31 January 2014

Travelling with Apple Passbook

As I start the year with several travels abroad – heading again to Paris – earlier this week I got my first chance to try out one of Apple’s already old innovations, Passbook, dating back to the launch of iOS 6. There’s not that much to say about it: the experience is indeed nice and easier to use than a paper boarding pass. After checking in using Air France’s iPhone app, the card was added automatically to Passbook and it pinned itself on my lock screen. With just a swipe you can present it for controls or scan it when boarding the airplane. You don’t need to worry about keeping track of yet another item while you’re undressing, taking off your watch, belt and possibly shoes and taking out every electronic device you carry for inspection. I recently read an article describing all the wrong things about current boarding passes and a nice concept for an improved design and Passbook addresses many of the problems outlined there.

30 January 2014

TechCrunch: “Lenovo To Buy Motorola Mobility From Google For About $3B”

TechCrunch has confirmed reports that Lenovo is buying Motorola Mobility from Google. This is the division within Google that the company purchased in 2011 for $12.5 billion. Matt Burns

It looks increasingly likely that this is not a joke, but an actual record of how the deal happened:

On a more serious note, one has to wonder who will buy HTC at this point, now that Lenovo has its mobile business group covered…

26 January 2014

Alastair Reynolds - The Prefect

in Bucharest, Romania
Alastair Reynolds - The Prefect

În lumea prosperă și plină de diversitate a miilor de habitate din Centura Sclipitoare orbitând colonia Yellowstone, un incident neașteptat amenință să declanșeze un război periculos cu grupul de nave Ultra parcat la marginea sistemului. Habitatul Ruskin-Sartorious a fost efectiv tăiat în două și din cei nouă sute șaizeci de locuitori n‑au mai supraviețuit decât trei simulări beta care nu‑și amintesc de nici un motiv suficient pentru un asemenea atac fără precedent. Toate indiciile implică nava Ultra Accompaniment of Shadows, dar prefectul Tom Dreyfus începe să bănuiască motivații mai complicate în spatele celor aparente. În timp ce tot aparatul Panoply încearcă să stabilizeze tensiunile și să împiedice un conflict armat cu grupul Ultra, adjuncta lui Dreyfus, Thalia Ng, pleacă într‑o misiune solo de a actualiza software‑ul de votare din nucleele a patru habitate, pentru a se trezi în mijlocul unei alte crize care‑i va testa ingeniozitatea și încrederea în sine.

Deși eu l‑am citit ultimul, cronologic The Prefect este primul din ciclul de cinci romane care formează universul Revelation Space – fără să puneam la socoteală povestirile care acoperă perioada de tranziție de la un singur Pământ către rețeaua disparată de colonii independente legate doar de comercianții Ultra. Plasat într‑o eră de prosperitate de câteva secole, când nimic nu părea să amenințe civilizația din jurul Chasm City, romanul are un ton și o structură diferită de următoarele. În loc de trei povești convergente, aici Reynolds se concentrează pe doar două fire concomitente, ancheta polițistă clasică condusă de Dreyfus și turul Thaliei printre habitate, cu mai puține excursii în trecut. Astfel ritmul este mult mai alert decât în celelalte romane, chiar furibund pe alocuri. Mie nu mi se întâmplă prea des să nu pot să las o carte din mână, dar Prefectul a avut acest efect, în special spre final. Atracția constă și în metoda lui Reynolds, care nu lasă nici un detaliu la voia întâmplării; sunt destule cazuri în care cititorul poate intui informații vitale înaintea personajelor, pentru că autorul oferise deja răspunsuri la problemele lor în capitolul precedent. Scenele dedicate Thaliei se desfășoară mai încet, în schimb introduc sau explică multe din conceptele pe care se bazează civilizația demarhistă și descriu culturile extrem de variate care s‑au dezvoltat la adăpostul autonomiei habitatelor orbitale, de la zone în care cetățenii s‑au supus de bunăvoie unor regimuri locale autoritare la alții care s‑au abandonat aproape complet lumii virtuale sau experimentează liber cu corpul și mintea umană.

21 January 2014

asymco: “Google’s three Ps”

The deeper problem is in us knowing their intentions. The absence of a purpose rooted in profit makes Google resistant to analysis. There might be a purpose, known only to the founders[3], but it’s one that is potentially naive, amoral or too abstract to be useful. Shareholders are aware of this and have agreed to entrust control to only three individuals. The purpose of the organization is in their hands alone and reflects their priorities. Bearing in mind that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, they must be brave indeed.

