28 March 2016

Some remarks on the recent Apple event

Last week there was another Apple launch event, shorter than usual and considered by many ‘boring’ (and, if current rumors are to be taken seriously, we are in for another whole year of boring incremental releases). I gathered a couple of thoughts since and instead of doing small posts with links for each announcement I will share them together:

‘Green Apple’: one of the first announcements was that 93 percent of Apple’s global operations now run on sustainable energy. Certainly a good step for the environment, but I have to wonder how far does it actually go. From what I understand, this refers primarily to Apple’s data centers around the globe. What about the manufacturing operations handled by third parties in China and elsewhere? If that’s powered by ‘dirty’ coal energy the percentage would be much lower.

The forgettable Watch: people who were expecting a new Apple Watch model had to settle for a couple of new bands and hope for more in the fall (or maybe next year?). Also, apparently the gold-plated Edition is being slowly phased out in stores; I guess celebrities are used to receive such trinkets for free in exchange for promotion, not actually buying them.

Henrik Joreteg’s Blog: “Why I switched to Android after 7 years of iOS”

So, all this said, these things led me to finally exercising the only voting power I have as a consumer… I took my money and left.

I don’t see this as switching to Android, I’m simply switching to the best mobile web app platform available today.

The web is the only truly open platform we’ve got. It’s the closest thing we have to a level playing field.

This is why I’m focusing all my efforts on building Progressive Web Apps… I hope you’ll do the same.

Henrik Joreteg

Hmm, the best mobile web app platform… I’m not so sure about that. It’s pretty clear at this point that Safari is lagging behind other browsers, stalling web-based development partly because Apple won’t allow competing browsers on iOS devices, but Android has its share of problems as well. The author mentions he bought a Nexus device, making him the proud member of a minuscule group of people using ‘pure’ Android and receiving fast updates directly from Google. The rest of the Android world experiences a rather different reality, with high fragmentation, both at the OS and at browser level. Adding to this the fact that average users don’t particularly care about web vs. apps, that Android users spend less money through mobile purchases, you will probably find development for Android still more cumbersome and less lucrative than iOS.

27 March 2016

P.D. James – Unnatural Causes

in Bucharest, Romania
P.D. James - Unnatural Causes

Extenuat după un caz deosebit de solicitant în capitală, inspectorul Adam Dalgliesh se îndreaptă cu nerăbdare către casa din Monksmere a mătușii sale Jane, unde are de gând să petreacă o mult-meritată vacanță. Dar marea cenușie aduce în același timp la țărm o mică barcă cu vâsle purtând un cadavru fără urme de violență – cu excepția mâinilor, ciopârțite violent de la încheieturi. Mica comunitate de scriitori și critici literari din Monksmere este pusă imediat pe jar și vacanța liniștită a lui Dalgliesh amânată până la soluționarea cazului. Deși investigația este condusă oficial de inspectorul local Reckless, Dalgliesh nu poate să‑și ignore flerul de detectiv și se lansează discret în cercetări paralele, folosindu‑se de încrederea celor din comunitate și de relațiile de la Londra cultivate de‑a lungul anilor.

There wasn’t even any proof that Maurice had been murdered. Reckless didn’t believe it, the Chief Constable didn’t believe it and probably no one else did except Adam Dalgliesh, stupidly persistent, blindly following his hunch in the teeth of the evidence.

Un nume destul de cunoscut pentru împătimiții romanului polițist, P.D. James realizează și aici, unul dintre primele ei romane, o poveste tensionată și încâlcită cu destule întorsături de situație. Victima fusese un autor mediocru de romane polițiste, care se credea însă genial, un defect de altfel comun printre artiști. Plasarea misterului într‑un cerc de scriitori îi permite să încerce ceva mai diferit, poate chiar să ironizeze puțin branșa din care face parte. Un exemplu de inovație e scena impresionantă de debut, descriind cadavrul plutind pe barcă spre mal. Scenă care e apoi repetată aproape cuvânt cu cuvânt în carte, mărindu‑i deodată impactul, deoarece apare într‑un manuscris al defunctului Maurice Seton, inspirat de o idee a vecinei sale, Cynthia Calthrop, autoare de romane de dragoste.

