28 October 2012

Walter Jon Williams - Aristoi

in Bucharest, Romania

Walter Jon Williams AristoiUndeva în viitorul îndepărtat, Pământul a fost consumat de nanoboți scăpați de sub control. Dar aceeași tehnologie e mai apoi folosită de atotputernicii Aristoi pentru a‑l reconstrui atom cu atom din modelele digitale existente. La fel ca planeta, aceștia au refăcut societatea umană pe o bază mai solidă, o civilizație stabilă, fericită și îndestulată sub conducerea lor. Dacă vă gândiți că Aristoi‑i sunt vreo rasă milostivă de extratereștrii vă înșelați: sunt oameni ca toți ceilalți, dar care au demonstrat capacitatea și responsabilitatea de a mânui cele mai puternice și mai periculoase tehnologii ale Omului pentru binele societății.

Lumea imaginată de autor în roman e foarte complexă și originală printre alte opere de gen, o utopie bazată pe numeroase elemente de tehnologia avansată: nanotehnologia care poate construi orice de la minuscule medicamente pentru eliminarea bolilor la întregi nave și planete, biotehnologia care permite o viață îndelungată, de sute de ani, întreruptă doar de colapsul numit popular boala Dorian Grey, comunicațiile tahionice instantanee care mențin coeziunea coloniilor, realitatea virtuală botezată oneirochronon folosită ca mediu de comunicare, creație și distracție, și Hyperlogos‑ul, versiunea hipertrofiată a Internetului actual, care arhivează practic toată informația trecută și actuală în timp real. Societatea este structurată oarecum într‑un sistem de caste, în vârf Aristoi‑i, imediat sub ei Therapontes, care studiază pentru a deveni la rândul lor Aristoi, și cu populația obișnuită – Demos‑ul – la bază. Granițele între ele sunt însă flexibile, și statutul de Aristoi e acordat pe merit, după ani de studii și examene dificile care fac dovada inteligenței, creativității, dar și ambiției candidatului. Pentru că odată promovat printre „Cei mai buni”, noul Aristoi va conduce mai mult sau mai puțin la discreție un domeniu de câteva sisteme solare, impunându‑și viziunea și stilul propriu asupra zonei și locuitorilor.

25 October 2012

Tips for Twitter’s iOS app

Apparently one of the first apps I installed on my iPhone, I still use Twitter (currently at version 5.0.4) more or less every day; it’s not as good as desktop TweetDeck, especially for managing multiple accounts, but it will have to do until decides to properly update that app for mobile. Even so, the default Twitter app for iOS has some neat features designed for mobile, some even not found on the web site:

  • Clicking on the ‘Compose new Tweet’ button will auto-populate the compose box depending on the current screen: if you are viewing a search page it will add that hashtag to the tweet; if you have a tweet open it will start a @-reply to that Twitter user, the same if you click ‘compose’ from a profile page.
  • Like in the OS Mail app, you can tap and hold the ‘Compose’ button to quickly open the list of drafts. I’m not exactly sure who saves tweets as drafts, but the feature is there nonetheless.
  • You probably already know you can swipe over a tweet in the timeline to see a list a quick actions like Reply, Retweet and Favorite. In case of sponsored tweets, this swipe menu also includes an option to remove that tweet from your timeline.
  • If you use multiple accounts you can switch between them while replying to a tweet: click and hold the section above the text box for a couple of seconds, then the app will bring up the account selection screen and you can choose to reply from another account.

Firefox with built-in Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger in FirefoxAs announced during the summer, released a new version with social integration – for now only . Currently available in the Beta version of Firefox 17 and in the Aurora and Nightly braches, you can theoretically activate it just by visiting Facebook and accepting the prompt. That didn’t work for me, probably because I use the Aurora channel; in that case it can be enabled via an about:config entry: toggle on social.enabled.

Once the feature enabled and after logging in to Facebook, Firefox will gain an additional set of four buttons on the main toolbar bar, as well as a ‘Like’-button inside the address field, and a new sidebar filled with Facebook real-time updates and chat. The four buttons reflect the main actions on the Facebook site, providing access to the profile, friend requests, messages and notification without visiting the site. It’s like having a mini-Facebook following you all around the web.

