Category Archives: Technology

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.

We’re Listening

Aaaaand, THIS is why I won’t have one.

SAN FRANCISCO – A Portland family’s private conversations were recorded by their Amazon Echo smart speaker and emailed to a random phone contact of the father, they told a local TV station.

Amazon explained that an unforseen combination of random words in a conversation the family didn’t realize was being overheard by Alexa trigged an action no one expected, least of all Amazon, which is now working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The Oregon family contacted Amazon to investigate after a private conversation in their home was recorded by their Amazon Echo — the voice-controlled smart speaker — and the recorded audio was sent to the phone of someone in Seattle who was in the father’s contact list.

“My husband and I would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” Danielle, who did not want us to use her last name, told KIRO TV in Seattle.

The Security Debate

Mark me down in favor of better security – even at the expense of hampering law enforcement efforts. I would rather sacrifice one possible tool of some criminal investigations instead of leaving security holes one everyone’s devices for anyone to exploit.

The encryption that secures your phone doesn’t come with a backup key. That may make you nervous if you’re prone to forgetting your passcodes — but it makes many law-enforcement and national-security types even more anxious when they contemplate permanently losing access to valuable evidence.

They use the phrase “going dark” to describe the spread of hardware and software that can only be unlocked by their owners — even if a court orders the companies behind those products to allow police access.

Privacy advocates, however, see “strong crypto” — without any extra keys or back doors — as vital when both commercial and government attackers may want into your devices and the immense stores of data on them.

Meanwhile, companies like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG, GOOGL) increasingly treat strong encryption as a standard feature. As this debate escalates — and as many observers think the Trump administration may try to move a bill mandating what’s sometimes called “exceptional access” — they continue to ship encrypted devices and apps that can’t be whisked out of existence by any such bill.

Russia Launches Counterattack

From their keyboards.

(Reuters) – The United States and Britain on Monday accused Russia of launching cyber attacks on computer routers, firewalls and other networking equipment used by government agencies, businesses and critical infrastructure operators around the globe.

Washington and London issued a joint alert saying the campaign by Russian government-backed hackers was intended to advance spying, intellectual property theft and other “malicious” activities and could be escalated to launch offensive attacks.

It followed a series of warnings by Western governments that Moscow is behind a string of cyber attacks. The United States, Britain and other nations in February accused Russia of releasing the “NotPetya” virus, which in 2017 crippled parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure and damaged computers across the globe, costing companies billions of dollars.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Russia’s embassy in London issued a statement citing British accusations of cyber threats from Moscow as “striking examples of a reckless, provocative and unfounded policy against Russia.”

The Post-Privacy Era

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

There is a lesson that I have preached to my children for years when it comes to using free services on the internet — if you are not paying for it, you are the product being sold. The recent revelations regarding Facebook confirm that lesson, but also highlight just how much of an illusion privacy has become in modern society.

The most recent privacy breach by Facebook garnered so much media attention because there is a connection to President Donald Trump, but it is hardly a new revelation. Facebook collects data about the people who use it and sells that information to anyone who can afford it. Facebook’s entire business model is predicated on collecting, shaping and selling its users’ information. Facebook’s customers are not the people who use it to share pictures of their meals and pets. Facebook’s customers are the people who buy information about Facebook users.

Facebook is hardly the only company that operates this way. They have merely become one of the largest and most popular because they created an application that people enjoy using. There are plenty of other companies with similar business models. Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google, Spotify, Pandora, Tinder and on and on. Even many websites for which you pay will sell any information they collect about you to anyone with a credit card. And since many people access their favorite sites on their mobile devices, location and other information can also be collected.

Then there are the data brokers who amalgamate information from many sources to create incredibly detailed and accurate profiles of people. They collect information about your buying habits, internet search activity, medical information, income, address, what guns you own, what movies you like, who your friends are and much more. These companies know more about people than their families or neighbors.

All of this collecting, buying and selling of information is legal. Then there is the illegal activity. All of this information is stored somewhere and people want it. Every week there is another story about some company being hacked and people’s information being stolen. Any information you keep on a computer will eventually be stolen. It is a matter of when, not if.

Worried yet? There is more. The next wave in breaking down privacy barriers is already here. The popularity of voice-driven technology like Siri, Alexa, Google Home and others has opened the door to a new way for businesses or hackers to collect information about you. Each of these devices is constantly listening to everything you say as it waits for you to say the key words to activate it. When a person uses these devices, their words are recorded and sent into the gigantic data processing hubs where they can be stored and used for anything.

Now people are sending their DNA to businesses through the mail to get a report back on what their ethnic heritage is or what diseases and disorders they are genetically predisposed to. These companies are creating massive databases of DNA that can be sold and used for everything from marketing products to redirecting government programs to something nefarious.

The fascinating aspect of the collapse of privacy is that it is almost entirely voluntary. People are willingly sharing incredibly personal information about themselves all over the internet. In an odd quirk of human nature, people who are unwilling to share details about themselves to their friends at church are more than willing to share their most intimate details on a digital platform that the entire world can access.

Why?

There are some legitimate and positive reasons for people to share personal information online. Having detailed information about people allows some companies to deliver a more personalized service. By knowing more about their customers, retailers, airlines, banks and many other companies can customize their offerings to the individual consumer. Consumers love it.

All of that information is also being used for more general societal benefits. For example, Google has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control to track flu outbreaks in real time based on spikes in the use of certain search terms. This allows the CDC to better allocate resources to where and when they are needed most.

People also enjoy the convenience of technology. Of course it is easy enough for you to use a remote to turn off the television, get up and adjust the thermostat, close the garage door, set an alarm, and turn on the radio. But it is even easier to just say, “hey Siri” and let it do the rest. The price of that convenience is that Apple, which provides Siri, now knows what channel you were on when you turned the television off, what temperature you like at that time of day, what kind of garage door opener you have, when you plan to get up and what music you like. What will Apple do with that information? That is none of your business. It is theirs.

