A first look at Google Glass

For the last few weeks I’ve been geeking out on Google Glass, which I received after some time on the waiting list. I thought I’d share some firsthand observations and experiences with this marvelous little device.

First, it looks like Google took a lot of lessons from Apple in the design of the product, but especially in the design of the packaging. The box is minimalist and monochrome with a matte finish, with only the logo printed on top in a humbly small font. There’s no plastic anywhere, and therefore no need for a utility knife and the strength of ten men to pry open the package. The inside of the box contains layers of perfectly-shaped cardboard that fit snugly around the curves of the device. It’s enough to make one salivate, an impulse on which Apple has been capitalizing for a while now. But enough about that.

The thing that impressed me the most (at first) was how well Glass fits around my head. I was worried that it would be slipping and wobbling as I move around, but that’s not at all the case. The fit is very comfortable and very stable. I was able to wear it for hours without any discomfort.

The positioning of the see-through display is also very well thought out. It obstructs only a small portion of the field of view, and after wearing it for a while, it becomes hardly noticeable.

I haven’t worn Glass to any restaurants or movie theaters (because I’m not a douche), but I have worn it while exercising, hiking, writing, reading, shopping, cleaning, and playing board games. In each of those instances, Glass contributed positively to the experience, as long as you discount being called a dork by everyone you encounter (although I’m pretty sure I evoke that response regardless of Glass).

The most useful feature to me, so far, has been the ability to read emails right before my eyes, as they come in. A close second is the ability to look things up on the web at any time, using my voice (and the voice recognition is quite good). Being a seasoned Android developer, I’m currently brainstorming possible “apps” that could be developed to enhance the experience even further (ideas are welcome).

So then, is Google Glass another ephemeral fad, or is it the future of wearable computers? There’s no doubt that, at the very least, it’s a powerful demonstration of the potential of today’s technology. Whether this particular implementation of the technology will be widely adopted remains to be seen, as Google still hasn’t set an official release date for the general public.

I think that Glass would be adopted much more readily if it didn’t have the front-facing camera, as useful as it is. Nearly everyone I spoke to while wearing Glass said something like, “You’re not recording this, are you?” There’s definitely some kind of psychological turn-off about having any kind of camera pointed at you. If only Glass came without a camera, and was simply a monitor device for the wearer, it might be much more palatable to the public, and less controversial in the media. But then, who says a little controversy is a bad thing?

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Dealing with Google Play Store reviews

Or “How to keep your sanity while being an app publisher”

It has been roughly a year since I’ve published my first significant Android app (DiskDigger), and roughly a month since I’ve published my first paid app (DiskDigger Pro). Over the course of this time, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about human nature, specifically about the nature of the humans that leave star-ratings and write reviews about your app. If you’re a fellow app developer, I hope you’ll commiserate with this post. And if you’re a newcomer to the Google Play Store ecosystem (or the Apple App Store, for that matter), take heart.

Of course, this article assumes that your app actually works, and does what it promises. It assumes that negative reviews are not expected for your app, and come as a surprise to you.

People Will Be People

We’re all familiar with YouTube comments, and the breathtaking stupidity to which the commenters are guaranteed to stoop. Most of this idiocy comes from the fact that the commenters are able to write anonymously (or at least semi-anonymously), which is enough to open the floodgates of ignorance, hatred, bigotry, trolling, and everything else. Much of this mentality translates right over to app reviews.

If you’re an app developer, you will get bad reviews. Get used to it. This is for a very simple reason: there’s a significant imbalance in the activation threshold for writing a good review versus a poor review. In order for someone to give your app a five-star rating, and a good review, they have to be extremely impressed by it. However, in order for someone to give a one-star rating, they only have to find a single wrong thing in the app! Maybe it’s some portion of the interface they find annoying, or some behavior they didn’t expect, etc.

This is fairly similar to reviews of restaurants that we find on Yelp. Most of the positive reviews on Yelp come from people who write reviews as a hobby (who make it a point to write reviews of every place they visit), whereas the negative reviews are from people who happen to catch the wait staff having an off day, and write a review on Yelp when they otherwise wouldn’t.

