Mac Pro first impressions

I received my late 2013 black cylinder Mac Pro last Monday. I ordered the 6-core model with D700 GPUs, since the higher-core models can’t Turbo boost to the full 3.9GHz the 4-core and 6-core ones can, and thus for most poorly-parallelized apps will underperform. I had to get a Promise Pegasus J4 with a pair of Samsung 840 Evo SSDs to hold my files, as I need nearly 2TB to do so and that is not available on the internal SSD, and it would be a shame to hobble this machine with spinning rust.
Some notes I have not seen in the many reviews sloshing around the Internet this far:

  • It is not actually black, rather a dark metallic gray, the color of hematite.

  • The TOSlink digital optical out is now capable of 192kHZ/24 bit audio, whereas the old Mac Pro was limited to 96 kHz. Unfortunately, it is very hard to find POF cables and DACs that can reliably sustain that data rate.
  • It is dead quiet compared to the old Mac Pro, and even my work iMac.

All in all, a remarkable engineering feat. A HP Z820 may have more memory capacity, expandability and total horsepower in its BMW-designed case, but Apple is the one pushing the envelope in terms of design.

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Externalities again

I just wasted half an hour of my life on the phone with my credit card company’s fraud department, as someone attempted to buy expensive tickets from an airline in Panama. Most likely my card number was compromised by Target, although it could also be due to Adobe.

It is actually surprising such breaches do not occur on a daily basis—the persons paying for the costs of a compromise (the card holder, defrauded merchants and their credit card companies via the cost of operating their fraud departments) are not the same as those paying for the security measures that would prevent the said breach, a textbook example of what economists call an externality. There are reputational costs to a business that has a major security breach, but they are occurring so often consumers are getting numbed to them.

Many states have mandatory breach disclosure laws, following California’s example. It is time for legislatures to take the next step and impose statutory damages for data breaches, e.g. $100 per compromised credit card number, $1000 per compromised social security number, and so on. In Target’s case, 40 million compromised credit cards multiplied by $100 would mean $4 billion in damages. That would make management take notice and stop paying mere lip service to security. It might also jump-start the long overdue migration to EMV chip-and-PIN cards in the United States.

Posted in Economics, Soapbox | Leave a comment

Wotancraft Etan photo review

Photography being a visual art, you would think its practitioners would be attuned to elegance in their gear, but most camera bags look absolutely hideous. There are a few premium camera bag companies that put more effort in styling, however:

    • Billingham and Fogg make canvas and leather bags inspired by traditional British angler’s bags.
    • Jill-e, Porteen and to some extent Ona make camera bags for women.
    • Artisan & Artist, Gariz, Fast + Prime and Wotancraft cater to users of compact rangefinder and mirrorless systems.
    • Premium bag makers like Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Ghurka or Hard Graft often have one or two camera bags in their collections, often at stratospheric prices.

I have two bags from Wotancraft, an all-leather Ryker and a leather-and-canvas Etan (second generation). Wotancraft is a small Taiwanese leather crafter. They specialized in wristwatch bands and branched out since into camera bags and cases. The Ryker is a bit on the small side—it will hold a Leica M with a couple of lenses and an iPad Mini, but not a full-sized iPad. The Etan has a bit more space. I can carry my full Leica system, a pair of 8×32 binoculars, an iPad and accessories, and is my standard weekend bag.

Because of the artisanal nature of Wotancraft production, lead times are long and if you want one, I would advise you email them to get added to the waiting list.

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The real electromagnetic emissions danger

I live 1.2km away from Sutro Tower in San Francisco. At my wife’s request I was trying to calculate the safe radius at which emissions from the transmitters at Sutro Tower are of the same power as a cell phone held a meter away, with back-of-the-envelope calculations using the inverse square law and Wikipedia’s table of radio powers.

I was shocked to find out the total power from the transmitters is about 8 megawatts, not in the kilowatt range I was expecting, and once reached 29MW. For comparison, the power of France’s first-generation PWR nuclear reactors is 900MW, and a typical cellular tower is 100W to 500W. If I use 2W as the reference, this yields a “safe” radius of 2km, which excludes many desirable San Francisco neighborhoods like Twin Peaks, Forest Hill or Noe Valley.

I looked up the most recent Environmental Impact Report following the DTV transition, and it mentions a FCC maximum allowed flux level of 0.2mW/cm2, and the measured levels in the Midtown Terrace neighborhood immediately adjacent to Sutro Tower reach 4% of this max level.

