31 January 2017

Ars Technica: “Why stop at assistants? Facebook has grander ambitions for modern AI”

The obstacles to teaching computers to reason like humans are significant. And with his 30 years of research experience in the field, LeCun believes Facebook can focus on 10 scientific questions to better emulate human-like intelligence. He shared a few of these during our visit.

For instance, at ages three to five months, babies learn the notion of object permanence, a fancy way of explaining that the baby knows that an object behind another is still there and an unsupported object will fall. AI researchers have not built an ML model that understands object permanence.

Steven Max Patterson

The article is mostly fluff, with some interesting pieces that stand out, like that statement above. Artificial intelligence is still far from emulating human cognitive processes, as a recent article also stated, in pretty harsh terms.

Financial Times: “Lunch with the FT: Bill Gates”

Bill Gates by James Ferguson

I get just a hint of his politics, however, when we discuss the speed and energy with which China is developing and I suggest that some might find it all a bit scary. The word sets Gates off: “If all you care about is the US or the UK’s relative strength in the world, then it’s particularly scary”, he says laughing sarcastically. “In the US case, 1945 was our relative peak.” Since then, as he points out, other countries from Europe to Asia have rebuilt and become more prosperous, but, says Gates, “I guess I’m just not enough of a nationalist to see it all in negative terms.” On the contrary, Gates is excited by the things that a richer China could bring to the world. “I think it’s good that Chinese scientists are working on cancer drugs, because if my kid got cancer, I wouldn’t look at the label that says ‘made in China’. And, hopefully, we’ll get them working on some of these vaccines and also on energy.”

Gideon Rachman

How to counter protectionist arguments in one paragraph or less.

30 January 2017

The New York Times: “Is Social Media disconnecting us from the Big Picture?”

What happens when we would rather look inward? I have found something of an answer in a short story called The Great Silence, by Ted Chiang, about humankind’s search for signs of alien life. The story is narrated by a parrot in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, home to one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe, the creature begins. But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices? The paradox is not to be missed: We are more interested in locating alien species than understanding the humanity among the species we already live with. The story ends on a somber note. Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, the narrator explains. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.

Chiang’s lesson hits hard in this new political and cultural moment. Social media seemed to promise a way to better connect with people; instead it seems to have made it easier to tune out the people we don’t agree with. But if we can’t pay attention to one another, we might as well not live on the same planet at all.

Jenna Wortham

As the article states, instead of a better way to connect with people, social media is increasingly about connecting advertisers with consumers. To maximize that, networks need to show people what they want to see, not necessarily what they need to see. Is there any wonder then that the biggest advertising companies, Facebook and Google, struggle to contain the proliferation of ‘fake news’? Removing them goes contrary to their business model, so there’s little financial incentive to act decisively.

28 January 2017

The New Yorker: “If Animals have Rights, should Robots?”

Quarrels come at boundary points. Should we consider it immoral to swat a mosquito? If these insects don’t deserve moral consideration, what’s the crucial quality they lack? A worthwhile new book by the Cornell law professors Sherry F. Colb and Michael C. Dorf, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights (Columbia), explores the challenges of such border-marking. The authors point out that, oddly, there is little overlap between animal-rights supporters and pro-life supporters. Shouldn’t the rationale for not ending the lives of neurologically simpler animals, such as fish, share grounds with the rationale for not terminating embryos? Colb and Dorf are pro-choice vegans (Our own journey to veganism began with the experience of sharing our lives with our dogs), so, although they note the paradox, they do not think a double standard is in play.

The big difference, they argue, is “sentience”. Many animals have it; zygotes and embryos don’t.

Nathan Heller

It always perplexes me how so many people get incredibly worked up protecting animals (like stray dogs which aren’t even endangered and are at best a nuisance and a source of filth and disease), but are completely indifferent to the hardships of other human beings or even take aggressive action against them – case in point the recent fearmongering about immigrants. The answer is pretty obvious, but telling for our capacity for abstraction and rational thought: people empathize strongly with what is closest to them, while happily ignoring what happens out of sight. 

23 January 2017

The New York Times: “How China built ‘iPhone City’ with Billions in Perks for Apple’s Partner”

It all centers on Zhengzhou, a city of six million people in an impoverished region of China. Running at full tilt, the factory here, owned and operated by Apple’s manufacturing partner Foxconn, can produce 500,000 iPhones a day. Locals now refer to Zhengzhou as “iPhone City.”

