30 October 2014

The iPad and the ‘post-PC’ era

Last week it was time for another earnings report from , which delivered little surprise: big revenues from the new larger iPhone models, while iPads recorded the third consecutive drop in sales. Half a year ago, after the first signs of stagnation, I shared a chart comparing the year-on-year growth of Apple products and commented that, in just two years, the iPad has gone from being the iPhone to being the Mac – meaning of course that growth has stalled abruptly, turning the iPad from the hottest selling Apple device into a stagnating product like PCs. Not much has changed since, except the Mac is showing signs of renewed consumer interest with healthy growth in both revenues and unit sales.

Apple unit sales YoY growth

27 October 2014

Slate Magazine: “Driving in Circles”

Another problem with maps is that once you make them, you have to keep them up to date, a challenge Google says it hasn’t yet started working on. Considering all the traffic signals, stop signs, lane markings, and crosswalks that get added or removed every day throughout the country, keeping a gigantic database of maps current is vastly difficult. Safety is at stake here; Chris Urmson, director of the Google car team, told me that if the car came across a traffic signal not on its map, it could potentially run a red light, simply because it wouldn’t know to look for the signal. Urmson added, however, that an unmapped traffic signal would be “very unlikely”, because during the “time and construction” needed to build a traffic signal, there would be adequate opportunity to add it to the map.

But not always. Scott Heydt, director of marketing at Horizon Signal Technologies, says his company routinely sets up its portable traffic signals at road construction sites. Frequently, they are simply towed to a site and turned on. We just set one up like that in New Jersey, said Heydt. You can be driving to work and everything is normal, but on your way home, discover a new traffic light. (Of this possibility, a Google spokesperson said, We will have to be ready for that.)

Lee Gomes

With a subheading like “The autonomous Google car may never actually happen”, this article paints a rather bleak picture of the future of self-driving cars. But I wouldn’t be quite so pessimistic as the subheading implies. As with any new revolution in transportation, it’s not enough to design and build the vehicle, you also need to have the right infrastructure in place. In order to use trains, people had to build a railway system; for cars they needed highways, petrol stations and parking places. It’s the same now with driverless cars; it’s not enough to have a smart car, you also need smart roads to take full advantage of their potential.

25 October 2014

The Observer: “The Wire creator David Simon: why American politics no longer works”

That’s the notion that the markets will solve everything. Leave me alone. I want maximum liberty, I want maximum freedom. Those words have such power in America. On the other hand ‘responsibility’ or ‘society’ or ‘community’ are words that are increasingly held in disfavour in the United States. And that’s a recipe for cooking up a second-rate society, one that does not engage with the notion of collective responsibility. We’re only as good a society as how we treat those who are most vulnerable and nobody’s more vulnerable than our poor. To be poor is not a crime, except in America.

David Simon

There has been no shortage lately of articles about the rising inequality and political blockage in the United States, but this one stuck with me because of the striking similarity with a fragment from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which I was reading at the time. I think it’s safe to say the problem is far from being solved, and only getting worse.

23 October 2014

Android Power: “Hands on with Inbox, Google’s new way to experience Gmail”

(Your traditional Gmail labels are still present and available, by the way; in fact, if you open up the Inbox settings, they’re listed along with all the Bundles in a tab called “Labels”. But there’s no way to assign a message to multiple labels in this setup; a message is either in the inbox or in a single Bundle/label -- and that’s it. Confused yet?)

JR Raphael

For all the hype and excitement in the press, to me it sounds more like a regression than an improvement. The ability to add multiple labels to a message has been one of the main advantages of Gmail from day one; removing it doesn’t strike me as a step in the right direction. Nor does the fact that on desktop Inbox actively locks out browsers other than . I get a sense that one of the reasons behind its existence is to nudge people away from email as open standard and towards ’s proprietary API’s.

