Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

  Revisualizing the matrix

The trend towards computers that are optimized for DVD watching - really bothers me. Long ago, in 1982, my father had a Wang word processor. The screen was in portrait mode so you could write and read an entire 8 1/2 by 11 document at once. You could easily see exactly how what you were writing was going to look on a sheet of paper... It was wonderful. It cost something like 15 thousand dollars at the time. It was worth every penny in the pre-email, pre-fax era.

Then the Mac came out and created "personal desktop publishing" which, in combination with Wordstar on CP/M and DOS, destroyed the market for word processors with tall screens.

I haven't been able to look at more than a half page of text without squinting in over a decade.

Today, everybody hunches over laptops with screens that are in a 16x9 ratio. 16x9 is perfect for *watching movies* -but lousy for editing text and coding. "16x9 resolution is another curse of Hollywood foisted on us! It makes people STUPID!" - I rage, I rail...

It's lousy for most traditional computing tasks. Coding suffers, especially.

1) 80 character lines have been "standard" for code ever since the age of Hollerith punched cards. Most programming projects enforce this line width as not only being easy to read, but as it is one that is not wrapped automatically by email utilities, it makes patches easily embeddable in a normal email message.

A wide screen encourages a programmer to think horizontally, with 132 character lines. This makes him incompatible with other programmers that don't have wide screens. A programmer is always looking for ways of capturing a bigger picture of all the state on the screen, if he has wide lines, he'll end up using them, instinctively. I do it to myself all the time, writing lines like

for(int i = 0; i< SOMEVALUE; i++) { if(dosomething(a[i],b,len)){ dosomethingelse(); logerror("BOOM!"); exit(-1); }}


You'll note this does bad things on this web page at 1024x768 resolution. The curly braces end up on the second line.

Unspeakable things happen to code like this when sent via email. Yet the code is perfectly clear to me at 132 characters, and if I were to format this for 80 characters, I'd waste 20% of my vertical screen area for a mere error return - more, on a 16x9 screen at the font sizes I use in my old age.

2) Industry maxim: "Good functions are 25 lines or less".

This (to me) conflicts with the number of registers you can use up on a modern risc architecture. The bigger functions you write, the more work that a compiler can do to analyze your function and thus generate better code.

I perversely think the success of certain languages, the x86 and the "25 line standard" are circularly associated. 24 or 25 lines of vertical resolution was all you got back in the day. Thus, a "good" function fit into a screenful of 24-25 lines, which is what everyone's brain got trained into being able to cope with, which led to writing short functions, which made dumb architectures work better than theory would suggest.

When all we had was line terminals, fortran and Lisp and assembler ruled the world.

Today, it's worse. With a font size that gives me 80 characters across my laptop's 1280x800 screen, I end up with less than 20 lines of text to look at. It is hell on my productivity to work on that laptop.

As the whole world seems insidiously moving towards 16x9 resolution on everything, a whole generation of thinkers and writers are being forced to wedge their thoughts into narrower vertical slots.

Two more trivial complaints: Wide screens cause more eye fatigue when reading. Much of the web is hard coded to try and present a web page at 4:3 resolution, which makes for a lot of wasted space at 1280x800. (I note that my blog is normally coded to work well all the way down to 320x200, unlike - for example - anything written in wordpress )

There's a corollary I'd like to propose to the 25 line rule: The more code(words) you can look at at once, the higher your productivity...

I was stumped by a large piece of assembly code I was trying to debug. It didn't fit on the screen. It didn't fit well, split in halves, on the screen. I kept scrolling back and forth, up and down... I put it on another monitor (my main system has three monitors) but I got a crick in my neck looking at both monitors...

Debugging this on an old fashioned green line paper printout would have been much easier.

I got so mad and frustrated that in the wee hours earlier this week I picked up one of my monitors and tilted it on its side, and stared at it, while it was off... for a half hour, while I went through a reorientation period.

It looked weird, standing on its side like that. Unnatural. Foreign. I haven't seen anything like that in 25 years.

I turned the other two on their sides. (they were still on)

My crick in my neck got worse... (ever try to move a mouse on a sideways screen? Try it... only learning how to operate in micro-gravity compares) but...

Wow. I... almost... have a more normal rectangle here. Instead of 4900x1025 resolution, I have 3075x1650

I went to bed with all the monitors on their sides.

The next morning I spent couple hour hacking at my xorg.conf file trying to convince xrandr to work. I got it to work for one display, but I couldn't get it to work on formatting all the desktops at the same time to be one desk. BUT, I found an option in the nvidia file that existed prior (Rotate) to xrandr that did work.

Boom...

A whole lot of vertical state opened up for me. I'm loving it. I can see a whole lot more of the Matrix now than I ever could before...



I can even spread a movie across the three monitors now with near-perfect scaling, which I couldn't do before. I can SEE 3 whole pages of sheet music AT THE SAME TIME - without scrolling... celestia is GORGEOUS and I can see tons and tons and tons of NORMAL web pages without my window manager running...I have 1/3 of my desk space freed up for other things... bitchin!

I hope I inspire a few other writers/coders to try portrait mode - and cursing Hollywood.

My monitors still sit precariously balanced on their sides. I'm going to fix that by building some custom wood blocks with the right pod-like orientation to each be equidistant from my eyes(Pythagorean theorem)) and bolting the result to the wall.

I have some really long pieces of mine on the shelf, stopped dead because they had so much to them that I couldn't edit them properly without printing them out. Hmmm.

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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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