OpenMoko Debug Board

I've had a problem with my u-boot_env since ever since I flashed a bad u-boot version in early august. The first time I tried to flash a new kernel it wrote right over the environment partition and since then I've been unable to boot without holding in AUX and use Factory Reset. Also, since the u-boot_env was overwritten I had no way to redirect the u-boot serial terminal output to USB because the limited default boot menu only includes Boot and Factory Reset.

Fortunately I managed to get my hands on a debug board. (Thanks abraxa_!) Following the instructions in the wiki I installed libftdi and started looking for an openocd ebuild. Wasn't until later that I realized I didn't need to install openocd in Gentoo at all, since it was a lot easier to use the one built by the Moko Makefile.

Next I connected the debug board to the pc but it just wouldn't show up correctly. Taking a closer look at the debug board page in the wiki I noticed I was missing kernel module. Recompile the kernel to include Device Drivers -> USB -> USB Serial Converter Support -> USB FTDI Single Port Serial Driver as a module, and after a modprobe ftdi_sio vendor=0x1457 product=0x5118 the device was detected the way it should:
drivers/usb/serial/usb-serial.c: USB Serial Driver core
drivers/usb/serial/usb-serial.c: USB Serial support registered for FTDI USB Serial Device
ftdi_sio 2-1.1:1.0: FTDI USB Serial Device converter detected
drivers/usb/serial/ftdi_sio.c: Detected FT2232C
usb 2-1.1: FTDI USB Serial Device converter now attached to ttyUSB0
ftdi_sio 2-1.1:1.1: FTDI USB Serial Device converter detected
drivers/usb/serial/ftdi_sio.c: Detected FT2232C
usb 2-1.1: FTDI USB Serial Device converter now attached to ttyUSB1
usbcore: registered new interface driver ftdi_sio
drivers/usb/serial/ftdi_sio.c: v1.4.3:USB FTDI Serial Converters Driver
I updated the openocd.conf according to the wiki and it started without complaints. Did a telnet localhost 4444 and was greeted by the openocd prompt. The only problem now was that I had no real clue how to proceed. I typed help in the prompt and then tried some of the commands. After a mix of a halt and reset commands the Neo1973 went black. Trying to restart from scratch I closed openocd and unplugged the debug board. That turned out to be a bad idea. After reconnecting the USB cable and restarting openocd I constantly got the error:
Info: openocd.c:93 main(): Open On-Chip Debugger (2007-09-05 09:00 CEST)
Info: configuration.c:50 configuration_output_handler(): Command ft2232_vid_pid not found
Info: configuration.c:50 configuration_output_handler(): Command ft2232_layout not found
Error: jtag.c:1461 jtag_init(): No valid jtag interface found (ft2232)
Error: jtag.c:1462 jtag_init(): compiled-in jtag interfaces:
Error: jtag.c:1465 jtag_init(): 0: parport
The reason it failed was probably that the Neo was still on, but halted, and I guess that caused some trouble for the debug board. After disconnecting both devices and taking the battery out of the Neo, then starting over again it worked better.

Asked for some help in #openmoko for how to get that u-boot_env repaired and NineX suggested using the Devirginator since it had worked well for him. At that time the buildhost was down, so I tried to configure it to use my local repository instead. After about an hour or so fighting with the config file, only getting useless error messages, I got tired and gave up for the day.

At the same time as NineX mentioned the devirginator, Mike Montour put together a short list of steps in a pastebin explaining how to do it manually and my plan was to try that next time. While I was away during the weekend, moving to Stockholm, he wrote an awesome wiki page on how to do that manual Unbricking. Thanks a lot for the clear and helpful wiki page Mr Montour!

I followed the steps on that page straight through, using a mix of openocd, dfu-util and cu, I now have a Neo1973 that boots correctly. Rebuilding my Bad Block Table showed that I had a bad block at 0x00004000, the default u-boot_env address. Maybe that, in combination with an early August version of u-boot was the reason I got this problem in the first place.

The Debug Board itself is not so easy to use at first, especially when you're not really familiar with embedded things like JTAG and serial consoles. Despite that it is still very nice to have one around when you experiment with your Neo1973. If I knew this low level stuff was so much fun I would have bought the Advanced Kit from the start.


OpenMoko is growing

I just took a quick look at the statistics for the OpenMoko project and it made me happy.

Currently there is 3500 revisions in the svn repository and bugzilla has reached 1022 bugs, 241 of them are still open. The wiki has 3685 pages and 6090 registered users, and maybe more impressively, projects has 1507 developers and 81 projects registered.

The IRC channel on freenode has stayed at around 320 people for the last six months and there's a lot of interesting discussions going on. It's a friendly atmosphere and people interested in the project are encouraged to drop by. Usually, they get pointed to the right place in the wiki, where most questions have already been answered. A good page to read if you want to know what is going on in the project is the Community Updates page. Right now it has not been updated in over a week, but I'm sure it will be soon.

Unfortunately, a hardware bug in power management with GTA02v4 has required a fifth revision of the hardware for GTA02. It's a bit of a shame that the release will be delayed even further, but I'd rather have good hardware later, than something broken right now.

The most interesting code changes in OpenMoko recently involves gsmd, PhoneKit(pdf) and the dbus interface to it. The dialer and sms handling is also being worked at in a furious pace by the OpenedHand guys. Since about a week, calling has worked without any problems for me. Power management has been improved and the phone should last at least a day now.

Also, some guys from Ixonos have been working on an alternative to gsmd, gsmd2. I haven't looked at the code, but they have some very nice documentation and a detailed specification. Still, lots to be discussed it seems.

The GPS binary driver is still not available for download. OpenMoko have been promised by Global Locate that they will be able to distribute it, but the legal terms are not yet set. Hopefully this will be solved soon.

All in all, a lot is going on and the software will be in pretty good shape for when the GTA02 is released.


Our future climate concerns me

A few days ago IPCC (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a document they "succinctly" call Policymakers' Summary of the Synthesis Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment. It's a complete summary of all the data on climate change, densely packed into 23 fact filled pages. (The full reports are much longer.)

The summary quickly showed up everywhere in the news, even at my favorite Ars. Reading through the document does make you think about the future of our climate. 11 of the last 12 years rank among the 12 warmest years ever measured since they started in 1850. For me personally, it has been some great warm and long summers and not a negative thing. For people living in northern Europe like I do, global warming will mostly make things better. The forests and crops will grow better, warmer summers, less freezing winters. The only downside for us will be an increase in precipitation. Most places will not be this lucky.

Although the temperature will increase the most at the poles, it's the places that are already dry and hot that will get the most serious problems. Serious droughts will follow, an increase in wild fires and agriculture and livestock will suffer. That might eventually lead to malnutrition and on top of that, clean drinking water will become a problem. The number of cyclones and storms is likely to increase too, and in low coastal regions and river deltas, increased risk of flooding.

