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October 17th, 2010

12:38 pm - Standing on a street corner
Once a year, it seems I am allotted by fate (or my own incompetence) a late-night odyssey of public transportation FAILs following and otherwise wonderful evening.

This year's was last night. Thank you, GRT Free Extended Oktoberfest service, for stealing the busses I was expecting and confusing me by making all normal and accessible schedules completely wrong.

Thank you, shiny new iPhone, for keeping me entertained and inaccurately informed, extending my patience with impossible busses well past the point when I just should have given up.

And a much more sincere thank you to Joel, Erin and Brittany for the unexpected and unasked for but nonetheless quite welcome rescue.

In hindsight, if I'd just walked straight home rather than waiting for busses that never come and stubbornly trying to "win" at the bus game, I'd have certainly been home by the time said rescue happened. In my defense: although I didn't drink, I think I was quite naturally intoxicated by the fun, dancing, and merriment of the evening :)

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August 25th, 2010

02:51 pm - No, Steve Jobs does not want to watch you.
In response to a recently published patent application, EFF claims "Steve Jobs Is Watching You: Apple Seeking to Patent Spyware", full of sky-is-falling rhetoric about how creepy and invasive this is. Ugh.

Apple tends to patent a LOT of ideas that never get shipped or implemented -- they seem to view a patent portfolio as a defensive arsenal, and to my knowledge have only initiated patent litigation when specifically provoked.

I wouldn't necessarily say that Apple is pursuing this to prevent others from following through on the more invasive of the ideas in the application; instead, there ARE some plausible ideas here that could work (as an opt-in system), and as with any patent application, the lawyers and the engineers have aimed to make their claims as general and wide-reaching as possible.

EFF's coverage of this is a bit alarmist. They're reacting as if Apple actually plans to add all this to an iPhone, collecting all the personal data, sanctioning jailbroken phones, without any ability for users to opt-out, and doing so without any additional privacy policy in place. It's silly:

1) The patent application doesn't "allow" Apple to do anything, and a high-level sketch is a far cry from a working system. Apple has given no indication that they are actually planning to do ANY of this.

2) Apple has generally been quite sensitive to privacy concerns -- much moreso than Google in recent years -- and anything remotely along these lines would be an opt-in feature. To do otherwise would be ILLEGAL in most jurisdictions. In fact, I'd say that as the rivalry with Schmidt's Google has grown, Apple has become increasingly defensive about protecting its customers privacy.

3) The ideas are very clearly focused on "stolen phone" scenarios. Jailbreaking is only mentioned in the application inasmuch as it is, on one level, a suspicious behaviour: someone in possession of a stolen phone is more likely to attempt to jailbreak it than a normal phone owner. (Although I'd think the vast majority of jailbroken phones are nonetheless NOT stolen.) The application makes no mention on how one might even detect jailbreaking attempts.

4) If Apple actually tried to use this to sanction jailbreaking specifically, they'd face a world of legal and PR hurt. Apple is not dumb. Everything I've seen indicated that they are not specifically trying to make jailbreaking impossible; instead they're trying to stay ahead of the curve enough that jailbreaking remains inconvenient and sketchy enough that the average user is unlikely to bother.

It's a bit like suggesting GM could use OnStar to detect "unauthorized" modifications to a vehicle's engine, spy on its driver, and remotely disable the vehicle: yes, technically, they can do all that. But first you need to both activate the OnStar system, and opt-in to the relevant services, and at the end of the day there's a mountain of both legal and common-sense reasons why GM isn't abusing the system in this fashion.

Actually, now that I think about it, the comparison between GM's OnStar and Apple's MobileMe is quite apt. Both are subscription services offered via the manufacturer that enable a variety of network-based convenience and security functions. If Apple does move forward with anything in this patent, it would almost certainly be limited to being an extension of MobileMe's existing "Find My iPhone" set of features -- you'd need to both pay for the service AND opt-in to the feature.

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July 17th, 2010

08:23 pm - That iPhone 4 Antenna Drama
There is continued outcry over the iPhone 4 antenna story, despite Apple's quite excellent response on Friday.

