28 December 2015

The New York Times: “ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape”

The Organization also cast a long shadow over her marriage. Though Aws had always wanted a baby, Abu Muhammad asked her to take birth control pills, still available at Raqqa’s pharmacies. When she pressed him, he said his commanders had advised fighters to avoid getting their wives pregnant. New fathers would be less inclined to volunteer to carry out suicide missions.

This was one of the early, devastating moments when Aws saw that there would be no normalcy or choice; the Islamic State was a third partner in her marriage, there in the bedroom. “At first, I used to keep bringing it up, but it really upset him, so I stopped,” she said.

Azadeh Moaveni

More reports about the harsh lives of women under ISIS rule – this time we’re talking about ‘collaborators’, women who tried to adapt and work within The Organization and ultimately couldn’t live with those kinds of compromises. Judging by the way it insists on inhabiting and controlling every aspect of human life – including the private relationship between husband and wife – ISIS really is becoming the Fascist state of the 21st century.

The New York Times: “A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard”

It occurred to me then that his generation, a whole lost segment of Syria’s youth, has been forced to become either refugees or warriors. And for those who choose the latter, their only options are different flavors of militancy: the Islamic State, Assad’s regime, the Kurdish revolution. Syrians have endured an endless cycle of extreme conditions over the past four years, and so, perhaps, it should be no surprise that only the most extreme ideologies, no matter how brutal or utopian, are thriving.


“Everyone has to choose a side now,” Derik said. “ISIS has chosen the side of slavery. We’ve chosen the side of freedom.”

“We’re fighting for our ideas,” Shaker said. “Ideas, like people, die if we don’t fight for them.”

Wes Enzinna

Surrounded by enemies, from Syrian rebels to ISIS fighters to the hostile Turkish army, a community of Kurds is trying to build a better way of living, based on tolerance and education and inspired by the philosophy of their former leader, Abdullah Ocalan. While the odds are against them, I hope their social experiment succeeds, if only to serve as an example to the rest of the warring Middle East factions. 

27 December 2015

Neal Stephenson – Anathem

in Bucharest, Romania
Neal Stephenson - Anathem

În anul 3689 de la Reconstituție, lumea mathică de pe Arbre se pregătește de serbarea Apert‑ului Decenal, Ziua Deschiderii Porților în care timp de zece zile frații și surorile au permisiunea de a vizita lumea seculară și de a se întâlni cu rudele rămase în afara zidurilor. În abația Sfântului Edhar, departe în nord la poalele munților, Fraa Erasmas se bucură de asemenea de ocazia de a‑și vizita ruda, tânăra Cord. Dar ultima zi a Apert‑ului declanșează o serie de evenimente neobișnuite: la așezământ sosesc doi Inchizitori din capitală și imediat după plecarea lor observatorul astronomic este închis. În curând, ordinea milenară dintre zidurile așezământului e tulburată întâi de o Evocare – rit prin care un adept este chemat de Puterea Seculară pentru a asista la o problemă urgentă de stat – apoi de o Anatemă – expulzarea din Ordin pentru încălcarea cu bună știință a Disciplinei. Zdruncinat de anatemizarea mentorului său, fratele Orolo, Erasmas se hotărăște să afle cauza acesteia, ajutat de prietenii săi dintre adepți, ajungând astfel în mijlocul celor mai semnificative evenimente din istoria planetei.

Anathem e un roman pe cât de lung, pe atât de complex, dar cumva reușește să nu plictisească cu dimensiunile lui. Secretul stă probabil în bogăția lumii imaginate de autor, astfel încât chiar și în capitolele finale sunt lucruri noi de descoperit. Lumea Arbre este în mare un echivalent al Pământului, cu animale, plante și oameni, dar în care istoria a luat un curs diferit. Cu milenii în urmă, în urma unor evenimente catastrofale, oamenii de știință rămași s‑au izolat benevol în așezăminte similare mănăstirilor, izolându‑se de tumultul lumii pentru a se dedica teoriei pure și experimentelor. De‑a lungul secolelor, aceste ordine au păstrat și extins cunoașterea din vechime, în timp ce în afara lor lumea s‑a zbuciumat, trecând prin nenumărate cicluri de înflorire și decădere, de la epoci de aur la perioade apocaliptice. În ciuda izolării, furia din afară s‑a revărsat de câteva ori asupra ordinelor mathice, distrugându‑le aproape în întregime în trei ocazii. Nu e o idee complet originală – un roman clasic care folosește mănăstirile ca depozitar al cunoștințelor trecute este Cantică pentru Leibowitz, iar tema se regăsește oarecum în recentul Wool al lui Hugh Howey – dar Neal Stephenson o dezvoltă foarte bine aici, obținând un fundament solid pentru restul poveștii.

