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Paul Graham recommends doing things that don’t scale

As usual, Paul Graham writes an interesting piece about startups. He recommends doing things that don’t scale. Thinking like a big company is a sure way to fail. It’s a reassuring piece for the startup creator that I am, because at Taodyne, we are indeed in this phase where you do everything yourself and you’d need 48 hours a day to do the basics. Good to know that the solution to this problem is to keep working.

Connect this to the survivor bias. This is a very serious cognitive bias, which makes us look only at the survivors, at the planes who return from combat, at the successful entrepreneurs. Because we don’t look at the dead startups or planes that were shot down, we build our statistics on a biased sample. As a result, we make incorrect assumptions. For example, if the planes that return have mostly been shot in the tail and wings, you might deduce that this is where planes are being shot at, so that’s the parts you need to protect, when in reality what this proves is that these are the parts that don’t prevent a plane from returning when shot. Very useful.

Last interesting link of the day is the discussion about bullying on the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML). Sarah Sharp, a female Intel engineer, stands up to Linus Torvalds and asks him to stop verbal abuse. It’s an interesting conflict between very smart people. To me, there’s a lot of cultural difference at play here (one of the main topics of Grenouille Bouillie). For example, I learned from Torvalds what Management by Perkele means. On one side, it’s legitimate for Sarah to explain that she is offended by Linus’ behavior. On the other hand, it’s legitimate for Linus to keep doing what works.

Sarah reminds me of a very good friend of mine and former colleague, Karen Noel, a very sharp engineer who joined me on the HPVM project and taught me everything I forgot about VMS. Like Sarah, Karen was willing to stand up her ground while remaining very polite.

Everything is broken and no one cares

February 10, 2013 1 comment

Everything is broken and no one cares

This post from Dear Apple is just so true, and so clearly on topic for Grenouille Bouillie!

Have we reached the point in complexity where we can’t make good quality products anymore? Or is that some kind of strategic choice?

The original post is mostly about Apple products, but the same is true with Linux, with Android, with Windows.

Here is my own list of additional bugs, focusing on those that can easily be reproduced:

  1. Open a file named X in any of the new Apple applications, those without Save As. Open another file named Y. Save Y as X. Beachball. For every application. Worse yet, since applications often remember which windows were open, you get the beachball again when you reopen the application. It takes another force quit for the application to (fortunately) offer to not reopen the windows.
  2. A relatively well known one now: Type F i l e : / / / in practically any OSX application. Without the spaces. Hang or assert depending on your luck.
  3. Use a stereoscopic application like Tao Presentations (http://www.taodyne.com). Activate stereoscopy. Switch spaces or unplug an external monitor. Kernel panic or hang to be expected. Go tell to your customers that the kernel panic is Apple’s fault, not ours…
  4. If you backup over the network, set your computer to sleep after say 1 hour while on power. Change your disk enough that the backup takes more than one hour. Backup disk will come up as corrupt after a couple of days, and OSX will suggest you start a new one (and the cycle will repeat).
  5. Use the “Share” button. It takes forever to show up the window (like 2-3 seconds in general on my 2.6GHz quad-core i7 with 8GB of RAM). Since what I type generally begins with an uppercase letter, I usually prepare myself by having the finger on the shift key. But to that stupid animation framework, “shift” means “slow animation down so that Steve can demo it”. Steve is dead, but the “shift” behavior is still there.

I’ll keep updating this list as more come to mind. Add your own favorite bugs in the comments.

First update (Feb 13, 2013):

