2014-11-11

Crowdfunding: Dreams or Realities?

How many of the crowd-funding projects are real, and how many are somewhere between fraud and someones wild dreams? Is this one an outright fraud?

I wrote something all too long for Google+, so I decided to hijack my Python blog for this...

Do you think the Dagonfly Futurefön will actually be produced? It seems that 1739 investors thinks it will as of 2014-11-14, or are they deliberately throwing away those $362030...
Jeff Batio has tried to build something really ground-breaking for many years, but as far as I understand, there's been no payback from investments in his inventions. He has gathered a lot of money from investors though, and at least one state has taken him to court and banned his stock sales.

Note that Mr Batio decided go through with his project if he just got $10000. Could he really start production of revolutionary consumer electronics for $10000, or is he just very eager to cash in, regardless of whether the project has a chance to succeed or not?

He promises something revolutionary: A very light Intel i7 laptop bundled with a smartphone/pad, the whole package weighing just one pound. This includes enough battery to run the i7 for 8.5 hours. This is less than half the weight of any current i7 laptop, and he'll also include the phone.

One IDG Connect writer, Dan Swinhoe, has published a short interview about the venture. No Pulitzer Prize ambitions... Just ask some easy question and let Mr Batio create the article text with his answers. A few blogs have also reported without questioning whether this is for real.

My warning bells go off when I read about Jeff Batio and his "Idealfuture Dragonfly Futurefön" (sic). It's not just the name... It all smells fishy, and the more I put my nose in it, the worse the smell seems.

Look at the texts, the pictures and videos at Indiegogo and Idealfuture's home page. Does it look real?
I know. They are in the middle of inventing, and no-one claims that the product is in production. But if you create a game changer, something really new, you probably need some decent prototypes to convince yourself and your investors/customers that it's even possible to produce this.

Almost all detailed product pictures, and all product appearance in the videos, seem to be animations. There are some pictures of people with "the Futurefön", but is there anything to suggest that those are more than 3D printed blocks of plastic with some chrome framing?
The only visual details I find is in the collage near the bottom of the Indiegogo page, where Bridget Hogan from the video, Mr Batio's VP of Social Media, holds a mock-up with a shiny chrome look.
I took a close look at that picture. Note that the right screen should
  1. work like a normal, folding laptop screen,
  2. swivel around, 
  3. detach as in the middle picture, 
  4. not accidentally fall off the base during transportation.
Has anyone managed to do this before? I think this is a core R&D effort, the first thing to get right.

Why is Ms Hogan holding on to the phone part in the upper left and right pictures? Not quite working yet?

How will this mechanism work without anything protruding from the screen or the base? (There is something protruding a bit in some of the computer simulations, and it looks as if that thing would prevent the swiveling rotation...)

Will this magic joint survive a few years of handling, bumping around in a backpack? Do you need to put your Futurefön in a special, protective case they didn't mention yet?

What about the technical specs? It is to be 155.575 mm wide when folded, and weigh 452.175 grams. Considering that they are still vague about some features, such as exactly which processor to use, whether it should be waterproof, and what battery to use, it's surprising that that they have such impressive and precise measures.

The "Slingshot" is a complete 7" phone, and it's supposed to weigh only 145 grams. The lightest 7" pad I can find for real weighs 239 grams. (The lightest 6" phone I find weighs 160 grams.) Don't forget that the "Slingshot" also needs some sturdy structure for the swiveling hinge. Some extending pin maybe?
The rest of the weight is 307 grams. That's for a complete Intel i7 laptop with a tiny 7" screen, 4GB RAM, 256GB SSD and enough battery for 8.5 hours of use. It needs to be sturdy despite being so thin, narrow and light, with hinges in the middle of the keyboard.

The smallest current netbooks, with 8.9" screen, weigh 0.99 kg. More than twice what a complete "Futurefön" is supposed to weigh...