You Can’t Please Everybody

If you worry about pleasing all of your users, you will burn out. For one thing, if you try implementing everyone’s feature requests, your app will become a disjointed mess, and will likely be used by fewer people than before. Choose very carefully which feature requests to implement, and acknowledge that certain users simply cannot be helped by your app, even if their poor review is constructive.

And another thing: if you try implementing everyone’s feature requests, you will develop feelings of resentment towards your users when they continue to give poor ratings (which they will, for the reasons stated above). You will say, “How dare you rate my app poorly, when I’ve spent so much time implementing features that others have asked for!” These kinds of emotions are highly destructive, and pave the way towards madness.

Don’t Expect Them to Read Instructions

Asking your users to read any kind of instructions prior to using your app is asking too much. Case in point: My DiskDigger app only works with rooted devices. I state this in the app description several times, and very plainly. I also put the word “root” in the title of the app. And yet, there have still been people who wrote a review to the effect of, “When I launch the app, it says I need a rooted device. Why wasn’t I warned about this?” No, I’m not joking. Read the reviews for yourself, if you like.

If your app requires the user to have any kind of a priori information before using the app, be prepared to receive poor ratings from users who weren’t aware of it.

Other Oddities

Some people seem to think that giving a one-star rating is a good way of asking for help. I have received numerous one-star ratings where the user says, “Can someone help root my phone?” or, “Can you implement feature X?” I’m not sure how to deal with such “reviews,” except to shrug my shoulders and move on, since the sight of the one star is enough of a turn-off to not want to help this person to begin with. Also, while it’s possible for them to change their rating after they’ve been helped, the time-to-reward ratio is really not worth it. They’re always welcome to contact me directly, anyway.

On the flip side, other people have written five-star reviews in order to come to my defense against the one-star ratings. While I certainly appreciate these kinds of sentiments (since they balance out the trolls somewhat), I would rather get uniformly honest reviews of the software itself, rather than meta-bickering in the comments.

Responding to Reviews

The Google Play Store allows developers to respond to each review. However, the current mechanism for doing this is deeply flawed, because the responses are posted publicly, underneath each of the reviews!

Furthermore, the responses are limited to 350 characters! This is hardly ever sufficient to thoroughly answer the user’s questions, or guide them towards resolving their issues.

All of this creates a hostile environment, where the developer is encouraged to come down to the same level as the reviewers. That’s not to say that the reviewers aren’t smart, or don’t have legitimate issues or concerns. It simply encourages the developer to become defensive, or even argumentative, towards the users. It’s almost as if Google is saying, “Hey, look what this guy wrote about your app! Are you gonna let him get away with that? Use these 350 characters to stand up for yourself!”

Lastly, the very notion of “responding to reviews” encourages the developer to constantly check the reviews. For a developer who is prone to OCD (like myself), this kind of thing can be very hazardous to one’s mental health! Even now, a part of myself is desperate to log on to my Play Store console, and check for any new activity.

Suggestions to Google

Here are a couple suggestions that would improve the Play Store experience for users, as well as for developers:

Before allowing a user to write a review, ask if the user wants to contact the developer for support! It’s baffling why Google doesn’t display contact and support information for each app much more prominently than it currently does.

If the user selects anything less than five stars, make a text box that slides out and says, “Having issues or any questions regarding this app? Ask the developer for help!”

If that’s too much to ask, then at least allow developers to respond to reviews privately, and directly over email. Responding privately instantly changes the dynamic of the conversation. It also consolidates the number of support venues that the developer has to worry about, since the issue has been moved to email, which should be the primary support venue.

And if that’s too much to ask, then at least notify developers when the user has read the response, as well as when the user updates or amends the rating to which you replied.

Like Water Off a Duck’s Back

Let’s compare app reviews to restaurant reviews one more time. There are several key differences between the two.

A successful, established restaurant might get, say, five reviews on Yelp per week, at the most. Therefore, the manager of the restaurant might do well to read each review (and will have time to do so), to see things like which menu items are trending and which ones aren’t, how the service staff is performing, and so on.

However, a successful app can get dozens of reviews per day. It’s therefore completely impractical for the developer to pay attention to each one. At this point in the app’s lifecycle, it’s more useful to look at the trends of your star-rating (e.g. on a weekly basis). If the rating takes a dive shortly after you publish an update, it might indicate that the update contains a bug, and merits further investigation. (If the app really does contain a bug, you’ll receive messages from users via email, anyway.)

