First Pictures of a Black Hole

In a worldwide effort, we now have our first picture of a black hole. “You’re basically looking at a supermassive black hole that’s almost the size of our solar system,” or 38 billion kilometers in diameter, said Sera Markoff, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam.

Capturing and generating this picture required collaboration from scientists around the world. Jason Snell explains

To capture this image, the EHT used seven different radio telescopes all around the world in order to use something called interferometry, which combines data from telescopes spread out over a wide distance to essentially create a virtual telescope the size of the distance between the telescopes. The result is a telescope that’s basically the size of Earth. (Among the telescopes used is one at the South Pole, which needed to be retrofitted to make these measurements.)

Then the telescopes have to capture data simultaneously, which means the weather needs to be good in Hawaii and Spain and Chile and the South Pole and other places simultaneously. And when that data is captured, it needs to be brought back to a correlation facility to process it and generate a single data set.

The telescopes captured 5 petabytes of data: when stored on high capacity hard drives, it would fill up the back of a pickup truck. Andy Tanenbaum’s quote from 1985 is as true today as it was 30 years ago: "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway." When you have petabytes of data to move from place to place, even fast internet connections aren’t fast enough. To beat an airplane carrying several dozen hard drives to the MIT Haystack processing facility near Boston, the data captured at the Kitt Peak telescope in Arizona would have to be transmitted at a rate of approximately 14 gigabytes per second. That’s like downloading 3-4 high definition movies per second.

I love the space and computer parts of this amazing project. But my favorite part is Katie Bauman’s response. She got a lot of attention yesterday because she is female and she was a major contributor to the algorithmic processing required to generate the image that we have all been looking at the last couple of days. It’s great to have another role model of a woman in STEM. But it’s even better to see (no link because I hate Facebook) how she gracefully reminded us that it was a large team with many contributors.

All the parts of this story make me feel good inside.

AirPower’s Problem Was Not Physics

In September 2017 Apple announced AirPower, a wireless charging mat that would be able to charge multiple devices at the same time. Apple said it would ship sometime in 2018. 2018 came and went. Last week Apple made several hardware announcements describing updated iPads, iMacs, and AirPods. These were done via press release in advance of the big March 25 event that was focused on services. No mention of AirPower.

Today Apple canceled the product, saying "AirPower will not achieve our high standards". The twitterati, almost none of who are hardware engineers, are saying that physics makes this an unsolvable problem.

Lemme tell you about the multi-device wireless charger I have been using for more than a year. The Nomad Base Station has dual 10W wireless charging, a 18W USB-C PD port, and a 7.5W USB-A port. It can charge four devices at the same time. The tasteful black rounded rectangle is covered with a padded leather charging surface. Charging my iPhone, AirPods with wireless case, iPad Pro, and my Bose QC35 headphones simultaneously is no problem. It costs $99 and has been out for more than a year. They have another version of the same product that drops the USB ports for a MFi-certified Apple Watch charger. The Nomad Base Station has small, unobtrusive LED’s that emit an orange glow when charging, and turn white when charging has completed. It’s a well designed, beautiful product that perfectly does what it’s supposed to do.

This problem can be solved. Something went horribly wrong with AirPower, and it wasn’t bumping into the limits of physics.

Two Solo, Unaided Antarctica Crossings

Colin O’Brady, an American adventurer, has completed a solo, unsupported, unaided crossing of Antarctica. That’s 925 miles of human powered travel in an inhospitable environment with only the supplies you can drag behind you on a sled. That’s an average of 18 miles a day, for 54 days in a row.

Two days later, a 50 year old British Army captain named Louis Rudd completed the same journey. He had an unusually casual approach to food:

My grazing bag is a tropical mix that I bought from Asda – I just grabbed what was available every time I went in, until I had 70 bags. Then there are Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars, and some cheese and salami I bought in Chile.

When Rudd stopped at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, he couldn’t go inside or accept even a cup of tea, or he would lose "unsupported" status. Image having lived in subzero temps for weeks, and knowing there was a warm bed nearby, and having to walk away to weeks more in the cold. And it’s really cold, the all time high temperature ever recorded at the South Pole was a balmy −12.3 °C (9.9 °F). Just in case you think Antartica is flat, the south pole is actually 2,835 meters (9,301 feet) above sea level.

Colin O’Brady calls this trek "The Impossible First". He’s also fond of saying "We all have reservoirs of untapped potential."

Indeed.

André Previn

Today we mourn the passing of André Previn, one of the great musicians of the last century. An incredibly versatile musician, he regularly was both soloist and conductor for a piano concerto, led four major symphony orchestras including 11 years with the London Symphony Orchestra, won four Oscars (he was nominated for three different films in 1961, the only person to ever receive three nominations in the same year), played to sold out jazz clubs, and wrote the music for several broadway productions. He was also cool enough to get Mia Farrow to leave Frank Sinatra and marry him.

Dizzy Gillespie said of Previn, "He has the flow, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get." When he recorded his 1996 release "Ballads: Solo Jazz Standards", he showed up at the studio with a stack of sheet music and nothing planned. He later recalled, "Every track was take one. If I couldn’t think of anything, I just went on to another song.”

He personified Duke Ellington’s words "Categories don’t matter and the first thing to be said about music is that if it sounds good, it is good."