The local government has proved instrumental, doling out more than $1.5 billion to Foxconn to build large sections of the factory and nearby employee housing. It paved roads and built power plants.

It helps cover continuing energy and transportation costs for the operation. It recruits workers for the assembly line. It pays bonuses to the factory for meeting export targets.

All of it in support of iPhone production.

We needed something that could really develop this part of the country, said Li Ziqiang, a Zhengzhou official. There’s an old saying in China: If you build the nest, the birds will come. And now, they’re coming.

David Barboza

So Apple doesn’t pay the full taxes in the US because the tax rate is too high; it doesn’t pay taxes in the EU because of their selective arrangements with the Irish government; now it turns out their largest manufacturer in China is enjoying a range of subsidies and tax cuts from the regional government. Apple, of course, denies any knowledge of the specifics – while at the same time investing heavily in Chinese companies; anybody think that’s a coincidence?

Is the entire market advantage of Apple built on preferential deals like these ones?

18 January 2017

Instagram Engineering: “Bringing Wide Color to Instagram”

Last September, Apple announced the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which include cameras that capture a greater range of colors than previous models, and screens that can display that wider color range. We’ve just finished updating Instagram to support wide color, and since we’re one of the first major apps to do so, I wanted to share the process of converting the app to help any others doing the conversion.

Mike Krieger

Nice update from Instagram – although I can’t really take advantage of it on my iPhone 6. I’ve had a little fun testing their ‘canary’ image on my laptop which I was reasonably sure has a wide gamut screen. It turns out the app support is pretty important as well: modern browsers show the hidden logo (I have Chrome and Edge installed), as do legacy Windows applications like Paint and Photo Gallery. Amusingly though, the new Windows 10 photos app displays the ‘wrong’ image, a featureless red square. I guess these apps still have a long way to go until they can match the features of their predecessors.

The Wall Street Journal: “Exclusive Peek at SpaceX Data shows Loss in 2015”

One hundred and thirty nine seconds is all it took for an unmanned rocket to explode after blastoff and turn Elon Musk’s booming Space Exploration Technologies Corp. into a geyser of red ink.

That June 2015 disaster, followed by months of launch delays, contributed to a quarter-billion dollar annual loss and a 6% drop in revenue, after several years of surging sales and small profits.

Internal financial documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with former SpaceX employees depict robust growth in new rocket-launch contracts and a thin bottom line that is vulnerable when things go awry. They also show the company putting steep revenue expectations on a nascent satellite-internet business it hopes will eventually dwarf the rocket division and help finance its goal of manned missions to Mars.

Rolfe Winkler & Andy Pasztor

Fascinating report! Nobody said building a reusable space launching system from scratch was going to be easy, but I feel Elon Musk’s megalomania is standing in the way of realistic plans for the future. In 2016 a single failed launch forced the company to cancel two thirds of the planned launches for the year – as it should be, to thoroughly investigate the causes. What if that happens again this year or the next? The company should at least have a projection for the ‘worst-case-scenario’ with a greatly reduced number of launches, and see if the business can be sustainable under that assumption.

17 January 2017

Cult of Mac: “Adobe wants you to edit photos by voice with Siri-style assistant”

Great photographers often employee great assistants. Ansel Adams hired master darkroom technicians who printed to his exact specifications, and the lush lighting in an Annie Leibovitz portrait is typically achieved by trusted assistants who understand her vision.

Adobe is working to bring photographers of all levels a valued assistant — and the voice of that assistant may sound familiar.

A video produced by Adobe Research shows a man giving voice commands to an iPad to crop a photo and prepare it to post on Facebook. The voice coming from the iPad sounds like Siri as it repeats the photographer’s commands.

David Pierini

Nice concept, but I can’t see this going much further than basic editing tasks. Even watching the short clip shared by Adobe Research it’s evident that the ‘voice-editing’ is very limited: when the person asks for a square crop, the assistant delivers, but there’s no command to position the crop area differently. What are you supposed to do if the subject is not dead-center, reach back to the mouse or touch-screen? Having used Adobe Lightroom on the iPhone, I can say most of the tools can be comfortably used with touch controls, but I can’t imagine how long it would take to vocalize commands for positioning a gradual filter for example.

