30 October 2014

The iPad and the ‘post-PC’ era

Last week it was time for another earnings report from , which delivered little surprise: big revenues from the new larger iPhone models, while iPads recorded the third consecutive drop in sales. Half a year ago, after the first signs of stagnation, I shared a chart comparing the year-on-year growth of Apple products and commented that, in just two years, the iPad has gone from being the iPhone to being the Mac – meaning of course that growth has stalled abruptly, turning the iPad from the hottest selling Apple device into a stagnating product like PCs. Not much has changed since, except the Mac is showing signs of renewed consumer interest with healthy growth in both revenues and unit sales.

Apple unit sales YoY growth

27 October 2014

Slate Magazine: “Driving in Circles”

Another problem with maps is that once you make them, you have to keep them up to date, a challenge Google says it hasn’t yet started working on. Considering all the traffic signals, stop signs, lane markings, and crosswalks that get added or removed every day throughout the country, keeping a gigantic database of maps current is vastly difficult. Safety is at stake here; Chris Urmson, director of the Google car team, told me that if the car came across a traffic signal not on its map, it could potentially run a red light, simply because it wouldn’t know to look for the signal. Urmson added, however, that an unmapped traffic signal would be “very unlikely”, because during the “time and construction” needed to build a traffic signal, there would be adequate opportunity to add it to the map.

But not always. Scott Heydt, director of marketing at Horizon Signal Technologies, says his company routinely sets up its portable traffic signals at road construction sites. Frequently, they are simply towed to a site and turned on. We just set one up like that in New Jersey, said Heydt. You can be driving to work and everything is normal, but on your way home, discover a new traffic light. (Of this possibility, a Google spokesperson said, We will have to be ready for that.)

Lee Gomes

With a subheading like “The autonomous Google car may never actually happen”, this article paints a rather bleak picture of the future of self-driving cars. But I wouldn’t be quite so pessimistic as the subheading implies. As with any new revolution in transportation, it’s not enough to design and build the vehicle, you also need to have the right infrastructure in place. In order to use trains, people had to build a railway system; for cars they needed highways, petrol stations and parking places. It’s the same now with driverless cars; it’s not enough to have a smart car, you also need smart roads to take full advantage of their potential.

25 October 2014

The Observer: “The Wire creator David Simon: why American politics no longer works”

That’s the notion that the markets will solve everything. Leave me alone. I want maximum liberty, I want maximum freedom. Those words have such power in America. On the other hand ‘responsibility’ or ‘society’ or ‘community’ are words that are increasingly held in disfavour in the United States. And that’s a recipe for cooking up a second-rate society, one that does not engage with the notion of collective responsibility. We’re only as good a society as how we treat those who are most vulnerable and nobody’s more vulnerable than our poor. To be poor is not a crime, except in America.

David Simon

There has been no shortage lately of articles about the rising inequality and political blockage in the United States, but this one stuck with me because of the striking similarity with a fragment from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which I was reading at the time. I think it’s safe to say the problem is far from being solved, and only getting worse.

23 October 2014

Android Power: “Hands on with Inbox, Google’s new way to experience Gmail”

(Your traditional Gmail labels are still present and available, by the way; in fact, if you open up the Inbox settings, they’re listed along with all the Bundles in a tab called “Labels”. But there’s no way to assign a message to multiple labels in this setup; a message is either in the inbox or in a single Bundle/label -- and that’s it. Confused yet?)

JR Raphael

For all the hype and excitement in the press, to me it sounds more like a regression than an improvement. The ability to add multiple labels to a message has been one of the main advantages of Gmail from day one; removing it doesn’t strike me as a step in the right direction. Nor does the fact that on desktop Inbox actively locks out browsers other than . I get a sense that one of the reasons behind its existence is to nudge people away from email as open standard and towards ’s proprietary API’s.