  1. Safari often fails to refresh various portions of the screen. Visible in particular when used in combination with Redmine. This used to be very annoying, but it has gotten much better in more recent updates of Safari.
  2. iTunes 11 no longer has Coverflow. It was a neat way to navigate in your music, which wasn’t even the default, why remove it?
  3. Valgrind on OSX 10.8 is completely broken. I have no idea what’s wrong, but it’s a pretty useful tool for developers, and Apple has nothing in its own development tools that is even remotely close.
  4. “Detect displays” is gone, both from the Monitors control panel and from the Monitors menu icon. Combine that with the fact that OSX 10.8, unlike its predecessors, sometimes totally fails to detect that you unplug a monitor. And you find yourself with windows stuck on a screen that is no longer there…
  5. That little Monitor menu icon used to be quite handy, e.g. to select the right resolution when connecting to an external projector for the first time. Now, it’s entirely useless. It only offers mirroring, fails to show up 90% of the time when there is a possibility to do mirroring, shows up when mirroring is impossible (e.g. after you disconnected the projector). It used to be working and useful, it’s now broken and useless. What’s not to love?
  6. Contacts used to have a way for me to format phone numbers the way I like. That’s gone. Now I have to accept the (broken) way it formats all phone numbers for me.
  7. I used to be able to sync between iPhone and Contacts relatively reliably. Now, if there’s a way to remove a phone number, I’ve not found it. Old numbers I removed keep reappearing at the next sync, ensuring that I never know which of the 2, 3 or 4 phone numbers I have is the not dead one.
  8. Still in Contacts, putting Facebook e-mail addresses as the first choice for my contacts? No thanks, it was heinous enough that Facebook replaced all genuine email addresses with @facebook.com aliases. But having that as the first one that pops up is really annoying.
  9. Now fixed, but in the early 10.8, connecting a wired network when I also had Wifi on the same network would not give me higher speed. It would just drop all network connectivity.

Updated February 28th after restoring a machine following a serious problem:

  1. Time machine restores are only good if your target disk is at least as big. But with Apple’s recent move to SSD, this may no longer be affordable to you. In my case, I’d like to squeeze 1TB of data into 512G. Time machine does not give me the level of fine-grained control I’d need to restore what I really need. So I need to try and do it manually, which is a real pain.
  2. Calendar sync is a real mess. Restoring calendars from a backup is worse.
  3. Spaces? Where are my good old spaces? Why is it I had spaces on the original machine, no longer have them, and find myself unable to say “I want 6 spaces” or to setup keyboard shortcuts for them as they used to be.

When Google oversteps its authority

Recently, a user of Tao Presentations informed us that Google Chrome displayed a dire warning after he downloaded our software: “Tao Presentations may be malicious software”. Uh oh, for the average Joe, that’s a big no-no.

Google locks out “unapproved” programs

It’s not just us. Recently, I tried to download some of the amazing demos created by Iñigo Quilez. Same thing. Seriously, a 4K exe that manages to display a complete mountain? And Google Chrome would have me believe that there’s room in there for “malicious software”? Get real.

Now, it took me quite a while to find a solution to this problem. Apparently, you just need to record your site in Google’s Webmaster tools, and after scanning your site and ensuring (I assume) that there’s no known virus signature in the files, things should improve.

I still find this really annoying that a browser vendor would, by default, tag unknown files as “malicious”. Who are they to make this judgment call?

Why didn’t Google implement a real solution?

Shouldn’t they instead have something a little more sophisticated, that actually detects malicious signatures? You know, like a real anti-virus? Don’t tell me that Google doesn’t have smart enough engineers to write an in-browser anti-virus that doesn’t completely suck.

Nah, instead they went the easy route: anything that we don’t know is malicious. And we tell your users so.

I used to be a big fan of Chrome. Not anymore. Because of this single issue. I think this demonstrate an incredibly stupid arrogance and lack of technical diligence on Google’s part.

Google overstepped its authority and took advantage of their weight. Let’s not get used to it.

Moi Président de PME

Quel “président” j’aimerais être?

Un président de PME qui, d’abord, respecte la France, qui l’aime. Je suis le président d’une petite société, je ne peux être que président de pratiquement rien, chef de rien, mais en définitive responsable de tout.

Moi, président de PME, je ne suis même pas le chef d’une minorité. Je n’ai pas le temps de recevoir qui que ce soit parce que je travaille soir et week-ends.

Moi, président de PME, j’ai à traiter avec des investisseurs, pas à polémiquer de savoir si on les appelle associés ou collaborateurs.

Moi, président de PME, je participe à toutes sortes de collectes de fond parce que que je n’ai pas l’option du déficit budgétaire.

Moi, président de PME, je fais fonctionner la boîte de façon indépendante, mais j’ai des compte à rendre si j’agis contre l’avis de mon “conseil d’administration” (ou ce qui en tient lieu dans une SAS).

