27 August 2012

The new Facebook app for iOS, now with Google Maps

Facebook for iOS now with Google MapsSo last week finally launched a new app for the iPhone, rewritten in native code for improved speed. It certainly feels more responsive, the menus and actions load much faster – even more than twice as fast, I would say. Photo browsing has improved as well: albums load quicker, browsing photos is faster and in the news stream you can swipe through updates containing multiple photos without leaving the stream. The only thing that seems unchanged is the loading speed of the news stream, but that is constrained more by the network than by any code improvement.

But the change that surprised me the most I discovered in the ‘check-in’ dialog: instead of using Bing Maps, like the desktop version, the mobile app uses Maps! Given the animosity between Facebook and Google that move feels very weird. On the other hand, I think there is a simple enough explanation for it: since the app now uses native iOS code, it was probably more convenient (or even required) to use the built-in mapping features than integrating the third-party Bing solution – which could make the app bigger and slower. And because Google Maps will be replaced with Apple’s own solution in the next version of iOS, it’s likely Facebook will also switch at that point. Which makes it even more crucial to see if Apple’s Maps are good enough to compete with Google’s – especially here in a small Eastern-European country…

Banish (some) multipage articles with Page One

If you browse a lot of news sites on the web, you are bound to come across a large number or articles that are not written on a single page, but split into multiple pages – be it for legitimate reasons, like their length, or just to get more page views and ad impressions for the site. Most offer a single-page – or print – version as well, but switching to it takes some time to locate the right link and an additional page load. So last week I decided to spare myself this annoyance and find a way to load the full version of articles by default. With a browser extension it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

Page One Chrome extensionI tried my query first on (where I didn’t get any answer) and later on Quora (where someone suggested the Instapaper bookmarklet, which isn’t a good solution, since it doesn’t do the job automatically), so finally I turned to good, old search. After a couple of tries, I found just what I was looking for: the extension Page One. There is no extra button or context menu, the extension just works behind the scenes, redirecting multipage articles to the single page version (if available) while loading. The only drawback is that it doesn’t have a global effect on any site – because there are several methods to get the single page version – instead it uses a list of big publishers and the extension needs to be updated to support another site. You can suggest other sites you would like to see included on the main web page of the extension. Scientific American would be on the top of my list, since they tend to split relatively small articles into two pages, the second one containing one or two paragraphs at most… – not nice!

26 August 2012

Arthur C. Clarke - Sfârșitul copilăriei

in Bucharest, Romania

Arthur C. Clarke Sfarsitul copilarieiContinuând cu recitirea romanelor lui Clarke, am trecut la primul său hit, Sfârșitul copilăriei. Cred că e suficient de cunoscut de fanii SF ca să nu mai intru în multe detalii despre subiect și acțiune. Foarte pe scurt, extratereștrii apar brusc în primele pagini, plasând o flotă impresionantă deasupra capitalelor mai importante ale Pământului. Fără să divulge prea multe din adevăratele lor intenții, așa‑numiții Overlorzi conduc omenirea – vrând‑nevrând – spre o „vârstă de aur”, o epocă de pace și prosperitate eliberată de prejudecăți, dar cu noi reguli „pentru binele oamenilor”. Totuși e clar că, în ciuda bunelor intenții afișate, binefăcătorii ascund multe – sau poate nici măcar ei nu știu care este scopul final al misiunii lor…

Ca și Orașul și stelele, romanul atinge o serie de teme răspândite în literatura SF. Cea mai evidentă e invazia extraterestră, cu un palmares mergând înapoi până la primii ani ai science‑fiction, la Războiul stelelor de H. G. Wells. Cred că ar fi imposibil să numești toate filmele și serialele care reiau ideea asta at nauseam (Independence Day, V), dar influențele lui Clarke se văd poate cel mai bine în Earth: Final Conflict și, din nou, în Stargate, unde cam la două episoade avem parte de o invazie. În paranteză fie spus, cred că unul din scenariști era mare fan Clarke: în serialul original întâlnim Ascensiunea, un proces accelerat de evoluție a conștiinței spre o existență pur energetică, similar cu ce se întâmplă în Sfârșitul copilăriei, echivalentul Overminții – comunitatea retrasă a celor Înălțați, iar rasa Asgard joacă bine rolul Overlorzilor: protejează omenirea, sunt foarte avansați tehnologic, dar au ajuns într‑o fundătură a evoluției și nu mai pot trece la nivelul următor prin Ascensiune.

