Monday, November 26, 2007

Gaming, Turkey, and Burnout

(Warning: relatively low technical content ahead!)

Rats, missed another blog-posting week here. A week ago I finally got my GWT conference presentation done. I was rather nervous about whether I was hitting the right technical level, so I mailed it to a few GWT team members, and Bruce Johnson (the team lead) wrote back and said, basically, "It's perfect." Thanks, Bruce! Eased my mind tremendously. The conference is coming up next week.

Then on Tuesday, Mass Effect shipped, and I was instantly lost in space. I've gone back and forth on whether to talk about gaming here, but this title pushed me over the edge. I've been a computer gamer ever since I've been a computer user -- my very first experience with a computer was playing Spacewar on a PLATO timesharing terminal at my friend's father's college. And gaming has become a true lifelong hobby. Mass Effect is a great example of why that is.

Programmers inherently love systems. A truly intrinsically motivated programmer will spend hours thinking about how something fits together, and more hours tinkering with it and seeing what happens. A great game also has a systemic internal structure that rewards tinkering and exploration. So it's natural that so many programmers are gamers.

Moreover, many programmers are thrilled by advances in technology. The more powerful our computers become, the more we can do with them. And computer games are definitely the most widely visible hardware-pushing applications. Just take a look at some of these screenshots. A $280 XBox 360 can now do real-time facial animation that looks a lot better than ANYTHING being done five years ago (real-time or pre-rendered). And it qualitatively changes the nature of the game, when your character and the zany aliens they're talking to both have facial emotions and lip-syncing that are so much closer to realistic that you can almost lose yourself in the illusion. I'm not claiming that Bioware's crossed the uncanny valley just yet, but they've definitely taken huge strides in that direction, and they've hooked me but good.

I expect to be a gamer for the rest of my life, since games just keep getting cooler and cooler as hardware gets more and more powerful and we learn more about what to do with it. It's a perfect hobby for a systems-oriented, game-addicted technophile.

So Mass Effect took over my after-the-family's-asleep life, and stole my blogging cycles last week. Thanksgiving was also pretty hectic -- we cooked an 18-pound turkey for our church get-together, which took me all day while my wife juggled our three-month-old and our (almost-)three-year-old. That left us pretty wrecked and we laid low the rest of the weekend.

Meanwhile, on the hacking front, I have continued to feel blocked by the whole Seam 2 broke my code issue. Actually, technically, it's that Seam 2 broke the G4JSF code. That code was originally written by the Ajax4JSF team, but they have abandoned it. So the question for me is, how motivated am I to fix it? (And, potentially, to continue fixing it as Seam, JSF, and GWT continue to evolve?)

I originally started on this whole Seam / GWT / JSF project because I had ambitions to create a peer-to-peer distributed blogging system. I made a lot of progress on that system (at least as far as creating a Seam-based model for representing version trees with Java persistence, a la Mercurial). Then I wanted to start on the UI. Which led me to GWT, and the realization that the existing G4JSF library didn't couple gracefully with GWT RPC. So I patched GWT, and then G4JSF, and that led me to presenting to the GWT team at JavaOne last year, which then got me the opportunity to speak at the GWT conference next week. All of that was quite unexpected and quite appreciated -- particularly the speaking opportunity!

BUT, going back to my original project, the peer-to-peer distributed object system lost its mojo somewhere over the last year. It led me down the GWT / Seam / JSF path, which was really interesting and connected me to the open source world like never before... but somehow the journey became the destination, and the original goal no longer feels as interesting. Frankly, I'm not feeling very enthusiastic about being the sole owner of the G4JSF code base, given the evident cost of keeping it current and given the lack of other support from the JSF community. Maybe having a second baby also cut my energy level.

In order to avoid burnout I need to work on the projects that are most interesting to me, which right now is looking like prototyping some extensible programming language ideas that have been burning a hole in my brain for the last two months.

So, I'm going to set aside the G4JSF work and I'm going to leave the Seam/GWT/JSF integration project in its current state. I am more than willing to work with anyone (at Red Hat or elsewhere) who wants to pick it up again and fix it up to work with Seam 2 (and JSF 2 when it comes along), but I can't drive it further on my own. Anyone who was using that integration library and who is interested in fixing it, feel free to email me (rjellinghaus at gmail dot com).

This blog will shift focus away from Seam/JSF and towards programming language research and the experiments I'm doing. Hopefully that'll still be interesting to my loyal readers -- I'll do my damnedest to make it so! Because I'll tell you one thing, it's pretty fascinating to me :-)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Android hits the fan

Unless you've been buried under a boulder, you've heard about Android. It's nice to know what my secretive Google mobile JVM guru friend has been working on all this time :-)

The Android forum is awash in C / C++ developers ranting about how lame Android is because it doesn't support raw access to the hardware. It's too bad, really. I feel for them, and I agree: Android apps are going to be slow and clunky compared to native apps.

