29 November 2015

Scientific American: “The Dawn of the Space Mining Age”

The 1967 treaty was signed at the height of the Cold War, during a time when the space race was in full swing and many people were rightly concerned about the militarization of space. The exigencies of the era demanded that we address the risk of nuclear weapons in space and reduce our chance of nuclear annihilation. Thoughts of a future era of commercial space mining were the farthest thing from most people’s thoughts.

Half a century later, however, technology has advanced considerably, creating many new opportunities including the commercial exploration and use of space. While claiming entire worlds is still off limits, as it probably should remain for a long time, the ability to mine and make use of materials from asteroids and other off-planet sources is finally being opened up. The legislation, called the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” calls for facilitating “commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources by United States citizens.” If the President signs the Act into law, it means commercial ventures will finally be able to try and profit from space exploration—which will stimulate further development, innovation and exploration. In light of this policy shift it seems likely that other nations will quickly follow suit.

Richard Yonck

A piece of unexpected news that popped up in several variations in my Twitter feed in the last couple of weeks. While most opinions are positive, I feel it’s a dubious legislation that can lead to unfortunate consequences. First of all, since it concerns outer space, I don’t think the United States should be allowed to pass this kind of legislation, giving US citizens an unfair advantage in space exploitation, without approval from the United Nations. Secondly, the provisions included seem intentionally vague and misleading: any U.S. citizen shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained – with no way to control how companies ‘obtain’ these ‘resources’, it opens the doors wide for abuse: strip-mining of asteroids and planets with no regard for the original environment or long-term consequences. If private companies are allowed to mine the Moon for example and ship everything back to Earth – because it’s the most profitable business – there will be no resources left for establishing Moon bases and launching towards the rest of the solar system. For now this is only speculation, since regular commercial spaceflight is still years, if not decades away, but I think this legislation is a step in the wrong direction.

23 November 2015

Responsive images for Blogger

With mobile devices spreading everywhere and diversifying into many sizes, from small smartphone screens to large hi-res TVs, web development faced an unexpected problem: how to adapt design practices for this growing array of gadgets, especially traditionally fixed elements like images and video. After long deliberations, the agreed solution was the responsive images specification. It’s currently fully adopted by Google Chrome (including Opera) and Firefox and Microsoft Edge is rolling out an update with full support. Safari, unfortunately, offers only partial support for the latest specification.

Current support for the responsive images specification
Current support for the responsive images specification via Caniuse

22 November 2015

Ursula K. Le Guin – Sfâșierea cerului

in Bucharest, Romania
Ursula K. Le Guin - Sfasierea Cerului

După ce portarul îl scapă de o supradoză de medicamente și doctorii află că au fost obținute ilegal, George Orr este obligat să se înscrie într‑un program de Tratament Terapeutic Voluntar, altfel riscând să fie internat forțat. Așa ajunge în cabinetul doctorului Haber, specialist în psihologia viselor, unde își expune cu reticență povestea: îi este teamă să viseze pentru că uneori visele sale au puterea de a schimba retroactiv realitatea. După ce se trezește, Orr își aduce aminte atât cursul original al evenimentelor cât și cel nou, modificat în urma visului său, dar restul lumii nu este conștientă decât de varianta nouă și trăiește mai departe ca și cum nimic nu s‑ar fi întâmplat.

Pus în fața unei asemenea povești improbabile, Haber e tentat să‑și considere proaspătul pacient nebun, până când constată la sfârșitul primei ședințe că tabloul cu muntele Hood din biroul său a fost înlocuit cu un cal de curse – tocmai visul pe care psihologul i‑l sugerase lui George prin hipnoză. Realizând potențialul acestei descoperiri, Haber programează ședințe regulate cu George, în care, sub pretextul tratamentului, începe să ajusteze lumea din jur cu scopul de a o îmbunătăți. Dar din păcate subconștientul pacientului răstălmăcește de fiecare dată sugestiile bine‑intenționate, cu rezultate imprevizibile…

21 November 2015

The New Yorker: “Learning to Speak Lingerie”

The sheikh and Kiki were still separated by ten pounds when the second call to prayer sounded. “I have to go,” he said, and handed Kiki his money. “I’m a sheikh! I have to pray.” But Kiki slapped him lightly on the arm with the cash. “Ten more!” she said sternly. The sheikh’s eyes widened in mock surprise, and then, with a flourish, he turned to face Mecca, closed his eyes, and held out his hands in the posture of prayer. Standing in the middle of the lingerie shop, he began to recite, “Subhan’allah wal’hamdulillah…

“Fine, fine!” Kiki said, and rushed off to deal with other customers. The sheikh smiled as he left, the women trailing behind him. Later in the evening, Kiki told me that she thought one of the women was the sheikh’s mother. From my perspective, this changed the narrative significantly but didn’t make it any less interesting. Kiki, though, had nothing more to say about it: as far as she was concerned, the story had ended the moment the sale was made.

