Volkswagen Scandal Raises Questions of Clean Diesels

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As Volkswagen admitted that it had cheated on emissions testing of its “clean diesel” engines, it has tarnished the automaker’s reputation, while disrupting the entire industry and put diesel engines on trial in a country that was finally starting to embrace them. Volkswagen offered a diesel engine that had performance, good fuel economy, environmentally friendly and affordable enough to put in a small car.

Supporters of diesels have fought for decades to prove they can be clean and efficient alternatives for automobiles in the U.S. without giving up performance. And they were starting to gain ground largely because of VW’s heavily marketed clean-diesel technology that worked in a small car. It gave auto buyers environmental peace of mind.

The automaker has lost the trust of its customers in the U.S. and around the world. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency discovered the existence of the illegal “defeat device” software, which VW installed on 500,000 vehicles in the U.S. to make its diesel engines appear to meet air quality standards when they really did not under regular driving conditions. In Germany, the government said 2.8 million vehicles sold in Germany also have the software.

In addition to the EPA probe, criminal investigations, lawsuits and other agency investigations are under way. The scandal continued to grow with Wednesday’s resignation of VW CEO Martin Winterkorn after the admission that 11 million vehicles globally have the defeat device software, prompting agencies around the world to start checking emission levels of Volkswagen vehicles. Other automakers who sell vehicles with diesels find themselves in agency crosshairs. The EPA now sees the need for industry-wide checks and is working on new tests to detect cheating.

Google and Microsoft Kiss and Makeup?

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Google and Microsoft are playing nice, burying all current patent infringement lawsuits that they have had ongoing for some time, all 18 of them.

Microsoft has been systematically targeting Android handset makers with a set of undisclosed patents that were violated by the use of the Android operating system. However, current leadership at Microsoft seems to be shifting from their old ways of confrontation to making way for more collaboration. Arguably, Microsoft used to be quick to sue and drag matters out in court, but it seems newer players within the company are becoming quicker to settle and partner.

Possibly signaling the winding down of the global smartphone wars, the two companies said the deal puts an end to court fights involving a variety of technologies, including mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and patents used in Microsoft’s Xbox game consoles and other Windows products. The agreement also drops all litigation involving Motorola Mobility, which Google sold to Lenovo last year while keeping its patents.

Predictably, as Microsoft and Google continue to make products that compete directly with each other, the agreement notably does not preclude any future infringement lawsuits. The two have said they have been co-operating on such issues as the development of a unified patent court for the European Union, and on royalty-free technology for speeding up video on the Internet.

Ding Dong the Fire Phone is Dead

As Apple demonstrated its brand new lineup of smartphones, it looks like Amazon was quietly killing off its own.

Amazon had been rumored to be working on a smartphone for years before the Fire Phone was unveiled. Just over a year ago we got our first look at the device, and all the predictions about Amazon’s phone being inexpensive were wrong; the high price tag and gimmicky features kept consumers away and the phone flopped. Now even Amazon has admitted defeat by ending sales of the device.

You would have to really dig for the Amazon Fire Phone now as most links to the phone in Amazon’s Fire device pages have been removed. When you do find them, both the AT&T and unlocked Fire Phone show up as unavailable and no more stock is expected. This isn’t just a question of running out, they just aren’t being offered for sale on Amazon’s website anymore.

Amazon’s move to stop producing the phone is no surprise. Despite all the buzz, it failed to become the success the company hoped. Only a few months after shipping, Amazon admitted last October that it took a $170 million charge mostly associated with the Fire phone and related supplier costs, and $83 million worth of phone inventory surplus.

While Amazon blamed the phone’s flop on badly pricing the device, some in the industry pinned the failure on the phone’s concept. Like Amazon’s other Fire devices, the Fire Phone ran a heavily customized version of Android without Google’s services. Amazon supplied the apps, music, video, and everything else. This was the Fire Phone’s greatest weakness as Amazon’s services lacked many of the features that make Android phones great. Fire OS is fine for a content consumption device like a tablet, but not a phone. The Fire Phone had a feature called “Dynamic Perspective” that used head tracking to adjust the UI, but it didn’t really make up for the missing features.

