2012.01.26

The Robot Economy

We live in a world in crisis. Comparisons to the 1920s and 1930s are inevitable, but the crisis, similarly to the ones before it, conceal not economic, but political roots: It is a crisis born of the fallacies of a world governance, world economy and global priorities decided by and enforced upon the world by a few powerful states and corporate groups that more or less dictate the rules of the game. This time the rules of the game, rigged from the beginning to suit whatever interests were at play at the time of their introduction, were flawed. Flawed, and — as it turned out — dangerous.

It is hard for anyone in touch with reality not to be concerned about the repercussions and the destructive potential of this crisis. If the situation was to be summarised in one word, a pointless endeavour no less, I would say that the elevation of profit as the basic and dominant metric that largely defines modern civilization and the governing policies affecting people, environment and — ultimately — life on this planet was central to this crisis. There is nothing wrong, of course, with individuals, organisations and countries being profitable or aiming to make a profit of coursed. This is true, as long as there is a fair, stable and reasonable system of rules in place that prevents conditions where profit yields unlimited power over other values. Everything is wrong with elevating profit to the sole determinant of social policy, of allowing finance to override sovereign and international institutions. The fallacy with this crisis stems from allowing profit to become this central metric, displacing others, arguably more important to life, culture, long-term prosperity, peace; many, both in Europe and elsewhere are spending huge amounts of time and effort in studying the detailed economic reasons. Such efforts are ultimately irrelevant, a lower level of discourse that is only seemingly important because of the underlying social decision to elevate the importance of trade, finance and profit to such a high place; no, this crisis is a deeply political, social and philosophical one above all. Economists striving to coat every single issue in a pseudo-scientific, pseudo-rational economic explanation are wasting their time — and would be extremely amusing if the current social environment did not empower them with considerable social policy influence.

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2011.10.26

KF8. The path to fragmentation.

Amazon announced Kindle Format 8, a new format for ebooks destined for its popular ebook reader. The new format, based on html5, promises books with small file sizes, excellent rendering performance, varying typefaces, tables and, in general, much more complex layouts and as a result way more beautiful books than the standard experience typically found in today’s mobi books — there is already another format, azw4/topaz, another format supported by the kindle that also allows ‘custom’ typefaces, but is riddled with other deficiencies, among them being bitmap based.

Leaving aside the complication for ebook publishers, and the remedies thereof, the main problem with kf8 is that Amazon has already made it clear that it is destined for only the fourth generation of Kindles (including the Kindle Fire tablet, which is the first device that will see kf8 support) and not any of the previous generations. Some might argue that the issues are technical, but given that the latest Kindle with Keyboard seems to be essentially a rebadged Kindle 3, I don’t really buy that. Amazon is playing an Apple card here, intentionally crippling older devices that would be perfectly capable, after a firmware upgrade, to render ebooks in kf8.

If my numerous assumptions above are valid, I think that they are wrong to choose this path of content fragmentation. A few years ago people bet that Amazon would be giving away Kindles to members of its prime programme in the U.S. and, eventually, everyone. With dwindling net profits, moves such as this, the general realisation of the limits and drawbacks of ebooks by the general public, especially when they are DRMed, it’s easy to think that even a company that successful can drop the ball. Somehow I feel that Amazon needs to copy Apple’s drop of FairPlay, open up and start playing nice(r) if it wishes to turn its excellent headstart into a longlasting dominance of the market.

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»  The Kindle and the 1970s.

