27 February 2015

Business Insider: “Dear Silicon Valley: Here’s your wake-up call”

It is true that the iPhone’s success has been so astounding that anyone who hypothesized it a decade ago would have been laughed out of town. And, if nothing else, the iPhone does serve as a reminder that the future is unpredictable and that sometimes fantastically amazing and unpredictable things do happen.

What the existence of the iPhone does not do, however, is guarantee that Apple is going to do the same thing in the car business that it did in the phone business.

The important story here is that some of the smartest minds in Silicon Valley appear to have stopped thinking critically. Instead, after being surrounded by 15 years of unbridled, unpredicted success in the face of highly vocal skepticism, they have gotten caught up in their own natural and admirable optimism and have begun to regard it as a given that anything they dream up will come to fruition.

Henry Blodget

I don’t usually read Business Insider (too many click-bait headlines), but this article certainly hits a sore spot. There are signs in the skyrocketing valuations of new apps, in the unreasonable expectations about Uber, in articles such as this one mixing random facts with uncritical assumptions – and in the euphoric reaction of people reading them. It’s alright and even healthy to think about what’s possible in the future and how we might deal with new technologies; it’s quite another to confuse possibilities with probabilities and act as if every bit of rumor, every prototype is an established fact. Silicon Valley is drunk on the future, but at some point it will have to sober up again.

The Loop: “Apple announces media event for March 9”

Apple Spring forward March 2015 event

Apple on Thursday sent out invites for a special event to be held on March 9, 2015. The event will be held in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a venue that Apple has used many times before for special events.

It is widely expected that Apple will use the event to give more details about the Apple Watch, which was introduced last September.

Jim Dalrymple

It strikes me as odd that we haven’t heard anything about the iPad Pro lately, with the media focusing almost exclusively on the Watch. Maybe this event will surprise us with the introduction of a new, ‘professional’ iPad. After all, the Watch already had a launch event last year and there are plenty of advertorials for it in the press. Also, the Yerba Buena Center was the site of the original iPad launch in 2010 and of most the following iPad events. If the rumors about iPad Pro being available in ‘mid-2015’ are valid, this would be a good time to present the device.

26 February 2015

Fusion: “Meet the tweet-deleters”

Auto-deleting tweets is a novel solution to this problem. And in an age when Twitter misfires end careers and ruin lives every day, it’s not hard to see its usefulness. Ask Jeb Bush’s former chief technology officer if he wishes he’d auto-deleted his six-year-old tweets about “sluts.” Or ex-Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson, who was ousted from his position after unsavory tweets he’d posted years before made it into the social web’s spotlight. Or the three Toronto firefighters who lost their jobs after media outlets published tweets from them quoting sexist lines from TV shows.

Most tweet-deleters, though, are not trying to protect themselves from a dark past. (After all, the worst gaffes often stand in the public record, no matter whether the original offending tweet got deleted.) Instead, they want their Twitter accounts to reflect their present states of mind and interests.

Kevin Roose

Delete TweetI’ve seen this practice through my blog, where I embed tweets on some articles; some of them are no longer available later and following the embedded link shows they were deleted. To me, it makes little sense: it’s like having a conversation now and denying everything a week later. If you can’t handle your ‘opinions’ being public record, maybe you shouldn't express them publicly in the first place?

25 February 2015

Different perspectives on Uber

Hardly a week goes by without a story about Uber, the most controversial Silicon Valley startup, despised and loved at the same time. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the future of transportation and home delivery or an evil corporation preying on the poorer classes and undermining the social fabric of society. Here are some of my observations on different aspects of Uber.

Taxi vs. ‘ride-sharing’

The concept most associated with Uber is the ‘sharing economy’. As the story goes there’s higher demand for car rides than taxis can cover and Uber enables private car owners to share rides and make an extra buck, while satisfying some of that demand. The thing is though, if Uber really were operating a ride-sharing business, drivers could set their own prices by negotiating directly with the passengers – Airbnb lets home owners set their prices or how the German Mitfahrgelegenheit system works. But instead Uber controls the prices – and notoriously decides when they should ‘surge’ based on their opaque data about demand – and so the economic model is very similar to a taxi company. As someone observed on Twitter, a true ride-sharing company wouldn’t be so eager to cut drivers out of the picture as Uber seems by investing in autonomous cars. This probably explains why the company is fighting regulation every step of the way – being bound by the same strict regulations as taxis would push them into the same low-profit business.