There’s one more crucial difference between app reviews and restaurant reviews. Restaurant reviews are generally written by intelligent adults with a discerning palate. App reviews, however, can be written by anyone in the world, including 13-year-old trolls, 90-year-old senile grandparents, and everyone in between.

If you haven’t guessed this by now, the proper way to deal with negative reviews is to simply let them roll off you, like water off a duck’s back. Most importantly, don’t let them get to you: don’t let them affect your work or break your spirit.  They will always be there; get over it.

Whether or not you make money from writing software, it should at least make you happy. If you find that it isn’t, then you’re doing it wrong. The fact that a single other person wants to use your software should be reward enough. The fact that your app gets occasional negative reviews simply means that your app has reached that level of popularity, and that’s something to celebrate, not fret over.

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DiskDigger Pro for Android!

I’m pleased to announce the release of DiskDigger Pro for Android! This new version of DiskDigger is capable of recovering (carving) over 20 different types of files from your Android device’s internal memory, or an external memory card. This includes support for .JPG photos, .MP3 and .WAV audio, .MP4 and .3GP video, raw camera formats, Microsoft Office files (.DOC, .XLS, .PPT), and more!

As with the non-Pro version of DiskDigger for Android, this app requires root privileges on the Android device. The non-Pro version of DiskDigger will remain available (for free!) on the Google Play store, and can still be used for recovering .JPG photos.

So what are you waiting for? Go to the Google Play store on your Android device, and install DiskDigger Pro today!

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A new low in SEO scams?

There are honest business models, and dishonest business models. Honest business models include businesses who manufacture useful products and sell them to consumers, or perform a useful service for a reasonable price. Dishonest business models include pyramid schemes (such as Mary Kay and Amway), Ponzi schemes, and alternative medicine.

But there’s also a third category of business models: the bottom of the barrel. These businesses exist almost exclusively on the Internet and, boy, are there a lot of them. These types of businesses include:

  • Selling spamming services
  • Selling botnets to spam more efficiently
  • Pretending to be a charitable organization during a disaster
  • Gaming (exploiting) affiliate programs from web hosts or porn sites
  • Affiliate programs from affiliate programs from web hosts or porn sites
  • Selling e-books about how to sell SEO services
  • Selling e-books about how to game affiliate programs
  • (and the list goes on…)

But now, it looks like a new contender has stepped forward:

  • Translating random web pages in exchange for link placement (resulting in improved search engine rankings)

Before I describe the scheme fully, let me start at the beginning. Last week I received the following email:

Dear Sir,
I am writing to inquire regarding your web page about running in Linux where I have found a lot of useful information. My name is [name redacted] and I’m currently studying at the Faculty of Computer Science in Belgrade. Here is the URL of your article: http://diskdigger.org/linux

I would like to share it with the people from Former Yugoslav Republics: Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I would be grateful if you could allow me to translate your writing into Serbo-Croatian language, that is used in all Former Yugoslav Republics and to post it on my website. Hopefully, it will help our people to gather some additional knowledge about computing.

I hope to hear from you soon.

[name redacted]
Tel: +381 62 300604

Wow, someone wants to translate one of my pages into another language! What an honor. However, after the initial flattery wore off, I noticed a few things that didn’t seem to add up:

  • The page that this person chose to translate is fairly obscure. It almost seems like it was chosen at random. A native speaker of “Serbo-Croatian” wouldn’t gain anything from it without a lot of background knowledge.
  • A language like Serbo-Croatian is itself fairly obscure. I would guess that a Serbo-Croatian citizen who is remotely interested in “computing” will most likely speak English to begin with, so this kind of translation would be useless.
  • The verbiage in the email sounds a little too boilerplate, with phrases like “a lot of useful information” and “additional knowledge about computing.”

So, what could be this person’s real motive?

If we follow the link in her signature, we see that she is affiliated with “WebHostingGeeks”, which appears to be a web hosting review site that makes money from web host affiliate programs and paid reviews. This certainly makes it a traffic-driven business model, and it therefore has a lot to gain from any kind of SEO “scheme.”