Moi, président de PME, je n’ai pas la prétention de nommer des directeurs, je sais très bien que c’est par leur indépendance d’esprit et leur initiative qu’ils ont mérité ce titre

Moi, président de PME, je fais en sorte que mon comportement soit à chaque instant exemplaire, tout en ayant une conscience plus aigue que jamais de mes propres limites.

Moi, président de PME, ce n’est pas de gaité de coeur que j’ai un statut très peu protégé, sachant très bien que si mes actions venaient à être contestées, aucun magistrat n’hésiterait jamais à me convoquer.

Moi, président de PME, j’ai constitué une équipe paritaire, avec autant de femmes que d’hommes dans la mesure où on peut le faire dans une équipe de cinq. Et alors?

Moi, président de PME, je suis soumis tout comme mes investisseurs à un code de déontologie qui interdit tout conflit d’intérêts. Là encore, et alors?

Moi, président de PME, je constate que mes associés ne cumulent rien, sinon les heures de travail mal payées, car on peut considérer qu’à partir de 70h par semaine, on se consacre plus que pleinement à sa tâche.

Moi, président de PME, j’aimerais bien voir un peu de décentralisation, j’aimerais bien qu’on donne aux forces vives locales que sont les PMEs un nouveau souffle, qu’on tire parti de leurs compétences, qu’on leur accorde un peu de liberté.

Moi, président de PME, j’aimerais bien grossir assez pour avoir des partenaires sociaux ou consacrer du temps aux associations professionnelles. Je préférerais quelques discussions régulières à des lois imposées sans négociation.

Moi, président de PME, je me contenterais bien d’un petit débat. On a évoqué la taxation du capital, et il est légitime qu’il puisse y avoir sur ces questions là un débat citoyen.

Moi, président de PME, je suis soumis à la proportionnelle face à mes actionnaires, et ce n’est pas en 2017, c’est dès maintenant que l’ensemble de leurs sensibilités est représentée.

Moi, président de PME, je suis la tête dans le guidon, avec toute la hauteur de vue qui va avec. J’aimerais bien fixer de grandes orientations, de grandes impulsions, mais en même temps, je dois m’occuper de tout et je dois avoir toujours le souci de la proximité avec les clients.

J’aurais bien aimé une vie un peu plus normale, mais rien n’est normal quand on est président de PME. Etre président, c’est pas si facile. Notre monde traverse une crise majeure, en tous cas la France. Mais on peut encore réussir à se fâcher avec l’Europe. On peut encore créer plein de conflits en se montant les uns contre les autres ou en se disputant sur l’environnement Bien sûr qu’un président doit avoir une réponse toute prête qui prenne de haut ses sujets: “je n’aime pas les riches“, ça suffit largement à montrer qu’on est proche du peuple, qu’on est capable de comprendre toute la complexité de réalité économique et sociale en France.

Cela dit, moi, président de PME, j’aimerais bien qu’on laisse nos investisseurs tranquilles. Ca serait déjà pas mal comme changement tout de suite.

Et si vous ne comprenez pas pourquoi je dis ça:

(Mis à jour pour utiliser le terme de PME, plus général que SAS)

Les explications de Marc Simoncini sur BFM Business

Très intéressante intervention de Marc Simoncini, fondateur entre autres de Meetic.

Dix raisons de ne pas taxer le capital comme les salaires

Au moment où les entrepreneurs se mobilisent contre la nouvelle loi de finances 2013, il faut peut être rappeler pourquoi aligner la fiscalité du capital sur celle des salaires est, au départ, une fausse bonne idée. Read more…

Apple started decaying before Steve Jobs’ death

Sad MacMany have wondered what would happen to Apple after Steve Job’s death. I’m afraid things started to go south at Infinite Loop long before Steve passed away. Case in point: Mac OSX Lion, which I think is the worst version of MacOSX ever (and I’ve used all of them since Rhapsody).

What’s wrong with MacOSX Lion?

While there are a number of relatively useful features in OSX Lion, like being able to resize a window from all sides (granted, not exactly a new feature in the computer world), the general philosophy of that OS seems to be “We know better“. A computer company that thinks it knows better than me how I should use my own computer? Let’s not get used to it.

I will illustrate this with three real-life cases:

  • Ten minutes to reboot on a Core i7 laptop is not cool.
  • How I came to positively hate the mandatory auto-save feature.
  • The sad story of Quit, Select All, Undo and Close Window.

