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Putting a Physics Lab in a Student’s Pocket

Two years ago, Clifton Roozeboom, a Stanford Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, was calibrating some new sensors—and getting frustrated. He didn’t mind the struggle to get data off of his own experimental devices—that was to be expected. But why, he wondered, was it so hard to pull data from commercial sensors? He had to buy specialized sensors that were able to record measurements, then build hardware to communicate between the sensors and computer, and develop custom programs to store the data. In a world in which smart phones talk to fitness trackers and door locks and kitchen scales, why couldn’t they talk to sensors used in experiments?

So he built a package of sensors that did just that—communicated wirelessly with a smart phone—and went on with his research. A few years ago, that might have been where the story ended. But in this era of startup fever, particularly in Silicon Valley, especially at Stanford, it would be odd for a student designing anything not to at ponder, at least for a moment, if he could start a company to sell his gadget.

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Carbon Nanotubes Too Expensive? Try Chicken Feathers

Researchers at large laboratories have been investigating carbon nanotubes for storing hydrogen in, say, hydrogen-powered vehicles. Investigators at the University of Delaware proposed that carbonized chicken feathers could work as an inexpensive replacement; other researchers have produced biodiesel out of chicken feathers.

Anela Arifi and Ilda Ismaili, teens from Bosnia and Herzegovina who have far more access to chicken feathers than to expensive nanotubes, decided to combine these two discoveries. They built a reactor that produces both biodiesel and carbonized chicken feathers. Their system, chosen out of thousands of submissions, got them to the finals of the Google Science Fair, held last week in Mountain View, Calif. See how their reactor works in the video below, and hear them talk about the potential of carbonized chicken feathers in the video above.

Tech-Savvy Teens Take on Ebola, Heart Disease, and Alzheimers

Every year, I look forward to meeting the teens from around the world who come to the Google campus in September to compete in the finals of the Google Science Fair. And every year, I am impressed by their creativity, their maturity, their intelligence, and their promise.

But this year raised the bar. The 20 finalists’ projects, selected from thousands of submissions from more than 100 countries, came from 11 countries: Bosnia, Canada, France, India, Lithuania, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Not only did many of this year’s competitors bring up interesting questions and investigate interesting problems, several appeared to come up with some surprising, workable, and in some cases shockingly cheap solutions. The standouts were in the area of health diagnostics and treatment. These kids took on hard problems that would daunt adult researchers, and may just have solved a few of them.

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Bazillion Dollar Club: Reality TV Targets Silicon Valley

Reality TV has taken on Silicon Valley before, with the boring, unrealistic, and short-lived “Start-ups: Silicon Valley” on Bravo in 2012 that focused more on dating and love triangles than the business and engineering struggles faced in the startup world.

Now, following the success of HBO’s scripted comedy series, Silicon Valley, in 2014 and 2015, reality TV is back in town, with three shows launched or planned for the 2015-2016 TV season.

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Hackers Hold Silicon Valley's Hometown Newspapers Hostage

Sometime yesterday, 17 September, hackers took over the websites of Silicon Valley’s Embarcadero Media Group, publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly, the Almanac, the Mountain View Voice, the Pleasanton Weekly, and Palo Alto Online. The group’s newspapers and websites are a key source of local news for Silicon Valley residents, and the Palo Alto Weekly is credited as being the first newspaper in the U.S. to make all of its content available online.

The hackers initially replaced the websites’ normal pages with the image above. At the moment, however, the sites are not loading. The message reads in part:

“Greetings, This site has been hacked.

“Embarcadero Media Group (Almanac) has failed to remove content that has been harmful to the safety and well being of others.

“Failure to honor all requests to remove content will lead to the permanent shutdown of all Embarcadero Media Group Websites….

“We do not forgive, we do not forget, we are legion.”

Embarcadero News Group management has indicated that it will release a statement shortly.

Update: According to a statement issued by Jocelyn Dong, editor of the Palo Alto Weekly, the hackers took over the sites at 10:30 pm Pacific Time on Thursday. The sites are now offline, and the organization is working to restore them. In the meantime, Dong suggests readers visit  the publications’ Facebook pages.

Embarcadero Media Group CEO Bill Johnson stated: “It was an intentionally malicious act. The message indicated a dispute with the Almanac newspaper but didn’t point to any specific article or information, so we really don't know what the significance of that statement is.”

The Palo Alto police department is investigating the incident.