After doing a Google search for “WebHostingGeeks” combined with the name of the person from the email, we see a plethora of results where the scheme repeats itself over and over: dozens of seemingly random web pages translated into Serbo-Croatian, with a link back to the WebHostingGeeks site.

And the pieces fall into place. Here’s how the scheme works:

  • A webmaster receives an email from a foreign-sounding person, asking for permission to translate one of their web pages.
  • The webmaster feels honored, and replies “absolutely!”
  • The translator translates the page (using Google Translate, maybe with a few touch-ups), and asks the webmaster to add a link to the translated page from the original page.
  • The webmaster, blinded by pride, puts a link to the translated page onto the original page (and often blogs about what an honor it is to be noticed in such a remote corner of the world!).
  • Over time, if enough credible web pages add these kinds of links, then the malicious target of the links (i.e. WebHostingGeeks) will climb straight to the top of Google search results, precisely because it’s linked to by oh-so-many respectable sites.

Indeed, after some extensive Googling, it’s surprising just how many very respectable websites have been fooled by this scam. Just do a search for “webhostinggeeks translate serbo-croatian”, and you’ll see for yourself.

“Traditional” SEO schemes have their place among the bottom of the barrel, but this is surely a new low. I actually commend them for almost getting one past me.

I call on all webmasters out there: if you’ve received this kind of offer to translate one of your pages, and added a link to the “translated” version of your page, please remove it, and show the scammers that we’re smarter than them. These shady business practices are mired in obscurity, and that’s where they belong. Please share this information with anyone who may be affected.

Update (Nov. 2013): I’ve been contacted by the person who sent me the original email, and she requested that I remove her name from this post, since it’s been having a negative effect on her online reputation (she is no longer associated with WebHostingGeeks). So then, not only does she appear to be a real person, but she claims that WebHostingGeeks paid her to do these translations by hand (not using Google Translate). Could it really be worth all that trouble just to gain a tiny bit more Google rank?

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My BASIC beginnings

Edsger Dijkstra was absolutely right when he said, “Programming in BASIC causes brain damage.”  (Lacking a source for that quote, I found an even better quote that has a source: “It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.”)

When I reflect on my (not-too-distant) programming infancy, I often think about what I might have done differently, like what technologies I could have learned, which ones I should have avoided, or what algorithms I could have used in old software I had written, and so on.

But there’s one thing that really stands out more than anything else:  starting out with BASIC was the worst thing I could have done.

I’m not sure how useful it is to talk about this now, since BASIC has pretty much gone extinct, and rightly so, but it feels good to get it off my chest anyway.

My parents and I immigrated to the U.S. in 1991, when I was 10 years old, and I had never laid eyes on a personal computer before that time. During my family’s first few months in the States, we acquired a 80286 IBM PC, which was probably donated to us by an acquaintance (since the 80386 architecture was already prevalent at that time, and 80486 was the cutting edge).

I also happened to come across a book called BASIC and the Personal Computer by Dwyer and Critchfield.  I was instantly fascinated by the prospect of programming the computer, and the boundless possibilities that computer software could provide.

However, I made a critical error that would hinder my programming development for at least a year:  I reached the erroneous conclusion that BASIC was the only language there was!

I had no idea that BASIC was an interpreted language, or indeed what difference there is between an interpreted and a compiled language.  I thought that all software (including the games I played, Windows 3.0, Word Perfect, etc.) was written in BASIC!  This unfortunately led me down an ill-fated path of self-study, which took an even stronger effort to undo.

I learned all there was to know about BASIC programming in a few months (starting with GW-BASIC, then moving to QuickBASIC), and then I started to notice certain things about the software I was trying to write.

No matter how I tried, I couldn’t make my programs be as fast as other software I used. I couldn’t understand why this was the case.  Also, the graphics routines in BASIC were virtually nonexistent, so I was baffled how anyone could write games with elaborate graphics, scrolling, and responsive controls.  I was eager to start developing games that would rival my favorite games at the time, like Prince of Persia, Crystal Caves, and Commander Keen.  But the graphics and responsiveness of those games was orders of magnitude beyond what I could achieve with my BASIC programs.

With all this frustration on my mind, I was determined to find the reason why my programs were so limited.  I soon found a solution, but once again it was the wrong one!  I stumbled upon some example BASIC code that used assembly language subroutines (encoded as DATA lines in the BASIC program), as well as INTERRUPT routines that took advantage of the underlying DOS and BIOS services.