24 March 2016

IEEE Spectrum: “Google Self-Driving Car Will Be Ready Soon for Some, in Decades for Others”

But last week in a speech at Austin’s South-by-Southwest, Urmson for the first time told a different story about both the delivery date and capabilities of its first self-driving cars.

Not only might it take much longer to arrive than the company has ever indicated—as long as 30 years, said Urmson—but the early commercial versions might well be limited to certain geographies and weather conditions. Self-driving cars are much easier to engineer for sunny weather and wide-open roads, and Urmson suggested the cars might be sold for those markets first.

Urmson put it this way in his speech. How quickly can we get this into people’s hands? If you read the papers, you see maybe it’s three years, maybe it’s thirty years. And I am here to tell you that honestly, it’s a bit of both.

Lee Gomes

A rather curious statement from the project’s director Chris Urmson. There are certainly a lot of complicated challenges in building an autonomous car, but a gradual release to market doesn’t make much sense to me, especially segmented by such random factors as regional weather patterns. How would this work while it’s raining; should people have a regular car as backup for bad weather? What happens if you start on a trip and get caught in a storm; does the car stop driving “for your own safety” and lets you stranded in the middle of nowhere? And more to the point, who would buy a self-driving model with such obvious flaws? The only solution I see is a vehicle that receives constant updates for the driver AI and is heavily subsidized by Google in the first stages, allowing people to use them as secondary car without much financial commitment, while Google collects more data to improve reliability.

23 March 2016

Signal v. Noise: “Is group chat making you sweat?”

What we’ve learned is that group chat used sparingly in a few very specific situations makes a lot of sense. What makes a lot less sense is chat as the primary, default method of communication inside an organization. A slice, yes. The whole pie, no. All sorts of eventual bad happens when a company begins thinking one-line-at-a-time most of the time.

We’ve also seen strong evidence that the method and manner in which you choose to communicate has a major influence on how people feel at work. Frazzled, exhausted, and anxious? Or calm, cool, and collected? These aren’t just states of mind, they are conditions caused by the kinds of tools we use, and the kinds of behaviors those tools encourage.

Based on these discoveries, I’ve put together a list of the positive and negative impacts of group chat on an organization.

Jason Fried

The list contains 4 positives and 17(!) negatives – that should tell you all you need to know about the conclusion. I read another similar article just a couple of days apart that highlights similar problems with office chat tools by focusing on a single one: Slack, a favorite of Silicon Valley, the magic solution that should eventually replace everything from email to Microsoft Office to Twitter. I haven’t used it and, given how technologies come and fade so fast these days, it’s very likely I’ll never use it, but I can certainly see how being always-on for every trivial question from colleagues can be distracting and ultimately reduce your productivity instead of improving it.

20 March 2016

Kristine Kathryn Rusch – Embedded

in Bucharest, Romania
Kristine Kathryn Rusch - Embedded

Corespondent independent de război, Khalil a văzut multe în lunga lui carieră, conflicte care i‑au tocit empatia și ascuțit la maxim cinismul. Pe lângă luptele violente din alte sisteme, campania LaDucci pare o floare la ureche, în care armata pământeană s‑a implicat ca suport pentru un aliat obscur, și Khalil ajunge să deplângă plictiseala constantă, monotonia zilelor petrecute departe de front, într‑o bază stingheră înconjurată de tundră. Apoi însă, într‑o misiune de recunoaștere de rutină, întâlnește un soldat misterios care schimbă brusc și radical rolul lui Khalil în conflict.

Cynical doesn’t begin to cut it. Cynical is where we start. We end up somewhere long past bitter, beyond hopeless, in a place as bleak as LaDucci on a cold winter night.

