26 June 2016

Robert Charles Wilson – Cronoliții

in Bucharest, Romania
Robert Charles Wilson - Cronolitii

Undeva în Tailanda, lângă plaje înțesate de turiști și de mici traficanți de droguri ușoare, un vuiet neobișnuit întrerupe o noapte liniștită. A doua zi în coasta unui munte se ridică un monolit uriaș, apărut ca din senin, înfășurat în cețuri și chiciură cauzate de sosirea sa tumultoasă. Scott Warden, un programator care își face veacul pe plajă împreună cu soția Janice și fiica lor Kaitlin, și Hitch Paley, un fost soldat transformat în găinar local, se strecoară prin munți spre cronolit, reușind să zărească inscripții misterioase în materialul translucid de la bază înainte de a fi arestați de armată. În curând devine clar că apariția e un fenomen crezut imposibil, un monument trimis din viitor, la o distanță de douăzeci de ani și trei luni, pentru a marca prima victorie a așa‑numitului Kuin dintr‑un lung șir de lupte. De‑a lungul anilor cronoliții continuă să sosească, marcând cu impasibilitatea lor maiestuoasă largi zone din Asia și Orientul Mijlociu, în timp ce lumea se destramă sub mesajul lor mut despre viitorul inevitabil sub tirania lui Kuin. Viața lui Scott se va intersecta de numeroase ori cu cronoliții, de parcă destinul i‑ar fi legat de la prima lor întâlnire în jungla asiatică.

— „Priviți‑mi… opera grozavă! Nimic n‑a mai rămas ca altădată…“

— Exact. Dar în cazul Cronoliților este exact pe dos. Nu „eu am fost aici“, ci mai degrabă „sosesc. Eu sunt viitorul, indiferent dacă vă place sau nu“.

— Priviți‑mi opera grozavă și temeți‑vă.

23 June 2016

Politico: “Putin repeats praise of Trump: He’s a ‘bright’ person”

Putin, who was speaking at the Russian Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, said he would work with any of the presidential candidates, but specifically lauded Trump for his comments on improving relations between Russia and the United States, according to the Associated Press.

Trump has welcomed Putin’s comments in the past, calling the Russian strongman’s praise “a great honor” in December.

It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond, Trump said. I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.

Tyler Pager

I can just picture Putin and Trump in a couple of years dividing the world among them, Yalta-style – maybe with the collaboration of the Chinese.

In the meantime, the Russian president downplayed these remarks, attributing them to a poorly chosen translation of a word with ambiguous connotations.

22 June 2016

NBC News: “Clinton, Democrats Dominate 2016 Battleground Airwaves”

Every single 2016 presidential TV ad currently airing in a battleground state is either from Hillary Clinton’s campaign or the Democratic outside groups supporting her.

The opposition, by contrast, hasn’t spent a dime in these same battlegrounds — whether it’s Donald Trump’s campaign or Republican-leaning Super PACs.

Mark Murray

A significant gap, indeed. But won’t Trump supporters just point to this as another evidence he is doing things differently and working outside the ‘establishment’ they loathe?

21 June 2016

Variety: “Public: a Group Chat with an audience from the Founder of Boxee”

I believe messaging could be a third medium for broadcasting conversations, Ronen told Variety during an interview this week. It’s been around for decades on audio (radio and now podcasts) and video (TV and now YouTube). I believe messaging could be a third platform for conversations.

Public, which launched with an iPhone app and website Friday, can best be described as group chats with an audience. A few active participants chat with each other on a topic, be it “Game of Thrones,” a sports team or “Black Arts & Literature.” All these discussions happen in public, allowing anyone to follow them in real-time or read up on them later. And chats can be embedded on other websites as well as shared via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Janko Roettgers

Wow, another Twitter-wanna-be app in the course of two months! Presented along more-or-less the same terms no less, as you can read below. Either people are expecting Twitter to fail really hard and want to take its place (but if Twitter fails, doesn’t that also mean it was a bad idea in the first place?) or are trying to grab a piece of its success (in which case they’re going to face an uphill struggle, especially since both apps are iPhone only).

New Scientist: “Facebook can map more of Earth in a week than we have in history”

We just learned that Facebook’s artificial-intelligence software can probably map more in a week than humanity has mapped over our entire history.

In a blog post, the social network announced that its AI system took two weeks to build a map that covers 4 per cent of our planet. That’s 14 per cent of Earth’s land surface, with 21.6 million square kilometres of photographs taken from space, digested and traced into a digital representation of the roads, buildings and settlements they show. And Facebook says it can do it better and faster, potentially mapping the entire Earth in less than a week.