26 December 2015

The New York Times: “A Family Team looks for James Bond’s Next Assignment”

At that point, a Sony operative arrived and put Ms. Broccoli out of her misery, insisting that an agreed-upon hourlong interview had to end early. But a reporter had (at least) one more question: Does Ms. Broccoli consider herself a feminist and, if so, does she look back on some of the “Bond girls” and wince?

I am absolutely a feminist, she said. If you think about the women in the recent films, they’re far more interesting and complex than they once were. Bond has changed, too, in how he deals with women.

She added: Women still have a long way to go. There are not enough women in positions of power in the film industry. And now there are all these questions about women in Hollywood not being paid equally. When that happens, it’s outrageous.

Brooks Barnes

Interesting look behind the scenes of Bond movies, Hollywood’s longest-running franchise. I am by no means a hard-core fan – the only time I saw a 007 movie in cinemas was this year with ‘Spectre’ – but I also got the sense that the role of women has begun to change in recent movies. The supporting characters also got more space in Spectre, expanding the roles of M, Q and Moneypenny beyond their classic, by now almost archetypal figures. With a strong woman in charge and a change of lead actor in sight, I think this old series might still hold surprises for fans in coming years.

25 December 2015

Backchannel: “How Elon Musk and Y Combinator plan to stop computers from taking over”

I want to return to the idea that by sharing AI, we might not suffer the worst of its negative consequences. Isn’t there a risk that by making it more available, you’ll be increasing the potential dangers?

Altman: I wish I could count the hours that I have spent with Elon debating this topic and with others as well and I am still not a hundred percent certain. You can never be a hundred percent certain, right? But play out the different scenarios. Security through secrecy on technology has just not worked very often. If only one person gets to have it, how do you decide if that should be Google or the U.S. government or the Chinese government or ISIS or who? There are lots of bad humans in the world and yet humanity has continued to thrive. However, what would happen if one of those humans were a billion times more powerful than another human?

Musk: I think the best defense against the misuse of AI is to empower as many people as possible to have AI. If everyone has AI powers, then there’s not any one person or a small set of individuals who can have AI superpower.

Steven Levy

There’s certainly some validity in the concept that dangerous technology should be developed under constant public scrutiny, but that’s where real problems start. First we need to assume the public can understand the issues and has the power to prevent hazardous developments – but on a subject as complex as artificial intelligence I highly doubt anyone but a couple of experts can grasp the full implications. Scientists have been warning about the negative effects of climate change for decades and political institutions have just started to take action – such delayed response would prove ineffectual when dealing with rapidly evolving algorithms of AI precursors.

BuzzFeed: “How to get your Green Card in America”

How does it feel? It feels like you’re a pardoned turkey. You are one of the fewest few, one of those who get to keep the life they have built. Look around at your life, at the scaffolding of routine, the gray couch that you saved for, the business you’re working to start, the living room you painted that precise shade of Sherwin-Williams yellow, the faces you kiss goodnight. It is that simplest luxury: You get to not be uprooted, at any moment, from all of that.


And after all these years of alternating between stoicism and hope, I am so angry. I’m grateful for my reprieve and for my family’s, but filled with a retroactive, reverberating fury at the broken system.

I’m furious because true justice is something greater than pardoning turkeys. It is more expansive than letting the odd exception pass through a thicket of expensive bureaucracy and codified racism, and hailing the lucky, made-it-with-an-inch-to-spare few as emblematic of the system working.

Sarah Mathews

Good story (in this case a happy end) about the struggles of immigrants and the unreasonably long waits to get a Green Card. It’s another example of failure in the American system, bogged down by bureaucracy, arcane rules and discrimination.

23 December 2015

Fast Company: “Inside Mark Zuckerberg’s Bold Plan for the Future of Facebook”

In the tech industry, there’s nothing weird about setting goals so lofty that they sound unachievable. Google CEO Larry Page, for instance, is so invested in the virtue of gambling on disparate, wildly ambitious projects—from self-driving cars to smart contact lenses—that he restructured his company around the concept in August, making Google’s core businesses a division of a new idea factory called Alphabet. Zuckerberg, by contrast, isn’t interested in doing everything—just the things he views as deeply related to his company’s central vision, and crucial to it. There are different ways to do innovation, he says, drawing a stark contrast without ever mentioning Page, Google, or Alphabet. You can plant a lot of seeds, not be committed to any particular one of them, but just see what grows. And this really isn’t how we’ve approached this. We go mission-first, then focus on the pieces we need and go deep on them, and be committed to them. Facebook’s mission is to give everyone in the world the power to share and make the world more open and connected, as Zuckerberg says, explaining that he is now spending a third of his time overseeing these future initiatives. These things can’t fail. We need to get them to work in order to achieve the mission.