20 August 2012

A couple iPhone tips

iPhone slide lock screen notification to launch appPart of the fun of buying new gadgets or trying out new software is to discover new things about them, hidden features that most users miss. I got my share of Aha! moments with the iPhone in the past months:

  • Shaking the iPhone while you are writing in a text field will pop up a message asking if you would like to undo typing – much quicker than pressing Backspace repeatedly. It’s actually a pretty old feature, introduced two or three iOS versions back;
  • In the camera app in iOS 5 you can swipe left to reveal the camera roll or right to come back to the camera. Basically the photo controls screen behaves like your last (not yet taken) picture;
  • My personal favorite: from the lock screen you can hold the icon of any notification message and slide to the right; this unlocks the phone and launches the corresponding app. Again, it’s a quicker way to do things compared to unlocking the device and then reaching for the Notification screen to start the app. But be careful, for missed calls sliding the notification will immediately call the person back – not necessarily what you want!
  • Even though iOS doesn’t allow apps to install themselves as defaults, some apps can add their own actions to context menus. I noticed this while viewing a PDF file, the menu has two entries for Evernote and Microsoft’s SkyDrive, so you can open the file in one of those apps and upload it to SkyDrive, for example.

19 August 2012

Philip K. Dick - The Minority Report

in Bucharest, Romania

Philip K. Dick The Minority ReportE aproape imposibil să citești nuvela originală a lui Philip K. Dick fără să o compari cu ecranizarea recentă a lui Steven Spielberg. În afară de ideea unui sistem polițienesc bazat pe prezicerea crimelor și capturarea în avans a potențialilor rău‑făcători, diferențele dintre ele sunt destul de importante, rezultând două povești – și finaluri – complet diferite. În varianta scrisă, John Anderton nu e un simplu agent, ci fondatorul și directorul agenției Precrime, apropiindu‑se de vârsta a treia și de retragerea pe care dorește să o amâne cât mai mult. Dar ca și în film, sistemul anunță că va comite o crimă și Anderton trebuie să fugă din fața legilor pe care le‑a susținut până acum, căutând să‑și dovedească nevinovăția cu ajutorul raportului minoritar. Misiunea îi e complicată, în maniera lui Dick, de întorsături nebune de situație și de neîncrederea la nivel de paranoia față de persoanele din jur – tânăra soție Lisa, noul adjunct Witwer, generalul în retragere Kaplan și maiorul Fleming – de vreme ce unul sau mai mulți ar putea fi în spatele acuzației.

Fiind mult mai scurtă, nuvela nu se prea ocupă de crearea unei tehnologii credibile – filmul excelează la acest capitol cu ziare din ecrane flexibile, interfețe touch, tehnologie de supraveghere la nivel individual și personalizarea automată a reclamelor în funcție de vizitatorii din preajmă, idei la fel de valabile acum ca și atunci – iar temele pe care pune accent autorul sunt altele. Filmul se axează mai mult dreptul oamenilor la alegere, pe posibilitatea lor de a lua decizia bună chiar în ultimul moment, iar ca o extindere pe latura umană a precog‑ilor, pe dreptul lor la o viață normală; în completă contradicție cu nuvela. Acțiunea nuvelei îi ignoră pe precog‑i, explicând doar că capacitatea lor de a vedea viitorul îi reduce la stadiul de legume fără posibilitate de reabilitare.

15 August 2012

parislemon: “The Chrome Update I Seem To Get On A Weekly Basis”

Flash for Android dies tomorrow. It’s time Google killed it on the web too. I get their initial rationale behind baking it in to Chrome (security, mainly and the “complete web”), but now it’s just propping it up — and in a big way since Chrome is now the most popular browser. MG Siegler

I suspect there’s a simple reason is keeping Flash around and bundled with : ! The HTML5 player has been around for 2 years now and it still sucks. Google can’t afford to offer a sub-par experience to millions of viewers, especially since YouTube’s popularity is on the rise, that would hurt both the browser and the website. And, on top of that, the HTML5 player doesn’t support ads! While ad revenues are probably far from what the publishers would want, they would not take it lightly if Google would decide to make the no-ads HTML5 viewer the default for the most popular browser on the planet.

The Wall Street Journal: “Forget CDs. Teens Are Tuning Into YouTube”

Among adults, the most popular ways to listen to music were radio (67%), CDs (61%), YouTube (44%), Pandora's custom-radio service (32%) and Apple Inc.'s iTunes (29%). Among 13-to-17 year olds, YouTube was the most popular way to listen to music, with 64% using it. Radio was next, with 56%, followed by iTunes (53%), CDs (50%) and Pandora (35%).

Nielsen executives said that the listening patterns, particularly the massive popularity of YouTube, show that record companies will need to stay nimble in a changing world. What is the revenue they're getting per stream? said David Bakula, a senior executive in Nielsen's entertainment-measurement division. It's not the $10 they got for a CD. Ethan Smith

Sounds about right. I’m way into the “adult” demographic and I already listen more music on than radio or CDs. It’s not only “free” (as in ‘ad-supported’), but you can also choose the music you listen from a very wide selection and discover new artists; you get new music releases very quickly, even before they hit radios, and all this practically everywhere you have a (decent) Internet connection. What’s not to like about that? YouTube is turning out to be one of the best acquisitions of , one that will become even more relevant – and profitable – in the future.

