Thursday, December 15, 2011

MacOSX Lion

Come out of things unsaid
Shoot an apple off my head and a
Trouble that can't be named
A tiger's waiting to be tamed

Only now, right at the end of the semester, have I dared to upgrade to the latest operating system (Lion) for my Macbook.

One reason is that it basically takes an entire day or two. And if everything is working fine, why disturb what ain't broken?

And as a university professor, I'm always working on slides, talks and papers. My life seems to revolve around show-and-tell, from teaching to academic conferences. Plus as a software developer, I hate instability. So downtime is not acceptable until the very last class is done.

Nevertheless, our high-tech world moves forward rapidly, and we must keep up if we are to enjoy new software functionality. Plus as older systems are deprecated, security and other bug fixes won't be available.

However, as any experienced professional knows, upgrades sometimes have unforeseen consequences. And some old software won't run anymore (here; anything that requires Rosetta). And upgrading those rarely used packages, e.g. Adobe Illustrator, sometimes will cost major bucks.

So I'm never an early adopter. I wait at least a minor revision or two until the cost/benefit ratio decidedly tilts in my favor. I'll let others be the guinea pigs. Being slightly behind the curve also means I can Google any minor issues I run into during the upgrade, and chances are, someone has documented and had a chance to work around them.

Even then, I commit only one laptop at a time to the upgrade, so I can punt the entire process without downtime.

MacOSX 10.7, aka Lion, literally takes gigabytes. Then there are gigabytes of incremental updates that Software Update will download after the initial install. Plus the Xcode software development environment.

Let us not do things by halves. I may hesitate and wait and see, but once I'm committed, I'll jump in with both feet. So I might as well go all in and upgrade all the applications as well. It makes sense to install the very latest versions of Apple's iLife and iWork software suites since they probably take advantage of any new functionality provided by Lion. And I'll upgrade to Microsoft Office 2011 also while I'm at it.
(Fortunately, due to site licensing arrangements, those packages I've mentioned above are freely downloadable for me.)

We still need a large and fat pipe to the internet. So I did this from my office. I achieved an impressive 1Mbyte/second download rate (equivalent to about 10Mb/s) when simultaneously downloading MacOSX Lion, iWork, iLife and Office 2011:

Even at this (sustained) speed, it still took hours. There's 8Gbytes of software to be downloaded before installation can begin. Those without fast broadband must have the patience of Job.

And although, we are downloading each package at around 250 KBytes/s, even when it's down to a single package, the download speed doesn't scale linearly. So it makes sense to download everything simultaneously. For example, at one package left to go, I'm only up to 440KBytes/s, see below:

Here is a graph of the bandwidth I experienced during the download orgy:

I also decided to purchase and install Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended. This is professional grade software and normally goes for $1000.

The university edition goes for $200. I'm using it more and more, so I think I can justify spending the money.

After a few more rounds of updates, we achieved fixpoint and I'm done.

Do I notice many changes to the operating system? Not really. Some user interface elements are different, when I hit F3, I see Spaces has been redone (see below).

Other changes, e.g. the scrolling direction and squared-off buttons, seems rather gratuitous.

Actually, I'm much more excited with the useful enhancements to application software. For example, Powerpoint has a neat new Presenter mode for talks. It also has a broadcast function now. And the full version of Photoshop does HDR (High Dynamic Range) images and also has content-aware fill/replace. Can't wait to try those out.

I notice the upgrade has nuked some of the license keys for other packages I own, e.g. AutoPano Pro, which now won't start. Fortunately, I have all keys saved in a special mail folder. And I notice I might as well grab the latest version of that application.

After 2 days of upgrading, am I up-to-date? Unfortunately, not. I notice Apple wants me to transition off MobileMe onto iCloud soon. But that requires iOS 5, and for various technical reasons, I'm not yet ready to upgrade to that on my iPhone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Doha: CMU Qatar

After the social robotics conference in Amsterdam (see here), I spent a week at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Qatar.