Global increase in temperature for 2099 compared to 1999

The study also expects that in the long term, if the warming continues, the ice caps on Greenland will melt completely and raise the sea level with about 7 meters. This will take some thousand years or so, but it will be a noticeable increase just in the next 100 years.

Fossil fuel is the pink fields in these graphs

The primal cause for the emission of green house gases (GHG) is the use of fossil fuels. The concentration of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere is exceeding by far the natural range seen in the last 650,000 years. We need to cut down on the green house gas emissions on a global scale right now, and even using the most optimistic scenarios still points to an increase in global temperature.

A global increase of 1.5-2.5 degrees Centigrade would endanger 20-30% of the species assessed of global extinction. Most scenarios in the summary suggests a much higher increase in temperature...

If all future investments in infrastructure and energy plants are shifted to get the lowest possible CO2 emissions, the additional investment costs would be around 5-10% higher. That's not much at all, and simply increasing efficiency of energy supply and industrial processes would do a lot to stabilize GHG emissions on a global scale. It's good to see that UK is helping China to get started on this.

Maybe we have no choice in lowering our oil consumption. A recent article in Wired states that most likely we will be unable to maintain the current consumption because we just can't pump the oil up fast enough. Some says 10 years more is all we have.

My personal opinion is that oil based fuels are way too cheap. If prices were at least doubled, maybe driving around in a petrol car won't be the cheapest way to travel medium distances any more. Electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars, although still very expensive, would become a more viable option. Flying is also cheaper than it should be, and even though it's nice to be able to afford to fly away for vacation, I wish there was a less polluting option for long trips. I really do.


Memory and learning

I've been thinking a lot about learning and memory lately and there's been no shortage of interesting articles to read or videos to watch.

Over at wondr.net Jamin has started his Memory Month. He posts a new article every day, teaching you useful tricks for remembering everything from shopping lists and numbers to names of people you've just met. These methods will probably work great, but I'm to lazy to really sit down and do it since there's so many other things distracting me right now.

I don't believe in the old myth that humans only use 10% of the brain, but I do believe that there's a lot about the brain we don't understand at all yet, and maybe we never will. At Google Video they have some very interesting documentaries regarding the brain, for instance this documentary from Channel 5 in 2005 about Daniel Tammet or this one about Kim Peek. These savants have enormous counting skills huge memory capacities, but the brain power comes at a price. From mild autistic tendencies like Asperger's to completely anti-social autistic behavior.

It's been noted that these types of disorders are getting more and more common, especially in academic families and it's even been called The Geek Syndrome by Wired. The latest studies says that something between 3 and 20 genes are involved in causing these disorders. Incidentally this also seems to affect maths and science skills in a positive way. Abnormalities in the cerebellum, the "little brain" responsible for motor control and filtering sensory input and passing it on to the right part of the brain, is common in autistic persons. Kim Peek for instance, has a damaged cerebellum and no corpus callosum, the connection between the two halves of the brain, at all.

The brain is a pattern matching machine and it seems to me like it's automatically filtering the continuous flow of information washing over us, but if it's not filtered enough the person might be classified as slightly autistic. If the brain filters too much, parts of it just doesn't get used enough and will dwindle away. Of course this is an overly simple way of looking at it, but I'm certain it's a part of the puzzle.

I'm also convinced that the brain is a lot more flexible than people used to believe, even in grown ups. New born babies have twice the number of nerve cells they need, but the ones that aren't used just dies off. Usually this happens in two periods, first at a young age, then again around puberty. But the brain is not "frozen" after that at all. A recent study on mice shows that the nerve cells move around and stretch "in a highly dynamic fashion".

It's never too late to learn something new, but I think it's harder to really focus on learning just one thing when you're grown up compared to when you're still a kid. There's just too many things to think about and too many distractions, and so much interesting to learn.

Wish I didn't have to sleep so much, but a completely unscientific experiment on myself made me notice that when I sleep less then 6 hours per night, my memory isn't as good as it usually is. Things just don't stick. Also, I've noticed that I remember things I read in the evening better than the things I read in the morning. I imagine that my brain is working through the input from the day while sleeping, trying to keep only the seemingly important memories.

It's getting late, I'll go read a book.

Update: Great article about memory in National Geographic


OpenMoko progress

I have had my Neo1973 for three months now and the software is finally getting usable. There were a lot of changes during August, the totally new theme and a lot of updates to the kernel and low level libraries. I had the first successful "out of the box" call with OpenMoko using a build from ScaredyCat in September 3:rd, but after that things started to go bad. The daemon handling communication to the GSM modem was more or less broken for a month and calling did not work out of the box for quite a while. That was if you even managed to get the rootfs built. WebKitGtk failed to build almost every time, and so did many other programs too.

This happened for many reasons, mostly because the understaffed development team had to focus on the hardware for GTA02 to iron out all serious bugs, and also because some of them finally had some well deserved vacation.

Despite these issues, the first batch of Neo1973's sold out quickly. A second batch was produced during late September and more people got their hands on the GTA01 phones in early October.

Trolltech also published an image for the Neo1973 and it worked really well. Even managed to use up the rest of my prepaid sim card calling friends.

Since then things have really sped up again. OpenMoko hired XorA to manage OpenMoko in OpenEmbedded and take care of build issues and bitbake recipies. This quickly made a big difference when it comes to getting the complete OpenMoko distro to build. Also, WebKitGtk now compiles more often than not and the default build has seen a several additions. It now includes the openmoko-browser2 based on WebKitGTK. The browser is a bit unstable still and the design is awful since only about 50% of the screen is used to display the actual web page you're browsing.

Also the media player has gotten a face lift and is becomming usable, with the exception that the mp3 decoding library is not yet optimized for the Neo. There's some usability issues still, like that the volume slider is difficult to control with your fingers only, and how you add files to the playlists.

The manufacturing of the second hardware revision of the Neo1973 is just about to start and hopefully all eager developers can get hold of a GTA02 before Christmas. If I didn't have a GTA01 already I would probably wait for the GTA02. The WiFi and faster processor would surely be nice to have. Of course bigger flash disk, the accelerometers and the graphics accelerator are nice too. In addition to that, the AGPS chip has changed to U-blox. (For a comparison of the two revisions of the phone, look here.)

Talking about that, I really hope that Broadcom will release an EABI driver for the Global Locate chip in the GTA01. Since Broadcom bought Global Locate it's been awfully quite about the GPS and even if you can get the old driver working in a chroot, it's a shame it takes so much effort. There's also no applications what so ever for using the GPS either. Not beyond a few shell scripts at least.


Science and Nature Writing

I just finished reading The best American Science and Nature writing 2006. This is the seventh version of this book series and I definitely wish I had found out about it earlier. Each book is made up of about 25 articles that a guest editor selects from about a hundred articles chosen by Tim Folger.

The 2006 edition is edited by Brian Greene who just happens to be one of my favorite physics writers. The articles span everything from bittorrent and blogs to animal psychology, anthropology and advanced physics. Coming from sources like Scientific American, The New York Times and Wired, most articles are easy to read and don't get detailed to the point of being boring. I had actually managed to read some of the articles already, but the others were a great way for me to be introduced to areas of science I knew very little about.

