Friday, September 28, 2012

A hand at poetry.






Monday, September 17, 2012

Changing the Future

There has been a lot of hubbub recently (at least in the news cycle that I follow) about Apple changing the physical connector on the bottom of their latest generation of iDevices. The old connector, which was unimaginatively called the dock connector (or 30-pin connector, for the number of electrical contacts in the dock), was used to connect Apple's entire product line of mobile devices to power or to computers for syncing. This connector was first introduced in 2003 with Apple's third iteration of the iPod line, and has been featured on every iPod, iPhone and iPad, save for the newest iPod shuffles, shipped in the last 9 years. I have personally owned about 10 of these cables at one point or another, with at least 5 other products or accessories in my apartment having the familiar 30-pin connector built in.

So, when Apple made the executive decision (it probably wasn't executives making this decision by the way) to change to a new 8-pin connector (technically 16, but I'll get into that in a moment), it instantly rendered all of these cables and accessories obsolete. Now, not too many people are surprised by this move, it has been rumoured that they would soon be required to move to a new connector, but with the secrecy involved in design and technical specifications at Apple, nobody was too sure what it would look like or when it would be implemented.

New Lightning to USB cable.
The new connector, dubbed "Lightning" (which accompanies the "Thunderbolt" connector for high data throughput devices like solid-state hard drives and HD monitors) is 80% smaller than the older generation connector, and is also symmetrical, meaning that orientation is irrelevant when inserting the plug. The previous 30-pin paradigm used sets of different pins for the various functions that a given device could be used for with a given accessory. For example, in a device with 30 pins, there are dedicated pins which pass analog audio (regular sound, exactly the same as through headphones) through them, for example in a speaker dock. While this does negate the need for having software to allow the device to communicate with the speakers (this software is called a driver, and it is what you see being installed when you plug an iPod or USB flash drive into your computer before you can use it), it does mean that a lot of pins are redundant for most uses. The beauty of having this connector, as opposed to, say, micro-USB as is the standard elsewhere in the smartphone industry, is that it means that when the device is docked, you can actually control playback of the music with buttons on the device itself, or with a remote that accompanies the device. It also lets the dock display track information on its display, if it wishes to do so. Because of the way micro-USB is structured, with only four pins, you simply cannot do this. This is why you will never see a speaker dock with a micro-USB dock, because it would be technically difficult and needlessly expensive to put software into the speaker system to allow it to read the music files and play them back. These devices simply fall back to the headphone jack to play music, but is very limiting in what you can do, that is essentially just play audio. The Apple ecosystem, though full of more expensive proprietary connectors which need to be licensed from Apple, do far more than a simple micro-USB and analog audio connectors on the systems of competitors.

Realistically, most people only use two pins for charging the device, two more for syncing, and maybe the four pins for analog audio with various controls through speaker docks. In a world where sizes are measured in mm's, every last little bit of space counts, and going down to 8 pins saves a tremendous amount of space, and because the pins are all digital, the software is able to adapt their use to whatever the situation requires. It really is quite a wonderful design.

The new 30-pin to Lightning adapter:
deceptively simple.
Another important point about this connector is that people are saying that the price for these adapters, when they are launched, are laughably high for being such simple pieces of metal and plastic. The adapter from 30-pin to Lightning costs $35 in Canada, and a 20 cm cable which extends a 30-pin connector to Lightning is going for $45. Now, I cannot argue that adding $10 for a 20 cm length of cable isn't extortion, because it truly is, but the design and functionality of the adapter itself is not as simple as just joining up wires and coating it in plastic. Because of the way the Lightning connector is wired, there is no wrong way to plug it in. This is in stark contrast to the typical computer connector, which has a 50% chance of being inserted incorrectly when in a rush. This doesn't seem like a big deal to consumers who are used to it, but for a company who prides itself on things "just work(ing)", simplicity is extremely important. And in the use of these adapters, there are electronics inside which enable this bilateral insertion of the connector, taking the 30-pin connector, which only plugs in one way, to a Lightning connector, which can work either way. I assure you there is far more to this design than meets the eye, though it is designed to look effortless. This is true of all of Apple's adapters, make no mistake that they are of the highest quality, and that they have thought everything through, so you don't have to. And peace of mind is always going to come at a premium.