I last blogged about CMU Qatar back in 2009 when I took a bunch of spherical panorama pictures (see here). This time I also brought my equipment but unfortunately had no time to take more of those special images. In particular, I had hoped to get a 360° shot of the following open seating area inside the building:

Unfortunately, this time half the space was set up with regular chairs instead of those awesome cushions. Maybe next time.

The building itself is quite opulent and certainly impressive, more reminiscent of an investment bank than a university. It has huge atrium-like open spaces that I find too big to be friendly. Designed to awe, I find it lacks human scale.

(I think of grand entrances on Arrakis designed to reduce the human to a mere mote, as described by Frank Herbert in perhaps the book God Emperor of Dune. It has been really many years since that read that series. Who has time these days to read a few thousand pages?)

My favorite room was the faculty lounge, not only because of the espresso machines but also because it has a nice friendly yet contemporary feel with proper wood floors instead of the echo of polished hard marble, artfully concealed indirect lighting and absolutely wonderful proportions. I'd love to have a house with a central living area like this. Dream on.

(Actually, if you look at houses like this one in California, you could make it work.)

Despite the luxury of having uniformed waiter service at my office, I often preferred to make the trek down to the faculty lounge myself.

The infrastructure is important, but in the end it's the personal touch that matters. My hosts made me feel supremely welcome.

For example, one of my sponsors drove me from the hotel to the university each morning until he got sick. After that, I rode in on the QIA Hummer H2:

I even met a ping pong enthusiast from Brazil, Prof. Marcelo Castier, a chemical engineer from Texas A&M University. An extremely busy man, but he managed to find one hour to hit a few balls with me at the brand-new student center the day before I left Doha.

They have three KillerSpin tables there:

Unfortunately, the polished floor is extremely slippery, the pool tables get in the way, and one is blinded by glare from the wall of windows from one end. But hey, these seem to be the only available ping pong tables.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Custom-welded furniture at a coffee shop

I do a lot of work after hours and weekends at a local coffee shop.

I grab a nicely decorated cappuccino (or three). Plug in my earphones to block out the music and distraction. And concentrate hard. The hours pass. I barely look up. Before I know it, it's closing time.

I'm not sure why but for certain kinds of non-creative work, somehow I am significantly more productive at a coffee shop than at home or in my office, where I'm more easily distracted. Instead, I get things done.

By far my favorite coffee shop for this purpose is the Cartel Coffee Lab. Not only is the cappuccino pretty good, but it has great custom-designed furniture that feels just right for working. Made of steel and wood.

This is my favorite location in the entire place. (Unfortunately, it's usually taken and there are only two of them.)

It looks like a simple one-piece desk and bench seat. And it is. But the proportions of this setup (despite the bare metal) just feels like it was designed for laptop use. It also has a footrest bar. In other words, ergonomically speaking, it hits all the right spots for me. Despite its non-adjustability, it simply feels right.

In fact, sometimes I've been able to sit at this desk for 6 to 8 hours without lower back, shoulder or neck trouble. Makes me want to learn how to weld up my own furniture.

A picture of the counter from my vantage point. (Notice the custom-welded iPad-based register.) So much cooler than a generic Starbucks:

Finally, a picture of the outside. I believe they're going to be moving soon to larger premises (a sign of success).

Monday, December 5, 2011

It matters where you sit (part 2)

Into the distance, a ribbon of black
Stretched to the point of no turning back
A flight of fancy on a windswept field
Standing alone my senses reeled
Fatal attraction is holding me fast,
How can I escape this irresistible grasp?

Back in October, I said it matters where you sit on a plane with respect to noise (see here).

Bombardier makes a regional jet, the CRJ700, with twin engines at the rear. So, more precisely, it matters where you sit in relation to the engines.

If you're someone who can sleep on a flight, it probably doesn't matter.

