Monthly Archives: September 2016

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Three Teams Qualify for Tube Test

Elon Musk’s hyperloop dream began to take shape in reality last weekend as 27 teams, including six from outside the United States, participated in a competition to create the mass transit vehicle of the future.

The competition in Hawthorne, California, sponsored by SpaceX, which Musk founded, attracted teams made up mostly of students who created pods designed to run on hyperloop transportation systems.

In a hyperloop system, the vehicles, or pods, travel in a vacuum in tubes at speeds close to the speed of sound. To do that, the pods have to be suspended slightly off the ground, typically by riding on a magnetic field.

For its competition, SpaceX built a test chamber that was three-quarters of a mile long and six feet wide. The company capped the speed at which a pod could go at around 50 miles per hour.

In order to get to test its pod in the vacuum chamber, a team had to pass a rigorous 101-point review. Only three teams could do that: Delft University of Technology of The Netherlands; Technical University of Munich, Germany; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kind of a Drag

Operating in a vacuum is important to hyperloop systems because it reduces friction. “Hyperloop is all about friction,” said Adonios Karpetis, a faculty advisor to the Texas A&M aerospace team, which competed at the event.

“You have to minimize the air friction in the tube,” he told TechNewsWorld.

By creating a vacuum or near-vacuum in the tube, the drag of the vehicle is nearly eliminated, which allows it to reach tremendous speeds, as high as 700 miles per hour. By contrast, a Boeing 747 has a cruising speed of 570 miles per hour.

“It’s like operating a ground-based vehicle at an altitude of 100,000 feet where the air is very thin,” said Rick Williams, an advisor to Auburn University’s hyperloop team.

A hyperloop vehicle has an advantage over an aircraft, though.

“Once the vehicle reaches its cruising speed, it will coast for a long ways because of the minimal drag,” Williams told TechNewsWorld.

“From an energy standpoint, it’s going to be significantly lower,” he said.

Defining the Unknown

A team didn’t have to use the chamber with the vacuum enabled, though, to learn about improving its pod’s design.

“We could see the different engineering approaches taken by the teams and talk with them about their pods,” explained David Goldsmith, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech University, which participated in the competition.

“We saw pods that had gone down different developmental paths, and we saw pods that had gone down the same path we had,” he told TechNewsWorld. “That was invaluable.”

The competition also helped the teams define the parameters of their knowledge.

“We now know what we don’t know,” Texas A&M’s Karpetis remarked. “We did not know a lot of little things, from electronics, to breaking, to levitation, to batteries.”

Journey as Destination

Students also learned the value of dealing with the unexpected.

“We learned a lot about being flexible,” said Claire Holesovsky, Badgerloop operations director at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

“A lot of times, things don’t go your way, so you have to have alternative plans and think quickly on the spot,” she told TechNewsWorld.

The teams now are looking forward to this summer, when the next round of the competition will be held. They’ll be able to take what they learned in this last round and use it to improve their pods for the next one.

While there are many people who would embrace the idea of a 30-minute hyperloop ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Carlo Ratti, director of theSensesable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology isn’t one of them.

“The other week I was in London and I had to go to Paris. I could have traveled from the city center to Heathrow Airport, flown 45 minutes, and then taken another transfer from Charles de Gaulle airport to the city center,” he said.

“This the kind of experience that hyperloop proposes between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with long transfers to suburban stations and then a short trip in a small, dark tube,” Ratti told TechNewsWorld.

“Instead, I enjoyed very much spending two hours on the Eurostar. I was online, the comfortable seat became my workplace during the trip, and I could enjoy the gorgeous English and French landscape all around,” he explained.

“As our trains — and tomorrow our self driving cars — become an extension to our offices, homes or even bedrooms, shouldn’t we focus on making them more comfortable and point-to-point, instead of thinking about such a 20th century idea of fast travel between large hubs?” Ratti asked. “Then, the journey could really become the destination.”