This led me down the path of learning Intel 286 assembly language (another few months of studying), and encoding it into my BASIC programs!  This solved the issue of responsiveness, but there was still the issue of graphics, or lack thereof.  Fortunately, I found a book at the local public library about VGA graphics programming. Even more fortunately, the book contained sample source code, using a language they called “C“….

And my eyes were open!

It hit me like a freight train. I was lucky that I didn’t have a seizure right there at the library.  I realized that I had been learning the wrong things all along!  (Of course learning assembly language was sort of right, but my application of it was still misguided.)

Learning C and C++ from that point forward wasn’t particularly difficult, but I still feel like it would have been a lot easier if my mind hadn’t been polluted by the programming style and structure that I learned from BASIC.  It makes me wonder how things might have been different, had I accidentally picked up a book on C++ instead of a book on BASIC during my earliest exploits with computers.

In all fairness, I’m sure I learned some rudimentary programming principles from BASIC, but I’m not sure that this redeems BASIC as a learning tool. There were just too many moments where, while learning C++, I thought, “So that’s the way it really works!”  And I’m sure it’s also my fault for trying to learn everything on my own, instead of seeking guidance from someone else who might have told me, “You’re doing it wrong.”

All of this makes me wonder what programming language would be appropriate for teaching today’s generation of young programmers.  Based on my comically tragic experience with BASIC, my gut instinct is to advise aspiring developers to stay away from interpreted languages (such as Python), or at the very least understand that the interpreted language they’re learning is useless for developing actual software. I don’t think there’s any harm in diving right into a compiled language (such as C++), and learning how it hugs the underlying hardware in a way that no interpreted language ever could.

That being said, I don’t wish any of this to reflect negatively on Dwyer and Critchfield’s BASIC and the Personal Computer.  It’s a solid book, and I still own the original copy.  There’s no denying that it was one of the first books that got me interested in programming, and for that I’m thankful.  However, sometimes I regret that I didn’t find Stroustrup’s The C++ Programming Language at the same garage sale as where I found BASIC and the Personal Computer.  Or, alternatively, perhaps Dwyer and Critchfield could have included the following disclaimer in large bold letters: This is not the way actual software is written!  But perhaps it’s time to let it go. I didn’t turn out so bad, right?

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DiskDigger now available for Android!

I’m happy to announce that DiskDigger is now available for Android devices (phones and tablets running rooted Android 2.2 and above)! You can get the app by searching for it on the Google Play Store from your Android device.  Please note that the app only works on rooted devices.

At the moment, the app is in an early Beta stage, meaning that it’s not meant to be as powerful or complete as the original DiskDigger for Windows, and is still in active development.  Nevertheless, it uses the same powerful carving techniques to recover .JPG and .PNG images (the only file types supported so far; more will follow) from your device’s memory card or internal memory.

So, if you’ve taken a photo with your phone or tablet and then deleted it, or even reformatted your memory card, DiskDigger can recover it!

I’ve written a quick guide that has more information and a brief introduction to using the app!  If you have questions, comments, or suggestions about the app, don’t hesitate to share them!

Update: thanks to Lifehacker for writing a nice article!

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Correctly naming your photos

I seem to be very minimal in my strategy of organizing my digital photo collection. I have a single folder on my computer called “Pictures,” and subfolders that correspond to every year (2011, 2010, …) since the year I was born. Some of the years contain subfolders that correspond to noteworthy trips that I’ve taken.

This method makes it extremely easy to back up my entire photo collection by dragging the “Pictures” folder to a different drive. It also makes it easy to reference and review the photos in rough chronological order. This is why I’ve never understood the purpose of third-party “photo management” software, since most such software inevitably reorganizes the underlying directories in its own crazy way, or builds a proprietary index of photos that takes the user away from the actual directory structure. If you’re aware of the organization of your photos on your disk, then any additional management software becomes superfluous.

