Archive for September 2011

La Serena Driving: Notes from Chile

Between the high-revving manual transmission, the shave-the-door lanes, and the staccato “Turn left” instructions issuing from my iPhone GPS, driving here has a very XBox-ian feel to it. If you pretend the randomly located speed bumps are power-ups, the illusion is nearly perfect.

There are an astonishing number of taxis, small black Chevies. To leave my hotel, I have to take a right and cross a lane; I am just downhill of a crest and the taxis pronk into view, not airborne but visibly lifting over their suspensions. Since I have to wait for a gap, I dart out in front of a rain of taxi drivers racing for a lead. It’s like running onto the course behind a steeple-chase gate.

Road racing is big here (apparently) and people have taken to wearing stilts to see over the crowd. But stilts are kind of boring, so they wear costumes. And on TV, you see the cars coming through the corners and a swath of tightly packed onlookers and, behind them, all these long-legged butterflies and jesters.

Jugglers busk at the intersection. A juggler works his pins a good 15′ in the air, another rolls his pins over his head backwards and then blindly kicks them back over his head forward with his feet. I wish I had coins to give them.

A cab token costs only a few thousand pesos, so the city is overrun and cab driving is a hard living. I told my dinner companion about New York, where a taxi medallion is worth tens of thousands of dollars, so they are owned by the rich and being a share-cropping cab driver is a hard life.

WinRT is as much about manycore processing as it is about the UI.

The long-term success of every operating system is tied to the progress of hardware, which has taken a 90-degree turn from “faster every generation” to “more parallel every generation.” For the better part of a decade, the chips in new machines have run no faster, but there have been more processors living side-by-side. Many of us run “octocore” desktops and Santa will be delivering 16-core systems to good little programmers this year.

The days of single-threaded programming is over. Done. When someone complains about performance and find out out that your code uses 1/16 or 1/32 of the power available, there’s going to be a lot of trouble. But nevermind *your* problems, think about the OS vendors looking at a future with dozens of cores inside a single machine. And not just dozens of cores, but the absolute certainty that the entire hardware infrastructure will be parallelized. The next decade will bring the wholesale reinvention of the PC architecture and I’ll bet dollars to donuts that at least one major operating system is going to screw up and lose years of performance improvements. At this point, with Windows still recovering from the Vista debacle and still trying to get its mobile feet firmly planted, it’s not at all certain that the Windows hegemony will last through 2025.

WinRT, the runtime used for the new “Metro-style” programs of Windows 8, gives Microsoft a new system-level interface that is designed for highly-parallelized programs. Every function that is expected to take more than 1/20th of a second to execute has been recast in an asynchronous form: developers will certainly be able to screw up and write programs that block/freeze, but they will have difficulty blaming that problem on the OS.

A highly asynchronous system-level API gives Microsoft the top-down leverage it needs to squirrel around at the lowest levels, reworking the OS incrementally to work with more-and-more side-by-side processing. The dramatic break in UI appearance is both a powerful aesthetic incentive and a subtle indicator of compliance — you want the Metro UI and, if you have it, your code is built on a foundation that has firm asynchronous roots.

Given the development tempo and lifespan of enterprise applications, it is not a moment too soon for this change.

Birds: Notes From Chile

As the sun falls, the seagulls, which have been the only birds I’ve seen, are joined by some swifts darting into the facade of nearby buildings and a trio of hawks or maybe kites: rather drab, but with that athletic sharp-banked twisting flight.

The wide beach has a cold-looking tumbling surf but there are no surfers, at least tonight. Finally I see some seabirds beyond gulls — a trio of pelicans riding the ground-effect of the waves and an ill-defined flock of diving seabirds I can’t see well in the heavy glare.

I have beheld a Peruvian booby! I love boobies! And not just because of the name; they are elegant flyers (but mostly because of the name). I have now seen every booby but one — the blue-footed.

As we leave Choros, an Ibis lifts heavily out of the grass and flies alongside the bus for a hundred yards. It’s head is a lovely complex of curves.

I saw a seagull near the supermarket that looked like it was cross-bred with an albatross. It had long thin pointed wings like an ocean cruiser. I’m pretty sure it was just a seagull, but a fine Antipodean gull cut out for scavenging dumpsters off Cape Horn.

Condors ride thermals, and thermals are bad for seeing, so when the condors are at the observatory, the astronomers curse.

It’s funny how shorebirds seem to be globally distributed. I’ve seen phalaropes, curlews, plovers, and what looked like an oystercatcher — whether they are local species or the same as California I don’t know.

A bay at Isla Dama is named after a “scissor bird” which sounds like a skimmer — a bird that flies at high speed with its beak splitting the ocean surface, trying to spear a sunning fish. I’ve always wanted to see a skimmer. I don’t on this trip.

