Getting On The Wrong Side Of History

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I’m the first to admit that I simply don’t understand how part of America thinks. I think it’s insane how so much of the conversation is driven by thinking which in the vast majority of the civilized world would be thought of as simply nonsensical. The poster child for the kind of intellectual dishonesty which drives much of this thinking is of course Indiana who passed a “Defense of Religious Freedom’ bill which essentially gave anyone with “sincerely held religious beliefs” the right to refuse service to anyone they don’t like without fear of legal consequences. As you have no doubt noticed the roof caved in on the Governor with major companies and even the NCAA threatening or taking punitive action. The response by Indiana legislators has been that they will pass “clarification” language which makes it clear that the bill does not entitle people to withhold services….really? The honest thing would have been to simple repeal the legislation as a bigoted rush of blood to the head and move on.

What’s remarkable is the role which social media has played in orchestrating the backlash against this ill thought legislation. Apparently the vast majority of internet users think that it’s It’s not OK to discriminate  in the US. Companies which do so run the risk of serious financial impact…even jail in extreme cases. For the legislator to craft a bill which could encourage (but certainly protects) companies who wish to discriminate on pretty much any grounds they care to is shocking. Social media led an onslaught of bad publicity against this move. I’m sure there are many people who wish they could safely discriminate for any reason but the increasingly diverse majority of this fail country are down with that and social media empowers that discussion.

I’ve remarked before that social movements like the Arab Spring and the over throw of dictatorships in places like Myanmar and Egypt has been made possible by social media which acts as the spotlight to focus on dark deeds. Whether it’s the continued mass imprisonment of young men of color for minor drug crimes, the reckless murder of those same young men by our over armed police or the the deliberate attempt by a group of ideological driven anti gay bigots to cloak their primitive thinking in religious garb social media is making it uncomfortable or impossible to maintain an uncivilized social norm which is calculated to preserve the rights of the powerful over the powerless.

It’s a bit embarrassing for what is supposed to be an advanced country to be passing retrogressive legislation only for that legislation to be protested and essentially over thrown by the social media tools  invented in that country which is being used by people in much poorer places to over throw tin pot dictators….but if it gets the job done I’m all for it.

Amazon Takes to the North

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Amazon is testing its drone delivery service at a closely guarded, secret site in Canada, following repeated warnings that it would go outside the US to bypass what it sees as the US federal government’s avoidant approach to the new technology. Amazon acquired a plot of open land lined by oak trees and firs, where it is conducting frequent experimental flights with the full blessing of the Canadian government.

Drone technology is seen by many tech companies and aeronautics experts as the next frontier for innovation, with billions of dollars potentially in the balance. Traditionally, the US has been at the vanguard of both tech and aviation innovation, but the approach of the Federal Aviation Authority has been markedly tentative so far compared with that of regulators in Canada and Europe.

Until it opened its Canadian base, Amazon had been limited to indoor testing in its Seattle laboratory, backed up with research outposts in the UK – in Cambridge – and Israel. Requests by the company to begin outdoor testing on company land in the state of Washington have so far largely been rebuffed by the FAA.

The federal agency recently published its guidelines for commercial use of small drones. The new rules will take at least two years to come into effect, a delay which Amazon finds unacceptable. Last July, the company applied for a so-called 333 exemption that would allow it to carry out outdoor experimentation immediately. Eight months later, the FAA has not responded.

The federal body did agree last week, amid considerable fanfare, to award the company a so-called “experimental airworthiness certificate” that can be used to test a specific model of drone. But it took so long for the certificate to come through that by the time it was granted, Amazon said it was obsolete.

The contrast between the relative rigidity of the FAA’s approach to drone testing and the relatively relaxed regulatory regime in Canada is startling. Under the Canadian system, Amazon has been granted a virtual carte blanche regarding its entire fleet of drones within its designated airspace, having gone through a licensing process that took just three weeks.