At any rate, there is one slight issue with this style of organizing photos: all of the various sources of photos (different cameras, scanners, cell phones, etc) give different file names to the photos! So, when all the photos are combined into a single directory, they often conflict with each other, or at the very least become a disjointed mess. For example, the file names can be in the form DSC_xxxx, IMG_xxxx, or something similar, which isn’t very meaningful. Photos taken will cell phones are a little better; they’re usually composed of the date and time the photo was taken, but the naming format is still not uniform across all cell phone manufacturers.

Thus, the optimal naming scheme for photos would be based on the date/time, but in a way that is common between all sources of photos. This would organize the photos in natural chronological order. The vast majority of cameras and cell phones encode the date and time into the EXIF block of each photo. If only there was a utility that would read each photo, and rename it based on the date/time stored within it. Well, now there is:

Download it now! (Or browse the source code on GitHub)

This is a very minimal utility that takes a folder full of photos and renames each one based on its date/time EXIF tag. As long as you set the time on your camera(s) correctly, this will ensure that all your photos will be named in a natural and uniform way.

The tool lets you select the “pattern” of the date and time that you’d like to apply as the file name. The default pattern will give you file names similar to “20111028201345.jpg” (for a photo taken on Oct 28 2011, 20:13:45), which means that you’ll be able to sort the photos chronologically just by sorting them by name!

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Pi is wrong! Long live Tau!

At one point or another, we’ve all had a feeling that something is not quite right in the world. It’s a huge relief, therefore, to discover someone else who shares your suspicion. (I’m also surprised that it’s taken me this long to stumble on this!)

It has always baffled me why we define \(\pi\) to be the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, when it should clearly be the ratio of the circumference to its radius. This would make \(\pi\) become the constant 6.2831853…, or 2 times the current definition of \(\pi\).

Why should we do this? And what effect would this have?

Well, for starters, this would remove an unnecessary factor of 2 from a vast number of equations in modern physics and engineering.

Most importantly, however, this would greatly improve the intuitive significance of \(\pi\) for students of math and physics. \(\pi\) is supposed to be the “circle constant,” a constant that embodies a very deep relationship between angles, radii, arc lengths, and periodic functions.

The definition of a circle is the set of points in a plane that are a certain distance (the radius) from the center. The circumference of the circle is the arc length that these points trace out. The circle constant, therefore, should be the ratio of the circumference to the radius.

To avoid confusion, we’ll use the symbol tau (\(\tau\)) to be our new circle constant (as advocated by Michael Hartl, from the Greek τόρνος, meaning “turn”), and make it equal to 6.283…, or \(2\pi\).

In high school trigonometry class, students are required to make the painful transition from degrees to radians. And what’s the definition of a radian? It’s the ratio of the length of an arc (a partial circumference) to its radius! Our intuition should tell us that the ratio of a full circumference to the radius should be the circle constant.

Instead, students are taught that a full rotation is \(2\pi\) radians, and that the sine and cosine functions have a period of \(2\pi\). This is intuitively clunky and fails to illustrate the true beauty of the circle constant that \(\pi\) is supposed to be. This is surely part of the reason that so many students fail to grasp these relationships and end up hating mathematics. A full rotation should be τ radians! The period of the sine and cosine functions should be \(\tau\)!

But… wouldn’t we have to rewrite all of our textbooks and scientific papers that make use of \(\pi\)?

Yes, we would. And, in doing so, we would make them much easier to understand! You can read the Tau Manifesto website to see examples of the beautiful simplifications that \(\tau\) would bring to mathematics, so I won’t repeat them here. You can also read the original opinion piece by Bob Palais that explores this subject.

It’s not particularly surprising that the ancient Greeks used the diameter of a circle (instead of the radius) in their definition of \(\pi\), since the diameter is easier to measure, and also because they couldn’t have foreseen the ubiquity of this constant in virtually all sciences.

However, it’s a little unfortunate that someone like Euler, Leibniz, or Bernoulli didn’t pave the way for redefining \(\pi\) to be 6.283…, thus missing the opportunity to simplify mathematics for generations to come.

Aside from all the aesthetic improvements this would bring, considering how vitally important it is for more of our high school students (and beyond) to understand and appreciate mathematics, we need all the “optimizations” we can get to make mathematics more palatable for them. This surely has to be an optimization to consider seriously!

From now on, I’m a firm believer in tauism! Are you?