Some of my favorite articles are Dr Ecstasy about the chemist Alexander Shulgin, His brain, her brain about the differences between the male and female brain, and The coming death shortage describing how the increasing life expectancy of humans will affect us.

I encourage everyone interested in widening their scientific horizons to read this book. It's only 280 pages long and reading one chapter per night before falling asleep was perfect. 9 out of 10 points for this book from me.



I remember doing this nerd test in 2005 and got the following result:

NerdTests.com says Supreme Nerd.  What's your score?  Click here!

Noticed on a blog that they had a new version of the test and of course I had to take it. The questions are funny and after answering them as honestly as I could I got:

NerdTests.com says I'm a Nerd God.  What are you?  Click here!

Hmm... Not sure what to say about the score, but at least I'm not a dumb awkward dork. :-)


Vala and Vim

I'm a Gnome user and like reading Planet Gnome (In Google Reader of course!) to see what is going on. There's been quite some buzz around Vala lately so of course I had to check it out. Having used Java and C# quite a lot I've learned to like the syntax. Vala is still in early development, but it's improving quickly and already works well enough to play with.

To make the code look better in vim, add this to your vimrc file. I'm using Gentoo so I put it in /etc/vim/vimrc.local (Ignore the numbers, they are needed because Blogger sucks when you try to show code.)
  1. augroup vala
  2. au!
  3. au! BufRead,BufNewFile *.vala set filetype=vala
  4. au! Syntax vala source /usr/share/vim/vim71/syntax/cs.vim
  5. augroup END
Vala's syntax is similar enough to C# for this to look quite ok.


X86 processors and chipsets

It's not easy to stay on top of all the latest developments in the CPU world but luckily you hardly have to any more. All new computers are fast enough for most users, unless you absolutely want to play the latest games. But for the ones that want to know I've put together a summary of what has been going on during the last few years, what happens right now, and some rumors of the future.

There is still a lot happening on the CPU front, even if it might feel like the increase in performance is not as fast paced as it used to be a few years ago. The most notable change lately is that almost all new processors have two or more cores on each chip, but let's start from the beginning shall we?

NetBurst and K7

Everyone even remotely interested in computer hardware know that NetBurst, the architecture used in the Pentium 4 processor, was far from elegant. Released in late 2000, it was built purely for high clock frequencies. The first NetBurst CPU had a 20 stage pipeline, compared to the 10 stages in the Pentium III and the AMD K7 Athlons. The long pipeline made it easier for Intel to push the clock frequency way up and soon enough the old Athlons were falling behind. AMD was simply unable to increase the clock frequencies any more with their current design and manufacturing processes.


When AMD released their K8 based Opteron processors in the autumn 2003 the picture changed completely. The new CPUs completely left the NetBurst Pentium 4's in the dust. They had a completely different design, using a short 12 stage pipeline, compared to the 20 stages long pipeline used in the Northwood Pentium 4, and doing a lot more Instructions Per Clock (IPC). The K8 architecture could perform three complex x86 instructions per clock, compared to one for the Pentium 4. It had three integer and three floating point ALUs, compared to four integer and one floating point ALU for the contemporary NetBurst revision (More details here).

The Opteron also added AMD's x86-64 instruction set, making it possible to use more than 4GB ram without any inefficient work-around. The extension also included doubling the number of registers from 8 to 16, as well as doubling the size of the registers from 32 to 64 bit. Combined with a modern and efficient HyperTransport bus and a low latency on-die memory controller there was just no way Intel could compete. They did their best, using their more advanced manufacturing process to add more cache to the CPU die and increased the pipeline length even further. The seventh revision of the NetBurst architecture called Prescott had 31 stages in the pipeline, but it just wasn't enough. Yet, all the Pentium 4 did was to get smoking hot.

Pentium-M and Core

Luckily for Intel, their engineers in Israel had been working on a new power efficient processor for use in laptops and came up with a real gem. Called a Pentium III on kryptonite, the Banias was built to keep power dissipation down. Released 2003 in laptops under the Centrino brand, enthusiasts quickly noticed they could overclock it to perform better than any desktop Pentium 4, and even better than the latest Athlons. Intel gave up on NetBurst and continued to develop the Pentium-M into what would be come the Core architecture.

The first Core based CPU, code named Yonah, was released in laptops as the Core Duo in January 2006. They performed way better than AMD's laptop offer, the Turion CPUs, who were both slower and consumed more power. Later in the spring Intel brought the Core architecture to the desktop with the Conroe processor. It was released under the name Core 2 Duo and was an instant success. The chips were about 33% faster than the Athlon 64's at the same clock frequency and they also included AMD's x86-64 extensions.

AMD tried to answer up to Intels offering, but now they were once again the having the inferior architecture. And just as before, they were unable to push their processors to the frequencies needed to compete with the Core 2 CPUs on the competitive desktop market. Debuting at 2.2 GHz in 2003, the fastest Athlon 64 FX was still stuck at 2.8 GHz in mid 2006 while the Core 2 Duo with twice the cache was already available at 2.933 GHz.

Fortunately it was still going well for AMD in the lucrative 4+ CPU server space. Intel's Core 2 Xeon server chips were still stuck with an old Front Side Bus (FSB) and were unable to compete on four-sockets or more. AMD, now with the knife at their throat struggled to get Barcelona, the processor based on their new K10 architecture, ready for consumers.

Future - K10 and vPro, Bulldozer and Nehalem

The long awaited Barcelona quad core processor will be released in mid September this year. AMD are still keeping a tight lid on all the details surrounding the chip, but some leaked benchmarks from The Inquirer sure look promising. The results show that the Barcelona could be pushed to over 30,000 3DMarks 06 and 11GB/s memory bandwidth compared to Intel's fastest "quad core" having 7.5 GB/s bandwidth. Architecturally they seem to be equals, but the question is if AMD will be able to compete for the top spot when they're always a step behind Intel in the manufacturing process.

To steal some thunder from AMD, Intel will release a new platform called vPro at the same time. First presented in 2002 under the name LaGrande, together with Microsofts controversial Palladium initiative, these extensions are now known as Trusted Execution Technology (TXT). Intel have announced three new Core 2 Duo processors for use with the vPro platform. Intel is trying to push it as the ultimate virtualization technology, which it is in some ways, but it can also be used as a very powerful DRM. Hopefully people will realize what this means and how "Big Content" can use it to lock you out from using your files as you want to. Hannibal describes his concerns well in his Ars Technica article about vPro.

Next year Intel will start releasing systems using their new Common System Interface (CSI), finally replacing the old FSB that's been a bottle neck for way too long. Initially it will be intended for multi socket servers, but the technology will trickle down to desktops and laptops later on.

For AMD the future seem to be about Bulldozer. It will be the first CPU with SSE5 and will be build with AMD's new modular Fusion architecture. The idea is to be able to mix several types of cores on the same die, including on-die Graphics Processing Units (GPU). To be released in 2009, they will be up against Intel's next chip architecture called Nehalem.

