November 23rd, 2010

[PHOTO] Crystal Blu on Bloor, nearly done

The Crystal Blu Condominiums on Bloor is a "35-storey, 138-unit tower condominium of blue glass, located at 21 Balmuto Street in Toronto, near Bay Street and Bloor Street West. It rests on a 6-story pre-cast concrete podium and features a 2-storey high lobby. Crystal Blu is across from the Manulife Centre and the PATH system’s underground shopping concourses, the subway, as well as high end shopping, culture and entertainment of Yonge Street and Bloor/Yorkville."

Because of its location, I've been following this construction regularly. I have some 2008 construction site pictures, for instance.

In October 2009, I took a picture of the tower after that hole was filled and the tower rose.

Crystal Blu on Balmuto, October 2009

And now?


[LINK] “Happy birthday: Windows is 25”

Thanks to Twitter's Richard Akerman for letting us know that the 20th of this month was the 25th anniversary Windows’ introduction.

It was released on November 20, 1985, but not many people stumped up the $99 price. It was a very simple program, by today's standards, but it was also constrained by the capabilities of the installed base of IBM PCs. Many of them had only a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 processor, 256K of main memory, and a 320 x 200 pixel CGA display capable of showing only 4 colours: usually magenta, cyan, white and black. (EGA screens with Enhanced Graphics were less common.)

Windows 1.0 came with a number of applets, including Calendar, Cardfile, Clipboard, Notepad, Terminal, Calculator, Clock, Control Panel, Windows Write, Windows Paint and the Reversi game. It would also work with the Microsoft Mouse, launched in 1982. However, IBM PC DOS (aka MS DOS) software dominated the market, and most users preferred DOS-based TSR (terminate and stay resident) programs such as Borland's Sidekick, which first appeared in 1983.

Interestingly, Microsoft wasn’t attached to Windows, supporting other projects. Apparently Microsoft even backed the idea of making Mac software normative.

At the time, Microsoft might even have preferred to support Apple's Macintosh, launched in 1984. Bill Gates had appeared on stage at the Mac's launch and aimed to become the leading supplier of graphical Mac applications such as Word and Excel, which didn't run in Windows. In 1985, Bill Gates wrote a memo to Apple boss John Sculley urging him to license Mac OS and make it an industry standard, with Microsoft's support. Microsoft might lose $40-$80 in sales of DOS and/or Windows but it expected to sell Mac users $400-$800 worth of applications instead.

Microsoft also had a third operating system in development. DEC, the minicomputer giant, had fallen out with Dave Cutler, its star programmer and developer of the VAX VMS operating system. Gates told Cutler he would back him, and to bring his team to Microsoft to develop the world's next great operating system. Cutler left DEC for Microsoft in October 1988, and started programming what eventually became Windows NT (New Technology).

Things changed when the Windows team came up with a winner in Windows 3.0. This broke free of the limited address space available to DOS under IBM's PC memory map (640K), and could run multiple DOS programs using the "virtual x86" mode in Intel's 80386 processor. Windows 3.0 was launched in 1990 and was an instant hit, selling about 4 million copies in its first year, and 6 million copies the next year. More than 5,000 applications were launched for Windows, and PC manufacturers started to preload it on a growing number of machines.

And there we go.

[LINK] “North Korean Attack: How Will China React?”

The WTF that Lawyers, Guns and Money’s Robert Farley enunciated in response to the North Korean artillery attacks on the South is appropriate only outside of the North’s peculiar mindset. The succession process to Kim Jong-Il seems likely to encourage military adventurism by one or another faction. Fun times.

The question of how China will respond to its sometime-ally’s attack was raised at this Wall Street Journal blog. China, it seems, has only bad choices.

China’s response to news of the North Korean firing of dozens of rounds of artillery at a South Korean island has been cautious so far, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying Tuesday that Beijing had “noticed the reports” and was “concerned about the issue.”

[. . .]

The last time North Korean aggression led to South Korean bloodshed—the sinking of a South Korean patrol ship, the Cheonan, in March, which an international investigation blamed on Pyongyang–China remained tongue-tied, failing to publicly express condolences for almost a month. That silence flustered, and ultimately frustrated, regional neighbors who look to China to keep North Korea from running too far off the rails.

North Korea’s military misadventures put China in a difficult position. Besides being Pyongyang’s only ally of consequence, Beijing has a vested interest in supporting the North Korean regime, the collapse of which could send millions of North Korean refugees flooding into China.

