Thursday, June 18, 2009

CampFu review!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Repeating Mistakes

Just a short note... a  number of people have asked me what I think of JavaFX.

First off, I think its both ironic and depressing that Sun made the *same* giant mistake Adobe did.  Its a mistake no one who actually understands graphics should ever make.  Quite simply, both Flash and JavaFX are vector renderers that work in pixel coordinates.  

Bzzzt.  Wrong.  A hint for anyone ELSE entering this space, google "normalized coordinate systems."  I don't know if Silverlight makes this mistake as well or not as I haven't played with it.  But in a world of cheap floating point, this is a no brainer.  (Frankly you can adequately do normalized coordinates in the kinds of resolution we're talking about with fixed-point math if you had to.)

Secondly, I find the JavaFX project itself, astounding , ironic, and maybe a perfect proof of the concept behind the old IBM joke that "when a project is behind, IBM throws man power at it and makes it more behind."  More manpower, beyond a fairly low max, does nothing for a  project but bloat it.  I have it on report from friends inside Sun that, at the time Sun was bought by Oracle, Sun had 400 people one way or another working on JavaFX.  For all that man-power, I'd argue that JavaFX has attained no more "buzz" or penetration then my own alma-mater, Project Darkstar, which, at the largest size its ever been, has maybe 8 full-time people on it.  Project Darkstar also delivered usable results significantly sooner.

Finally, I find it as bit sad and maddening.  Chris M. and I tried really hard to get Java established on the client 4 or 5 years ago.  That's plain old Java.  We made inroads into the game industry that can still be felt today in projects inside of companies such as Electronic Arts as well as a whole host of little developers.  One of those developers created a game (TribalTrouble) that was a headliner on Apple's games website for over a year.  We did all that with, at most, a team of 4 engineers.  And we had that team for only a year.  Chris and i almost broke the back of the whole process three times with deals in place with Sony to get Java onto the Playstation, and Sun corporate managed to kill each one.
In the end, Project Darkstar was born as much by our realization that we would *never* get Sun to understand client computing, and thus had to get them into games on the server side,  as anything else. But with 10% of the manpower Sun has put into JavaFX and a tiny amount of the support, we could've changed the world in ways I am willing to lay money that JavaFX never will.

The one GOOD thing to come from JavaFX in my mind is the "kernel VM."  This is a technology we asked for 5 years ago and was told "couldn't be done."  HAD it been done, we'd probably all still be talking about "applets." Now that the ground has been lost to Flash, however, it may well be too little too late.

Telling Stories

I've been thinking a  lot lately about something I heard Terry Pratchett (author the Discowrld series and other novels) say in an interview.

"What are we as humans? Chimpanzees with an amazing gift for telling ourselves stories."

This really struck a chord with me, and I definitely think he is on to something.  The fact that we tell ourselves and each other stories for amusement needs little explaination.  But the more I thought about this, the more I realized how many other facets of our nature relate to story telling.  Story-telling has incredible power.

One of the producer's of NOVA described his program once as "the story of science." Certainly, history is the telling of stories, be that military history, scientific history or religious history.

More then that, Science itself is a form of story telling.  It is the story of "what exists".  When a scientist proposes a theory, that theory is a story about the world.  The rest of science is testing that story to see if it matches well with what we can perceive in the world.

Religion too, is a story.  A good net-friend of mine who also happens to be an Epsicopal priest once told me he sees religion as "the story of why".  The meaning of what is in the world.  

The stories of science and religion have had huge impacts on how we  live but they arent the only stories we tell ourselves.   If science is the "stories of what" and religion "the stories of why" then history is "the stories of who."  Who we understand ourselves to be is a result of the stories we tell ourselves, and those stories in turn become the basis for almost everything else we do.

The process of invention is also the process of story telling. Its the story of 'what if.'  A man once imagined what might happen if a wire with an electric charge through it were palced in a near-vaccum.  The result was the first practical electric lightbulb.

You will note that when i use the term 'story' in this way, it is not pajorative and non-judgmental.  I am not drawing a distinction between the "real" and "imaginary."  That's because often one man's fact IS another man's fiction.  What we decide to tell ourselves is fact and what we decide to tell ourselves is fiction is ITSELF just another story.  It is an arbitrary decision we make for ourselves and only has value in that it separates the stories we do apply to understanding ourselves and the world from the ones we don't.

We organize our lives and what we do about them with the stories we tell ourselves.  In that sense ALL stories are 'fact.'  They are all powerful and can change the world for better or worse.  In that sense all stories are equally "real."  By the same token, all the stories we tell ourselves come from our ability to imagine.  The world does not contain stories, just events.  Stories are what we make of those events using our imagination.  In that sense, all stories are equally imaginary.

But what is undeniable, to my mind, is how they permeate every facet of what we understand to be our existence as human beings.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

if I never hear the word "Theme" again.....

Its time for a patented jeff-rant, and this time its about the idea of "themes" in literature.

As the son of authors, let me tell you something. NO good writer has EVER started a project by saying "hmm, what themes am I going to explore in this work."

Good writers think about character first, and story second.  Trust me, Steven King never asked himself, "what theme should I invoke now."  But he asks hismelf all the time "what would scare the crap out of them now" or even more often "what would this character do in this situation."

Some writers do write with a statement in mind.  Sometimes its to make a point, though more often its to attempt to get the reader to think about the issues and come to their own conclusions.  Kurt Vonnegut (who never considered himself a sciecne fiction writer) comes to mind, as do many of the "golden age" science fiction writers.  But none of them I gaurnatee you ever thought about a "theme."

The idea of "themes" will not be found in any book on writing written by actual writers.  However you find it all over academic literary criticism.  This is where your contemporary lit teacher in high school got it from.  And, in film school, we had a hirearchy: "Those who can't do, teach.  Those who can't teach, critique.  And those who can't critique, review."

Unfortunately we now have a whole generation of grownups who believed their conteporary lit teacher that writing fiction was  all about "themes."  And thus we have a crop of adults who somehow think that talking about the "themes" in liertature makes them seem smarter.  Some of them even believe that because they can play "identify the theme" they could be writers.

But I got news.  Its just like film criticism.  And being able to play "find the phallic symbol" in movies never made anyone a film maker.  "Themes" are the phallic symbols of literature, in more ways than one.