31 December 2012

TIME: “NASA Actually Working on Faster-than-Light Warp Drive”

The findings I presented today change [Alcubierre’s warp drive] from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation, White told SPACE.com. The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.
That’s right, an actual lab experiment, whereby White says he plans to simulate the tweaked Alcubierre drive in miniature, using lasers to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million. Matt Peckham

So NASA can’t even fly astronauts to the Moon anymore, but it’s working on faster-than-light propulsion?! Sorry, but I’ll believe this when I’ll see a working prototype!

30 December 2012

Follow individual posts from your friends on Facebook

As 2012 draws to a close, it looks like is still hard at work, making incremental changes to the site. After renaming the ‘Subscribe’ feature to ‘Followat the beginning of December, the same action is making its way into individual posts from friends in the newsfeed. You may have noticed each post has a small menu in the top right corner and now one of the first options is to ‘Follow post’. It’s available for both public posts and those set to ‘friends-only’. If you enable this you should start receiving notifications whenever someone likes or comments on the story, as though you had commented on the entry – similar to a long-forgotten feature from the extinct Google Buzz. In my limited experience with the feature today, that hasn’t actually happened – maybe it’s just being tested before the final release on the site. Facebook follow post from friends

And another small change noticed on Facebook: you can now use keyboard shortcuts to navigate through the newsfeed: the familiar j and k used by , Plus and many other online apps.

Update: and notifications started showing up a couple of hours later!

29 December 2012

Flickr’s new iPhone app is a huge improvement

A couple of weeks ago I saw an unusual surge of updates for my iPhone apps and among them one update that was long overdue: a new Flickr app! While I couldn’t care less about filters – if you shoot a photo with bad framing or out of focus you won’t be able to ‘fix’ it with a filter – the app has some great improvements. I won’t go through all of them – there are other, in-depth reviews for that – but simply highlight some of the things I enjoy about the app and some minor problems:

25 December 2012

Don Melton: “When I first heard the name ‘Safari’”

“Safari”, Kurt whispered.
I didn’t say anything. But Kurt must have noticed that I was more relaxed. “Dazed” as he described it to me later. Probably a little stupider looking than usual, too.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I honestly didn’t know what to think. My mind was a blank because I just didn’t expect it. The name seemed to come out of nowhere. It sounded more foreign at that moment than its actual origin.
“It doesn’t suck,” I finally offered. Don Melton

Well, it definitely sucks less than ‘iBrowse’.

Hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Safari was launched, and how many things happened on the web since. I remember my first encounter with Apple’s browser, back in 2005, at my first job. I wasn’t particularly impressed with anything on the MacBooks – no right-click button on the mouse, Apple, seriously?! – but I loved the browser! In fact I loved it so much that I even tried it out on Windows, a couple of years later – where it wasn’t such a pleasant experience anymore… But I was left with a strange fondness for WebKit, that later translated into my loyalty for . I keep thinking that Apple could have had more success with Safari on Windows if they took that project more seriously and launched it earlier. By the time Safari landed on Windows, Apple was probably on the way to convert it into a mobile touch-enabled browser.

What’s new in Chrome 25

Google Chrome 25 Apps LauncherThis new version of brings a couple of experiments that will probably not be available by default for some time, they need to be manually enabled from the flags internal page. First of all there is the Chrome Apps Launcher (Windows only): mimicking Chrome OS, this experiment adds a new icon in the Windows taskbar. It acts as a launcher for the apps installed in Chrome, as well as a search box, like a mini version of the Omnibox. Personally I don’t see the point to have an extra icon – and a damn ugly one! – when it’s just as fast to open the browser and do anything from there. On top of that, this experiment removes the Apps section from the New Tab page, so the only way to launch them remains this separate icon.