At the same time, China has increasingly pushed to be seen as the region’s dominant peace keeper and power broker—a role that requires it to calm nerves made jittery by North Korea’s occasional outbursts.

Those competing pressures are nowhere more apparent than in the currently stalled Six-Party Talks, originally initiated by China with the aim of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The desire to lure countries back to those talks motivates most of China’s diplomatic decision making in the region, says John Delury, assistant professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies.

“They’ve been pretty consistently pushing–in this very gentle Chinese way–to get everybody back to the table,” Mr. Delury tells China Real Time. “They’re implacable in that drive.”

[. . .]

[T]he Tuesday evening news broadcast of state-run flagship news channel CCTV-1–which led by citing official North Korean media as saying South Korea fired first–suggests leaders in Beijing may yet try to leverage uncertainty to justify reticence.

In the meantime, one reader discussing the attacks on the popular Voice of China bulletin board, wrote what we imagine at least a few of China’s leaders are thinking: “There’s nothing good in this fight for China — North Korea is insane.”
cats, shakespeare

[LINK] “Meeting Aims to Turn Tiger Fascination Into Conservation”

Heh. Talk about adapting to their environment.

Ministers from several countries gathered Sunday in St. Petersburg at the invitation of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to begin a five-day meeting with the goal of protecting tigers. Only a little more than 3,000 are estimated to be living outside captivity.

Mr. Putin is so fond of the animals that he was given a cub for his 56th birthday.

But it is perhaps no accident that Mr. Putin has chosen to make an endangered feline the subject of the conference rather than a threatened canine — the wolf, for example, or the wild dog.

Throughout history, prominent men have identified with the majesty, power and machismo of large cats.

“Leaders especially like to think of themselves as having the virtues of large cats,” said Stephen R. Kellert, a professor emeritus and senior research scholar at Yale University who studies human-animal relationships. “They like the image of the stand-alone, solitary yet fearsome hunter.”

The heads of the military junta in Myanmar, a country not known for its concern about human rights, recently created the largest tiger preserve in the world. In Africa, some Maasai warriors who once killed lions as a rite of manhood work in lion guardian programs.

[. . .]

The connection between leaders and large cats in particular has a long history. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was often represented as a sphinx — part lion, part human. In Europe and the Middle East, lions came to be associated with royalty — partly due to their fierceness and partly because the mane made them look the part — and they appear on official symbols for more than a dozen countries, from the coat of arms of England to the Lion of Judah in Jerusalem.

In Asia, tigers have similarly been aligned with royalty, so much so that the Chinese character for king is thought to resemble the markings on the tiger’s forehead.

Dr. Kellert said that humans often like to think of themselves as big cats, even though they really are more akin in their social habits to sheep.

“We are both a herd animal and predator, but the herd tendency runs deep,” he said. “But we like to think we are like tigers: independent, self-sufficient and predatory.”

[LINK] "For Some TTC Riders, A Dufferin Slog"

For what it's worth, regardless owhether I lived on Queen Street West at Dufferin or DUpont Street at Dufferin, the 29 Dufferin bus has always been problematic. The Queen Street West stops were always worse, especially when bus stops were moved for construction or other reasons. At both ends, mind, the tendency of the buses to clump in two, three, even four or five prevails. This sort of thing is unsurprising.

Dufferin doesn't jog anymore, and TTC buses that used to worm their way along Gladstone Avenue before continuing north or south on Dufferin now go straight through the brand new underpass. So why is there still a shelter on Gladstone, north of Queen, for a bus stop that doesn't exist anymore? And—worse—why did it take several days for either the City or the TTC to let anyone at the stop know about it?

When the Dufferin Underpass opened on the afternoon of Thursday, November 18, the small change was a big deal for the 29 Dufferin bus route, often marked by overcrowded buses that arrived two or three at a time at Dufferin Station after long waits. "People told me tonight," Mayor David Miller happily tweeted hours later, "that riders spontaneously broke into applause when the Dufferin Bus went under the new underpass!"

Less so that same afternoon, a block east.

By the time Andrew McConnachie got off the Queen streetcar to go buy groceries at Price Chopper, Gladstone had seen its very last 29 Dufferin bus. At the bus shelter on Gladstone's east side, right beside the grocery store, McConnachie says he saw "half a dozen people waiting." He bought dinner, and then, "when I came back out the crowd had doubled," he says. "I ended up telling everyone what the situation was and everyone was pretty peeved." Other than a newly missing TTC bus stop pillar, there was no indication that the stop had moved: inside the shelter and out, there were no signs, no posters, and no one from the TTC there to help.

