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Facebook Engineers Turn Hackathon into Drone-a-thon

The Facebook hackathon: It’s a part of the company’s culture that has spread to other tech companies as a way to get engineers try out new ideas. Last year, Facebook engineers held 17 such events at locations around the world. They developed software to better distribute server load to save power, they built add-ons for a security tool, they tweaked an LED display to monitor Facebook’s infrastructure, and they mapped voters choices shared with Facebook friends during the midterm elections. All are obviously connected to Facebook’s day-to-day business.

One group, though, took the mission of its hackathon a little farther outside their day jobs than most. In November 2014, they launched a drone-a-thon.

It was the first hackathon for Satish Sampath, engineering manager at Facebook’s London office, just hired a few months earlier. The general rule for Facebook hackathons is for engineers to work on something not connected to their regular jobs. Sampath took his interpretation of that mission to the extreme—he wanted his group, which focuses on Android apps, to work on something not tied to its regular environment at all—no computers, no phones. That left drones.

Facebook’s facilities department is used to helping out with hackathons by setting up work areas and providing food. But the idea of drones zooming around inside the company’s cafeteria raised a whole new set of issues—how do you drone proof a room? They scrambled to protect the lights, ducts, and wires with nets.

Sampath also did something else a little out of the ordinary—he invited in engineers from other companies, in particular, Android engineers. “We wanted to get connected to the Android community in London,” he says.

He set up a Facebook page (of course) to collect and vote on ideas for drone projects for the hackathon. The final five were:

  • Dancing drone: it would listen to, recognize, and respond to the beat of music
  • Tour Guide Drone: a drone that could fly along as you walk through a city and give instructions and information
  • Watch-Controlled Drone: a smart-watch app that would translate voice commands into drone commands
  • “Follow-That” Drone: a drone that can follow a selected object, say, keeping an eye on your Roomba or other home robot
  • Teacher Drone: a drone that could be easily programmed by kids, to teach basic programming skills. Sort of an airborne “Turtle graphics” system

The group selected the Parrot Drone as its platform. Sampath reports that drone programming turned out to be a lot harder than expected.

“We had some trouble with the software development kit in the beginning, and everybody pitched in for the first couple of hours on that,” he says. 

But most of the group had never worked with a drone before, and, he says, “people didn’t realize how difficult it is to balance a drone when it is flying—it would shake from left to right. Given enough time we would have figured out these issues.”

In the end, the teams got the dancing drone working well; the rest of the projects didn’t get finished that day.

But people are still working on them, the Facebook group created for the effort is still active, and new ideas for drone applications continue to emerge. And Sampath, along with a number of the other engineers, has bought drone-building kits to work on in their free time.

Some of the technology developed at Facebook hackathons makes it into Facebook’s main site: Chat, Timeline, and even the iconic “Like” button started at hackathons. These drone apps aren’t headed that way anytime soon. But if Facebook ever does launch a fleet of drones, history may remember it as an effort that, once again, originated at a hackathon.

Maser Man Charles Townes Dead At 99

Maser and laser inventor Charles Townes died yesterday at age 99, after a nearly 80-year career. University of California at Berkeley professors reported that the Nobel Prize and IEEE Medal of Honor winner was still working in his office or laboratory daily as recently as last year.  Colleagues called him “one of the most important experimental physicists of the last century” and say his passing marks the end of an era.

I interviewed Townes in 1991 when he was 76, an age at which many would have at least contemplated retirement, but not only was he still as busy as ever, working six days a week and often into the evening, he had just moved into a new area of research—using infrared spatial interferometry for astronomy. “It is a tough thing to do, but I think quite important,” he told me at the time. “In the long run it could open up a very exciting field.” It did indeed, and he published papers on the subject, built a laser interferometer for the Mt. Wilson observatory, and advanced the field for decades.

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Hey Tech Guys and Gals, Uncle Sam Wants YOU (to Join the U.S. Digital Service)

Can tech folks fix Washington? And do they want to?

After working on last year’s effort to repair healthcare.gov, former Google reliability manager Mikey Dickerson in August joined the White House staff full time as administrator of the newly formed U.S. Digital Service. At the time of the announcement, U.S. Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel said that the Digital Service would include the country’s “brightest digital talent” and would remake the digital interfaces between citizens and the government.