This would not be too troubling if the effect would be restricted to the company stakeholders. The trouble lies in that organization also having de-facto control over the online (and hence increasingly offline) lives of more than one billion people. Users, but not customers, of a company whose purpose is undefined. The absence of oversight is one thing, the absence of an understanding of the will of the leadership is quite another. The company becomes an object of faith alone.  Do we believe?

Horace Dediu

Indeed, ’s long term motives and ambitions are getting more opaque with each action: from buying Motorola to the Nest acquisition, from high-end products that nobody wants to online services with an ever shortening lifespan. One can’t stop wondering if there’s a method behind the madness…

20 January 2014

What’s new in Chrome 33

Google Now notifications in Chrome 33After the big changes in Chrome’s graphics engine in the previous version caused numerous problems and complaints from users, this version could prove equally controversial, if not more, as Google pushes two changes many people are not happy about: restricting extensions to the Chrome Web Store and removing the previous New Tab page completely. Announced back in November, the new extension policy will be enforced starting with version 33, meaning that any extension not hosted in the Web Store will be automatically disabled and cannot be re-enabled as long as they’re not in the Store, as far as I understand. The only remaining option for running non-web store extensions is to use the Canary or Dev channels, but that exposes users to stability problems and bugs. Also, after being enabled by default in Chrome 32, the redesigned New Tab page based on the Instant Extended API cannot be disabled anymore, as the necessary flag has been removed. I don’t feel like commenting again; Google made up its mind and there’s nothing else to do than search for an extension that can restore the New Tab to some level of usefulness.

On a more positive note, Google Now notifications are now enabled on desktop. Users of recent versions of Android and in the US should be happy about this, for the rest of us the impact will likely be minor. Google Now is tied into the Google search app on iOS, but personally I don’t see the need to open an app for web search when I can do that faster from the Spotlight search box. Since I’ve been travelling with a work laptop for the past weeks and using the Dev version, I’ve used this feature for some time; and yet I see little use for Google Now. It does indeed highlight the amount of data Google stores on me or any other user; at some point it showed direction to a place that I searched a couple of hours before. On the other hand some cards are simply stupid: the temperature on the weather card is shown in Fahrenheit, even though I live and travelled inside Europe, where everyone uses Celsius. If it claims to offer relevant information, Now should at least make an effort on these little details; knowing my location it should be trivial to check which measurement unit the country is using. Even worse, there’s no visible setting to change this on desktop; apparently you can do that on mobile, but for me that would mean installing an app just to change a stupid default… I’m not going to bother.

19 January 2014

H. P. Lovecraft - The Shunned House

in Bucharest, Romania

H.P. Lovecraft - The Shunned HousePe strada Benefit din Providence, Rhode Island, o casă veche, de mult abandonată, dă naștere la zvonuri și povești contradictorii și stârnește astfel interesul doctorului Elihu Whipple și al nepotului său. De‑a lungul anilor, cei doi strâng o cantitate impresionantă de informații despre proprietarii originali și istoria urmașilor până la momentul actual, o istorie marcată de numeroase morți și îmbolnăviri din cauze inexplicabile. Folclorul acumulat în jurul casei o face acum imposibil de închiriat, iar familia Harris a abandonat‑o de mult umezelii, întunericului și mucegaiului. Într‑un final, convinși de cauzele supranaturale din spatele misterului, cei doi se hotărăsc să petreacă o noapte în interior și să dea de capătul misterului odată pentru totdeauna.

Primul meu contact cu scrierile lui H. P. Lovecraft, The Shunned House este o nuvelă scrisă bine, cu un suspans care se construiește pe nesimțite către finalul exploziv, și o cantitate apreciabilă de mister și groază demnă de înaintașul Edgar Allan Poe – pe care chiar autorul îl menționează în primele paragrafe drept vizitator regulat al zonei care însă n‑a remarcat niciodată locuința adăpostind orori. Parcă se simt și niște asemănări cu un mai nou adept al genului, China Miéville. Dar oricât de bine scrisă ar fi, povestirea nu poate să depășească impresia covârșitoare de demodat. Cred că dacă aș fi citit‑o în copilărie mi‑ar fi stârnit fiori serioși și m‑ar fi ținut departe de pivniță o vreme; acum în schimb nu‑mi oferă nici o idee nouă, nici un punct de reflecție. Lumea are probleme mai complicate decât să‑și facă griji pentru monștrii imaginari din subsol…

We were not, as I have said, in any sense childishly superstitious, but scientific study and reflection had taught us that the known universe of three dimensions embraces the merest fraction of the whole cosmos of substance and energy.
Nota mea: 3.0

disponibilă online în original

18 January 2014

zenhabits: “The Fear of Being Alone”

This is natural, this fear of being alone. We’ve all felt it, deep within us, though we try desperately to avoid this fear.

