29 January 2013

Search Engine Land: “A Year Later, Google’s Block Sites Feature Remains Blocked”

In 2011, Google rolled out a feature allowing searchers to block web sites they don’t like from appearing in its search results, which drew great attention. That got dropped last year, when Search Plus Your World was launched last January. A year later, Google says there are no firm plans for it to return. Danny Sullivan

I wondered several times what became of that feature. It looks to be more collateral damage from promoting behind Google+ to the top of the priorities list, just like it happened to Google Reader… It’s too bad it got dropped like that, it could potentially be more useful than Search Plus Your World – it would be another filter, but one we would at least have some control over. Funny thing is, the recent redesigns of ’s search results also removed the references to Search Plus Your World (it’s now just another search setting) making way for the Knowledge Graph.

28 January 2013

Bloomberg: “Apple’s Profit vs. Amazon’s Promise”

Apple makes so much money that investors are leery of whether it can continue growing. In stark contrast, Amazon has made so little that, paradoxically, it continues to hold out the prospect of limitless growth. The magic of Steve Jobs’s recent years of Apple presentations was that you could rely on Apple to introduce perfectly, gloriously finished products. Bezos has done the opposite: whether it’s cloud computing services or the Kindle, Bezos keeps giving investors works in progress. Mark Gimein

It’s always amazing to see how worked up people get when it comes to Apple. The latest wrangle: despite good quarterly results, Apple’s stock plunged, shaving billions upon billions of USD from its (previously) record marked cap. Newsflash: the stock market is (and always was) highly volatile, hard to understand and predict. Probably the next best thing to a ‘perfect market’, it’s highly susceptible to changes in demand and supply and, as such, to the smallest changes in sentiment and perception by the traders. Just as we, the consumers, are very irrational in our choices, the stock market reacts less to hard numbers and facts and more to future trends that may not even materialize. The market got over-enthusiastic six months ago and now it switched to being over-pessimistic about Apple.

27 January 2013

Greg Bear - Muzica sângelui

in Bucharest, Romania

Greg Bear - Blood MusicSingularitatea tehnologică – fuziunea dintre uman și cibernetic într‑un nou nivel super-avansat de inteligență – e o temă destul de populară în science-fiction în ultima vreme, ca și nenumăratele modalități în care ne poate schimba viața. În povestirea de față, Greg Bear abordează ideea dintr‑un unghi diferit, în care componenta artificială nu se naște în cipuri de siliciu, ci din ADN, proteine și celule. Totul începe cu doi vechi prieteni care se reîntâlnesc după câțiva ani. În timp ce Edward a ales o carieră de ginecolog lipsită de riscuri, Vergil lucrează în cercetare, dezvoltând Biocipuri Aplicabile Medical pentru corporația Genetron. Sau mai bine zis lucrase până în urmă cu câteva zile, când a fost concediat și a plecat ducând cu el pe ascuns unele dintre cele mai avansate modele. În prima parte povestea se mișcă greu, suferind din plin de păcatul de a inunda textul cu prea multe informații în care cade atât de des science-fiction‑ul. Vergil e construit pe modelul omului de știință îmbătat de setea de cunoaștere, de posibilitățile noilor tehnologii la care lucrează, fără să ia în considerare efectele lor negative. Mai târziu lucrurile se precipită și consecințele cercetărilor lui încep să iasă la iveală, atât în mintea lui Edward cât și pentru cititor. Chiar dacă unele sunt ușor de anticipat, finalul vine în forță cu implicații profunde la nivel planetar și chiar mai departe, care surprind și m‑au pus pe gânduri mai mult decât mă așteptam. Merită citită, dacă nu pentru vreun merit stilistic, pentru ideea originală și de impact.

ca să fie clar, nu e vorba de romanul din 1985, ci de povestirea care l‑a precedat.

23 January 2013

Reuters: “Are annotations the new comments?”

Recently, two different people told me on the same day that they were going to launch a comments section based on annotations — where readers comment on individual sentences or paragraphs or arguments, rather than a story or post as a whole.
The promise here is twofold: it helps the conversation stay on topic, and it also raises the possibility of really improving the original post, keeping it updated and accurate, all through crowdsourced technology. Felix Salmon

Hmm, this remind me of something… can’t quite put my finger on it

I personally like the concept, but I think it will be very hard to “get right”. Put too many annotations on the article and the original content gets lost in a sea of noise; show too few and people won’t even notice them, making it hard for the project to take off. And how will the increased information density fit into a mobile webpage? tried something like that once with SideWiki and didn’t get much traction.

via Marcel Weiß

21 January 2013

The Economist: “Offshoring: Welcome home”