23 February 2015

BBC Top Gear: “Why Apple won’t build the iCar”

Apple might well do a lot of research and early engineering on a car, but that doesn’t mean it won’t drop the idea before it hits the market. It’s done that with other new ventures before. I suspect this one will drop too.

Why? Because the car business is difficult, complex, sprawling and littered with legislation, lobbies and entrenched rivals. And its profit margins are tiny. BMW has done its i cars because it sees new mobility as the only way it can survive. Tesla launched itself because its founders have an evangelical mission: to end the grip of petroleum. Google posits its self-driving car as another project for the common good: to reduce the vast casualty toll especially in countries where mass motorisation is new.

But Apple isn’t an evangelist company any more. It looks that way, but what it really loves is profit. Why would it bother?

Paul Horrell

Tech writers have a habit of blowing every little rumor out of proportion, but it must have been a particularly slow news week for the Apple Car to become such a phenomenon. As the article above, others have expressed similar doubts about the viability of such projects.

22 February 2015

The New York Times: “Boston’s Winter From Hell”

But for those of us living here, it’s not a pretty picture. We are being devastated by a slow-motion natural disaster of historic proportions. The disaster is eerily quiet. There are no floating bodies or vistas of destroyed homes. But there’s no denying that this is a catastrophe.

In just three weeks, between Jan. 27 and Feb. 15, we have had four epic blizzards — seven feet of precipitation over three weeks — which crushed roofs, burst gutters, destroyed roads and sidewalks, closed schools and businesses, shut down highways, crippled public transit and trapped people in their homes. The infamous Blizzard of 1978 brought around 27 inches of snow and shut down the region for a week. In less than a month, we’ve seen more than three times as much snow. The temperature has hovered between 5 and 25 degrees, so the snow and ice haven’t melted.

E.J. Graff

But surely this means global warming is a myth! – you say.

Wrong, many models predict this precise consequence of global warming, caused by several mechanisms. In fact, this ‘blizzard from hell’ scenario was the subject of a SF novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below, and the current situation looks pretty damn similar to how the author imagined it 10 years ago.

Brandon Sanderson – Steelheart

in Bucharest, Romania

Brandon Sanderson - SteelheartUndeva în viitorul apropiat, pe cerul Pământului își face apariția un fenomen misterios, o stea roșiatică botezată Calamitatea. În curând și aparent la întâmplare, oameni din toată lumea încep să descopere puteri supranaturale și, odată cu ele, să se comporte arogant și superior, ca niște zei nou-născuți. Lipsiți de scrupule și însetați de putere, acești Epici dărâmă ordinea socială, instaurând propriile regate bazate pe teroare și forță. La fel s‑a întâmplat în Chicago, unde Steelheart își începe regimul devastând o bancă și transformând orașul în oțel într‑un acces de furie. Singurul supraviețuitor a fost un copil de opt ani, David Charleston, care păstrează de atunci amintirea dureros de clară a asasinării tatălui său și un detaliu prețios: impenetrabilul Epic fusese rănit de arma acestuia!

He didn’t need a mask. This man had no reason to hide. He spread his arms out from his sides, and wind blew the doors open around him. Ash scattered across the floor and papers fluttered. Steelheart rose into the air a few inches, cape flaring out. He began to glide forward into the room. Arms like steel girders, legs like mountains, neck like a tree stump. He wasn’t bulky or awkward, though. He was majestic, with that jet-black hair, that square jaw, an impossible physique, and a frame of nearly seven feet. And those eyes. Intense, demanding, uncompromising eyes.

17 February 2015

The New York Times: “Aiming to ease App Discovery, Apple pairs with Pinterest”

Pinterest App Pins

Unless you have a good idea of what you’re looking for, it can be tough to stumble upon novel, surprising items among Apple’s sprawling garden of apps.

Pinterest, the popular social bookmarking start-up, thinks it has a fix for this. The company is unveiling a new product on Thursday that could make it easier for people to discover new smartphone apps without even having to go into Apple’s App Store.

The product, called App Pins, aims to do the same thing for smartphone apps that Pinterest’s service has done for photos, recipes and many other types of websites. In short, the service is a type of digital corkboard that lets visitors save, or “pin”, items they like or places they want to go.