A day later, on Friday, with the sun setting fast on a frigid November day, Mary-Lu Travassos waited at the shelter for twenty minutes before we spotted her and told her that the stop had moved. She doesn't take the route too frequently—just a few times a month. Other than through the TTC's website, there wasn't any way for her to know that the stop was out of service; there was even a TTC map inside the shelter that showed the 29 Dufferin's route as hopping over to Gladstone before continuing down Dufferin.

"They don't care," she said, resigned, as she walked up Gladstone and rounded the corner towards Dufferin to catch her bus.

[LINK] Two links on now-contemporary historical computers

  • Today, a vintage Apple I went up for sale and fetched $C 216 000.

  • Its processor works 1,000 times slower than that of the Apple iPad, but Apple's first computer has sold for 425 times the price.

    The Apple I, one of only 200 such models ever made, was sold Tuesday at Christie's auction house in central London for £133,250, or about $216,000 Cdn.

    It came with its original packaging and a signed sales letter from Steve Jobs, one of the co-founders of Apple Computer and the current CEO of Apple Inc.

    When the Apple I was introduced in 1976, it was the only personal computer to come with a fully assembled motherboard, making it ready to use straight from the box — provided the user supplied a keyboard, power supply and monitor, Christie's said.

    It sold for $666.66 and was available until it was discontinued in 1977.

    Bidding on the Apple I came quickly, with the computer eventually going to Italian businessman and private collector Marco Boglione, who made his offer over the phone.

    The buyer's brother, Francesco Boglione, who attended the auction in person, told The Associated Press that the purchase was a testament to his brother's love of computers.

  • 1976 is positively new, though, by the standards of Charles Babbage's famous unconstructed analytical engine. Why not finally build it?

    John Graham-Cumming will be well known to many Reg readers as the programmer behind POPFile and the initiator of the successful 2009 campaign demanding an official government apology for famous WWII Nazi codebreaker hero and persecution tragedy boffin Alan Turing. Now Graham-Cumming has called for a push to build a working Analytical Engine as planned in the early 19th century by mathematician Charles Babbage.

    Back in Babbage's day practical mathematics and calculation were reliant on printed tables generated by teams of people working out figures by hand. The resulting tables were naturally riddled with errors, and Babbage originally designed his machines as an automated way of producing tables. He never succeeded in building a complete working Engine during his lifetime: some suggest that Victorian engineering was not yet capable of the necessary precision and durability, others that Babbage's tussles with the scientific establishment of the time meant that he couldn't raise sufficient funding.

    A working Babbage engine, to his design for Difference Engine No 2, was however built in the 1980s and is now in the Science Museum. It weighs 2.6 tonnes, stands seven feet high and is 11 feet long.

    However, the Difference Engine is not a programmable computer, able to perform different tasks: in effect it is merely an automatic calculator. It is the never-yet-built, more complicated Analytical Engine on which Charles Babbage's fame among modern computer folk is based, as it was designed to run different programs coded on punched metal cards - of the sort used in 19th-century automated Jacquard looms.

    I say that it's time Britain built the Analytical Engine. After the wonderful reconstruction of the Difference Engine we need to finish Babbage's dream of a steam-powered, general-purpose computer.

    The Analytical Engine has all the hallmarks of a modern computer: it has a program (on punched cards), a CPU (called the 'mill') for doing calculations and it has memory. Of course, it's not electric, it's powered by steam. But the principles that underlie the Analytical Engine are the same that underlie the computer I'm writing this on.

    [. . .]

    What a marvel it would be to stand before this giant metal machine, powered by a steam engine, and running programs fed to it on a reel of punched cards. And what a great educational resource so that people can understand how computers work. One could even imagine holding competitions for people (including school children) to write programs to run on the engine. And it would be a way to celebrate both Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. How fantastic to be able to execute Lovelace's code!

    [REVIEW] Robert L. Forward, Rocheworld

    Even science fiction fans have been known to call their favourite genre a "literature of ideas," as implicitly opposed to a "literature of style." Characters can be transparent; plots can be simple; the prose itself can be clunky. I'd like to think this is starting to change, but I've learned by now not to confuse likes with actualities. I think.