Peter Hessler

Fascinating insight into an unlikely aspect of economy in Egypt, where Chinese entrepreneurs are expanding their influence each year, not only in the lingerie business, but in recycling and manufacturing as well. It goes to show how little we know the world outside of the news the mainstream media chooses to present. Among their strengths: total focus on business while ignoring religious differences, allowing them passage into communities where Westerners would not be trusted. And the biggest weakness of Muslim economies: the religious restrictions on women, preventing them from working at full potential.

16 November 2015

ignore the code: “Is Usability on Mobile Getting Worse?”

3D Touch on the iPhone 6S, while technically astonishingly impressive, is only the most recent example. Apple, who steadfastly refused to add a second mouse button on the Mac, has now needlessly added one to iOS, a platform that never had a second mouse button, and where nobody ever asked for one.

I really think this can’t be overstated: Apple has added a hardware feature to the iPhone whose sole purpose is to help developers add hidden features to their apps. 1

I can’t get over the feeling that Apple added 3D Touch to the iPhone because it is incredibly cool, not because it makes the phone easier to use. It’s «wow!» design, not «it just works» design.

Lukas Mathis

When the iPhone 6s was announced, these were exactly my first impressions of 3D Touch. Maybe I will feel differently if I ever get to play with an actual device, but I have no plans of upgrading for it. You have to wonder how people will react when the feature starts failing or misbehaving after months of heavy use. My iPhone 6 is hardly a year old and TouchID has become much more unreliable lately; will the same thing happen to 3D Touch?

The issue of usability is complicated on mobile by the small screen size, so there needs to be some compromise one way or the other. And iOS was far from perfect in this regard: just look at obscure gestures like ‘shake-to-undo’ – it was cool to discover on my own, but it’s so awkward that I’ve only used it about five times in the four years I’ve owned an iPhone. Even more popular shortcuts like taking pictures with the volume buttons remain unknown for most iPhone users; just last week I demonstrated this to a colleague who also used iPhones for years and she wasn’t aware of it. Maybe people are just starting to realize that Apple is not perfect as so many fans seem to think.

15 November 2015

Interview Magazine: “Ursula K. Le Guin”

Ursula K. Le Guin - Photo © by Marian Wood Kolisch

Sicha: In the publishing industry, people tend to talk more about book proposals than books.

Le Guin: Now, you see, here’s where I’m really different from almost all the professional writers I know: I never sell a proposal. I’ve never done it. I’ve forbidden my agents to do it. I write on spec and I turn in a finished manuscript. Once or twice, when Virginia Kidd was my agent, she made a three-book deal, and so she had me committed to writing a book I hadn’t written yet. I was absolutely miserable. I could barely forgive her. Somehow I managed to do it, but I just said, Virginia, never sell anything again that I haven’t written or you haven’t seen. She understood. People look at me with round eyes when I tell them that that’s how I work. They go, How did you ever get going? Then I have to confess: I wrote seriously for ten years before I sold anything.

Choire Sicha

Interesting interview with SF author Ursula K. Le Guin, sharing her opinions about art and what motivates her to keep writing in the eighth decade of life. The quote above illustrates my own misgivings about long-term book deals, such as John Scalzi managed to close this summer, and highlights how difficult it is to become a good writer and published author.

14 November 2015

Compass Cultura: “Between The Lines: the History and Revival of Inuit Facial Tattoos”

But what happens when the pain and ritual are taken out of such a spiritual practice—does it detract from the original’s raw, dangerous beauty? One woman remains in the Arctic with hand-stitched tattoos on her face. In the early 1980s, Adeline Peter Raboff, an Alaskan Gwich’in author, developed an allergy to makeup. Since she was a seamstress, she decided to hand-stitch three lines into her chin with a steel sewing needle, some sinew, soot and some regular Wesson oil. The process took close to a year, in half-hour intervals and waiting up to a month for each section to heal. She always made a ritual of it, dimming the lights, working at the kitchen table with a mirror, while her family stood by.

“The process itself,” says Raboff, “was deliberate. I wouldn’t describe it as spiritual. I was just reenacting something that was done over a century before.” But living with her tattoos over time, she says, “that’s the spiritual practice. Every day I wash my face, I look at my chin, and I think of right attitudes; I think of the Creator and it reminds me of my attitude toward life.”

Ashleigh Gaul

Fascinating story about an ancient tradition coming back to life after a century of repression and how people find new spiritual meaning for old forms of expression.

11 November 2015

Telegraph: “Apple’s Tim Cook declares the end of the PC”

Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones, Cook argues in his distinctly Southern accent (he was born in Alabama). He highlights two other markets for his 12.9 inch devices, which go on sale online on Wednesday. The first are creatives: if you sketch then it’s unbelievable..you don’t want to use a pad anymore, Cook says.

Allister Heath

I suspect a comma inadvertently slipped in there and the quote should actually read: they no longer need to use anything else other than their phones.

08 November 2015

Stephen King – Pistolarul

in Bucharest, Romania
Stephen King - Pistolarul - seria Turnul Intunecat

Omul negru fugea în deșert și pistolarul se ținea după el.

