Better Than Life

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I’m a Sci Fi nut. I’ve been one for many years, certainly long before it was cool be be a nerd. I’ve always leaned toward hard science with space ships and aliens rather than sword and sorcery. It’s clear that with the wild success of everything from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the hundreds of vampire zombie spinoffs there is a massive demand for all aspects of fantasy. As a species we have always valued an alternate to the humdrum business of life which explains the success of everything from alcohol and sports to LSD. Add the that the fact that gaming is now worth more than Hollywood it’s not surprising that there are some fantastical bets being made on improving reality. The most recent of these is the 500+ million put down by Google and friends for a piece of the Miami based virtual reality shop Magic Leap.  It’s not entirely clear what these folk do…mostly because they won’t tell you.  Much like Oculus (Who Facebook recently acquired) the have no product and no revenue but clearly have some very big ideas around virtual and augmented reality and have caught the attention of big G. Let’s unpack this a little.

There are significant barriers to meaningful virtual or augmented reality. Our brain is a fierce computer which spends upwards of 60% of runtime doing visual processing. We are amazingly good at perceiving and understanding the world around us…so to try to trick the brain into seeing things which aren’t there in a seamlessly is very hard. That’s what Magic Leap et al are working on. The win could be enormous. We could trade our 60″ LED TVs for headsets or implants which could convince us we are fighting at Minas Tirith or making time with insert -porn-star-name-here. We could work in true virtual offices or vacation from our couches. The gatekeepers of this new world would indeed be in a position of power. Although the focus to date has been on the hardware to get past the brain’s defenses the likely long term winner would be the people who could supply both the convincing reality gear and the programming to go with it. In effect a next generation cable company….which no doubt Google would love to be. They have the fiber optic cable, they are buying the hardware/user equipment  folks and no doubt are already working on augmented / virtual content to go with it.

I give it less than a decade before we are paying a reality provider to give us recreational experiences beyond anything we can currently imagine. Once we have access to a better than life experience on our recliners at home work may just become the way we afford credits in our enhanced experience world. It sounds like fun…and will be…unless it further divided our society into the haves who can relax in comfort in their virtual paradises and the rest who keep the lights on.

Tough Times at Google High?

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It’s not that often that a cloud crosses the sunlit commercial uplands where the Googlers play….but last week was a little stormy.  The big story last week was the cataclysmic pounding which Netflix took when they missed their numbers and HBO announced a non-cable option.  The other sad story was Google. After reporting slower than anticipated revenue growth the markets took them behind the woodshed where their stock ended up at a mere $511.17.  I have covered the reasons for their predicament at length in this blog over the past few months and years….but let’s do the Cliff Notes version.

1   Desktop search has been rapidly overtaken by search on mobile devices. Mobile devices have much less space for ads and lots of the big advertisers still haven’t quite come to terms with mobile…even tho we the users are all about it. That means that as mobile click volume has risen the average price over all continue to drop. These are seismic metrics which anyone…even Wall Street analysts can readily grasp.

2   On mobile devices we tend to spend most of our time on apps like Facebook Instagram, Yelp and Twitter.  Google has spent billions acquiring “moonshot” projects focused on the long term big win.  It hasn’t been as successful acquiring the kinds of mobile aps that we are spending our mobile time on. In many cases we’d rather buy our stuff from Amazon or even ebay direct rather than do the Google dance.

3   A lot of people have developed a healthy scepticism about how Google (and others) handle our personal information.   They aren’t the only offenders for sure, but I have to believe there is at least some backlash against them.

Don’t get me wrong Google is still a powerhouse…but this may be the first time ever when the stars aren’t all fully aligned in their favor.

3D Printing Finding Its Way Into Orthopedics

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Current casts, which are made of plaster, are not only heavy and uncomfortable, but they also get smelly as they are unable to get wet. 3D-printed casts are the total opposite. The cast revealed last year, called the Cortex cast, was made out of nylon plastic. It was waterproof, lightweight, ventilated, and, once its purpose was served, it could be recycled — not to mention it was also stylish sporting a spider, web-like design. Patients who need it would theoretically get their fracture X-rayed, and then the 3D printer would custom print the cast to the shape of their limb, with extra reinforcement in the injured area.

Deniz Karasahin, the industrial designer behind a similar cast, called the Osteoid medical cast, won this year’s A’Design Award for 3D-printed forms and products. Though his design is similar to the one from last year, it goes a step further, incorporating a bone stimulation system known as low-intensity pulsed ultrasound (LIPUS). The system works by applying “transcutaneous acoustic energy” to the fractured bones, according to a report on LIPUS in the Indian Journal of Orthopedics.