YouTube Gaming Launches Today

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One year and one day after Google lost Twitch to Amazon, YouTube is taking gaming to the public. Launched today, users can head down Youtube’s gaming site to check out the new interface, see who’s streaming, or start a stream themselves. A slick interface, huge user base, and tons of content might have Twitch worried a bit.

YouTube calls YouTube Gaming the “go-to destination for anything and everything gaming.” It not only shows who is live streaming, but serves as a collection point for all gaming content on YouTube. YouTube Gaming automatically categorizes YouTube’s gaming content and sorts it by game and by the content of video.

The new dashboard makes streaming less of a scheduled event and more of a casual thing that streamers can do whenever they want. Streaming on YouTube Gaming is done on HTML5, and, unlike Twitch, streamers can enable a “DVR Mode” that buffers the last four hours of a stream and allows viewers to rewind.

YouTube Gaming will give Twitch the biggest competition in the live streaming space it has ever seen. Almost every Twitch streamer also uses YouTube for archival purposes and as an additional revenue stream, and now YouTube is a one-stop-shop for every kind of gaming video on the Web. It will be interesting to see how the battle of the game streaming service plays out.

Facebook Takes the Top Spot in Referral Traffic

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Content analytics platform Parse.ly recently released data showing that Facebook passed Google in referral traffic to publishers in June. And as of July, Facebook claimed a 38.2% share of referral traffic, compared to 35.2% for Google. These findings are based on Parse.ly’s analysis of referral traffic to hundreds of clients, including Condé Nast, Mashable, Fox News, The Atlantic and Reuters. Facebook’s rise has been slow and steady since at least 2012, as it has been gradually winning referral traffic market share from Google Sites.

Both companies have switched places before, including last fall, when Facebook passed Google for the first time. However this time the lead is more sizeable. Parse.ly’s study comes as Facebook seeks to tighten its grip on publishers even further with programs like Instant Articles, which allows publishers to host content directly on Facebook’s platform, making distribution and consumption easier and more efficient.

Facebook has also tweaked the algorithms that govern organic reach, in favor of publishers and at the expense of brand marketers. Google has also been refining the way it refers traffic to publishers. Most notably they started to give lower search rankings to algorithmic content publishers, which post content based on analysis of patterns in search traffic and auction bids. In December 2013, Google announced a big move towards “high quality” content, again by giving it a higher profile in news feeds. Will Facebook sustain its lead over the long-term? Only time will tell.

The Stillson Problem

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I’m about to head out for our summer vacation, then I have a bunch of business travel to get done, which means I won’t be posting as much in the next few weeks (I can hear the cheering from here). I’m hoping that by the time I get back fully in the saddle, the silliness which is the weird political bachelorette contest currently being carried out by the Republican Party will have come closer to some kind of sane conclusion, a conclusion which doesn’t include Donald Trump.

If you are a movie fan, you may have come across the 1983 adaptation by David Cronenberg of the Stephen King classic The Dead Zone (it’s streaming on Netflix). It stars Christopher Walken as a guy who suffers a brain injury and acquires the mysterious power to see glimpses into the future of people he touches. Enter Gregg Stillson: a brash, independently-minded senator (played excellently by Martin Sheen); a self-made man who worships his creator.

Stillson is a populist who believes in straight talk. His catch phrase is “Hot dog, somebody gives a damn.” Stillson draws large crowds of supporters who are fed up and “not going to take it anymore.” At one point, Stillson grabs the hand of our hero in a ‘Grip and Grin’ moment, and Walken sees Stillson as president pressing the big red button which sets off the nuclear exchange to end all humanity. Walken then spends the rest of the movie plotting his preemptive assassination. It’s a decent movie, one which has stayed with me more than most King adaptations.

What is so disturbing is that Trump and Stillson are eerily similar. They are both self-made blowhards who strike a populist note and garner way more political respect than they deserve. It seems there is a certain fragment of the GOP base that is completely OK with supporting a bigoted misogynist with no real answers and only a vague grasp of the issues. It’s horrifying, but not surprising.

By the time the dust has settled, it’s inevitable that the GOP will have coalesced on an “anyone but Trump” ticket — probably featuring two from Kasich, Rubio and Fiorina — and Trump will either go back to his board room and sulk or will run as a third party candidate, much like Ross Perot (remember him?). All Trump will have done is shine a light on the GOP, which will likely remind many minorities and women why they don’t vote GOP. At least that’s my sincere hope. I really don’t think that Trump will prevail, but just for grins, stream The Dead Zone and see how well you sleep after that.