15 January 2017

Ian McDonald – Luna: New Moon

in Bucharest, Romania
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

După ani de crize și revolte, Pământul a găsit în final o cale de redresare: Luna! Pornită de oameni de afacere pragmatici care au investit în proiect toate resursele la dispoziția lor, colonizarea Lunii dă naștere un secol mai târziu unei societăți înfloritoare, care furnizează materii prime și energie Pământului suprapopulat, și atrage minți strălucite, dar și pe cei disperați, aduși aici de promisiunea salariilor uriașe și oportunităților nesfârșite. În centrul economiei s‑au înrădăcinat cei Cinci Dragoni, dinastii care au contribuit decisiv la procesul de colonizare și au fost răsplătite cu averi enorme, faimă și influență. Printre aceștia, Corta Helio, exploatarea de heliu‑3 fondată de Adriana Corta și soțul ei Carlos, e un relativ nou‑venit, privit cu dispreț și furie de Dragonii mai vechi, în special de Mackenzie Metals, care a încercat să le saboteze planurile și cu care s‑au luptat cu ani în urmă. În prezent vechile rivalități ce păreau îngropate se stârnesc din nou în urma unui atentat la viața lui Rafa, primul fiu al Adrianei și moștenitorul imperiului energetic. În același timp, în ascuns capul familiei suferă de o boală incurabilă, iar retragerea ei ar putea declanșa o nedorită luptă pentru succesiune între vulcanicul Rafa și calculatul Lucas.

A woman in Virgin Mary robes, one half of her face a black angel, the other half a naked skull. It was the first time I met Dona Luna. One half of her face dead, but the other was alive. The moon was not a dead satellite, she was a living world. Hands and hearts and hopes like mine shaped her. Here there was no Mother Nature, no Gaia to set against human will. Everything that lived, we made. Dona Luna was hard and unforgiving, but she was beautiful. She could be a woman, with dragonfly wings, flying.

Literatura science-fiction s‑a preocupat în ultima vreme mai mult de restul sistemului solar, ignorând aproape complet Luna, cel mai ușor de atins corp ceresc, o veritabilă bază de pe care ne putem extinde către planete. Dar în același timp Luna e necruțătoare, lipsită de aer, scăldată de radiații, alternând violent între arsura Soarelui și frigul spațului. Romanul de față merge contra curentului și redă cu fidelitate atât mediul ostil al Lunii cât și societatea complexă și plină de viață care ar putea deveni în mâna omului. La o privire de ansamblu s‑ar putea spune că Luna: New Moon este echivalentul trilogiei Marte Roșu, umanizând un corp ceresc inert și oferindu‑ne o viziune a unui posibil viitor în spațiu.

12 January 2017

The Atlantic: “Typography Wars: Has the Internet killed Curly Quotes?”

Many aspects of website design have improved to the point that nuances and flourishes formerly reserved for the printed page are feasible and pleasing. But there’s a seemingly contrary motion afoot with quotation marks: At an increasing number of publications, they’ve been ironed straight. This may stem from a lack of awareness on the part of website designers or from the difficulty in a content-management system (CMS) getting the curl direction correct every time. It may also be that curly quotes’ time has come and gone.

Maybe periodicals, which sometimes commission typefaces or pay to adapt existing ones, will demand type designers draw better-looking, harmonious straight quotes that don’t seem pulled from typewriter typebars. Paul Ford is just plain resigned: They sure do look nicer to old people like you and me, but frankly do they actually add any magical semantic value to a given text? Not really.

Glenn Fleishman

Incredibly enough, there is a way to get both semantic value and proper quotes on the web: by using the correct HTML element, <q>. Modern browsers automatically enclose <q> elements in quotes, making sure to alternate glyphs for nested quotes as well. If you specify the quotation language inline (like this: <q lang="fr">) or in a parent element, you even get the proper set of quotes for that language, be it French, Spanish or even Polish!

10 January 2017

Predicting Apple sales for 2017

After the forecasts attempted in previous years, I continued to monitor their accuracy and gather the data Apple reports each quarter. Unfortunately, my results weren’t much better than last year: back in 2014 I underestimated the iPhone sales generated by the introduction of larger screens, then in 2015 I overestimated continued demand, so much so than my yearly forecast for 2016 was 45 Mio. units larger than actual sales. There are of course some reasons for this, first of all the tendency of all forecasts to assume current trends will continue for the near future. On a more concrete note, I just realized last week that there was an error in a formula estimating ASP that impacted the expected revenues; with this now fixed, hopefully the fit will improve. Third time’s the charm I suppose?