On further investigation, this is not one of those situations where US standards are significantly more lax than those in Europe, as France or the UK have the same level, derived from an international NGO called the ICNIRP. Interestingly, according to the WHO the maximum allowed emissions in such environmental paragons as Russia and China are one hundredth as high as those in the US or Europe and are just as science-based as those from ICNIRP (remember, for all its faults, the Soviet Union ranked very highly in maths and physics education & research, and in health care).

The ICNIRP/FCC standard is equivalent to a 25W isotropic emitter within a 1 meter radius, or 12x 2G GSM cell phones. Anyone who has experienced the squeal of unshielded and unpowered speakers next to an actively transmitting GSM phone will be skeptical about their claims that this is a safe level. Their methodology is based solely on the thermal effects of non-ionizing radiation, as if this were a mere microwave oven shielding exercise, and assumes that cells are otherwise unaffected by electromagnetism or cumulative exposure. This seems unwarrantedly optimistic.

People worry about cancer risks associated with radio frequency emissions from cell phone towers and cell phones themselves, but the real risk comes from overlooked obsolete technologies like TV and FM radio.

What to do? Getting a site survey from a Professional Engineer using calibrated equipment costs $1,500, which is something you would only do as part of a final inspection while buying a house. Most RF power meters sold on places like Amazon, usually in the $300 range, are pieces of junk with suggested applications like detecting paranormal activity and ghosts. Most likely solid engineering and metrology are optional given their application domain. Professional T&M gear like an Agilent V3500A or a Wandel & Goltermann/Narda EMR-300 cost $2,000 and $6,000 respectively, so the DIY route is also expensive.

Update (2014-03-08):

My father worked on some projects in the Soviet Union in the Seventies. He told me their workplace safety standards were much more stringent than the ones in the West. Workers were not allowed to lift weights above 25kg, for instance.

Posted in San Francisco, Soapbox | Leave a comment

Fixing Mac software update NSURLErrorDomain error -1012

Software Update for system components on my home Mac Pro has not worked in a while, and I have had to resort to manually downloading and applying updates. The updates just wouldn’t appear in the Mac App Store app where they normally should.

After upgrading to Mavericks, I finally figured out why. Instead of silently ignoring the updates, Mavericks displays a not-so-helpful error message “NSURLErrorDomain Error -1012″. On inspecting network traffic from the App Store app, I noticed it connects using TLS 1.2 to swdist.apple.com, then aborts. It then hit me – in 2011, after Comodo was hacked, apparently by elements affiliated with the Iranian government, I revoked the trust setting on their root certificates. The certificate for swdist.apple.com is signed by Comodo, and thus Software Update could no longer establish a secure connection to Apple and that’s why it was failing.

This is not the only time a Certificate Authority was hacked. Dutch CA Diginotar, which included the Dutch government among its clients, suffered a breach, apparently also involving Iran. Microsoft, Mozilla, Google and Apple promptly revoked Diginotar’s root CA certificates, which quickly led to the company going out of business. I guess Comodo is larger (the EFF calls them “too big to fail”) and better politically connected (it helps when you have people like Phillip Hallam-Baker on the payroll), and managed to elude the same punishment it richly deserved.

Apple should really step up its game and ditch a security provider which demonstrated incompetence at its alleged core competency, and I filed Radar bug report 15328323 to urge them to do so. In the meantime, the way to fix the error message is to temporarily reinstate trust in the Comodo root CA.

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Afsheen’s mindset list

Beloit College is famous for its Mindset List, which explains to teachers the radically different world view students have, because their assumptions and experience are different. One example from this year’s list: “GM means food that is Genetically Modified”.
I tried to imagine what the list looks like when my daughter starts University.
Some are no-brainers, as they have already occurred:

  • A phone call has always involved both video and sound
  • A computing device is always touch-enabled

For some others, I may have to go out on a limb:

  • Cars have always been self-driving
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Vancouver vacation tips

  • Swan Laundry will pick up your laundry at your hotel, wash and fold it, and return it the same day for a $50 flat fee.
  • Wind Mobile has an unlimited 3G hotspot plan for $35 per month (they will throttle you if you exceed 10GB in a month), a better deal than any US carrier offers. They sold me a refurbished Huawei hotspot for $45 (why should the NSA have all the fun listening in?)
  • Urban Fare is an excellent place for breakfast and fancy groceries, specially the Shangri-La location.
  • The Blue Water Cafe is my favorite restaurant in town.
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The wild parrots of Forest Hill

I got an unexpected but quite welcome treat this morning for my birthday. A mini-flock of 6-8 red-masked parakeets, better known as the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, descended on a hawthorn tree in my back yard and proceeded to gorge themselves on its berries for nearly an hour.