24 October 2012

Twitter is becoming more like Facebook every day

There has been a lot of controversy lately around the changes made to the API rules, practically restricting what developers can and can’t do with the data. Compared to other ‘walled gardens’ they may not seem that bad, only compared to the relative freedom from a couple of months ago. The way I see it, Twitter is trying to steer its business and app ecosystem in a similar direction to , the only difference being one of perception. Facebook was always considered ‘closed’ and hasn’t really encouraged third-party apps to display the stream; that was in any case much harder because of the data complexity, with several stories types and numerous layers of privacy settings. On the other hand Twitter was viewed as ‘open’ – even though it’s not; it was probably a misperception of the public nature and the simplicity of the network. On a related note, it’s interesting how every now and then a start-up proclaimed itself the open alternative to Facebook; but only this year we have a start-up (app.net) making the same claim for Twitter.

There are many clues to this slow transformation. Aside from the API changes, the new Twitter Cards are probably the biggest give-away: Facebook had rich previews of the shared content for as long as I remember – they provide a more diverse experience and decrease the need for users to navigate away from the site. Twitter Cards have basically the same role – they even use the same OpenGraph markup – showing a snippet and thumbnails for shared links or allowing you to play videos without going to the original site. The new appearance of tweets on the web is similar to Facebook, with the number of likes/retweets on the bottom; Twitter also started showing replies inline, matching the look of Facebook comments. Heck, even the new profiles resemble Facebook’s Timeline with a large, banner-like background photo.

23 October 2012

File naming on Canon digital EOS cameras

Canon EOS 600DA couple of months ago, just a few days before leaving for Paris, I finally made the switch to digital photography. I figured I would be much more comfortable than carrying film cartridges all around Paris and swapping them after only 36 frames. And I also got a great deal for a Canon EOS 600D from a local shop, since Canon was about to launch a new model.

Overall I am very happy with the camera. The articulated screen is practical because it helps conserve battery power – I keep it closed most of the time. My habits as a film photographer come in very handy here, because I am used to not reviewing every single shot on a screen – you simply can’t do that with film, so you need to develop a sense of how the picture will turn out simply by looking at the scene and knowing how the camera will capture it. It wasn’t that easy at first, because the new camera tends to over-expose some scenes, for example in dark churches, which can ruin the atmosphere, but in time I learned when to apply some exposure correction.

One thing that bugged me in the first days of using the camera, after I started downloading files to the PC, was the unusual naming convention. I got a mix of files, some named IMG_xxxx, some _MG_xxxx. Since I worked in a Canon support center a couple of years back, I distinctly remembered there was a reason behind this, but just couldn’t recall the specifics. I found the answer pretty quickly online: EOS cameras use the two file name formats to distinguish between photos captured in the sRGB and Adobe RGB color space. But that explanation quickly led to another question: I selected Adobe RGB in the settings and didn’t change it back and forth during the day, so why were the photos named differently?

22 October 2012

Blogger mobile templates with (buggy) swipe navigation

Blogger mobile template swipe to navigate gestureAs many bloggers, I like to monitor when my articles get shared on social networks and what do people think about them – actually only on Twitter with a saved search in TweetDeck. A couple of days ago, someone complained on that a post was unreadable on mobile. I use one of ’s default templates and I hadn’t noticed anything wrong with it previously. After asking for some clarifications, it turns out that mobile templates support a limited set of gestures: you can swipe right or left to navigate to the previous or next post. The problem is this interferes with another native iOS gesture, pinch-to-zoom: if you pinch the page, instead of zooming, Blogger jumps to another article! This issue seems limited to mobile Safari, because in pinching doesn’t cause the browser to navigate away. At first I thought it’s a bug introduced in iOS 6, but the feature is more than one year old and some complained about similar issues six months ago, so I guess nobody took the time to test the mobile templates on an iPhone

There is no easy solution it you want your readers to have a good mobile experience: the desktop templates are often too bloated with widgets to fit into a portrait-oriented small screen, the mobile dynamic templates are much slower to load and the sharing buttons ‘leak’ out of the page – again an indication that the team designing the templates is not really focused on mobile. And designing a unique responsive template for both desktop and mobile is unfortunately not something an average blogger can do…

Update: A reader found a solution from the Blogger help forums and shared it in the comments: How can I disable the arrow-slider on mobile?.

21 October 2012

David Brin - The River of Time

in Bucharest, Romania

Continuând cu povestirile, am luat la rând o colecție mai veche – dar adusă la zi în 2012 – a lui David Brin. Deși nu am citit până acum decât un roman al lui – și acela scris în colaborare cu Gregory Benford – a rămas destul de sus în lista mea de preferințe, ba chiar am reușit să‑l citesc de două ori. Colecția de față se axează în general pe întrebarea „Suntem singuri în Univers?” și, dacă da, „De ce?” și încearcă numeroase răspunsuri la ea, mai mult sau mai puțin serioase; dar e loc și de ceva anticipație și istorii alternative.