Harry McCracken

Despite these comments meant to differentiate his company from Google, I see important similarities in the long-term strategies of both companies. Ultimately, at the core both Google and Facebook are advertising companies, so their business model requires that they should better understand users in order to provide better ads. And so both are heavily investing in AI research to make sense of people’s lives, in adjacent technologies to capture their attention for longer, and investing in expanding the user base by bringing better Internet connections to people in the developing world. They may be taking different routes to get there, but their roads run in the same general direction.

22 December 2015

Time: “Google searches for its Future”

In Google’s idealized version of the future, we’ll be more dependent on the company than ever before. Already we’ve replaced memorization of basic facts with the search box, and knowledge of the layout of cities with Google Maps. As technology “fades into the background,” as Singhal puts it, the company’s presence in our lives could become both more pervasive and less overt, a series of continual, small interactions with Google rather than a transactional visit to its homepage. Many of Google’s competitors have the same aim.

Singhal says this can be liberating. Google converts data to information. You convert information to knowledge. And life converts knowledge to wisdom—for some, he says. If Google gives me the answer, that’s a good thing so that I can spend that extra five minutes or three minutes with our children. That enriches me in a different way. So that’s how I feel. We are kind of liberating humanity’s time from the mundane to the higher-order bits. I will never apologize for that.

Victor Luckerson

Interesting piece about Google’s long-term projects for search. The main challenge of course is precisely how technology tends to ‘fade into the background’, making the classic search box in a browser increasingly irrelevant. Google managed to stay ahead of the competition in the big shift to mobile thanks to the acquisition of Android. But the road ahead is much less clear for the current tech giants, Google included – that’s why you see them investing in seemingly unrelated directions, like cars, watches, glasses, drones and virtual reality. One of them has to be succesful, right?

18 December 2015

Pixel Envy: “Travelling Indonesia with an iPhone 6S”

On the long series of flights home, I get a chance to review photos from both my DSLR and iPhone while triaging my Instapaper queue. I have more than a few articles saved that proclaim that the camera in an iPhone today is good enough to be considered a camera, not just a smartphone camera. These articles began to percolate around the time of the iPhone 4S, and they are a perennial curiousity for me, especially as I glance at my screen of crisp photos taken on my DSLR.

There’s no question that an iPhone has never had a better camera than those in the 6S and 6S Plus today, with the latter edging out the former due to its optical stabilization. iPhones — and smartphones in general — have taken very good quality photos for the past few years, and I would not hesitate to print or frame any of them. In fact, every photo in this travelogue is unedited, and I think they all look pretty good.

But I’m looking now at photos from that paddy field back in Ubud, and there is an inescapable muddiness to the trees in the background. I didn’t bring my DSLR on that walk to compare, but I’ve no doubt it would render a vastly clearer and more detailed image.

Nick Heer

Interesting travel observations here, both regarding camera quality and the increasing importance of smartphones in developing nations. I can’t help agreeing with his conclusion – and there are some comparison photos later in the article to back it up. Ever since I upgraded to an iPhone 6 I’ve been constantly disappointed by the quality of the photos, despite good reviews and technical improvements. There is simply too much noise in photos, especially in low light, even when using the flash – they look muddy, like a poorly up-scaled low-quality image. Part of the cause are technical limitations like the size of the sensor and lens quality, but I feel the bigger issue is the software processing done by the camera app. But until users get access to original Raw files – something that, knowing Apple, has practically zero chance to happen – we’ll never know for sure.

13 December 2015

Aeon Essays: “Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?”

English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.


We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family – Indo-European – and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.

John McWhorter

I have always been confused by the odd spelling rules in English and its peculiarities, and here’s a good explanation. Long-story short: every time a new wave of settlers or conquerors arrived in England, the more complicated aspects of the local language were dropped or changed by the new comers, so their offspring inherited a simpler version, but also increasingly different from the Old English roots.

07 December 2015

Tech.pinions: “Apple Watch and Dissatisfaction”

The biggest theme in the critiques was about performance. Many thought the Apple Watch was too slow, particularly around data retrieval and third party apps. The other was about battery. Many commented on their desire to have the watch face be visible at all times and not have to charge daily. Another interesting thread in the comments was the high number of people who said they would have liked it more if it was more independent from the iPhone. This is a similar thread to comments from our larger Wristly panel of satisfied owners. Another common thread I saw from this group was the price. Many who commented suggested the price was too high and we know from this panel 65% of those who responded bought a Sport. This indicates that even $349 felt too expensive for the value for this group.