By comparison, it takes the FAA many months to grant approval. The US regulator insists on an initial 23-page application, a review of 75 pages of further documentation and a four-hour presentation at FAA headquarters followed by a three-hour site visit, together with ongoing reporting and record-keeping obligations.

Early experiments in Canada have focused on a range of individual drone capabilities: sensors that can detect and avoid obstacles in a drone’s path; link-loss procedures that control the aircraft should its connection with base be broken; stability in wind and turbulence; and environmental impact. Once each of these facets has been perfected, a new Amazon prototype drone will be assembled that would be utterly safe and wholly unlike anything seen before.

Google As Your Bank

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I refuse to get sucked back into the vortex of what the hell Google will or will not be doing with Google Glass at some point in the foreseeable future…instead let’s look at something that may actually matter to most of us.

Unless you are living under a rock the chances are that you are using online banking for almost everything. I haven’t written a check in years but each month my bank dutifully mails out checks to everyone I need to pay. according to documents obtained by those enterprising folk at re/code Google is planning to launch a service called (or code named) Pony Express which will allow us to receive online bills and pay them straight out of Gmail. Receiving e-bills by email is not news but being able to have them automatically organized withing email then pay them from right inside Gmail is really interesting.

The end user will be able to organize and pay most bills simply and directly without having to jump off to a bank site or the site of the bill issuer. I’d certainly use the service.

That sounds all well and good…but let’s put our tinfoil hats on and talk about security and other concerns. We hear almost daily of data breeches and other hacks…the personal and financial data collected in this process would paint an enormous target on the Gmail….come on in guys all our financial data is over here! Gmail has s really good record in terms of data security …but it’s a concern.

Now let’s think about what all this extra data could mean for Google. It will know when you move house, when you are having a baby…when you have had a baby. It will know when you are struggling with bills and only paying minimums on credit cards. It will know where you live and what your mortgage is.It also knows all of your searching behavior and the content of all of your email. In theory this additional data will put Google in a much stronger place to target you with super effective messages.

Having gone that far what’s to stop Google from actually becoming a bank. The answer is almost nothing.  I’d be shocked to discover that Google hasn’t already started this process. Look at PayPal…it started as a way to pay online and now offers a range of financial services. The Google credit and debit cards can only be months away. What’s in your wallet?

The King is Dead

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There are a handful of high profile guys who are at or about my age. I’m exactly the same age as Colin Firth, I’m a day older than Hugh Grant, I’m a couple of months older the  Neil Gamin and a few months younger than Jeremy Clarkson. These folk are like portraits of Dorian Grey to me. I watch them age and progress and can’t help but measure myself against them…at-least in terms of grey hair and waist line.

So it was with some sorrow that I learned that one of my portraits fell off the wall the other day. Jeremy Clarkson is clearly a bit of an SOB. He’s hosted Top Gear (the BBC’s most successful show world wide) since 1998 and following a punch up he started with a show producer the other day he’s now the ex-host of the BBC’s most successful show. I love Top Gear, I love car shows in general but Top Gear goes well beyond just being a car show…it’s a institution. Clarkson was the clever, funny, snarky, mean host who took no prisoners and his audience loved him. He epitomized the angry white guy who loves cars and can’t stand or understand much of the world that surrounds him. Unfortunately he was also a bad tempered tall guy with a serious streak of entitlement and more than a smattering of casual racism. Until recently he’s been able to skate on various allegations of extreme rudeness and casual racism simply because he is beloved in 17 countries around the world and the $250M the BBC makes out of the show got him a lot of rope.

His latest escapade, in which he insulted then assaulted a producer who had the effrontery to provide a cold meal rather than the hot one we felt he needed was clearly the last straw. The BBC understandably felt that nobody (not even Clarkson) is above the law and they had to fire him. He clearly over stepped the mark and you can see the Beebs point of view…but it’s still a huge disappointment. Top Gear was one of the few places on the BBC where political correctness and beige thinking so prevalent both on the BBC and in society was mocked with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Clarkson called BS on what he saw as BS. He hated the ‘Nanny State’ mentality where everything is regulated and frowned upon. He wanted a world where middle class white guys could drive huge cars as fast as they wanted, where “ladies” knew their place and “damn foreigners” were seen but not heard. It was funny to hear him fume and rant…but when parody became punching out a producer, he was done.