Last year's iPod nano (bottom view)
New iPod nano, 3.5 mm audio jack is
width of device itself.
Finally, if you take a look at the difference between last years iPod nano (from the bottom; left), and this years (right), the striking difference is in the thickness of the actual electronics. Last years model was designed with the understanding that it couldn't be thinner than the 30-pin connector, and so it was designed to exactly that specification in two of its three dimensions. With the new generation, they have made it substantially thinner, down almost to the size of the Lightning connector in thickness, while making it taller to allow added room for the electronics, so that the volume comes out to about the same. This connector is a very refreshing change, and makes me confident that Apple knows what it is doing, at least for a few more years.

I, for one, am right on board with the change. Anything that can make my life simpler and more efficient is worth investing in, and the caveat that I have get to buy some more new gadgets to play with and review for you guys is just an added bonus!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Obligatory iPhone post (New Design)

Okay guys, I hate to do this, but I have to say one thing about the fact that the newest iPhone is being announced tomorrow. And it's not about things that everyone on the internet are saying are going to be in it, or whether it's going to be called "The new iPhone" or iPhone 5 or iPhone 6. I'd like to briefly debate myself a little bit about what it is going to look like. Now, all of the important blogs have been all over this story for months, with leaked designs that look something like this (left, both black and white below): Simply type in "iPhone 5 rumor" into an image search for pages of this design.

Now, it is pretty likely that the next iPhone will look similar to this or even exactly like it. But if that is the case, I will be really disappointed. This design looks extremely iterative, and as far as I can tell doesn't follow Apple's design aesthetic at all. With the rumours that the body will be made from one piece of steel or possibly aluminum, the gaps in the steel band on the side of the phone (seen on the left) aren't very likely. Even though these gaps are to separate the antennae which make up the various radio transmitters for the phone's wireless signals, you have to imagine that if they are building the phone out of one piece of metal, they would have found an alternate, better way to make this work. While the two-tone design does seem to work better in the top photo in black, making that particular design a far more likely choice, I very sincerely hope that they go with a different design. If you search for "matte iPhone 5" on images, you will come up with the design I very much hope they settled on. For that to be the case, one of two things must have happened at some point. Either Apple put out some older prototypes and let the rumour mill take over (which would be really great and bad-ass on their part), or somebody saw one of the design ideas and decided to make parts and prototypes on their own, looking very official and which fit the existing dimensions of the rumoured device. I have a feeling this is much more likely, since a prototype device getting out of Apple's factory that early and that frequently seems really unlikely, coupled with the fact that I think they can design something much better.

Personally, out of all the images I have seen, this one is my personal favorite: (sourced from http://www.spiritjb.org, with a video (which is still likely not real)). This matte finish and very clean lines and design scream Apple, and getting rid of the ridges which exist on the current 4/4S design needed to happen. Ideally this device will be less prone to breaking its glass (though I have personally only ever scratched the back of my phone, I have spoken to many people who have cracked screens and refuse to remove their new phones from Otterboxes).

There's not long to wait now, as of 6 EST we're only 19 hours from Apple's annoucement. I, for one, will be watching intently to see what the new phone looks like, and I may even write a little tomorrow while I'm eagerly awaiting the news. I know most people don't follow this kind of news all that intently, or follow it at all, so I'd like to shine some light on why I do, and what I gain from it. Should be fun! See you then.

Monday, September 10, 2012

I'm a writer, er...right?