14 October 2012

Jay Lake - The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future

in Bucharest, Romania

Jay Lake The Weight of History the Lightness of the FutureTimp de secole, omenirea s‑a extins în general pașnic în spațiul galactic învecinat, fără să întâlnească alte culturi sau obstacole evidente. Având la dispoziție propulsia spin pentru o legătură cvasi-instantanee între planete și nemurirea efectivă prin tratamentele Howard, nimic nu pare să stea în calea expansiunii continue sub guvernarea Polity. Dar într‑o zi, toate coloniile sunt lovite de o forță necunoscută într‑un atac perfect sincronizat și la o scară greu de imaginat; toată tehnologia și sursele de energie sunt distruse, propulsia spin încetează să mai funcționeze și lumile sunt aruncate instantaneu înapoi în epoca preindustrială. Singura legătură cu trecutul glorios rămân cei Dinainte, puținii supraviețuitori modificați Howard pentru rezistență crescută și viață prelungită. După alte secole de refacere greoaie, oamenii se reunesc în Imperium Humanum; dar misterul Erorii rămâne în continuare de nepătruns – să existe într‑adevăr un inamic atât de puternic încât să poată ataca simultan mii de planete, rămânând în același timp complet ascuns până atunci și de atunci? Sau a fost vorba de o conspirație, o trădare din interior? La întrebarea asta continuă să caute răspuns Dinaintea Michaela Cannon – sub comanda ei, minte‑nava Third Rectification {58 de cuplări} ajunge pe orbita planetei Themiscyra, pentru a investiga rămășițele unei stații orbitale din era Polity.

Everyone fails differently. It’s one of the charms of being human.
Honey, after two thousand years, every time I think I’ve seen it all, I’m still wrong.

E greu de crezut că se mai poate aduce ceva nou în genul space-opera, dar cumva Jay Lake reușește. La primă vedere universul Sunspin e un fel de amalgam între Commonwealth‑ul lui Peter Hamilton – Polity‑ul de dinainte de Eroare – și Revelation Space al lui Alastair Reynolds – dacă Inhibitorii ar lovi simultan o întreagă civilizație. Nici cei Dinainte nu sunt un concept prea original; se apropie cel mai bine de Protectorii lui Larry Niven atât ca atribute fizice cât și ca temperament, dar autorul nu ignoră aspectul psihologic al vârstei înaintate. Creierul devine copleșit de cantitatea anormal de mare de amintiri și unii dintre Dinainte se pierd într‑o stare catatonică numită aici „psihoză temporală” – un aspect explorat pe îndelete de Kim Stanley Robinson în volumele doi și trei ale trilogiei Marte Roșu. Jay Lake operează însă la o scară mai mare, mizele sunt ridicate și misterul mai complicat. Ce aduce relativ nou sunt minte‑navele, gigantice vehicule dotate cu inteligență și conștiință de sine, necesare pentru salturile cuantice care au înlocuit propulsia spin nefuncțională. Conexiunile asigurate de minte‑navele sunt vitale pentru supraviețuirea Imperium Humanum, așa încât minte‑navele au un rol masiv în luarea deciziilor, chiar mai mare decât familiile conducătoare, și au chiar propriul parlament. Autorul dedică destul spațiu prezentării psihologiei complexe a lui Third Rectification, modului cum funcționează mintea acesteia, cu straturi de percepție care pot ascunde multe. Devine repede clar că interesele minte‑navelor nu corespund întotdeauna cu cele ale omenirii, în special atunci când vine vorba de descoperirea secretului din spatele Erorii. Jocul de‑a șoarecele și pisica dintre Cannon și conștiința navei Third Rectification ocupă o bună parte din nuvelă – fiecare dintre ele încearcă să‑și ascundă intențiile, în același timp căutând să demaște mâna adversarei – și contribuie din plin la suspansul nuvelei și la atmosfera apăsătoare, de amenințare continuă. Finalul e cam abrupt, oprind acțiunea într‑un moment crucial – dar poate e de înțeles, de vreme ce nuvela e construită ca parte dintr‑un ciclu mult mai larg, din care fac parte și:

disponibilă online în original.