Rolling Stone: “Climate Change and the End of Australia”

The firestorm sweeping across the hillside was like nothing she – or anyone – had ever seen before. A wall of flame moving at eight miles per hour was incinerating everything in its path. O'Connor hurried to stuff wet towels under the doors while her husband soaked down the yard with a hose. But within minutes, she heard a deafening roar. Looking out the window, she saw a hurricane of fire – flames shooting 70 feet into the air, fanned by the high winds created by the storm's thermal vacuum. As trees burst into flames, O'Connor and her husband narrowly escaped to a nearby house that was more fire-resistant.

For the rest of the night, she and her neighbors watched the hills burn. We could see houses igniting, diesel tanks exploding, she recalls. Officials later reported that 600 fires broke out in Victoria that day, some with flames 300 feet high capable of killing people nearly a quarter mile away. One researcher estimated that the amount of energy released by the fires in a single day was equivalent to 1,500 atomic bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima. Jeff Goodell

Continuing with articles about climate change, this one features a daunting account of the changes Australia is currently undergoing: massive drought, firestorms, floods, the slow death of the Great Barrier Reef. Perhaps even more concerning that the actual problem is how easy survivors of such extreme events can still dismiss the underlying cause…

You might think that surviving such a harrowing encounter would make O'Connor more attuned to the risks of living on a superheated planet, but it hasn't. I think the jury is still out on the science of climate change, O'Connor says from the safety of her air-conditioned office in Melbourne. Australia has always had wildfires, and this could be just part of a natural cycle. I think it's too soon to tell.

13 August 2012

What’s new in Chrome 22

Google Chrome 22 Omnibox with zoom button and the new menu iconAfter the transition between version 20 and 21 took longer than the usual 6 weeks – although this could be because I temporarily switched from the Canary to the Dev channel – this update made up the delay and arrived on the regular schedule. Most of the changes are tweaks to the browser user interface, but welcomed nonetheless.

The web-based ‘About’ page first introduced in version 19 has become the default, replacing the previous modal dialog for updates. It’s now fully functional, providing a progress indicator for updates as well as links for help and reporting issues. Google Chrome 22 web-based About page

Mozilla Future Releases: “Bringing Social to Firefox”

This week the first pieces of our work will land in mozilla-central, the primary Firefox development repository. The user experience will roll out one step at a time. First, we’ll offer an easy way to recommend things that you discover on the Web. Next, we’ll add support for notifications coming from the service and, once that’s landed, we’ll start on integrated news feeds and chat. Johnathan Nightingale

Didn’t we go down this road before with Flock and later RockMelt? And if you don’t know what these names mean that just proves my point.

There is also talk about developing a Social API to provide the back-end for these actions in the browser. I’m not sure how is this supposed to work; will it have support from the major social providers and ? Since both companies are under pressure to monetize their networks, what can Mozilla bring to the table, being a non-profit organization mainly financed by Google? The search giant might join, given their investment in ; on the other hand has its own product to tend to, so if Google+ integration is coming to any browser, it will most likely be . As things are standing now, this project is as dead as the FirefoxOS.

via Sören Hentzschel

12 August 2012

Mori Ōgai - Vita sexualis

in Bucharest, Romania

Mori Ogai - Vita SexualisRoman japonez cu titlu provocator, interzis chiar imediat după apariție, m‑a intrigat și pe mine suficient să‑l citesc, deși am făcut‑o lent, în reprize scurte, în perioada cât am fost în Paris. De vină pentru lentoarea cu care am parcurs cartea este în primul rând aglomerația din metrourile pariziene, unde e greu să citești chiar și de pe un Kindle, dar și caracterul episodic al acțiunii. Plasată undeva la începutul secolului 20, în perioada când Japonia începe să se deschidă influențelor occidentale după secole de izolaționism, cartea e povestită de filozoful și profesorul Kanai Shizuka într‑o formă autobiografică, de jurnal al primelor sale experiențe sexuale din tinerețe. Îl împinge să scrie această relatare atât dorința de a contracara mișcarea naturalistă ce pătrundea pe atunci în Japonia din Europa cât și de a testa o ipoteză (freudiană dacă nu mă înșel) care afirmă că la originea tuturor acțiunilor și dorințelor umane se află impulsul sexual.

Când a ajuns la capitolul despre estetică, nu mică i‑a fost mirarea să vadă că, după părerea autorului, orice formă artistică este liebeswerbung. Adică seducere. Cu alte cuvinte, expresia publică a dorinței sexuale.

