26 May 2014

The New York Review of Books: “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age”

It therefore came as a revelation when Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous “one percent”, and of even narrower groups, are actually the big story in rising inequality. And this discovery came with a second revelation: talk of a second Gilded Age, which might have seemed like hyperbole, was nothing of the kind. In America in particular the share of national income going to the top one percent has followed a great U-shaped arc. Before World War I the one percent received around a fifth of total income in both Britain and the United States. By 1950 that share had been cut by more than half. But since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again—and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago. Paul Krugman

While many talk about income inequality, its effects on economic recovery and the widening gap between the 1% and the rest, the book reviewed here has solid research on the subject based on economic data going back a century and more. It also lays out an easy theoretical solution: adjusting tax rates for capital returns and inheritance would improve income distribution considerably and slow further accumulation of capital in the same hands. Unfortunately, as you may imagine, it’s not so easy to apply this in the real world, where political decision-making is heavily influenced by those 1% it’s supposed to tax…

New Gilded Age Income Share graph

25 May 2014

Haruki Murakami - 1Q84

in Bucharest, Romania

Haruki Murakami - 1Q84Pe o autostradă aglomerată din Tokyo, în acordurile simfoniei lui Janáček, tânăra Aomame e nerăbdătoare să ajungă la o întâlnire importantă de afaceri, atât de nerăbdătoare că acceptă sugestia neobișnuită a șoferului de taxi de a părăsi mașina în mijlocul șirului încremenit de automobile și de a coborî pe o scară de incendiu pentru a putea prinde un metrou în schimb. Punctualitatea este crucială, căci altfel planul bine pus la punct pentru asasinarea unui om de afaceri în camera lui de hotel s‑ar da peste cap! În altă parte a orașului, Tengo, profesor de matematică cu jumătate de normă și scriitor aspirant, se întâlnește într‑o cafenea cu editorul său, Komatsu, care vine cu o propunere pe cât de tentantă, pe atât de periculoasă. Komatsu a descoperit un manuscris fascinant al unei tinere de 17 ani, Fuka‑Eri, despre care e convins că ar putea câștiga un prestigios premiu literar, cu condiția ca Tengo să șlefuiască ideile bune ale fetei cu stilul propriu care ei îi lipsește cu desăvârșire.

Romanul e structurat în trei părți, desfășurându‑se de‑a lungul a trei anotimpuri în anul 1984 – sau în cel alternativ 1Q84 dacă preferați. Mai departe ițele se încurcă considerabil: publicarea povestirii lui Fuka‑Eri, Air Chrysalis, atrage atenția unei grupări religioase misterioase, Sakigake, unde fata locuise până în urmă cu câțiva ani, și aceștia nu sunt deloc mulțumiți de atenția din partea presei și a poliției generată de popularitatea povestirii și apoi de dispariția autoarei. De cealaltă parte, viața secretă de asasină a lui Aomame o poartă încet, dar sigur, spre o întâlnire cu aceeași sectă, atunci când patroana ei bogată o îndeamnă să curme viața Leader‑ului Sakigake, nimeni altul decât tatăl lui Fuka‑Eri. În paralel cu evenimentele prezente se formează o imagine completă despre trecutul celor doi; un fragment conținând o parte semnificativă din copilăria lui Tengo poate fi citit gratuit sub titlul Town of Cats. Semne mici și mari dezvăluie de ce apar împreună în roman: între ei există o legătură veche de douăzeci de ani, de pe vremea când erau împreună la școală, unde s‑au îndrăgostit într‑o zi de decembrie sub razele reci ale lunii. Acum regulile nescrise din lumea 1Q84 par să‑i conducă în aceeași direcție, dar vor avea ei oare puterea să treacă peste obstacole și să‑și împlinească iubirea?

24 May 2014

Paris Review: “Gabriel García Márquez, The Art of Fiction No. 69”

100 years of solitude
The more power you have, the harder it is to know who is lying to you and who is not. When you reach absolute power, there is no contact with reality, and that’s the worst kind of solitude there can be. A very powerful person, a dictator, is surrounded by interests and people whose final aim is to isolate him from reality; everything is in concert to isolate him. Gabriel García Márquez

A must-read interview for fans of the recently deceased Nobel Prize winner. I was a little disappointed there was no mention of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, probably my favorite novel by García Márquez, but the interview covers a lot of the themes and inspiration behind his work, how his passion for journalism and fiction influenced each other, and how he approached writing and the process of fabricating reality with only a pen on a piece of paper.