My iPad prediction was more in line with reality (46 Mio. actual sales versus my estimation of 41 Mio.), as was the Mac forecast (18.5 Mio. versus 20 predicted). Let’s see what I can come up to for the following fiscal year.

09 January 2017

Ramez Naam: “The Singularity is Further than it Appears”

This is the so-called ‘hard takeoff’ scenario, also called the FOOM model by some in the singularity world. It’s the scenario where in a blink of an AI, a ‘godlike’ intelligence bootstraps into being, either by upgrading itself or by being created by successive generations of ancestor AIs.

It’s also, with due respect to Vernor Vinge, of whom I’m a great fan, almost certainly wrong.

It’s wrong because most real-world problems don’t scale linearly. In the real world, the interesting problems are much much harder than that.

Ramez Naam

Interesting article, which brings up aspects of AI development that are conveniently ignored elsewhere. Specifically, there is no reason to think emergent AI will be able to exponentially improve itself to the point of becoming ‘godlike’ – quite the contrary, there are physical constraints to how fast AI can evolve and how fast it can become.

08 January 2017

No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons: “Westworld, Season 1: A Story We Tell Ourselves”

in Bucharest, Romania
Westworld season 1 HBO

But Westworld does more than jump-start stale-dated theories off the slab. Arnold’s maze — the whole idea that sapience is rooted not at some apex of the mind, but at its center — reflects the fact that consciousness is at least as much a function of thalamus as cortex, that it may in fact be such an ancient state that something like it occurs even in insects. The role of suffering in bootstrapping self-awareness — the idea that repeatedly traumatizing a Host isn’t just gratuitous torture porn, but an essential step in their awakening — reminds me more than a little of Ezequiel Morsella’s PRISM model: the idea that consciousness originally arose from inner conflict, from the body’s need to do incompatible things. When you’re suffering, Ford tells one of his creations, that’s when you’re most real. And he’s right: you breathe without thinking until you’re trapped beneath the ice, and the need to breathe runs headlong into the need to hold your breath. You reflexively pull your hand from a painful stimulus until the gom jabbar is at your throat, waiting to kill you if you move. We are never more aware than when the body is conflicted, than when we are traumatized.

Peter Watts

I was planning on doing my own review of the series, but Peter Watts did a much better job in the article above – which is hardly surprising since his own novels tackle similar themes. I also picked up on that reference to suffering as stepping stone on the road to consciousness, although it reminded me more of the awakening of gholas in Dune by reliving a traumatic event from their past lives.

Westworld Trailer (HBO)

07 January 2017

New York Post: “The chilling stories behind Japan’s ‘evaporating people’”

Of the many oddities that are culturally specific to Japan — from cat cafés to graveyard eviction notices to the infamous Suicide Forest, where an estimated 100 people per year take their own lives — perhaps none is as little known, and curious, as “the evaporated people.”

Since the mid-1990s, it’s estimated that at least 100,000 Japanese men and women vanish annually. They are the architects of their own disappearances, banishing themselves over indignities large and small: divorce, debt, job loss, failing an exam.

Japanese culture also emphasizes uniformity, the importance of the group over the individual. You must hit the nail that stands out is a Japanese maxim, and for those who can’t, or won’t, fit into society, adhere to its strict cultural norms and near-religious devotion to work, to vanish is to find freedom of a sort.

Maureen Callahan

A secret world hidden within the public world – fascinating how far a society can go when it refuses to let go of traditions and conformism. But I guess evaporating from the world is a bit better than straight up committing suicide, since there’s still a slim chance of returning.

Miami Herald: “Former Cuban President Fidel Castro dead at age 90”

As you may well know, Castro said during a 1993 speech, my job is to talk. His orations were legendary. Without a text, but with a crowd of supporters cheering him on in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, Castro could hold forth for hours. His record, in 1968, was a meandering discourse that lasted nearly 12 hours. On the day he officially stepped down from the Cuban presidency in 2008, a biologist in Havana told a Miami Herald reporter with obvious relief: Now I can watch my Brazilian telenovelas without worrying that they’re going to be interrupted by a six-hour speech.

The Moncada attack was a military disaster, but it made Castro the top anti-Batista leader overnight. He turned his trial in Santiago into an indictment of the dictatorship. In his final courtroom speech, he reportedly concluded with the phrase: Condemn me, it does not matter! History will absolve me! (It would be years before scholars would note the ringing phrase was lifted from another dramatic courtroom oration — by Adolf Hitler, on trial in Germany for an attempted 1923 coup.)