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News Tech Industry make Reacts to Trump’s Immigration Order

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on Thursday resigned from President Trump’s business advisory council amid fierce blowback against the president’s recent executive order on immigration, and in the wake of reports that several major Silicon Valley firms, including Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google, have been circulating a draft letter opposing Trump’s action.

Kalanick said he no longer would participate in the council after consumers railed against Uber for continuing to operate at John F. Kennedy International Airport over the weekend. The Taxi Workers Alliance in New York had gone on strike, refusing to pick up fares at the airport, to protest Trump’s executive order on refugee resettlement and travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

“Earlier today I spoke briefly with the President about the immigration executive order and its issues for our community,” Kalanick wrote in a memo to employees. “I also let him know that I would not be able to participate on his economic council. Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda, but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”

In the memo, Kalanick said he was proud to work with Thuan Pham, Uber’s CTO, and Emil Michael, the company’s senior vice president of business, both of whom are refugees who “came here to build a better life for themselves.”

A number of major tech players have been contemplating the publication of an open letter protesting not only Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, but also other proposed changes that they fear could damage their companies’ ability to conduct business around the world, according to published reports.

The draft letter, first reported by ReCode and Bloomberg News, calls on the Trump administration to reconsider several key policies in addition to the halt in refugee resettlement into the U.S.

The letter also urges the administration to reconsider its policies with regard to Dreamers — that is, children of illegal immigrants who face deportation and the breakup of their families, a group that President Obama wanted to protect.

The Silicon Valley leaders’ concerns go to the heart of the ability of their firms to recruit staff and conduct business. Many of their top executives, as well as professional programmers and engineers, have been recruited from Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of the world that are impacted directly by the Trump administration’s recent and proposed executive orders.

Thousands of Silicon Valley professionals work under H-1B visas that allow highly skilled foreigners to remain in the U.S. as long as they continue to work for the companies that recruited them.

After Trump signed the immigration ban, it was not only foreigners attempting to reach the U.S. for the first time who were impacted. Visa holders who were traveling overseas on business also were caught up in the chaos.

Key Contributors

Immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to start new businesses, said Arnobio Morelix, senior research analyst and program officer in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

More than half of the billion-dollar startups in the U.S. were launched by immigrants, and 70 percent of those unicorn companies have immigrants as key members of their management or product development teams, he told TechNewsWorld.

More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were launched by immigrants and their children, and Silicon Valley is the metro area with the most immigrant entrepreneurs in the country, the foundation’s data shows. Immigrants account for 41.9 percent of entrepreneurs in the San Jose metro area.

It’s unlikely that the Trump administration will back down on the immigration issue, despite the concerns raised by the technology industry in the draft letter that’s been circulating, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“I doubt it,” he told TechNewsWorld, as “the president is pretty set on his plan, and it was a key campaign promise.”

It such an open letter were published, it might upset Trump to the point where he would rescind his pledge to help the technology industry by cutting back on government regulations, Enderle feared.

Secondary Strategy

It’s doubtful the letter tech leaders reportedly are signing would have any effect on the president’s opinion or his executive order, suggested Charles Kind, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

“In the first two weeks of his administration, Trump has shown himself to be willful, combative and quick to take offense — none of which are qualities one associates with a desire to seek compromise,” he told TechNewsWorld.

That said, “simply writing the letter could be as important for tech companies as finding a way to get through to the administration,” King continued.

“The fact is that the impact of the executive order on Silicon Valley’s employment of foreign-born engineers is just one of the elements in play here. More important will be the effect that Trump’s unilateral actions and ‘America first’ intentions have on foreign markets, many of which are crucial to the current and future health of U.S. tech companies,” he explained.

“If Mr. Trump sparks crises,” said King, “including trade wars with formerly friendly allies — and it seems likely that he will — the immigration letter signers’ willingness to confront the president could help them maintain their good standing with trusted partners and customers who are otherwise threatened by the administration’s policies.”