23 May 2014

The New Yorker: “A Star in a Bottle”

Core Of The Sun by MurdocSnook on deviantART
Fusion, the most plentiful energy source in the universe, has never produced energy on Earth. Nature had shielded the planet from the punishing conditions it requires with a great buffer: millions of miles of empty space. What the physicists and the engineers in the South of France were attempting to do was to traverse that boundary. Thirty-five countries were trying somehow to cross it together. On some level, the arrangement would necessarily be a messy one. Raffi Khatchadourian

Fascinating – and surprisingly long – article about ITER, the biggest technological project of our age, and the quest to harness the most efficient source of energy known to us, nuclear fusion. Depending on the outcome, it could become one of the biggest achievement of human science and engineering, the clean and cheap power source that would end dependence on fossil fuels, turn back climate change and open our way to the stars – or, if it fails, a testament to our inability to manage long-term, high-investment projects, to overcome political differences and misguided national pride. The people working on this project could become the heroes of the 21st century and I wouldn't be surprised if in a couple of decades we will be reading captivating novels about their work, the huge difficulties and immense satisfaction of seeing it all come together in the end.

21 May 2014

Game Oven: “Bounden on Android delayed”

In the Vine above are 7 devices all running the same compass app (ironically named Steady Compass) on Android. Yet, all compasses indicate that North is somewhere else. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with electromagnetic fields confusing the compass; it has everything to do with the diversity of hardware inside these devices.

Eline Muijres

This reminds me of a funny moment last year, during a trip to northern Norway. I travelled there with a small group of photographers to see the northern lights. One evening we were out in a small city, trying to find North. I had my iPhone, another couple brought their iPhones and iPad along, two other people had Samsung smartphones. Both iPhones and the iPad pointed in the same general direction – after some calibration – whereas the Samsungs pointed somewhere entirely different. Being under open and relatively clear skies and with good knowledge of astronomy, it didn’t take long to recognize which devices had it right: those built by Apple.

20 May 2014

What’s new in Chrome 35

Among the customary low-key   releases, this one will be particularly hard to notice for regular users, with no major changes to the user interface or features. The relevant updates are mainly aimed at developers, from improved support for JavaScript standards to unprefixed support for Shadow DOM, CSS background blending, the Web Audio API and the ability for websites to override Ctrl+mouse wheel scroll events. The in-browser developer tools received a couple of updates as well, as described in this article.

An experimental feature, the so-called ‘Origin chip’, got a lot of attention lately, with people actively discussing the security merits and usability downsides to hiding the page URL by default and replacing it with a button displaying only the top-level domain. For now it’s not enabled by default, there’s a flag for this allowing users to try out different versions. Personally I find the change very confusing and I can understand the people pointing out that this move is only serving Google by driving more searches to their search engine: the Omnibox is converted into a full-time search box and the URL is revealed only when you click on the origin chip, very hard to discover for an average user who doesn’t closely follow the browser release notes. Maybe I just got used to the URL and the different layers of information it silently provides, but without it the address field feels empty and out of place, they could just as well remove it completely!

Chrome 35 with Origin Chip left of Omnibox Chrome 35 with Origin Chip on the far right

17 May 2014

CNNMoney: “The Bill & Warren Show”

They say success is getting what you want and happiness is wanting what you get. I don’t know which one applies in this case, but I do know I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I’d advise you that when you go out to work, work for an organization of people you admire, because it will turn you on. I always worry about people who say, I’m going to do this for ten years; I really don’t like it very well. And then I’ll do this.... That’s a little like saving up sex for your old age. Not a very good idea. Warren Buffett

This interview with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett is more than 15 years old – basically a relic from the stone age in Internet years – but nevertheless has many good conclusions and advice from two very successful business men. Well worth a read even now.

