Category Archives: Technology

Commuter Rail Coming to Southeast Wisconsin?

Here’s an interesting idea.

A New York capital raising firm is helping a Wisconsin company attempt to raise more than $1.4 billion to support a private commuter rail project in metro Milwaukee along with related real estate development.

The project by Transit Innovations LLC would use existing freight lines to create the commuter system, called E-Way. The company says it would build 21 new stations and use two existing ones along 55 miles of track across Milwaukee and Waukesha counties.

[…]

Most of the capital, around 70 percent, would actually be used for real estate developments near the stations. Transit Innovations says developments would include market-rate housing, multifamily, retail, office, training facilities, mixed-use and manufacturing. The group estimates 7,000 units of new multi-family housing would be constructed.

Transit Innovations, which was created in 2017 and is registered to a Brookfield address, is working with New York based Castle Placement LLC to raise the funds. An investor presentation estimates $571 million will come from real estate investors, $300 million from rail investors, $35 million from partners and local private equity and $550 million from a construction loan.

I don’t know if it’s viable, but at least if it fails, it’s not my tax dollars being thrown down the tracks.

Digital Hallucinations

While it seems that the era of autonomous vehicles is very close, and it might be, we still have a lot of work to do on the technology. And then we have a lot more work to do on our culture, legal systems, etc. to adapt to it.

The passenger registers the stop sign and feels a sudden surge of panic as the car he’s sitting in speeds up. He opens his mouth to shout to the driver in the front, remembering – as he spots the train tearing towards them on the tracks ahead – that there is none. The train hits at 125mph, crushing the autonomous vehicle and instantly killing its occupant.

This scenario is fictitious, but it highlights a very real flaw in current artificial intelligence frameworks. Over the past few years, there have been mounting examples of machines that can be made to see or hear things that aren’t there. By introducing ‘noise’ that scrambles their recognition systems, these machines can be made to hallucinate. In a worst-case scenario, they could ‘hallucinate’ a scenario as dangerous as the one above, despite the stop sign being clearly visible to human eyes, the machine fails to recognise it.

Those working in AI describe such glitches as ‘adversarial examples’ or sometimes, more simply, as ‘weird events’.

Government Overestimates the Efficiency of Wind Energy

Via the Center of the American Experiment. Hat tip Powerlineblog

An industrial wind facility in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin has been decommissioned after just 20 years of service because the turbines are no longer cost effective to maintain and operate. The decommissioning of the 14 turbines took many people by surprise, even local government officials and the farmer who had five of the turbines on his property.

Why Are We So Surprised?

What’s really surprising about these wind turbines being decommissioned after 20 years is the is the fact that people were surprised by it. You’d be astonished at how many people I talk to that have no idea that wind turbines only last for 20 years, maybe 25. In fact, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says the useful life of a wind turbine is only 20 years.

[…]

In contrast to wind, coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants can run for a very long time. Coal and natural gas plants can easily run for 50 years, and nuclear plants can be updated and retrofitted to run for 60 years. This has profound implications for the cost of electricity on a per megawatt hour basis that seemingly no one is talking about.

When the federal government puts out their cost projections for energy, the numbers they produce are called the Levelized Cost of Energy, or LCOE. These numbers are supposed to act as a measuring stick that allows policymakers to determine which energy sources will best serve their needs, but these numbers are wrong because they assume all power plants, whether they are wind, coal, natural gas, or nuclear will have a 30-year payback period.

This does two things, it artificially reduces the cost of wind power by allowing them to spread their costs over 30 years, when 20 would be much more appropriate, and it artificially inflates the cost of coal, natural gas, and nuclear by not calculating the cost over the entirety of their reasonable lifetimes.

On Mars Again

Amazing accomplishment.

The US space agency Nasa has landed a new robot on Mars after a dramatic seven-minute plunge to the surface of the Red Planet.

The InSight probe aims to study the world’s deep interior, and make it the only planet – apart from Earth – that has been examined in this way.

Confirmation of touchdown came through on cue at 19:53 GMT.

It ended an anxious wait in which the robot radioed home a series of updates on its descent.

Nasa’s mission control at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) erupted into cheers when it became clear InSight was safe on the ground.