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What do you think Apple’s Outstanding Q1 a Fluke?

Apple had a good quarter, but if you look under the numbers there is a ton of trouble. It just dropped behind Google in brand value, and some analysts have predicted valuation will crater in a few months.

The iPhone 7 did well, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, given that its biggest competitor, Samsung, saw its phone literally go up in flames last quarter. The Galaxy 8 is coming, though — maybe sooner than anyone expects — and it looks really impressive. This suggests Apple’s one-up quarter is not repeatable, unless Samsung decides burning phones is a feature. (Just think of the marshmallows you could roast right in your car! Or “the Samsung S8 Burns Faster, Better, Hotter!”)

Apple has moved aggressively to get suppliers to cut costs — even going to court in an effort to move some of Qualcomm’s profit to its own bottom line (this rarely ends well). Apple apparently hit a wall on top line growth, even though it is threatening to raise prices. (Good luck with that, because raising prices in a very competitive market ALWAYS ends well.)

Looking back, the Steve Jobs cycle really worked only once. It may not be Tim Cook’s fault it is failing — maybe working once was all it could do.

I’ll explain and then close with my product of the week: the Microsoft Surface Book 2, the halo product in the tablet family that is going up as the traditional iPad goes down.

The Apple Cycle

The Apple product cycle was an amazing thing to watch — not least because it showcased how folks could have, but didn’t, compete with the once unbeatable iPod. When the iPod was at its peak, Sony, Samsung, Dell — and even Microsoft, with the Zune — tried to make a dent in its sales, but they bounced off the product like it was made of diamonds.

The only product that even worried Steve Jobs was a prototype from HP, and he was able to trick HP’s then CEO Carly Fiorina into licensing the iPod instead. Then he really took advantage of her. Imagine how different history would have been for both HP and Carly if, instead of being screwed by Apple, HP had been the only company to displace the iPod. Maybe Fiorina, not Jobs, would have been CEO of the decade. (OK, I doubt it too.)

As it happened, Jobs saw that the real risk to the iPod was the emergence of smartphones that could do what the iPod did better. Instead of defending the iPod, he did what Microsoft and Palm should have done, leading Apple to create the best MP3/phone bundle.

That was particularly embarrassing for Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, because he’d disagreed with his internal team, which had wanted to do the same thing instead of creating the Zune. Ballmer wasn’t alone, however. Palm’s then CEO also killed a similar effort, saying something like “smartphones are just for business.” There is some irony in HP buying Palm and then burning it to the ground, given its iPod mistake.

The iPod became the iPhone — an even bigger hit — and suddenly we had what looked like an amazingly powerful cycle, which worked pretty well for a decade.

When the Apple Cycle Broke

That successful cycle broke with the iPad. You see, the iPhone was an iPod-plus, so the next product in the cycle should have built on the iPhone — but it didn’t. The iPad is built on the iPod — it basically is an iPod with a bigger screen.

The iPhone already had made the iPod redundant, and the iPhone’s screen eventually grew, so instead of the iPad being an extension of the iPod, the iPhone became an extension of both. Instead of the iPad expanding the market like the iPhone did, it peaked and then went into an impressive nosedive.

Granted, the iPad Pro, which is sort of trying to be a blend of the iPad and MacBook, is having some success — but largely as a result of Microsoft’s Surface efforts. It arguably is doing a better job of slipstreaming the Surface than Zune did the iPod, but a huge hit it isn’t.

Then the Apple Watch came along, breaking Apple’s naming convention. It basically is a small iPod touch with limitations in screen size, features and platform compatibility. The iPod worked with Windows and the MacOS; the Apple Watch should work with Android as well as iOS but doesn’t. As a result, the Apple Watch is a crippled wearable iPod, and there should be no surprise it isn’t selling that well, even though it is considered one of the best smartwatches in the segment.