It’s believed that this low-intensity energy causes mechanical stress at the cellular level on both ends of the broken bone, stimulating “molecular and cellular pathways involved in healing.” Meanwhile, other research purports that the energy causes microscopic gas bubbles to develop within the fractured bone. In turn, these bubbles trap the acoustic energy with tissue fluid, causing a chain reaction in which the fluids circulate within, blood pressure rises around the injury, and healing accelerates “by enhancing gas exchange and nutrient delivery.”

Regardless, Karasahin and his team claim that someone who’s using the cast can undergo 20-minute daily sessions with LIPUS to reduce the healing process by 38 percent while increasing the healing rate by as much as 80 percent. Those rates includes fractures that are nonunion, meaning that they fail to heal correctly. That’s good news for the estimated 6.2 million fractures occurring in the U.S. every year, of which five to 10 percent take longer than expected to heal or are nonunion.

The researchers’ next steps are to develop a more effective locking mechanism that’s “strong enough to protect the limb, practical enough to put it on the fragile injured area and simple enough so that it doesn’t disturb the general form of the medical cast.”

Apple and Facebook are Paying for Female Employees to Freeze Their Eggs

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Career women, have you placed your family-making plans on the back burner? Maybe that’s not far enough. It may be time for cold storage.

Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Apple will now pay for employees who want to freeze their eggs. This is strange new ground even for technology companies who are famous for luring talent with big money and glorious perks.

Facebook recently introduced this coverage under its surrogacy benefits. Beginning in January, Apple will pick up the tab on bills up to $20,000 for egg-freezing procedures taken by its female employees. This is in addition to Facebook’s $4,000 cash bonus to new parents and Apple’s 18-week paid maternity leave. In a field that is dominated by men, these moves may be another push to make Silicon Valley friendlier to top female talent – or at least, top female talent that wants to lean in before it comes time to burping up.

The move by Apple and Facebook may explain a trend that is already in motion among young female executives. Women don’t want to let their careers or not meeting the right partner affect plans for their ideal families.

The idea behind offering this option to female employees seems innocent enough. It gives women an option to delay childbirth to focus on their careers. But while some are embracing the idea as a step toward closing the gender gap, not everyone is warm to it. Critics say this is just one more way to put the workplace before having a family.

Facebook and Apple have not come out and said this was an attempt to narrow the divide between opportunities for male and female employees. However, there is a major gender gap in tech. It’s easy to see the connection between the perk and the two tech giants who offer it.

Flight Attendants Want You to Stow Away Not Only Your Luggage, But Your Personal Devices Too

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You might be super happy to play away on your phone or tablet the entire time you are on a plane, as it makes the long trips a little less taxing on your boredom or helps time pass a little faster. But it seems as though not everyone on the plane is pleased to see your face buried in your device during takeoff and landing.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s new, more relaxed rules on gadget use aren’t sitting well with one group. That group is those instructing passengers on safety precautions before the plane takes off; flight attendants. Currently, the nation’s largest flight attendant union is now suing the FAA to have the ban on gadget use during takeoff and landing reinstated.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has argued that the change has caused many passengers to ignore flight attendants’ emergency announcements, and that the new rules violate federal regulations requiring passengers to stow all items during takeoff and landing.

The suit comes after the FAA last October found that personal electronic devices like your smartphone or tablet will not interfere with a plane’s functionality and can be used during all phases of flight. Praised by airlines and passengers, these new rules mean that you can continue reading an e-book, playing Candy Crush, or watching a movie as the plane taxis, takes off, starts its initial descent, and arrives at your destination.

But the attendants union is concerned about the safety implications of the move. They claim that in at least one instance, a tablet “became a projectile during turbulence.” They also worry that the devices could delay passengers’ exit from an aircraft during an emergency.

Using Wi-Fi is not the organization’s only concern. Last month, it backed a letter from 77 House members that called for a thorough review of the FCC’s plan to update rules regarding the use of cell phones on planes.

According to the FCC proposal, those flying on planes with new onboard access systems could use a device’s cellular capabilities in addition to Wi-Fi. But “airlines would be in total control of what types of mobile services to permit onboard, including whether to permit Web surfing, emailing, and texting, but not voice calls,” the FCC said.

What are your thoughts concerning the Flight Attendant’s complaint? Do you believe that the concerns are valid and a safety concern? Or do you believe that due to the FCC’s findings, safety is not affected, and that we should be able to use our personal devices according to the new rule during the entire flight from takeoff to landing?