Close to a million Brits signed an online petition to get him his job back and a handful of knuckleheads resorted to threats against the guy he punched out. I have no way of telling, but I’m reasonably sure the demographic of the petitioners skews towards white, middle class men who also feel put upon, disenfranchised and thoroughly annoyed by the Nanny State.

As I look at the remaining portraits in my Dorian Grey hall of fame, I don’t see quite the same anger and frustration which drove Clarkson. They seem to be more or less routinely charming, affable, witty guys who (aside from a couple of minor indiscretions)  have grown older with a level of grace. We will miss you Mr. Clarkson…..you idiot!

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

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Google is superbly good at defending its self from accusations of monopolistic or corrupt practices. A couple of years back, they underwent an FTC investigation and following a few minor negotiated concessions they were given a clean bill of health. The massive amounts of lobbying they do had nothing to do with the matter. The detailed findings were kept secret…’coz why would we the people get to see the results of an inquiry done on our behalf and paid for by us? Subsequently Google has continued to suffer monopolistic accusations fro the EU where a case is still grinding through the Central Court.

I can only imagine the language heard in the Google-Plex last week when the FTC ‘accidentally’ released the details of the Google case in response to a FOIA request about a different subject.  The results weren’t particularly surprising but it’s telling that even though in half of the cases investigated FTC commissioners had “serious concerns” but those concerns did not rise to a case worthy of prosecution. I’m no fan of the FTC but it does look like they were leaning towards some form of retribution for bad behavior and they appear to have been pressured into backing down.  It’s unlikely that the EU commissioners will be as easily convinced, but since Google has made the changes it has and given the fact that nobody ‘has’ to use search to live and breathe I doubt that they will get much more than a harsh tongue lashing from the Europeans. The recent debacle where the Spanish passed legislation to force Google to pay for the content it scrapes from Spanish news sites resulted in tons of Spanish content being kicked out of all Google results produced and triggered an immediate about face has probably weakened their hand even further.

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Android Wear going Up Market?

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Apple has thrown down the gauntlet to the luxury watch industry with their recent announcement of the gold Apple watch priced at about $17,000. Word has it that the Swiss watch giants are more than a little worried by these developments. Google has just announced a partnership with Tag Heuer and Intel to make an Android Wear  premium watch…so things just got real in premium watch land.

To date wearable watches have been all over the map in terms of pricing and design. Most are stuck in the “Get Smart” world of clunky geekery, I have yet to see one I really like…and as an Apple phone user I couldn’t use them anyway. Interestingly fitness trackers have completely out sold smart watches, they are typically priced afford-ably and do something which their users actually value. Most people already carry a smart watch in their pocket…it’s called a phone. I like the form and function of my Tissot watch. It’s robust, doesn’t need charging and if I destroyed it or lost it I wouldn’t be devastated. It does one thing really well. I don’t leave home without it…but I easily could. I probably check the time on my phone more often than I do my watch by a factor of three to one.

The announcement with Tag Heuer is interesting especially because the top guys at Tag explicitly said they would not be going the “Get Smart” route. Out the box the smart money will be on their watch being much more expensive than most Android Wear devices. I’m OK with that. Having Tag use their watch expertise to make an attractive robust watch which does something which users care about is a really good idea. Most people won’t be able to afford it but having them pull it off (assuming they can) may set a new direction where wearable meets functional meets style…and I’m all for that.