The initial team included other healthcare.gov veterans and a handful of other folks who had already been working for the administration on digital projects. Dickerson took a little time to get settled and sort out a few key issues—like what to wear to work in formal Washington when you come from informal Silicon Valley. Looking at recent videos of the operation, the men appear to have followed Dickerson’s lead in adopting the classic geek look of a button down shirt, often plaid, over a logo T; there appear to be no ties allowed on the premises; the women seem to have a more varied stylebook, but even some of them have gone plaid. Silicon Valley comfort has definitely won out over Washington formality.

Having gotten that dress code thing settled, Dickerson is now in full-out startup mode. He’s got $20 million to spend in fiscal year 2015, and is recruiting around the country, using a new short and easy to navigate online application form that a decided improvement over the usual government application process. In particular, he wants designers, product managers and engineers who can both strategize and innovate and “push your own code.” No word yet on how many will be hired; the organization’s just-launched website now lists just a dozen people; a similar organization in the U.K., reportedly a model for the U.S. effort, now employs 500.

New hires may have some adjusting to do, because life in the U.S. Government is not going to be life at Google. “We wish we could pay for dry cleaning and free lunches, but we can’t,” Haley Van Dyke, the U.S. Digital Service’s chief of staff told Re/code.

The U.S. Digital Service hopes to appeal by offering meaningful projects, including:

  • In the Veteran’s Administration, “redesigning the tools that Veterans use to interact with the VA” (I’d translate that as preventing another “appointment-gate”).
  • In Healthcare, continuing to support healthcare.gov (translation: we patched it, now we have to really fix it).
  • In Ebola response, coordinating data requests (that sounds mundane, until you read the fine print—one thing the team has done so far is work to connect the Red Cross, the military, and the Open Street Map community. I’m thinking these groups had never previously crossed paths.)
  • In making government more accessible, building tools to streamline Freedom of Information Act request (long overdue, and potentially game-changing; if agencies can’t stall the FOIA process anymore, we’ll have a lot better idea of what’s going on in time, maybe, to fix it.)
  • The appeal of working for the U.S. Digital Service, according to current employees speaking in a recruitment video is the ability to address “the needs of people who are in need…a real difference [from] Silicon Valley,” along with the chance to solve “big complex difficult problems.”

Because for someone who likes to fix things, what could be more challenging these days than fixing government?

Former Microsoft Researchers Find New Homes at VMWare, Google, Apple, and Elsewhere

In September 2014, Microsoft suddenly shut down its Silicon Valley research lab, cutting loose 50-plus top researchers, most involved in working on developing new algorithms for distributed computing, security, and privacy. It came as a sad shock to the employees, many of who were involved in long-term projects.

The scientific community was outraged: in an open letter to Microsoft executives in October, researchers around the country blasted Microsoft for the timing of its move, that is, after the start of an academic year, making it tough for the laid-off researchers to move over to academia.

But it turns out there are lots of places eager to support a researcher who just might make a breakthrough that could blast through some of the bottlenecks in computing today. Using Linked In and other public sources of data, this week, about four months after the lab closed, I checked in on the whereabouts of the 53 researchers that had been listed on the lab’s web site in the hours before that site went dark. (A new and slightly different list of 60 later emerged here. I used the original list of 53 for this analysis.)

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Encryption, Privacy, National Security, and Dr. Seuss

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama, standing with British Prime Minister David Cameron, said that “If we find evidence of a terrorist plot…and despite having a phone number, despite having a social media address or e-mail address, we can’t penetrate that; that’s a problem.” According to the Wall Street Journal, he then indicated that he believes Silicon Valley companies want to solve this problem, because “They’re patriots.”

An interesting statement, given that just a few months ago, Silicon Valley companies were being criticized by U.S. government agencies for adding automatic encryption to smart phones—a move the government sees as not so patriotic. The latest software released for Android and Apple phones and pads automatically encrypts user data, and the companies said they are not keeping a master key, so they can’t help the government get into user data, even if they want to.  Other communications and social networking apps, like What’sApp, have also been rolling out automatic encryption.

So what’s the story? Is Silicon Valley determined to protect user privacy, or is it ready and willing to turn over data to the government when asked.

You could see it as a delicate dance, or as walking a fine line. Or, you could be a little more cynical, and view it through the eyes of the Dr. Seuss classic, The Sneetches.

I was introduced to this parable back in the ‘90s. The book is typically used to teach lessons about discrimination. But Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper had a different interpretation in mind when he gave a copy of the book to my husband. The intent, Draper noted, was to help my husband understand Microsoft’s moves at the time. Since then, The Sneetches has been a story that I think about regularly when I watch the goings on in business and technology today.