Have a great summer.

Sky High Wi-Fi

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In many places around the world, Internet connectivity is an almost unheard-of luxury. Roughly 4 billion people have no access to the web. Much of India doesn’t even have functioning lavatories, public or private. Much of the Third World went straight to mobile phones and never developed a copper wire infrastructure, which makes delivering Internet at reasonable speed hard and expensive. What to do?

The answer from two of our online overlords came into closer focus this week when Facebook revealed their Internet drone and Google announced that it was working with Madagascar for that island state to be the first customer for its balloon based platform, Project Loon. In both cases, the idea is to get a platform high enough to beam a laser-based Internet signal to Earth, which can then be distributed through a network of repeating towers to remote towns and villages.

Both projects have a pretty high gee-whiz factor. The Facebook drone has the wingspan of a 737 and in theory, will be able to deliver “tens of Gigabits per second” from twice the height at which a 737 would normally fly. It’s solar powered and pretty much Star Wars awesome. The Loon is a little more pedestrian, but still way cool. Think microwave tower suspended under a Zeppelin.

In principle, all this tech applied to bring the Internet to billions of poor people is a laudable, perhaps noble idea. Communication brings people together. Having access to the world anywhere in the world no matter your status is surely a good thing? But so is clean water, childhood immunization, education for girls and women, the end to genital mutilation, universal health care and contraception…the list goes on.

Whether you like Bill Gates or not, you have to grant that he and his wife have almost single-handedly taken on some of the greatest curses of the poorest people in our world and made a huge difference. They have pretty much eliminated the horrific parasite Guinea Worm, and they are closing in on a bunch of other diseases which plague the world’s poor. They are doing this with well-managed grants; they have donated over $30 Billion so far. I have no idea how many Loons or drones you could get for $30 Billion —a few I’m guessing — but how about we eliminate Malaria first?

The sad fact is that to the narcissistic tech wonders who rule Silicon Valley, Drones and Loons are cool. Malaria, not so much. How about we do the Loons and Drones, but we donate an equal amount to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and help them give a reasonable standard of life to the future customers of those Wi-Fi services?

Does Google Have a Color Problem?

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The story this week that has been setting social media on fire is the one about the algorithmic miss classification of some photos by Google+.  The problem is that it classified a picture of a nice African American couple as “Gorillas.” That’s horrible, and what’s worse is that the only way Google could find to fix the immediate problem was to remove the tag entirely. Obviously, it was a mistake and Google apologized profusely.

Image recognition is much tougher than you might think. I read recently that at any given moment, about 65% of our brain processing power is focused on visual processing. We are extremely good at it, and we evolved that skill over millions of years. We recognize things and people with incredibly few visual clues. Expecting software to be as good as we are is probably unrealistic.

Having said that, this oops moment does perhaps point to a larger problem. Silicon Valley is horribly white. Actually it’s white and Asian, by which I mean mostly Indian Asian. There is a sprinkling of Latinos and about 2% African American. In short, Silicon Valley is a privileged white, first-generation, super-educated immigrant mix. I don’t recall ever seeing a black face in a meeting. Companies like Google promote diversity, but any visitor to their cafeteria (a fantastic place BTW) will be struck by the mass of pencil-necked geeks and button-down collar-wearing senior nerds and the phalanx of Indians (the Indian food there is first class BTW).

If all the diversity you have is white and green card, it’s less likely that anyone is even thinking about checking things like algorithms for culturally disastrous mistakes like this one. Nobody looks like them, so nobody checked. I guarantee that there are special routines built in to check for things like Native American vs. Indian sub-continent. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is special code to try to differentiate various Asian groups, but clearly not black.

It’s a problem without an easy fix. Graduation rates, etc. are lower in some communities, but companies like Google could invest in urban tech programs. Maybe fund a few charter schools in cities that aren’t San Francisco. At the very least, they could check modules like the one in question for obviously offensive situations like this one. If you live in a bubble, this kind of thing is likely to keep happening.

It’s Happened Again

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Let me predict what we will find out about the shooter in the appalling church massacre that happened last night. I’m doing this without benefit of much more than the basic CNN headlines this morning.