There are a few other smaller cases that I will brush on quickly at the end. Like the broken replacement for good ol’ Save-As, the stereoscopy crashes, the mysterious unimprovements to Spaces, the Screen Saver of Doom…

Ten minutes to reboot is not cool

Many know the great story of Steve Jobs telling an early Mac engineer that making Macs boot faster would save lives. This lesson seems to have been forgotten these days.

This morning, I had a kernel panic in Lion (a not so uncommon occurrence, sadly). So I was forced to reboot. And what happened next prompted me to write this blog entry. Crashing is enough of a waste of time. But then, MacOS X Lion aggravated that by reloading every single tiny window I happened to have open at the time of the crash. And not letting me do anything in the meantime, because you see, it was busy, it had better things to do than even letting me quit an application.

Being able to quit an application is what I took as an indication that the system was done booting. It’s as good a measure as any, since if you can’t quit an application, you can’t do much else. And it took more than 10 minutes for me to be able to quit Firefox: I booted the machine at 7:02 (according to uptime), Firefox accepted to quit at 7:14.

In the meantime, OSX Lion had reloaded, for my own good:

  1. Mail, with 7 windows
  2. Pages, with 4 documents
  3. Numbers, with 6 documents
  4. Keynote, without any document open, but hey, what’s wrong with launching it anyway?
  5. Terminal, with 2 windows, one of them was running a build. There’s a severe bug in OSX Lion restore-everything-at-reboot-time functionality: it didn’t restart my build!
  6. Safari, with 8 web sites, including two with videos I had already seen.
  7. Firefox, with 2 web sites, which I certainly didn’t wan tot re-open since they were payments.
  8. iTunes (which helpfully started downloading new contents)

While the system attempts to “please” you in some demented sense of “pleasing”, there’s very little you can do but wait. Actually, you need to do a little more than that, because the machine will occasionally ask for passwords or pop up some dialog box. And it does so in such a random fashion that even reading mail is difficult. All the more so because the machine is so busy re-indexing its Spotlight database and downloading iTunes contents you really don’t care about right now that everything crawls.

Even switching windows is difficult, even borderline hazardous. You think you brought up one window, but then the system shows another one right at the moment you click or close something or do something dangerous, and bam, the one and only window you didn’t want to close vanishes from the screen!

What is so infuriating about this incredibly stupid behavior of OSX Lion is that practically every single time I rebooted my machine, I unchecked that little box asking if I want to re-open my windows when I log back in. Can’t OSX Lion get the hint? If it’s smart enough to save my windows at the time of a kernel panic (of all times), can’t it save a little preference like “I don’t want you to re-open windows at boot time, ever”, without forcing me to resort to command line hacks.

Yes, I know how to fix it. It’s a script like this one:

#!/bin/bash
echo "#!/bin/bash" > /tmp/loginfix.sh
echo "rm /Users/*/Library/Preferences/ByHost/com.apple.loginwindow.*" >> /tmp/loginfix.sh
mv /tmp/loginfix.sh /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
chmod +x /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
defaults write com.apple.loginwindow LoginHook /usr/bin/loginfix.sh

Having to resort to something like is really annoying. And if Apple really didn’t want to store the “reopen windows” user choice in preferences, then it shouldn’t be a check-box. It should have been a separate action button, just like “Shutdown” and “Restart”.

I’m clearly not the only one who dislikes that features. If you look up on the web, you’d be hard pressed to find any site that explains how great that feature is. Instead, you’ll find dozen of places telling you how to disable it. So it’s a useless feature compounded with a bad UI made more annoying by a blatant disrespect for user preferences. That seems to be the general theme for changes in OSX Lion. Let’s not get used to it.

How I came to hate the mandatory auto-save feature

Another feature that follows the exact same pattern is the mandatory auto-save feature in applications like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, etc. What this feature does looks good on paper. It helpfully saves things for you at regular interval. Since Apple implemented for Time Machine a relatively nice way to version files, Apple used that to offer a kind of per-document Time Machine. Isn’t that a great idea?

The problem with that auto-save is that it doesn’t scale, and that there is no way to turn it off, even temporarily. So here is what happened to me once. I was animating an event, and for some reason, they decided to use my laptop as the main machine connected to the projector. So they gave me this 150 pages Keynote made by copy-pasting together a dozen or so slide decks. So far, so good.

