31 January 2015

Context Institute: “What is Education for?”

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more “successful” people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

A second principle comes from the Greek concept of paideia. The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one’s person. Subject matter is simply the tool. Much as one would use a hammer and chisel to carve a block of marble, one uses ideas and knowledge to forge one’s own personhood. For the most part we labor under a confusion of ends and means, thinking that the goal of education is to stuff all kinds of facts, techniques, methods, and information into the student’s mind, regardless of how and with what effect it will be used. The Greeks knew better.

David Orr

Some powerful ideas in this 15-year old article, but I always get a little skeptical when people start to idealize the past (the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read) and treat it as the solution to all of today’s problems. The world is so different than it was two thousand years ago – heck, very different than last century or fifty years ago – that we need to find our own answers, not search for them in a long-past age.

30 January 2015

The Atlantic: “5,200 Days in Space”

Spaceflight has faded from American consciousness even as our performance in space has reached a new level of accomplishment. In the past decade, America has become a truly, permanently spacefaring nation. All day, every day, half a dozen men and women, including two Americans, are living and working in orbit, and have been since November 2000. Mission Control in Houston literally never sleeps now, and in one corner of a huge video screen there, a counter ticks the days and hours the Space Station has been continuously staffed. The number is rounding past 5,200 days.

It’s a little strange when you think about it: Just about every American ninth-grader has never lived a moment without astronauts soaring overhead, living in space. But chances are, most ninth-graders don’t know the name of a single active astronaut—many don’t even know that Americans are up there. We’ve got a permanent space colony, inaugurated a year before the setting of the iconic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a stunning achievement, and it’s completely ignored.

Charles Fishman

It’s even stranger if you think about the burst of excitement on Twitter as the Rosetta probe started orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Philae landed on its surface. I think the public feeling is that NASA has stopped taking risks in space exploration – the activity has certainly slowed down from the adventurous start in the ‘60s, when no less than five probes were sent out towards Venus in a single year. Fortunately, there are others willing to step up and tackle the challenge of space – and to bear the sometimes tragic consequences.

25 January 2015

Trei zile în capitala Norvegiei

in Bucharest, Romania

Am aterizat la Oslo într‑o după‑amiază mohorâtă de septembrie, după o escală la fel de mohorâtă pe aeroportul din Amsterdam. Am zburat pe această etapă într‑un mic avion bimotor, nici măcar complet ocupat, ca pentru a‑mi atrage atenția că nimeni nu alege această perioadă pentru a vizita o latitudinea asta. Vederea de la fereastră era întreruptă de fâșii de nori, deasupra unor dealuri stinghere, acoperite de brazi și ocazionale sate. Mi‑am făcut drum printre zonele în renovare spre un birou de informații, unde am fost îndrumat către următorul tren, care m‑a dus rapid spre oraș printre aceleași dealuri împădurite. Acolo oboseala cred că și‑a spus cuvântul, pentru că am luat‑o plin de încredere într‑o direcție și am nimerit cu tot cu bagaje în mijlocul unui mall aglomerat. Judecând după oamenii din jur aș fi putut să jur că am aterizat nu în Europa, ci undeva prin Istanbul sau Egipt. Am rătăcit vreo jumătate de oră în căutarea unei ieșiri, traversând o pasarelă exterioară și folosind liftul, până la urmă evadând prin parcarea subterană pe o stradă lăturalnică. M‑am reorientat cu harta primită la aeroport și confuzia mea inițială nu m‑a împiedicat să ofer sfaturi unor turiști la fel de rătăciți ca și mine, care m‑au întrebat cu accente rusești dacă știu unde e o stație de tramvai. Oxlo - Oslo Extra Large

Robert Heinlein – ‘–All You Zombies–’

in Bucharest, Romania

Robert Heinlein - All You ZombiesO seară cu puțini clienți într‑un bar din New York, un tânăr care încearcă să‑și înece amarul în băutură, un barman dornic de conversație. Așa începe o povestire pe cât de scurtă, pe atât de complicată, cu un pariu între cei doi despre care dintre ei are o istorisire mai ieșită din comun. Scrisă la sfârșitul anilor ‘50, ‘–All You Zombies–’ este una dintre clasicele genului călătorie în timp, un paradox temporal atât de încâlcit încât ar fi ușor să‑l confunzi cu o parodie a genului. Construcția perfect circulară e de admirat, subliniată de inelul purtat de personajul principal: Ouroboros, șarpele care‑și înghite coada, simbolul morții și renașterii eterne. Eu unul am fost intrigat mai degrabă de final, de indiciile frugale despre lumea din jur și efectele călătoriei temporale, de aluziile că totul în jur e de fapt o iluzie. Ar fi fost bine dacă Heinlein ar fi extins unele idei; în orice caz cred că o voi mai citi încă o dată, încercând să deslușesc mai bine la ce se referă în încheiere.