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Good and bad science, and faster-than-light neutrinos

The results from the OPERA experiment at CERN have caused a huge stir in the media over the last two weeks, and with good reason, since they claim to have measured the arrival of a neutrino beam 60 nanoseconds faster than light.

Before we go on, let’s calm down a bit. Even if these results are somehow confirmed, it wouldn’t “prove Einstein wrong,” or cause scientists to stop using General and Special Relativity on a day-to-day basis. If anything, it would show that Einstein’s theory is incomplete, but no one is disputing this in the first place.

Relativity (general and special) has been put through dozens of independent, precise, elaborate tests, and passed every single one with astonishing accuracy, which means that there’s definitely something fundamentally correct about Einstein’s theory. It shouldn’t be thought of as some kind of “sitting duck” theory, just waiting to be overthrown.

Understandably, the current consensus among the world’s physicists seems to be that there was a measurement error in the OPERA experiment, or that the experimenters neglected to integrate some subtle factor that accounts for the missing 60 ns. (For a wonderfully accessible introduction to the OPERA experiment, as well as particle physics in general, read Matt Strassler’s blog. For a more thorough discussion of possible mistakes, read Lubos Motl’s post on the subject. It’s also worthwhile to read the comments on those blogs.)

Perhaps the most convincing evidence against this experiment is that we have observed neutrino emissions from supernovae (specifically SN 1987A), and these neutrinos more-or-less coincided with our observation of visible light from the same supernova. If neutrinos are really faster than light, we should have observed the neutrinos many months before we observed the light. The only loophole in this argument would be if the OPERA effect is energy dependent, since the OPERA neutrinos had much more energy than the ones from the supernova, but that would present even more problems.

Not being a particle physicist myself, I can’t meaningfully contribute to the discussions on theoretical implications of this experiment, if it’s actually true. I would, however, like to comment on how this story is unfolding from the point of view of the scientific method, and specifically how this story highlights the differences between real science and pseudoscience. I use “pseudoscience” to refer to homeopathy, energy healing products, reiki, dowsing, magnets, pendulums, astrology, and anything else that requires more “faith” than evidence.

In the wake of attending a New Age expo (out of morbid curiosity) and being overloaded with crackpots, quacks, and hucksters, these differences become all the more plain:

  • The fact that the experimenters published any data at all is a sign of great scientific integrity. The fact that they held a press conference before the paper was peer-reviewed is a bit unfortunate, as noted by Lawrence Krauss, but I think the fact that this story made it to mainstream media outlets will help the general public understand the scientific process, as people follow the story. Pseudoscientists, on the other hand, seem to be allergic to data in general, and never publish anything.
  • Essentially, the scientists of the OPERA experiment are saying, “We’ve gathered these data, we used the best possible experimental parameters, we’ve performed all the checks we could think of, and we still see this anomaly. So please, tell us what we did wrong.” This is surely science at its best! This is the kind of behavior that should be an inspiration for a whole generation of new scientists. We will never hear pseudoscientists utter that phrase.
  • Real scientists don’t adhere dogmatically to any theory, no matter how foundational it may be. Even though most physicists agree that there was an error in the OPERA experiment, they still reserve a little room for the possibility that the results are correct, and that Relativity might be violated. Einstein to physicists is not the same as Chopra is to pseudoscientists.
  • Real scientists expect extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Most scientists agree that the evidence collected by the OPERA experiment is not extraordinary. Pseudoscientists make extraordinary claims every time they open their mouth, but present no evidence at all, except anecdotal testimonials from their friends and paid endorsers.
  • If we read the blogs of popular physicists on the subject of the OPERA experiment, we find lively debates on theoretical explanations for the anomalous effect, and discussions on ways the experimenters miscalculated the speed of the neutrinos. The key point is: scientists get excited about the possibility of being proven wrong. Scientists can’t wait to be proven wrong, because it would mean that there’s more science to be done!
  • Perhaps most importantly, real scientists are motivated by a desire to better understand our world. The only motivation of pseudoscientists is money, thinly veiled by a scientific-sounding sales pitch, and a nonsensical product du jour.

In any case, I encourage everyone to follow this story, because it’s a high-profile example of real science at work; a triumph of human achievement. No matter how the results turn out, by observing the process of scientific scrutiny, everyone will be better equipped to spot pseudoscience when it’s in plain sight.