The stated goal of Facebook’s data-science team is to build maps to help the social network plan how to deliver internet to people who are currently offline. It’s a dubious starting point, but whatever you think about Facebook’s internet colonialism, the company’s drones won’t be able to beam Wi-Fi to the disconnected until they know where they are.

Hal Hodson

Impressive achievement! Could we soon have another competitor in the market for maps besides Google, former Nokia and Apple? It would make sense for Facebook to control this vital source of data to refine its own places database.

20 June 2016

The Wall Street Journal: “Apple just improved the most important Social Network in Your Life”

Now, many of you may be inclined to respond to my enthusiasm with a guffawing duck sticker of your own. “Are you actually saying the best thing the most powerful tech company did was give us a bag of tricks to make our messages more like a 5-year-old’s birthday party? Innovation really is dead!”

Except messaging apps have emerged as the darling of the technology world because they’re becoming the glue that connects us to the most important people and services in our lives. Sound a lot like an operating system? That’s the idea.

Joanna Stern

Wow, Mickey Mouse watch faces and now Donald Duck stickers! Apple is definitely onto something here! (not)

18 June 2016

Cornell University: “A Ninth Planet would produce a distinctly different distant Kuiper Belt”

The orbital element distribution of trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) with large pericenters has been suggested to be influenced by the presence of an undetected, large planet at 200 or more AU from the Sun. We perform 4 Gyr N-body simulations with the currently known Solar System planetary architecture, plus a 10 Earth mass planet with similar orbital parameters to those suggested by Batygin and Brown (2016) or Trujillo and Sheppard (2014), and a hundred thousand test particles in an initial planetesimal disk. We find that including a distant superearth-mass ninth planet produces a substantially different orbital distribution for the scattering and detached TNOs, raising the pericenters and inclinations of moderate semimajor axis (50 < a < 500 AU) objects. We test whether this signature is detectable via a simulator with the observational characteristics of four precisely characterized TNO surveys. We find that the qualitatively very distinct Solar System models that include a ninth planet are essentially observationally indistinguishable from an outer Solar System produced solely by the four giant planets. We also find that the mass of the Kuiper Belt’s current scattering and detached populations is required be 3-10 times larger in the presence of an additional planet. Wide-field, deep surveys targeting inclined high-pericenter objects will be required to distinguish between these different scenarios.

Samantha Lawler

Another study inspired by the claim that the outer Kuiper Belt hides a large planet shaping the orbits of closer KBOs. As far as I can understand from the simulation results and conclusion, a Super-Earth should indeed influence the size and orbital properties of the Kuiper Belt significantly, but the surveys currently available are not sufficient to distinguish between the different models analyzed here. Hence ‘Planet Nine’ will have to wait direct detection or a much more thorough study of deep Kuiper Belt orbits to be confirmed.

17 June 2016

The New Yorker: “In the Future, we will Photograph Everything and Look at Nothing”

To understand Google’s decision, one needs to understand how our relationship with photographs has changed. From analog film cameras to digital cameras to iPhone cameras, it has become progressively easier to take and store photographs. Today we don’t even think twice about snapping a shot. About two years ago, Peter Neubauer, the co-founder of the Swedish database company Neo Technology, pointed out to me that photography has seen the value shift from the stand-alone individual aesthetic of the artist to the collaborative and social aesthetic of services like Facebook and Instagram. In the future, he said, the real value creation will come from stitching together photos as a fabric, extracting information and then providing that cumulative information as a totally different package.

His comments make sense: we have come to a point in society where we are all taking too many photos and spending very little time looking at them.

Om Malik

The article was written in response to Google’s decision to make the Nik photo editing software free for users, but the paragraphs above reminded me of some personal reflections during a trip to Iceland in February. Even though it was still winter, there were many groups of photographers around (mostly from the US and Asia) on the same route we took along the southern shore of the island. With cheaper and more widely available DSLR technology and rising incomes all over the world, there will be more and more photographers on the market, a flood of pictures fueled not only by amateurs using smartphones, but also by prosumers and aspiring photographers getting their first camera and exploring the world. Which is on one hand a good thing for creativity and competition, but on the other hand the inflation of photos means individual photos become less and less important, get less and less attention. This trend is shifting photography into cheap entertainment, an endless stream of images flowing on Instagram and Facebook for the quick amusement of people during breaks, and making it harder and harder to identify and appreciate photography as art.