Of course, there is a darker reason for people being willing to abandon any notion of privacy. The vile parts of human nature like vanity, greed and pride drive people to want to share things that were considered private 30 years ago. For every picture of a silly cat on one site, there is a picture of some guy’s private parts somewhere else.

Our culture has certainly crossed into a post-privacy era. It was a threshold we sprinted across willingly and without hesitation. There are many benefits, but also great risks. It will take a while for our laws and expectations to catch up.

Government Acknowledges Presence of Spy Technology in Washington

Yikes.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it has observed “anomalous activity” consistent with the use of so-called stingrays.

They could be used by foreign spies or criminals, although the DHS said it did not know who was using them.

It added that such devices pose a “growing risk”.

Stingrays, a brand name for a type of International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher (IMSI), are mobile phone surveillance devices that mimic mobile phone towers.

The size of a briefcase, the devices send out signals to trick mobile phones into transmitting their location and identifying information.

As well as tracking the mobile phone of a suspect, the devices also gather information about phones of bystanders who are nearby.

It is believed to be the first time the US government has acknowledged the use of rogue spying devices in Washington.

Zuckerberg Chickens Out

Transparency and accountability, indeed.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he will not appear before MPs investigating fake news, but will send one of his senior executives instead.

The tech giant and data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica are at the centre of a dispute over harvesting personal data and whether it was used in Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign.

Mr Zuckerberg has apologised for a “breach of trust”.

His stand-in will give evidence to MPs after the Easter Parliamentary break.

Chairman of the Department for Culture Media and Sport select committee Damian Collins said Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, who reports directly to Mr Zuckerberg, would give evidence in the first week after the Easter break but he still hoped Mr Zuckerberg would do so too.

Facebook Sells User Data

There’s something I’ve taught my kids for years… if you aren’t paying for it, you ARE the product. How did people think Facebook made money?

Facebook is facing a crescendo of questions about how its user data came to be harvested for political purposes as investors continue to take fright at the risk the scandal poses to its business.

Claims by the New York Times and UK media that Cambridge Analytica tried to influence how Americans voted using information improperly gleaned from 50 million Facebook users have already seriously hurt its brand.

The London-based data analysis firm worked on President Donald Trump’s campaign. It has denied the claims and says it did not use Facebook data in the 2016 campaign.

NASA Might Privatize ISS

This might be an interesting plan.

Washington (CNN)Rather than ditch the International Space Station when its funding through 2024 ends, the Trump administration is looking to turn it over to the private sector, the Washington Post reports.

The Post reported Sunday that an internal NASA document it obtained says, “It is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform.”
It continues, “NASA will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit.”

Falcon Heavy Lifts Off

This is a pretty amazing development in the era of space exploration and commerce.

US entrepreneur Elon Musk has launched his new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mammoth vehicle – the most powerful since the shuttle system – lifted clear of its pad without incident to soar high over the Atlantic Ocean.

It was billed as a risky test flight in advance of the lift-off.

The SpaceX CEO said the challenges of developing the new rocket meant the chances of a successful first outing might be only 50-50.

“I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad, a wheel bouncing down the road. But fortunately that’s not what happened,” he told reporters after the event.

With this debut, the Falcon Heavy aims to become the most capable launch vehicle available.

Runners Map Military Bases

This seems unwise.

Military personnel around the world have been publicly sharing their exercise routes online – including those inside or near military bases.

Online fitness tracker Strava has published a “heatmap” showing the paths its users log as they run or cycle.

It appears to show the structure of foreign military bases in countries like Syria and Afghanistan, as soldiers move around inside.

The US military is examining the heatmap, a spokesman said.

Air Force Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command, told the Washington Post that the US military was reviewing the implications.

Strava said it had excluded activities marked as private from the map.

Users who record their exercise data on Strava have the option of making their movements public or private. Private data, the company said, has never been included.

The appearance of military bases on the heatmap suggests that large numbers of military personnel across the globe have been publicly sharing their location data.

The latest version of the map was released in November 2017, but the implications for service personnel were only raised over the weekend.

Walmart’s Scan & Go

Against my wishes, I had to transact some business at my local Walmart today and experienced their new Scan and Go system. Walmart, with a massive labor force and a frequent target of labor activists, is usually at the forefront of technology innovations that seek to mitigate their labor costs. As a secondary goal, they are trying to improve the customer experience. Here’s how it went for me:

Upon entering the store, a guy explained the system to me. Here’s the process:

  • Get one of their scanners or download their scanning app on your phone.

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  • As you go through the store, scan the items as you put them in the cart. The carts also have packs of plastic bags mounted in the front, or you can buy their reusable bags.
  • When it’s time to check out, use the same scanner to scan a bar code on the self-checkout machine. That transfers all of the items to the self-checkout machine.
  • Pay.
  • Return the scanner to a charging station on the way out.

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Overall, I really liked the process. It was easy to use. I could see the running tally of my purchases and verify the scanned price matched the posted price. I spent less than a minute actually checking out. I was buying some heavy stuff and I didn’t have to lift anything out of my cart. It was a quick, easy process.

It might be a different experience if you are buying produce or anything else that needs to be weighed. But for the vast majority of things, I preferred this process to a human cashier or a traditional self-checkout station.

There is a lesson here. A free market will constantly evolve and respond to pressures. In this case, the upward pressure on wages – both artificial and real – coupled with the increasing desire of customers to be empowered by technology in their consumer experience, is driving innovation like Walmart’s Scan & Go system. I doubt it’s the last incarnation of the technology-enabled purchasing process, but it’s a good system so far.