Deși scrisă dintr‑o perspectivă presupusă neutră, povestirea relativ scurtă redă perfect atmosfera apăsătoare a conflictului, amintind imediat de tonul mușcător al altor romane SF de război ca The Forever War și Starship Troopers. De asemenea, ideea că fiecare rasă extraterestră are o slăbiciune diferită, în funcție de care sunt trimiși în luptă alte tipuri de soldați, este surprinzător de originală și folosită cu efect mai târziu în povestire. Din păcate partea a doua și finalul, când Khalil descoperă mizele reale ale conflictului și motivul pentru care soldații de pe LaDucci sunt exclusiv bărbați, nu este realizat la fel de bine; mi s‑a părut că autoarea s‑a grăbit și a forțat mesajul pe care voia să‑l transmită. O temă demnă de reflecție de altfel, legată de rolul jurnalismului într‑o lume suprasaturată de conflicte, în care relatarea faptelor de la fața locului este editată subtil și afectată de interesele în joc, și de care spectatorilor de acasă le pasă de multe ori prea puțin ca să se schimbe ceva – cum s‑a întâmplat cel mai recent în Siria.

Nota mea: 3.5

15 March 2016

Google Posts: a new publishing platform for verified individuals and organizations

Lost in the rattle of the current US presidential campaign, Google launched a little-known initiative that could turn its most used product, the search results, into an instant publishing platform: Google Posts. The project homepage is sparse at the moment; presented as an experimental new podium on Google, it’s currently restricted to public figures and organizations. Apparently only (some) presidential candidates got early access, as you can see in the search results for Hilary Clinton: her statements on important issues in the political debate are highlighted in the sidebar under her profile and accompanied by a small ‘verified’ badge. Results on other candidates, like Marco Rubio or Donald Trump, show similar boxes about political issues, but they are compiled from their statements via Google’s Knowledge Graph. It’s not very clear however how people can share these snippets, as mentioned below, since there’s no apparent link – maybe it’s something only available to publishers?

Verified individuals and organizations can now communicate with text, images and videos directly on Google. Creating content is fast and simple, and once published, posts will appear instantly in search results related to the publisher. Each post can also be shared on popular social networks.

14 March 2016

Deezer News: “Deezer launches its new beta App for Windows 10”

Here at Deezer we also understand the power of combining the human touch with the best of technology, and personalized music recommendations sit at the heart of what we do. Over the last few months we’ve been busy working closely with Microsoft and are excited to share our new Beta app for Windows 10. The beta app is available to Premium+ and free users who wish to see how the new app will work.


It’s great to see more apps for Windows 10 and Deezer’s music streaming app looks very nice, however… I gave it a try immediately after launch, but I quickly noticed that, as free user, you can’t really play more than one or two songs before getting interrupted by unskippable, 10-15s long audio clips promoting the premium service! For me this makes the app unusable, as the listening experience gets completely wrecked. I wouldn’t mind a couple of ads every hour – after all you get that on the radio as well – but the same nagging clips every 5 minutes make for a horrible service. I checked the web player later and currently it does the same aggressive, repetitive promotion.

12 March 2016

Spiegel Online: “The Isolated Chancellor: What is driving Angela Merkel?”

At the end of October, she went to a summit in Brussels involving the countries along the Balkan Route, the trail used by most refugees to get to Germany. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who built a barbed wire fence around his country to keep out the migrants, was also there. He saw, and enjoyed, seeing Merkel in a fix. He took the floor and said: It is only a matter of time before Germany builds a fence. Then I’ll have the Europe that I believe is right.

Merkel said nothing at first, a person present at the meeting relates. Only later, after a couple other heads of government had their say, did Merkel turn to Orbán and say: I lived behind a fence for too long for me to now wish for those times to return. Merkel, the refugee crisis has made clear, has found the courage to justify her politics with her own biography. She no longer wants to be the woman without a face.

Markus Feldenkirchen & René Pfister

Such simple and powerful message from Merkel! It’s remarkable – and sad – how quickly people forget the lessons of the past once they’re on the ‘right side’ of the wall.

10 March 2016

The New Yorker: “Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them”

As it happens, the particular frequencies of the waves that LIGO can detect fall within the range of human hearing, between about thirty-five and two hundred and fifty hertz. The chirp was much too quiet to hear by the time it reached Earth, and LIGO was capable of capturing only two-tenths of a second of the black holes’ multibillion-year merger, but with some minimal audio processing the event sounds like a glissando. “Use the back of your fingers, the nails, and just run them along the piano from the lowest A up to middle C, and you’ve got the whole signal,” Weiss said.