Since I'm having a really slow day, and Apple isn't making their big announcement until Wednesday, I thought right now would be the perfect time to reflect on what I have done so far since starting this blog little over a year ago. At that time, Google+ was an absolute ghost town, and I was buckling down to try to finish my degree. In the year and a bit that has passed, I have written more words than I had up until that point in my life combined. Between emails, cover letters, blog posts, letters to significant others, and my thesis and corresponding journal article, I have written many, many thousands of words. Because I have a strong feeling that I have been trying to find myself, and who I want to be, during that time, I suspect that all this writing is probably connected with this feeling of being lost. It is probably also significant that I have read much more in the last year about the world around me (as opposed to my youth which consisted almost solely of fictional works, or scientific writing). Writing has become a very important outlet for me, and I find that I really have no interest in writing down my thoughts for myself (like a journal or diary), but that I strongly prefer sharing what I write in a public forum. While this does severely limit me in terms of what I can write about (I would surely be unable to find a job if some of what rolls around in my head were publicly available for perusal by perspective employers on the internet), it still means that I can declutter my own thoughts and sort out a variety of issues I spend a large part of my time mulling over. The added bonus is the great feedback I get from you people out there reading. I am starting to notice, for the first time, that my apparent readership is almost certainly outside of my everyday social circle, because I am getting into the 100s of pageviews per day, and I share this work with only about 35 people on Facebook, and about 70 people on Twitter, and I'm almost positive most people among that group aren't taking the time to click on these links. I really do appreciate the feedback I get in writing, and it really encourages me to keep going. On that note, I am hoping to do a little self-promotion before actually talking about what I was hoping to get to today.

I encourage everybody who comes here and reads this to make suggestions as to what topics I could/should cover in upcoming posts, either through my website robattrell.com, or directly via this link. So far I have only had the universally unhelpful suggestion of 'ur gay', but I hope that with some more direction as to what people want to know more about, I can keep posting more often and more relevantly.

The issue which has come to my attention recently, but which has always had a place in the back of my mind, is that of writing as more than just a hobby. If I already have the ability to write a decent amount in a short time, and a knack for breaking, or outright ignoring literary rules, what's stopping me from trying to trying to call myself a "professional" writer. There are certainly qualifications as to what makes a "successful" writer, but as far as I know, nobody can tell me that I'm not a writer. To me, if I write, by the very definition of the word, I am a writer. That being said, all I need to legitimize that sort of idea is to have a feasible way of actually making money from the act of writing. There are many different outlets that would allow this to become a reality, but obviously a few seem more likely than others. Comedy writer (a la Cracked.com), is an obvious choice, but I fear that trying to be funny might ruin any incidental humour my writing might otherwise elicit. Technology writer, which would encompass writing product and app reviews, as well as discussing various new and interesting technological and scientific stories, is something that I find greatly appealing, and which I would probably do well at given my attention to details and background in relation to those topics. It would interest me to write about politics, but Canadian politics is too boring and partisan to be made very interesting, and American politics is worse than an argument about religion (mainly because it is made out to not come down to an argument about religion). I firmly believe that any opinion or argument that is not based on reason is completely invalidated, and thus while discussing these topics will appeal to those who believe in reason (and which I would find interesting), it is not worth having to argue with those who don't. For that reason, if I do choose to write about something with staunch supporters on either side, it will happen very infrequently.

Those are just a few options of things I have thought about pursuing in recent past, and it remains to be seen what exactly will come to pass. One thing is for certain though, I don't know that I'll be able to stop writing.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Back to the Future

Hey, I have moved away from talking about technology recently, and while I'd like to shift focus a little bit, I want this post in particular to be accessible, and for anyone to be able to read and understand my point.