However, I was desperately jetlagged on the way back from Qatar (a brutal 10 hour timezone difference), tired but wired, utterly unable to sleep, and even listening to that mellow Pink Floyd album A Momentary Lapse of Reason (from which those lyrics above are drawn) couldn't help me, I took the opportunity to pace the narrow aisle with Etymotics' free iPhone App, which has a sound pressure meter. I took samples every two seats (which must have drawn strange glances from my fellow passengers) and in the only toilet at the back. Here are the results:

There is a large 20dB difference in sound pressure level depending on where you sit. The noise right at the back is seriously deafening, plus I notice the last row of seats are right up against the wall and do not recline. Do not take row 17.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Apple iPod Nano 6g v1.2 (Part 2)

Back in early October, I gave a favorable report on using the internal accelerometer on the Apple iPod Nano 6g (when updated to v1.2), see here. I decided to test it again on the treadmill.

This morning, I was too fatigued to do the Al Corniche run I did two days ago (see here). (I was suffering perhaps too much from a skin allergy condition that has recently flared up again.)

As a result, I decided to simply run with the iPod Nano on the treadmill in cool air-conditioned comfort at the Mövenpick Towers hotel (see left) for about 30 minutes. The gym there does have a spectacular view of the Gulf from the 25th floor. Better than feeling sorry for myself and doing absolutely nothing I suppose.

But instead of setting a steady, fixed pace (like last time), I varied the treadmill speed up and down. In fact, I ran for the first 10 minutes at 12.5 km/hr (7.8 mph). Then bumped up the speed to 13.5 km/hr (8.4 mph) for 5 minutes, and dropped it to 10.0 km/hr (6.2 mph) for 5 minutes to recover. Finally, back to 12.5 km/hr for the reminder of the run.

So what would one expect the device to report? Well, one would expect something like the red line shown below (possibly shifted slightly vertically, modulo speed calibration of the treadmill).

I can report that the blue data points seem to track the red line fairly well. Though it's not clear there is much difference in the data recorded between the 12.5 km/hr and 13.5 km/hr sections...

(Note: I downloaded the raw data points and directly plotted it in Excel myself. For those interested, you can find them in the directory /Volumes/iPod Nano Name/iPod_Control/Device/Trainer/Workouts/Empeds/nikeinternal/synched when mounted on a Mac. )

This ridiculously heavy-handed smoothing is potentially a huge problem that renders the device useless under non steady state conditions.

(Ignore what I said above. In a previous edition of this post, I said the iPod Nano smoothed away the speed changes. Mea culpa. I screwed up. There was a mistake in my Excel formula.)

From my treadmill speed settings, I should get an average pace of 7'54" min/mile, assuming the treadmill was calibrated perfectly. The internal accelerometer gave me a 7'25" min/mile average or about 6.5% off the treadmill settings.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Doha Al Corniche Run

It has been a very rough last few days indeed. Unable to sleep much at all, I worked through most of the night tired and irritated until dawn.

At 6am, still unable to sleep I ventured outside in frustration to run the Corniche in Doha. Might as well run myself into the ground.

I went in to work bleary-eyed after that as well.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say.
As the lyrics so passionately articulate, it's the despair and desperation of time wasted and having nothing to show for it at all.

I have to also remark at this point that I can't believe the last time I posted about Doha was about two years ago (see England-Brazil Soccer Match).

So this morning at 6am, I did the Al Corniche run weary-eyed and not expecting much at all. I know my body will crash and collapse sooner or later. Sometimes I feel the sooner I get this to happen the better.

My route went from the Four Seasons Hotel (opposite the Mövenpick Towers, a Swiss chain, where I am staying) to the Pearl and back. Checking my records, I had originally filed the run with MapMyRun exactly 2 years and 10 days ago.

(I normally run all the way up to the edge of I.M. Pei's achingly beautiful Islamic Museum of Art, see here, but the side entrance was blocked by Doha's omnipresent and endless construction.)

See the route below:

I split the run into two halves. On the outbound leg I ran to the Pearl. Then took a short break to drink my water bottle and glance at the high-rise area where I had started my run and ran back along the curve of the Corniche.

Into the elevator, I went up to the jacuzzi at the hotel fitness center.

But being so tired, I wasn't in the mood to enjoy the brightness of the scenery from the 26th floor.

I downloaded my run statistics from my iPod Nano to the Nike+ website:

The run data wasn't that bad. At least I burned about 875 kcal in a bit over 7 miles (or nearly 12km). Still, I was incredibly tired and irritable. And decided not to review the details.