A more promising idea was announced recently on the Chromium blog: a new API allowing the default search engine to customize the New Tab page, for example with a custom search box. Naturally, the only search engine currently integrated with the new API is ; you can see the resulting New Tab page by enabling the flag Enable Instant extended API. While the idea is far from new – as always, did it first, including a secondary search engine on their Speed Dial – the integration with Google goes deeper: the Google logo is replaced with the Google Doodle of the day; another nice feature is that the search terms on the search results page are shown directly in the Omnibox, making more room for the actual results. I didn’t like the changes to the New Tag page at first, because it leaves little space for the ‘Apps’ and ‘Most recent’ sections and you can’t reorder apps anymore, they are arranged more-or-less randomly. On the other hand I really like the stripped-down version of the Google search results without logo, the black bar and the search box, so I might stick with this experiment for a while. It you’re missing the links for ‘Recently closed tabs’ and ‘Other devices’ on the revised New Tab page, you will find them under the wrench-menu.

23 December 2012

Salman Rushdie - Pămîntul de sub tălpile ei

in Bucharest, Romania

Salman Rushdie Pamantul de sub talpile eiCu un asemenea titlu, romanul nu putea să fie decât o poveste de dragoste și avându‑l ca autor pe Salman Rushdie promitea o călătorie interesantă și complexă cum puțini pot să născocească. Întinzându‑se peste jumătate de mapamond și de secol, romanul ne poartă pe urmele a trei copii dezrădăcinați ai Indiei în încercarea lor de a găsi un nou cămin, un pământ solid sub tălpile lor, născând în același timp mișcarea rock‑and‑roll. Scris sub forma unui jurnal din amintirile lui Umeed „Rai” Merchant, acțiunea începe de la final, momentul fatidic al morții Vinei într‑un cutremur devastator la începutul anilor ‘90, pentru a reveni la copilăria lor în India, prima lor întâlnire, secretele întunecate care le‑au măcinat familiile, tragediile care i‑au marcat pe viață, circumstanțele în care fiecare din ei a părăsit India pentru a nu se mai întoarce decât sporadic, traiectoria lui Ormus și a Vinei prin Anglia și mai apoi America, de la obscuri cântăreți în cluburi de noapte la o faimă imposibil de egalat sub sigla formației VTO.

Dar ceea ce dorim noi este dragostea, nu eliberarea. Care om e mai nefericit? Cel iubit, căruia i s-a împlinit dorința inimii, dar se teme întruna că o să-și piardă visul, sau omul liber, căruia i s-a acordat o libertate pe care nu o căutase, și care se simte gol și singur printre oștile de captivi de pe pământ?

Cam acesta e scheletul general pe care Rushdie construiește romanul, adăugând nenumărate alte imagini, personaje și povești secundare, care se întrepătrund repetat cu cele centrale, încărcând pe nesimțite sute de pagini. Ca și în Versetele satanice, dimensiunea mitică joacă un rol extins și îmbracă personajele în straturi succesive de semnificații care se modifică pe măsură ce povestea evoluează. Dar aici mitul e privit printr‑un ochi mai critic, căci, spre deosebire de Ormus, care se hrănește din viziunea lui inexplicabilă a unui frate‑geamăn mort și a unei lumi ascunse în spatele celei reale, și de Vina, care absoarbe cu aviditate orice noutate și mit și le adaugă la imaginea ei schimbătoare de zeiță rock, povestitorul Rai este ateu, scepticul dintre cei trei, care se folosește de imagini și analogii în relatarea lui fără a le întări cu credința în ele.

18 December 2012

Paul Krugman: “Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics”

A non-nerdy concern – or anyway, a less nerdy concern – would be this: Now that I'm a social scientist myself, or at least as close to being one as we manage to get in these early days of human civilisation, what do I think of Asimov's belief that we can, indeed, conquer that final frontier – that we can develop a social science that gives its acolytes a unique ability to understand and perhaps shape human destiny? Paul Krugman

A good review of one of the most famous series in science-fiction, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy; also a testimony to the influence and power of inspiration coming from good sci-fi ideas. As for the actual science behind the fictional ‘psychohistory’, it’s unlikely to ever become reality; chaotic fluctuations and interactions will pretty much ensure predictions will start diverging widely from reality in just a couple of years. I’m not sure if I read this somewhere, but psychohistory is more-or-less equivalent to thermodynamics: the motion of a single gas molecule is impossible to predict among billion other, nevertheless the properties of the gas as a whole are well described by a single theory.