Mike Isaac

A strange collaboration, to say the least. While it’s growing fast (in the US at least), Pinterest is still largely preferred by the female audience, so it’s reach among customers will remain limited. As other tech giants, had its share of problems trying to bring a social component to its services. It added and integration to iOS, only to restrict them later; currently you can still ‘like’ apps in the store, although I’m not sure the action registers anywhere anymore. I expect this new partnership to end in the same muddled results.

Granted, I don’t know much about how Pinterest boards work, but to me it seems App Pins simply replicate Apple’s curated sections outside of the AppStore, offloading some of the app curation work on Pinterest users. This isn’t an improvement in app discovery, just another place to find apps… – not to mention how much easier it becomes to ‘recommend’ low-quality and spam apps.

15 February 2015

Cato Unbound: “SETI, METI and the paradox of extraterrestrial life: is there a libertarian perspective?”

Time to colonize Galaxy

Is feudalism the “natural” social order? Among cultures that were not hunter-gatherers, it certainly dominated over virtually all of historical time, and probably it was fiercely practiced before that. It appears to be a self-reinforcing “attractor state” in which technology (e.g. metal weaponry) empowers any cabal of the strong to exert power over large numbers of their peers. The same underlying pattern appeared in kingdoms, theocracies or Soviet commissar castes. Hence: is the feudal pyramid obligate and permanent? Are we, perhaps, only living through a brief exception to a pervasive pattern? More generally, might the same Darwinian attractor apply elsewhere across the galaxy, wherever intelligence arises?

Ubiquitous feudalism could indeed cripple many a promising species. Certainly, if one looks at pyramid-shaped societies on Earth, it appears that the lords’ reproductive success was purchased at the price of scientific stagnation, rigid repression, and miserably awful statecraft. If so, then we have a plausible and compelling “fermi” or hypothesis for the absence of ETCs: the feudal attractor state is so successful that most species fall into an endless condition of stultified stagnation. Fearful of destabilizing effects, ruling castes never allow spaceflight, let alone exploration – by radio or in person – of the stars.

David Brin

The Fermi Paradox has puzzled astronomers since the dawn of the space age, spawning a large variety of possible explanations for the ‘Great Silence’ of the galaxy around us. While I haven’t heard this one until now, it certainly seems plausible. There’s no reason to assume the laws of Darwinian evolution will operate differently in extraterrestrial environments, as organisms will still compete for food and reproduction. Many science-fiction novels have explored similar ideas, from Dune (stagnation as the greatest threat to human survival) to Foundation (a shadow elite manipulating the course of Imperial history). Of course, there’s a large Universe out there, so it’s more likely there isn’t a single explanation for the Silence, but instead a range of contributing factors.

13 February 2015

The Guardian: “Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?”

Conscious mind

Chalmers, now 48, recently cut his hair in a concession to academic respectability, and he wears less denim, but his ideas remain as heavy-metal as ever. The zombie scenario goes as follows: imagine that you have a doppelgänger. This person physically resembles you in every respect, and behaves identically to you; he or she holds conversations, eats and sleeps, looks happy or anxious precisely as you do. The sole difference is that the doppelgänger has no consciousness; this – as opposed to a groaning, blood-spattered walking corpse from a movie – is what philosophers mean by a “zombie”.

Such non-conscious humanoids don’t exist, of course. (Or perhaps it would be better to say that I know I’m not one, anyhow; I could never know for certain that you aren’t.) But the point is that, in principle, it feels as if they could. Evolution might have produced creatures that were atom-for-atom the same as humans, capable of everything humans can do, except with no spark of awareness inside. As Chalmers explained: I’m talking to you now, and I can see how you’re behaving; I could do a brain scan, and find out exactly what’s going on in your brain – yet it seems it could be consistent with all that evidence that you have no consciousness at all. If you were approached by me and my doppelgänger, not knowing which was which, not even the most powerful brain scanner in existence could tell us apart.

Oliver Burkeman

If you find yourself struggling with the novel Blindsight, this article might help – a bit. It goes through all the conflicting views of scientists and philosophers on an age-old human question. Is consciousness another force of nature, the immaterial substance of the soul? A false dilemma, caused by our fragmentary understanding of the brain? Or an inherent quality of the universe like mass or electrical charge? A Hard Problem indeed.

09 February 2015

The Washington Post: “There’s a battle brewing between Uber and Google. Here’s why Google will win”

Uber app on iPhone

Both firms appear to be crossing into each other’s territory. Uber on Monday announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon that could enable it to get into driverless cars -- a major project in development at Google. And Bloomberg reported that Google is preparing its own ride-hailing service. Both bits of news raised eyebrows in Silicon Valley because Google is a big investor in Uber and one of its top executives sits on the ride-sharing company’s board of directors.