    When I saw Robert L. Forward's 1985 novel Rocheworld at the BMV in the Annex, I had to buy it. At $4.19, it was quite inexpensive, but more to the point Rocheworld has been one of my favourite science fiction novels since I was an adolescent, maybe even before adolescence. Re-reading it after a decade, I'm pleased to find that my memories hold true.

    Rocheworld is not high literature. The characters lack much depth, with their likes and dislikes being superficial and a somewhat surprising lack of conflict (and not unsurprising hookups between multiple couples) prevailing throughout, with the singular exception of a bitter senator and his proxy crewmember, the former eventually relenting and giving the central character George Gudunov his general's star and the latter being replaced by a Mexican geologist working on Titan even before the light-sailed STL starship leaves Sol system. The Barnard's Star system is full of wonders, explored in this book and its sequels, with ubiquitous life and interesting challenges which are never lethal. It would be harsh to describe this book as all setting, but not too harsh.

    But what a setting! The laser-propelled solar sail interstellar craft--a propulsion method that Forward himself designed, and remains plausible to this day--is superb. The Barnard's Star planetary system, notwithstanding the confirmation a decade after the fact that Barnard's Star can't host the near-brown dwarf Gargantua, is well-designed and interesting, so much so that I wish that Forward was right. The titular Rocheworld, a very close binary of two rocky worlds so near each other that they share an atmosphere and ocean in common, is a remarkable construct. And the life in the oceans of Rocheworld, including the intelligent flouwen (calling them brilliant shapeshifting jellyfish known for their loves of mathematics and surfing wouldn't be inaccurate), is interesting. Forward's world is well-designed indeed.

    Most importantly to me, Forward's universe is fundamentally optimistic in a way I find quite cheerful. People mean well and do their best; reason and patience allow for the anticipation of problems and effective responses; effort can yield positive results. And if Forward's characters can do this, and if we can do this, then we can all enjoy a universe full of wonders and delights. Yes, it's a great way to educate people in science, but it's also a great thing to read when you''re down or concerned.

    Yes, we can.

    [LINK] "Conscription in Germany to End Next Summer"

    This decision was probably inevitable.

    German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg announced on Monday that conscription in Germany will come to an end next summer. The measure is part of far-reaching military reforms intended to save hundreds of millions of euros.

    When German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg first broached the idea of eliminating conscription last summer as part of the government's effort to cut spending, there was an immediate outcry. The draft, it was said, was an important link between German society and its military -- it was tradition. Many accused Guttenberg of not having adequately thought through his proposal.

    Guttenberg, however, has never been one to back down in the face of controversy. And on Monday, speaking at a meeting of German military leadership in Dresden -- called by the Defense Ministry to discuss Guttenberg's Bundeswehr reform plans -- he announced that conscription would come to an end on July 1, 2011.

    [. . .]

    Still, Guttenberg said that the Bundeswehr would not shrink to the degree that many had thought. Whereas a military report earlier this year suggested that Germany's armed forces may decrease to 163,500 soldiers, the defense minister on Monday said the Bundeswehr would maintain between 180,000 and 185,000 troops. Currently, there are some 240,000 soldiers in the Bundeswehr according to the Defense Ministry website.

    [. . .]

    The decision to abandon conscription comes after years of falling recruit numbers. Whereas some 144,650 soldiers performed mandatory military service in 2000, the number in recent years has been less than half that. The length of conscription has been reduced as well, with soldiers drafted in the army today only having to spend six months in uniform. The military has complained that the cost of training and outfitting draftees for such a short period far outweighs the benefits. Partially as a consequence, the number of potential recruits rejected for health reasons has skyrocketed in recent years -- in 2009, fully 42.7 percent of draftees were turned away.

    At the same time, the number of young Germans signing up for fixed periods of service -- the Bundeswehr employed 188,000 such soldiers in 2009 -- appears robust enough to meet Guttenberg's ultimate goal for the size of the German military. In addition, Berlin plans to introduce a kind of voluntary conscription, allowing those interested in serving the possibility to sign up for limited stints of between 12 and 23 months.

    The drawbacks of the lack of national service of any kind aside, this does correspond to the gradual weakening of the German military, and of decreased strength relative to the still strong British and French--perhaps soon Anglo-French--militaries. Will the Bundeswehr become a military more suited to peacekeeping missions and the like than combat? Or is it that already?