Andy Ihnatko perhaps put it best:

"Steve Jobs didn’t fall to his knees, rend his garment, clap his hands together, and beg for forgiveness from users and stockholders.

This has upset many people.

These people are idiots."

...but I felt oddly compelled to write a more detailed argument, in response to this post, which argues that Apple should have published real dBm measurements instead of "bars", accuses them of trying to cover-up the issue with an ever-changing story, and contains statements such as:

"Instead, he refused to take any real responsibility."
"Jobs refuses to admit they did anything wrong."

What did Jobs or Apple do wrong?

All this antenna issue really is is a design trade-off. Apple designed the phone with a new, better antenna, and by almost all reports it works noticeably better than its predecessors *as long as* you're not giving it a grip-of-death.

Yesterday's demonstrations showed that the existence of a death-grip is not a new or unique phenomenon. It's not a "design flaw" that they're trying to cover up. It's a fact of life, and people have been getting by without noticing or caring about that for years. Is iPhone 4 MORE vulnerable to it? Perhaps, but not substantially so (and the performance the rest of the time is worth the risk). Why should you need to know anything more detailed than that?

Do you truly expect a company focused on elegant, easy-to-use design to accompany each product release with a laundry list of the trade-offs that went into that design, and the rough spots that they hope to refine for the next version? Of course not.

It's well established in the psychology literature that humans make poorer decisions when presented with too much information. Our brains get overwhelmed by the numbers and we lose track of what's truly important, and end up basing our decisions on numbers that are ultimately irrelevant.

One could say that recognizing this phenomenon is a big part of Apple's success -- both in the simplicity of its products, and in the effectiveness of its marketing. So of course they withheld dBm's in favour of bars. Bars is what started this whole circus, bars are what you can actually demonstrate in a short video, and, to date, only a single tech blog has actually made an effort to illuminate this discussion with real measurements beyond that. Anandtech did a great job with that, but Apple has to say things with a wider audience in mind, and publishing their measurements of the death-grip-attenuation of competitors' phones would open them unnecessary liabilities and distract from the fundamental message: this is not a new problem. The phone works, and 3 million users can testify to that.

Might there be other antenna problems out there, affecting just a subset of users? Perhaps, but if there are, they're affecting only a very small number, and Apple is continuing to look into those possibilities. Jobs stated this quite plainly yesterday. How is this an attempt to cover something up, or avoid responsibility?

If you're really concerned, you can go ahead and get one of the free cases they've offered. Problem solved. If you're still not happy, you can return the phone. Again, how is this a refusal to take responsibility?

The announcement about the miscalculation of bars IS an accurate description of the situation. I'm sure, inside Apple, they had tested how much the signal would be attenuated when held in a death grip. This ~24 dB drop (based on Anandtech's numbers), or roughly two bars on average, was deemed acceptable.

You can imagine their surprise to see a demonstration video showing a 5-to-0 bar drops from touching its weak point. They were aware of the weak point, but it shouldn't be causing such a significant drop. Further investigation showed that their measurements of the weak-point attenuation were correct... it was actually the mapping of signal-strength to displayed bars that was wonky. The range of strengths that would map to a display of two or three bars was unintentionally narrow, and the iPhone 4's antenna is able to hold on to a signal well into the 0 bars zone. Given this compression, there's a corner case where if the phone is just barely at a 5-bar level, and exposed to a worst-case death-grip, then it will drop from 5 to 0 while still working as expected.

So they fixed the mapping to use more regular intervals, and a 24 dB decrease now consistently translates to a two bar drop (perhaps three in the worst case).

If the iPhone 4 had shown this behaviour from the very start, would that early video of the weak point have been dramatic enough to kick-off such a firestorm? Probably not. So you can see how, from Jobs' perspective, that display issue was the real "problem" at the time that they identified it.