13 October 2012

The Verge: “The bubble that wasn’t: what happened to ‘people discovery’ apps?”

highlight in the Facebook App Center
There are all these reasons why learning about the people around us is high-friction, so we don't do it and keep our headphones in and stare awkwardly at our phones, Highlight founder Paul Davison told The Verge. I'm completely convinced that in 10 years, this will just exist. You'll walk into a room and you'll know everyone's name and where they work, and you'll have something surface the most interesting things you have in common with people around you. There's no doubt that there's some cool technology behind Highlight, but it turns out that people just don't have time to see which neighbors are also into Homeland. Ellis Hamburger

I was casually browsing the App Center a couple of days back when I stumbled upon Highlight and I was reminded of this article. Only 13.000 total users!? Even if all were in the same city at the same time the chance of meeting someone using Highlight would be pretty slim. That’s definitely a type of app where you need critical mass to succeed and prove the usefulness of the concept; but unfortunately, none of them seems to be nearing that elusive tipping point. Maybe the world isn’t ready for ‘people discovery’ and it will boom in a couple of years. Personally I think this approach is failing because it takes the fun and excitement out of meeting new people: why would I want to talk to a complete stranger if I already know what he will answer? There’s no surprise anymore, no risk and hence little reward.

Daring Fireball: “Kindle Paperwhite”

Even iOS devices like the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch have hardware buttons for volume control and, of course, going to the home screen. (I think the Kindle Paperwhite would be improved with a Home button too, but that’s not as big a deal as page-turning.) The Einstein adage that things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler, holds here. The old Kindles had way too many buttons. But one button, the power toggle, is too few. John Gruber

Being a Kindle Keyboard user myself, this review is spot on. I would very much like to upgrade to the Paperwhite, but the lack of dedicated buttons for page-turning is holding me back – that, and the fact that Amazon isn’t shipping to my country yet. With my current Kindle I can rest my thumb on one side and just click when I want to turn the page; no matter how responsive the touchscreen is, I don’t think it will be able match this for simplicity and speed.

10 October 2012

Open Graph markup for Blogger [version 3]

It’s a topic I covered several times on the blog, starting over two years ago, when OpenGraph was just released. While the instructions in the first article are still valid, in the mean time introduced new options and variables to the templates; these can be used to fine-tune the OpenGraph tags on blogs and articles:

  • For each blog post containing at least one image, Blogger automatically generates a 72x72px thumbnail that can be accessed in the template with the variable: data:blog.postImageThumbnailUrl;
  • At some point, Blogger started redirecting blogs from the .com domain to country-specific domains – which can be a pain if you want to use social plugins on your blog. To solve some of the issues you need to use the canonical URL of the page/blog whenever possible – including for the OpenGraph meta-tags.
  • About six months ago search preferences were launched; these work both on a blog level – you can set a general search description in the ‘Settings’ – as well as for individual articles, if you fill in the ‘Search Description’ field when composing a new post. The description is stored in the variable data:blog.metaDescription.

08 October 2012

The New York Times: “Measure Results, Not Hours, to Improve Work Efficiency”

IT’S 5 p.m. at the office. Working fast, you’ve finished your tasks for the day and want to go home. But none of your colleagues have left yet, so you stay another hour or two, surfing the Web and reading your e-mails again, so you don’t come off as a slacker. Robert C. Pozen

Guilty as charged!

For a study published most recently in 2010, three researchers, led by Kimberly D. Elsbach, a professor at the University of California, Davis, interviewed 39 corporate managers about their perceptions of their employees. The managers viewed employees who were seen at the office during business hours as highly dependable and reliable. Employees who came in over the weekend or stayed late in the evening were seen as committed and dedicated to their work.

I wish I could say it’s something rare, but I noticed this kind of attitude – both from managers and from employees – over and over again… If you don’t do overtime, it’s like you didn’t even show up for work in the first place.

The reactions of these managers are understandable remnants of the industrial age, harking back to the standardized nature of work on an assembly line. But a measurement system based on hours makes no sense for knowledge workers. Their contribution should be measured by the value they create through applying their ideas and skills.

07 October 2012

Philip K. Dick - We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

in Bucharest, Romania

Philip K. Dick We Can Remember It for You WholesaleSursă de inspirație pentru două blockbuster‑e hollywood‑iene – puternic modificate față de textul original – povestirea e una din multele care exploră ideea de realitate din perspectiva lui Philip K. Dick. Douglas Quail e doar un funcționar mărunt, dar cu un vis măreț, la limita obsesiei: să viziteze planeta Marte! Dacă din salariul lui nu poate spera să plătească vreodată o călătorie reală spre planeta roșie, în lumea povestirii există și alternative mai accesibile, cum ar fi să implanteze amintirea unei excursii. Așa că Douglas ajunge să bată la ușa Rekal, Incorporated pentru o asemenea intervenție. Dacă ați văzut vreunul din filme vă așteptați deja la ce urmează: în timpul operației, specialiștii Rekal descoperă amintiri ascunse în mintea lui Quail despre perioada în care fusese un agent secret într‑o misiune pe Marte – amintirile fiind însă suprascrise mai târziu pentru a se păstra secretul misiunii.