Short synoposis: two sets of creatures—star-bellied Sneetches and plain-bellied Sneetches—live in a world in which the star-bellied Sneetches are top dogs. An entrepreneur named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes in with new technology—he can add stars to plain-bellied Sneetches, for a fee. The plain-bellied crew all signs up, and now nobody can tell the two groups apart. The original elite aren’t happy, so McBean offers a new tech fix, at a higher fee: star removal. This goes back and forth until the Sneetches are broke—and McBean drives off with all the money. Only then do the two sides work out their differences.

So McBean provides the technology that gives and the technology that takes away—sort of like a tech industry that gives privacy protection, yet is, apparently also interested in working with the government to get around privacy protection.

You can see an animated version of the Sneetches here (or read the text here) and think about whether it’s a good or bad thing that Silicon Valley is in the position of brokering our privacy.

Tech VC Funds Weed Industry Startup Privateer

Back in the 1980s, solar panels were really expensive. So expensive, they didn’t make sense for most companies (forget homeowners, the day when an average person could afford a solar panel on his roof was a long way off). That is, they didn’t make sense for anybody except for one set of entrepreneurs—the marijuana growers.

The solar panels these businesspeople invested in to power their greenhouses kept the solar panel industry alive while the technology slowly crept down the cost curve. I’ve heard from today’s solar industry leaders (not for attribution) about the days when paper grocery bags full of cash made up much of their revenue streams. I’m not the only one who has heard these stories; the Huffington Post reported that Dave Katz, founder and president of AEE Solar, one of the largest distributors of solar products in the United States, told author Nick Rosen that his solar business “was entirely dependent on pot growers for the first few years.”

And now, it appears, the tech industry is returning the vote of confidence in a nascent industry. The Founders Fund, headed by PayPal alum and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, made a “multi-million dollar investment” in Privateer Holdings, according to an announcement last week. Privateer has been starting, acquiring, and investing in marijuana related companies since 2011. The Founders Fund investment is part of a Series B round that, in addition to earlier investments, is reported to bring the total capital raised by Privateer to $82 million. 

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“Leak” Reminds Us to Watch Palantir Because It Could Be Watching Us

Walk around downtown Palo Alto these days and you’ll spot a number of prime office buildings with frosted or shaded windows and no signs on their doors. Stealth startups? Hardly. Odds are you’re looking at real estate leased by data analysis pioneer Palantir.

Palantir was founded in 2004 by a team that includes PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel with a plan to “reduce terrorism while preserving civil liberties” using technology similar to that developed at PayPal for antifraud efforts. The CIA was both an early investor and an early customer, and Thiel himself over the years invested some $30 million in the venture. Palantir continues to feed services and technology to U.S. national security agencies, but now also does work for state and local governments and corporations. It’s big and getting bigger, with a reported 1200 employees in 2013 at some nine locations around the world, including McLean, Va. (of course), Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. And it’s still hiring

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Six Signs of the Holiday Season in Silicon Valley

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a California spring, fall, or winter (summer is easy—that’s when people in San Francisco wear their warmest scarves). But you know it’s the holiday season in Silicon Valley when:

1. It snows at Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s house.

2. Geeks find their inner pop stars.

3. Stanford gets a really big gift from a tech entrepreneur.

4. Corporations take over AT&T Park, the Exploratorium, and Levi Stadium and party like its 1999.

5. Cute kids put a techie twist on holiday traditions.

6.  And a company hopes its nod to charity will take it off Santa’s naughty list.

Happy Holidays!

A Circuit (or two) for Christmas

My favorite part of holiday shopping (for me, that refers to Christmas, insert your favorite winter holiday here) is the hunt for stocking stuffers. The requirements—cute, compact, not too pricey, instantly usable , and ideally (at least when my kids were younger) providing non-screen entertainment during holiday downtime. Even though my kids are getting too old to be interested in some really cool markers or colorful stickers, I still am a sucker for potential stocking stuffers.

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Semiconductor Start-Ups Get Their Own Accelerator

Silicon Valley used to have lots of places that incubated new technologies. They were called research labs, and they were funded and nurtured by big tech companies, like Xerox and Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. Those research labs have shrunk dramatically, and have moved away from nurturing new technologies to bringing more mature technologies to market.

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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.
Contact us:  t.perry@ieee.org

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Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
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