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May 25th, 2010

01:20 am - A Spoiler-Free Defense of the Lost creators and their plan.
Some are using Lost's finale, "The End", and its failure to address whatever his or her favourite unanswered mysteries, as justification for arguing that Cuse and Lindelof had no plan. This is incorrect. Although they've gone "radio silent" for the next few months, to let the ending stand on its own and give fans a chance to debate and contemplate it without Word Of God stepping all over things, they HAVE given a large number of interviews and Q&As over the past week, during the gap between finishing post-production of the finale and its broadcast.

There are answers to a lot of the mysteries that people are complaining went unanswered, but sometimes you have to read between the lines. In many cases, the people complaining have either failed to make the appropriate inferences, or actively refused to accept the answers the were provided.

Such refusal is likely motivate by a failure to distinguish between what the show hinted at or suggested, and what the show actually showed us as being true. People who took certain hints as "the truth!" are frustrated when the creators took a different tact that was inconsistent with that perceived truth. This isn't, strictly speaking, the writers' fault: the show subverted they viewer's expectation, and the viewer failed to acknowledge and revise their expectation accordingly.

On the *few* occasions when there has been an honest-to-god screw up, Cuse and Lindelof have owned up to it quite readily (via things like their podcast). For other mythology stuff, well, some of the hidden rules they were operating on later on *might* be different from their earlier forms, but since these rules are never fully defined within the text of the show (or by any authoritative outside source, for that matter) it's inaccurate to call these instances inconsistencies. The show had acknowledged/incorporated enough fantasy elements that the issues can be worked around with only a modicum of fanwankery.

The writers steadfastly refused to give point-blank "this is what was going on there" answers within the text of the show, which is to their credit as storytellers.*

So, regarding the plan: While certain ideas might have been present from the get-go, the bulk of the big mythology and the overall 5-to-6 year plan was drafted between seasons 1 and 2 (which was really the first chance after it became clear that the show was a hit when the writers had time to do more than just worry about writing the next few episodes.) Cuse and Lindelof have been upfront about this lately, in a lot of places. You'll notice this is consistent with the show: season 1 was all about atmosphere/aesthetic, using the mysterious backdrop to fuel conflict and help us get to know the characters, while season 2, from the outset, began introducing concrete mythology elements and unfolded from there.

When it came to executing this plan, I imagine that while they tried to stick with the big ideas where possible, they also wanted to keep their options open and avoid writing anything in stone. Before each season, they'd collectively hash out the overall story arc that the season would cover -- what slice of the big plan they'd be dealing with, and how they'd handle telling that part of the story.

Then, of course, they'd tackle the problem of breaking the story for each episode. Television being a collaborative medium, and production deadlines being what they are, there's no way they could possibly break all of the stories for an entire season in advance of filming them, so on a certain level, sure, they were making things up as they went along, but there was always a degree of blueprints for where the stories were going. (The informal rule between Cuse and Lindelof was that if they both thought an idea was really cool, they'd put it in the show.)

The "slow" points of the series, most notably early/mid-season 3, were when they didn't have a final end date set yet, and began to fear running out of material and consequently started to put out some filler to avoid the need to start moving on some of the bigger planned points. In hindsight, the use of filler can almost be viewed as a negotiating tactic to get the network to allow them to end the show on their own terms. (This was successful, and a deal was announced late in season 3.)

The writers aren't infallible, and sometimes the logistics of television get in the way -- actors want to leave, or certain story ideas prove too hard to break, or they just run out of the time they'd need to address certain question while they're still relevant -- and that is simply the nature of the game. One could argue that for much of the show's run, they played it too conservatively, hoarding the answers for fear of either running out of story material or committing themselves to an aspect of the plan that might later prove untenable. In other instances, to maintain an air of mystery they'd hold back on showing us something, only to find that there wasn't really a fitting point later on where showing the answer actually fit. They've admitted, for instance, they had ideas for Ilana's backstory, going into detail about her life, but in the end deemed it not important enough to be worth the time it would take away from the main characters.