Electronic Paper was invented at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (sic) in the 1970s. In 2007, Amazon, one of the largest online retailers in the world and probably the only corporation capable to even think of trying this given the combination of its vast inventory, business relationships to the publishing industry and technological know-how, made the first large commercially viable attempt at bringing it to the masses. I don’t know if the Kindle, as it’s called, is going to succeed or not (I can already think of a number of problems with it), but the idea of an electronic book becoming a reality seems fascinating. If only it didn’t look like a prop from a 1970’s sci-fi TV show…

The product and associated service are only available in the U.S. for the time being. Europe is a technically much more difficult market: as the device is using 3G broadband, and more specifically EV-DO, it will need to be modified to use the 3GSM/UMTS variant, HSDPA. Then, Amazon would need an agreement with the cellular network operators in the countries it’s planning on launching the product/service before it could become an even remote possibility. And that’s not counting the publishing rights on each country etc. My guess is that, if the Kindle comes to Europe by Amazon, it’s probably going to be limited to the UK, Germany and France. The other problem, of course, is the lack of WiFi. With mobile internet rapidly becoming the norm, the choice of 3G networking might not prove to be a good one in the long run, no matter what Jeff Bezos thinks.

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2007.08.08

Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle

I got to know of Neal Stephenson from a good friend in the winter of 1999, some months after Cryptonomicon was published. He used to read it during the long boring lecture days at Imperial and over the course of a couple of weeks I got to catch a glimpse of the interweaved stories Stephenson eloquently presented in that book; enough of a glimpse so that when the summer of 2000 came and I was killing time at Heathrow, waiting for my return flight to Athens I picked up a paperback copy myself from an airport bookstore.

Love for Sci-Fi. Aversion to Cyberpunk.

I used to read a lot of literature when I was a child and until my early to mid teens. Yet by 2000 my relationship with literature had largely given its place to countless hours spent with technology, music and other interests; perhaps it was the thirty odd hours of lectures per week plus the constant progress reports, coursework and weekly tests the university required, along with my numerous other interests, friends etc. that relegated reading literature books to the backburner. It certainly was not what it used to be some years earlier. During those years most of my reading was either purely technical or scientific or involved history.
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2006.11.05

Mac OS X Internals

Mac OS X took the unassimilated, thinking and computer-literate world by storm since its release on the 24th of March 2001. Its combination of commercial, high quality software applications, a state-of-the-art, ever-evolving and well thought out desktop environment and the solid Unix underpinnings that came with NeXT’s acquisition, gave it a significant part of its ‘holy-grail’ appeal that has so far eluded both the Classic Mac OS, Microsoft’s clone thereof and more recent efforts for desktop evolution on linux.

Yet, besides the æsthetics and usability aspects as well as the appeal that OS X may have on the general population, it is a technically very interesting engineering and `cultural’ feat, as it represents the amalgamation of a number of previously seemingly orthogonal (or incompatible if you prefer) technologies, ironically offering a largely complementary set of features: the stability, security and familiarity of FreeBSD, the object oriented driver model of NeXT, the once-promising-often-dismissed microkernel Mach, the legendary ease of use and intuitiveness of the Macintosh. While most people will probably feel right at home and include OS X in their daily computer use routine, without bothering to spend time or money on any of the introductory books directed at the casual user of the OS, there is a significant (and, I feel, ever-increasing) part of the OS X userbase that comes from the adventurous Unix world and is keen on learning the intricate details of the system. It is for this group that Mac OS X Internals was written for. And with more than 1600 pages in 12 chapters, it certainly contains a wealth of information for the curious or technically proficient user.
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2006.09.15

The Evolution of the Classical Guitar: Loudness vs. colour

About a year ago, a good friend of mine showed me a copy of the , by John Morrish, an illustrated historical account of the classical guitar. I was immediately drawn to the book’s visual wealth and layout, with large pictures of numerous guitars from the past, but also contending designs of today. I was very impressed by the book, not only because of the apparent quality of the work, but also because of significant value for any (aspiring) classical guitarist: knowing the differences in the design of guitars, the challenges faced by luthiers and players all over the world, whether they are playing flamenco or baroque, is exceptionally useful, both technically, as you get to appreciate design decisions and adjust your playing to the instrument at hand, but also æsthetically and artistically, as you delve deeper into what it means to create a beautiful sounding instrument. Besides the immediate value of learning about the various Spanish and International luthiers, some of them of legendary stature, the book presents several scientific and practical techniques and design decisions taken by the luthiers and players of the years to improve the guitar and their performances.
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