Then, various people started coming to me asking if they could change a word here, copy a new slide there, etc. Guess what: it took over one minute to save the 150 pages document. My guess is that Keynote uses a brain-dead algorithm to decide when to auto-save, something like “if something changed and if the last auto-stave started more than 30 seconds ago”. Just a wild guess. What I observed, though, is that it doesn’t check that after you do an operation, but before executing the next operation you request.

All these harebrained design decisions blend together in a perfectly distasteful mix. You hit a key. Keynote shows your keypress. You hit another key. Keynote detects it should auto-save. The save takes more than one minute. The “saving takes a long time” progress dialog shows up and eats the key you typed! So you need to type again, very fast. But usually you don’t succeed. Same with mouse clicks. You send mouse clicks that get eaten by the stupid “Please wait while I’m saving” progress dialog. Who decided to call this a “progress” dialog? It’s not progress!

Anyway, after a very painful 15 minutes trying to make this work, here is how I ended up doing things: I started another Keynote instance, edited slides one at a time there, and once it was done, I would copy things back in the original Keynote document. But talk about a counter-productive exercise fighting a badly designed UI that won’t accept my preferences (namely: I don’t want to auto-save. Period. I hit Command-S when I’m happy. I know what I’m doing.)

Quit, Select All, Close and Undo

The third scenario I came to hate in OSX Lion is much more specific. See, I’m French, so I often have to type French text. And I’m a coder, so I often have to write English text or computer code. At some point in my past, I started taking the habit of typing French text in the native French keyboard, which is AZERTY, and English text in QWERTY

I don’t think many other people do this, but to me, that means faster typing in both cases. In English, I can type all the wonderful special characters used in code, like [ and ]. In French, I have easy access to all the wonderful àccénts that pepper our language (and, by the way, in defense of Jean Dujardin, “Putain” is more like an accent than a swear word in French; it doesn’t really mean “Whore” anymore than, say, “OK” means “all correct” or “gay” means “in a good mood”). A and Qs flip automatically when I’m typing French. If anything, that shows how flexible the human brain is.

There’s just one little problem with that clever scheme: keyboard shortcuts. It so happens that Command-Q (Quit), Command-A (Select All), Command-Z (Undo) and Command-W (Close window) are some of the most frequently used shortcuts of all. And unfortunately, they flip places when I switch languages. And unlike complete words, which my brain has “short-circuited” to the correct keyboard layout depending on language, they have no context, no language associated with them. So often, I want to Undo, and instead I Close the Window.

So what does this have to do with OSX Lion, you may ask? Well, the auto-save feature has, for me, a very nasty side effect. If a document has been modified, OSX Lion no longer asks if you want to close it or save it. That dialog box that used to pop was my saving grace in the old days. If I hit Command-W instead of Command-Z, then the dialog box would pop up, I’d hit ESC and hit Command-Z. No harm done. Nowadays, my window vanishes, and with it, all my undo history. In other words, at the exact time I want to undo something, MacOSX Lion finds a way to erase the entire undo history!

Of course, Apple engineers know better. Their reasoning must have been that the auto-save feature is like a kind of persistent undo to disk. Unfortunately, auto-save and Time Machine are nothing like undo. Undo remembers the actions. Auto-save remembers the result. So Time Machine is way way slower to activate, and it makes it harder to find where a document actually changed.

So a couple of times a day, I close a document by mistake, and I swear. Nothing has been closer to turining my Macbook into some unidentified flying object than this feature. At some point, I’ll find the time to disable that auto-save feature as well, in a way that doesn’t break other things.

Then, there’s the small stuff

OSX Lion’s disregard for users’ taste and preferences permeates throughout. It looks more like a design philosophy than an accident.

There’s the odd reversal of the trackpad scrolling behavior. This one at least can be configured. But either you stick with the default, and you are backwards each time you return to a Windows, Linux, older MacOSX machine. Or you change it, and you are backwards each time you return to a Lion box that is configured with the default.