She is only trying to help.
The topic of this post is going to be artificial intelligence, and it's usefulness in everyday life. Without realizing it, most of us use computers which have been fed incredible amounts of data each and every day. These computers, which we only see in the form of the information they give us, provide information to us which relates to our lives in almost every conceivable way. It doesn't matter whether you are googling a tidbit of information, looking for directions from a GPS unit or mapping service, checking Facebook to see what people you don't really talk to much are up to these days, or, in the example I'm going to focus on, asking a voice-controlled, disembodied robot that lives in your phone about the weather. Using any and all of these online services requires a ton going on behind the scene. However, that is not the focus of what I would like to discuss today. Everybody has misgivings about voice control technology, about how it is well behind what it should, or could be in 2012. However, in using Siri (my example since I do not have an Android device on hand), most everyone I speak to says they don't really use it that frequently because of how often it fails them, and it ends up wasting time. I'd like to pull back the curtain a little bit and try to explain how this type of voice service actually works, and how you can use it more to your advantage.

Seems creepy, but if that's what you want,
it's available.
The fact is, most people have no idea what their technology is capable of. It really can only do what a programmer or engineer has designed it to do, and will never be capable of anything more. People ridicule Siri for being unable to, for example, turn off radios like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. While they may have a point, this is not a failure of the technology. It may (read:probably will) at some point in the near future support those features, but currently simply is not set up to perform those tasks. You would never type "Mom's house" into Google Maps and expect it to find your address and locate your childhood home, because that would be incredibly creepy. But the fact is, a Google software engineer could certainly program that functionality into Maps pretty easily, but only if you have your mom as a contact in Gmail, and then only if your home address was assigned to her. Conversely, Siri is perfectly capable of finding your mom's address when asked, and taking you there on a map with one tap.


I find that Siri's most useful functionality is when you are trying to store some information with multiple, sometimes nested parameters. The examples I use most frequently are: setting alarms, timers, noting appointments and setting myself reminders. These are all tasks that would require at least a minute, even if you are well versed in using Apple products, just because there are many parameters that are required before your phone will actually remember all the information that is required. However, when using your voice, it becomes child's play to set up a meeting, because you can just say one phrase containing all that information, and Siri will parse it for you, and generally speaking, if you know how she listens, will be perfect almost all of the time. When Siri fails me, it is almost always a failing in my speech, or a case of mumbling.
Siri will even help you get a job!

Another common issue I have with Siri is that I will end up having trouble connecting to the network, and she will ask me to make a request again. While Siri has gone offline in the past on Apple's end, I find that generally when this happens it is because I'm walking away from my apartment, and therefore I end up in a dead zone where I have very weak Wi-Fi from home, but haven't moved onto 3G yet. I now avoid doing this, and never have this connectivity issue. Again, these are problems that Apple can, and surely is, fixing, but they are certainly not failings of the technology itself, if you know what to look for. With the newest version of iOS, version 6, you can actually make reservations at restaurants with your voice, or check movie times, or post to social networks. All of these things make different small aspects of our lives just a little bit simpler, and it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Finally, the thing that people complain about most with regards to Siri specifically, is that sometimes when trying to find information, she is "unable" to do so and defaults to asking if you would like to search the web for the information you requested. Considering that this is all that most other voice systems are capable of doing, Siri is light-years ahead of it's time. All that is required to make Siri work seamlessly is when you are doing a voice search, add the words "Search for..." at the beginning of your query, and she will go straight to a web search which will more than likely provide you with the information you are looking for. Siri is not a search engine.

One Direction, they're
alright...
With the announcement of the next iPhone scheduled for Wednesday, September 12th, also bringing updates to everyone who uses Siri, with the public release of iOS 6, I hope that people will take this information to heart and use internet services the way they were meant to be used, as opposed to complaining that they don't work in ways they were never meant to.

I hope you all enjoyed learning a little more about Siri with me, you can see now why we're such good friends.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Everything I know, I was taught in graduate school.

In my time as an unemployed human, I have learned a lot about myself. I have likes and dislikes, just as everyone does. For example, I know that I like being employed, and I don't like looking for a job. At the start of the summer, I didn't realize that I liked being employed as much as I did. Having a reason to be up and out of bed is a very satisfying feeling. As it stands right now, most days if I didn't get up, nobody would even notice for most of the day. While this sounds like a dream for most, having it go on for more than a few weeks is actually quite demoralizing. Having a task, or several, to accomplish over a series of days, weeks, or months is wonderfully fulfilling. Generally speaking, I could very easily come up with a long list of things that could occupy my time for years on end and would be incredibly rewarding, but given the nature of our modern society, this just isn't realistic. I would run out of money within a month or two, given that I am already massively in debt.