Microfluidic Test Tubes, Robotic Deep-Ocean Fish Farms, and More From StartX

StartX, the Stanford-affiliated nonprofit startup accelerator, launched a class of 50 companies this week to a packed house of investors and press. Only 17 of the 50 presented—others weren’t quite ready to take outside investment or had been preemptively funded during the session. A few stood out for me:

  • Mission Bio. A number of companies in recent years have been applying microfluidics to medical diagnostics. Mission Bio CEO Charlie Silver says his approach is different. Instead of using the technology to deliver reagents or make measurements, Mission Bio is running tumor cells through a process that creates microfluidic test tubes, one cell in each, and then can add reagents into each tiny droplet in order to analyze each cell. This approach, Silver says, allows doctors to better select the appropriate drugs to treat tumors that contain a variety of types of cancer cells.
  • Aromyx. Aromyx CEO Chris Hanson thinks creating precise sensors that can digitize characteristics of taste and smell will be a huge boon to the food and beverage industry, enabling, perhaps, a company like Pepsi to replicate the artificial ingredients in its products using “kale and pine nuts.” The company has developed what it calls the EssenceChip, an array of 400 chemical receptors that respond to substances in gases or liquids by creating a substance called cyclic adenosine monophosphate. This can be made to produce a fluorescent signal that can be read optically and used to generate an “AromaGraph.”
  • Tactical Haptics. Tactical Haptics used StartX to continue to refine and build prototype applications and a development kit for its touch-feedback controller, the kind of device that CEO William Provancher says will be essential to moving the next generation of gaming into virtual reality. The controller has three sliding plates in its handle. When you grip it, the plates push and pull on your skin, making it feel like the thing you are virtually moving—be it a light saber or a big box—has weight and the virtual world has gravity. Provancher expects this technology to be useful beyond the world of gaming, with applications in surgical simulation, physical therapy, and drone control.
  • Forever Oceans. A spinoff from Lockheed Martin, Forever Oceans joined StartX to “transition from Lockheed to the real world,” says CEO Jason Heckathorn. The company has developed an approach to building and operating commercial fish farms in deep ocean waters, far offshore, that relies on sensors and robotics for long-distance operation. Such deep-water operations are far more sustainable and less polluting than traditional fish farms, Heckathorn said. (At the demo event, Forever Oceans served sashimi from fish farmed off Hawaii, and it was amazing.)

StartX is accepting applications for its next class until 4 October. The nonprofit, which does not charge a fee to or take equity from participants, typically accepts 8 to 11 percent of applicants. While most of those accepted are required to have a Stanford connection (involving students, faculty, or alumni), the organization recently opened a few slots to “visiting founders” with no Stanford ties.

Twitter's Tips for Making Software Engineers More Efficient

“Engineering productivity is hard to measure,” said Peter Seibel, the tech lead of Twitter’s engineering effectiveness group. “But we certainly can harm it.”

Seibel was speaking at @Scale, a conference hosted this week by Facebook that brought together 1,800 software engineers from some 400 companies—all building applications that will potentially be used by millions or billions of people. Seibel told the story of the evolution of software at Twitter—a Babel of different programming languages including Ruby, Java, and Scala that made it hard for different groups of engineers to work together, but was eventually (mostly) fixed.

“As an industry we know how to scale up software,” he said. “We also know how to scale up organizations, to put in management that lets thousands of people work together.”

“But we don’t have a handle on how to scale up that intersection between engineering and human organization. And maybe we don’t understand the importance of that.”

“We massively underinvest in this kind of work,” he said.

Seibel believes that groups of software engineers can be more effective if they take the right number of people away from actually working on the product and assign them to supporting those engineers. “For 10 people,” he says, “don’t devote anyone to engineering effectiveness.” People will figure out what they need on their own. “In 100 engineers, devote two people” to making tools and other support better, he says, “and they’ll be as productive as 101 engineers.”

In a group of 1000, he suggests, 255 engineers need to support the rest, and they’ll be as effective as more than 1400 engineers. And in a group of 10,000 (the size of Facebook’s engineering team), one-third of the engineers need to be working on engineering effectiveness.

Those effectiveness engineers can do a host of little things that chip away at productivity problems, and every one percent improvement, in a large organization, adds up. Reducing compile time just five minutes a day, for example gives engineers 1 percent more real working time. Reducing the number of times tools break—even if each incident just causes an interruption of a minute or two—can bring about huge productivity improvements. Seibel explains that each interruption takes an engineer out of “flow,” and studies show that it typically takes 15 minutes to enter a flow state. Good tools are also important, Seibel said, because they are simply fun to work with. “We should provide good tools for the same reason that we provide good food: they make work more enjoyable.”

