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Silicon Valley Gets Ready to Code for Cuba

This weekend, Facebook is opening its Menlo Park campus to teams Coding for Cuba.

The challenge: “Build hardware or software tools that can be used by people in Cuba for connectivity and access to information, entrepreneurial support, or journalism and digital advocacy.”

The two-day hackathon, to be held April 25 and 26th, will end in a competition for $7000 in prizes, judged by a panel that includes folks from Facebook, Yahoo, Salesforce, and Stanford. It’s not too late to sign up here. You can also follow the ideas that develop here.

And I’ll fill you in on the winning projects when they are announced.

Android Creator Andy Rubin's Playground for Hardware Startups

Look out Haxlr8r; move over Lemnos Labs, you might have competition for that next batch of baby startups. Android co-founder, Apple nemesis, and former Web TV engineer Andy Rubin left Google last year with plans to launch a hardware incubator. At the time, Rubin was running robotics projects at Google.

This month, Rubin unveiled the basic details, like the namePlayground Global—and the investors, which include Foxconn, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Seagate.

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Building a New Home? Better Make It Solar Ready

Some communities celebrate Earth Day with a park cleanup, a reading of The Lorax, or a Frog Watch.

This year, Palo Alto, Calif., celebrated by passing new building codes. On Tuesday evening, in a session almost exclusively devoted to environmental topics, the Palo Alto City Council agreed that new single-family homes would have to have rooftops designed to accommodate 500 square feet of solar panels, as well as wiring (or at least wiring conduits) for these future solar panels. The new codes will also require a three-way diverter valve in the water drain line running from the washing machine location, to enable the future use of laundry water for irrigation.

Such readiness rules are nothing new in Palo Alto. The city in 2013 passed a mandate requiring that all new single-family dwellings include the proper connections for installing electric vehicle chargers—that is, a conduit or wiring for a 50-amp circuit out to the garage. The new solar readiness regulation is similar in approach: it doesn’t require installation of the solar panels, just that the infrastructure be put in place during construction, when it is easy to do so. Taking away a major barrier to solar panels—running new wiring—clearly will make installation more attractive to many.

As is fitting for a city named after a tree (Palo Alto means tall tree), there is an exception to the solar readiness clause: if tall trees are shading your house. The tree vs. solar question has come up for debate in other California communities. And though, in terms of environmental impact, solar wins, in California, generally speaking, pre-existing trees trump solar.

The city hopes to be a model for the rest of California, in the same way that California’s environmental initiatives are often a model for the country. According to the city’s Earth Day report, released 20 April:

the City is in the position to establish new goals that not only generate cost savings but set the conditions for Palo Alto to take a global leadership position, commit to a low- or zero-carbon future, and create a roadmap to that future….While cities around the world ratchet up their own sustainability initiatives, Palo Alto will need to act boldly in order to maintain its legendary leadership position and to ensure the well-being of this community in the face of the challenges ahead.

This week Palo Alto also adopted a so-called “energy reach code,” requiring that new local buildings exceed the state’s energy-saving requirements by 15 percent. Having recently gone through a home remodel that needed to hit those energy-saving goals, I can say that, while mainly reasonable, the requirements don’t always make sense for northern California, and need a little local tweaking. (For example, the rules favor installing an efficient air conditioner over eliminating the need for air conditioning all together.) I encourage Palo Alto to be a model here as well.

Happy Earth Day from Palo Alto.

Robocop Delivers Pizza, Prevents Suicide

On Monday of this week, a man threatening to jump from a Silicon Valley freeway overpass peacefully turned himself in to police, after a robot intervened in what had been a more than five-hour standoff.

Just before 1 pm, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) got a call about a man standing on an overpass linking Highway 680 and Highway 280 in San Jose. The man had a knife, and appeared to be ready to jump onto the freeway below.

The CHP shut down southbound 280 and 680 at Highway 101, leading to an epic rush hour traffic jam while police tried to convince the man to give himself up. Ultimately, a robot, specifically, a Northrup Grumman Remotec Andros F6A, more typically used for bomb disposal, saved the day.

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Where are the Top Companies for Tech Women?

Where do women in tech thrive? That’s the question asked by the Anita Borg Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based nonprofit focused on supporting women in computing and bringing more women into tech careers. The organization has, since 2011, honored the Top Companies for Women Technologists.

This year, 35 self-selected companies entered the competition. (To enter, a company must have at least 150 U.S.-based technical employees; it must have 1000 people on the payroll to be considered for the top award.) Of the group of 35, the Institute recognized 13 for being better than average, and one of those 13, BNY Mellon of New York City, for doing the most to create a culture in which women in technical roles can thrive. (Recent winners Intel and Bank of America were not eligible to compete this year.) BNY Mellon, the Institute said in a press release, has “high representation of women across career levels… offers a specific career advancement track for technical individual contributors, [and] within this category has an extremely high representation of women at senior and executive levels.”

Four San Francisco Bay Area companies—Apple, eBay, Google, and SalesForce—were among the 13 honorees. New York City’s financial behemoths contributed three to the group: overall winner BNY Mellon, American Express, and Goldman Sachs. The area around San Antonio, Texas, put itself on the women-in-tech map with two honorees: Rackspace Hosting and USAA. And filling in the list were Accenture, officially headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, but with offices around the world; IBM of Armonk, N.Y.; T. Rowe Price of Baltimore, Md.; and GoDaddy of Scottsdale, Ariz.; (the image it has portrayed in its Super Bowl ads not withstanding).

