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A Google Science Fair finalist's design for a flexible, printed smart bandage to monitor moisture around a wound for better healing

Teens Rock Google Science Fair With Flexible Supercapacitors and Smart Bandages

When Singapore high school students Marion Pang Wan Rion, Joy Ang Jing Zhi, and Sonia Arumuganainar decided they wanted to experiment with the “next big thing” in electronics, they chose graphene-based supercapacitors. The three wanted to come up with a design for a supercapacitor that would be lighter and more flexible than current ones, like those used to collect energy from regenerative breaking in electric cars.

Their approach—and one that earned them a place among 16 finalist teams in Google’s international science fair this year—was to develop a graphene paint that would adhere to any surface and still be stable and flexible. Paint frees the supercapacitor from the bulk of current models that must somehow fit into a car body. This supercapacitor can just be painted on the car body, explained 18-year-old Zhi.

In their early attempts, the graphene flaked off, Zhi told me during Google’s showcase for the international finalists, held Tuesday. Then, she said, they found the perfect additive—basic white school glue.

In the future, says Zhi, these flexible supercapacitors could be part of the band of a smart watch or used for biological implants.

Meanwhile, Anushka Naiknaware from Portland, Ore. was also looking to build light and flexible electronics. The 13-year-old wanted to create a sensor to monitor the moisture around a wound while avoiding bandage changes, which slow healing. She filled an inkjet cartridge with conductive ink to print her sensors on bandages, and developed a wearable monitor, intended to strap on a patient’s wrist, to collect data from the sensors. Naiknaware was awarded the Lego Education Builder Award, one of two prizes given for the best solutions to difficult engineering challenges at the event.

More on these projects, as well as the grand prize and other winners, here.

Educators get ready to roll out Stanford's Hacking for Defense class to 13 universities around the United States; students will tackle cyberterrorism and other real-world challenges.

Clinton Calls for Tech Firms to Fight Terrorism, but Students Could Be the Key

This week, U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for “tech companies and experts online” to give the United States tools to intercept and prevent online recruiting efforts by terrorist organizations. According to the Los Angeles Times, Clinton “made clear that she would put pressure on the tech firms to step up their efforts to root out terrorists.”

Clinton sees tech firms as the place to go for the kind of technology the United States needs. But let me suggest what might be a better source: tech students.

Last spring, I attended the final presentations of the first-ever “Hacking for Defense” class, in which teams of Stanford University students were given real-world problems by the U.S. National Security Agency, the U.S. Army Cyber Command, and other branches of government. The members of each team had 10 weeks to bring themselves up to speed on a real-world national security or defense related problem, and begin working towards a solution. The progress most teams made was impressive; many pledged to keep going in developing the technologies they had proposed.

Since then, this little Stanford class of 40 people has started a movement. According to Steve Blank, one of the faculty members behind the effort, the organizers of the class held a three-day workshop for other educators looking to teach the class at their schools. Thirteen universities have decided to offer the course—with funding provided by the National Defense University—in the next year. The Stanford group has also obtained commitments from government sponsors to keep sending challenging problems to the students, and worked out a way for the Department of Defense to include classified problems in the mix.

Blank said in a blog post that, as a result of the meetings and workshops, and what they learned during the pilot class, the faculty has fine-tuned the methodology to be more specific about what students deliver to sponsors. This, of course, requires that sponsors actually define the metrics for success in addressing a problem early on. The course developers are also planning to make sure that the government sponsors give teams big-picture briefings about how the sponsoring organization operates, how it’s funded, its overall budget, and general issues the agency or group is facing.

Pokemon Plus with wristband

Pokémon Go Plus: This Wearable Was Supposed to Be for Kids, but It’s Not Kids Who Are Buying It

From the 1950s well into the 1980s, the slogan for Trix breakfast cereal was “Trix are for kids.” Ads showed a silly rabbit going through all sorts of machinations to get his hands on the colorful cereal.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Pokémon Plus, the Pokémon Go accessory released today. It was supposed to be for kids, Niantic founder and chief technology officer Phil Keslin told me this week.

He says Nintendo pitched it as a low-cost, low-entry augmented reality device for children. Says Keslin: 

The original idea was that this device could be given to a child who didn’t have a phone, who is running around with his parents nearby. The device would vibrate and light up and the children could take action and get Pokémon without needing a phone; [they could] later go to the parents to review what they caught. It was a way for children to be able play without a cell phone.

But instead, adults are scooping up the available supply, eager to take advantage of Pokémon Go’s Plus ability to keep the game running when the phone screen is off—a big power savings. They have been lining up this morning in front of Nintendo’s New York store and at Gamestop locations. Online ordering has already been turned off.