Supreme Confusion

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We are used to the Supreme Court making news for things like affirmative action or marriage equality. If things keep going the way they are headed they may soon be picking the bones out of an even more opaque area of the law.  The question at hand is can an API be copyrighted. It sounds like a horribly inside baseball argument and to an extent it is. Oracle is suing Google over what they claim was its infringement of twenty seven APIs when it first crafted Android back in 2010. An API (Applications Programming Interface) is how one computer program or system talks to another, in many case (as with the systems we build at Search Initiatives) it’s how components of a larger system communicate internally. They are designed to be used by other software builders so it would make intuitive sense that although the code which they communicate with might be proprietary the actual interfaces themselves would be fair game. Not so fast! argues Oracle.  They claim Google stole and repurposed wholesale a core set of APIs which they don’t normally licence and which in of themselves constitute original work.

The issue has been argued and ruled on back and forth with Google losing the last round. As is the Google Way, Google litigates everything to the highest level. If you want to take on Big G you better have deep pockets and clever lawyers. The only place left to go is the Supreme Court.  If the Supreme Court agrees to take it on we will be hearing a lot more about this arcane tech area. It may actually be an important area. APIs are widely used in all kinds of tech and we think of them as being more or less open source.  If they are suddenly a proprietary component it may well change the way we all build the tech tools we use every day. It’s not anywhere near as interesting as marriage equality…but it might well end up being a very important decision.

Google’s Game

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Google is getting into so many parts of our world it had to be only a matter of time until they got further into the world of gaming. Gaming is the Rock and Roll of our generation. Our kids listen to many of the same bands we grew up with…but the thing they do which we mostly can’t do and don’t get is gaming. Google is teaming up with James Frey who I think of as the guy who wrote the very good Million Little Pieces, then got yelled at by Oprah because he wasn’t clear enough where the real world left off and the fiction began. In any event he’s now a big player in the Young Adult category. His latest venture teams him up with the Google gaming guys to produce Endgame. This will be a cross media book/massive online game which follows a dozen teenagers across the world. The kids in the story are trying to save the world, the players of the book/game will be trying to solve the clues which will lead them to the key which will unlock a chest of gold worth $500K on display in Caesars Palace Las Vegas.

It’s not an entirely novel idea, Masquerade was a kids treasure hunt book about a rabbit which was a big thing in the UK a decade or so ago and more recently someone achieved their fifteen minutes of fame by hiding cash in various California locations and leaving clues on Twitter.

This project sounds like World of Warcraft meets Hunger Games combined with Ender’s Game (great book …horrible movie BTW). The sad fact is that one of my guilty pleasures is I actually quite like Young Adult fiction. Although I draw the line at Breaking Dawn, I did read all the Hunger Games books and I’m a huge fan of Orson Scott Card, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman all of whom supposedly target younger readers. I guess that means that although I may be able to follow the story I won’t be able to win the $500K without gaming help from a teenager.

The Encryption Kerfuffle

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Anyone paying even slight attention to the news in recent years will have noted that our government specifically the NSA has been reading our mail and the mail of many folks overseas with what amounts to complete impunity. Regardless of any 4th amendment rights in the name of stopping terrorism and catching predators our privacy rights have been routinely and massively violated.

In a logical response to these actions Apple and Google have both released operating systems which encrypt content and communication to and from our smart phones. Without access to the passcode on the devices neither The feds, Apple or Google would be able to routinely decrypt the data.  These changes have led to calls from various off our data overlord to make these operating system changes essentially criminal.

Encryption isn’t new, if you could be bothered to do it, it’s been available from a wide variety of sources for a long time and none of those suppliers have been prosecuted for doing that so far. All Apple and Google are doing is making that the default rather than the exception.  If bad actors could get tough encryption before and they weren’t already using it, presumably this change will only protect the dumb and lazy bad actors. What it does do is it makes it harder for the NSA to conduct massive unwarranted collection programs against US citizens.

I for one am heartily sick of being routinely spied on and over policed by the people we pay to protect and serve.  I realize that in so saying I’m in danger of coming of as one of the right-wingnuts I excoriate on a regular basis…but really! Had the government shown any shred of decency or reasonableness in recent years I’d be less keen to take this line. However they have routinely used new technology, a flagrant disregard of our privacy rights and hackneyed and vague threats to tear up the constitution. They weren’t able to get the affordable healthcare site up on time but man they are great at listening in at massive scale.

So by all means make our phones and email much more secure, or at least secure enough so that the government will have to play by the rules it devised for itself to spy on their own people enmass. Just because you may have nothing to hide does not make it OK for our overlords to routinely check out what may or may not be going on in our lives. Get a warrant and make the case or leave us alone.

New Earthquake Warning Technology Facing Funding Shortfall

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Over the summer, San Francisco was hit by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, leveling buildings and injuring 172 Bay Area residents. However, much of the Bay Area breathed a sigh of relief: They had been spared the big one, once again.

Unbeknownst to many Bay Area residents, however, researchers at places like the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with technology that would provide an early warning system for the next major earthquake. In this case, the technology worked, sounding an alarm just seconds before the North Bay quake.