19 October 2014

Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

in Bucharest, Romania

Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-FiveDupă încheierea celui de‑Al Doilea Război Mondial, soldații americani care au supraviețuit bombardamentelor din Dresda încearcă să‑și reia viețile smulse din rutină. Și aparent lucrurile reușesc să reintre pe făgașul normal: protagonistul Billy Pilgrim se căsătorește, preia afacerea socrului său optician și acumulează o avere suficientă pentru un trai lipsit de griji. Dar amintirea războiului nu se lasă ușor înăbușită: naratorul nenumit obișnuiește să sune noaptea la numere de telefon aleatoare ca să discute cu străini, iar Billy Pilgrim, după șocul unui accident aviatic și al morții soției, începe să povestească tuturor cum a fost răpit de extratereștrii și cum aceștia i‑au arătat că timpul și moartea sunt doar iluzii umane. So it goes.

I say, Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead? What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too. And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

E destul de dificil să‑ți formezi o părere clară despre o carte complicată și în mod intenționat ambiguă ca Abatorul Cinci. Capitole de început și încheiere, redate din perspectiva naratorului, aici un alter‑ego al lui Vonnegut, încadrează (auto)biografia lui Billy Pilgrim, care se desfășoară neliniar, ca un pick‑up stricat al cărui ac nu mai poate urma șanțul gravat pe disc, ci sare aiurea înainte și înapoi. Urmând salturile haotice în timp ale conștiinței lui, alternăm între lunile în care fusese prizonier de război al naziștilor, viața ca membru respectat al comunității din Ilium (o aluzie, poate, la alt mare război, cel Troian?), devenit mai apoi un excentric privit cu exasperare, și perioada petrecută ca exponat într‑o grădină zoologică pe Tralfamadore. Iar în jurul lui moartea se manifestă în toate formele ei, de la deratizarea hainelor prizonierilor la decese banale, aproape comice în absurditatea lor, la bombardamentul devastator al Dresden‑ului la moartea finală a Universului, conștientizată de tralfamadorieni. So it goes.

18 October 2014

Vox: “How America lost the Middle East”

The problem isn’t that America has gotten weaker. It’s that the Middle East has changed. When the Middle East’s biggest problems were about conflict between formal governments, the United States had a lot more influence. But today, the Middle East is defined by a shifting, impossibly complicated web of ethno-religious tension, weak and failed states, and ascendant terrorist organizations. The collapse of central governments and rise of powerful non-state actors breed problems that foreign powers, even the world’s only superpower, simply cannot address.

This power struggle played up sectarian divisions in a very bad way. I don’t think that the Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a sectarian war with each other, said F. Gregory Gause, a University of Vermont professor who studies the politics of the Middle East. But they use sectarianism. This battle for influence is played out not in military conflicts between the two states, but in civil conflicts in weak Arab countries … the Saudis will back the Sunnis and Iranians will back the Shias because those are natural allies. And the Saudis and Iranians don’t have to force themselves into these fights; the local players invite them in. That’s exactly what happened in Syria and Iran. In both cases, Iranian-backed Shia central governments are fighting Sunni rebels that have received heavy Saudi support.

Zack Beauchamp

A thorough overview of a most complicated situation, where a satisfying solution is increasingly hard to find. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East seams to be playing out like a smaller version of the Cold War, where two powers of comparable strength avoid direct conflict, fueling local wars in their satellite states instead. The best (and maybe only) reasonable thing to do could be to try to prevent the crisis from growing even more violent and extreme and to support the feeble attempts at democracy in the other Arab states.

16 October 2014

What’s new in Chrome 39

After the numerous developer updates and APIs introduced in Chrome 38, this version focuses more on JavaScript, with ES6 Generators, improved animation controls and a new standard for defining mobile web apps, the Web Application Manifest. Of course, at some point adding features will lead to older ones being deprecated, and now it’s time for the chrome.pushMessaging API to be replaced by the newer Google Cloud Messaging service. Another change that should be live in this version is that people can install free Chrome apps without being signed in to the Web Store. Since I haven’t installed an app in a while I can’t verify this – I’m also almost constantly logged in to Chrome.

Security-wise, 39 marks the first step in the process of gradually phasing out support for the SHA-1 cryptographic hash algorithm, used in HTTPS certificate signatures, as detailed in the official announcement. SHA-1 is old and weak, and unfortunately widely used, so moving to the improved SHA-2 is scheduled to take at least a couple of years. Other big technology companies have similar plans, starting with Microsoft and most recently Mozilla.