The agency’s chief administrator, James Bridenstine, celebrated what he called “an amazing day”. President Trump had rung to offer his congratulations, he told reporters. And the director of JPL, Mike Watkins, said the success should remind everyone that “to do science we have to be bold and we have to be explorers.”

Japan’s Minister for Cybersecurity has Never Used a Computer

He has people for that

Japan’s new minister in charge of cybersecurity made a startling admission on Wednesday: he doesn’t actually use computers.

Since I was 25, I have been in a position of authority where secretaries and employees handle such tasks for me,” Yoshitaka Sakurada, 68, told a Lower House cabinet committee meeting, per The Japan Times.

I give instructions to my aide and so I don’t punch into a computer myself,” he added, per The Associated Press. “But I am confident our work is flawless.”

To be fair, that is the best way to be secure with computers.

Coming Robot Apocalypse

Well, duh. I saw Terminator.

Robots could become radicalised if they are badly coded, an expert has warned.

Professor of electrical and computer engineering Subhash Kak from Oklahoma University believes robots could become mass murderers if they are not wired correctly.

Although the danger does not exist with the current technology, Dr Kak believes future technical malfunctions could put thousands of peoples’ lives at risk.

Earlier this year he issued another chilling warning saying that the machine takeover will lead mankind into a ‘hellish dystopia’.

Communists Likely Attacked American Diplomats with Microwaves

These are intentional, repeated attacks. They have to be stopped.

(CNN)They’ve been described as “sonic attacks” — bizarre, unexplained head injuries that spurred the United States to bring home diplomatic staff from China and Cuba. Now scientists are saying the ailments could have been caused by microwave weapons.

Though a March report based on the examinations of 21 diplomats who served in Cuba didn’t link the attacks to microwaves, the study’s lead author, Douglas Smith, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, told The New York Times that the diplomats likely suffered brain injuries and that microwaves are considered the culprit.
“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he told the newspaper, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.”
In a Sunday interview with CNN, Smith said microwaves are “a main suspect” in causing the diplomats’ injuries, but ultrasound and infrasound were being studied as potential causes as well.
[…]
In a statement, the US State Department on Sunday neither confirmed nor denied the possibility that microwaves were behind the diplomatic injuries.
“The health and well-being of our personnel remains our top priority,” the statement said. “The investigation into the origin of these symptoms continues. The inter-agency community is working diligently to determine the cause of the symptoms, as well as to develop mitigation strategies.”

Strange Russian Satellite

Hmmm

But now the U.S. is voicing concerns and claiming that threat is very real — pointing in particular to a Russian satellite’s “very abnormal behavior.”

The satellite, launched in October 2017, has displayed behavior “inconsistent with anything seen before from” the kind of satellite Russia has said it is, according to Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Yleem D.S. Poblete.

Instead, without saying it outright, Poblete implied that the object could be a weapon, but said the U.S. cannot know for sure.

“We don’t know for certain what it is, and there is no way to verify it,” Poblete said yesterday in Geneva, Switzerland, at the Conference on Disarmament. Poblete was speaking before the international body for negotiating arms control to express the U.S.’s “serious concerns” about Russia’s push to launch weapons in space, especially anti-satellite weapons that can target satellites that the U.S. relies on for business, scientific and military purposes.

Yes, Google Tracks You

We see these stories over and over again. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Google, Apple, etc. gather data on you – including location – whenever they please. The issue comes in when they lie to their consumers about it. That’s consumer fraud and should be prosecuted.

Google records your movements even when you explicitly ask it not to.

Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even after you have enabled privacy settings purportedly designed to stop data-gathering.

Researchers created a visual map of the movements of Princeton postdoctoral researcher Gunes Acar based on the location history stored in his Google account.

Dr Acar carried an Android phone with the ‘Location History’ setting switched off during his travels.

95% of Plastic Pollution Comes From 10 Rivers – Not One in the U.S.

So… by all means… let’s ban straws.

Up to 95 per cent of plastic polluting the world’s oceans pours in from just ten rivers, according to new research.

The top 10 rivers – eight of which are in Asia – accounted for so much plastic because of the mismanagement of waste.

About five trillion pounds is floating in the sea, and targeting the major sources – such as the Yangtze and the Ganges – could almost halve it, scientists claim.