ShakeAlert, as it’s called, is a partnership between Cal, the University of Washington, CalTech, the Southern California Earthquake Center, and the United States Geological Survey. And it is fascinating how it works:

The objective of warning of an early earthquake is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave, which brings the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage, arrives.

Similar systems are already in use in Mexico and Japan, where they’ve provided early warning for quakes. Yet, it’s facing an $80 million funding shortfall — despite a state mandate to create an early-warning system and private funding supporting the research.

Currently, only private firms offer early warning systems, and these are primarily geared towards industry, not public works and individual consumers. If you want an early warning system to turn off valves in an oil refinery, for example, you can find the equipment to do it — if you can afford the materials, installation costs, and ongoing maintenance.

Testing of such systems uses real-time tracking of seismic events, paired with predictions, to determine accuracy, increase lead time on warnings, and estimate error rates. But experimental data still aren’t made public, even if such information could provide a public safety benefit.

Will California, or another U.S. state, have to wait for a major quake before the necessary funding is pushed through? This may be exactly what happens, as California is struggling to fund ShakeAlert and the necessary equipment, seismic observation stations, and personnel to make the system work with a high degree of accuracy.

Proponents of the ShakeAlert could release the rudimentary system, stressing that it is incomplete, not quite ready for launch, and potentially unreliable, but it is better than nothing. The launch would have to be accompanied with warnings that citizens shouldn’t get too complacent, because the advance notice provided likely wouldn’t be very extensive, and false alarms could occur. Citizens would need to back up ShakeAlert or a similar system with earthquakepreparations as already recommended by the state and other agencies.

Or, they could keep the technology under wraps as it remains under development, focusing on making it as good as possible before it’s released. In the meantime, earthquakes could cause millions or billions worth of damage accompanied by severe injuries and loss of life that could have been prevented had such a system been implemented, leaving officials in an unenviable position.

The images that have circulated the internet following the earthquake of broken wine stocks and bottles in Napa Valley and minor damage in other areas are just a tiny sliver of California’s possible future, the consequence of living on fractured and restless ground. In the face of that knowledge, how can the state defend a refusal to fund life-saving technology?

Apple has gone big. Will they ever go back?

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For the first few years, Apple’s iPhone product strategy was as simple as it gets: release one new model per year. To be clear, it is still simple, even as the company has released two separate models in each of the past two years. As Apple broadens its portfolio to target different market segments, the strategic considerations going forward become a little bit more complex.

Apple’s move upmarket to larger phones has been anticipated for quite some time, and investors are clearly optimistic about the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as shares continue to flirt with all-time highs. The company was able to partially resist the trend toward larger phones by releasing the 4-inch iPhone 5 in 2012. It was becoming painfully obvious that 3.5-inch displays wouldn’t be sufficient for much longer, especially in flagship high-end smartphones competing with Samsung Galaxies.

However, the shift from 4-inch displays to 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays is a bit different. The market for 4-inch smartphones will likely sustain itself. Apple now faces an interesting strategic conundrum. Each year, Apple shifts older models to successively lower price points. This strategy is beneficial because it effectively extends the useful life of each model to 3 years or more, which is utterly unheard of in the smartphone industry. That also means Apple milks plenty of value out of all the manufacturing gear it installs to produce the devices, getting a lot of bang for its capital expenditure bucks.

Under the current trajectory, the iPhone 6 would fall to the mid-range $100 on contract price in 2015, and subsequently be free on contract in 2016. That would also theoretically include discontinuing all smaller devices at that point, and 4.7-inch displays would be the norm.

Alternatively, what if Apple were to update each model for each market segment each year? Consumers in the market for 4-inch phones don’t want to always be relegated to last year’s specs and features. Taking this notion a step farther, Apple could even introduce 3 models per year to target each segment (4-inch, 4.7-inch, and 5.5-inch), and use the waterfall strategy within each. Seeing as how Apple is moving to two models per year, three doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

Of course, product depth has always been a key strength for Apple. The risk would be that Apple’s iPhone lineup becomes bloated to the point of distraction, which is a common weakness of rival smartphone OEMs. The aforementioned strategy would eventually expand the portfolio to 9 distinct devices, up from the current 4. The last thing that Apple wants to do is spread itself too thin, but the company could strike a balance.

It could also increase Apple’s capital requirements if the company needs to acquire even more manufacturing equipment. That’s not to say that Apple can’t afford it with its $141 billion in cash, and capital expenditures are currently less than 5% of revenue over the past four quarters.

But the benefit would be a stronger lineup within each discrete market segment, and Apple could exert its typical pricing power and extract a premium for its efforts. That might be worth the trouble.