Different celestial sources emit their own sorts of gravitational waves, which means that LIGO and its successors could end up hearing something like a cosmic orchestra. “The binary neutron stars are like the piccolos”, Reitze said. Isolated spinning pulsars, he added, might make a monochromatic “ding” like a triangle, and black holes would fill in the string section, running from double bass on up, depending on their mass. LIGO, he said, will only ever be able to detect violins and violas; waves from supermassive black holes, like the one at the center of the Milky Way, will have to await future detectors, with different sensitivities.

Nicola Twilley

Wonderful confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, a full century after its original publication. Beside the more evident advancements in cosmology, the years-long effort put into this experiment is a good reminder of the value of the scientific method (theory should be always backed up by experimental proof) and how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to test new theories in physics. It may take decades before more recent theoretical work like string theory and loop quantum gravity can be properly tested and confirmed or dismissed.

07 March 2016

Baekdal: “How We Lost Social Media to Algorithms”

Think about the old print newspapers, or our old linear cable TV packages. They are doing the same thing. They are saying: Don’t bother thinking about what you need. Just sit back and and let us decide for you.

That’s what linear TV and print newspapers do. They algorithmically replace your personal choices with the convenience of not having to decide. Of course, they do it with people rather than a computer, but the concept is the same.

And look at what these human algorithms did to old media. Look at traditional newspapers. Are they filled with only the best and most relevant content just for you?… or are they filled with the type of articles that aren’t really that amazing nor really that bad? In other words, are they merely the ‘best average’?

Ask yourself, why would a model that has already failed once (algorithmic based programming) suddenly be the future of social media? We are not solving the future. We are repeating the mistakes of the past.

Thomas Baekdal

Wonderful analysis of current social media, sparked by the news that Twitter is planning to offer users an algorithmic timeline instead of the current chronological order. I can certainly relate with the observation about YouTube’s ‘Trending’ tab being filled with shallow ‘crap’ – in my case a bunch of music videos popular in Romania I am already sick of hearing on nearly every radio station, all-day-long. The race to the average is a defining trend in social media – one could almost argue this is how Facebook ‘won’ over Twitter and the other competing social networks, by incorporating popular activities of majority groups (like photo sharing, messaging and now Tumblr memes). Incidentally, memes are another perfect example of ‘average’ content that generates a lot of traffic without adding substance by virtue of filling up a lot of ‘micro moments’, as the author calls them in the article above.

06 March 2016

Peter Watts – Echopraxia

in Bucharest, Romania
echopraxia n. [mass noun] Psychiatry: Meaningless repetition or imitation of the movements of others as a symptom of psychiatric disorder. Oxford Dictionary of English
Peter Watts - Echopraxia

După un incident la un institut de cercetări în urma căruia un virus scăpat de sub control a ucis mii de oameni, biologul Daniel Brüks se retrage în deșert, unde își petrece zilele catalogând fauna locală și modificările genetice acumulate de‑a lungul deceniilor de manipulări mai mult sau mai puțin intenționate. Într‑o noapte se trezește însă înconjurat de semnale termice mișcându‑se cu rapiditate spre cortul lui. Un grup de zombie de care se refugiază în mănăstirea Bicamerală din vecinătate, nimerind astfel fără să vrea în mijlocul unui conflict nebulos între aceștia și un vampir evadat. Lăsat fără posibilitatea de alegere, în curând Brüks se trezește pe o navă spațială în curs către centrul sistemului solar, alături de bicamerali, vampirul Valerie și colonelul Moore – rezident al mănăstirii în urma evenimentelor din The Colonel. Misiunea care a unit un asemenea grup variat este să investigheze niște semnale anormale provenind de la stația de energie Icarus, despre care bicamerali bănuiesc că au legătură cu incidentul Licuricilor și cu misiunea Icarus, încă oficial dispărută la marginile sistemului solar.

