's the most expensive line in the Ethereum compute kernel: addToMix = mainDataStructure[X]. If you turn X into a constant, the hash function goes ten times faster.

Indeed, you can get a pretty accurate estimate for the mining speed of a device by taking its memory bandwidth and dividing it by 64 x 128 bytes = 8192 B.

Zo. What is one to do.

Maximize memory bandwidth. Equip every 4 kB block of RAM with a small ALU that can receive an execution state, do a bit of integer math, and pass the execution state to another compute unit. In 4 GB of RAM, you'd have a million little compute units. If it takes 100 ns to send 128 bytes + execution state from one compute unit to another, you'd get 1.28 PB/s aggregate memory bandwidth. Yep, that's over a million gigabytes per second.

With a million GB/s, you could mine ETH at 150 GH/s. At the moment, 25 MH/s of compute power nets you about $1 a day. 150 GH/s would be $6000 per day. If you can fab ten thousand of them, you'd make sixty million a day. Woooooinflation.


2017-10-08

Fast marching cubes in JavaScript

Marching cubes! Where do they march? What is their tune? The name of their leader, a mystery if any.

Marching cubes works like this:

  1. You have a 3D array of bits and want to create a mesh out of it.
  2. Read a 2x2x2 cube from the array.
  3. Generate a mesh based on the values of the cube.
  4. Repeat for every 2x2x2 cube in the array and concatenate the meshes.

The individual cube meshes work like Lego blocks, they click together to form a seamless mesh.

How to do it kinda fast:

  1. Create cached meshes and normals for each different 2x2x2 bit cube (there are 2^8 of them). You get an array like cubeMeshes[eightBitCubeIndex].
  2. Create a binary array based on the original data. Unroll loops to process in chunks of 8, do it SIMD-like, pass over the original data and spit out ones and zeroes into a Uint8Array. (You could put 8 bits per byte, but it's a hassle.) 
  3. Create a cube index Uint8Array that's going to be filled with the eight-bit cube indexes of each 2x2x2 cube in the data.
  4. Fill the cube index array by marching a 2x2x2 cube over the binary array and converting the read cube values into eight-bit cube indexes. Increment total mesh vertex count by cubeMeshLengths[eightBitCubeIndex].
  5. Allocate Float32Arrays for vertices and normals based on the total mesh vertex count.
  6. Iterate over the cube index array. Write the mesh corresponding to the cube index to the vertex array, offset each vertex with the xyz-coordinates of the cube index. Write the normals corresponding to the cube index to the vertex array.

Source: fastIsosurface.js - demo

This runs in ~150ms on an Intel i7 7700HQ for a 7 million element data array (256x256x109).

Future directions

As you may notice from the source, it's SIMD-friendly, in case you can use SIMD. The algorithm parallelizes easily too.

Web Workers with transferable objects? Transform feedback in WebGL 2 + a reducer kernel to remove empty triangles? Do it in a fragment shader to a float render target? Magic?

Handwaving

The test dataset contains 7 million 16-bit uints which takes about 14 megabytes of RAM. This means that it won't fit in the 7700HQ's 4x1.5MB L3 cache, much less the 4x256kB L2 or the 4x32kB L1.

By compressing the dataset into a bit array, it would fit in 7 megabits, or 875 kB. Processing that with four cores (8 threads) would keep the read operations in the L2 cache. Chunking the processing into 30 kB cubes would keep the reads mostly in the L1 cache.

The output array for the marching cubes step consists of a byte per cube. The original input array has two bytes per element. The bit array has one byte or one bit per element. The output vertex arrays have up to 90 floats, or 360 bytes per cube (but they're very sparse, the average is 1-2 bytes per cube). There's roughly one cube per input array element.

Taking the sum of the above, we get about 1 + 2 + 1 + 1 = 5 bytes per cube. We could process 6000 cubes in a 32kB L1 cache. That might come to 64x10x10 input elements that output 63x9x9 cubes for total memory use of 29406 bytes and 5103 cubes.

How fast would that be? Let's see. You need to read in the input data. That's going to come from RAM at 40 GB/s => something like 0.05 ns per cube. You can crunch it into the binary array as you go: two comparisons, a logical AND, and a store to L1 would work out to 2 ns per input element at 3GHz. For per-cube time, divide by 8 as each element is used by 8 cubes: 0.25ns per cube.

Then read through it with a 2x2x2 window for the cube generation, do a couple multiply-adds. Updating the window requires avg 4 reads per step plus processing to generate the cube indexes, say 4x7 cycles in total.

Then write the vertices to the vertex array. This might take 6 cycles for the array fetch and write.

Add some fudge, 3 GHz clock rate. Each cube takes 4x7 + 6 = 34 cycles. Estimated runtime 12ns per cube (+ 0.25ns for input data processing). Need 10 million cubes for the mesh: 120 ms. Do it in parallel in four L1 caches => 30 ms.

But, uh, it already runs in 150 ms for some meshes. And crunching the input data takes 20 ms of that. In JavaScript. What.

2017-09-23

WebGL 2.0

Started doing some vanilla WebGL 2.0 development this month. I like it. I haven't really ventured further into the new API features than doing 3D textures and GLES 3.00 shaders (which are very nice).