Compared to any other Intel i7 based laptop, it will be 40% of the weight, much more narrow, and still have strength and space for the folding, and dissipate all the generated heat. Who will provide the material to build this? Aliens?
Mr Batio first worked on the idea of a 2-way foldable laptop in his old company Xentex. It seems like something was actually built then, since an article in engadget mentioned a prototype for sale on Ebay in 2008. The Xentex Flip-Pad press release was also mentioned in 2002 by pcmag.com (joking about the 5.7kg laptop) and by mobilemag.com.
It seems it never came to production though, and Mr Batio has a whole web site dedicated to telling the story of how he was swindled by people in his own board and some investors. He makes it sound like these people got so crazy that they started to destroy a company they owned and worked for, which was just on the verge of financial success. I think such things are more likely to happen to a company close to collapse...
Between the old bankrupted Xentex and the current Idealfuture, Mr Batio called his venture Armada Systems LLC. One of his patents on "Portable computer for dual, rotatable screens" was filed with Armada as owner. As recently as 2014-01-29, the State of Illinois, noted that Mr Batio had between 2006 and 2010 sold "memberships" in Armada to approximately 75 people, for a sum of approximately $500 000. The state also noted that he had done this without registering as demanded by the law. He was then forbidden to sell shares in the state of Illinois... Oh dear!

Mr Batio has 500+ connections in LinkedIn. The odd thing is that only 14 people of the 500+ have endorsed any of his skills. Have you ever seen such a LinkedIn profile? I didn't think that was possible. (Not that it ever happened to me that people endorsed skills they don't personally know I have. ;-)

By the way, one of his 14 endorsers is a 3D and VFX artist in Moscow. I can guess their connection... Another does music for advertising, and a third is a technical writer and engineer, who shoots, produces and directs film (some technical stuff I guess). The dream team...

Where are the real techies actually creating all the pieces in this puzzle? Even if you work with a lot of outsourcing, there is a lot of work to get a product to happen... Searching for Idealfuture at LinkedIn, you only get two hits: Mr Batio and Ms Hogan.

The only inside clue from Idealfuture among the pictures is one where they show their prototype workshop. Here you can see Mr Batio's first wooden mock-up of a fold-able laptop. Then there is one of the Flip-Pad prototypes, and various junk. Something might be a scaled up part of a keyboard hinge, and there is a couple of big, old motherboards. In the center, maybe the most important part: The product photography studio.

I suspect that they don't build the next generation of computing devices there. I think they build dreams...

I like Jeff Batio. He's like the inventor dad in Gremlins. I guess he believes in his overly complicated gadgets that have everything, and thinks that he can overcome all the technical hurdles. I mean, it's one item which is both a laptop and a phone and a presentation device (well if the guy you present to sits really, really close) and there is a pen in a little hole, and a Bluetooth headset behind a little hatch, and it folds so cleverly... Just like the Peltzer Bathroom Buddy! I almost expect a button for shaving foam.

Still, he ought to understand that his investors are likely to loose their money, just as I guess his previous investors did...


P.S. I just found something more: A year ago, Mr Batio did the same thing! (Well almost, no videos and no Ms Hogan.) The "if convertible by idealfuture" which looks suspiciously like the Dragonfly Futurefön, collected $17945, in a campaign ending in December 2013. It was an inspiring first attempt I guess. Maybe it gave him the funding to produce the next campaign. It's not apparent to me that it lead to any production of hardware. I see no actual fold-ables for sale on ebay for instance. But there is someone who tries to sell the one he didn't get yet...

2014-03-21

Call by what? Understanding Python variables

You might run across something similar to this in a Python program:

consumer_x = consume(consumer_x, banana, milk)
weigh(consumer_x)

def consume(consumer, food, beverage):
    consumer.eat(food)
    consumer.drink(beverage)
    return consumer

This code is a bit more convoluted than it has to be. To understand why, we need to understand how Python variables work.

