## Coursera Improvisation Course (with Gary Burton)

### Aside

Today is the deadline for Assignment 1 of Coursera’s Jazz Improvisation Course, which I’m taking. I was about to drop out, because my violin technique isn’t good enough, and my music theory is rusty at best, but since it’s a public holiday today here in Norway, I had a whole day to spend on playing. Continue reading

# Cosmos

(some spoilers)

So here’s the thing: I didn’t want to read this book. It’s been on my girlfriend’s shelf for a while, and even though the younger me would certainly read it eagerly, the current me avoids such titles. I read it though, and even worse, I’m writing a review.

The problem with books like ‘Cosmos’ is that you can either give 5 stars or 2 (or perhaps even 1). Giving 5 makes you a pretentious intellectual, giving 2 means you didn’t understand the book and you’re trying to rationalize it by saying you don’t want to be a pretentious intellectual. Fair enough. I’m giving 5 stars primarily because it’s been the first book that I managed to read almost in one seating (with interest and joy) in a long, long time, and of course because I am a pretentious intellectual.

This book is about the relationship between language and meaning, reality and thought. It’s a story of two young men visiting the Polish countryside somewhere in Tatra mountains, trying to get away from problems they have in Warsaw. The narrator is a paranoid fella who obsesses over dead sparrows and disfigured lips, and as the story progresses, over his own thoughts and phrases. This is what Cosmos really is about: an illusion of oppression created by human mind, a paranoia fueled by words, sentences and phrases. There is no other plot here, it’s essentially a plotless story. While some may find Gombrowicz’s style annoying and tedious, I found it absolutely brilliant. It serves the purpose of creating an atmosphere of absurd paranoia perfectly well, and manages to create tension (and humor) out of thin air.

‘How many sentences can one create out of the twenty-four letters of the alphabet? How many meanings can one gleam from hundreds of weeds, colds of dirt, and other trifles?’

(I read the Polish original, so if you’re reading the English version you should probably try to get Borchardt’s 2005 translation)

Google Now is about giving you just the right information at just the right time. It can show you the day’s weather as you get dressed in the morning, or alert you that there’s heavy traffic between you and your butterfly-inducing date—so you’d better leave now! It can also share news updates on a story you’ve been following, remind you to leave for the airport so you can make your flight and much more. There’s no digging required: cards appear at the moment you need them most—and the more you use Google Now, the more you get out of it.

Ok, as much as I admire Google for making such a thing work, I am seriously creeped out.

I got used to the fact that (some of) my phone apps know my location1, but Google Now knows so much more. It learns my habits by analyzing search history (on every device on which I’m logged in), it extracts information from my emails (flight tickets and such), and in general provides me with information it knows I might be interested in. And all this from one of the biggest advertising companies in the world.

The fact that Amazon starts to know what kind of music I might be interested in better than me is one thing, but what Google Now does is just a bit too scary for me. My friends think I’m nuts because I’m using DDG as my search engine, and I pay for my email service instead of using free GMail, but somehow I’m starting to feel those were good choices…

1. Not sure how this works on Android, but iOS apps always explicitly ask whether they can know my location. I like that.

## LaTeX environment for specifying computational problems

### Aside

I’m wondering if there’s some standard and neat way of typesetting computational problem definitions in LaTeX. Here’s what I came up with just a moment ago:

\newenvironment{compprob}[1]{\smallskip\noindent\textsc{#1:}}{\smallskip}

and it seems to work pretty well:

But perhaps there’s a better way to typeset it? An obvious problem with mine is that it’s not a theorem-kind of environment, and there’s no way of referencing it with \ref{}, but then again you usually reference computational problems simply by their name. Anyways, suggestions for making it better are welcome.

The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?”

Good post, good observations. As an ex-pat since around 2008 I’d like to add a few of my own. Continue reading

The complaint has been heard. In postings to the Dell Community site and to Dell Web Vertical Director Barton George’s blog, Dell has announced that as of today, the XPS-13 Developer Edition will be equipped with a “1080p” screen.

If Dell’s offering was present back in 2010, I probably wouldn’t have defected. Project Sputnik brings something the open-source community always wanted: a high-end ultraportable laptop with a high-resolution screen and full linux support from Dell. Now available in Europe as well.

# Debt

David Graeber’s Debt is one of the best books I have read in my life.

It is a thorough historical and anthropological investigation into the nature of money and, nomen omen, debt. Across about 400 pages Graeber analyzes all aspects of these: moral, economical and philosophical. He lays out a fresh and somewhat bold view that challenges classical economic theories, namely that debt has been the true essence of human economies for at least 5000 years now, and provides lots of compelling evidence to support this claim. His original analysis is very thought-provoking, and makes the reader wonder about the very foundations of our society, global economy, and certain aspects of human nature (like greed and love).

