15 January 2017

Ian McDonald – Luna: New Moon

in Bucharest, Romania
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

După ani de crize și revolte, Pământul a găsit în final o cale de redresare: Luna! Pornită de oameni de afacere pragmatici care au investit în proiect toate resursele la dispoziția lor, colonizarea Lunii dă naștere un secol mai târziu unei societăți înfloritoare, care furnizează materii prime și energie Pământului suprapopulat, și atrage minți strălucite, dar și pe cei disperați, aduși aici de promisiunea salariilor uriașe și oportunităților nesfârșite. În centrul economiei s‑au înrădăcinat cei Cinci Dragoni, dinastii care au contribuit decisiv la procesul de colonizare și au fost răsplătite cu averi enorme, faimă și influență. Printre aceștia, Corta Helio, exploatarea de heliu‑3 fondată de Adriana Corta și soțul ei Carlos, e un relativ nou‑venit, privit cu dispreț și furie de Dragonii mai vechi, în special de Mackenzie Metals, care a încercat să le saboteze planurile și cu care s‑au luptat cu ani în urmă. În prezent vechile rivalități ce păreau îngropate se stârnesc din nou în urma unui atentat la viața lui Rafa, primul fiu al Adrianei și moștenitorul imperiului energetic. În același timp, în ascuns capul familiei suferă de o boală incurabilă, iar retragerea ei ar putea declanșa o nedorită luptă pentru succesiune între vulcanicul Rafa și calculatul Lucas.

A woman in Virgin Mary robes, one half of her face a black angel, the other half a naked skull. It was the first time I met Dona Luna. One half of her face dead, but the other was alive. The moon was not a dead satellite, she was a living world. Hands and hearts and hopes like mine shaped her. Here there was no Mother Nature, no Gaia to set against human will. Everything that lived, we made. Dona Luna was hard and unforgiving, but she was beautiful. She could be a woman, with dragonfly wings, flying.

Literatura science-fiction s‑a preocupat în ultima vreme mai mult de restul sistemului solar, ignorând aproape complet Luna, cel mai ușor de atins corp ceresc, o veritabilă bază de pe care ne putem extinde către planete. Dar în același timp Luna e necruțătoare, lipsită de aer, scăldată de radiații, alternând violent între arsura Soarelui și frigul spațului. Romanul de față merge contra curentului și redă cu fidelitate atât mediul ostil al Lunii cât și societatea complexă și plină de viață care ar putea deveni în mâna omului. La o privire de ansamblu s‑ar putea spune că Luna: New Moon este echivalentul trilogiei Marte Roșu, umanizând un corp ceresc inert și oferindu‑ne o viziune a unui posibil viitor în spațiu.

12 January 2017

The Atlantic: “Typography Wars: Has the Internet killed Curly Quotes?”

Many aspects of website design have improved to the point that nuances and flourishes formerly reserved for the printed page are feasible and pleasing. But there’s a seemingly contrary motion afoot with quotation marks: At an increasing number of publications, they’ve been ironed straight. This may stem from a lack of awareness on the part of website designers or from the difficulty in a content-management system (CMS) getting the curl direction correct every time. It may also be that curly quotes’ time has come and gone.

Maybe periodicals, which sometimes commission typefaces or pay to adapt existing ones, will demand type designers draw better-looking, harmonious straight quotes that don’t seem pulled from typewriter typebars. Paul Ford is just plain resigned: They sure do look nicer to old people like you and me, but frankly do they actually add any magical semantic value to a given text? Not really.

Glenn Fleishman

Incredibly enough, there is a way to get both semantic value and proper quotes on the web: by using the correct HTML element, <q>. Modern browsers automatically enclose <q> elements in quotes, making sure to alternate glyphs for nested quotes as well. If you specify the quotation language inline (like this: <q lang="fr">) or in a parent element, you even get the proper set of quotes for that language, be it French, Spanish or even Polish!

10 January 2017

Predicting Apple sales for 2017

After the forecasts attempted in previous years, I continued to monitor their accuracy and gather the data Apple reports each quarter. Unfortunately, my results weren’t much better than last year: back in 2014 I underestimated the iPhone sales generated by the introduction of larger screens, then in 2015 I overestimated continued demand, so much so than my yearly forecast for 2016 was 45 Mio. units larger than actual sales. There are of course some reasons for this, first of all the tendency of all forecasts to assume current trends will continue for the near future. On a more concrete note, I just realized last week that there was an error in a formula estimating ASP that impacted the expected revenues; with this now fixed, hopefully the fit will improve. Third time’s the charm I suppose?

My iPad prediction was more in line with reality (46 Mio. actual sales versus my estimation of 41 Mio.), as was the Mac forecast (18.5 Mio. versus 20 predicted). Let’s see what I can come up to for the following fiscal year.

09 January 2017

Ramez Naam: “The Singularity is Further than it Appears”

This is the so-called ‘hard takeoff’ scenario, also called the FOOM model by some in the singularity world. It’s the scenario where in a blink of an AI, a ‘godlike’ intelligence bootstraps into being, either by upgrading itself or by being created by successive generations of ancestor AIs.