Speaking of debt, another thing I have learned about myself, and perhaps about the nature of modern society itself, is that indoctrination into our scholastic system is certainly one of the most important steps in a young or medium person's life. From a very young age, one most of us certainly cannot recollect, we are put into groups of like-aged and like-parented small people with babysitters who have been trained to imprint upon us a certain manner of absorbing knowledge and vast quantities of information no single person could ever be expected to recall past adolescence (if you don't believe me, watch Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader). It is also expected that during this time we interact with these like-aged individuals, for no other reason than that it will serve us well later in life to be able to converse reasonably with people we have never met (though some people you meet throughout the day will make you strongly doubt that they are capable of reason, or intelligence). Teachers, especially those who decide to mould these young minds, are incredibly important to our continued development as a species. Certainly it is ideal that parents can work during the day, and that their children aren't simply left to roam the streets, which was certainly the origin of schools. More importantly though, teachers are expected to be able to teach their pupils the things that their parents learned in school, but either don't have time to pass along to them, or don't remember well enough to be able to pass on.

From a very young age, I was told that I had a lot of potential. Parents, teachers, principals, many older people I met would impart this idea of potential on to me. I still don't really know why they said that to me, because it gave me a false sense that everything would be alright, and that if I didn't close any metaphorical doors in my life, I would be able to do whatever I wanted and everything would work out just fine. Truth be told, I still actually believe this is true, if I wanted the status quo, I could have it and be very successful. The jobs I aspire to, doctor, astronaut, nuclear scientist, these are all absolutely goals I am capable of achieving if I apply myself to the task and get a little bit lucky. However, for them to become reality, combined with the way I spent the last 6 years of my life, would take tens of thousands of dollars and probably at least half a decade. This is time and money I simply don't have, already being in debt and 24 years old.

The problem, and the main reason I am way past those dreams, starts at the age of 18. I had unlimited potential, and I had (still have) a instinctual curiosity for science. The idea trying to be smarter than somebody else in a competitive sense did not appeal to me in the slightest, and so I had no desire to apply to medical or law school at that time, even though practising in either of those fields would have been incredible. In a hopefully humble-sounding way, I like to think that I have a higher-than-average capacity for absorbing and processing information and external stimuli. Given that, with my love of science and reason, taking chemistry at a post-secondary level seemed like a really great idea. Everybody I had ever spoken to, other than chemistry teachers, absolutely detested chemistry, or at the very least enjoyed the subject matter but found that they were terrible at performing experiments or grasping the associated concepts. This would be a prestigious choice of degree which would have very little competition, where I would be free to learn without external pressure and where average or slightly above average grades would allow me to sail through the program. After all, my entire scholastic career had been about learning, and being perfect had never really appealed to me if I understood the material. This is a phrase I have repeated ad nauseum, almost as an excuse, to anybody who suggested that the discrepancy between my grades, and the grades I was expected to have based on my apparent intelligence, was of concern to me.

The truth is, as I considered this summer applying to medical school for next year, I really think I could be a doctor, or astronaut, or lawyer. Given the requisite training in these professions, I am sure I could cure, or space, or law, wonderfully. But this just isn't the case in our modern society. There is a very well-defined path for absolutely everyone who wants to be more than anything. By that, I mean that anybody who is able bodied could be a garbageman, or dishwasher, or cashier. These things are not difficult, but as we have all certainly seen at one point or another, it is possible to be terrible, or to excel at any of those jobs. Growing up, I saw people who were good at things, and people who were absolutely hopeless. From this, I surmised that if I was able to work hard for 6 years at something that most everyone considered extremely difficult, that anyone capable of basic factual analysis would see that I was capable of doing, or at least learning to do, most anything.