Destul de curând descoperi însă că cele mai multe dintre aceste amintiri au o componentă sexuală destul de marginală, așa că nu vă așteptați la cine știe ce scene toride de sex. Sunt mai mult niște întâlniri întâmplătoare și situații jenante, greu de înțeles pentru pre‑adolescentul Shizu, deși la un moment dat afirmă orgolios că nu e atât de neștiutor pe cât îl cred ceilalți. Interesul lui e axat în principal pe studiu și în majoritatea ocaziilor îl găsesc mai degrabă ferindu‑se de sexualitate decât căutând‑o. Chiar și așa descoperim multe despre aspectele sexuale ale societății japoneze: cărțile pornografice chinezești din care probabil a apărut hentai și poveștile idealizate de iubire, varianta orientală a romanelor siropoase de gen Sandra Brown, inevitabilele și faimoasele gheișe, ritualurile de curtare în vederea căsătoriei, împotriva cărora Shizuka se revoltă într‑o manieră egalitaristă pentru că nu oferă femeii aceleași drepturi de alegere ca și bărbatului, tratând‑o mai mult ca pe un obiect sau sclav decât ca pe o persoană.

10 August 2012

Stand-alone Podcasts on iOS: a step backwards

I was never a big fan of listening to audio-books and podcasts – I find it silly to just sit around waiting for the information to play and very much prefer to read it at my own pace – but that started to change after purchasing my iPhone. I can’t say I am a big podcasts consumer even now, with only three subscriptions, but I do fire the Music app occasionally to check out new science-fiction book reviews or opinions on the smartphone market. Needless to say I was intrigued by the decision to split podcasts into a separate app for the next version of iOS and decided to try it out.

At first, the app surprised me in a good way. My biggest fear was that the new app would not pick up the podcasts episodes already on my device and make me re-download them. That didn’t happen, fortunately; it seamlessly recognized existing podcasts so I could start using it right away. I turned on ‘Subscription’ and ‘Auto-Download’, sorted the episodes list by newest first and set the app to remove content after playing it – the ideal setup for me. It looked like a better, more feature-rich, app, even though I was unlikely to use some of them – like the hidden control to put the app to sleep after a chosen interval. It has the same level of integration with the audio controls as the Music app, so you can easily switch episodes from the lock screen or from the multitasking bar.

08 August 2012

ExtremeTech: “Inside NASA’s Curiosity”

At the heart of Curiosity there is, of course, a computer. In this case the Mars rover is powered by a RAD750, a single-board computer (motherboard, RAM, ROM, and CPU) produced by BAE. The RAD750 has been on the market for more than 10 years, and it’s currently one of the most popular on-board computers for spacecraft. In Curiosity’s case, the CPU is a PowerPC 750 (PowerPC G3 in Mac nomenclature) clocked at around 200MHz — which might seem slow, but it’s still hundreds of times faster than, say, the Apollo Guidance Computer used in the first Moon landings. Also on the motherboard are 256MB of DRAM, and 2GB of flash storage — which will be used to store video and scientific data before transmission to Earth. Sebastian Anthony

So basically last year’s smartphone (given the right software) could control the spacecraft and guide it through the atmospheric entry procedure without breaking a sweat. Really puts into perspective how much some technologies, in this case computing, have evolved, while in other areas, like propulsion, space exploration remains stuck in the middle of the 20th century. With cheap propulsion and a light-weight launch system there could be an entire fleet of smartphones zipping around the solar system, orbiting all the major planets, landing on the moons, keeping tabs on near-Earth asteroids and doing deep-space interferometry. And probably so much more.

And, on a related note: Android Phones Will Power NASA's New Fleet of Mini-Satellites.

AllThingsD: “Apple’s Case Against Samsung in Three Pictures”

In a trio of product timelines submitted into evidence and released to the public on Friday as part of the company’s case against Samsung, Apple tracks the evolution of Samsung’s smartphone and tablet designs against those of the iPhone and iPad and hammers home its view that Samsung “slavishly” copied them both. Above, the iPhone timeline; below the iPad timeline; and to the right, a smartphone timeline. John Paczkowski
iPhone Product Timeline: Apple vs. Samsung

Samsung’s defense should go like this: “You know, we didn’t always copy the iPhone design, we also used to copy Nokia back when they were the market leader and still cool. We always copy from the best!”

07 August 2012

Rolling Stone: “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math”

Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons

This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

Bill McKibben

Extremely long article for an extremely difficult problem that will keep humanity busy far into our future. It’s one of those cases where both the market economy and governments (be it a democracy or a more centralized regime) fail to act in the best interest of us. It’s somewhat similar to the recent financial crisis in that few people and companies hold a lot of power and have a lot to gain from the status quo in the short term, at the expense of the majority; so making the necessary changes is proving extremely hard.

One of those articles I prefer to read on my Kindle.