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For the past week or so, I’ve been digging into the topic of machine learning. It’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I’ve done some reading on the subject, and collected links to informational resources and open source tools for years, but I long ago reached the point of diminishing returns, where I either needed to start actually experimenting with it on my own, or otherwise needed a specific reason to learn more.
Thanks to a chance meeting at a coffee shop, I now have the latter. Mark Seligman of Rapidics has helped me understand more about the application of machine mearning techniques. What I find particularly interesting is that Mark and his company are in the business of providing machine learning infrastructure. They are doing some of the heavy lifting to help make machine learning easier and more useful for others to use by taking a generally applicable algorithm called Random Forest and creating a solid, fast multicore implementation called Arborist that can work with the popular, open source, R statistical computing package. By doing so, they’ve achieved major speedups over the standard R implementation, and efficiency and scaling advantages over many of the coarse-grained approaches to speeding up R on parallel hardware.
What’s particularly interesting to me is that they’ve sped things up enough that it could fundamentally change the way people use Random Forest for machine learning, while at the same time making it useful to people who haven’t even heard of machine learning today. That makes the subject triply interesting to me, because I’m learning about machine learning and getting to think about infrastructure and user experience.
So, thanks to Mark, and his partner Mark, for the education!
I’ve been skimming over the coverage of the keynote presentation at Apple’s WWDC and I thought I’d post some of my reactions:
- New “Mavericks” branding of OS X releases is interesting. I didn’t know the significance of the name until I read that they’ll be naming releases after inspiring places in California. Mavericks is a surfing spot on Half Moon Bay, CA. I find this to be an interesting way to reinforce the ongoing “Designed by Apple in California” message, particularly since they are planning to start manufacturing one or more products in the US again.
- 575,000,000 accounts with credit card info on file. That is huge.
- $10 B paid to app developers, $5B in the past year: Nice, clearly there is still a lot of opportunity for Apple developers.
- Demo of AnkiDrive, Bluetooth remote control cars by an independent developer: Taken together with the last detail, the message I take is that “indie” hardware makers are foolish to ignore the Apple ecosystem.
- Finder Tabs & Tags sound good.
- Better multi-monitor support sounds great (and overdue). Might be enough to get me using my 24″ monitor again.
- Compressed Memory: Interesting to see old ideas make a return. 15 years ago, RAM Doubler did the same thing, and more recently, a compressed VM backing store made a reappearance in Linux recently. I’m curious about whether this will breathe some more life into my wife’s old MacBook Pro which is limited to 6GB of memory, not enough with multitab web browsing.
- Timer Coalescing & App Nap for backgrounded Safari Tabs. Anything to improve battery life is great, and Safari is an excellent target. Most background CPU usage on my machine tends to be web pages.
- iCloud Keychain I wonder if this will work between Chrome on the desktop (which uses the OSX keychain) and Mobile Safari
- Maps on OS X Nice, how about bringing it to the web too, please?
- Overall it looks like Mavericks is another big step in making our computing environment seamless across Mac, iPhones and iPads. This is something that is harder for others to compete with. Samsung doesn’t have a real desktop presence. Google is trying, but they can’t reap the benefits of tight hardware integration. Microsoft could do it, but its marketshare in phones and tablets is smaller than Apple’s marketshare in the traditional PC market.
- General release of Mavericks is this fall. I’m looking forward to it.
- MacBook Air sounds like a nice upgrade, and the bump up to 802.11ac networking sounds good too.
- Mac Pro a cylinder?!?!?!
- External expansion?!?!? via Thunderbolt 2 (six of them!). I don’t think I like that if I were the intended customer. Whether or not I’d want to stuff extra cards into the case, the ability to stuff a bunch of disks inside is nice. On the other hand, this should give a boost to the market for Thunderbolt peripherals.
- No Intel Xeon Phi: Oh well. I thought Apple might offer a MacPro with ridiculous performance on multithreaded x86 apps. They did, however, stuff in two dual-OpenCL capable AMD FirePro GPUs in addition to a 12 core Intel CPU.
- Tiny compared to the old MacPro, 1/8th the volume.
- Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in the USA.
- 300 million iCloud accounts: An impressive number, if only iCloud it sucked less.
- iCloud version of iWork allows editing in the cloud. Not bad!
- 600 million iOS devices sold. That seems like a lot.
- 93% of iOS users on on latest OS. Very good, and a datapoint one could use in estimating what % of those 600 million devices sold are still in use.
- iOS 7… Ok, so the notifications panel looks Windows Phone-like to me…
- Control Center looks nice and useful. I still don’t see why it is so essential to have quick access to WiFi and Bluetooth settings, but I might feel differently if I was getting on planes multiple times per week.