Tip of the iceberg

I've intentionally left the EPIC, SPARC, CELL and POWER architectures out of this. They might be technically more interesting, but they're not x86. Maybe that's something I should get back to another day, if only to make fun of the Itanic or to admire IBM's POWER6 beast. IBM are producing the CPUs for all three new consoles, the Wii, the XBox360, and the PS 3, and there's a lot to say about all of them. I've also avoided talking about what's happening in the rapidly growing System On a Chip world. Mobile computing is exploding and there's many chip manufacturers who want a piece of the action.

I've listed several well written articles at the end of this post if you really want to dig in to details like vector processing instructions, memory bandwidth or the different manufacturing processes, they are all worth reading.

My favorite tech writer, Jon "Hannibal" Stokes have recently released a book called "Inside the Machine". I'm ashamed to say I haven't read the book yet, but it's definitely something I will do as soon as I can. Expect a review of it.

While reading forums and comments to articles about processor architectures I've come up with this modified version of Goodwin's Law, we can call it Mogren's Law:
As an online discussion about processor architecture grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Alpha or RISC approaches one.
The Alpha was a beautiful design though, too bad EV79 and later was canceled. Luckily the clever guys behind the Alpha design were quickly hired to work on other things...

Into the Core: Intel's next-generation microarchitecture - Jon Stokes - April 05, 2006

Inside Barcelona: AMD's Next Generation - David Kanter - March 16, 2007

Intel Core 2 Duo - Franck Delattre and Marc Prieur - June 22, 2006

Core 2 Duo and the future of Intel - Rob Hallock - November 5, 2006

AMD K10 Micro-Architecture
- Yury Malich - August 17, 2007

The Common System Interface: Intel's Future Interconnect - David Kanter - August 28, 2007

Intel's new vPro: two steps forward for x86... as well as for DRM and P2P? - Jon Stokes - August 27, 2007


OpenMoko 2007.2

A few weeks ago I ordered the Neo1973 phone and have been playing around with it a bit since. The software is currently early alpha state and often fails to even build correctly, but that's what we all expect at this early phase of development.

The easiest way to build a complete image to flash on the phone has been to use Rod Whitby's MokoMakefile. Basically all you have to write is "make openmoko-devel-image" and wait a few hours. To compile the whole OpenMoko distribution from scratch takes about 10 hours on my AMD64 3000+, so it's not something you just do in a heartbeat.

The OpenMoko Wiki is really working well and it's still expanding quickly. #openmoko on Freenode is also a very busy channel, currently around 320 people in it. There's always someone there to point you in the right direction if there's some trouble with your Neo.

I have yet to make any applications on my own to install or include in the rootfs, but I'm trying to keep up with the latest development and I'm still learning how bitbake works.

I haven't even been able to make a call with the phone yet, or been able to use the GPS. But that's fine for now, I did order a development sample of a phone. The battery on the Neo doesn't last long either since the power management isn't really working yet. Basically it can be on for a few hours, then it dies completely.

The screen looks great though, and the size is nice. The touchscreen feels good, but is a bit difficult to use near the edges. It's definitely a bit slow to use still, but the GTA02 version (mine is GTA01) will have some nice additions, including WiFi, 3D Graphics accelerators and a faster processor.

There's still a lot of people ordering the developer version of the phone and I'm sure that we'll see a lot of interesting applications fairly quickly. I do worry a bit about the stability and quality of it though. Hopefully they will lock down a stable release in good time before the public release of the phone so that there's enough time to test and bugfix without introducing more problems.

I have no doubt that there will be lots and lots of games and utilities for this phone in a years time. The Neo1973 is still only for tinkerers who like to mess around, but the future is promising.


Good programmers and getting things done

Now I'm back from vacation and have been catching up on my blog feeds. I'm sharing all the posts and articles I feel are truly interesting in my Google Reader feed (and page), but the following two deserves a special mention:

Jeff Atwood's "Yes, But What Have You *Done*?" makes me want to "Do it f***ing now"!

The blog post at RevSys called "A Guide to Hiring Programmers: The High Cost of Low Quality" talks about expert programmers and really makes me want to be one.

Both touch on the subject of getting things done and being able to show some finished work. I feel like I'm doing too little at too many places, only touching the surface of the projects and communities I'm involved in and spending too much time reading and talking. Guess it's time to start getting things done!

P.S If anyone cares, I've given in and can now be found on the infamous Facebook.


Crazy watches and passing time

This is without doubt one of the most interesting articles I've read in a long time. It's about a japanese watch maker called Haruo Suekichi (Japanese homepage only), who designs odd and unique contraptions that show time. Some of them look barely wearable, but they're all still really cool.

The interviewer also asks how he looks at the passing of time and I think he had a great definition of it:
The progress of time and memories are like a path you go along, and certain memories stand out as markers...that's kind of how I think of time, I guess, how I look at time...
I'm so used to looking at time from a scientific point of view (I blame Brian Greene for that) so this article felt really refreshing to read. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to express thing in a more poetic way.


Digital Fortress

My lovely girlfriend just finished reading Dan Browns Digital Fortress and handed it over to me. I finished it in two nights, just as his other books, and I think this book is at least as good as The Da Vinci Code.

Unfortunately it's not as detailed on the cryptology part as I would have liked, but at least he succeeds with a bit of name dropping. I remember Diffie-Hellman and ElGamal being mentioned, along with some other cryptology terms. The classic Caesar cipher was described more in detail as it's easy for anyone to understand how it works.

The story is basically the same as his other books, shy academic guy is forced to play detective instead of solving the problems he has with his beautiful and clever girlfriend. The plot is based around the search for the key to an "unbreakable" code. The NSA can't break it, and send the professor David Becker to Spain to get it back. Meanwhile, things are not going according to the plan back at the NSA Crypto headquarters...

It's a fun story and very fast paced as usually. Everyone is lying to everyone and it's not obvious right away who is fooling who. Feels like a perfect book to bring for a lazy summer day, except that you'll finish it in a few hours of reading.


Zeitgeist - Realize the truth

Who doesn't love a good conspiracy theory? This Zeitgeist movie, cut into three separate videos are all highly interesting and thought provoking. A comprehensive list of source material can be found here and the public statement he's trying to make is here.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (26:20 minutes)

The program shows Jesus as being the same old Sun God that people have worshiped for ages. That the stories in the Bible are incredibly similar to the stories of other older religions. Of course people borrow ideas and stories from things they've heard or read before, but the similarities shown are astounding. I'd say it's a very valid analysis of religion and how to make one.