15 May 2014

Folder reset on Canon cameras when replacing batteries

As you probably know from the occasional article about cameras, I’m passionate about photography and I use every chance I get to take more photos and maybe to learn new techniques (unfortunately I’m terribly behind on tagging and uploading photos on my Flickr account…). One of the tricks I use to make organizing easier is to create folders on the camera at the start of each day. This makes it easier to manage photos after downloading them on the computer – I simply rename the folder and have a good idea about when and where those photos were taken. Since going digital I can easily capture hundreds of photos a day, so this also translates to a Flickr set per day. Another advantage is that you can quickly free up space on the storage card by deleting an entire folder rather than painstakingly deleting single photos or having to shoot at lower resolution to save space. Canon 600D Select folder menu

12 May 2014

The problem with a larger iPhone

As Apple moved into a yearly pattern for launching its new products, the tech press has settled into a similar pattern, coming up with new rumors and speculations each year before the launch events. This year everybody is impatiently waiting for Apple to announce a larger iPhone, either a 4.7’ or a 5.5’ device (or both!), and there has been no shortage of alleged leaks, more informed reports and analysis as to why Apple needs this kind of product. It would fit another recent pattern of alternating new designs with better specs – the iPhone 4 followed by the 4S, 5 by 5S. While I’m perfectly satisfied with my current smartphone, I would certainly be more interested in upgrading to a larger screen, if only for the ability to watch videos more comfortably.

11 May 2014

Foreign Policy: “How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare”

War: good for few, bad for most
This is a world where the old geo-political paradigms no longer hold. As the Kremlin faces down the West, it is indeed gambling that old alliances like the EU and NATO mean less in the 21st century than the new commercial ties it has established with nominally “Western” companies, such as BP, Exxon, Mercedes, and BASF. Meanwhile, many Western countries welcome corrupt financial flows from the post-Soviet space; it is part of their economic models, and not one many want disturbed. So far, the Kremlin’s gamble seems to be paying off, with financial considerations helping to curb sanctions. Part of the rationale for fast-tracking Russia’s inclusion into the global economy was that interconnection would be a check on aggression. But the Kremlin has figured out that this can be flipped: Interconnection also means that Russia can get away with aggression. Peter Pomerantsev

The new cold war is exploiting globalization, the very thing that should have prevented further conflicts.

A similar line of thinking can be applied to possible conflicts between China and the U.S. over Taiwan:

We say explicitly, in Red Star over the Pacific and many other forums, that such a conflict is possible. US-China economic ties elevate the costs of armed conflict for both belligerents, but can’t rule it out entirely. Other interests supersede economics at times. Conducting strikes on the Chinese mainland could carry vast economic and political consequences for the United States. Knowing this—and knowing that Washington knows it—Beijing can hope to deter the United States from coming to the island’s defence. Should a conflict come to pass, Chinese leaders hope Washington will stand aside for the sake of national self-interest. James R. Holmes

09 May 2014

Nielsen Newswire: “Changing Channels: Americans View Just 17 Channels Despite Record Number to Choose From”

According to Nielsen’s forthcoming Advertising & Audiences Report, the average U.S. TV home now receives 189 TV channels—a record high and significant jump since 2008, when the average home received 129 channels. Despite this increase, however, consumers have consistently tuned in to an average of just 17 channels. Nielsen-Americans-view-just-17-channels

Remarkable piece of data, especially how the number of regularly watched channels has stayed constant over time; clearly people see no need to expand their viewing habits, so most channels are there just to justify the bills from cable operators. This is more-or-less how I use TV these days: despite having around 150 channels available, me and my family are regularly tuning in to 10-20 of them and many people I know have given up on TV altogether.

08 May 2014

Twitter vs. Facebook for the Everyday-Man

in Bucharest, Romania

Twitter vs FacebookOne of the interesting side-effects of going to work by metro – as opposed to, say, driving there – are the conversations you sometimes get to overhear. This morning, two people were talking about and , and it went something like this: on Twitter there’s too much stuff going on, I prefer Facebook because people there are simple, just like us. You might say it just confirms that for most people Twitter is overwhelming, the main cause for the slow growth and bad user retention. But I say that’s precisely the most fascinating aspect of Twitter, the best reason to participate: to see how the world works outside of your narrow social circle, to meet new people, to discover ideas that would otherwise have no way of reaching you. In a way, using Twitter is like travelling to a foreign country and learning how they do things, while people sticking to Facebook are never leaving their hometown.