Lastly, following the consistent theme we discover with the Wristly research, there is a heavy negative bias from those who work in the tech industry. In this panel, like many others we have run, the most critical and less satisfied Apple Watch owners are the ones who work in tech, evaluate tech for a living, or are fairly technical. 45% of the respondents of this dissatisfaction panel work in tech and in a tech related function (like a developer).

Ben Bajarin

Good follow-up to the original survey about Apple Watch satisfaction. It’s something I criticized back then and I’m glad to see the people behind the survey are aware of this.

Unfortunately, the results also highlight one of the Watch’s biggest long-term problems: if people working in tech, developers especially, are among the least satisfied users, they will be less inclined to work on apps and invent new use cases for the Watch. This could negatively impact the growth of the Watch as software platform and, in the long run, mass adoption, because the perceived value of the gadget will stay low.

The full results of the study are available on Medium.

06 December 2015

UCLA: “UCLA professor proposes simpler way to define what makes a planet”

The new approach would require only estimates of the star’s mass and the planet’s mass and orbital period — all of which can be easily obtained with Earth — or space-based telescopes. According to Margot’s criteria, all eight planets in our solar system and all classifiable exoplanets — the large bodies that orbit stars other than our sun — would be confirmed as planets.


When applied to our own solar system, the test clearly places the eight planets into one distinct category and the dwarf planets — Ceres, Pluto and Eris — into another. The disparity between planets and non-planets is striking, Margot said. The sharp distinction suggests that there is a fundamental difference in how these bodies formed, and the mere act of classifying them reveals something profound about nature.

Stuart Wolpert

Interesting approach to a decade-long debate about the definition of planets – and the subsequent demotion of Pluto from this category. It’s so straightforward that I am frankly surprised nobody attempted it before. Curiously, when applied to the Moon, the planet test is above the threshold (although much lower than for the other rocky planets), so if the Moon would orbit the Sun instead of Earth, it should be classified as a planet rather than a dwarf.

05 December 2015

Medium: “How to look at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative”

Here’s the truth: No matter how good their intentions, the net result of most such efforts has typically been neutral at best, and can sometimes be deeply destructive. The most valuable path may well be to simply invest this enormous pool of resources in the people and institutions that are already doing this work (including, yes, public institutions funded by tax dollars) and trust that they know their domains better than someone who’s already got a pretty demanding day job. That may not be as appealing to the cult of disruption within the tech echo chamber, but would be exactly the kind of brave and unexpected move that might offer Max a great example of how to engage with the real world that the rest of us live in.

Anil Dash

Balanced response to what turned out to be a controversial announcement by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife at the birth of their daughter. In this case I consider criticism to be healthy and necessary. First of all Facebook, like many other American corporations, employs a number of tactics to reduce its tax burden and maximize profits; before donating this wealth, the company should distribute profits more fairly to countries where they are earned. Also, from what I understand, the newly-created foundation doesn’t actually function as a charitable organization, instead allowing Zuckerberg to make investments and employ political lobbying with less scrutiny. In this sense it’s probably more similar to Google’s new Alphabet mother company than to a charity.

03 December 2015

Predicting Apple sales for 2016

Late last year I attempted a sales forecast for Apple products for the following year. Now, almost 12 months later, it’s time to compare my estimation with the actual sales reported during the year and attempt a new forecast, hopefully with better accuracy, for the fiscal year 2016.

As expected, my forecast for the iPhone was much lower than sales, owing to the introduction of two new models at once, both with significantly larger screens – at 231 Mio. units for the entire year, a good 22% higher than my prediction. The iPad forecast was more in line with expectations: nearly 55 Mio. units, very similar with my second estimation, and 8.5% lower than the first. The Mac forecast was spot on, both versions landing very near the actual 20.6 Mio. sales, although the quarterly split was slightly different.

01 December 2015

Inside Search: “Easily get back to the images you’ve found on Google”

The perfect image of your next big adventure, knitting project or style-changing haircut is bound to exist somewhere out there. But what happens once you find the image? Take a screenshot? Maybe try to save the webpage? Starting today there is an easier option: you can now star and bookmark images directly from Google’s image search in your mobile browser.

Diego Accame

Back in 2010, users could star Google search results; one year later this handy feature was removed with little explanation. Now someone at Google apparently dusted off this ancient idea, for mobile only. Let’s see how long it survives this time.