24 January 2015

The Guardian: “Isis: the inside story”

The other prisoners did not take long to warm to him, Abu Ahmed recalled. They had also been terrified of Bucca, but quickly realised that far from their worst fears, the US-run prison provided an extraordinary opportunity. We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else, he told me. It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.

He was respected very much by the US army, Abu Ahmed said. If he wanted to visit people in another camp he could, but we couldn’t. And all the while, a new strategy, which he was leading, was rising under their noses, and that was to build the Islamic State. If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.

Martin Chulov

American prison camps were the perfect breeding ground for more terrorism. Yet another reason why the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea gone horribly wrong. Whoever thought that keeping dangerous prisoners together and allowing them so much freedom inside the prison walls must be one of the most incompetent members of the US Army.

Slate Magazine: “The world is not falling apart”

How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.

Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack

Whenever there’s a new shooting or terrorist attack, I end up having a similar talk about it with my mother, with the same conclusion: the world is not getting worse, we’re just seeing more and more of what’s happening elsewhere – and the media regularly focuses on the bad. It’s especially striking for us, after living for dozens of years inside the Communist block, where little of the turmoil of the outside world trickled in. And in this study there’s finally statistical confirmation. Though, as with all trends, it’s not always safe to assume it will continue unchanged forever…

23 January 2015

San Francisco Magazine: “The Smartest Bro in the Room”

Uber Travis Kalanick

You get in the habit of not identifying yourself as an Uber employee when you’re a passenger, that’s for sure, a former corporate staffer tells me. A lot of people say they work at another company in the building when getting picked up or dropped off at HQ.

Ellen Cushing

Great profile on the founder of Uber, Travis Kalanick, with lots of information about the founding and evolution of the company. You know you’re stepping on enough toes when your own employees won’t admit they are working at Uber! Somehow I doubt this rough way of doing business is going to benefit the company – and the thousands of people partnering with them – in the long term.

All along, this brazen approach has been matched by Kalanick’s rhetoric. We’re in this political campaign, and the candidate is Uber, and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi, Kalanick told the audience at a tech conference earlier this year. Nobody likes him, he’s not a nice character, but he’s so woven into the political fabric and machinery that a lot of people owe him favors. We have to bring out the truth about how dark and dangerous and evil the taxi side is.

But who do you ‘vote’ for, if the challenger is just as bad as the incumbent (or worse)?

22 January 2015

Wired: “Project HoloLens: Our Exclusive Hands-On With Microsoft’s Holographic Goggles”

Another scenario lands me on a virtual Mars-scape. Kipman developed it in close collaboration with NASA rocket scientist Jeff Norris, who spent much of the first half of 2014 flying back and forth between Seattle and his Southern California home to help develop the scenario. With a quick upward gesture, I toggle from computer screens that monitor the Curiosity rover’s progress across the planet’s surface to the virtual experience of being on the planet. The ground is a parched, dusty sandstone, and so realistic that as I take a step, my legs begin to quiver. They don’t trust what my eyes are showing them. Behind me, the rover towers seven feet tall, its metal arm reaching out from its body like a tentacle. The sun shines brightly over the rover, creating short black shadows on the ground beneath its legs.

Jessi Hempel

If we won’t be able to go to Mars in person, I guess this is the next best thing.

19 January 2015

Pew Research Center: “Social Media Site Usage 2014”

Facebook continues to be the most popular social media site, but its membership saw little change from 2013. The one notable exception is older adults: For the first time in Pew Research findings, more than half (56%) of internet users ages 65 and older use Facebook. Overall, 71% of internet users are on Facebook, a proportion that represents no change from August 2013.

Every other social media platform measured saw significant growth between 2013 and 2014. Instagram not only increased its overall user figure by nine percentage points, but also saw significant growth in almost every demographic group. LinkedIn continued to grow among groups with which it was already popular, such as professionals and college graduates, while Twitter and Pinterest saw increases in usership across a variety of demographic groups.

Maeve Duggan, Nicole B. Ellison, Cliff Lampe, Amanda Lenhart and Mary Madden

Interesting study about trends in social media usage for the US. The breakdown by various demographics on the second page offer more fine-grained insights, some of them rather obvious, others more unexpected.

17 January 2015

The Spectator: “Free speech is so last century”

Their eyes glazed with moral certainty, they explained to me at length that culture warps minds and shapes behaviour and that is why it is right for students to strive to keep such wicked, misogynistic stuff as the Sun newspaper and sexist pop music off campus. ‘We have the right to feel comfortable’, they all said, like a mantra. One — a bloke — said that the compulsory sexual consent classes recently introduced for freshers at Cambridge, to teach what is and what isn’t rape, were a great idea because they might weed out ‘pre-rapists’: men who haven’t raped anyone but might. The others nodded. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Pre-rapists! Had any of them read Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novella about a wicked world that hunts down and punishes pre-criminals, I asked? None had.