Ca și prima parte, Echopraxia extrapolează idei actuale cu bază științifică pentru a imagina un viitor sumbru în care a fi un simplu om nu mai e de mult suficient. O metaforă cheie care reflectă viziunea autorului este explicată prin persoana Liannei Lutterodt, un fel de interpret al raționamentului bicameralilor: imaginați‑vă un trib care a trudit de secole să ajungă în vârful unui deal, crezând că e cel mai înalt punct de regiune; dar odată acolo descoperă pe alții undeva mult mai sus, pe un pisc de munte. Nu există nici o cale între vârful de deal și de munte, singura opțiune pare să fie să coboare din nou pe câmpie. Dar puțini sunt dispuși să renunțe la realizările obținute pe vârful de deal pentru promisiunea muntelui. Implicația imediată este că extratereștrii din spatele Licuricilor sunt cei din vârf de munte, în timp ce umanitatea s‑a blocat într‑un punct mort, un maxim local din care nu există o cale clară de progres. De aici numeroasele tentative aproape disperate de a amplifica inteligența umană, de a atinge transcendența, de la implanturi cibernetice la legarea directă a minților, la experimentele pe vampiri și entități digitale artificiale.

Peter Watts – The Colonel

in Bucharest, Romania
Peter Watts - The Colonel

La peste un deceniu de la apariția Licuricilor, lumea s‑a întors aproape la rutina dinainte, măcinându‑se neîncetat în conflicte obscure și inventând mereu noi feluri de a amenința supraviețuirea speciei. Din anonimitatea sa bine-păzită, Colonelul Jim Moore veghează la securitatea planetei, fără să uite pentru un singur moment misiunea stingheră de la marginile sistemului solar în care și‑a trimis unicul fiu. Pe lista lui de amenințări potențiale Roiurile umane se găsesc pe primele locuri. Dintre numeroasele lor forme, cei mai misterioși sunt Bicameralii; cu abordarea lor mistică a cercetării științifice au reușit să obțină importante salturi tehnologice, ascunzându‑și în același timp adevăratele intenții în spatele zidurile mănăstirilor lor izolate în deșert. Iar aceste planuri cu bătaie lungă se pare că îl includ și pe Colonel…

Ca interludiu între Blindsight și Echopraxia, povestirea de față se situează mult mai aproape de cea din urmă, putând fi la fel de bine citită ca un alt prolog la acțiunea din Echopraxia. Cu o acțiune bine focalizată în prima jumătate și o întâlnire importantă între facțiuni în a doua e bine echilibrată, dar n‑aș recomanda‑o de sine stătătoare. Deși unele concepte sunt ușor de prins pentru cei obișnuiți cu imaginația excentrică a lumii SF, ar fi greu de plasat fără contextul larg din Blindsight, în special motivația Colonelului, care nu are același impact fără relatarea amănunțită a lui Siri Keeton.

I’ve just seen too much damage. You put such a happy face on it, you go on and on about the transcendent insights of the group mind. All the insight to be had by joining some greater whole. Nobody talks about— What the rest of us pay for your enlightenment— what happens to you afterward.

A glimpse of heaven, Lutterodt murmurs, that turns your life to hell.

Nota mea: 3.5

05 March 2016

Bloomberg Business: “Children of the Yuan Percent: everyone hates China’s Rich Kids”

When we met at a cafe in Beijing’s business district, it was clear that Jason, whose surname is Zhang, was different from other young Chinese. He had a job, at a media company that produced reality TV shows, but didn’t seem especially busy. He’d studied in the U.S., but at a golf academy in Florida, and he’d dropped out after two years. His father was the head of a major HR company, and his mother was a government official. He wore a $5,500 IWC watch because, he said, he’d lost his expensive one. I asked him how much money he had. “I don’t know,” he said. “More than I can spend.” So this was it: I had found, in the wild, one of the elusive breed known in China as the fuerdai, or “second-generation rich.”

Christopher Beam

More growing pains for the Chinese economy and society as a whole: as the wealth of the top class increases, so do the tensions between privileged and the others. Their successors will have to find their own place in this mixed economy and balance their extravagance and social status with the pressing need for meaningful contribution to society.

02 March 2016

Better Elevation: “Connection Failed”

Imagine a social network where you can’t see how many followers you have, can’t contact any of them directly, can’t tell how effective your posts are, can’t easily follow others, and can’t even change your avatar.

Welcome to Apple Music Connect.

Dave Wiskus

While everyone mocks Google for its incapacity to sustain a successful social network, Apple isn’t even trying. Seven months after launch, Music Connect (a main line into the heart of music — according to Apple marketing) is in a sorry state with no signs of improvement.