Wrapping Up: One-Trick Wonder

What all of this means is that Steve Jobs really only got this right once. Granted, he was increasingly sick after the iPhone and was gone for the Apple Watch, so he might have figured it out had he been alive and well. This makes me wonder if it even would be possible to extend the iPhone further. Could you create an iWonder product that would expand the smartphone to embrace the PC, for instance?

That is what Microsoft imagined with Continuum — the idea that a smartphone truly could become a PC — and what makes this ironic is that once again, it didn’t execute on what might have been a true iPhone replacement.

If Jobs were around, I’d bet that’s where he would go. What then would be the next step? Maybe some kind of Hololens-like product that could eliminate virtually everything else in its final form? I wonder who is going to get that right?

The most memorable launch of this decade, for me, was the Surface Book. That’s because it was introduced as a laptop computer — and to look at it, it is hard to tell the screen becomes a tablet. With a flourish and the release of an electronic latch, the presenter mirrored what Jobs used to do with his “one more thing” surprise, and I haven’t seen people get so excited about a PC since the 90s.

I carried the Surface Book for months, and I had just one major complaint — that it couldn’t play any decent games. When you travel as much as I do, there is a lot of down time in airports or between meetings when time just drags. It’s even worse on long flights, when you can’t even move for hours.

I do read a lot, but the way I can burn through hours is with video games. The typical trade-off is that you either get a notebook that is thin and light with good battery life, or you get one that is heavy and thick with lousy battery life, but that plays games. Games don’t pay the bills for me, though.

What is amazing about the Surface Book 2 is that it significantly ups the graphics performance and increases battery life by a third — from 12 to 16 hours — while adding only one-third of a pound of weight.

Granted, you still aren’t at gaming laptop speeds, but this one now runs my current favorite game, Ashes of the Singularity, while the old one wouldn’t.

The Surface Book has never been a cheap date. It costs around US$2K for the sweet spot configuration of an i7 and 256M SSD drive, but the Surface Book 2 adds only $400 for a far more capable product with the same options.

It has a couple of shortcomings. To get it out before Christmas, Microsoft had to miss Intel’s latest Kaby Lake processor. Also, it doesn’t have USB-C ports — just the older USB 3.0 configuration. Still, given that most of what I have is still USB 3.0-compatible and that Kaby Lake was a minor upgrade, neither has been a problem.

Carrying the Surface Book is like carrying art. To my eye, it is arguably the best-looking laptop in the market. It can transform into a very attractive tablet that I rarely use — but most important, it will play games! As a result, the Surface Book 2 is my new carry box and my product of the week. It is a pretty thing.

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Linux Helped an Empowered Computer User

If you were to ask any of my friends, they could readily attest to my profound passion for Linux. That said, it might surprise you to know that hardly two years ago, I barely knew what Linux was, let alone had any earnest interest in switching to it from Windows.

Although a shift as dramatic as this may seem astonishing when considered in hindsight, analyzing my path from one push or influence to the next paints a more telling picture. It is with this approach that I want to share my story of how I came to not only use, but indeed champion, the Linux desktop.

My Security Awakening

Before embarking on my journey two years ago, I was just an ordinary Windows user. While I was basically competent and tried to keep abreast of mainstream tech news, I had an unremarkable knowledge of computers.

My attitude quickly began to change in light of the reporting on the intelligence programs of the National Security Agency in the summer of 2013. The breadth of the online monitoring Edward Snowden revealed was unsettling, but it also underscored just how little most of us do — or even know how to do — to safeguard our own privacy.

Whereas before I previously gave no particular consideration to computers or their role in my personal affairs, I came to realize the critical importance of taking control of one’s digital life, and of the devices that power it.

The logical next step was to determine exactly how to go about it. Though my goal seemed logical, achieving it would not be simple. Over the next few months I devoted my free time to scouring the Internet for guides on deploying privacy protections, encryption, and any other techniques that could protect me.