No, not everything was answered, but a hell of a lot of it was if you're willing to pay attention and connect the dots, and most of the rest is either pretty irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, or something that is intentionally unanswerable -- in keeping with the show's themes of science vs faith, accepting that you can't know or control everything in life, and leaving the viewers with something to debate with each other. I felt the final message of the show quite effective at driving home a "don't sweat the small stuff" sort of message.

*-AND recently there's been word that the season six (and/or complete series) DVD set will include a featurette of some sort offering the intended answers for many of those little things that never quite fit into the show. (I'm even more curious to hear what they have to say about what might-have-been, i.e., aspects of the original plan that had to be altered to accommodate logistical things like actor availability.) While Cuse and Lindelof are refusing to discuss the ending right now, they've also stated that they're collectively too much of an attention whore to stay silent forever.
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April 10th, 2010

06:04 pm - Conversations with my mother: slang edition.
Mom: okay
Mom: I may still be out...
Mom: see yl
Mom: ohohoh cyl
Mom: ?

Wes: ?

Mom: did I just make that up?
Mom: instead of ttyl
Mom: cyl

Wes: heh i believe the more common abbreviation is
Wes: c u l8r

Mom: but mine is so much more succinct

Wes: yeah. cyl.

Mom: bye

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March 6th, 2010

07:20 pm
A recently published patent application from Apple detailing a idea for inserting add breaks into online videos included the following figure:

This struck me as oddly familiar: Is that Charlie? Did they just trace out a frame from an episode of Lost?


Why yes, yes they did:

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February 23rd, 2010

04:28 pm
All this talk about "Own The Podium" has had me looking into historical Winter Olympic medal numbers. Norway, in particular, has attracted my interest: it's a tiny country -- population is less than 5 million -- but for decades it has consistently been at or near the top of medals ranking. And, aside from the occasional medals in speed skating, curling, and snowboarding, all of these many many medals have been in skiing events. (Which isn't altogether surprising: skiing accounts for over half of the medals available in the Winter Olympics.)

I am left to assume that skiing is the primary mode of transport and/or exercise among Norwegians.

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January 30th, 2010

08:13 pm - Lost, pre-Season 6 thoughts
This Tuesday, the sixth and final season of Lost will begin. If you are sitting next to me when that happens, I will likely react in the same way as the guys in the first minute of this video.

This week I re-watched Season 5, and have lots of thought running through my head. Hopefully this isn't too disorganized. Spoilers ahead, for anyone who isn't up-to-date.

Long-winded geekery and spoilers ahead. Turn back now.Collapse )
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November 6th, 2009

07:05 pm - Let's be social!
There seems to be a bunch of upcoming things that I might not bother to do on my own, but would enthusiastically help organize if others are interested:

1. Where the Wild Things Are: I've essentially missed my chance to see this at Galaxy, but it should probably be showing up at Princess Twin sometime soon.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox: I'm a fan of Wes Anderson, but I've never actually seen one of his films in theatre. I also read (practically?) every Roald Dahl book when I was 9, but I can't remember much about this one. The reviews are glowing. The film's wide release date is around November 25th.

3. Leonid Meteor Shower: I missed my chance on the Perseids this year, but the Leonids are expected to be quite good, which the best viewing in eastern North America happening in the predawn hours of this Tuesday (November 17th).

4. Big-ass Bruce Trail Hike: Some geocaching acquaintances have been doing big Bruce Trail hikes four times a year, with the intent of completing the entirety by 2017. The next one is next Saturday (November 21), and they'll be doing the first quarter of the Iroquoia section of the trail: a 29km hike from Grimsby to the base of the escarpment in Hamilton. Full event details are here. Plan is to start at 9am, with estimated finish time around 6:30pm. These people are quite organized, and plenty of conversation and geocaching is sure to happen along the way. There will be cars at both ends, and carpooling between, so you don't have to spend all night walking BACK :P

So, anyone interested?

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November 1st, 2009

01:38 pm - Google Wave!
I have a Google Wave account, and no idea what I should be using it for. But it came with a bunch of ("will not be sent immediately") invites, and it seems clear that its usefulness is proportional to the number of friends I have also using it.

So who's interested?

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