Glass as Fight Club

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The tech portion of SXSW ground to a hipster halt yesterday with the boss of the Google X division sharing insights and updates. As you may recall I’m not a huge fan of Google Glass…I like wearable tech but I always thought the way Google positioned Glass as an elitist ‘too cool for you’ gimmick was flawed.  Back in the day Google reveled in product demand, celebrating the desire from the Brooklyn Bearded ones to decorate their faces with the ultimate symbol of in-crowd cool. The mere fact that the battery life was awful, the functionality clunky and the obvious invasion of privacy concerns were ignored was neither here nor there. In yesterday’s session Astro Teller (yes that’s really his name) pinned most of the blame for Glasses failure on the way Google over hyped the project.  In effect they misled their audience to think that it was a cool finished piece of cutting edge tech as opposed to a cool looking but clunky second screen for an Android phone. In short they talked it up…then talked it to death.

Google loves long betas. as I recall their main search was in “beta” for five years.  That’s fine with a free to use web product, but in high priced consumer electronics getting the 1.0 of something is problematic…getting the beta is a recipe for disaster.  If it was never really a stable product hyping it hurt them and the entire wearable market. They turned wearable tech a into a punchline for late night talk show monologues. Next time (and I’m sure there will be one) I imagine they will take a much lower profile marketing approach….the first rule of the new Google Glass will be….Don’t talk about Google Glass.  The second rule…DON’T TALK ABOUT GOOGLE GLASS.

Alas Sir Terry…a Fellow of Infinite Jest

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I was heartbroken to learn last week that we had lost one of our most beloved authors to the cruel waste of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Sir Terry Pratchett was just 66 when he shuffled of the old mortal coil last week…it feels like a loss in my family. If you haven’t come across him (where have you been!) he was one of the most prolific British authors of the past few decades. He started writing his brilliant Discworld series in the early 80’s as a satire of the then burgeoning genre of fantasy fiction mostly for his own amusement. At the time he was a mediocre journalist turned PR hack writing press releases for the British Nuclear Fuels industry. Much to his surprise the Discworld saga took off. He was wildly popular, selling over 85 million books in 37 languages….and I came to think of him as a close family friend.

The Discworld is a fantasy land where a flat earth is balanced on the backs of four giant elephants which stand on the back of the great star turtle as it swims through the eternity of space. The disc is a thinly veiled metaphor for our society. It’s a world where magic works (albeit unpredictably) and in the city of Ankh-Morpork (which is roughly the London of Dickens and today smashed together) pretty much anything can and does happen. I’ve read everything he ever wrote, I’m a huge audio book fan and many of his books I have listened to hundreds if not thousands of times. Every night I go to sleep with his marvelous stories narrated by the equally marvelous Stephen Briggs playing in my ear.

If you haven’t come across him he’s tricky to describe. His writing is sharp without being spiteful, insightful but not preechy and always, always funny. His writing is (Lord I guess that’s a ‘was’ now) beautifully observed. He follows in the tradition of Mencken and Wodehouse using dry wit to poke fun at all aspects of our society. His range was tremendous, Hollywood, ancient Egypt, soccer violence, Jingoism, opera, war, death, newspapers, steam trains, politics, diplomacy and economics all fell prey to his relentlessly acerbic humor.

As he matured (he would say only wines mature..men just get old) his writing improved, got richer and more complex. Thud and Snuff are arguably two of the best funny books written this generation. Back in 2007 he announced that he had contracted early onset Alzheimer’s (an Embuggerance as he called it) and yet he continued to write…albeit with coauthors. His last Discworld book (co-written with his wife) showed signs of the disease…it lacked the pith and wisdom of his best books.

As the disease ate into him he became a high profile activist for assisted suicide pushing for legal reform in the UK. At the end we were told he died from natural causes. My lovely wife (who is a nurse very familiar with his disease) suggests that it’s unlikely that someone would die so quickly from a disease which attacks the brain but leaves other critical systems intact. I hope he had the where with all and family support to get hold of the barbiturate overdose he needed to meet death on his own terms.

We are left with a disc shaped hole in out hearts. Life will not be as funny and we will have to move on without the incomparable Sir Terry.

FCC Spells Out Net Neutrality… in 400 Pages

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The Federal Communications Commission spelled out how it will preserve the open Internet, releasing a 400-page detailed PDF that reviews its new, stricter regulations for broadband services found here.