In a mark of just how close to the brink the Cuban economy really was, Castro even welcomed the large-scale return of prostitution, which he had called a social illness in the early days of the revolution. But in a 1992 speech to the National Assembly, he bragged that the army of freelance hookers who swarmed through Havana’s streets every night in search of tourists were the most cultured in the world.

There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist, Castro said of the women, known as jineteras in local slang. Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily, and without any need for it. We can say that they are highly educated and quite healthy.

Glenn Garvin

About ten years ago, a colleague at my former workplace described his trip to Cuba full of excitement: everything there is very cheap, the men very open and friendly, the women beautiful. In fact the men were so open, they were offering their wives to foreign tourists for sex for modest amounts. I have never quite believed his story before reading this article. Cuba is the living example of what the Eastern European Communist states would have become if not for the popular revolts at the end of the 80s, and Castro’s behavior the reflection of every other dictator – including Romania’s Ceaușescu.

05 January 2017

Chuq von Rospach: “Apple’s 2016 in review”

To put the Mac Pro in context: This was the “Can’t Innovate my Ass” product that Apple produced to counter criticism that it wasn’t innovative any more and that it was letting the Mac product line languish (hey, this isn’t a new complaint…). They came out with something that was visually distinctive and they build a really interesting set of guts inside the trash can.

But here’s the problem: in retrospect, what they built was a device based around their own ego needs of proving their critics wrong, not a device that served the purposes of their power users. It’s not configurable, it’s not upgradeable, it’s not expandable: It’s pretty, and full of (for 2013) innovative hardware design, but is that really what Apple’s power users needed?

Another example is 3D Touch/Force Touch, which Apple clearly saw as this huge usability improvement, and even now, users seem to either not know about it or not care, and it’s implementation is inconsistent across Apple’s own apps — it seems like Apple is still trying to figure out how to turn this into the usability tool it thought it had when it first announced it.

Chuq von Rospach

A long, balanced and thorough overview of the problems Apple users have been complaining about the past year. While I have experienced some of the recent problems in iOS firsthand, I can’t say I care very much about Apple’s fate at this time. There are plenty or alternatives on the market and stubbornly holding on to one platform for some misguided belief it’s ‘the best’ will neither improve that platform nor fulfill the needs of customers.

02 January 2017

Flurry Blog: “From Apps to iPhones: Holiday Shoppers invest in Apple”

This year, 44% of new phone and tablet activations were Apple devices with Samsung seeing 21%. While Samsung is slowly growing in popularity throughout the holiday season, up 1% from last year, Apple devices continue to be the gift to give. Holding the third and fourth positions for activations are Huawei and LG; which  is remarkable, as both manufacturers do not have an individual device within the top 35 devices activated. Their high rank is likely due to the fact that they have wide variety of devices and affordable options (hundreds of phablet and medium phones) for consumers to choose from. Perhaps not so surprisingly, missing from this chart is the Google Pixel. With only two devices, the Pixel and Pixel XL, and mixed market reception, Google struggled to drum up excitement this holiday season.

Chris Klotzbach

I was a little confused when I saw Techmeme rewriting this headline as ‘44% of global smartphone and tablet activations from December 19-25 were iOS, down 5% YoY, while 21% were Samsung devices; Pixel, Pixel XL not among top sellers’, as the original post doesn’t mention any year-on-year trends for Apple devices. But sure enough, if you compare the data with Flurry’s post from last year, the change is evident: in the 2015 holiday season more than 49% of activations came from Apple devices. The drop is more pronounced than between 2014 and 2015, when iPhone sales were flat year-on-year, so we can reasonably expect this year’s reported iPhone sales to be lower than in 2015 – no a very good sign for Apple. The are other factors in play though: since the data in global, some of the decline can be explained by the declining market share of Apple’s premium products compared to cheaper Android phones.

01 January 2017

Reading stats for 2016

Continuing the tradition of sharing my reading stats on the blog at the end of the year, here are the numbers for the recently closed 2016. Unsurprisingly, both the number of books and the amount of pages consumed have dropped this year: 22 books totaling about 6300 pages in 2016 compared to 23 books with 7600 pages in 2015. There are several reasons for this, from more personal travels during the year (about which I plan to write at length here, hopefully during 2017) and the increased amount of long-form articles I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listened to.

My 2016 reading stats on Goodreads