And this is the cause of our misery: to avoid this fear of being alone, we will socialize endlessly, including on social networks and email. To avoid being alone, we’ll end up with someone who isn’t really good for us, just to have someone to cling to, someone to rely on. We’ll eat junk food or shop to comfort ourselves, because these things are replacements for love.

But here’s the secret: being alone is empowering. The quiet of being alone is joyful.

Leo Babauta

It really is! I personally quite enjoy travelling alone, it gives me the opportunity to explore the surroundings much better and notice things I wouldn’t be able to if I were constantly talking to people or following their travel plans.

Harvard Business Review: “The Degree Is Doomed”

Higher education, however, is in the midst of dramatic, disruptive change. It is, to use the language of innovation theorists and practitioners, being unbundled. (Some more of my thoughts on higher-ed unbundling can be found here.) And with that unbundling, the traditional credential is rapidly losing relevance. The value of paper degrees lies in a common agreement to accept them as a proxy for competence and status, and that agreement is less rock solid than the higher education establishment would like to believe. Michael Staton

While the article specifically focuses on the software industry, I think it applies to some extent to the larger jobs market. In my experience companies are usually more interested in your work experience than your degrees – which they mostly take for granted. Or better said, the degree is only a starting point, a baseline where the real job requirements start. Most certainly obtaining a degree – or more for that matter – is not enough to stay competitive nowadays.

The New Yorker: “The Open-Office Trap”

But the most problematic aspect of the open office may be physical rather than psychological: simple noise. In laboratory settings, noise has been repeatedly tied to reduced cognitive performance. The psychologist Nick Perham, who studies the effect of sound on how we think, has found that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out the office intrusion doesn’t help: even that, Perham found, impairs our mental acuity. Exposure to noise in an office may also take a toll on the health of employees. In a study by the Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine—a hormone that we often call adrenaline, associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response. What’s more, Evans and Johnson discovered that people in noisy environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing increased physical strain. The subjects subsequently attempted to solve fewer puzzles than they had after working in a quiet environment; in other words, they became less motivated and less creative. Maria Konnikova

Now this is an article I should share with my superiors at work! Not that they would do anything about it, after all having an open office means more people crammed in less space, so less costs for the company. Creativity be damned!

12 January 2014

David Brin - The Giving Plague

in Bucharest, Romania

David Brin - The Giving Plague Într-un laborator de microbiologie, cercetătorul Leslie Adgeson face o descoperire surprinzătoare: un virus latent care se transmite prin sânge și al cărui singur efect aparent este că declanșează în purtători o dorință aproape obsesivă de a dona sânge – răspândind astfel virusul mai departe. Deși ar avea potențialul să‑i asigure un Premiu Nobel, Les alege să împărtășească informația doar cu colegul său Forry, drept dovada finală a propriei teorii controversate: aceea că virusurile și gazdele evoluează de‑a lungul timpului o formă de simbioză, până la punctul în care virusul încetează să‑și mai distrugă gazda și se integrează în genele acesteia. Departe de a împărtăși entuziasmul și altruismul lui Les, Foory plănuiește în schimb să‑l omoare și să‑i fure gloria.

The Giving Plague are la bază o ipoteză interesantă, pe care David Brin o folosește cu succes și în romanul Inima Cometei, și care dă naștere unor întrebări despre natura umană. Căci ce este liberul arbitru dacă deciziile noastre pot fi manipulate atât de ușor de substanțele chimice emise de un patogen microscopic? Povestirea are însă și puncte slabe, aluziile constante la o voință a virusurilor nu își aveau locul într‑o discuție științifică și nici efectele altruiste ale infectării cu ALAS nu sunt prea plauzibile. Cei doi cercetători nu au adâncime ca personaje, ci mai degrabă sunt construiți ca extreme opuse: pe de o parte Les prea altruist și pierdut în propriile teorii, pe de alta Forry prea cinic și calculat. Ca și multe alte povestiri, suferă de o simplificare exagerată atunci când subtilitatea și complexitatea ar fi fost mai de efect.