But if the two tech companies are going to go at it in this space, it won’t exactly be a fair fight.

The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car — you’re paying for the other dude in the car, Kalanick said at the Code Conference last year. When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.

Andrea Peterson

While the reports have been conflicted, it’s certainly a plausible story. It’s hard to argue against the fact that is in a much better position than Uber in the race to build the self-driving car. They already have the mapping expertise and a working prototype, while Uber has, what? Ambitions and tons of money? ’s recent difficulties with creating their own mapping system have shown that some problems can’t be solved just by throwing money at them.

Impressions on a Windows 8 tablet

Last summer I went ahead and purchased a tablet, not for succumbing to a great need or want for some particular model, but more as a complementary device, more portable than my aging laptop (which was slowly converted into a desktop PC because the failing battery keeps it plugged in all the time) and more ‘productive’ than my smartphone (at 3.5in, the 4S model isn’t exactly comfortable for typing long posts). Above all I wanted a light device to type more easily and that I could carry with me while travelling and around the house. After the launch of Office for iPad, Apple’s tablet fitted some of my needs (if I had also purchased a matching keyboard) and for a while I seriously considered it. But the iPad is very limited on some fronts, like multitasking and connectivity. At comparable and lower prices, other tablets offer more features, notably USB ports, more built-in storage and the option of extending it with external cards. Since I don’t really like Android, the only viable option left was a Windows 8 tablet, of which there were relatively few models on sale. In the end I chose the Lenovo Miix 2 tablet.Lenovo tablet miix 2 10 inch keyboard

07 February 2015

The Economist: “Inside the box”

Best, Propst believed, would be to join the panels at 120º angles. But his customers realised that they could squeeze more people in if they constructed cubes. A rigid 90º connector was therefore designed to join a panel to one, two or three more. Thus was born the cubicle, and Propst came to be known as its creator. He was horrified.

What workers need from their offices has long been clear. A flexible workspace that encourages movement, combined with mobile technology, could finally liberate them from the cubicle farm—but only if employers pay heed to the evidence, rather than the short-term savings. Even cubicles were Utopian before the accountants took over.

The Economist

Another piece on the ‘open office’, from its origins and downsides to new models for future offices. Worth a read, even if only for the funny cartoons.

01 February 2015

David Wingrove - Son of Heaven

in Bucharest, Romania

David Wingrove - Son of HeavenÎntorcându‑se de la vânătoare, Jake Reed și fiul său Peter zăresc în depărtare un grup de călători, slabi și zdrențăroși. În loc să‑i întâmpine, cei doi ocolesc drumurile principale, ducând înapoi în sat vestea îngrijorătoare despre apariția unor străini în zonă. Căci în această Mare Britanie îngenuncheată de Colaps, fețe noi nu pot însemna decât agresori, veniți să atace, să fure puținul pe care comunitatea din Dorset l‑a apărat cu dârzenie în ultimii douăzeci de ani.

Son of Heaven face parte dintr‑o serie destul de lungă, de opt romane (la origine, extinse între timp), descriind un viitor post-apocaliptic în care China devine puterea dominantă, înglobând întreaga lume într‑un singur imperiu monolitic. Deocamdată aici, în prima carte, se explorează pe îndelete lumea de după Colaps, o societate cvasi-rurală care trăiește doar cu amintirea gloriei tehnologice de înainte și cu puținele relicve funcționale, filme și albume pe vinil. Urmărindu‑l în continuare pe Jack Reed, ne întoarcem în zilele care au precedat Colapsul, când eroul nostru a avut ‘privilegiul’ de a se afla în centrul acțiunii. În a treia parte, lumea nouă clădită meticulos de China își face simțită prezența, iar rămășițele celei vechi nu au de ales decât să se dea, cu resemnare, la o parte.

‘I find myself wondering sometimes just what’s going on elsewhere. You know… in America and Africa and Europe. Someone must be trying to put it all back together again, don’t you think? I mean… they can’t just let it stay as it is.’

Jake shrugged. ‘I guess not. But they’re taking their damned time about it, don’t you think? You’d think someone would have set up a radio station, you know, to get the news out to everyone. It’s been over twenty years, after all!’