Labeled Shoeboxes

A variable in an old language like C is like a box with a label. (For some reason I thought shoeboxes when I studied C.) It has a certain size, e.g. big enough to fit an integer, or a double precision floating point number. You can write something like this in C:

int a = 12345;
int b;
b = a;
a = a + b;
b = a;

This roughly means the following:
1. Make an integer sized box, label it "a", and place the value 12345 in it.
2. Make another integer sized box and label it "b". Leave it empty for now.
3. Copy the value of a into the b box. Now both a and b contain 12345.
4. Calculate 12345 + 12345 = 24690 and put that in the a box.
5. Let's copy the value of a into b again. Both boxes contain 24690 now.

Call by what?

If you do something like "consume(consumer, food, beverage)" in a language with C-like variables, you need to make up your mind about the semantics here. What's going on with the variable "a" if you pass it to something like consume?

Will the value in the "a box" be copied into some other box inside consume? We would call this call by value or pass by value.

The other option would be that the code inside consume would be able to access the "a box". We call that call by reference.

So, what about Python? Is it call by value or call by reference? Neither I'd say. Some say call by object or call by sharing. The experienced C programmer would probably say that we're passing a pointer to "a" by value, but let me explain this with something more similar to the shoebox.

Balloon, tags and strings

For some reason, I see Python variables like balloons floating in the sky. They can take any size, and while you can't really control where they are, there are strings attached. You hold on to the other end of the string, and you've put a tag on it.

Let us repeat the example from above in a Pythonic way:

a = 12345
b = a
a = a + b
b = a

1. Let's make a balloon and put the integer 12345 in it. Attach a string and tag it "a" in the end you hold on to. (In fact, this balloon will never contain any other value than 12345, but we'll get back to that.)
2. Let's attach a new string to the 12345 balloon, and tag that "b". Now there are two strings attached to 12345.
3. Let's make a new balloon and fill it with 12345 + 12345 = 24690. Move the string tagged "a" from the 12345 balloon to the 24690 balloon. The balloons now have a string each.
4. Move the string tagged "b" to the balloon with the "a" string attached, i.e. the 24690 balloon. The 12345 balloon no longer has any strings attached, so it flies away.

A more technical term is that 12345 get's garbage collected (or to be particular, it will be reference counted if it's the standard version of Python).

Mutable and immutable types

All Python objects (oops, I meant balloons) have a type. Every type is either mutable or immutable. Integers are immutable, so once you've created an integer balloon (or object) it will never change its value. So, while "a = a + 1" means "change the value in the a-box" in C, it means "move the a-tagged string to a balloon with another value" in Python.

That's true for both mutable and immutable types: Assigment in Python always means "move the string to a new balloon". The silly thing with the example we began with, is that it's the same balloon it was already attached to. Let's go back to that:

consumer_x = consume(consumer_x, banana, milk)

def consume(consumer, food, beverage):
    consumer.eat(food)
    consumer.drink(beverage)
    return consumer

Before we call consume(...), consumer_x is a tagged string attached to some balloon. When we call consume() we attach the string with a consumer-tag inside the consume() function to the same balloon. Then we call the .eat() and .drink() methods on our ballon. Then we pass our balloon back to the caller. Finally, we reuse our variable name and do consumer_x = consume(...). This means that we detatch the string from the balloon it was to connected to, and instead we ... yes that's right ... we re-attach it to the same ballon again. That's silly isn't it?

The crucial thing is that we don't reassign consumer in consume. Since we can't see any "consumer = ..." in the body of consume, we know for sure that we return the same object as we got as input. Not much point in that. It's as if I would visit your home,  grab one of your flower pots from one of your window sills and present it to you as a gift.

For this function to make any sense at all, consumer is hardly of an immutable type, like an integer. It's probably an instance of a class. Along with e.g. lists, sets and dicts, that's a mutable type.

The difference between immutable and mutable, is that mutable objects can change (or mutate) after their creation. This is pretty important in Python. For instance, you can only use immutable values as keys in dicts. With an object such as a list, the value can change even though it's the same balloon a.k.a. object.

>>> a = 1
>>> print a, id(a)
1 30716560
>>> a += 2
>>> print a, id(a)
3 30716536
>>> # See, new value and new id, i.e. another object.
...
>>> l = []
>>> print l, id(l)
[] 37012744
>>> l.append('x')
>>> print l, id(l)
['x'] 37012744
>>> # New value, but still same object!
...