Astfel începe, înșelător de simplu, o importantă operă a genului fantasy și din palmaresul impresionant al lui Stephen King. O frază scurtă, care reușește totuși să redea esența primei părți a romanului. Dată fiind popularitatea lui King în America, întregul ciclu Turnul Întunecat a fost analizat, discutat și întors pe toate părțile, așa că o să încerc să mă rezum la impresiile mele.

Deși început la o vârstă destul de mică pentru un scriitor – misticul număr nouăsprezece pe care l‑a folosit și Mircea Eliade – din fluența frazelor și ușurința povestirii se simte deja talentul autorului. După cum mărturisește în introducere, au avut loc câteva revizuiri pentru ediția de față, inclusiv al stilului pe alocuri prea înflorit, dar în mare romanul a rămas neschimbat: povestit direct, la obiect, fără divagații lungi și inutile. Te captivează prin simplitate, dar și cu o anumită greutate a cuvintelor, care par de fiecare dată să conțină înțelesuri ascunse, frânturi ale trecutului nebulos, aluzii la viitorul nescris. Cred că datorită echilibrului între acțiune și formă am parcurs cartea destul de repede, deși literele mici îmi lăsaseră impresia că e mai lungă – sau poate pentru că am început‑o într‑un week‑end în care am călătorit cu trenul în afara orașului și am avut multe ore la dispoziție pentru lectură.

Multe din atributele stilului se regăsesc în personalitatea personajului central, pistolarul Roland Deschain, urmăritorul Omului Negru. Este direct, cu o mână sigură care nu poate lipsi unui pistolar, zgârcit la vorbă și mai presus de toate hotărât, aproape obsedat de misiunea lui de a‑l prinde din urmă pe Omul Negru și a găsi Turnul Întunecat. Deși formal de partea binelui, calitățile care‑l fac un pistolar excelent sunt frecvent aruncate într‑o lumină ambiguă: hotărârea lui pornește din lipsă de imaginație și încăpățânare, sângele-rece înseamnă măcelărirea fără remușcări a unui întreg cătun din deșert. În câteva situații cruciale, fixația lui pe misiune îl pune în fața alegerii între a o continua și a salva persoane la care ține – și el alege de fiecare dată misiunea, sacrificând orice pentru a ieși din capcanele Omului Negru și a merge mai departe.

07 November 2015

The New York Times: “A Train Journey From Communism to Freedom, Almost Ended in Hungary”

More than three decades ago, my mother, grandmother and I boarded a train in communist Romania, armed with the papers my mother had painstakingly gathered in an effort to give me a better life. I was 5 years old, and I had been told we were going on a holiday to Paris. I realized something was wrong when my surrogate grandfather Tata Geo (Father Geo) broke into sobs as we left the house.

It was March 7, 1979, and you needed special permission to leave the totalitarian country; passports were issued only to those who could prove they were returning. That meant that anyone who tried to leave for good was forced to break the law, and the consequences for getting caught made the decision to leave as final and harrowing then as it is today for the thousands of migrants arriving on Europe’s shores.

Rukmini Callimachi

An emotional story recalling a dangerous escape out of Communist Romania. The girl in question is now a foreign correspondent for The New York Times covering Islamic extremism, and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. For people who seek to shun refugees, it should serve as a reminder that not to long ago they could have found themselves in a similar situation – and that, given proper opportunities, migrants will enrich and contribute to the society accepting them.

05 November 2015

The Wall Street Journal: “Facebook Prods Users to Share a Bit More”

Facebook Social Sharing Slippage

In August, Facebook urged him and others to “join the conversation about the tube strike” in London. Mr. Fiori, who has been on Facebook for almost a decade, said it was the first time he had seen such a prompt from the social network.

“Honestly, it didn’t work,” he said. “The topic wasn’t really one I’d share thoughts about.”

He did, however, post about the tube strike on Twitter.

Deepa Seetharaman

Interesting survey, and an ironic way to close the article, given how good Facebook the business is doing financially, and how poorly Twitter’s results are received.

As a long-time Facebook user myself, a certain amount of fatigue is to be expected. I visit the site less often, usually to check new notifications, and my habits started changing lately from checking what my connections are sharing to following photographers. I couldn’t help noticing how Facebook started showing more diverse notifications in recent months, for example when random friends update their statuses or are attending nearby events, thereby prompting me to open the app – small anecdotic support for the findings of the article. I also couldn’t find a way to turn off these notifications about events – I am still perfectly capable of coordinating with friends without Facebook events.

Another interesting quote from the article below. This reminded me of the Facebook study last year about the emotional effects of news feed manipulation. It shows the adverse effects of an always-happy mindset: people with negative emotions feel misunderstood and shut out. With all the negativity on Twitter, at least people are sincere there.

Vanessa Clark said she visits Facebook daily, but doesn’t post as frequently as she did a few years ago. The 29-year-old student and home health-care provider said she used to write about her daily stresses, but now holds back.

“I don’t want to post anything negative anymore,” she said.