Nota mea: 3.0

disponibilă online pe site‑ul autorului

11 January 2014

Rolling Stone: “Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story”

If you want to understand how people will remember the Obama climate legacy, a few facts tell the tale: By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest oil producer and Russia as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we’ve begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tell us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine. Bill McKibben

So much for the US taking leadership on climate change… But hey, climate change must be a hoax because America is freezing now, right? Right?!

10 January 2014

Alex Blogu: “Google Glass first impressions”

They say (in the reviews) that people feel uncomfortable around Glass. I instantly found this out to be true. Around my Google colleagues in the office. I went out on the balcony to get some air. One googler based in Mountain View was visiting our office at the time, and he was out for a cigarette. The moment I walked on the balcony with Glass he told me “dude, cut that shit out” or something along those lines. And he’s the guy that was telling us about Glass the last time he visited months ago. He got to test them and had colleagues back in Silicon Valley that wore Glass 24/7. Still, he felt uncomfortable. Alexandru Blogu

More anecdotal evidence that even Google employees are avoiding Google Glass.

09 January 2014

The Official Delicious Blog: “Annual Report – How Delicious was your 2013?”

Delicious celebrated our 10 year anniversary with a complete relaunch of the site, and we made it easier than ever to save from anywhere with new apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android. But before we look to 2014, let’s take a look back at what made 2013 so delicious. Paul Linstrot

Delicious Annual Report 2013Yet another review of 2013, this time from a former Web 2.0 champion gone nearly extinct and now rising back again: Delicious! If you visit your profile these days you will notice an extra header inviting you to check out this annual report of your activity on Delicious. Personally I don’t use the site that actively, relying mostly on their native link import from and on IFTTT recipes to archive the links I share or star on Feedbin – and previously on Google Reader. Nevertheless I appreciate the ability to search this archive and at some point I hope I get around to organizing it a bit. So, what did I learn from the report?

07 January 2014

ParisLemon: “I Got Bugs”

So I embraced the gaudy neon and I entered our newly flat world excited. And I remain convinced that in just about every way, iOS 7 is a huge upgrade over the previous iterations. Except one. And it’s a big one.

The software is so inexplicably and inexcusably buggy.

At first, when you’re testing developer builds, you expect this. Bugs pop up and they get stomped out week after week until you’re left with a polished product. But I would hardly call iOS 7 a polished product — again, a full quarter after its initial release to the public. In fact, it seems to be getting worse.

MG Siegler

I can unfortunately add more than a couple examples to that list: over the past month all contacts inexplicably disappeared from my iPhone two(!) times and I had to wait about an hour for the data to sync back; one evening the camera app refused to take pictures both with the software shutter and the volume button, despite focusing normally; and at some point my settings in the Mail app got wiped out, it forgot for which folders it was supposed to send push notifications. Not to mention repeated app crashes – although those could be bugs in the third-party apps as well. And that time when multi-tasking suddenly started showing app cards in landscape mode. Those sort of issues were practically nonexistent on iOS 6! Let’s hope iOS 7.1 will fix some of the bugs and make the OS more stable again.

06 January 2014

Vivaldi.net: “Farewell to My Opera”

I have no idea how many - or few - users are now actively blogging and sharing photos on My Opera, neither do I know how many users ever in the site’s history wrote at least one blog post, accepted one friend connection or created one album. It’s quite obvious that the site did not have the growth potential to challenge Facebook’s or Google’s head start - but I can’t possibly see how disrespectfully squandering all that trust and goodwill those thousands or tens of thousands of users held, will be good for Opera Software ASA in the longer term. Hallvord R. M. Steen

Another nail in ’s coffin. I suppose I should feel a bit nostalgic, after all I wrote my first ever blog post on My Opera, but… While I sympathize with the users who will see their content disappear or will have to struggle to move it elsewhere, My Opera was an inferior solution for blogging, filled with spam accounts and I won’t feel any regrets to see it shut down.

The New York Times: “Unemployed in Europe Stymied by Lack of Technology Skills”

Skills Mismatch

In all countries, there is an expectation that many of the new jobs created will be in the knowledge-intensive economy, said Glenda Quintini, a senior labor economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But we are seeing a worrisome skills mismatch that means a large number of unemployed people are not well prepared for the pool of jobs opening up.