Let's make it a little more complicated...

If we look at the list above, it's balloon can obviously grow. A Python list is a like an array or vector in other languages, so if it's a list of 100 floating point numbers, its a big balloon. It won't contain 100 floats though. It will contain 100 strings, each leading to a floating point balloon.

So, the strings we attach to balloons can either end in another balloon, or they can have a tag in a location we call a scope. The balloons float in a part of the computer memory we call the heap, and the scopes with tags are in another part of the memory, called the stack. As long as you stick to Python, you don't really have to care about that.

Which is the variable?

In a C-like language, it's pretty obvious what a variable is. It's a labeled shoebox of a particular size/type. It's called variable, since its content can vary (within the constrains of the type). If you declare it const, it's not a variable, but a constant.

But what about Python? Which is actually the variable? The tag? The balloon? It's not the string, is it? If it's the tag, then Python variables don't have types, and that's a silly thing to claim. If it's the balloon, then Python don't have integer variables, just constants, and that would be an equally silly claim.

Perhaps it's the whole arrangement which is the variable. Perhaps the term variable doesn't make so much sense in Python? Maybe it's better to just talk about objects and names?

Want to know more? Take a look at Fredrik Lundh's explanation at http://effbot.org/zone/python-objects.htm

2014-03-20

print 0100?

Only start numbers with 0 if the second character is a decimal point!



A few days ago, I saw some Python 2 code looking like this:

expval = date(2011, 03, 02)

Ok, that's harmless, but only because the number was less than 8... Let me show you:

>>> print 02
2
>>> print 03
3
>>> print 07
7
>>> print 08
  File "<stdin>", line 1
    print 08
           ^
SyntaxError: invalid token
>>> print 0100
64
>>> print 100
100

If it wasn't clear to you from the beginning, you probably got it now: Numbers beginning with a 0 are seen as octal number in Python 2. (I.e. base 8 instead of base 10 as the decimal numbers we normally use.) This was probably not Guido's brightest move when he designed Python. He simply copied a common practice in other languages such as C. Prefix 0x always meant hexadeciaml, and later 0b appeared for binary (even though he rejected it when I first asked) and 0o as a saner syntax for octal.

>>> print 0xff
255
>>> print 0b01010
10
>>> print 0b10010
18
>>> print 0o10010
4104
>>> print 0o100
64

In Python 3, 0o ithe the only way to write octal numbers. Literals consisting of digits starting with 0 is a syntax error:

>>> print(0o100)
64
>>> print(0100)
  File "<stdin>", line 1
    print(0100)
             ^
SyntaxError: invalid token

2014-03-15

Picky Python

I first discovered Python back in version 1.4, in 1996. It's been my favourite programming language since then.

One of the things I like best with Python is that it's designed to make it easy to make things right, rather than hard to make things wrong.

There is still a lot of code which could be improved a lot. There are several reasons for that:
  • One way or another, the problem is often that the programmers don't know Python so well.
  • Some seem stuck in the idioms of another language, such as C. A variant is people who try to compensate for the lack of static typing, rather than make use of dynamic typing in an efficient way.
  • Many reinvent the wheel instead of using the vast flora of libraries available in the standard and in the Cheese Shop etc.
  • Since Python is easy to learn, it's often used by people who aren't hard-core programmers. While they will do much better with Python than with e.g. C++, they'll still make beginner's mistakes.
  • Regardless of language, there is a lot of software which was written with less care and attention than it deserved. Perhaps because the programmer didn't have to maintain it?
  • I've seen a lot of poorly written code in corporate settings, and that's really an organizational problem, rather than a personal: Companies can hire the right people, train them well, establish a culture of software quality and provide constructive goals and priorities. Or not! As Deming said: Don't place blame on the workforce

I thought I'd write a bit about problematic Python constructs I've come across, explain why they cause trouble, and what to do instead. That's the main thought with this blog. Hopefully, it will help someone now and then...