Offshoring in services is, to be sure, still going strong overall. But early pioneers of services offshoring are bringing work back home, having discovered that looking after customers and developing new IT tools are in fact a “core” part of business. For many firms, sending call centres overseas has turned into a nightmare. We just can’t get the accents right, confesses one Indian outsourcing executive. As with manufacturing, the advantages of outsourcing services are falling. For an American firm, the gap between the cost of employing an Indian software programmer and the cost of a local one will fall to under 20% by 2015, predicts Offshore Insights, a Pune-based advisory firm. All this could add up to the “Death of Outsourcing”, says a paper by KPMG, whose consultants have long advised Western firms on sending work overseas. The Economist

Oops! But it had to happen eventually. Driving operating costs down doesn’t help if you don’t generate enough profit and long-term value for customers.

I bet I know which Indian outsourcing executive is referenced in the article too!

20 January 2013

George R.R. Martin - Zburătorii Nopții

in Bucharest, Romania

George R. R. Martin - Zburatorii noptiiNu mai citisem de mult nimic de George R.R. Martin și cum nu simt nici cel mai mic imbold de a mă apuca de o serie fantasy prea lungă și încă neterminată am dat în schimb de o colecție de povestiri de pe vremea când încă scria SF.

Zburătorii nopții

Prima ne pune la început în fața unui mister fascinant: studiind miturile vechi de milenii ale raselor inteligente din sectorul de spațiu cunoscut oamenilor, xenomitologul Karoly d’Branin descoperă indicii despre un grup de vehicule misterioase care călătoresc în spațiul vast dintre stele sub viteza luminii, îndepărtându‑se încet dar sigur de centrul Căii Lactee. Însoțit de o echipă cu diverse talente, de la specialiști în computere la telepați, se îmbarcă la bordul Zburătorului Nopții pentru a ajunge din urmă și studia un volcryn. Din păcate povestea deteriorează repede într‑un horror ieftin, o baie de sânge nejustificată din care supraviețuiesc puțini. Atmosfera tensionată e redată bine, dar nu mi‑a plăcut schimbarea asta de registru; în loc de o rezolvare elegantă a problemei volcrynilor am avut parte de cadavre care se măcelăresc reciproc… În plus explicațiile pentru crime devin din ce în ce mai alambicate și forțate. Într‑un fel povestirea se trădează singură, își ratează potențialul și nu ajunge nicăieri.

Comandă prioritară

Ca reeditare a goanei după aur pe o planetă virgină, pietrele prețioase de pe Grotto numite voylburi sunt foarte căutate – cel puțin până cineva va reuși să le sintetizeze artificial. Pentru exploatarea lor, colonia folosește cea mai eficientă – și ieftină – soluție: manipulatorii de cadavre. Din păcate pentru câștigurile lor și așa la limită, baronul local Lowell Bartling urăște cadavrele și e pornit să‑i gonească de pe planetă. Iar Matt Kabaraijian, unul dintre manipulatori, iubește zona și ar cam vrea să se stabilească aici – de unde și conflictul principal. Interesantă, dar nu impresionantă, mai ales că am avut deja parte de cadavre ambulante în prima povestire, deși acolo erau controlate psihic, iar aici prin tehnologie ca niște roboți.

19 January 2013

Facebook Graph Search has potential, but lacks relevance

So this week it finally happened, a move many have expected for years: is getting serious about search! I don’t have access yet, it will be slowly and carefully scaled up from a limited start in the US (you can join the waiting list here, by the way), so I can’t say anything first-hand about the quality of the results, but some criticism comes to mind nevertheless. It’s not the first launch by Facebook that has the tech media crazy with headlines and how it will revolutionize or kill this or that competitor – Messages comes to mind – but in my opinion it’s unlikely to do that for several reasons:


Facebook Graph Search hands-on by The Verge

13 January 2013

Will McIntosh - Over There

in Bucharest, Romania

Asimov's January 2013 issueMă gândeam să nu mai scriu despre această povestire, până la urmă e foarte scurtă și eu am parcurs‑o în mai puțin de o oră. Dar m‑a iritat un pic prea mult pentru a mă abține s‑o critic. Ideea e interesantă și destul de rar exploatată în science-fiction – cu excepția lui Greg Egan, care abordează de regulă subiecte greu de digerat pentru majoritatea cititorilor – la fel și realizarea. Un grup de trei cercetători, Nathan, Diane și Ridley, lucrează la un experiment în fizica cuantică, destul de popular printre oamenii de știință, teleportarea cuantică. Dar în momentul în care îl pornesc, lumina dispare pentru un moment și apoi lumea apare deodată dedublată, fiecare percepând simultan două realități care încep să evolueze distinct și se îndepărtează una de cealaltă cu fiecare secundă. De aceea povestea din acel punct e scrisă pe două coloane care redau în paralel ce se petrece aici și dincolo.