Engineering effectiveness teams can also work to reduce what Seibel calls Tech Debt, that is, problems that have been dealt with in a less than optimal fashion in order to allow engineers to move forward, though they recognize that the solution will have to be cleaned up later. “Tech debt compounds over time,” he said. “A little bit of tech debt when there are ten engineers kills you when you get to 1000 engineers.”

Seibel admits he has yet to solve the problem of tech debt at Twitter. “My dream is having a team of senior engineers,” he says, “who can drop in on some code, make it better, and then get out of town. There could be huge engineering gains if you had people who could go in and fix some of those things you never have time to do.”

HP to Cut Some 30,000 Employees

About a year ago, Hewlett-Packard unveiled plans to split into two companies, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, encompassing software and services, and HP Inc., a PC and printer business. Research activities previously housed in HP Labs would go with the business units. That split will become official on 1 November.

Today, the company announced that this restructuring will involve reducing the workforce by 25,000 to 30,000 people, or 10 percent. Most of those jobs will be eliminated on the Enterprise side.

The statement released by HP indicated that Tim Stonesifer, who will become chief financial officer of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, is aiming for US $2.7 billion in annual cost reductions, mostly coming from those staff cuts.

As part of the announcement, HP CEO Meg Whitman turned the spotlight on the company’s cloud strategy, indicating that cloud revenue would be $3 billion, and expected it to grow 20 percent annually. (Indeed, the company has indicated that some of the layoffs would be offset by new hires, to “reshape the workforce.”) This sounds a lot like IBM’s recent efforts to “rebalance” its workforce to focus on the cloud. It appears to be getting crowded in the virtual skies.

For an analysis about the potential impact of HP’s restructuring on its laboratories, see “Hewlett-Packard Splits Again: But What About the Labs?”

Amiga 30 and the Unkillable Machine

The story of the Amiga family of microcomputers is akin to that of a musical band that breaks up after one incandescent, groundbreaking album: the band may be forgotten by many, but the cognoscenti can discern its impact on work produced decades later.

So the Amiga 30 event held at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum in late July was more than a commemoration of some interesting technology of the past. It was also a celebration of the Amiga’s persistent influence on personal computing.

The highlight of the event was the premiere of Viva Amiga, a crowdfunded documentary telling the Amiga story. Directed and produced by Zach Weddington, the documentary is an impressive achievement. Following the introduction and initial success of the original Amiga A1000 in 1985 by Commodore, the story could easily have become bogged down in the business machinations that eventually led to the almost complete loss of market share for Amiga computers. But Weddington manages to capture the essence of the story, and bring fresh light to several aspects of the Amiga rollercoaster.

For example, Jay Miner is often lauded for his role as the technical father of the Amiga. But Weddington gives Dave Morse a role equal to that of Miner. Morse was the businessman in the Amiga story, and he had, until Amiga 30, been somewhat overshadowed by Miner.

The movie also examined the forces that made Amiga computers—in particular the Amiga 500—considerably more successful outside North America than in its home territory. Especially in the United Kingdom, this success created a huge pool of enthusiasts entranced by its multitasking, graphics and audio capabilities, which no other similarly priced computer of the day could match. For example, Eben Upton—who attended Amiga 30—cites computers like the Amiga as an influence on his creation of the Raspberry Pi.

That pool of enthusiasts produced a grassroots movement of Amiga supporters that persists to this day. Weddington ends Viva Amiga on a high note, looking at this movement and how chiptune muscians and DJ’s still use Amiga computers, seeing them as instruments that have a life and sound of their own.

Amiga’s outsized impact on home computing is not just due to the devotions of enthusiastic users however. Games machines like the Atari Lynx and 3DO can all be traced back to Amiga engineering alumni, and even the Roku TV streaming media player has a little bit of Amiga DNA infused in it.

The original Amiga development team was selected by Miner and Morse. Miner, a former integrated circuit designer for Atari, was the lead engineer for the original Amiga Corporation, which was bought by Commodore in 1984. Employees at Amiga Corporation were selected for their passion as well as their technical abilities. Miner and Morse wanted hardware and software engineers who had no problem being different and who genuinely wanted to change the world.

Amongst this group were Carl Sassenrath, Dale Luck, Dave Needle, Joe Decuir, RJ Mical, and Ron Nicholson. Decuir and Nicholson were instrumental in the early designs of the Agnus, Denise, and Paula custom chips that gave the Amiga its advanced sound and graphics capabilities. Needle later joined and continued on with them up to production as part of the hardware. At the same time, Sassenrath, Luck and Mical became contemporaries on the software side of things. Sassenrath developed the kernel of the AmigaOS operating system, while Luck handled the graphics layer and Mical the GUI.