All The World's A Stage (33:24 minutes)

This movie is scary and highly provocative. Basically it says that 9/11 was performed by the US government to increase it's own power. It shows exactly how many coincidences that had to happen at the precise time for this "terrorist attack" to be as devastating as it was. T

Don't mind the men behind the curtain (47:05 minutes)

I've read articles concerning this before, but the presentation here is exceptional and worth a careful view. It shows just how much power the international bankers have and how that the economy of a country is so totally in control of the Central bank. The Central bank controls the interest rates and the inflation, constantly loaning money to the government with an interest. The bank also regulates the value of the currency by increasing or decreasing the amount of money being printed. The focus is on the American Federal Reserve and it's tight ties to the major banking families in the US. The Wall street crash of 1929 is described as biggest robbery of all time. I'm highly surprised that The Fed is privately owned and that they wanted USA to join the WW I, the WW II and the Vietnam war to earn even more money. And with a pointer to the second video, the American governments War on Terrorism is the same thing all over again. According to the movie it's all a huge money scam.

The last 20 minutes describes an intricate plan to come to a point in the future where we have a "One world government". It's somewhat of a doomsday scenario, and a scary one indeed. A good background to have in regard to the power of media is to watch Outfoxed. Who are all these "men behind the curtain"?

As the statement said, the whole purpose of these videos is to act as an eye opener for people to look more critically at the world around us. I've always thought I've tried to look at the world from all angles but these films really act as a cold shower wake up. I guess the end comment in the statement sums it up perfectly:
"It is my hope that people will not take what is said in the film as the truth, but find out for themselves, for truth is not told, it is realized."
Time for all of us to realize.

(Updated links to the correct Google Video)


The Seashell on the Mountaintop

I just finished reading The Seashell on the Mountaintop, the Swedish version. Picked it up as a cheap pocket book and I was pleasantly surprised. The book was a fascinating read and showed many of the troubles scientists faced during 17th century, both political and religious.

The story involves
Nicholas Steno, born in Denmark as Niels Stensen and starts when he has just finished his anatomy studies. Being exceptionally skilled with the scalpel, Steno is the first to discover the saliva glands and the tear canal and his public dissections are quickly becoming famous events. He travels all over Europe, through Amsterdam, Paris, Florence and Hannover, spending most of his time working at the then famous Accademia del Cimento in Florence. The academy was funded by the brothers Ferdinando II and Leopoldo de Medici and was the first one focusing solely on "experimental philosophy".

After years of thinking about the problem of seashells being found inside rocks and mountains everywhere Steno figured out the final piece in the puzzle. By carefully studying layers of rocks in hills of Tuscany he realized that sediments in water were deposited at the bottom with the largest particles first and then smaller and smaller particles on top. Steno concluded that the layers and strata in the cliffs and mountains had been deposited in the same way with the newest layers in the direction of the smaller particles above the bigger ones. He also suggested that the seashells inside were real seashells from the sea, not growing inside the rock. He realized the significance of being able to tell the age of the layers of rock apart and opened the way to study the ancient history of Earth.

In 1669 he published his findings in a short booklet called De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus, that translated means Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid. This was the first published study of geology performed in a completely scientific way that included the
previously ignored time dimension that's so clearly embedded in the rock layers.

The rest of the book describes how Steno continues his studies of sediments and mountains, but also his increasing devotion to Catholicism eventually earning him the title of bishop. The book is well written and I could not put it down until I finished reading the last page.

Something that surprises me with the book is the amount of famous scientists and philosophers that Steno meets. He becomes friends or colleagues with such celebrities as Baruch Spinoza, Giovanni Borelli, the contemporary members of The Royal Society of London, Gottfried Leibniz and many more. Opinions and observations concerning Stenos interests in anatomy and geology made by thinkers like Descartes, Da Vinci and even earlier Aristotle is also included in the book.

Even if the world feels a lot smaller now with easy communication and quick traveling across the globe, it's still inspiring to see how people have always liked to travel and exchange ideas.
The Seashell on the Mountaintop made history feel more vibrant to me than it has in a long time.


Altruism, empathy and morality

Recent research shows that when you do something totally unselfish, the same regions in the brain that responds to food or sex lights up. The study, originally published in October 2006 by Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, got a lot of publicity in the press lately. Some good summaries could be found in the Washington Post and Science Daily, and also in some blogs from people interested in this topic.

My personal uneducated take on altruism is that I know it feels good. My brain rewards me when I help someone, when I make someone else happy. The evolutionary benefit from this is a bit harder to pinpoint, but the articles mentioned above has some good theories. Scott Huettel draws the following conclusions from his study:
"Our findings are consistent with a theory that some aspects of altruism arose out of a system for perceiving the intentions and goals of others."
"To be altruistic, you need to see that the people you’re helping have goals, and that your actions will have consequences for them."
The also studies show that people with damage to a specific part of the frontal lobe lacked empathy and would solve tricky emotional problems in a cold "the-end-justifies-the-means" way. This sounds a lot like Asperger's syndrome to me. Now every other kid with a slight communication problem seems to get this diagnose, but I wouldn't be surprised if this condition has something to do with them having a slight error in parts of their frontal lobe.

Marc Hauser has done psychological experiments showing that people all over the world process moral questions in the same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather than a product of culture. That morality is comparable to language in the way that they are both intrinsic in humans. He suggests that people reach moral conclusions in the same way they construct a sentence without having been trained in linguistics. A quote from this excellent summary of a Nature article:
Thus, the findings confirm the notion that there are at least two neural systems involved in making moral decisions: one in which emotions are involved, and one which performs a cost-benefit analysis. [... ...] It is believed that the emotion-based system for making moral decisions evolved first, perhaps in a situation where small numbers of people lived in kin groups. [Antonio] Damasio says, “A nice way to think about it is that we have this emotional system built in, and over the years culture has worked on it to make it even better”.
A consequence of this kind of study is that we might have to rethink what is immoral and not. If morality is automatic and unconscious process, why are we so quick to differ on what's right or wrong in a moral dilemma? The Washington Posts article says:
U.S. law distinguishes between a physician who removes a feeding tube from a terminally ill patient and a physician who administers a drug to kill the patient. Hauser said the only difference is that the second scenario is more emotionally charged -- and therefore feels like a different moral problem, when it really is not: "In the end, the doctor's intent is to reduce suffering, and that is as true in active as in passive euthanasia, and either way the patient is dead."
The difference sounds clear at first thought since it feels like an active choice to administer a lethal drug. But removing a feeding tube is equally active and the two situations should defintely be equal before the law.

Anyway, I guess we should try to think more about the end results instead of moral. A good comment on this from an interesting blog called Atheist's Wager:
"Morality is about doing the right thing when no one is watching."
Let's all do the right thing.


Classifying species

There's been a lot of articles, blog posts and news about the 300 year anniversary of Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus) lately. He was born today, May 23:rd 1707 in Älmhult, Småland in southern Sweden as the son of a preacher.

In 1735 he published the first version of his now world famous Systema Naturae. It was 11 large pages that classified the natural world and humans were for the first time grouped together with other primates. The eleven pages in the first edition grew to three thousand pages in the final and thirteenth edition, published in 1770.