… there is nothing in the formalism of quantum mechanics that demands that a state of consciousness cannot involve the simultaneous perception of a live and a dead cat. Roger Penrose

Însă aici se opresc meritele povestirii. În orice roman trebuie să accepți un grad de neverosimil, diverse premise mai mult sau mai puțin „trase de păr” pentru a justifica acțiunea. Dar aici autorul încalcă atât de flagrant fizica cunoscută încât mă face să cred că nu are nici cea mai mică idee despre ce vorbește. Particulele cuantice nu există simultan în mai multe locuri, ci doar au o anumită probabilitate de a se afla într‑un loc sau altul. Și nu se „dedublează” în așa‑zisa teleportare, ci doar copiază starea unei particule peste alta existentă deja. Dedublarea ar presupune apariția unei particule din nimic, care ar încălca principiul conservării energiei; cu atât mai mult e imposibil să apară un întreg univers din neant. Chiar trecând peste scăparea asta de logică, un alt element pe care se bazează intriga e teama lui Nathan că experimentul lor a cauzat această realitate schizofrenică. Din nou, foarte greu de înghițit că un eveniment la scară nano se poate transpune instantaneu la nivelul unei întregi planete; e ca și cum i‑ai spune unui copil că joaca lui cu chibriturile cauzează fulgerele de afară. Nu există nicăieri vreo dovadă în acest sens, dar Nathan totuși crede asta; dacă e de înțeles ca om să intri în panică în asemenea situații extreme, ca om de știință ideea e complet lipsită de fundament. Finalul adaugă o notă sfâșietoare, dar care deja nu mai poate salva impresia generală – povestirea ar fi mai ușor de acceptat dacă ar fi fost prezentată drept vis sau halucinație, nu ca realitate obiectivă.

publicată online pe site‑ul revistei Asimov’s.

11 January 2013

The New York Times: “The Case for Working With Your Hands”

Contrast the experience of being a middle manager. This is a stock figure of ridicule, but the sociologist Robert Jackall spent years inhabiting the world of corporate managers, conducting interviews, and he poignantly describes the moral maze they feel trapped in. Like the mechanic, the manager faces the possibility of disaster at any time. But in his case these disasters feel arbitrary; they are typically a result of corporate restructurings, not of physics. A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete. Matthew B. Crawford

The article presents nice counterpoint to the idea “let’s turn everything over to robots”: some people (many people) actually enjoy doing things themselves. And doing them well. And enjoying the satisfaction of a job well done.

10 January 2013

Wired: “Better Than Human: Why Robots Will – And Must – Take Our Jobs”

This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. Ninety percent of your coworkers will be unseen machines. Most of what you do will not be possible without them. And there will be a blurry line between what you do and what they do. You might no longer think of it as a job, at least at first, because anything that seems like drudgery will be done by robots.
We need to let robots take over. They will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were.
Let the robots take the jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters. Kevin Kelly

This article seems overly idealistic – in the way many predicted half a century ago that we’ll all have flying cars by the turn of the century – to the point of ignoring facts. The issue is not whether this revolution will create new jobs we didn’t have before – I’m sure it will – but whether the new jobs will be sufficient to replace the ones lost to the increased automation; and whether humans will adapt to the new, increasingly complex, jobs fast enough to matter. There is also the obvious issue of income distribution, because under a capitalistic society the majority of income from robot labor will go to their owner, not to the increasingly irrelevant workers. This in turn creates another problem: on one hand increased supply of goods, on the other shrinking demand if the middle-class doesn’t have the money to purchase them - a classic recipe for economic crisis. It’s never as easy as just ‘embracing the future’…

06 January 2013

Hugh Howey - Wool

in Bucharest, Romania

Hugh Howey Wool omnibusCa o dovadă că nu toate povestirile post-apocaliptice trebuie să conțină vampiri și molime devastatoare și că poți deveni un autor de succes fără o editură în spate dacă scrii suficient de bine, avem exemplul de față: Wool! Undeva în viitor, peste câteva sute de ani, ultimii oameni își trăiesc viețile fragile în adâncul pământului, într‑un siloz care‑i protejează de atmosfera toxică din exterior. Urmând structura silozului uriaș stratificat în 150 de nivele și trei mari zone, societatea e împărțită după activități, fiecare ocupând anumite nivele: aproape de suprafață administrația, Primarul și Șeriful, IT‑ul la nivelul 34, numeroase ferme și livezi, și undeva în adâncuri, sub nivelul 100, Aprovizionarea și Mecanica. Pentru a menține echilibrul precar în condițiile extreme e nevoie de reguli stricte; tabu‑ul suprem e menționarea exteriorului, vizibil totuși în mod constant la primul nivel, proiectat pe pereții interiori. Pedeapsa pentru încălcarea lui – și pentru alte delicte grave – e curățarea – expulzarea vinovatului afară, într‑un costum etanș care oferă o protecție limitată față de aerul toxic, suficient ca acesta să îndeplinească o ultimă datorie față de comunitate înainte de a muri: curățarea senzorilor de deasupra care în timp sunt acoperiți de murdărie.