I will update this post as soon as I see a quack energy-healing product that uses faster-than-light neutrinos to balance the flow of energy through your chakras. Post a comment if you find one yourself!

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The FujiFilm .MPO 3D photo format

A few weeks ago my dad, in his love for electronic gadgetry, purchased a FujiFilm FinePix REAL 3D camera. The concept is pretty simple: it’s basically two cameras in one, with the two sensors spaced as far apart as an average pair of human eyes. The coolest thing about the camera is its LCD display, which achieves autostereoscopy by using a lenticular lens (kind of like those novelty postcards that change from one picture to another when you look at them from different angles), so if it’s held at the right angle and distance from the eyes, the picture on the LCD display actually appears 3-dimensional without special glasses!

Anyway, I immediately started wondering about the file format that the camera uses to record its images (as well as movies, which it also records in 3D). In the case of videos, the camera actually uses the well-known AVI container format, with two synchronized streams of video (one for each eye). In the case of still photos, however, the camera saves files with a .MPO extension, which stands for Multiple Picture Object.

I was expecting a complex new image specification to reverse-engineer, but it turned out to be much simpler than that. A .MPO file is basically two JPG files, one after another, separated only by a few padding zeros (presumably to align the next image on a boundary of 256 bytes?). Technically, if you “open” one of these files in an image editing application, you would actually see the “first” image, because the MPO file looks identical to a regular JPG file at the beginning.

I proceeded to whip up a quick application in C# to view these files (that is, view both of the images in each file). This quick program also has the following features:

  • It has a “stereo” mode where it displays both images side by side. Using this feature you can achieve a 3D effect by looking at both images as either a cross-eyed stereogram (cross your eyes until the two images converge, and combine into one) or a relaxed-eye stereogram. You might have to strain your eyes a bit to focus on the combined image, but the effect truly appears 3-dimensional.
  • In “single” mode, the program allows you to automatically “cycle” between the two images (a wiggle-gram, if you will), which creates a cheap jittery pseudo-3D effect (see screen shots below).
  • Also in “single” mode, the program lets you save each of the frames as an individual JPEG file by right-clicking on the picture.
So, if you want a quick and not-so-dirty way of viewing your MPO files, download the program and let me know what you think! (Or browse the source code on GitHub)
Here’s a screenshot of the program in “stereo” mode:

And a screenshot of the program in “cycle” mode:

If you like, you can download the original .MPO file shown in the screenshots above.

Now for a bit of a more technical discussion…. Clearly it would be a great benefit to add support for the .MPO format to DiskDigger, the best file carving application in town.

However, from the perspective of a file carver, how would one differentiate between a .MPO file and a standard .JPG file, since they both have the same header? As it is now, DiskDigger will be able to recover the first frame of the .MPO file, since it believes that it found a .JPG file.

After the standard JPG header, the MPO file continues with a collection of TIFF/EXIF tags that contain meta-information about the image, but none of these tags seem to give a clue that this is one of two images in a stereoscopic picture (at least not the tags within the first sector’s worth of data in the file, which is what we’re really interested in).

One of the EXIF tags gives the model name of the camera, which identifies it as “FinePix REAL 3D W3.” Perhaps we can use the model name (the fact that it contains “3D”) to assume that this must be a .MPO file, but I’d rather not rely on the model name, for obvious reasons, although the FinePix is currently the only model that actually uses this format (to my knowledge).

The other option would be to change the algorithm for JPG carving, so that every time we find a JPG file, we would seek to the end of the JPG image, and check if there’s another JPG image immediately following this one. But then, what if the second JPG image is actually a separate JPG file, and not part of a MPO collection?

For the time being, DiskDigger will in fact use the model name of the camera to decide if it’s a .MPO file or just a regular .JPG file. The caveats of doing this would be:

  • It won’t identify .MPO files created by different manufacturers.
  • It might give false positive results for .JPG images shot with the camera in 2D mode.

As always, you can download DiskDigger for all your data recovery needs. And if anyone has any better ideas of how to identify .MPO files solely based on TIFF/EXIF tags, I’d love to hear them!

Update: DiskDigger now fully supports recovering .MPO files, based on deep processing of MP tags encoded in the file!

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