Needle and Mical went on to create notable gaming hardware like the Atari Lynx handheld games console and the 3DO home games console. Dave Morse also played a key role in both endeavours.

The Lynx was the first handheld games system to feature a color LCD screen and was the first to feature hardware support for zooming and distortion of sprites. Other impressive features included the Comlynx, which enabled 17 Lynx’s to be tethered together.  Homebrew gaming communities still produce games for the Lynx.

3DO started out as a prototype Needle and Mical developed which was ultimately licensed to Panasonic, Sanyo and Goldstar. This resulted in several variations of the console being released in the market. Though 3DO was not a commercial success, it was Time magazine’s “Product of the Year” in 1993.

By the time of Amiga 30, Luck and Sassenrath were working in software development for Roku. Dale works on graphics for the company while Carl puts his multitasking skillsets to good use. Much like Stan Sheppard, who worked on chip diagnostics at Amiga, Dale also worked on the 3DO—members of the original team have often worked on each others’ products since their Amiga days.

Decuir and Nicholson now play active roles in the IEEE. Amongst other things, Decuir is an IEEE fellow and board member for the Consumer Electronics Society. Decuir was a pioneer in Bluetooth technologies, and was heavily involved in Microsoft Windows modem, network and Fax support.

Nicholson went on to work on RISC based workstation development at Hewlett Packard and on the chipset for the Nintendo 64 at Silicon Graphics. Nicholson now works for himself as Hotpaw Productions, where he works on iOS applications.

And Amiga technology continues to live on in more direct forms. The Amiga brand and its associated intellectual property eventually got split into two. This occurred after Commodore went bankrupt in 1994. For a short period, both were owned by a German company called Escom and then came back to the US via Gateway 2000 in 1997. Eventually Gateway would sell the rights to the Amiga trademarks and copyrights to Bill McEwen of the somewhat mysterious Amiga Inc. Gateway retained the patents and they were later acquired by Acer; the intellectual property has continued to bounce around since.

During the Escom years, a PowerPC architecture and new OS was proposed for Amiga. But Escom went bankrupt as well, leaving the Amiga OS technologically stranded. The need to create a version of the OS that could run on modern personal computers led to the creation of AROS, an open source effort to recreate version 3.1 of AmigaOS. Code from AROS was later incorporated into two other modern incarnations of AmigaOS, MorphOS and AmigaOS 4. Recently, a website was created so that users of all flavors of AmigaOS can keep track of one another, called Amiga Maps. There is even new AmigaOne hardware being produced by companies like Acube Systems and A-EON Technologies.

As for the future, Friend Software Labs is a Norwegian company that credits the multitasking capabilities of the AmigaOS and its GUI as direct inspiration. Hogne Titlestad, chief architect of Friend, used an Amiga as his primary computer until 2001. His new operating system, FriendUP, exists in the cloud and is platform agnostic. This means it can used to bring the best of other operating systems like Windows, Mac OS or Linux together. Arne Peder Blix, Friend’s CEO, was quick to point out the importance of Amiga to his company: “While the Amiga OS made multitasking work elegantly on one hardware unit, FriendUP is making multiple multitasking environments work together as a single whole.” He went on to add: “Amiga OS showed us how the GUI should reflect the multitasking nature of the OS.”

The ultimate takeaway is this: Amiga 30 proved itself to be a celebration of not just a long technological heritage, but a living one. Roll on Amiga 40!

(The Amiga 30 event was made possible by a committee who rented out the Computer History Museum, as well as a host of sponsors and volunteers.)

Clarification and correction made 17 August.

Package Delivery by Drone

Take an electric delivery truck, add wireless charging on top, and a drone that can carry four and a half kilograms for 30 minutes, and you have the perfect package delivery system. At least that’s what the Workhorse Group thinks. Last week, the company filed paperwork with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration asking for permission to deliver packages by drone. This week, it demonstrated the drone part of its technology at UTM 2015, a three-day convention focused on Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management. The event is being held at the NASA Ames Research Center (see video, above).

The idea, explains Martin Rucidlo, company president, is for the operator of the delivery truck to make the normal rounds, but send the drone off to handle the less convenient deliveries. The drone gets most of the way to the delivery site by navigating autonomously after scanning a barcode for GPS coordinates, but when it gets ready to descend, it turns on cameras and alerts the operator, who monitors the descent, watching out for dogs, children, or other potential hazards, and stands ready to take control. The drone then returns itself to the truck, which has continued to travel along its delivery route. The drone lands itself automatically and precisely on the charging pad. That’s not easy to do, Rucidlo said. But he believes that the company has found a solution that will work even in windy conditions.


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