There’s the new technique for “Save As”. It used to be “Save As”, Command-Shift-S, select the new file name (defaults to the document’s directory). Basically, one keystroke. Now, it is “Duplicate” (no keyboard shortcut), close the old window, Save (which now defaults to the Desktop rather than where the original document was), find the original location, save. So you have replaced one keyboards shortcut with 4 to a good dozen clicks depending on where your original document was. And “Duplicate” seems to use more memory and take more time than Save As (maybe it saves the document somewhere?) The benefits? Hmmm. I don’t see any, it seems like a less intelligent way to do the same thing as before.

Stereoscopy is a minor nuisance to the majority of people. But it turns out Taodyne, my company, produces a 3D presentation software. Something like Flash blending with Avatar. One of the ways we generate stereoscopic images is with the OpenGL Quad buffer support. It was broken in 10.6.1: when our application ran, switching spaces would kill the window server. I reported it to Apple, it was fixed in 10.6.2. It was broken again in Lion (10.7.0). Only this time the crash is a random kernel panic or system freeze, a bit more serious. I reported it three times to Apple. It’s still there.

Overall, Spaces and the Window server are nowhere as good as they used to be. When you switch spaces, it used to be smooth. You used to have a single desktop background. Now, it’s not smooth. Sometimes, windows won’t drag from one space to another. Spaces can be “out of order” (i.e. the number keyboard shortcuts no longer correspond to the logical layout of the spaces). The windows that MacOSX Lion insists on reopening at startup don’t reopen in their original space. And so on.

It’s more than just spaces. For example, using full screen app mode on dual-screen setups makes one of the monitors become unusable (covered with a oh-so-nice Lionesque background). Try watching a DVD full screen on one monitor while you do something on the other. Worked like a charm in Snow Leopard, impossible to do in Lion. Try putting the DVD player full screen on your TV while the menu is on the main screen of your laptop (just because most HD TVs overscan, so putting the menu there means you don’t see it). Nope, Lion knows better, it will bring the full screen picture where the menu is, not when the window is. That also worked in Snow Leopard.

And there’s another one of my favorites, the Screen Saver of Doom. Some screen savers in OSX Lion consume all the memory they can. They evict all the useful stuff away. So when it’s time to log back in, you see your keystrokes show up. one. at. a. time. And by the time you logged back in, you see that 5G of your 8G of RAM are now free. For the next few minutes, every single application you will try to use will page stuff back in and be extremely unresponsive. That too is a nuisance. Let’s not get used to it.

Conclusion

OSX Snow Leopard was a lean and mean operating system, just like its feline counterpart. OSX Lion takes on its role model as well: it’s big, heavy, slow, lazy, and it doesn’t care about you a tiny bit.

Let’s just hope that Apple’s next OSX version, Mountain Lion, will not be smaller, less powerful but more dangerous than its predecessor… Unfortunately, I won’t hold my breath based on what we can gather from Apple’s sneak peek Making it more difficult to download third-party applications in the name of security? A chat application? Twitter support? A features page that has so little to show that it needs to boast on the US web site about stuff designed specifically for China? Seriously?

I still want to believe that Apple will soon focus again on making their OS lean, mean and efficient like it used to be.

Hyperlatives

No little thing is to small for grandiose words chiseled by some marketing war machine.

Seen on a Lampe Berger anti-mosquito product this morning:

Parfum “Absolu de vanille”

Vanilla Gourmet Scent

Not only is this ridiculously hyperlative, but they also have a different “tint” for the Engish and French version. English reader will notice that the French version sounds more like “Absolute Vanilla”, because that’s basically what it means. Who on Earth paid people to tell their customers that their anti-mosquito drug had a “Vanilla Gourmet scent?”

Let’s not get used to this kind of marketing hyperbole…

Hyperbole in science

In despair, I turned to a slightly more serious text, the first page of this month’s issue of Science et Vie. And here is what I read there about faster than light neutrinos:

Incroyable? Alors là oui, totalement! Et même pis. Que la vitesse de la lumière puisse être dépassée, ne serait-ce que de très peu, n’est pas seulement incroyable, mais totalement impensable. Absolument inconcevable. [...] c’en serait fini d’un siècle de physique. Mais, et ce serait infiniment plus grave, c’en serait aussi fini avec l’idée selon laquelle la matière qui compose notre univers possède des propriétés, obéit à des lois. Autant dire que la quête de connaissance de notre monde deviendrait totalement vaine.