He’s a loner, not popular in high school or college. Probably bullied. Probably doesn’t get on well with women of any kind. He will have a history of mental health issues and/or drug problems. Those drugs will likely be from his parents’ medicine cabinet. Those problem will have gone under-treated or entirely untreated.

He’s probably very focused on guns and all things gun. I’ll give you any bet that his family has a good sized gun collection, which he used extensively. It’s also likely that school and perhaps family medical professionals were unable to escalate the care he was receiving because of reporting limits and patient confidentiality.

How can I be so sure that I’ll hit the bulls-eye on most of these? It’s easy; they are always like that. I’ve ranted about this issue so many times in this blog, it feels like a broken record. This country has two huge problems, simply put: mental health and guns. Our medical system is horrible at spotting and escalating mental health problems, in part because of resources and in part because the draconian patient privacy regulations mean that what they can do is drastically curtailed.

This country has always had a weird relationship with mental health. Our Puritan roots lead us to regard it as a character flaw to be mocked, feared or hidden rather than treated. It’s true that in earlier times it was possible for people to be cast into psych ward hell for the wrong reasons, but the pendulum has swung back too far.

When Reagan closed the majority of mental hospitals in the early 80s, it set the direction. Now, our inner cities are littered with the broken remains of the homeless and mentally ill — a growing group of which are returning veterans. We have a massive problem of over prescription and abuse of narcotic pain meds.

Now let’s add in widely available guns held as a political third rail by a vocal and powerful gun lobby, and there is a recipe for disaster. I have said this so many times it’s becoming a cliché, but it bears repeating. The UK and the US have so much in common. We speak alike, we love our kids, our teams and our countries. We think alike (in many ways), but the one thing I can think of where our cultures differ dramatically is in guns.

In the US in 2013, the deaths by firearms per 100K of population was 10.64. In the UK, the same prorated number for 2010 was 0.25. That’s 42 times the death rate. I can’t think of a single other area where our societies differ so dramatically.

As I write this, I see that he’s been caught, apparently alive. The president will speak, people will hold candle-lit vigils. There will be a trial with an insanity defense, nothing will change, and we will all go back to usual. Until the next time.

Not My Circus…

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As an old fashioned European liberal who actually voted for the UK Labor Party (that’s as close to socialist when compared to any US party) and who doesn’t have the right to vote in the US, I should probably stay out of politics over here completely. But really?! Donald Trump? Really?

We shouldn’t be surprised that The Donald is officially entering the GOP 2016 circus. Lord knows there are enough clowns already in that race. Trump befuddles me. He’s gone broke several times and done more harm to the New York skyline than 9/11, but yet he’s supposedly worth $8 Bn and plans to fund his own campaign. I’m sure the acres of publicity he will garner from this stunt will be worth it, but we all look a little ridiculous. To add insult to injury, he suggested that Oprah Winfrey would make a great vice president. Yes, and so would my American Bulldog, Hedwig.

I don’t mind that his absurd, self-aggrandizing exercise in media titillation will clog up a couple of news cycles, but his name recognition and notoriety will likely mean that he will qualify for the GOP debates starting in August. The criteria Fox plans to use is name recognition and popularity running up to the debate. Even though Voldemort himself recently polled better than most of the GOP field, Trump will be in the hunt. That will leave us with a nationally televised debate featuring a reality TV show mogul who can say or do anything he wants without any requirement that he follow the beat of any drum other than his own.

Trump argues that’s part of his strength. He’s not answerable to anyone else. Hm, let’s think. Can we recall any ego maniacal, populist, rabble-rousing politician who simply told civilized norms to take a hike in his quest for power? Yeah, me too. Is it hyperbolic to speak of The Donald in those terms, of course. However, in a celebrity- and media-drenched society where goldfish have been shown to have longer attention spans than most Americans, it’s a little worrying.

The other thing to think about is what China or Russia must make of this billionaire buffoon becoming a candidate for the big red button. If Trump develops into a self-funding serious contender, things may not go well.

There’s an old Polish saying — “Not my circus…not my monkeys” — meaning it’s not my problem, so I shouldn’t worry about it. To the extent that I can’t vote and wouldn’t vote GOP if I could, it’s not. To the extent that it affects my country and my family and my company, it is. This is one monkey that could really hurt the circus, and I do find that worrying.