[…]

While China is responsible for 2.4 million tons of plastic that makes its way into the ocean, nearly 28 percent of the world total, the United States contributes just 77,000 tons, which is less than one percent, according to the study published in the journal Science.

Judge Orders Stop to Online Plans for 3D Guns

This is a fascinating issue, but I hope we can all agree that it is something that should be decided by our elected officials through legislation and not by some State Department bureaucrat or lone judge in Seattle.

A federal judge on Tuesday stopped the release of blueprints to make untraceable and undetectable 3D-printed plastic guns as President Donald Trump questioned whether his administration should have agreed to allow the plans to be posted online.

The company behind the plans, Austin, Texas-based Defense Distributed, had reached a settlement with the federal government in June allowing it to make the plans for the guns available for download on Wednesday.

The restraining order from U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle puts that plan on hold for now. “There is a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made,” he said.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson called the ruling “a complete, total victory.”

On the issue itself, in a free society, everything should be legal for citizens to do until the government has a justifiable reason to prohibit it – assuming that any such prohibition doesn’t violate the citizens’ civil rights. In this case, homemade weapons have been around since time immemorial. And in a nation of 300 million or so legal guns, I can’t imagine that a few hobbyist guns made with a 3D printer will have any measurable impact on anything. Leave it alone.

Down to One Blockbuster

As a former employee of Blockbuster, this makes me sad. Blockbuster is the perfect example of the technological disruption of an industry and a company that was too slow to adapt. There was a small window of opportunity where Blockbuster could have leveraged its brand to dominate the fledgling streaming media business, but they were too fat, happy, and slow to do it. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. This disruption continues unabated. I’ve seen projections that as much as half of the Fortune 500 won’t be on the list in 10 years. I believe it.

This week, there are three stores remaining, but by next week there will only be one store open for business — in Bend, Oregon.
Alaska’s last two Blockbuster stores — one in Anchorage and another in Fairbanks — announced they would officially close on Sunday.
Sandi Harding, the Bend store’s general manager, told CNN she was surprised her store was the last one open.
“It’s pretty exciting that we are the last holdout,” she said.

A bit of nostalgia

Bend’s Blockbuster looks just like stores from years ago — yellow on the inside and employees sporting blue shirts. They even have floppy disks and old computer systems, Harding told CNN.
After Sunday, this video store in Bend, Oregon, will be the last remaining Blockbuster in the US.

“It’s very nostalgic,” she said. “We have a bunch of 19-year-olds working here — it’s fun explaining to them what a floppy disk is.”

Madison Pulls Plug on Internet Scheme

Heh.

A pilot program meant to bring internet access to four low-income Madison neighborhoods has ended after a second call for proposals to manage it went unanswered. The city severed ties with the local company originally implementing the project earlier this year.

Madison-based ResTech Services had been working to build a fiber-optic broadband network in Darbo-Worthington, Brentwood, Allied Drive and Kennedy Heights neighborhoods through the program, called Connecting Madison. The city and ResTech signed a $512,000 contract in March 2016.

However, the implementation process was slow and ultimately ended with the city sending a “cease and desist” letter to ResTech. The city is still working to resolve the matter, Assistant City Attorney Roger Allen said this week.

The city issued a second request for proposals April 12 to find a company that would operate the infrastructure in place as a continuous program but did not receive any responses by the May 25 deadline.

So the city spent half-a-million tax dollars to give 19 people cheap internet even though there are several private market options for those folks. And what did the city leaders learn from this debacle? They didn’t spend enough:

Edgerton said the outcome of Connecting Madison illustrated that the program needed more vetting of the vendor, dedicated staff to work with the vendor and funds to market the program.

 Yes, if only they had spent more to have dedicated city staff working with the vendor and a marketing program, it would have worked.
Stories like this are why people like me roll their eyes when governments whine about not having enough money.

Oshkosh Working on Autonomous Vehicles

This is the perfect application for this technology.

OSHKOSH (WLUK) — Oshkosh Defense will be adding self-driving technology to some vehicles as part of a $49 million contract with the U.S. Army.

The company says the vehicles will allow soldiers to be removed from the vehicles in highly contested areas. Under the contract, Oshkosh will initially convert 70 palletized load system (PLS) vehicles, with an option for as many as 150 vehicles total.