19 October 2014

Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

in Bucharest, Romania

Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-FiveDupă încheierea celui de‑Al Doilea Război Mondial, soldații americani care au supraviețuit bombardamentelor din Dresda încearcă să‑și reia viețile smulse din rutină. Și aparent lucrurile reușesc să reintre pe făgașul normal: protagonistul Billy Pilgrim se căsătorește, preia afacerea socrului său optician și acumulează o avere suficientă pentru un trai lipsit de griji. Dar amintirea războiului nu se lasă ușor înăbușită: naratorul nenumit obișnuiește să sune noaptea la numere de telefon aleatoare ca să discute cu străini, iar Billy Pilgrim, după șocul unui accident aviatic și al morții soției, începe să povestească tuturor cum a fost răpit de extratereștrii și cum aceștia i‑au arătat că timpul și moartea sunt doar iluzii umane. So it goes.

I say, Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead? What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too. And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

E destul de dificil să‑ți formezi o părere clară despre o carte complicată și în mod intenționat ambiguă ca Abatorul Cinci. Capitole de început și încheiere, redate din perspectiva naratorului, aici un alter‑ego al lui Vonnegut, încadrează (auto)biografia lui Billy Pilgrim, care se desfășoară neliniar, ca un pick‑up stricat al cărui ac nu mai poate urma șanțul gravat pe disc, ci sare aiurea înainte și înapoi. Urmând salturile haotice în timp ale conștiinței lui, alternăm între lunile în care fusese prizonier de război al naziștilor, viața ca membru respectat al comunității din Ilium (o aluzie, poate, la alt mare război, cel Troian?), devenit mai apoi un excentric privit cu exasperare, și perioada petrecută ca exponat într‑o grădină zoologică pe Tralfamadore. Iar în jurul lui moartea se manifestă în toate formele ei, de la deratizarea hainelor prizonierilor la decese banale, aproape comice în absurditatea lor, la bombardamentul devastator al Dresden‑ului la moartea finală a Universului, conștientizată de tralfamadorieni. So it goes.

18 October 2014

Vox: “How America lost the Middle East”

The problem isn’t that America has gotten weaker. It’s that the Middle East has changed. When the Middle East’s biggest problems were about conflict between formal governments, the United States had a lot more influence. But today, the Middle East is defined by a shifting, impossibly complicated web of ethno-religious tension, weak and failed states, and ascendant terrorist organizations. The collapse of central governments and rise of powerful non-state actors breed problems that foreign powers, even the world’s only superpower, simply cannot address.

This power struggle played up sectarian divisions in a very bad way. I don’t think that the Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a sectarian war with each other, said F. Gregory Gause, a University of Vermont professor who studies the politics of the Middle East. But they use sectarianism. This battle for influence is played out not in military conflicts between the two states, but in civil conflicts in weak Arab countries … the Saudis will back the Sunnis and Iranians will back the Shias because those are natural allies. And the Saudis and Iranians don’t have to force themselves into these fights; the local players invite them in. That’s exactly what happened in Syria and Iran. In both cases, Iranian-backed Shia central governments are fighting Sunni rebels that have received heavy Saudi support.

Zack Beauchamp

A thorough overview of a most complicated situation, where a satisfying solution is increasingly hard to find. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East seams to be playing out like a smaller version of the Cold War, where two powers of comparable strength avoid direct conflict, fueling local wars in their satellite states instead. The best (and maybe only) reasonable thing to do could be to try to prevent the crisis from growing even more violent and extreme and to support the feeble attempts at democracy in the other Arab states.

16 October 2014

What’s new in Chrome 39

After the numerous developer updates and APIs introduced in Chrome 38, this version focuses more on JavaScript, with ES6 Generators, improved animation controls and a new standard for defining mobile web apps, the Web Application Manifest. Of course, at some point adding features will lead to older ones being deprecated, and now it’s time for the chrome.pushMessaging API to be replaced by the newer Google Cloud Messaging service. Another change that should be live in this version is that people can install free Chrome apps without being signed in to the Web Store. Since I haven’t installed an app in a while I can’t verify this – I’m also almost constantly logged in to Chrome.