After breakfast, I relented and plotted both legs of the run in Excel. Here you go:

As the red line clearly reveals, yes, I was a wuss on that return leg.

My mind wanders randomly when I'm exhausted. But because I run with music on my iPod Nano, another set of lyrics came to mind:
They say a restless body can hide a peaceful soul
A voyager and a settler, they both have a distant goal
If I explore the heavens, or if I search inside
Well, it really doesn't matter as long as I can tell myself
I've always tried

Saturday, November 26, 2011

International Conference on Social Robotics: Amsterdam

I attended ICSR (International Conference on Social Robotics) 2011. Just a short, two day trip. It was held at the University of Amsterdam. I attended as an invited speaker at a panel discussion.

It was the 3rd international conference on this topic but my first time to see many presentations on human robot interaction. And of course, the robots themselves:

The conference sessions lasted all day starting in the morning. However, in the evening, we were able to go out, relax and experience the ambience of this very compact and walkable city: see bicycles, canals, and those narrow canal houses with richly ornamented facades. Preservation seems to be a priority here: as a result, I feel a real sense of history everywhere.

Let's try a little local beer. Let's see what they have on tap. Hmm, the Manke Monnik Tripel brewed by Amsterdamsche Stoombierbrouwerij De Bekeerde Suster looks interesting.

There very much seems to be a pub culture here.

Live jazz. This small place was packed. Standing room only.

Cheers to you!

A last picture, I feel I'm the happy monk:

It's onto Doha, Qatar next, another world away...

Monday, November 21, 2011

5 miles

Today was a revelation. My plodding solo 10 miler on Saturday seems to have paid off (see here). Like in cycling, there is a lot to be said for simply "doing the miles." Today, I felt a distinct difference in terms of running economy and form. With a new-found clarity and focus.

A single run does not a generalization make. So what sort of evidence can I bring to the table to support my speculative conclusions?

First, I can point to the fact on the two Thursdays previously, I'd suffered mightly, and fell far behind the other runners right from the start. (See blog posts bemoaning the fact Another 3 miles and Just 3 miles.) On this 5 miler I managed to more or less stay with the 2nd group nearly the whole way, only getting truly gapped at the end. Case in point, the photograph on the left would not have been possible last two Thursdays: other runners would have disappeared and gone home by the time I arrived.

One could think that was because the pace was slower for the 5 miler than the 3 miler. But I was also significantly faster this time, clocking in at 39'03" for a 7'31" min/mile pace with much less distress than the previous two Thursdays, where I recorded a maxed out 7'44" and 7'38", respectively. As further evidence of better running economy, I had enough in the tank to finish strongly, as the split times and the overall graph from my iPod Nano below shows:

Today was also the first day with my new colorful Newton Distancia shoes: my previous shoes being the Newton Sir Isaac model. The Distancia is lighter than the Sir Isaacs. However, with respect to my new-found running form: I have to point out: nah, it ain't the shoes!

Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin,
But onward, upward, till the goal ye win!

(Frances Anne Kemble)

Watermelon and Tenergy

If it's watermelon slices and Tenergy rubber, it must be Open House at my Ping Pong Palace (aka my house), see here. Taken with the Olympus E-P1:

As my friends played at the table, I went outside to enjoy the cool late autumn air, and a great sunset.

Unfortunately, it's a shame I used my iPhone 4 to take the sunset photo instead of having my Olympus E-P1 at the ready. The picture of course is way worse than what is possible with my E-P1. The problem being that one has to capture the moment with whatever tools one has at hand. A few minutes later, when I went inside to grab my Olympus, the sunset had already deepened almost into darkness.

My only saving grace was that I had the presence of mind to activate the iPhone 4's HDR mode. Without a tripod, inevitably blurriness is introduced. It came out okay at web resolution. But it cannot stand enlargement or viewing on larger screens.

However, it's still immeasurably superior tothe non-HDR, i.e. regular iPhone 4 mode. See below:

Blow-out in the highlights, noise and lack of gradation at the lower end irretrievably mar the snapshot.