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Street sweeping reminders in iCal

Parking signSan Francisco sweeps streets twice a month in residential neighborhoods, and you will be fined if your car is parked on a street being swept. On my street, the schedule is the first and third Monday of each month, between 9am and 11am. I was trying to create reminders to myself in my calendar. Unfortunately, iCal does not have the ability to specify a recurring event with that definition.

No matter, Python to the rescue, the script below generates a year’s worth of reminders 12 hours before the event, in iCal vCalendar format. It does not correct for holidays, you will have to remove those yourself.

#!/usr/bin/python
"""Idora street sweeping calendar - 1st and 3rd Mondays of the month 9am-11am"""
import datetime
Monday = 0
one_day = datetime.timedelta(1)
today = datetime.date.today()
year = today.year
month = today.month
 
def output(day):
  print """
BEGIN:VEVENT
DTEND:%(end)s
SUMMARY:Idora street sweeping
DTSTART:%(start)s
BEGIN:VALARM
TRIGGER:-PT12H
ATTACH;VALUE=URI:Basso
ACTION:AUDIO
END:VALARM
END:VEVENT
""" % {
    'end': day.strftime('%Y%m%dT110000'),
    'start': day.strftime('%Y%m%dT090000')
    }
 
print """BEGIN:VCALENDAR
CALSCALE:GREGORIAN
VERSION:2.0"""
 
for i in range(12):
  day = datetime.date(year, month, 1)
  while day.weekday() != Monday:
    day += one_day
  output(day)
  output(day + 14 * one_day)
  month += 1
  if month > 12:
    month = 1
    year += 1
 
print "END:VCALENDAR"
Posted in Mac, Python, San Francisco | Leave a comment

How the iPad Mini killed my iPhone

The single greatest feature of the iPad is the fact it cannot receive phone calls. Despite being a telecoms engineer by training, I despise phones, and it seems the millennial generation shares my disdain, as it favors less intrusive means of communication like texting.

The iPad is an essential device for me. I am on a 2-year upgrade cycle (at best) for phones, a 5-year cycle for my desktop Mac Pro, and have stopped using laptops altogether, but I will get every single iteration of the iPad. Now, even though my jacket has a pocket sized large enough to hold my full-sized iPad, the weight and bulk means I seldom did so, and kept it in my bag, which I rarely take out with me when going out for lunch. When I saw the iPad Mini and how lightweight it was, I bought one and started carrying it with me all the time.

The Mini is not a replacement for my Retina iPad, as my worsening eyesight makes it a strain for sustained reading, which is why I kept my grandfathered unlimited AT&T data plan on the full-sized iPad and got a limited Verizon plan on the Mini.

No, the device that was displaced is actually my iPhone. The iPad Mini weighs barely twice as much, is thinner, fits in my jacket pocket but has a screen 4 times the size while remaining single-hand-holdable, and is actually usable as a web browsing device or eBook reader, unlike the iPhone’s cramped screen. I don’t believe in the 5-inch phablet form factor, which combines the cramped screen of a phone with the the bulk of a tablet, i.e. the worst of both worlds. I find I never use the iPhone as anything else than a dumb phone any more. I consume less than 60 minutes of voice per month, and if my wife and my startup’s co-founder would let me, I would ditch mobile phones altogether.

Alas I am unable to cut the wireless phone tether, but there is no point in my spending $100 a month on an unlimited data plan for my Verizon iPhone 4, so now that my contract ended, I ported my number over to my old unlocked AT&T iPhone 3GS with a prepaid plan from Airvoice (a MVNO that has the cheapest rates I could find online). At $0.10 a minute without any exorbitant cellco taxes or spurious surcharges, I can expect to spend $6 a month, or 94% savings. That more than covers the $20 a month I pay extra for the iPad Mini’s data plan. The only reason I still use an iPhone instead of switching to a dumbphone is the automatic address book synchronization with my Mac and iOS devices.

Posted in IT, Soapbox | 2 Comments