To a reader unfamiliar with economics and anthropology (such as myself), Graeber’s book is also an eye-opener when it comes to explaining how the world works, and even more, how it has been working for the last couple of thousands of years. The author is a true erudite in how he manages to show numerous connections between religion, economy, history and human nature. And through last chapters, where he relates his historical presentation to present day and the financial crisis of 2007–2008, it is also a bit scary to read (again, to a poorly educated person such as myself) about how global economy ‘works’.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in economics and history of money and markets, but also to those who’d like to read about the history of the world from a different perspective.

## Gazelle

### Image

I started adhering to Rule 12 and bought another bike. This time it’s a classic Dutch Gazelle from the 70s. Barely working drum brakes, beautiful brown paint-job with extra rust and a weight of circa 16 tons, but nothing beats the comfort of an opafiets. And you can get it all for only €40 (plus €20 in repairs) from certain philosophers in Groningen!

# Previewing LaTeX symbols without preview-latex

This blog’s most popular post is the Emacs howto entry, so I thought I’d share one more LaTeX-related tip for all your Emacs needs. Besides the traditional preview-latex way of generating TeX formulas inside Emacs buffer, there’s a faster and neater way to do this using Emacs’ unicode support. My friends Erik Parmann and Pål Drange made a simple package that turns many math symbols and Greek letters commands into corresponding unicode characters. Here’s a sample of how this looks:

If you’re running Emacs 24, you can get the package from MELPA repository. Otherwise you can get it from Erik’s bitbucket, put it somewhere in your load path and load it with (require 'latex-pretty-symbols). There, happy TeXing!

(also, you can make similar tricks with Haskell mode and have all your lambdas displayed properly).

# Blogging is hard

I started blogging quite a long time ago, in 2006. The first platform I used was Polish Jogger — a blogging engine centered around Jabber (aka XMPP) protocol. It was very cool (and unique) at the time, you could interact with your blog via IM (posting new entries, replying to comments), and it gathered a specific crowd of open-source/linux/free software enthusiasts which made for a nice community. My blog at the time was called Das Nichts[1], and it was like most other blogs at that time — about everything. It was written in Polish and my audience were mostly friends from high school and college. Das Nichts later moved to WordPress, and finally evolved into a tumblr, but in 2009 I stopped writing it, considering it too childish and wanting to switch to English.

# Cheating discovered in Coursera’s Scala course

This is the email all participants of Coursera’s Scala course received today:

We are saddened to report that some students have been uploading the solutions of the weekly exercises to public spaces. As you might have guessed, this is a clear violation of Coursera honor code article 3.

We have even discovered a number of graded assignment submissions that are identical to the submissions uploaded by other students. This is a clear violation of Coursera honor code article 4 (see link above).

So, we’ve decided to take the following action in response to these violations:

1. We have staff monitoring for solutions being posted on all public venues.
2. If we find that solutions continue to be posted, we will reconsider offering certificates of completion.
3. We have identified several individual students with solutions publicly posted (github included) who will be expelled from the course in the coming days if these solutions remain public.

Thus, as a bottom-line:
If you have uploaded solutions to any public space, including github, please remove them ASAP or face immediate expulsion.

For those students for whom it’s been discovered have uploaded similar or duplicate solutions, cases will be handled on an individual basis. Though beware, that cheating in any capacity not be tolerated.

We’re truly saddened to have to be taking these steps, but we hope you understand that such steps are necessary in order to preserve academic integrity and the value of the course and certificates of completion.

Best Regards,
Martin Odersky & the Functional Programming Principles in Scala Course Staff

Functional Programming Principles in Scala course starts today

So far I’m liking the way the course material is structured. In the first week Martin is guiding you through call-by-name and call-by-value in the lamda calculus, but without its syntactic peculiarities and without really mentioning lamda calculus more than once in passing. I think this is a good idea, because lambda seems to raise defense mechanisms in students who are seeing it for the first time. Sneaky.

Yes, it all looks very good and I have to say I was looking forward to this course for a while. Scala seems to be bridging two worlds: the functional and impractical weirdness of Haskell that I’m so used to, and the objective and industrial approach of Java. My motivations for taking this course are purely practical: if I don’t get my PhD for whatever reason I will search for a job as a Scala programmer.

# Traveling

I travel a lot, and I mean a lot not only for a PhD student. Yes, I do travel to conferences, workshops, seminars and summer schools, but apart from that I visit family in Poland and friends in The Netherlands, which means I’m on an international flight at least once a month. It made me reflect on how I travel, how I feel about traveling and how many of my traveling habits changed.