“The PLS has been an integral part of the U.S. Army’s resupply and distribution fleet for over 25 years,” Pat Williams, Vice President and General Manager of Army and Marine Corps programs for Oshkosh Defense, said in a news release. “By equipping these vehicles with autonomous capabilities, we can significantly reduce our soldiers’ exposure to enemy threats by taking them out of the vehicle altogether.”

Wisconsin politicians should reject tax increase on internet purchases

As you could have read yesterday in the Washington County Daily News, here is my column urging Wisconsin’s Republicans to reject a tax increase.

Thanks to a 1992 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that said that states could only collect a sales tax on businesses with a substantial presence in their state, consumers have been largely exempt from paying sales taxes for purchases made online. Those days may be coming to an end.

Last week the Supreme Court overturned its 1992 ruling. The new legal landscape means that states can now levy a sales tax on internet sales, but they are not required to do so. States like Illinois and California, with their self-inflicted derelict financial situations, are salivating over the opportunity to capture more tax revenue. What should Wisconsin do?

A report last year from the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that the imposition of Wisconsin’s sales tax on online purchases would result in between $123 million and $187 million in annual tax revenue for Wisconsin. The important thing to remember is that this projected tax revenue is not “found” money. It is additional money that would be extracted from the pockets of Wisconsinites by state government. It is not a tax on the online businesses who sell to Wisconsinites. It is a tax increase on Wisconsinites.

That is not to say that imposing a tax increase is necessarily a negative thing. There are some compelling reasons for states to impose a sales tax on internet purchases. The primary reason is for the cause of tax fairness. Wisconsinites pay the sales tax at brick-and-mortar stores without question or debate. The fact that those same Wisconsinites can buy products online without paying the sales tax gives online retailers a material advantage over the brick-and mortar stores. In the name of fairness, government should treat businesses equally regardless of their mode of delivering products.

The problem with that argument is that the unequal treatment of businesses is a consequence of a policy decision. The sales tax is not imposed on the businesses. The businesses are merely tasked as an agent of government to collect the tax. The consumers are paying the tax. The implementation of the sales tax whereby consumers must pay it at a physical retailer but are exempt from paying it at an online retailer is fair. Every consumer — the people actually paying the tax — is being treated equally in this regard.

It must also be acknowledged that the different sales tax treatment of brickand- mortar purchases and online purchases is an extremely small driver of the societal trend toward online purchases. The infinite selection, ease of browsing, competitive prices, easy shipping and the ability for consumers to sit on their couches in their skivvies while they shop are far more powerful disruptive forces than the sales tax. Furthermore, even as online purchases have soared in the past two decades, they still only represent about 10 percent of all retail purchases in America.

Given that the ruling by the court is still fresh, Wisconsin’s political leaders are still pondering the consequences and possibility of imposing the tax increase. Some of them are lusting after the money with an eye to spend it on their priorities. Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican leaders are floating the idea of imposing a new sales tax on internet purchases, but using it to offset state income taxes in accordance with a law that Republicans passed in 2013.

Such a use of new sales tax revenue would be laudable. By using sales tax revenue to offset income taxes, it would keep Wisconsin’s total tax burden static, but shift some of that burden to the broader population of retail consumers and off of the shoulders of income earners.

History tells us, however, that raising one tax to offset another never works over the long term. While Walker and legislative Republicans may set up such a tax offset initially, over time there will be different politicians with different priorities. Inevitably, some future politicians will begin to carve out a percentage of online sales tax revenue for some spending “priority” or “crisis.” Then that percentage will increase over time until the notion of a tax offset is all but forgotten except by crotchety curmudgeons who write columns.

Wisconsin’s Republican leaders should resist the temptation to tax online purchases and make sure the whole nation knows that Wisconsin is the place to live if you want to continue to make tax-free online purchases. The best tax is the one that is never imposed.

Google’s Diversity

Frankly, I’d be more interested if they focused more on their ideological and religious diversity instead of assuming that race is the only difference between people.

A new report from Google has revealed that little has changed despite a commitment to increasing diversity among staff employed by the tech giant.

Overall nearly 70% of Google staff were men, as has been the case since 2014.

In the US almost 90% were white or Asian, 2.5% were black and 3.6% Latin American.

The figures also showed that black and Latin American employees had the highest attrition rate in 2017 – those choosing to leave.