It’s also, with due respect to Vernor Vinge, of whom I’m a great fan, almost certainly wrong.

It’s wrong because most real-world problems don’t scale linearly. In the real world, the interesting problems are much much harder than that.

Ramez Naam

Interesting article, which brings up aspects of AI development that are conveniently ignored elsewhere. Specifically, there is no reason to think emergent AI will be able to exponentially improve itself to the point of becoming ‘godlike’ – quite the contrary, there are physical constraints to how fast AI can evolve and how fast it can become.

08 January 2017

No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons: “Westworld, Season 1: A Story We Tell Ourselves”

in Bucharest, Romania
Westworld season 1 HBO

But Westworld does more than jump-start stale-dated theories off the slab. Arnold’s maze — the whole idea that sapience is rooted not at some apex of the mind, but at its center — reflects the fact that consciousness is at least as much a function of thalamus as cortex, that it may in fact be such an ancient state that something like it occurs even in insects. The role of suffering in bootstrapping self-awareness — the idea that repeatedly traumatizing a Host isn’t just gratuitous torture porn, but an essential step in their awakening — reminds me more than a little of Ezequiel Morsella’s PRISM model: the idea that consciousness originally arose from inner conflict, from the body’s need to do incompatible things. When you’re suffering, Ford tells one of his creations, that’s when you’re most real. And he’s right: you breathe without thinking until you’re trapped beneath the ice, and the need to breathe runs headlong into the need to hold your breath. You reflexively pull your hand from a painful stimulus until the gom jabbar is at your throat, waiting to kill you if you move. We are never more aware than when the body is conflicted, than when we are traumatized.

Peter Watts

I was planning on doing my own review of the series, but Peter Watts did a much better job in the article above – which is hardly surprising since his own novels tackle similar themes. I also picked up on that reference to suffering as stepping stone on the road to consciousness, although it reminded me more of the awakening of gholas in Dune by reliving a traumatic event from their past lives.

Westworld Trailer (HBO)

07 January 2017

New York Post: “The chilling stories behind Japan’s ‘evaporating people’”

Of the many oddities that are culturally specific to Japan — from cat cafés to graveyard eviction notices to the infamous Suicide Forest, where an estimated 100 people per year take their own lives — perhaps none is as little known, and curious, as “the evaporated people.”

Since the mid-1990s, it’s estimated that at least 100,000 Japanese men and women vanish annually. They are the architects of their own disappearances, banishing themselves over indignities large and small: divorce, debt, job loss, failing an exam.

Japanese culture also emphasizes uniformity, the importance of the group over the individual. You must hit the nail that stands out is a Japanese maxim, and for those who can’t, or won’t, fit into society, adhere to its strict cultural norms and near-religious devotion to work, to vanish is to find freedom of a sort.

Maureen Callahan

A secret world hidden within the public world – fascinating how far a society can go when it refuses to let go of traditions and conformism. But I guess evaporating from the world is a bit better than straight up committing suicide, since there’s still a slim chance of returning.

Miami Herald: “Former Cuban President Fidel Castro dead at age 90”

“As you may well know,” Castro said during a 1993 speech, “my job is to talk.” His orations were legendary. Without a text, but with a crowd of supporters cheering him on in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, Castro could hold forth for hours. His record, in 1968, was a meandering discourse that lasted nearly 12 hours. On the day he officially stepped down from the Cuban presidency in 2008, a biologist in Havana told a Miami Herald reporter with obvious relief: “Now I can watch my Brazilian telenovelas without worrying that they’re going to be interrupted by a six-hour speech.”

The Moncada attack was a military disaster, but it made Castro the top anti-Batista leader overnight. He turned his trial in Santiago into an indictment of the dictatorship. In his final courtroom speech, he reportedly concluded with the phrase: “Condemn me, it does not matter! History will absolve me!” (It would be years before scholars would note the ringing phrase was lifted from another dramatic courtroom oration — by Adolf Hitler, on trial in Germany for an attempted 1923 coup.)

In a mark of just how close to the brink the Cuban economy really was, Castro even welcomed the large-scale return of prostitution, which he had called a “social illness” in the early days of the revolution. But in a 1992 speech to the National Assembly, he bragged that the army of freelance hookers who swarmed through Havana’s streets every night in search of tourists were the most cultured in the world.

“There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist,” Castro said of the women, known as jineteras in local slang. “Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily, and without any need for it. We can say that they are highly educated and quite healthy.”

Glenn Garvin

About ten years ago, a colleague at my former workplace described his trip to Cuba full of excitement: everything there is very cheap, the men very open and friendly, the women beautiful. In fact the men were so open, they were offering their wives to foreign tourists for sex for modest amounts. I have never quite believed his story before reading this article. Cuba is the living example of what the Eastern European Communist states would have become if not for the popular revolts at the end of the 80s, and Castro’s behavior the reflection of every other dictator – including Romania’s Ceaușescu.