- Adaptive background app scheduling and push notifications to update apps in background (I initially misunderstood this later features as App store updates). Background processing comes to all iOS apps!
- Automatic background app-store updates. Continuous deployment comes to iOS apps. I wonder if developers will be able to do staged deployments…
- Mobile Safari. I like the new tab switching!
- AirDrop for sharing with other nearby iOS device users. Nice. It is a bit surprising it has taken them so long to enable this. Yes, some android phones have been able to do this sort of thing for a while, but this is a situation where the uniformity of the iOS ecosystem works in Apple’s favor.
- Not supported on the iPhone 4s. Bah. The implication is that this is a hardware limitation. If that isn’t true, it seems like a stupid limitation to impose since the value of AirDrop increases exponentially with the number of people who have devices that support it.
- Photos app. Nice to see Apple making improvements in this area, even if it includes some of the ideas we came up with for Wideangle. They seem to be missing an important use case though that Wideangle has also forsaken so-far. I’d tell you more, but, well, I can’t.
- PhotoStreams become multi-user. It is about damn time, really. Question is, whether they can take some ground from Facebook…
- Siri can control bluetooth, brightness. Can she trigger airplane mode, or would that be suicidal (Siri needs an internet connection)?
- Bing search results in Siri! If I’m understanding this correctly, Apple has added web search results to the range of options it weighs in Siri, rather than making it a fall-through of last-resort like it is today. Oh, and they aren’t using Google…
- iOS integration with automobiles: Looks nice, particularly the maps feature. Another reason why Apple and Google divorced over maps. What if I could just install a iPad mini in my dash though…
- Location specific app recommendations. Cool idea.
- iRadio, free, with ads, or without ads as part of iTunes Match. Nice.
- Remote device lock for lost/stolen phones. On the one hand, I hate that my iOS devices are centrally controlled to such an extent. On the other hand, this has to be a major deterrent to device thieves.
- Audio-only FaceTime: A further step toward commoditizing the mobile carriers. This is a feature where market share matters.
- 1500 new APIs, including iBeacons for Bluetooth LE location. Hmm. I’d like to hear more, but I guess that is what the rest of WWDC is for…
- Final release this fall…
- And that’s it. No killer new product category. The whining pundits will have something to keep themselves busy for a while. I think though that Apple understands their business better than most of the commentators…
Last week Dave Winer posted about the important, if obscured, influence of MacWrite and MacPaint after being surprised that a younger techie he was talking to had never heard of either of them. He followed up with an invitation for people to provide their own nominations about influential software.
At least one of the commenters bemoaned the fact that so few people gave credit to software before the micro/personal computer era. This is my response:
I tend to agree that we shouldn’t loose sight of our origins, but I think the fact that so few people can name influential software before the personal computer era shouldn’t be condemmed without deep consideration.
Many serious people dismissed inexpensive micros as “toys,” barely worthy of their consideration. For good or ill though, the arrival of cheap micros meant those people no longer controlled the course computing would take. Their influence was muted, as was the influence of all the software they produced and/or revered. It was like the protestant reformation. The monks and priests, their cathedrals, their rituals all became optional. Nothing mattered but the user, the software and the hardware.
Certainly a lot of the people who were involved in the early days of the personal computer had at least dipped their toes into what came before. Gates and Allen had used PDP-10s, for example, but for many, those cheap micros were the beginning of computing. They may have owed a debt to the past, but only because some of them did the work of digging through the scrap piles behind the cathedrals to find discarded scraps they could haul back to their camp and hack to work on their 8-bit toys.
I’m reminded again just how crappy traditional consumer electronics are. My inlaws have a recently purchased Vizio Internet-enabled TV. It is, on its own, a decent product by the standards of the consumer electronics industry. The bundled “apps” are pretty easy to access and use with the included remote control. The setup screens aren’t completely impenetrable, etc. But using it with their older progressive-scan Sony DVD player is a nightmare.
For one thing, the DVD player’s own setup controls are crap, and are made even crappier by having to accommodate settings for “enhancements” of dubious value. The worst part though is that when you play a letter-box format DVD, it doesn’t automatically switch to a reasonable full-screen mode, instead, it shows the thing in the middle of the display, with a big black border all around. I can push a button to toggle among the other widescreen modes, but it takes some fussing to figure out which one looks best (Zoom, I think, but I’m not sure).
I don’t know if Apple will ever expand beyond the Apple TV, but there is still sooo much opportunity for them to remove the suck from watching TV and movies at home.