Premisele sunt simple la prima vedere, în schimb la o examinare mai atentă apar o mulțime de întrebări, pentru cititor, dar și pentru personaje: de ce fiecare curățător își îndeplinește obligația, deși știe că va muri în curând, și majoritatea susțin că n‑o vor face înainte de a fi trimiși afară; de ce silozul trece la câteva zeci de ani prin revolte sângeroase și de ce după ultima au fost șterse de pe servere toate înregistrările dinainte de revoltă; ce se află cu adevărat în exteriorul interzis; dar mai ales cum s‑a ajuns la situația asta. Lumea a fost creată astfel de Dumnezeu pentru Om, susțin preoții; și totuși cărți vechi pentru copii arată o lume colorată, trăind afară sub soare și multe animale acum dispărute… Iar orice întrebare mai îndrăzneață riscă să‑l trimită pe curios afară la curățat.

Holston glanced around the airlock. My life is too tight, he wanted to say. My skin is too tight. The walls are too tight.

03 January 2013

The New York Times: “Is Growth Over?”

What Gordon then does is suggest that IR #3 has already mostly run its course, that all our mobile devices and all that are new and fun but not that fundamental. It’s good to have someone questioning the tech euphoria; but I’ve been looking into technology issues a lot lately, and I’m pretty sure he’s wrong, that the IT revolution has only begun to have its impact.

Consider for a moment a sort of fantasy technology scenario, in which we could produce intelligent robots able to do everything a person can do. Clearly, such a technology would remove all limits on per capita GDP, as long as you don’t count robots among the capitas. All you need to do is keep raising the ratio of robots to humans, and you get whatever GDP you want.

Paul Krugman

Uhm, actually no! Robots would only provide ‘unlimited’ labor, but you would still need raw materials and abundant energy to produce goods – and the robots! Unless we manage to recycle basically everything – some rare metals used in electronics are really hard to come by – and switch to cheap, renewable energy sources, going full-robot-labor wouldn’t remove growth limits on GDP. You would think a Nobel Prize winner would know such basic things…

02 January 2013

The New York Times: “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?”

Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle”. The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality. This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die.


Many marine biologists are reluctant to make such grand claims about Turritopsis’ promise for human medicine. That’s a question for journalists, Boero said (to a journalist) in 2009. I prefer to focus on a slightly more rational form of science.

Kubota, however, has no such compunction. Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind, he told me the first time I called him. Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.

Nathaniel Rich

This article has it all: a lonely scientist, science-fiction fan and karaoke enthusiast, struggling for funding for his research, humanity’s ultimate dream: eternal life. It’s a fascinating read, at the same underlining the problems with potential immortality, ethical and environmental issues. The biggest problem however is that, even if researchers manage to replicate this rejuvenation process in human beings, it’s unlikely to make us immortal – or let me put is this way, it depends what we understand under immortal: this could make our bodies immortal, but it remains to be seen if the brain with all its memories and our sense of self can be preserved while the body resets itself to adolescence or childhood.

I’m positive this will lead to many discoveries about cancer, diseases and aging. But immortality? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Hydrozoans, he suggests, may have made a devil’s bargain. In exchange for simplicity — no head or tail, no vision, eating out of its own anus — they gained immortality.

01 January 2013

Bertrand Russell: “In Praise of Idleness”

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising. […]
The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery. […]
The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. We have been misled in this matter by two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect. The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth's surface. Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to the actual worker. If you ask him what he thinks the best part of his life, he is not likely to say: I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am fulfilling man’s noblest task, and because I like to think how much man can transform his planet. It is true that my body demands periods of rest, which I have to fill in as best I may, but I am never so happy as when the morning comes and I can return to the toil from which my contentment springs. I have never heard working men say this sort of thing. They consider work, as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy. Bertrand Russell

Unfortunately I see the kind of attitude described here all the time: people valuing work for the sake of work instead of focusing on their leisure time – I’m sure many parents would enjoy spending more time with the children, for example – clinging to past procedures and ways despite better methods and technologies available. The kind of society proposed in the article is a popular science-fiction utopia, from Asimov’s Robots to Star Trek and even David Brin. And while technology has mostly caught up with this vision, our work ethics still have a long way to go.