But Google's making a play to build a whole new kind of mobile ecosystem here. Google's betting on increasing mobile CPU power (certainly an excellent bet), and Google knows that if Android develops a personal-computer-like reputation for flakiness, it will fail and fail bigtime. I would argue that a big reason no mobile platform has really taken off yet (besides crazy licensing costs) is that native apps are simply flaky, and the more of them you run, the flakier your hardware gets. Since Android is trying to greatly increase the hardware diversity of Android devices, allowing raw native access combined with open developer access would rapidly drive the stability of the system to zero.

Native developers hate to hear this, because they spend their lives tuning for performance and chasing crash bugs. I'm sure many of them do write good solid apps. But I'm also sure that making native code crash-proof, especially across a wide spectrum of hardware, is very, very hard to do. And if you want to throw your platform open to anyone who wants to ship an app for it, you're guaranteed that many if not most of those people will lack the uber native skillz to achieve that kind of cross-platform stability.

So HOORAY GOOGLE! for making Android a fully managed platform! Note also that Microsoft sees the writing on the wall; they're working on a fully managed operating system, for crying out loud.

End rant. The most interesting thing I've yet learned about Android is that it is fundamentally trying to end-run around Sun's IP restrictions on Java ME. Stefano Mazzocchi breaks it down in exemplary fashion. Super cool! It's going to be really strange to see Sun and Google at each other's throats, but given how close the two companies are, and given how heavily Android leverages Java-the-language while totally subverting Java-the-runtime, AND given how anti-patent-war Sun is trying to be, I hope for some kind of peaceful reconciliation there. Microsoft, on the other hand, will go apeshit. Let the fireworks begin!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

GWTJSF broken with Seam 2, sorry folks!

So I've gotten past a number of the issues I blogged about previously, and I now have a Tomcat-only no-EJB3 version of the Seam blogging example. I've tried rolling the GWTJSF code from my original example back into it, and it looks like Seam 2 has thrown another wrench in the works.

As Chris Alfonso at JBoss warned me, Seam 2 installs the SeamPhaseListener by default. The Seam/GWTJSF integration as it previously existed needed its own phase listener, as explained in my article on the topic. This delegating-PhaseListener technique seems to be impossible in Seam 2. (Unless I'm missing something.)

With the GWT conference breathing down my neck, I may need to sideline this for a while until I get a fallback presentation together -- I was hoping to be able to demo GWT 1.5 (if it gets done in time!) with JSF 1.2 and Seam 2, but I can't count on that at this point, there are only four weeks to go and I don't have the hacking time I'd need. So it's Plan B time. I'll take a week or so and get the presentation together with the previous version of the code, and then I can pound on Seam 2 some more.

Also, it looks like the GWTJSF code has officially been left behind in the Ajax4JSF 1.1.1 code tree, which has been rolled into the RichFaces project -- except for GWTJSF, which is nowhere to be found in the RichFaces code tree. GWT can definitely be considered a competitor to RichFaces, so I guess I see why JBoss isn't supporting GWTJSF, but still it's a shame. It'd be great to see some more synergy there, but I'm not sure how to bring it about. (other than blog about it and rock the boat a little ;-)

Anyway, sorry to those who've been wanting to use GWTJSF with Seam 2 -- it's going to be a longish road. All help very much appreciated if anyone else has cycles to hack on this with me!!!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Friendship and fraternal aid

Last week I griped about some hassles I was having with Seam 2, Java 6, Tomcat, and JBoss Embedded. I grumpily grouched about the grim gloom of an open source world where things break and people don't get along very well, and how non-fun it is.

And hey presto, what should happen but two Red Hatters read my kvetching and chimed in with some downright helpfulness. First, Jason Greene mentioned this workaround for the bizarre Java 6 ClassNotFoundException I mentioned. Seems there is a magic JVM flag you can provide to revert to the Java 5 classloading behavior if it causes you too much trouble. That's good to know, and I appreciated the clue.

Second, Chris Alfonso -- who's been asking me when I'm going to get around to fixing my GWT/JSF/Seam demo to work with Seam 2 -- said that he's got a Maven 2 version of the GWTJSF demo building as an EAR that runs under JBoss with EJB3. Which is cool, because I now have a plain old Hibernate version of the Seam 2 blogging demo that deploys under vanilla Tomcat, so it's nice to have both flavors. (Chris, can you send me your version? I'd like to poke at it some -- I won't post it without your say-so.)

So that's the great thing about the open source community -- it is a community, and people offer each other helping hands. Thanks for brightening my week, guys! You put the fun back in :-)

GWT RPC presentation, by popular demand

A couple of months ago, I was honored to learn that I'll be doing a presentation at the upcoming Pearson GWT conference in San Francisco in early December. I'm quite grateful for this opportunity.