Experts will tell you that if you’re trying to evade intelligence agencies, you should give up. Yet those same experts will tell you that your only recourse for resisting even a fraction of state surveillance — and a decent proportion of monitoring by lesser agencies more likely to target ordinary people — is to use open source software. Linux, I soon found, was chief among those software options.

Proprietary vs. Open Source

Upon further study, I became familiar with just what was so special about open source software. The lion’s share of the software we use every day — from chat clients to operating systems, including Windows — is the opposite of open source software: It’s proprietary.

When Microsoft developers work on Windows, for example, they write the source code in some programming language and circulate this code only among their team. When they’re ready to release the software, they compile it, converting it from human-readable code into the 1s and 0s that computers need to run it, but which even the most brilliant humans struggle to reverse-engineer to original source code.

With this model, the only people who know for sure exactly what the software does, or whether it surreptitiously undermines or monitors its users, are the people who wrote it.

Open source software, though, is released to the public in its source code form, along with downloadable binary packages for installation. Whether or not every individual user is capable of reading the source code to assess its security and privacy, the fact that it is public means that those with enough technical chops are free to do so, and they can notify users if the program contains hidden malicious processes or inadvertently buggy ones.

After thorough research, it became clear that the only operating system that could guarantee my privacy and autonomy as a user was one that offered the transparency of the open source philosophy. The one knowledgeable friends and privacy advocates recommended most was Linux. I was ready to endure a rough transition if I had to, but my conviction in the importance of privacy gave me the confidence to try.

Although my resolve to switch to Linux was immediate, the process of migrating to it was gradual. I started by installing Ubuntu — an easily configured and beginner-friendly Linux distribution — to run side-by-side with the existing Windows installation on my aging laptop.

By being able to choose Ubuntu or Windows each time I booted up my computer, I was able to find my footing on Linux while preserving the familiar refuge of Windows in case the former was missing direly needed functionality.

As it turned out, a fatally corrupted hard drive prevented me from enjoying this setup for long, but I took that as an opportunity to pick out a new laptop with Linux in mind. As its standard Intel set of processors, graphic cards, and wireless adapters work well with Linux’s drivers, I went with a Lenovo ThinkPad.

I made a fresh start, completely wiping Windows from my new machine in favor of Debian, a widely compatible and stable distribution on which Ubuntu is based. More than merely surviving without the familiar Windows safety net, I thrived. I was soon immersing myself in the previously mysterious command line world.

After I had a year of working with Linux under my belt, I took another plunge and installed Arch Linux, which requires a significantly more complex manual user installation process, with full disk encryption. That night installing Arch, with a Linux veteran supervising, marked one of the proudest accomplishments in my life.

I had my share of challenges along the way — sometimes applications that worked seamlessly on Windows required laborious extra steps or missing drivers needed installation — but I surmounted them or sidestepped them and continued to figure out Linux at my own pace.

As far as I had come, it was then that I really started to learn. I took up Linux to harness the power of my computer and ensure that it worked for me, but what kept me engaged was the freedom of modification and personalization that it offered.

As an open source OS, Linux is infinitely open to customization. Although I initially expected to spend my time reading up on security practices (which I very much still do), I also found myself digging deep into configuration panels and laying out all the colors, icons and menus just so.

It took some getting used to, but the more I threw myself into something new, the more confident — and curious — I became.

A little over two years since setting out down this road, I’ve never felt more at home on my computer than I do today. I couldn’t personalize Windows the way I wanted it, and from what I’ve learned from the open source community, I couldn’t fully trust it, either.

What was once simply a piece of hardware I owned is now something I have a close connection to — not unlike the connection a journalist has to her notebook or a violinist to her instrument.

I even find myself lamenting the fact that my phone is not as amenable to true Linux as my laptop and wondering what I can do about that. In the meantime, though, I will keep tinkering away on my Arch system, discovering new corners and exploring new possibilities whenever the chance arises.