05 May 2014

More design annoyances in iOS 7

Ever since iOS 7 was announced, there have been plenty designers complaining about their design choices, especially the removal of button shapes and choice of colors for highlighting. Apple started making some concessions with the major update to 7.1, but to me the new button shapes look horrible and I haven’t turned them on; besides I’m already accustomed to using the swipe gesture for going back. But there are other things that annoy me constantly in iOS…

For a while I kept switching weather apps to explore their designs. For a while I settled with Yahoo! Weather, but after Apple introduced similar ideas to their weather app I started using it more often. At some point I also removed Yahoo! Weather; the photo backgrounds were gorgeous, but the app was using up too much bandwidth to download them and the forecast is identical to the stock app. And here I discovered one of annoyances: the app displays time and hourly temperature for the next hours, but there is no label showing which value is the temperature and which the hour! During the winter with negative temperatures that was not an apparent issue, but in the spring you constantly see too strings of very similar or even identical numbers and that causes a constant mental effort to differentiate between unlabeled numbers on the screen. The update to iOS 7.1 hasn’t changed anything meaningful in the weather app, other than refreshing the icons and adding some shadows. Maybe this is not an issue for Americans using Fahrenheit, where the scale does not overlap with the time of day, but for the rest of the world it would be nice to have an easy way to tell them apart. There is plenty of screen space to add a simple degree indicator next to temperatures! Btw Yahoo! Weather did clearly separate hours (xx:00) from temperature (xx°).

  • iOS 7 weather app confusing date and temperature
    Can you quickly tell if the top row is displaying temperature or hour?
  • iOS 7.1 weather app confusing date and temperature
    Not much has changed in iOS 7.1, unfortunately

03 May 2014

The New York Times: “What Does It Mean to Be Comfortable?”

Along with air-conditioning, globalization has also helped popularize something called Ashrae 55: a building code created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, to determine the ideal temperature for large buildings. The standard, which has set thermostats across the globe, is hardly culture-free. It’s based on Fanger’s Comfort Equation, a mathematical model developed in Denmark and the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s, which seeks to make a very specific worker comfortable: a man wearing a full business suit.

Consider the impact on office workers in hotter countries, where a thobe or a dashiki might be perfectly acceptable business attire. They might start dressing differently, which makes them less comfortable outside and at home, which in turn makes them more likely to seek out air-conditioning. It also affects women. In spring, it’s socially expected that women will wear thinner blouses, skirts, open-toed shoes, Mazur-Stommen says. But the building temperature is set for men, who are assumed to be wearing long-sleeved shirts and closed-toed shoes year-round. If everyone just dressed appropriately for the weather, we wouldn’t have to heat or cool the building as much.

Maggie Koerth-Baker

The ambient temperature is a source of constant bickering in my office as well. It’s too hot for some, too cold for others and the rest want fresh air. While a more flexible dress code would certainly help, I think the solution lies in better design for office buildings and spaces, including moving away from the cheap ‘open space’ solution.

01 May 2014

The new Flickr app is trying too hard to be Instagram

In their effort to regain the top spot among photo-sharing apps, Flickr has focused lately on redesigning the site and releasing improved mobile apps on iPhone and Android. The latest version has been released a couple of weeks ago with a long feature list – and, as much as I try, I keep coming to the conclusion that I liked the old app better! The new design is too flashy, the excessive use of iOS 7-styled animations, zooming and translucent layers is tiring and confusing. While implementing the annoying design innovations, the team left out another much more useful iOS 7 gesture, swipe-left-to-go-back. There are some good design touches, for example the introduction of the popular flick-to-dismiss gesture and the awesome reloading animation using Flickr’s two-circle-logo – you should check it out especially on profile pages: swipe down until the blue border around the profile pic becomes full circle, then release.

Speaking of profiles, if you see a small checkmark on the top right, don’t click it! That’s showing you are following that person and clicking the checkmark unfollows them – without confirmation or any other prompt! That’s probably the stupidest decision I ever saw in any app! Of course you can immediately re-follow the person clicking on what has now become the ‘follow’ button, but wouldn’t it make more sense to label the button or have an extra step so that doesn’t happen in the first place?