What's more, I just learned that they're giving me a discount code! Head to the site and enter code GW-JELL for $100 off the registration fee. Woo!

Originally I contacted Pearson with the suggestion that I might do a GWT/JSF talk, but there wasn't enough room on the agenda for that. Instead they'd planned to have Miguel Mendez (the author of the GWT RPC code) do a presentation about RPC in GWT. It turns out that he can't make it. So I'll be presenting on it instead. It'll be impossible for me to do as good a job as Miguel would do, but I'll give it my best shot. (Thankfully it's the area of GWT that I understand better than any other!)

So the next question is, what exactly should I discuss? I'd like to throw this open to the community to some extent. If you were going to a presentation on GWT's RPC, what would you want to learn about?

I'll start by listing the things I personally want to know more about (from most to least):
  • how to use GWT RPC with Hibernate or other Java persistence frameworks (particularly interaction with lazy loading)
  • best practices for scoping the object graphs you send in RPC (to manage problems of updating server state in a large object graph)
  • Java 5 support in GWT RPC: how generics are handled in GWT 1.5
  • organizing your RPC code for best readability and easy sequencing
  • integrating with JSF, Spring, and other server frameworks
Obviously this is way too much already for a mere hour-long presentation, but that's my problem, not yours :-)

I'd appreciate it if people could post their favorite topics. If you can list them in order from most urgently interesting to least, that would help me.

I'll be working with Miguel to refine the presentation over the next couple of months (thanks, Miguel!). There'll also be some blog posts coming out of it. And I'll see you in San Francisco in December!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Finger-pointing and frustration

One of the tough things about open source is that the world never stands still. Actually, it's not just open source, it's software in general, but open source exacerbates it. See, one of the main motivations for open source developers is fun and the enjoyment of sharing something cool you did. So you'd like to be able to do something cool and then have it stay cool.

But the problem is, once you get something cool working, it's almost guaranteed that it's going to stop working soon. Why? Because everyone else is doing other cool things. Including all the developers whose projects yours depends on. So the odds approach 100% that before long your cool thing is going to break with the latest version of FooBarLib. And broken things are no longer cool.

And fixing your cool thing, that broke for no fault of your own and for reasons you don't agree with, is the absolute opposite of fun.

Even large developers are vulnerable to this. Right now I'm banging my head against trying to get my Seam + GWT example working with the latest 2.0 release of Seam. But Seam made a number of changes that are frustrating me rather deeply right now. For one thing, they changed the packaging for their embeddable EJB support such that you have to install the JBoss embedded EJB container directly onto your Tomcat. No more delivering a nice simple WAR file that uses Seam and EJB3, now it's a multi-step process that leaves your Tomcat fairly JBossified.

The nominal rationale for doing this is that it lets the EJB3 services be shared by all the apps inside that Tomcat instance. So you might think, great, now my Seam+EJB3 WAR file is 6MB instead of 20MB. (Which is indeed a problem with the demo version on my page -- it's stinkin' HUGE.) But, BUT, it turns out you can't actually run multiple Seam apps under the Embedded EJB3 container!

Why not? Well, because Bill Burke and Gavin King, both of whom work at JBoss and both of whom are fairly bullheaded, can't agree on whose problem it is that multiple Seam apps collide in the Embedded EJB3 component registry. Not only that, but the Embedded EJB container's development has stalled. So, Tomcat is a seriously second-class citizen as far as Seam is concerned now. Of course from a JBoss perspective this is arguably good, because JBoss doesn't get support revenue from Tomcat installations. For me, though, it sucks, because I don't want my Seam / GWT example to require JBoss.

And the icing on the cake is that the Embedded JBoss container doesn't run under Java 6. I like to run on the latest Java. It's just a funny preference I have, I don't know why. But JBoss does classloader tricks that Sun apparently considers invalid loopholes, which Sun closed in Java 6. This results in charming errors like:
ERROR 01-11 21:56:07,921 (AbstractController.java:incrementState:456) -Error installing to Instantiated: name=DeploymentFilter state=Described java.lang.IllegalStateException: Class not found: [Ljava.lang.String;

And JBoss and Sun are finger-pointing about who broke who. So Seam isn't at all guaranteed to run under Java 6 in any way, and JBoss and the Seam team consider it Sun's problem, not theirs.

So what am I going to do? I've got a conference presentation coming up and I wanted to use this demo with the latest Seam and latest GWT. But it's starting to look like I'm going to have to sink way too much time into mucking about with Seam for reasons I'd rather not have anything to do with. I'll probably follow the path of least resistance, which is just to roll back to Java 5 and grin and bear it. It's definitely demotivating, though. Definitely. Demotivating.