 

A Game of Thrones: My Review

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dynamite, the most compellingly complete “world” I’ve read in I-can’t-remember. The world is brilliant, a gritty and “realistic” medieval-ish place with slowly-introduced fantastical elements — summers and winters last for years (and even decades), there were once dragons, there are zombies (wights… same thing). Martin’s tone is pitch-perfect, too, with vivid descriptions that never overstep into the sentimental.

The characters are the weak point, but that’s only noticeable because one character (Tyrion the Imp) is fully realized, complex, and the flatness of the others is apparent in contrast. On the other hand, there’s a certain amount of “people are the way they are because they’re duty-bound and locked into roles,” so maybe those characters will flower in later books.

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6 iPhone Apps for Traveling to Chile

On my recent trip to Chile, I used the following iPhone apps:

Word Lens: Realtime translation. You point the iPhone at a sign or menu and you see live video, but the Spanish words are translated into English. It not only provides a “Wow!” experience, it’s actually by far the most useful translator, since it can be used with relatively little fanfare on, for instance, a menu. The words sometimes swim in and out of translation and only the words, not the grammar, is translated, but you definitely get the sense of what’s going on.

 

Photosynth: Panoramic photos. You click “start” and the camera takes a photo, bordered with a dash. As you move the camera around, more photos are added automatically … *click* *click* *click* and a panorama is built up in no time. When you are done, the stitching of the images is completed and you have a panoramic image. The stitching is not perfect (take a look at this quite-poor job of the Gemini South telescope, which I thought would be an excellent candidate, given the strong lines of the telescope’s struts), but the image-capture is lightning fast and on landscapes it seems to do a better job.

 

Camera+: Photography. There are a few things I like about this application over the iPhone’s built-in camera app. First, it has a “stabilizer” mode which only takes a photo when your hand has steadied; obviously, you can’t use this in all situations, but I prefer it when trying to take a landscape. Second, it has built-in sharing for Facebook. Third, you can crop and do basic adjustments in the app. Pretty simple to use and adds some real functionality.

 

Trip Journal: Note-taking. A limited, but useful, product that allows you to keep together your photos, notes, and locations. If you actually want to put together a travelogue, you want to organize your stuff by time, which can be difficult if you keeo your notes in one program, your photos in another, and GPS waypoints in a third. Trip Journal ties together these things, *but* cannot import notes or photos from other applications and has very limited editing capabilities. It turns out, though, that it’s export format (.tjz) is just a zip file that contains an XML document and the photo JPEGs, so if you’re the type of person who says “Oh! Well, that makes it easy,” it’s a good product.

 

Night Stand: Alarm Clock I use this as my alarm clock. Some reviews complain of the alarm not working, but I use this app every day and it work for me. What people *may* be complaining about is that if you set the alarm clock to a song that is subsequently removed from the phone, the app will not complain (e.g., I have a “smart playlist” that puts highly-rated and “not recently played” music on my phone; if I set Night Stand to wake to some song on that playlist and subsequently sync the iPhone and that song gets removed, Night Stand will silently fail). So instead, I just make sure that the song I choose to wake to is on the phone and won’t get bumped (on this trip, I chose to wake to “Drunken Sailor,” by the Blaggards. Hey ho and up she rises!)

 

Tom Tom Chile: Navigation A few years ago, I drove around for 45 minutes in what couldn’t have been more than an 8-block area looking for my hotel. I swore that I would never rent a car without turn-by-turn navigation again. This app is probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought for my iPhone, but for me, in a foreign country, with extremely limited Spanish, and no 3G Internet (I actually didn’t bring my SIM-card with me on this trip), it was worth it. The street maps seemed quite accurate *but* were very, very bad about 1-way restrictions, which were extremely common. So “Ms. Garmin” would often be commanding me to move towards an impossible route. But, at some point she’d give up and reroute me through something manageable. I used this with a vent mount that I brought with me, but I neglected to bring an in-car recharger, which would have been a mistake had I not been primarily in the city. The Garmin app *sucks* power, even when it’s in the background (I think what drains the power is the real-time navigation; pressing *Clear Route* when you don’t need it seems to help quite a bit).

The Ice Limit: My Review

The Ice LimitThe Ice Limit by Douglas Preston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun thriller concerned with the recovery of a meteorite on the frozen islands off Cape Horn. There’s a good deal of nonsense: engineering that would take months or years is done in a matter of days (to the point of being confusing: “What? Where did a *road* come from?”), the crazy career-ruining theory that just happens to be redeemed, and an epilogue that takes the over-the-top ending to a new level. But, y’know, not every twist is telegraphed, the character’s fates are somewhat surprising, and the story plays itself out within the rules it lays out for itself. The action is paced well and builds to a series of fun and increasingly implausible climaxes, which is I think exactly what you want in this kind of book. The next time I take a 6-hour flight, I’d read another book by these authors.

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