Where once students might have allowed their eyes and ears to be bombarded by everything from risqué political propaganda to raunchy rock, now they insulate themselves from anything that might dent their self-esteem and, crime of crimes, make them feel ‘uncomfortable’. Student groups insist that online articles should have ‘trigger warnings’ in case their subject matter might cause offence.

Brendan O'Neill

Possibly more threatening to free-speech than guns and murders: the toxic effects of ‘political correctness’ and plain old laziness. It’s always easier and more ‘comfortable’ to adopt an opinion and stop thinking about the issue than to be constantly challenged and sustain it with arguments.

14 January 2015

Monday Note: “Fear is not an editorial option”

Unlike the September 11th era of terrorism where attacks were engineered from abroad, today, Al Qaeda and ISIS have been very good at exporting terrorism into the social fabric of Western countries, encouraging the emergence of widespread, independent micro-cells with people, usually coarse (as heard in the audio recordings of last week’s perpetrators), but quite effective at using kalashnikov rifles and explosives.

Frédéric Filloux

Good point, unfortunately! That’s why recent proposals by the Spanish government to modify the Schengen treaty and reinstate border controls inside the EU will have little to no effect. The recent attacks in Paris were carried out by French citizens, ‘born-and-raised’, not by ‘imported’ threats. It would be more difficult for similar extremist cells to strike another country, where they don’t know the right people and the local language. Besides, with today’s wide-ranging methods of communication, terrorists don’t need to move from one place to another to organize attacks when they can coordinate faster and more efficiently online.

13 January 2015

Creative Strategies: “Two Scenarios for the Smart Watch Market”

Scenario #1

Apple will easily strongly influence the smart watch category in 2015 and 2016. It is hard to argue against Apple’s vertical advantage and tight control of their entire ecosystem. This advantage undoubtedly will give them a dominance in the early stages of a category. If a number of things play out, we can see them command the category for the long term.

Apple had a near monopoly on the iPod/MP3 market. We can see a similar scenario playing out where Apple effectively “iPods” the smart watch category, maintaining dominant share over the next five to seven years. While the early success of the iPod was driven by Apple releasing iTunes for Windows, we don’t see the need for Apple to support other platforms in order to hold sway over the smart watch category. Apple’s existing iPhone customer base is large enough to keep it the foremost smart watch vendor and their smart watch platform as the reigning one in the smart watch category.

Ben Bajarin

When you read phrases like Apple is blessed by their developers and always has been, you know this is a truly accurate and unbiased report!

12 January 2015

TechCrunch: “Twitter’s ‘While You Were Away’ Recap Feature Is Rolling Out To Many Users”

Twitter on iOS new Tweets for you feature

Back in November, Twitter announced plans to implement a number of new initiatives to boost user engagement, and one of those features — a ‘While you were away’ recap of tweets you may have missed — appears to be rolling out to significant numbers of users.

‘While you were away’ works much like Facebook’s Timeline and is the first major non-chronological feature to hit Twitter. Back in November, the company said it would look at the ‘best’ tweets from your network since you last opened Twitter, and put them at the top of your timeline so you don’t miss them.

Jon Russell

I don’t think it’s the same feature, but I noticed something similar in my mobile feed a couple of times: a new section titled ‘Tweets for you…’. It shows up only when there’s nothing new to display from the people I follow, just like favorites from other users are inserted in the timeline, but this time after the classic timeline. The content looks similar to the ‘Discover’ tab, so it could be an experiment to popularize it. I don’t think many people even realize it’s there – I must admit I very rarely look at anything except the main timeline on mobile.

SSL and online security

Two different articles caught my attention this past week, both of them concerning secure sites. In the light of the recent initiative from to encourage all site owners to migrate to secure connections, a reminder that these can be exploited to breach user privacy and security just as normal, unencrypted connections. I stand by my original reaction that implementing HTTPS on small sites and blogs carries a lot of complications with little benefit.

Gogo has been caught issuing a fake digital certificate for YouTube, a practice that in theory could allow the inflight broadband provider to view passwords and other sensitive information exchanged between end users and the Google-owned video service.

Normally, YouTube passwords, authentication cookies, and similar site credentials are securely encrypted using the widely used HTTPS protocols. A public key accompanying YouTube’s official HTTPS certificate ensures that only Google can decrypt the traffic. The fake certificate Gogo presents to users trying to access the video site bypasses these protections, making it possible for Gogo to decipher data. It has long been Gogo’s policy to block access to streaming sites and other bandwidth-intensive services. A company official said the fake YouTube certificate is used solely to enforce the policy and not to collect data intended for YouTube. Security and privacy advocates criticized the technique anyway, characterizing it as heavy-handed.