“….despite significant effort, and some pockets of success, we need to do more to achieve our desired diversity and inclusion outcomes,” wrote Danielle Brown, diversity vice-president, in the report.

Apple to Lock Down iPhones

I’m good with this. It is not Apple’s obligation to make it easier for government to break into people’s stuff.

Apple says it is to change the default settings of its iPhone to stop hackers and others unlocking devices without proper legal authorisation.

The move will also make it more difficult for police to unlock handsets without authorisation.

However, Apple denied the changes were designed to thwart US law enforcement.

The company has been a prominent opponent of US legislation to force technology companies to maintain access to users’ communications.

The loophole also applies to countries outside the US, including the UK.

Police forces say that being able to unlock iPhones and iPads is crucial to their work.

Underwater Data Centers

Fun.

Microsoft has sunk a data centre in the sea off Orkney to investigate whether it can boost energy efficiency.

The data centre, a white cylinder containing computers, could sit on the sea floor for up to five years.

An undersea cable brings the data centre power and takes its data to the shore and the wider internet – but if the computers onboard break, they cannot be repaired.

Orkney was chosen because it is a major centre for renewable energy research.

The theory is that the cost of cooling the computers will be cut by placing them underwater.

“We think we actually get much better cooling underwater than on land,” says Ben Cutler, who is in charge of what Microsoft has dubbed Project Natick.

“Additionally because there are no people, we can take all the oxygen and most of the water vapour out of the atmosphere which reduces corrosion, which is a significant problem in data centres.”

It will not be possible to repair the computers if they fail, but the hope is that there will be a lower failure rate than on land.

This is a tiny data centre compared with the giant sheds that now store so much of the world’s information, just 12 racks of servers but with enough room to store five million movies.

Microsoft’s first experimental underwater data centre, sunk for five months in 2015, was dubbed Leona Philpot after a character in an XBox game.

If Project Natick proves a success, Microsoft envisages sinking groups of five of these cylinders and being able to deploy a data centre offshore in 90 days, whereas it could take years on land.

AI Voice Mimicking Reaching Maturity

We may not need Morgan Freeman’s voiceovers after all.

The Google of China, Baidu, has just released a white paper showing its latest development in artificial intelligence (AI): a program that can clone voices after analyzing even a seconds-long clip, using a neural network. Not only can the software mimic an input voice, but it can also change it to reflect another gender or even a different accent.

You can listen to some of the generated examples here, hosted on GitHub.

Previous iterations of this technology have allowed voice cloning after systems analyzed longer voice samples. In 2017, the Baidu Deep Voice research team introduced technology that could clone voices with 30 minutes of training material. Adobe has a program called VoCo which could mimic a voice with only 20 minutes of audio. One Canadian startup, called Lyrebird, can clone a voice with only one minute of audio. Baidu’s innovation has further cut that time into mere seconds.

While at first this may seem like an upgrade to tech that became popular in the 90s, with the help of “Home Alone 2” and the “Scream” franchise, there are actually some noble applications for this technology. For example: imagine your child being read to in your voice when you’re far away, or having a duplicate voice created for a person who has lost the ability to talk. This tech could also be used to create personalized digital assistants and more natural-sounding speech translation services.

However, as with many technologies, voice cloning also comes with the risk of being abused. New Scientist reports that the program was able to produce one voice that fooled voice recognition software with greater than 95 percent accuracy in tests. Humans even rated the cloned voice a score of 3.16 out of 4. This could open up the possibility of AI-assisted fraud.

Windowless Planes on the Way

Eh… I get the goal and I’m sure the imagery is fine, but I wonder if people will miss the natural light and experience of seeing the view “for real.” Then again, if they can enhance the images with infrared, zoom, and other features, it could end up being really cool.

Emirates Airline has unveiled a new First Class Suite on board its latest aircraft that features virtual windows.

Instead of being able to see directly outside, passengers view images projected in from outside the aircraft using fibre-optic cameras.

The airline says it paves the way for removing all windows from future planes, making them lighter and faster.

Airline president Sir Tim Clark said: “The quality of the imagery is so good, it’s better than with the natural eye.”

The virtual windows can be seen in the first class cabin of Emirates’ newest Boeing 777-300ER aircraft.

Sir Tim told the BBC that the ultimate aim was to have planes with no windows at all.