The agency’s commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the order last month but did not release the order itself. Instead, Chairman Tom Wheeler and the agency served up select details through a fact sheet, press conferences and an appearance earlier this month at the Mobile World Conference trade show in Barcelona.

It marked the first chance for the public to get a full look at the order, which reclassifies broadband as a so-called Title II telecommunications service under the 1934 Communications Act. That reclassification allows the FCC to regulate providers using rules originally established for the old telephone network. This legal definition establishes broadband as a “common carrier,” a centuries-old concept that means carriers’ networks must be open to everyone. It also gives the FCC unprecedented authority over the industry.

Despite its length, the order is a must read for anyone interested in the issue, known among regulators and the industry as Net neutrality.

While consumer advocates and online businesses such as video-streaming service Netflix cheered the FCC’s stricter regulations, broadband providers such as Verizon and Comcast will likely sue the FCC to block the order. Their concern is that the Title II reclassification gives the FCC authority to set rates and impose tariffs that could translate into higher fees to consumers, stifle innovation and discourage companies from building new broadband networks and improving existing ones.

The FCC’s order is culmination of a roughly yearlong debate, complete with increasingly heated rhetoric. The Net neutrality issue went mainstream in June after comedian John Oliver delivered a 13-minute rant that went viral, resulting in a flood of comments to the FCC that temporarily crippled its public-comment system.

While the full document runs to 400 pages, the actual text of the new rules is only 305 words long. The rules prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic on both wired and wireless networks. They also ban Internet service providers from offering paid priority services that could allow them to charge content companies, such as Netflix, fees to access Internet “fast lanes” to reach customers more quickly when networks are congested.

Reclassifying broadband as a utility gives the FCC its best shot at withstanding legal challenges. The courts have twice tossed out earlier rules aimed at protecting Internet openness. The FCC chairman has said repeatedly the agency does not intend to set rates or add new taxes to broadband bills. More than 100 pages of the 400-page document released Thursday explain that forbearance.

Becoming a Solar Power in India

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India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, made headlines last year by announcing his ambition to install 100 gigawatts of solar power capacity (over 30 times more than India has now) by 2022. Skeptics noted the lack of a detailed plan and budget, but some well-capitalized industrial players have apparently caught the Prime Minister’s solar fever: at a renewable energy summit called by Modi last month he collected pledges for 166 gigawatts of solar projects.

At the New Delhi summit, energy renewable giants such as First Solar and SunEdison mixed for the first time with chief ministers from Indian states and top executives of Indian industrial conglomerates such as Adani Enterprises and the National Thermal Power Corporation, India’s largest power generator.

Tobias Engelmeier, founder of Bridge to India, a solar-market consultancy, says Modi’s ambition has “changed the conversation” about India’s solar potential. But what happens next, will depend only in part on what renewable energy strategy Modi can devise from within the central government. The ultimate driver could be India’s unmet demand for electricity. A quarter of India’s population is not connected to the power grid, and electricity supply is chronically short for those who are.

Modi has said that India had to “make a quantum leap in energy production,” and he said solar could deliver with its rapid construction rates and crashing prices—from 20 rupees (32 cents) per kilowatt-hour to less than seven rupees over the last three years.

In some Indian states, renewable energy can compete with fossil fuels even without the benefit of any subsidies, at least for commercial and industrial consumers, who pay the highest rates in India. Industrial firms normally pay 10 rupees or more per kilowatt-hour for grid power, but solar developers there are selling their power at a profit for eight rupees per kilowatt-hour.

Engelmeier’s firm reported in November 2014 that even rooftop installations, which cost more to install, now match or beat the grid rates for commercial and industrial consumers in one out of four Indian states, with rates of about eight rupees per kilowatt-hour. Between 2012 and 2014, solar capacity increased from 461 megawatts to over three gigawatts in India, and Engelmeier projects that developers will add up to two more gigawatts this year. An increasing number of states, including Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh, are leasing public lands for solar parks. This eliminates the need for solar developers to work through India’s complex land registries to support their own solar farm.