Security-wise, 39 marks the first step in the process of gradually phasing out support for the SHA-1 cryptographic hash algorithm, used in HTTPS certificate signatures, as detailed in the official announcement. SHA-1 is old and weak, and unfortunately widely used, so moving to the improved SHA-2 is scheduled to take at least a couple of years. Other big technology companies have similar plans, starting with Microsoft and most recently Mozilla.

12 October 2014

Jonathan Strahan - Edge of Infinity

in Bucharest, Romania

Jonathan Strahan - Edge of InfinityDupă succesul colecției Engineering Infinity, Jonathan Strahan a continuat după același model cu o nouă selecție, de data asta cu o temă mai aproape de casă, colonizarea sistemului solar. Fiecare dintre povestiri are ca fundal una din planete, deși nu sunt reprezentate toate (nimic despre Venus, Pluto sau Uranus, nici despre centura de asteroizi, din păcate) și nici ordinea în care sunt prezentate nu respectă nici o regulă aparentă.

The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi de Pat Cadigan se petrece în sistemul jupiterian, în timp ce numeroasele stații și habitate se pregătesc să observe un nou impact de dimensiunile lui Shoemaker-Levy. Majoritatea muncitorilor nu sunt însă bipezi, ci diverse forme de animale acvatice, membrii echipajului pe care‑l urmărim fiind de exemplu caracatițe. De‑a lungul povestirii descoperim că toți au fost la un moment dat oameni, care la sfârșitul vieții au ales să reînceapă într‑un corp nou, de unde și expresia din titlu. O idee interesantă, dar redată stângaci, din perspectiva unui sushi care pare puțin încet la minte, sau cel puțin atât de detașat de lumea înconjurătoare încât lasă o impresie ștearsă.

Pentru The Deeps of the Sky de Elizabeth Bear rămânem pe Jupiter, de data asta chiar în straturile superioare ale atmosferei tumultoase, populate de numeroase specii, inclusiv una inteligentă cu un ciclu de viață deosebit. Stormchases ia parte la activitatea obișnuită de minare a unei furtuni gigantice pentru mineralele ridicate din adâncuri când observă cum un fel de meteorit se prăbușește din cer la marginea furtunii. Relatată cu stil și în detaliu, povestirea se mișcă destul de încet, și de‑abia în final avem parte de un ritm mai alert și ceva clarificări.

11 October 2014

The Economist: “Economic convergence: The headwinds return”

Closing In

Since 2008 growth rates across the emerging world have slipped back toward those in advanced economies. When the new ICP estimates are applied, the average GDP per head in the emerging world, measured on a purchasing-power-parity (PPP) basis, grew just 2.6 percentage points faster than American GDP in 2013. If China is excluded from the calculations the difference is just 1.1 percentage points. At that pace convergence with rich-economy incomes happens over a period of time more like a century than a generation. If China is included, emerging economies could expect to reach rich-world income levels, on average, in just over 50 years. If China is left out, catch-up takes 115 years.

The Economist

A worrying trend for the future of the global economy. Although in retrospect not exactly surprising: the rapid growth in developing countries was largely powered by their lower labor costs and shifting standardized manufacturing from developed economies. As the contribution of industrial output to the GDP creation in developed countries decreased over the years, services now contribute more GDP than any other branch. This area, including healthcare, education, leisure, is harder to ‘outsource’ to other countries, because it requires specialized education and a degree of ‘closeness’ – you want your doctor to be close by in case of emergency. Or, as in the case of financial services or technical support, outsourcing is taking predominantly low-tier jobs, which are easier to automate and less value-added. It’s no wonder these types of jobs were at the top of the 2014 job creation charts in the US. This makes another wave of growth in emerging economies less likely in the near-term, and difficult in the medium term, without reform and substantial investment in education and governance.