Kirsten reminded him of this at least once a day and he did not blame her; it was a wife's job to bring her husband down to Earth.

Până aici povestirea a fost interesantă, cu ritm alert și câteva fraze amuzante; mai apoi însă își pierde orice simț al măsurii și alunecă rapid în neverosimil. Nimic neobișnuit pentru Dick, dar dezamăgitor pentru mine ca cititor, pentru că avea potențialul de a fi la fel de bine închegată ca și The Minority Report. Contrar filmelor, Quail nu se comportă ca un erou de acțiune și decide rapid să se predea poliției, pentru a-i fi rescrisă din nou memoria. Cu această ocazie se descoperă un alt nivel și mai adânc al minții lui, noi amintiri identice cu scenariul pe care se pregăteau să-l implanteze și care se materializează rapid în lumea reală – ca și cum Quaid ar recrea lumea din jurul lui în funcție de ce‑și imaginează la un moment dat. Poate asta a fost și rostul povestirii, să se desfășoare de fapt în interiorul minții lui, dar asta anulează orice reguli, orice pretenție de scop sau concluzii. O altă slăbiciune deranjantă, destul de comună la Dick, este disparitatea extremă în tehnologie: oamenii au nave interplanetare, șoferi androizi, posibilitatea de a edita memoria și a citi gândurile cuiva la distanță, dar nimeni n‑a inventat ceva mai bun decât mașina de scris?! Din păcate povestirea rămâne doar o idee bună cu o realizare confuză.

After all, an illusion, no matter how convincing, remained nothing more than an illusion. At least objectively. But subjectively quite the opposite entirely.
Total Recall

06 October 2012

Scientific American: “Space Elevator Enthusiasts Push On despite Lengthy Time Frames and Long Odds”

The space elevator breaks the rocket paradigm because it does not carry its own fuel, Laubscher says. He believes chemical technology is near its limit, bound by the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation to deliver only about 5 percent of its initial mass into Earth orbit. Those inefficiencies meant that it cost $64,000 for the space shuttle to put one kilogram into low-earth orbit (LEO); an elevator, Laubscher calculates, could do it with 17.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity—about two dollars’ worth. David Appell

Somehow I always felt this kind of project will never see the light of day – or the darkness of space, in this case. It’s not necessarily about the technology – which isn’t there yet, but could be in a decade or so – but more about the politics. Where would you place the elevator? Who will control the massive influx of capital into the building and the ‘lucky’ country? And how will the potential risks be handled? If you read Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson you might recall the elevator on Mars was brought down by terrorist activity and wrecked havoc across the entire planet. Do we risk something like that happening on Earth? A space elevator would become the ultimate single point of failure for space travel; even small accidents that would require it to go through extended maintenance would halt all traffic and – assuming we start mining the Moon and asteroids – would cut supplies of raw materials, hurting the economy.

But a space elevator on the Moon, well, that’s another matter entirely…

01 October 2012

iOS 6: plus 200 semi-useless features, minus the Maps

Apple iOS 6The sensation of the autumn until now in the tech world was – as usual in the last couple of years – the launch of the new iPhone and the accompanying mobile OS from Apple. I updated my iPhone a week ago and so far a haven’t been at all impressed by the ‘improvements’. I’ll go through some of the updates from my perspective:

  • Better call-handling options, like replying with a predefined SMS message or sending the call to voicemail. Always nice to see how supposedly the most advanced mobile OS is catching up with 5-year-old Symbian – I had something like this in my previous phone, a Nokia N81. Speaking of that: setting any music track as a clock alarm: Symbian feature too, years ago.
  • Do not disturb’ is a nice improvement: it’s somewhere between turning the phone off and turning on vibration switch; you can still grab the phone and see what happened since you last checked it and let calls from important people through, but otherwise the phone won’t bother you. You can set this up with a schedule as well so you don’t get notifications during sleep hours, but it’s a bit odd that you can’t define a different schedule for the weekend. I attended a funeral last week and I found it very convenient to just turn on ‘Do not disturb’ – it’s also nicely placed in Settings just a couple of clicks away.
  • Better privacy controls (contacts, photos): always nice to keep tabs on what the apps on your phone are trying to do with your data.