The new parts of the API feel a bit like this: you've got buffers and a shader program. What you do is plug the buffers into the inputs and outputs of the shader and run it. Uniforms? You can use a buffer for that. Textures? You can texImage from a buffer. After you've run your program over your vertex buffers, you can readPixels into a buffer. And there are functions for copying buffer data between buffers (and texture data from one texture to another). You can even write the vertex shader output to a buffer with transform feedback.

The fun tricks this opens up are myriad. Use a vertex shader to create a texture? Sure. Update your shader uniforms with a fragment shader? Uh ok. Generate a mesh in a fragment shader and drop it into a vertex array? Yeaaah maybe. All of this without having to read the data back into JavaScript. I wonder how far you could take that. Run an app in shaders with some interrupt mechanism to tell JavaScript to fetch the results and do something in the browserland.

There is still a dichotomy between buffers and textures, so there are some hoops to jump through if you're so inclined.

2017-09-14

Users for sale

Think of this business model for a bit. A company pays you to use their product. To subsidise manufacturing the product, the company sells you to the highest bidder.

This will completely screw up the market for the product.

If you want to compete in the market, you can't compete on price. You have to offer a higher-quality product for free or even pay more than the competition to the users to attract them to your product. At the same time, you can't make as much money as the incumbent because you don't have as many slaves to sell, and you can't get as much money per slave because you need to compete on price (and likely the quality of your slaves and your knowledge of their best use is lacking due to you being new to this).

But, I hear you say, surely this isn't slavery. And yes, it's a very chilled out form of slavery. The company pays you with digital tobacco. All you have to do is gaze into your phone and endlessly scroll through content. It's not a very demanding job. But you have to do it several hours a day to earn money for the company. Very minimal money, mind. You're getting paid nothing, of course. Otherwise it wouldn't be slavery. The company makes a fraction of a cent per hour of your scrolling work. It's a very low productivity job.

Unless you're one of the superslaves, that is. Superslaves create the content for the endless scroll. They work very hard to bring more slaves to the product, in exchange for control over the slaves they attract, which they can then sell to the highest bidder. Superslaves are still slaves. The company doesn't pay them. (But if your business is selling ad space in popular spaces, you pay the space owner space rent to show ads in space. In which case the superslaves are space landlords instead. The space land might be owned by the company though, provided to the space landlords as a freebie to entice them to create a popular space where they can sell ad space back to the company in which case the space landlords are superspaceslaves instead. Internet business models: rocket science.)

The fun part is this: the users are paid for their endless scrollwork in digital tobacco. The digital tobacco has monetary value. The users should technically declare it in their taxable income. The employer who provides the endless scrollwork to the users should list the users as their employees.

Note that this is only a problem if the employer pays the users in free services. If the company only purchases ad space and resells it to advertisers, the users are not paid by the company and there's no problem. If the users have to pay for the service provided by the company and another company can offer the service for less (but no company can offer it for free), and the users are not sold to the highest bidder, there's no problem.

If the company provides the users a free service funded by ad space on the free service, the users are employees of the company, working for the company to look at ads in the hopes that the ads persuade the users to change their behavior in a way that the advertisers pay for.

2017-09-13

iPhone X launch

The iPhone 8 & X launch feels a bit badly timed (like the iMac Pro, Mac Pro 2 announcements / rumors.) It might be fine though.

What me worry? The iPhone X is the future of the iPhone. It changes the screen form factor a bit, removes the home button, requires minor app redesigns due to the hump and the lack of home button, replaces Touch ID with Face ID and is full on AR twin cameras thing. It's very expensive. And you can't buy it.

The iPhone 8 then. Why would you buy an iPhone 8? Or an SE, or a 6 or a 7. The writing is on the wall. Those iPhones are finished. They don't have Face ID and they have the home button that's about to be deprecated. They look dated and they're cheap.

You can't buy the Apple flagship iPhone at the moment. You can buy the already obsolete iPhone 8, or wait for the X. And the X is suffering from supply problems on its OLED displays that are trickling in from Samsung, who gets the first dibs on the screens for its Galaxy lineup. 

Imagine the scenario. The iPhone X is nowhere to be seen. The few phones that arrive are sold out instantly. You go to the Apple store to play with the X but you can't buy one. You look at the 8 and it looks bad in comparison. So you walk out. And perhaps end up buying something that looks like the X - say a Samsung Galaxy S8. Sure, it's not an iPhone but at least it's not obsolete like the iPhone 8.

I like the X, but I don't like it $999 much. At the same time, I don't want to buy the 8 or lesser iPhones because the X is the future. At $799 the iPhone 8+ looks like especially bad value. It doesn't have the features of the X (even though the specs are similar), doesn't look like the X, it's expensive and it's obsolete.

Launching just the X or just the 8 would've been fine. But launching them both with a delay on the X feels like a bad move. Delay on the 8 would've been fine as it wouldn't eat into the sales of the X. But announcing X depresses sales of 8. A delay on X gives you no replacement sales. Equal specs between 8+ and X make the X seem like a cosmetic thing -> you start thinking "who cares about the phone, just buy the looks" -> buy something that looks like the X.

Na well, I'm probably wrong. 

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Built art installations, web sites, graphics libraries, web browsers, mobile apps, desktop apps, media player themes, many nutty prototypes, much bad code, much bad art.

Have freelanced for Verizon, Google, Mozilla, Warner Bros, Sony Pictures, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Valve Software, TDK Electronics.

Ex-Chrome Developer Relations.