17 December 2012

Google Zeitgeist 2012: Romania

As we’re nearing the end of 2012 and time seems to fly by more rapidly with each year, released their annual Zeitgeist report to show an overview of the most popular searches in the past year. While you could argue that these trends are rife with pop culture fluff – they most certainly are – or that competing views of the world from Twitter or Facebook are more relevant in the era of social media, I still checked some of the country-level trends. It’s somewhat disconcerting to see ‘Hamburger’ take the second spot in the ‘Foods’ category in France – although all the other places are held by genuine French cuisine (the more obscure the name, the more genuine the dish, that’s my rule at least).

For Romania, there are fewer categories – the number varies from country to country, probably depending on the search volume for each. Some of the top search terms were quite obvious, others less so:

15 December 2012

Official Google Blog: “Winter cleaning”

Last January, we renewed our resolution to focus on creating beautiful, useful products that improve millions of people’s lives every day. To make the most impact, we need to make some difficult decisions. So as 2012 comes to an end, here are some additional products, features and services we’re closing:
  • Google Sync was designed to allow access to Google Mail, Calendar and Contacts via the Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync® protocol. With the recent launch of CardDAV, Google now offers similar access via IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV, making it possible to build a seamless sync experience using open protocols. Starting January 30, 2013, consumers won't be able to set up new devices using Google Sync; however, existing Google Sync connections will continue to function. Google Sync will continue to be fully supported for Google Apps for Business, Government and Education. Users of those products are unaffected by this announcement.
Venkat Panchapakesan

I didn’t pay much attention to this announcement until I read a follow-up by Ed Bott. I’m disappointed to see this feature discontinued, since I am using it right now on the iPhone to sync my Gmail account to the default Mail app and receive push notifications and I was kinda hoping to also set up Gmail in Outlook 2013 with this method. In the future if you want push notifications on any other platform than Android you will have to use the official app; which could be a problem on Windows Phone, since Google apparently has no plans to develop apps for that mobile OS. Even on iOS replacing EAS with three different protocols for mail, contacts and calendar will bring unnecessary headaches for users, because you need to set up the same Gmail account three times instead of a single time; just try changing your password and re-typing it into three places instead of one.

Also, it’s funny how free users get to enjoy the “open” experience, while the poor paying customers are stuck using EAS/Google Sync. As usual, open it used very freely, as a cover for business decisions. The announcement should actually read: we don’t make enough money out of free accounts to justify the licenses we pay to Microsoft, so you will just have to use the official apps so that Google can collect more data on you and display more ads. And if this is a move to limit the potential threat of Windows Phone 8 on Android by restricting access to key Google services, as some suggested, that’s even worse: it becomes an anti-competitive action. Somehow this is not a Google I would like to trust in the future.

14 December 2012

Google Maps back on the iPhone

After Apple decided to stop using Google’s data and try to build it’s own competing maps service, most users were left with an inferior product, in terms of usable data at least, and hoping for to release its own standalone Maps app for iOS. As rumored ever since, the app was released yesterday with a long list of improvements over the old default Maps app in iOS 5: Street View, traffic and transit information, turn-by-turn direction and vector-based tiles for better load times and smoother rotation. I played around with it only for a short time, but you can immediately notice the improved responsiveness thanks to switching to vector rendering. The only downside seems to be the lack of proper offline support – which can be a big issue if you are travelling abroad or in remote places with poor cellular coverage.

I won’t do through all the details, because there are already so many articles online covering every possible aspect of the app, from the data behind the product to the usability and distinctively Google design. One small thing I noticed is how Google Maps tiles fill the entire surface of the screen, even the background of the iOS system bar! It’s taking advantage of a seemingly minor change in iOS 6; until now I thought the bar simply mimics the color of the current app, but it’s actually semi-transparent. It would be nice to see if other apps can make good use of this. Google Maps shows data behind the iPhone system bar

10 December 2012

Search for multiple labels on Blogger

Labels for posts and displaying pages containing only articles with a specific label are pretty basic features for any blogging platform. But what if you want to search for several labels and retrieve articles that contain all those labels or any label? Is that even possible? I asked myself this at some point and a comment from yesterday prompted me to finally find the answer.