Incredible? Absolutely! And even worse. That the speed of light can be exceeded, even a little, is not only unbelievable, but totally unthinkable. Absolutely inconceivable. [...] This would end a century of physics. Even more serious, we would be done with the the idea that matter making up our universe has properties, obeys laws. This would mean that the quest for knowledge in our world would become totally hopeless.

Whaaaaat? I really don’t like this kind of pseudo-science wrapped in dogma so pungent to be the envy of the most religious zealots. How can anybody who understood anything about Einstein’s work write something like that? Let’s backpedal a little bit and remember where the speed of light limit comes from.

Where does the speed of light limit come from?

At the beginning was Maxwell’s work on the propagation of electromagnetic waves, light being such a wave. These equations predicted a propagation of light at a constant speed, c, that could be computed from other values that were believed at the time to be physical constants (the “epsilon-0″ and “mu-0″ values in the equations). The problems is that we had a physical speed constant, in other words a speed that did not obey the usual law of speed composition. If you walk at 5 km/h in a train that runs at 200 km/h, your speed relative to the ground is 205 km/h or 195 km/h depending on whether you walk in the same direction as the train or in the opposite direction. We talk about an additive composition rule for speed. That doesn’t work with a constant speed: if I measure the speed of light from my train, I won’t see c-200 km/h, since c is constant. The Michelson-Morley experiment proved that this was indeed the case. Uh oh, trouble.

For one particular speed to be constant, we need to change the law of composition. Instead of adding speeds, we need a composition law that preserves the value of c. It’s the Lorentz transformation. What Einstein acknowledged with his special relativity theory is that this also implied a change in how we consider space and time. Basically, Lorentz transformation can be understood as a rotation between space and time. And in this kind of rotation, the speed of light becomes a limit in a way similar to 90 degrees being the “most perpendicular direction you can take”. Nothing more, nothing less. Of note, that “c” value can also be interpreted as the speed at which we travel along time when we don’t move along any spatial dimension.

There are limits to limits

Once you understand that, you realize how hyperbolic what Science et Vie wrote is.

First, the value of c was computed as a speed of light, for equations designed for electromagnetism. It was never intended to say anything about neutrinos. We don’t know how to measure space and time without electromagnetic interactions somewhere. So the speed of light limit is a bit like the speed of sound limit for bats who would measure their world using only echo-location. It doesn’t necessarily mean nothing can travel faster than light, it only means that no measurement or interaction based on electro-magnetic interactions can ever measure it. I have tried to elaborate a bit on this in the past.

Second, Einstein revised his initial view to include gravity, and this made the world much more complex. Now space-time could be seen as modified locally by gravity. Now imagine how solid your “90 degrees is the most perpendicular direction” argument is if you look at a crumpled sheet of paper. The reasoning doesn’t mean much beyond very small surfaces. Remember that in the neutrinos experiments, we are in a very complex gravitational environment (mountains, …) and you’ll see that this “crumpled sheet of paper” analogy may not be so far off.

In short, it we find conditions where something appears to travel faster than light, it is exciting, it is interesting, it is worth investigating, but it’s certainly not the End of Science as Science et Vie claimed. Let’s not get used to this kind of crap.

Startup Week-End Nice Sophia-Antipolis : Big Success

I spent the last four days at a rather exciting entrepreneurial event on the French Riviera, which really combined three distinct events under the umbrella of the brand new RivieraCube association:

  • An Open Coffee with the Sophia-Antipolis team. Open Coffee is an informal gathering of (mostly Java) geeks around a coffee (or, more often in our case, a beer, since we do that in the evening). This was so successful that a new Open Coffee group for Nice spontaneously emerged.
  • A BarCamp the next day, with a small (and cramped) Startup Corner where Taodyne presented its flagship product, Tao Presentations. We had some exceptional unconferences from well-known French serial-entrepreneurs, including Kelkoo founder Pierre Chappaz or Kipost founder Pierre-Olivier Carles.
  • A Startup Week-end which gathered about 100 enthusiasts with the intent to create a startup in 54 hours. And some of them actually managed to pull it off, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. But the talent and energy in that room were simply amazing, and reminded me of some of the best moments I had in the Silicon Valley.