The system that made him famous was a simple two part naming system based on the physical attributes of the organisms. The two terms are the genus name and the specific descriptor.
The so called Linnaean taxonomy is the base for the system of scientific classification used in modern biology. Linnaeus hierarchy started with the division into three kingdoms, Animals, Plants and Minerals. The Kingdoms were divided into Classes and the Classes into Orders, which were divided into Genera, which were divided into Species. The classifications have changed a lot since Linnaeus' first version and only the groups in the Animal kingdom remain to this day, although heavily updated.

There have been some discussions about improving this centuries old classification style to something more modern, like a tree based nomenclature based on the recent discoveries from DNA studies. It's quite clear that even if animals or plants look the same, they can come from families very far apart. A classic example is the Hyrax that looks like a big guinea pig, but the closest relative is actually the Manatee. (It's also closely related to the Elephant but that's not the closest relative, even if they share the same ancestor.)

A system called PhyloCode grew out of a workshop at Harvard University in 1998 and it's still in the draft stage. Maybe the simplicity of the Linnaean system will prevail anyway. It seems to have worked quite well for the last 272 years...


Longer life

Researchers in US have found that there's a gene that has the same kind of life-lengthening property as severe calorie restriction. Cutting calorie intake by about 60% have increased the lives of everything from yeast and flies up to mice and dogs. But constantly being on the verge of starving sounds like a nightmare to me, so I'd rather wait for some pill that mimics the effects the pha-4 gene has on nematode worms.


Busy busy..

Been on a 2-week vacation to the Philippines with Justine and we just got back, hence the lack of updates to this blog.

Also, bought a new apartment yesterday so I'll be spending all my non-work time for the next few weeks fixing it. Already have one wall taken down!

I expect to do regular updates again in a few weeks. :-)



Parasites are scary and fascinating at the same time. It's disgusting to have a creature living and breeding inside another living animal, but the tricks they have to control their hosts can be surprising, weird and most of all scary.

There's been some talk about Toxoplasma gondii again because of this soon to be published paper. The paper describes how Toxoplasma gondii removes all fear of cats from rats infected with it. The reason for this is that the parasite only reproduces in cat bellies and of course the way to get there from the rat is to make it's host get eaten by one. The rats still had their normal anxiety and could learn to get frightened of other things.

It's strange how the the tiny parasite can control something so very specific. It's a common parasite too, about half of all people on earth are carrying it. It's not dangerous to humans unless you have a very weak immune system, like people with AIDS. Pregnant women should avoid getting it too. People get it the same way rats or other animals does, contact with cat litter.

Studies of humans infected with Toxoplasma have shown some subtle changes in personality. Quoting from this article:
Those infected, he found, show a small, but statistically significant, tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Paradoxically, infected women, on average, tend to be more outgoing and warmhearted than controls, while infected men tend to be more jealous and suspicious.
There's not total consensus on this yet and it seems like only a few of all infected people have any notable issues with it. Toxoplasma infection has also been linked to schizophrenia, and medicine against schizophrenia made infected rats afraid of cats again. Why and how is not clear yet.

I would not be the slightest surprised if all of the truly cat-obsessed people are carrying Toxoplasma gondii.

Another classic example of a parasite controlling it's hosts is the Lancet Fluke. It has a complex three host cycle involving cattle, snails and ants. They live in sheep or cow livers where they mate and then leave their eggs out in the host’s feces. Snails eating that gets infected and to protect themselves they make slimy balls filled with parasites that they leave behind. Ants finding these slime balls eat them and get infected. Every night the fluke takes control over the and and makes it climb to the tip of a grass straw, hold onto it with it's mandibles and stay like that until the morning. Then it goes back to looking for food as normally, until the sun goes down. Finally, once some grazing animal accidentally eat the ant with the grass, the fluke is back in a host where it can reproduce.

There's more examples like this too. One fluke reproducing in wading birds makes infected fish shimmy and jump to make it easier for the birds to find and catch them. A certain hairworm who infect grasshoppers takes control of it's host when it is ready to leave it and makes the poor grasshopper suicide by jumping into some nearby water. The worm will be back in the water where it wants to be. (More hairworm here(pdf). Mind controlling parasites at LiveScience.)

I hope I'll never get a parasite infection. Especially not some slimy, crawling animal. Wikipedia has more information and links about this than you ever want to know...



GPS tagging photos on Flickr has been done for a long time, but I had not seen it on regular blogs yet. Why not? You could do a lot of fun with that! At least I hadn't heard any noise about it so I thought it hadn't really taken off. But of course some clever people had started working on this long ago and things are well on the way.

The first thoughts around this I got from reading an article on O'Reilly radar about Google supporting GeoRSS. That led me to the GeoRSS homepage which links straight to geotagthings.com. In geotagthings (still in beta) you can subscribe to a feed that's an aggregation of many geotagged feeds that are limited to be within a certain area of your choice. I think it would be really fun to see what other bloggers in the block are saying and what pictures they are posting.

Then of course there's the question of how to easily add geotags to all blog posts. It should of course happen automatically if possible, but good support for adding it manually should be built into all blogging software. There should be the possibility to save some default locations where you do most posts from and a row with free editing, just to enter latitude and longitude.

There's a newly started GNOME project called GeoClue, which is about making a DBus service for geographic information. They have a great list on the homepage with suggestions of how this information could be used and I really hope this to takes off. The more this is integrated into the desktop the better.

One of many cool things mentioned on the GeoClue page is Placeopedia. Placeopedia is an effort to connect Wikipedia articles with the location they are talking about. This is exactly what I want to have in my Neo1973 when I'm out traveling somewhere. "Is there something interesting around here?" - One look on the map and I can click and read the article about it.

Of course some clever minds at Google have also been looking at this stuff. There's been some rumors that maybe Google was making a phone, but of course they were not going build any hardware. The proof for this is this patent for quicker search results when using a mobile device was dug up by Mad4MobilePhones. It shows that Google was, as usually, looking for a way to get better and faster search results. Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica took a closer look on this new mobile search and really liked it. The last piece of the puzzle is how to add the positioning automatically. (Google's mobile search currently needs you to enter your current Zip code to tell where you are.)

GPS receivers are getting built into more and more things and now we have to make it possible to get the geographic information to all programs that can make use of it.

Population, Coriolis and more myths

There's a common rumor that there's more people alive now on Earth than have ever lived. I've always found this to be unlikely, but haven't really done any calculations on it. Luckily, some guy has already done the calculations. (See here)

Counting with very low estimates, starting with two homo sapiens 50,000 years ago and using the lower limit of estimated growth and populations, Carl Haub still got the estimation that slightly over 106 billion people had ever been born. The current 6.5 billion is not even close.