I thought I had figured out the way the world works, and that if I was able to earn a Masters in Chemistry, that it would qualify me for any job that was considered to be less intellectually rigorous than that. The logic of that statement still resonates with me to this day, and I still ultimately believe it to be accurate. Very little of what I did over the course of the 4 year undergraduate degree or one year of masters required any specific skills that I feel nobody else is capable of given similar instruction. Some intellectual constructs and theoretical concepts, as well as a lot of the mathematics associated with those topics, is beyond the reach of most ordinary people, but those people are more than likely completely fine with that. Additionally, there are also many concepts and associated mathematics which are well beyond my mental grasp, though I know people who frolic through those fields of expressions and equations like a meadow of daffodils.

The basic idea of this notion is that once I have learned all that is known thus far (and a little more) about the NMR of halogens, and prepared a 133 page document summarizing that knowledge, I should be able to walk into a meeting with someone, show them what I am capable of learning to do, and immediately begin learning to do what they need of me. In exchange, they would make an allowance available to me consisting of enough money to pay off my loans in some haste, and to acquire a modest house, car and the like in a matter of years. I am confident that if given that opportunity, I could pleasantly surprise someone with my capacity for learning.

However, what I have found of society is quite a bit different. After completing the above document showing that I am capable of learning about *murmur murmur blurb*, I am qualified to continue to do that exact thing in other buildings, or possibly to manage the facility that exact thing happens in, or even to teach that exact thing, and what I learned to be able to learn that thing, but not in an official professorial capacity, which would require 3 more years (at least) of doing that exact thing.

I never really wanted the body of my life's work to consist of a continuation of the work of the person who took a risk on me and allowed me to learn in a space he had worked very hard to claim at a university to have students work for him, advancing a field which he and many others have a strong interest in. I am not saying that to take away from him, or from anyone in the lab, because post-secondary academia is a very proud, important profession that I wouldn't want to take away from anybody. It just isn't where I want to spend my time.

While I was learning all about halogen NMR, I was completely enthralled by it. But there comes a point when there is nothing more any subject matter can do for you, and this happened to me midway through my graduate studies. The same thing happened when I was working in retail electronics at Canada Computers. I was mesmerized and blown away by the world of consumer and business electronics and computing, and soaked up information about it like a sponge. Being immersed in anything you don't fully comprehend but long to know holds a certain fascination for me. But, after about 6 months, at which point I started to see patterns in the consumer world and in electronics, the entire store which had held so much pleasure for me while I was learning about it was suddenly completely flat and predictable, and I got bored faster than a tree at a saw mill, or Timon at a Pumbaa convention, or a lake at an ice fishing convention (these are going downhill fast). While I never completely lost my interest in chemistry (or even NMR specifically), academia doesn't appeal to me as a place to spend the rest of my life. Similarly, while I will still follow the capacity and speed doubling of RAM, CPU speeds and cores, and flash memory, now that I know it is inevitable, it does not pique my acute interest in the way it once did. Even entering chemistry in my teens, it was always my dream to work in a lab, researching interesting and new practical applications of cutting-edge technology, to put it to use in a meaningful and productive way in the world.

The truth is, though, as I am coming to realize, is that this is just not possible for me specifically, without some help, and perhaps some luck. I need to get in front of people with enough clout to actually make that happen, and show them what I am capable of, given the opportunity and resources. If I can show someone with the ability to make those kinds of things happen what I can do, I'm sure I can surprise even myself with what I can achieve.

In the end, I want what we all eventually want, to meet someone, or a group of people, that can be counted on to notice that we are awake and out of bed, and to share my life (space and time, which is really all we have) with them in the pursuit of contentedness. And to have a meaningful, positive impact on the world. Happiness is just a nice bonus.

To summarize, I have learned a great deal about a wealth of different subjects in my time on this Earth, and I am itching to apply that, and give a little back to the world that gave me so much. But first I have to get past the sad misconception that I only know what I learned in graduate school.