Reports on the web

There are already a large number of blogs reporting on this event, but I believe the best indicator of how lively it was is its twitter hashtag, #swnsa. There was actually a friendly contest with another Startup Week-end held the same day in Lausanne, Switzerland:

And the winner is…

There was a number of exciting projects, but there was generally little surprise as to who the winners were. The first three projects get a lot of help from local consulting companies, and the leader of the winning team gets a free Geek Trip to the Silicon Valley.

The winner was “Mamy Story” (@MamyStory), which I believe surprised no one in the audience. The concept is simple (tell the story of your grand-parents), has an interesting innovation (which I won’t disclose here), a catchy name (“papy” or “mamy” in French is a common nick-name for grandparents), but more importantly, appeals to our emotions, something which they largely exploited during their pitch.

As a matter of fact, they managed to get a member of the jury to tell them they could reach a larger market than what they presented in the plan. Here is another example of why they have a market.

The runner ups were :

  • Dynoo (@dynoo_com), a project to “spread the word” (the French pronunciation for Dynoo sounds like “Dis nous” or “tell us”, although they sometimes said it the english way, which I think weakens it. They should consider renaming it to deenoo),
  • Qwinti (@qwinti), a web site to save your social activity, who had a really good designer on the team,
  • JustMyTrends (@JustMyTrends), a web site offering a personalized shopping experience for hard-to-find items (the founder has a hard time finding shoes fitting his über-large feet).

And the winner is (redux)…

There was also an iPad2 to win, offered by Everything4Mobile (a very cool web site created by Virgile Cuba, a regular at the Sophia Open Coffee).

The winner was Matthieu Loutre, who was a member of our team. He lives in Montpellier, but he will happily drive on the 25th of March to Nice just to get his new gadget from the friendly team at the Apple Store (and when I say “friendly”, I don’t say that lightly – The user experience in that store is remarkable, doubly so by French standards).

First use of Tao Presentations in a conference

On Friday evening, I joined a project that I won’t talk about, because I believe the project leader has needs a bit of time to flesh his idea out, and even more time to turn it into a real product.

That being said, that was an occasion to try our prototype of Tao Presentations in a real, competitive environment. I learned a number of things :

  • It’s a really competitive way to tell a story. You think about the story first, the way to tell it follows, something which is often harder with other presentation software.
  • The presentation part just works. It didn’t crash once during the two days of rather heavy use, and the worst misbehavior was transient lighting glitches on the screen when using OpenGL lights.
  • One of the challenges was to test whether creating live mock-ups of software to explain an idea was possible. It worked, it was easy, it really added to the presentation, but then we couldn’t really use that part because the question we expected didn’t come up :-)

Some aspects were less positive:

  • Editing slides triggers an elusive bug on a relatively regular basis. I had the issue about half a dozen times in two days. The program crashes, which is not a real issue because of the way the workflow is organized (I never lost a single bit of what I had done), but still is annoying.
  • The software doesn’t automatically reload images when they change on disk, which means you sometimes need to restart it just to load a new version of the pictures. To be fixed.

Overall, I had some rather good feedback on the presentation. I showed a talk about XL to half a dozen true geeks, talked about programming techniques.

Young programmers and compilers…

These discussions made me realize something : many talented young programmers don’t even seem to know what a compiler is or how it works. They know about languages like Python, XML, Javascript, and just don’t care much how it runs on the machine.

I think it’s a good thing overall, but then someone still needs to get interested enough by system software. I’m afraid system software programmers are getting old. We need to train the new generation, to get them interested in languages that can run fast.

The good news, then, is that XL got rather positive comments. No “why invent a new language” in this crowd.

Futurism

November 30, 2010 1 comment

IEEE Spectrum pokes fun at Ray Kurzweil’s predictions about the future:

Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil’s brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology

Ray Kurzweil is, among other things, a founder of the Singularity University (link currently down, maybe they can’t take the load).

Well, my reader may remember that I already wrote about the Singularity. And my conclusion was this: the Singularity as commonly defined has already happened. And in any case, chances are that any real singularity is something you can only observe from the outside, but that you will barely notice, if at all, while you are in the middle of it.

Alan Kay is famous among other things for his quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it“. I talked to Alan Kay on several occasions while we were both at HP, and after these discussions, I was rather tempted to rewrite his great word of wisdom as follows: “The best way to secure one’s future is to rewrite history.” Ironically, IEEE Spectrum seems to have reached the same conclusion about Ray Kurzweil.

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