Another common rumor is that water running down a drain spins in different directions on the northern and southern hemispheres, but that's not true either. The Coriolis force is just too weak on smaller scales. (See here)

More interesting facts about urban myths and legends can be found at snopes.com



I'm amused by this recent study by Stuart Cadwallader and Jim Campbell at the University of Warwick. They conclude that gifted students use heavy metal music to unwind. There's a nice write up at the Telegraph about it. The best quote is:
"Participants said they appreciated the complex and sometimes political themes of heavy metal music more than perhaps the average pop song. It has a tendency to worry adults a bit but I think it is just a cathartic thing. It does not indicate problems."
I'm not saying I was a "stressed gifted social outsider" as student, but I have always preferred fast and noisy music over easy listening. I don't really get why most "pop" have to be so boring. The majority of the songs I hear on the radio has melodies that are slow and repetitive and lyrics that are uninspired and boring, repeating some short and stupid sentence over and over again.

I'm convinced that fast music makes the brain work harder to decipher what is going on. I think it took over 10 times of listening before I could hear the whole lyrics to 88 Finger Louie's "I've Won". Great song, nice melodies and very very fast. Adam Goren's (Atom And His Package) music is not that fast but the lyrics are probably the best ever. Very funny and because of the rhymes and word plays it's not always obvious what he's joking about.

That is the kind of music that grows on you. A song or album where you hear every twist of the melody and every word of text the first time you hear it will bore you very quickly. The brain is a pattern matching machine and to keep it happy we have to feed it tricky enough patterns to solve. I think different people have different limits, and I think mine is somewhere at The Dillinger Escape Plan. (Calculating infinity is an amazing album).

Some of my favourites:
88 Fingers Louie, Abhinanda, Atom And His Package, Bad Religion, Beatsteaks, Billy Talent, Blindside, Boy Sets Fire, Children Of Bodom, Coheed And Cambria, Down By Law, Goldie Lookin' Chain, In Flames, Incubus, Jr Ewing, Looking Forward, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Nine, Nirvana, NOFX, Q.O.T.S.A, R.A.T.M, Raised Fist, Rancid, S.O.A.D, Shai Hulud, Snapcase, Social Distortion, Spineshank, Stabb, Sublime, Sugar Ray, The Black Keys, The Bronx, The Hives, The White Stripes, The Who, Tiger Army, Tool and Zeke.

Also, always support your favorite band and go to their show if they're playing in town!


The bottom of the sea

I have a feeling we don't know as much as we should about the life at the bottom of the oceans. About 70.8% of the surface of the Earth is covered by water and even if we know the topology of the bottom and the currents quite good from all satellites and sonar scans, most of it is still unchartered when it comes to creatures and plants. The discovery of the black smokers in 1977 near the Galápagos Islands showed that there are some very odd echo systems down there.

The problem deep down under water, like at 2000m - 2500m down where most black smokers have been found, is the lack of energy. No sunshine reaches these depths so the plants and creatures needs to use other sources to get their energy from. The strange environment with the darkness and high pressure gives rise to truly weird lifeforms.

A good example is a snail found in 2001 around some black smokers in the Indian Ocean. It uses Pyrite (aka Fools Gold) and Greigite to build a metallic shell. Covered with an iron plate mail it's like a miniature knight in armor. National Geographic did a nice article on this gastropod and Anders Warén, the lead researcher on this metal wearing snail, says they have found several thousand more new species around this kind of hydrothermal vents, and that's just counting mollusks.

The deepest dive ever made was done in 1960 by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh with the bathyscaphe Trieste. They reached the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench spending 20 minutes at the bottom. At the depth of 10916 m the pressure is extreme, about 1250kg per square centimeter, and currently no vessel exists that can withstand it.

The Japanese DSV Shinkai 6500 is currently the deepest-diving manned submersible in the world with a maximum depth of 6500m. It was put into service in 1989, 18 years ago, but it's still new compared the next best one, United States Alvin (the one used to find the black smokers). Alvin was commissioned in 1964, but has been updated several times, last time in 2001. It can stay at a depth of 4500m for 9 hours with three people on board.

Good to see that the National Science Foundation is well on the way to a new improved 6,500m capable deep diving vehicle that can reach more than 99% of the sea floor. I'm sure it will find plenty of interesting things.


New state of matter

The last few days some interesting physics articles about string-net liquids have popped up. It began with Robert Laughlin's Nobel Prize for the discovery of particles with a fractional charge, a completely new type of matter. It was shown that sometimes several electrons can congregate in a way that they appear to have fractional charges.

Xiao-Gang Wen studied these particles together with Michael Levin and they came up with a theory they call string-net liquids. The theory suggest that all fermionic particles are endpoints of long open strings and that light is represented by fluctuations in a closed string. Simulations of vibrations in nets made of these strings gave rise to Maxwell's Equations and to other kinds of fundamental particles.

The slides from his presentation at a quantum computer conference early March can be found here. It includes some very complicated equations, but what he wants to show in the end is that fermions and light emerges from the collective motion of strings that fill the vacuum of space. A condensed string will be have like a single particle.

Interesting stuff, and hopefully this way of looking at the fundamental particles could get us another small step closer to figure out what this whole place is all about.



I shouldn't complain it's getting warmer, it's all good for us up here in Sweden. But in some way I find this data a bit worrying.


Human evolution in another light

Yesterday Scott Adams linked to an interesting article from Newsweek about human evolution. The conclusion they get to in the article is that humans didn't evolve linearly, instead lots of branches and sub species existed at the same time.

I don't understand why people find this surprising. You see it with all species in nature, be it fishes in Lake Victoria or sparrows on the Galapagos Islands. Evolution is not linear. I find it obvious that a random process will give results that diverge and spread out.

The article also suggests that by tracking specific genes in the DNA, we can find the last common ancestor to all living humans. It seems like they lived about 89,000 years ago and left Africa as recently as 66,000 years ago.

One of the last sentences in the articles says "It therefore suggests that we are still evolving.". Of course we are, who would ever think otherwise? I believe it's happening quite fast too, but with a completely different set of rules compared to back then. The definition of fitness for survival and reproduction in this modern world is nothing at all like surviving on the plains of Africa.

Scott Adams says "Fossils are Bullshit" and what he means is that the old rigid theory of evolution just doesn't feel right. I agree that the theory is far from complete and I think it's a common mistake by many scientists that when they find a proof for a particular thing within their current theory, they feel like they have to increase the scope of the theory to include things that are way beyond what they actually did prove.

Of course everyone want to make their theory more and more general and less complicated, but I think it's been proven over and over again that everything in the universe is more complicated than it looks at first glance.

A lot of times it seems like getting enough detailed information is the biggest hurdle. Often it feels like scientists spend too much time staring at the data they already have instead of thinking about new ways to find data that would shine a light on the problem from a different angle.

To use DNA in addition to the information they have from fossils and bones, like they did in the article, is a great example of finding such an additional source of data forcing them to adjust the current theory.

We should look at things from another angle more often.


Pi day!

Happy 3.14 everyone! ;-)

Google Analytics

Just did a test and added Google Analytics to the template for the blog main page. It's supposed to show some information in about 24 hours. Would be fun to see if it shows any other views than my own.

How to keep a geek employee happy

Was a fun and quite accurate post on nomadishere.com about what a geek/nerd needs to be happy with work. I'd say number 1, 4 and 8 is the most important points.