One of the solutions I discovered on the help forums uses search with a query in this format: <blog-URL>/search/?q=label:LABEL1+label:LABEL2. This returns posts with both labels. I tested it myself and it works, but it’s hard to manually build the URL and the search is case sensitive, meaning that it will return no results it you don’t input the label name exactly as created in Blogger.

While playing around on the blog I discovered an easier way to do this: modify the normal label URL in Blogger by adding a + sign followed by the name of the second label: <blog-URL>search/label/LABEL1+LABEL2. It’s easier to remember and to type, but it’s also case sensitive. It actually works with more than two labels – I only tested it with three, so I’m not sure if there is a limit to the number of labels you can add in the URL. I don’t use any labels with multiple words so I couldn’t test this case, but it’s safe to assume you need to escape spaces by replacing them with %20 just like Blogger does with the regular label pages. Blogger search multiple labels

But what about the other case, when you want to find posts with any of those labels – the OR operator instead of AND? Unfortunately the second option doesn’t seem to support OR, but the first one does: just replace the + in the search query with a vertical bar like this: <blog-URL>/search/?q=label:LABEL1|label:LABEL2. It’s fun to see this in action especially with labels that have very little to do with one another.

09 December 2012

Mike Resnick - Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge

in Bucharest, Romania

Mike Resnick - Seven Views of Olduvai GorgeAtunci când te gândești la viziunile despre viitor ale science‑fiction‑ului, cel mai des vin în minte fie grandioase space‑operas, fie distopii rafinate, înșelătoare prin părțile lor atrăgătoare. Povestirea lui Mike Resnick în schimb abordează o perspectivă mai rară, și anume timpul îndepărtat în care specia umană va dispărea dintre stele și de pe fața Pământului. Destinul Omului e schițat pe scurt drept o ascensiune agresivă, înrobind speciile pașnice de la care avea nevoie de ceva, zdrobind pe cei care li se împotriveau, urmată apoi de decădere și dispariție. Milenii mai târziu, culturile ce populează galaxia sunt încă intrigate de comportamentul unic al Omului. În speranța de a scoate la iveală noi indicii legate de apariția speciei noastre, o echipă de cercetători provenind de pe lumi diferite, fiecare cu propriile talente, descinde în zona în care se consideră că au evoluat primii oameni, canionul Olduvai din Africa Centrală.

Povestirea folosește tehnici literare vechi, combinând povestirea în ramă a la Dante cu o încheiere în oglindă cu începutul – despre asta nu dau detalii, dar e destul de previzibilă, eu cel puțin am intuit‑o imediat după prima mini‑povestire. Povestirea în ramă e introdusă foarte abil în schemă prin prezența lui He Who Views, unul din oamenii de știință a cărui „specialitate” este să absoarbă istoria unui obiect în propria sa memorie; pe lângă asta posedă și amintirile predecesorilor săi, memoria genetică inventată în Dune, probabil prin același mecanism de absorbire, de data asta aplicat progenitorilor. Prin perspectiva lui asistăm (deloc surprinzător) la șapte scene din trecutul zonei, de la cel îndepărtat când strămoșii noștri abia se deosebeau de maimuțe, la epoca comerțului cu sclavi negri, la emanciparea Africii de colonialismul european, avansând apoi într‑un viitor în care mediul se deteriorează rapid. Fiecare dintre ele un exemplu diferit de violență om contra om, fiecare lăsându‑i pe colegii săi mai perplecși decât înainte cu privire la motivațiile obiectului lor de studiu.