Employers have long complained that graduates do not have the skills they need. But in a recent report, the International Labor Organization warned that skills mismatches and occupational shifts have worsened in Europe in the wake of the crisis. People laid off in hard-hit sectors, from construction to finance, face lengthy retraining, while too few graduates entering the job market have chosen engineering, science or technology degrees for the growing innovation-based jobs market.

Liz Alderman

That’s a long-term problem that will require some serious rethinking of the education system – most students choose their studies based on the current demands of the market, which can shift dramatically in the years it takes to graduate. Technology moves so fast these days that people looking for jobs need to be more flexible than ever, willing to learn and employ new skills. Companies can certainly help through their own training and internship programs, but many don’t have the time or resources to organize large-scale programs – or they don’t want to undergo the risk that the trainees will find other jobs once the trainings are complete.

The Wall Street Journal: “Dollar-and-Cents Secrets of Music Streaming”

Data reviewed by The Wall Street Journal showed that one major record company makes more per year, on average, from paying customers of streaming services like Spotify or Rdio than it does from the average customer who buys downloads, CDs or both.

The average "premium" subscription customer in the U.S. was worth about $16 a year to this company, while the average buyer of digital downloads or physical music was worth about $14. […]

The lesson for record companies and artists appears to be: making disposable hits may once have been a viable business, but new technology could demand tunes built to last.

Ethan Smith

Wow, people actually listening to good music instead of pop one-hit-wonders?! Crazy!

Irony aside, if the data is real, it’s a good sign for the music business and it’s long time success – at a time when digital sales are stating to decline. Streaming is probably the most fair revenue model for artists: the more people like the music, the more they listen, the more the artist gets paid – and his record label as well!

jasonkincaid.net: “Evernote, the bug-ridden elephant”

More than that, I am alarmed that Evernote seems to be playing fast and loose with the data entrusted to it. Instead of building a product that is secure, reliable, and fast, it has spread itself too thin, trying to build out its install base across as many platforms as possible in an attempt to fend off its inevitable competition.

This strategy is tolerable for a social network or messaging app (Facebook got away with atrociously buggy apps for years). But Evernote is literally aiming to be an extension of your brain, the place to store your most important ideas. Its slogan is “Remember Everything”. Presumably the integrity of its data should be of the utmost importance.

Jason Kincaid

Evernote’s bugginess aside, the story should be a reminder to always have local back-ups for data stored in the could, no matter which company is providing the service.

05 January 2014

Philip K. Dick - Omul din Castelul Înalt

in Bucharest, Romania

Philip K. Dick - The Man in the High CastleÎn San Francisco‑ul anilor ‘60, Robert Childan se străduiește să‑și păstreze clienții pentru magazinul său de antichități americane în fața concurenței din ce în ce mai acerbe și a descoperirii îngrijorătoare că multe dintre exponatele sale nu sunt decât niște copii fabricate în masă. Unul dintre clienții săi fideli, reprezentantul comercial japonez Nobusuke Tagomi, așteaptă vizita unui om de afaceri suedez, dl. Baynes, pentru a negocia drepturile de folosire asupra tehnicilor acestuia de fabricare a materialelor plastice. Frank Frink își dă demisia de la Corporația Wyndham-Matson și se lansează într‑o nouă afacere, fabricând bijuterii după modele proprii, asociindu‑se cu un fost coleg, Ed McCarthy. Într‑un orășel din Munții Stâncoși, Juliana Frink, foste soție a lui Frank, lucrează ca instructor de judo și simte din nou dorul de ducă care n‑o lasă să se stabilească undeva anume, atunci când îl întâlnește pe camionagiul Joe Cinnadella și pleacă cu el spre Denver.

După cum remarcam recent, istoriile alternative în care Germania nazistă a câștigat Al Doilea Război Mondial în defavoarea Aliaților sunt un subiect frecvent pentru autorii de science-fiction și romane de acțiune. Și dacă descrierea de mai sus nu dezvăluie asta, Omul din Castelul Înalt e unul dintre primele rezultate ale acestei obsesii, poate cel mai reușit. Aici punctul de divergență este asasinarea lui Roosevelt în 1933, în urma căreia Statele Unite au pierdut conducerea adecvată pentru a ieși din criză și a fi în măsură să respingă atacurile japoneze. În urma războiului, Statele au fost împărțite între puterile victorioase ca și Germania în istoria noastră, coasta Pacificului revenind Japoniei, cea de Est Germaniei, iar Vestul Mijlociu formând un stat independent.