First of all, I don’t like traveling by plane. As most people, I hate security checks, the hassle it takes to get to/from many airports (taking trains, buses, taxis…), baggage allowances that most people abuse (it’s been a while since I was able to actually put any of my stuff in the overhead compartment), crowded gate entries, etc. I take high-speed trains whenever possible, but I always have to take a plane in order to get out of Bergen, since taking a train through Oslo and Sweden is expensive and very inefficient.1

How Would You Fix the Linux Desktop?

aussersterne:

The culture of Linux remains the culture of 1993 mid-range computing—but we no longer live in a world in which CS students can’t afford the hardware/software they use at school and mainstream OSes can’t do the fun stuff. Quite the opposite. It’s funny to think back at how thrilled I was to have X11 on the desktop (compared to Windows 3.1) versus how I feel now, twenty years on, comparing KDE or GNOME on Fedora or Ubuntu to OS X 10.8. The tables have been exactly turned. Linux is still essentially the same in architecture and philosophy, while the rest of the world has moved to a completely different paradigm in which computing is essentially appliance-driven. In 1993 Linux was ahead of its time. In 2013 Linux is a decade behind.

These days, I want an complete, polished, turnkey appliance at low cost and with no labor time investment, not a set of building block. Today’s appliances are fast, intuitive, stable, durable, powerful, and integrated like the iPad (which I do, yes, use for serious work about 5-6 hours a day). For most users (which is where I have always ultimately fallen), Linux is solution in search of a problem that no longer exists.

Ask Slashdot has an interesting discussion about current state of the linux desktop, which has become (again) a heated debate after Miguel de Icaza’s blogpost and Linus Torvalds’ reply. There are some very insightful comments, like the one by aussersterne above, but more importantly the discussion gives a good picture of the linux/FLOSS community, with different views on what linux desktop is or should be, different backgrounds, ideas and problems. The first comment sums up the problem, or meta-problem to me:

Hatta:

I’ve been using Linux on my desktop for 13 years now. It works just fine for me.

Sony RX1: A Full-frame Compact Camera

We were surprised (and delighted) when Sony decided to create the RX100 – its first compact camera for serious photographers, but that’s nothing compared to our surprise when we were told about the RX1. This isn’t just Sony’s most serious compact camera, but arguably the most serious compact camera we’ve ever seen. It features a full-frame sensor and a fixed 35mm F2 lens, making it a real heavyweight in terms of lightweight photography. Sony has said it is targeting professional photographers and we see no reason to question that.

There’s hasn’t been a better time to look for a good compact(ish) camera ever before. When I recently wrote about being on a market for such a thing and listed my options, I was quite surprised how many there were (compared to, say, 2008, or even 2010). Now not only has Fujifilm introduced the X-E1, and not only has Sony presented the NEX-6, but we also have a first ever full-frame compact camera. At \$2800 it’s not cheap at all, but boy is that a fantastic idea.

### Aside

The Vim Experiment is over, or actually is being put on hold. I can’t seem to be able to find a Vim plugin that would offer the feature set, speed and convenience of AUCTeX. I simply realized that I can get my work done approximately 20 times faster with Emacs.

What Killed the Linux Desktop

In my opinion, the problem with Linux on the Desktop is rooted in the developer culture that was created around it.

Miguel de Icaza makes some very good points in his article about why desktop linux failed. It’s somewhat sad to read the things he wrote given that he was one of the people who initiated GNOME development, but I have to agree with everything he wrote.

### Image

I’m in Montpellier attending STAIRS/ECAI. The city is nice, and I’m experimenting with taking b&w-only photographs.

The main conference is very big, comparable to AAMAS in size, which is a bit surprising. The workshops on the other hand seemed much smaller. STAIRS however, where I had a paper, was a very peculiar experience: it’s basically a conference for PhD students that has AI “in general” as its topic and allows for… 15+5 min talks. This results in a number of very short and very fast talks on all AI-related topics, from machine learning through non-monotonic reasoning to logic and knowledge representation. On top of that you have an audience full of PhD students that basically don’t ask any questions (because they’re unfamiliar with most stuff outside of their respective narrow fields). Weird.

Also, I’d like to share 3 small observations about France/Montpellier, as it’s the first time I’m in this country:

1. The food everywhere is fantastic. Seriously, beats Spain and any other country I’ve been to. It’s not very cheap though, but I guess that has something to do with the fact that Montpellier is a touristy place, and it’s August.
2. People are very friendly, and most of them speak English quite well. They’re not very eager to speak it, though, e.g. they understand what I’m saying and, if forced, will reply in English, but they generally ask questions and reply in French. To which I always reply in English (unless it’s something really basic), and it seems to all work perfectly fine.
3. Drivers are much more aggressive than in northern Europe. Feels almost like in Poland.

### Aside

Oh look, I was right, latest update brings LaTeX support.