16 June 2016

The New York Times: “Can Apple think outside the Device?”

Many of its competitors have been moving beyond devices toward experiences that transcend them. These new technologies exist not on distinct pieces of hardware, but above and within them. They are things like Alexa, Amazon’s ambient assistant, which lives on the internet and is ready to help you on the Amazon Echo but also on any other device that a programmer adds it to. In an era of flat iPhone sales, Apple, too, has been talking up the importance of online services, which it sees as a crucial part of its future growth.

So the primary question Apple had to answer at its annual developer conference this week was whether it could expand its worldview. Could it break free from the limiting perspective of individual devices?

The answer: Yes, but slowly — and it’s hard to tell if Apple is thinking big enough.

Farhad Manjoo

Apparently not. The problem with Apple’s device-centric approach, as pointed out in the article as well, is that Siri, Apple’s ‘intelligent assistant’, can’t know what you do on other devices – even if you buy exclusively Apple products! Just stop to think for a second how dumb that is! She also has a different set of capabilities on each Apple device, and can’t perform them outside of those specific devices.

Another question I don’t see answered (or even asked) anywhere is: what happens when you replace a device, say your iPhone? Does Siri need to learn everything about you from scratch? And by extension, all the knowledge accumulated across the years about the owner is lost forever…

14 June 2016

Aeon Essays: “How the internet flips elections and alters our thoughts”

A study by Robert M Bond, now a political science professor at Ohio State University, and others published in Nature in 2012 described an ethically questionable experiment in which, on election day in 2010, Facebook sent ‘go out and vote’ reminders to more than 60 million of its users. The reminders caused about 340,000 people to vote who otherwise would not have. Writing in the New Republic in 2014, Jonathan Zittrain, professor of international law at Harvard University, pointed out that, given the massive amount of information it has collected about its users, Facebook could easily send such messages only to people who support one particular party or candidate, and that doing so could easily flip a close election – with no one knowing that this has occurred. And because advertisements, like search rankings, are ephemeral, manipulating an election in this way would leave no paper trail.

Are there laws prohibiting Facebook from sending out ads selectively to certain users? Absolutely not; in fact, targeted advertising is how Facebook makes its money. Is Facebook currently manipulating elections in this way? No one knows, but in my view it would be foolish and possibly even improper for Facebook not to do so. Some candidates are better for a company than others, and Facebook’s executives have a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s stockholders to promote the company’s interests.

Robert Epstein

Given the massive amount of information on the Internet and how it’s delivered (mostly) filtered through proprietary algorithms, these results are hardly surprising. But the problem has started to resonate more in the media in the past months, starting with reports of Facebook possibly suppressing conservative news sources in the feed. Google search results were also populated with fake news prior to the launch of HBO’s Silicon Valley’s third season and the company was recently accused of manipulating results in favor of Hilary Clinton.

13 June 2016

The New York Times: “Streaming TV Isn’t Just a New Way to Watch. It’s a New Genre”

HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (“OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!”) Each episode becomes a level to unlock.

Of course, no one’s stopping you from watching a series more slowly, but that changes the experience. Declaring whether it’s better or worse to binge fast or slow is like arguing whether it’s better to see the Grand Canyon from a helicopter or by foot. It’s beautiful either way, but it’s different. You see the fine grain, or you see the vast sweep.

James Poniewozik

Interesting perspective on streaming; after a couple of months as Netflix subscriber I can certainly agree that having entire series available immediately instead of scheduled at fixed times on a weekly basis changes your habits. Before Netflix I regularly watched HBO for the ad-free experience; now searching for a movie in their schedule feels like going back to last century (for some reason you have to pay extra for HBO Go and it doesn’t have an app for my smart TV, so not really on option). I considered doing some short reviews of the shows I watched, but since I am so behind on blogging I decided against it. But I guess I can share a couple one-line impressions below:

12 June 2016

Our World In Data: “What Men and Women Want in Marriage”

A rare opportunity to see how values have changed was discovered by Boxer et al (reference below) who compared surveys in which people were asked what they seek in a spouse. I took the first and last survey results reported by the authors and visualized it in the chart below: It allows us to compare the relative importance of these traits in 1939 and seven decades later. The big winner is ‘mutual attraction – love’ which now ranks as the most important aspect for both women and men. But also ‘Education, intelligence’ and ‘Sociability’ rose in importance. The relative losers are ‘Good Health’ and at the very bottom ‘Chastity’.