07 October 2014

Ars Technica: “Continuum: Microsoft finally makes touch and mouse make sense together”

As shown off today, Windows 10 offers environments that are more tailored to mouse and keyboard users—the hybrid Start menu, the windowed Metro apps—and environments that are more tailored to touch users—the full screen Start screen and full-screen apps. But these dual-mode machines should use both, depending on how they’re being used. With its keyboard covers attached, a Surface Pro 3 should probably use the desktop-oriented mode. But with the covers removed, it should probably use the more finger friendly interface style.

This is where Continuum comes into play. Windows 10 will switch modes depending on how it’s being used. Continuum switches the system behavior depending on what hardware is available, and it will dynamically change the interface paradigm as that hardware changes. So plug the keyboard into your Surface Pro 3 and it’ll switch from touch-oriented to mouse and keyboard-oriented.

Peter Bright

As much as people hated Windows 8, I don’t think this is the right solution. It’s hard to draw conclusions from a single concept video and with the final release probably a year away, but the entire reasoning seems backwards to me. People complained about the interface constantly switching between classic desktop and the Metro mode and now Microsoft wants to add another trigger for the OS to switch behavior all the time?! Laptops don’t suddenly change the layout of windows depending on the touchpad being turned on or not or when the user connects an external mouse, why should external keyboards behave differently? This will just confuse people even more.

06 October 2014

A quick look at Twitter analytics

About a month ago, opened up access to its analytics tool – until now available for advertisers only – for a larger percentage of users. There are still some restrictions, mostly around the primary language of the account, but if you’re tweeting mainly in English you can certainly go check it out. I looked around a couple of times and it shows interesting bits of data about followers and tweet impressions (including replies!). As far as I can tell, it’s restricted to the past four weeks, so I’m not sure how useful it would be for people trying to extract patterns and improve engagement. I presume advertisers have access to longer time-series and more detailed insight about followers.

Twitter analytics impressions last 28 days

Subtraction.com: “iPhone 6 Looks”

By contrast, the iPhone 6’s form seems uninspired, harkening back to the dated-looking forms of the original iPhone, and barely managing to distinguish itself from the countless other phones that have since aped that look. This lack of inspiration is particularly evident on its backside, where plastic antenna runners unimaginatively mar the clean metallic surface, or where the camera protrudes out from that surface, making it effectively impossible to lay the phone perfectly flat except on its face.

Khoi Vinh

I largely agree. Personally I still prefer my iPhone 4S. I loved that look ever since the 4 was launched and I remember how excited I was when the 4S was announced with the same design! I was determined at that point this would be my next phone. Now, not so much…

04 October 2014

Musings on Markets: “The insanity of the US tax code: Bad Laws and Predictable Consequences”

Most Ineffective Tax Regimes in the World

The US has the ninth most ineffective tax system in the world, collecting 13.34% less in taxes than its marginal tax rate. Lest you are comforted by the fact that there are 8 countries in the world that have even more ineffective tax systems, it should be give you pause to see Greece, Venezuela, Nigeria and Kazakhastan on that list. While I am not a fan of first-world versus third-world categorizations, I think it is fair to say that the US is a first-world economy with a third-world tax system, a point that is made starkly when you contrast it with other developed markets or the largest emerging markets. (You can get the entire list of countries by clicking here.)

Aswath Damodaran

Interesting analysis of the US tax system and the differences compared to the rest of the world. The inefficiency of the US tax system may be related to another key difference versus the other first-world economies, namely the mix of direct and indirect taxes. Direct taxation is levied on income (be it individual or corporate), while indirect is levied on consumption, for example through VAT/sales tax. The recent trend in most countries is to increase revenues coming from indirect taxation, which are easier to quantify and collect than direct taxes. That could be another measure to pursue in the event of a reform in the US tax system, although it would be just as hard to pass as the other solutions discussed in the linked article.

see this recent study from PWC