Google Reader

Google Reader is just too easy to use. Hours disappear browsing through all interesting news and blog feeds. The key shortcuts works great, it's easy to star or share links and all embedded media just works.

The only difficulty is to sort the flow of news and just get the best most interesting things. To avoid information that you don't really need. I'm guessing this problem will just continue to grow just as quickly as the flow of detailed information does.

If someone missed the flash movie called Epic 2014, released in November 2004 by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson you owe it to yourself to watch it. These guys were way ahead of their time doing this. Impressive!


TED talks to watch...

Wow! Can't wait for the movies of these talks to show up on the TEDTalks pages.. They're always worth watching. Feels good to know there's people like these guys out there.. :-)


The evolution of religion

New York Times had a great article called Darwin’s God last Sunday. It's a lot to read, but absolutely well worth it.

I definitely think that religion and superstition is a byproduct of something that was actually useful for human survival. Stephen Jay Gould used the architectural term "spandrel" for it and I guess that's as good as any. Unfortunately I think religion has a more negative than positive impact in our society, mainly because it can so easily be misused to control followers.

Just read the article, the writing style is excellent and the topic is fascinating!


First Neo1973 phones are being shipped

Some happy Phase 0 developers will soon have a Neo1973 phone delivered to their doorstep. Hopefully we'll see a lot more images of it and a lot of bugfixes and work done until the first revised developer version can be ordered by the end of this month.

It's really nice to see FIC being so open with everything in this project


Lack of focus

I believe that the only way to be truly great at something is by pursuing it relentlessly. Motivation, focus and determination is definitely more important than how "gifted" you supposedly are. This is even more true if the person in question is still a kid.

To become a good writer, writing a lot is the only way. To become a good painter, you have to paint a lot. To be the best programmer you can be, write as much code as you can. To be the best athlete, train harder than everyone else. This is being mentioned time and time again, but still people in general don't seem to get it. It's always "she's so talented" or "he's so lucky to be born with that gift" and so on. Of course natural predisposition plays a part too, but I don't think it's as big as people seem to make it.

The hardest thing with getting truly good at something is to give up, or at least cut back a lot, on all other activities. You need focus and have a clear goal, something to pour all your energy into. You have to want to be the best at what you do and only have that in your mind. Focus is the key.

This is a huge problem when you want to be good at everything. I just don't think it's possible be that. Sure, you can be pretty good at a lot of things, but not great at everything no matter how hard you try. Intellectually, no matter how clever you are, time is the limiting factor to what you can achieve. And the slower you think, the more time you need.

People who push them selves to extremes impress me. Not so much for the thing they chose to do, but for their ability to take on something truly extreme and just do it.

Focus people...



There's been a lot of posts and slides available from FOSDEM (The Free and Open Source Software Developers' European Meeting) these last few days. Besides blogposts, some videos from the talks have also started to show up. The presentation on OpenMoko(1h .avi) was very interesting, even if the sound was a bit bad. They go through the current status of the project and what plans they have in store. It was also hinted that they'll do some kind of update to the hardware between phase 1 (for developers) in March and the official launch in September (Phase 2). What the update will be is not known yet. An official video of the talk will be available soon.

The X-Org video(1h .ogg) was also really interesting and I can't wait for the X-Org 7.3 with RandR 1.2 where hotplugging of both input and output should "just work".

I'm convinced that events like FOSDEM are very beneficial to everyone who shows up. Meeting people in person is always different from talking via phone, email or chat and just feels more friendly. Humans definitely communicate best face to face.


Staying creative

Ken Robinson who wrote Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative is also an excellent speaker. I particularly like this quote from his TED talk last year:
"Picasso once said that all people are born artists, and the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it, or rather we get educated out of it."
There's a great video of the talk over at TED Talks, please take a look.

I believe this quote is true and you can feel it if you're stuck doing uninspiring work or just watching pointless tv shows that don't make you think. There are some good tv shows that are worth watching, but I feel that the majority of them slowly kills creativity and sucks away all inspiration.

Same thing goes for the current school system. It suffocates the creativity of young people and something needs to be done about it. The status of being a teacher is not high enough and the schools never get enough resources to make studying fun. Some of us who likes to read had it easy in school, but some people just aren't made to sit still at a desk all day. I also believe there should be possible to study at different speeds. There's no point in stressing out the slower students and boring the quick ones when doing the work in your own pace is possible.

I think smaller classes would work a lot better but unfortunately there's no money for anything like that. Also, I think the parents play a huge part in their kids success. This article in New York Magazine is a great example of what can happen. I believe that hard work and being able to focus is the key. Sure, everyone starts from a slightly different position, but where you take it mainly depends on the effort you put in and really wanting to get there.

Don't let the fear of failure hinder you from reaching your goals.



Just read a great post over at The Loom about tapeworms. Parasites are nasty creatures and it's something that's both scary and interesting to learn more about. Something about living inside another living creature and crawl around makes me squirm. Here's a quote from that post about Monogeneans:
Some monogeneans give birth to offspring without releasing them from their bodies. Their offspring mature inside them and give birth as well. Like a hideous Russian doll, a monogenean may contain twenty generations of descendents inside its body!
How weird is that? How do they evolve when the offspring living inside itself like this? Carl Zimmer who writes on this blog is an author of some very interesting posts and books, for example Parasite Rex.

The Fabric of the Cosmos

Last night I finished Brian Greene's excellent popular physics book The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. I would recommend it to any one interested in theoretical physics or just curious about how far the scientists have come in trying to understand our universe.

The book is quite a heavy read, 493 pages plus a lot of endnotes and references. Having read The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory I can say that The Fabric of the Cosmos (TFotC) is an even better book. It takes up some of the same theories mentioned in Elegant Universe, but includes a lot more about The Big Bang and general relativity. In TFotC Greene starts out with water in a spinning bucket hundreds of years ago, through the discoveries of general relativity, the uncertainties involved in quantum mechanics to the latest super string theories, finding the key to "the arrow of time" along the way.

It's not easy to describe all this in a way that makes in understandable to people who aren't theoretical physicists, but Greene does a great job. It's barely any mathematical formulas or equations, instead he relies on similes and methaphores to get the point through.

Overall it's a very thought provoking book. In the middle of the book there's a lot of discussion about spacetime and the implications of quantum mechanics and general relativity. The more you learn about these things, the more obvious it seems that there is no such thing as free will. I find this very difficult to accept and my mind opposes it, but it's hard to contradict his logic reasoning.

I find the chapter on entropy and the arrow of time to be well written and the examples he is using are very fitting. Sometimes he gets a bit too excited over the numbers, printing a page or two with zeroes trying to describe the enormous values of some probability or metric. It's still well beyond what you can grasp.

Even if Greene is a strong supporter of string theory, he does a fair comparison between that and Loop Quantum Gravity in the last chapter of the book. But I still think that the way the book is written, most people will convinced that Branes in superstring and M-theory is the way to go.

As a final grade, I'll give it 8/10. It's a great book, but you really need to focus and think while reading.