Max Roser

Another interesting – and surprising! – change: the ‘Desire for home, children’ metric gained importance for men, jumping from place 7 to 4 , but is less important for women, coming down from place 6 in 1939 to 9 in 2008. Probably less surprising for women, since in the context of emancipation they have more freedom to pursue careers and other interests, so the relative importance of children declined. The best explanation I can think of for men is that fewer people marry, so those who do are more interested in founding a family and home as well.

Ismail Kadare – Podul cu trei arce

in Bucharest, Romania
Ismail Kadare - Podul cu trei arce

În secolul turbulent dinaintea căderii Constantinopolului, zona în care acum se află Albania era fragmentată sub stăpânirea a zeci de mici prinți, legați prin alianțe fragile de sânge și despărțiți de rivalități meschine și lupte frecvente. Pe domeniul contelui Stres Gjika, un proiect care pare destul de neînsemnat, construcția unui pod peste Ujana cea Rea, răscolește temeri și animozități profunde care culminează cu o posibilă crimă și zidirea trupului mortului la baza podului. Undeva în fundalul acestei drame, puterea otomană își întinde influența asupra acestei regiuni, profitând de conflictele între conducătorii creștini și de slăbiciunea Bizanțului.

Autorul albanez Ismail Kadare este probabil puțin cunoscut în România, totuși destule dintre romanele sale au fost traduse și talentul său a fost recunoscut prin câteva premii literare și nominalizări la Premiul Nobel. Deși mai greu de digerat față de alți autori populari, am fost impresionat de cărțile lui, de la gravitatea temelor la stilul lor, și Podul cu trei arce confirmă calitățile lui. Scris din perspectiva călugărului Gjon ca o cronică a clădirii podului peste Ujana cea Rea – un echivalent de jurnal sau editorial contemporan – romanul beneficiază din plin de acest punct de vedere personal al unui om mai educat, care se străduiește să transmită cu obiectivitate evenimentele, dar în același timp să le interpreteze în nota corectă, să înlăture impresiile superficiale ale sătenilor și să ajungă la miezul problemelor – și nu uită să consemneze propriile reflecții și temeri despre un viitor incert și amenințător.

11 June 2016

Scientific American: “Can Starshot Work?”

The Breakthrough Starshot project won’t take people to another star, or even take a conventional robotic explorer. Instead the goal is to propel nano-spacecraft, ‘Starchips’, to the Alpha Centauri system, using the pressure of light on four-meter sails of reflective material. These ultra-lightweight vehicles would end up shooting through that distant system (some 4.3 light years, or 26 trillion miles away) with a velocity of some 20% of the speed of light - a mind-boggling 134 million miles per hour. Such a blistering pace would be achieved in the first couple of minutes of 60,000 g acceleration from a near-Earth starting point.

It is, to say the least, pretty audacious.

So does it have a chance of working?

Caleb A. Scharf

Short answer: not with our current technology, not anytime soon. But solving some of the numerous challenges this project entails – or at least working on them – should yield interesting results.

07 June 2016

Ars Technica: “Nest’s time at Alphabet: A ‘virtually unlimited budget’ with no results”

It’s hard to argue with the decision to “transition” Fadell away from Nest. When Google bought Nest in January 2014, the expectation was that a big infusion of Google’s resources and money would supercharge Nest. Nest grew from 280 employees around the time of the Google acquisition to 1200 employees today. In Nest’s first year as “a Google company”, it used Google’s resources to acquire webcam maker Dropcam for $555 million, and it paid an unknown amount for the smart home hub company Revolv. Duffy said Nest was given a “virtually unlimited budget” inside Alphabet. Nest eventually transitioned to an Alphabet company, just like Google.

In return for all this investment, Nest delivered very little. The Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect smoke detector both existed before the Google acquisition, and both received minor upgrades under Google’s (and later Alphabet’s) wing. A year after buying Dropcam, Nest released the Nest Cam, which was basically a rebranded Dropcam. Two-and-a-half years under Google/Alphabet, a quadrupling of the employee headcount, and half-a-billion dollars in acquisitions yielded minor yearly updates and a rebranded device. That’s all.

Ron Amadeo

I would say the virtually unlimited budget was exactly the problem here: the leadership and the company never stopped to focus on a clear vision and instead worked sloppily on too many things without shipping any of them. The same trap of ‘cheap financing’ hurting the startup market. Expect more Alpha-bets to suffer similar problems.