Formula E’s Green Racing Machines Come to California

Last September, Formula E racing kicked off its inaugural season; the racing competition is visiting cities across the globe, and comes to California on 4 April, with Round 6 at Long Beach. The organizers have high hopes that these races will not only be fun to watch, but will do good things for electric car technology, the racing business, and society as a whole.

That’s what Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, the company running the races under the umbrella of the FIA (the international motorsports association that also overseas the Formula 1 races), says. Speaking in March at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Agag talked about how this whole thing got started—and why the technology in the cars is about to get a lot more interesting.

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Robocar Technologies to Guard the Smart Home

In March 2012 Alex Teichman was a Ph.D. student in Stanford University’s computer science department, working on self-driving cars. His goal: to help a self-driving car understand the environment around it, in particular, to be aware of pedestrians, bicyclists, and other moving objects that might come into its path. His approach: instead of traditional image analysis, use depth information about objects gathered by laser rangefinders or sensors to define them, and then teach the computer to learn about the objects by “following” them as they move about the scene.

While the math he developed to implement this is complex, Teichman says the basic idea is simple. “Have you ever seen a child ride up a glass elevator that looks down on the street? At ground level, a car parked out front looks normal and uninteresting, but as she rides upwards, things gradually start looking very different. She’s probably seeing the world in a very different way and perhaps giggling about it. And her visual systems are learning: ‘Hey, that’s what a car looks like form above, I’ve never seen that before, cool!’”

In the self-driving car world, Teichman used this technology to make the car’s computers better able to recognize important things in the world around them with less manual training.

“Imagine there is a bicyclist riding around on Stanford’s campus,” says Teichman. “He is in the normal pose of a bicyclist, leaning forward, and the software recognizes him as a bicyclist. But say that he takes his hands off the handlebars and leans back. A computer vision system might not recognize this because it’s never seen it before. However, [my] algorithm knows it is still a bicyclist, because it saw it previously and was tracking it over time, so it now knows it’s the same thing. It can now learn from that. With this kind of is semi supervised machine learning, I would sit down and label 10 examples of things that are bicyclists and not bicyclists, and then give the system unannotated data gathered by just driving around with the car. It reduced the amount of manual annotation by an order of magnitude or two.”

Teichman wasn’t thinking about other applications for this technology beyond autonomous vehicles—until a strange set of circumstances at home spooked him a bit. He lived in a small rental cottage in Palo Alto. One day, he found a notice on the door informing him that a contractor for a local utility needed to perform a pipe inspection. He scheduled the inspection, let in the person who arrived, but then the person simply walked around the cottage and left; he didn’t seem all that focused on the pipes.

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Behind the Scenes at the Nanosys Quantum Dot Factory in Silicon Valley

Next month, Samsung’s first Quantum Dot televisions begins shipping to consumers; Hisense plans to start rolling quantum dot televisions off its manufacturing lines mid-year, and other TV manufacturers, including TCL, Skyworth, ChangHong, Sharp, and LG also have unveiled quantum dot TVs that will likely come to market soon. Sony introduced a version of the technology in 2013.

Quantum dots, nanoscale semiconductor crystals, turn blue light into narrow-spectrum greens and reds. It’s these narrow wavelengths of light that allow quantum dots to make traditional LED screens produce the brighter and wider range of colors that make quantum dot televisions stand out. (More on how that works here.) But before quantum dots can create brilliant colors, someone has to make the quantum dots. A few companies are doing so, either using their own or licensed technology, including Nanoco, QD Vision, Quantum Materials, and Nanosys. Turns out one of those is doing its manufacturing here in Silicon Valley.

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March Madness at Stanford: Robots Shoot and Dunk

As college basketball teams around the country began playing their way down to the Final Four, Stanford engineering students had their own March Madness, complete with a cheering crowd and heated competition. This year, for Stanford’s annual battle-of-the-bots, a competition held since 1995 as part of a mechatronics class, went basketball-crazy, with the theme “scoring machines.”

Inspired by this year’s Golden State Warriors players Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the students set out to build robots capable of shooting balls into baskets as efficiently as those basketball stars.  (Thompson recently set an NBA record of 37 points in a quarter; Curry had a 50-point game.)

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Starbucks, Ikea Enter the Wireless Charging Fray

My local Starbucks recently swapped out some furniture for tables with built in wireless chargers. It’s one of 200 Starbucks cafes in the San Francisco Bay area and 10 in London to do so; the company plans to eventually install the technology in its stores throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.

This month, Ikea announced a line of tables, lamps, and desks that double as wireless chargers, shipping in April.

So wireless charging, after years of CES demos involving charging mats and charging bowls and other not particular-appealing gadgets, is finally here, yes? Not exactly. Many battles over consumer electronics standards are quietly fought out in private conference rooms before the technology in question goes on the market, but that’s not what’s happening here.

Starbucks and Ikea have embraced two different and incompatible approaches to wireless charging.

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
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Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
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