Dan Goodin

HSTS Super Cookies are a good example of how the introduction of new features–even those that provide much-needed security improvements—can turn into holes hackers can exploit. The whole point of HSTS is to ensure a browser always uses HTTPS when making subsequent visits to a website that supports the mechanism. Browser developers almost certainly wanted those flags to carry over from normal mode to privacy mode to ensure privacy-minded users received the benefit of this protection. Now that there's a viable way of using HSTS to uniquely identify these users, developers will surely rethink their decision, but their options may remain limited.

Dan Goodin

Update: another example, this time from a major PC manufacturer:

The critical threat is present on Lenovo PCs that have adware from a company called Superfish installed. As unsavory as many people find software that injects ads into Web pages, there's something much more nefarious about the Superfish package. It installs a self-signed root HTTPS certificate that can intercept encrypted traffic for every website a user visits. When a user visits an HTTPS site, the site certificate is signed and controlled by Superfish and falsely represents itself as the official website certificate.

Dan Goodin

11 January 2015

Kim Stanley Robinson - Marte Roșu

in Bucharest, Romania

Kim Stanley Robinson - Marte RosuDupă câteva cărți mai puțin inspirate, de ceva vreme am simțit nevoia să recitesc unele romane citite acum mulți ani, și printre primele care mi‑au venit în minte se afla Marte Roșu. Pentru cei familiarizați cât de puțin cu literatura SF nu e nevoie de o altă prezentare; pentru ceilalți, pe scurt, o epopee a colonizării planetei Marte întinsă pe zeci de ani, sute de pagini, mii de personaje.

Să revii la un roman la câțiva ani după ce l‑ai citit prima oară este cu siguranță o experiență surprinzătoare: impresiile la cald se împletesc cu amintiri fragmentare și incerte, se luptă cu așteptări ridicate, uneori nerealiste, așa cum nu se întâmplă la prima lectură. Eu am fost șocat de primul capitol, probabil cel mai scurt, în care Frank Chalmers plănuiește cu sânge rece asasinarea camaradului său John Boone, primul om pe Marte și într‑un fel imaginea întregului proiect de colonizare. Îmi aminteam rivalitatea dintre ei pe multe planuri, de la viziunea asupra societății marțiene, la influența pe plan politic, la locul în inima și patul Maiei Toitovna, dar nu și acest detaliu esențial. Cruzimea cu care Frank organizează crima și meticulozitatea cu care‑și ascunde urmele sunt un mod neașteptat de a deschide povestea – și o anticipare sumbră a finalului violent. Am așteptat în schimb alte scene de‑a lungul întregului roman (ca de exemplu ascensiunea epică a Muntelui Olympus de către Ann Clayborne) ca să constat că nu fac parte din el, ci mi le aminteam cel mai probabil din continuarea Marte Verde.

10 January 2015

The New York Times: “The Blasphemy We Need”

But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.

Ross Douthat

A tragic event that will probably have long-ranging consequences. No matter if you liked or resented the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo, the principle of free speech still applies. If you are free to speak your mind, there will always be someone taking offense in your opinion. But freedom of speech ends when that someone has the power to silence you (through murder, coercion or any other means) – and we shouldn’t let that happen here or anywhere else! Without conflicting opinions and debate, without people standing by their opinions and their right to express them, there can’t be any progress in society. We need people to point out and ridicule our hypocrisy and stupidity, otherwise they will become the rule rather than an exception.

04 January 2015

Reading stats for 2014

The year 2014 hasn’t been very fruitful in terms of reading, according to my personal stats on Goodreads. Compared to last year, I only managed to finish 23 books and around 6800 pages (around 25% less than in 2013). Apart from a couple short stories that I didn’t find in the database at the time, this should be pretty accurate. There are some reasons for this, mainly several trips to Paris in the first half of the year, where reading in the subway on the way to work is more difficult than back home. On the other hand, I rated more than half of the books with 4 stars, so overall I enjoyed 2014 more than the 2013 selection. With the notable exception of 1Q84, the longest book read this year and the biggest disappointment, probably another reason for the reduced reading mood. If Murakami disappointed, Alastair Reynolds impressed me again with House of Suns, his best work yet in my opinion. Here’s to more books like that for 2015!

Goodreads my reading stats for 2014

03 January 2015

DNA: “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet”

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

  1. everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Douglas Adams

Very clever observation from a well-known science-fiction author. I think it can easily be applied to the innovators in computer and Internet technology too; after all, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both in their early twenties when they founded Microsoft and respectively. Closer to the present day, was founded when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were 25 years old; when Mark Zuckerberg was 20; and the list can go on.