02 December 2012

Kurt Vonnegut - 2 B R 0 2 B

in Bucharest, Romania

Kurt Vonnegut 2BR02BO povestire extra‑scurtă și destul de obscură a autorului mult mai cunoscut, 2 B R 0 2 B are loc într‑un viitor la prima vedere utopic, peste cam un secol, când toate problemele presante ale omenirii, de la foamete și sărăcie la război și boli, au fost eradicate, iar durata de viață extinsă substanțial. Dar, cu aceeași ironie concisă și indiferentă, aproape blazată, din Leagănul pisicii, Vonnegut ne prezintă prețul care a trebuit să fie plătit pentru pace și belșug: limitarea severă a populației. Pentru fiecare naștere cineva trebuie să aleagă să moară; pentru ușurarea procesului au fost deschise camere publice de gazare, gestionate de Biroul Federal de Exterminare, unde cetățenii se pot prezenta oricând pentru sinucidere asistată. Pe cât de scurtă povestirea, pe atât de pregnantă imaginea pe care o transmite; deși în condițiile actuale pare mai mult decât improbabilă, te face să te întrebi cât de departe s‑ar putea merge în încercarea de a obține pacea, dacă suntem într‑adevăr dispuși să renunțăm la libertatea de alegere, la atât de multe din lucrurile pe care le considerăm drepturi umane de dragul siguranței și pentru „binele” comunității. Sau ca unele din călătoriile lui Gulliver, să te gândești că poate unele idei (acolo nemurirea, aici pacea) ar trebui să rămână idealuri demne de urmărit, pentru că odată atinse se pot dovedi cu totul altceva față de ce ne imaginasem inițial. Încă o dată trebuie să admir cât de multe poate să exprime un autor genial chiar și în cursul a doar câteva mii de cuvinte, în timp ce alții nu reușesc nici măcar în tomuri de mii de pagini.

What’s your idea of what life looks like? said the orderly. The painter gestured at a foul dropcloth. There’s a good picture of it, he said. Frame that, and you’ll have a picture a damn sight more honest than this one.

povestirea e disponibilă online pe Project Gutenberg

01 December 2012

Business Insider: “Iceland’s President Explains Why The World Needs To Rethink Its Addiction To Finance”

We have, however, concentrated on our recovery, and paradoxically, what we are seeing in the last two years is that many sectors in Iceland: the energy sector, the tourism sector, the IT sector, the manufacturing sector, and the fishing sector are doing better in the last two years than they did prior to the banking crisis. And you might also find it interesting that the collapse of the banks revealed to us a very interesting aspect of modern banking, which I think has been more or less overlooked in this discussion in Europe and in America in the last two or three years: the Icelandic banks, like all modern big banks in Europe and America and all the other parts of the world, are no longer banks in the old-fashioned way. They have become high-tech companies. High-ranked engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, programmers and so on and so forth. And their success depends largely on how successful they are in hiring people with this education and capability, not necessarily those trained in business schools or finance, but in engineering, mathematics, computer science and so on.
And when the Icelandic banks collapsed, what we saw was that a great number of companies in these creative sectors, IT, high-tech, and all of those, who had the large growth potential in the previous years, but had not been able to realize it because they couldn’t get the people, due to the fact that the banks were buying up all the best engineers and mathematicians and computer scientists, suddenly had the pool of talent available to them. And within six months, all these people who came out of the banks with these qualifications had been hired. So since then you have seen a great growth period in the Icelandic IT sector, the high-tech sector, the manufacturing sector, because they could suddenly get the engineers, the mathematicians, the computer scientists. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

That’s an interesting observation; it looks obvious in retrospect, but I don’t remember it being mentioned in other analysis about the financial crisis. Since the banking system generates a lot of profits and bonuses for employees, it’s only natural that the best qualified gravitate towards it. It’s another aspect of the imbalances leading up to the crisis and that has probably slowed recovery in other parts of the world, who chose to pump money into banks without proper control of their use. The bottom line: finance should be a support system, ensuring enough cash flow goes into the other sectors of the economy, into proper innovation and growth.

The New York Times: “A Minimum Tax for the Wealthy”

A huge tail wind from tax cuts has pushed us along. In 1992, the tax paid by the 400 highest incomes in the United States (a different universe from the Forbes list) averaged 26.4 percent of adjusted gross income. In 2009, the most recent year reported, the rate was 19.9 percent. It’s nice to have friends in high places. […] Additionally, we need Congress, right now, to enact a minimum tax on high incomes. I would suggest 30 percent of taxable income between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on amounts above that. A plain and simple rule like that will block the efforts of lobbyists, lawyers and contribution-hungry legislators to keep the ultrarich paying rates well below those incurred by people with income just a tiny fraction of ours. Only a minimum tax on very high incomes will prevent the stated tax rate from being eviscerated by these warriors for the wealthy. Warren E. Buffett

To adopt this kind of reform, it must first get through the efforts of lobbyists, lawyers and contribution-hungry legislators. See the problem here?