Your goodness will be missed.

Facebook vs Apple

Last August, Facebook’s was forced to remove the Onavo Protect app from the App Store for violating Apple’s developer guidelines. Facebook was using this VPN app to collect data on its users and on competing applications.

This week TechCrunch published an article describing how Facebook and renamed the Onavo VPN app, and was distributing it to users using the Enterprise Development Certificate issued to them by Apple. This terms of use for this certificate clearly state that it can only be used to distributed applications to your employees. Facebook violated those terms, and Apple revoked the certificate, which immediately disabled all applications signed by that certificate. All of Facebook’s internal apps stopped working. One day later, Facebook agreed to stop distributing the app, and Apple re-enabled the certificate.

I hope everyone realizes that Facebook is a morally bankrupt institution that will do anything to feed their data collection machine. They have repeatedly shown their willingness to bend, break, and surreptitiously work around laws and contracts that they don’t like.

This incident has fomented much discussion about who has the upper hand in this relationship. Apple has the power to instantly disable all of Facebook’s mobile apps, including FaceBook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. On the other hand, Facebook’s apps add lots of value to the iOS ecosystem. Many articles have been written calling this spat nuclear war. It’s an embarrassment to compare this little software spat with something as horrific as nuclear war, but these are the tactics the bloggers descend to in order to claim their precious clicks.

On this week’s Accidental Tech Podcast, titled "Mutually Assured Destruction", the guys came to the conclusion that Facebook probably has the upper hand, because if they disabled Facebook’s applications, the public perception would be that "Apple broke my favorite apps". I agree that most users would blame Apple, and it would be a real public relations black eye for both companies. However, I think Apple clearly has the upper hand. While Apple would look bad, FaceBook would face immediate loss of revenue.

In their Q4 2018 financial report, which Facebook also released this week, they had $16.640 billion of advertising revenue; 93% of that revenue was from mobile devices. Depending on who you believe, IOS has between 11 and 15% worldwide smart phone market share. I suspect FaceBook’s usage skews higher on iOS than that because of Instagram, but we have no way to really know. Let’s assume that 13% of Facebook’s mobile ad revenue came from iOS devices. Given those assumptions, every day that Facebook can’t generate ad revenue on iOS, they lose $22.1 million dollars. Even worse, they really have no way to make up that lost revenue.

There’s no way to know how many fewer people would buy iPhone’s each day because Facebook’s apps were’t available on the platform. People might delay purchasing an iPhone until the standoff was resolved, but I don’t think it would cause very many people who were planning to buy an iPhone to instead buy an Android device. I think most people would just wait a few days and see if the situation got resolved. Meanwhile, FaceBook is losing money every day.

Similar disputes have played out between cable or satellite providers and content creators. For example, in 2012, AMC Networks and Dish Network had a dispute and Dish Network dropped AMC’s channels. For more than 3 months, 14 million Dish subscribers missed out on "Breaking Bad", "Mad Men", and "The Walking Dead". If a Facebook dispute with Apple lasted that long, Facebook would have lost 2 billion dollars.

The 1959 Project

If you like jazz at all, The 1959 Project is a day by day recounting of the jazz scene in 1959. That year jazz was at the height of popularity, before rock and roll took over. Put it in your RSS reader and get a new article every day.

Interview with Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth is one of the legends of the computer science community. Unlike most others in the computer science community, his contributions are recognized as meaningful to all of science. He doesn’t give interviews that often, but the NY Times got one and it’s great.

For the last 50 years, Knuth has been working on 7 volume work, “The Art of Computer Programming”. So far he has published the first three volumes, and part of the fourth.

Mass Expiration of Copyright

Glenn Fleishman writing in Smithsonian Magazine:

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, all works first published in the United States in 1923 will enter the public domain. It has been 21 years since the last mass expiration of copyright in the U.S.

We can blame Mickey Mouse for the long wait. In 1998, Disney was one of the loudest in a choir of corporate voices advocating for longer copyright protections. At the time, all works published before January 1, 1978, were entitled to copyright protection for 75 years; all author’s works published on or after that date were under copyright for the lifetime of the creator, plus 50 years. Steamboat Willie, featuring Mickey Mouse’s first appearance on screen, in 1928, was set to enter the public domain in 2004. At the urging of Disney and others, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, named for the late singer, songwriter and California representative, adding 20 years to the copyright term. Mickey would be protected until 2024—and no copyrighted work would enter the public domain again until 2019, creating a bizarre 20-year hiatus between the release of works from 1922 and those from 1923.

That’s My Boy, Lin

Shirley Wang writes about her dad:

When Charles Barkley’s mother, Charcey Glenn, passed away in June 2015, Barkley’s hometown of Leeds, Alabama, came to the funeral to pay respects. But there was also an unexpected guest.

Barkley’s friends couldn’t quite place him. He wasn’t a basketball player, he wasn’t a sports figure, and he wasn’t from Barkley’s hometown. Here’s what I can tell you about him: He wore striped, red polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and got really excited about two-for-one deals. He was a commuter. He worked as a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa. In short, he was everyone’s suburban dad. More specifically, he was my dad.

“You know, it was obviously a very difficult time,” Barkley told me recently. “And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’ They’re, like, ‘How do you know him?’ I said, ‘It’s a long story.’ “