Pokémon Go Plus is a watch-size wearable with a center button. It communicates with smartphones via Bluetooth LE, and uses an LED and vibration motor to provide notifications. It flashes and vibrates when the user is near a Pokéstop or a Pokémon—with slightly different patterns.

(You can find a more complete explanation of the game here.  But basically, the point is to catch Pokémon, which are virtual critters tied to real-world locations. You gather the tools needed to catch them at Pokéstops. Eventually, you can join a team, then bring your Pokémon to “gyms” to pit them against the Pokémon fielded by other teams.)

Pokémon Go Plus allows users to catch Pokémon and collect items from Pokéstops by pushing the button—and to hatch eggs by walking specific distances—all while the user’s phone is locked and the app is running in background. Previously, keeping the app running while locking the phone wasn’t possible. And without a screen to use for selecting and aiming a ball, players’ success rate in catching higher-powered Pokémon is low, though it’s reasonable for basic Pokémon.

What’s next for Pokémon Go? Keslin, no surprise, wouldn’t give specifics. But he did point out that augmented reality is not necessarily limited to being a visual technology. Says Keslin: “We haven’t yet explored the audio augmented experience as much as we could.”

Former Atari engineer Owen Rubin (left), vice president of engineering Al Alcorn (center), and founder Nolan Bushnell (right) say Silicon Valley's culture has always meant supporting startups--and

Silicon Valley’s Secret Involves Proximity, Stolen Parts, and the Kindness of Strangers, Say Atari Alumni

Every time I talk to a Silicon Valley newbie, particularly someone trying to start a company, I find them enthralled by the “magic” of the place. They are amazed to discover that just about everyone you meet is involved in tech, and, as a result, neighbors, parents on the soccer sidelines, and people in line for coffee at Coupa can all potentially help you make your dream happen. And the most surprising thing to outsiders is that all these random connections actually want to help you, the earnest entrepreneur.

That’s the Silicon Valley secret. And it’s nothing new. Stories about this kind of help—advice, encouragement—and spare parts—came up again and again at a gathering last week of 100 Atari alumni and others connected to the birth of video games and home computers, hosted by the IEEE Silicon Valley History Committee:

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Atari alumni Owen Rubin, Al Alcorn, and Nolan Bushnell enthusiastically reminisce about their shenanigans in the early days of the company

Atari Alumni Talk About the Tall Tales They Told to Launch an Industry

I thought I’d heard them all. Atari stories, that is. I started covering the company in 1981, followed company founder Nolan Bushnell and first engineer Al Alcorn through their other adventures, became personal friends with more than a few Atari alumni, and even had a memorable lunch with Warner COO Manny Gerard after that company bought Atari (and, many say, then destroyed it).

But last Thursday evening, at a sold-out 100-person event hosted by the IEEE Silicon Valley History Committee, a few behind the scenes stories came out that were new to me—and even new to some of the people who were key players at Atari at the time. It’s hard to get startups off the ground, particularly those trying to do something as revolutionary as start a videogame—or personal computer—industry. So let’s just say the truth, at times, was stretched—or simply ignored—in order to make things happen. A few examples:

Motivating an engineer with a fictitious client:

Pong has gone down in history as the first consumer video game. In 1972, shortly after Atari’s inception, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell saw a demo of what became the Magnavox Odyssey; it included a ping pong game. “I thought the game was crap,” Bushnell recalls. “It was fuzzy, analog. Our tech was better.”

Bushnell said he’d contracted with pinball manufacturer Bally to build a driving game. But he recalls that as he drove home from the demo, he thought his one engineer, Al Alcorn “doesn’t know jack shit about video. I felt that [the driving game] was too hard as a learning project, so I told Al to do this ping pong game.”

Alcorn jumped in to continue the story. “And you told me you had a contract with General Electric, [to build] a home game, so I thought wow, this is going to be hard to do, the fact that nobody from GE came by, or wrote us a letter, well, I was 24, I didn’t know better.”

“I just wanted you to be motivated,” Bushnell said.

Faking out the market:

“I wanted world domination,” says Bushnell. “And it turns out that there are two coin-op [game] distributors in every city. One would have Gottlieb pinballs, one Williams. We had chosen the best distributors, but the [distributors] who didn’t have the Atari brand were doing everything they could to spawn a competitor. So I thought, let’s make that happen.”

So Atari secretly started a second company, Kee Games, with Bushnell’s next door neighbor, Joe Keenan, at the helm. “We took our number two engineer, our number two manufacturing guy, and every other game in our lineup, and gave it to Kee. We started Kee Games in August, and they were up and spinning by the November AMOA show (the big trade show in the games industry). Their goal was to pick up the rest of the distributors.”

Continued Alcorn: “We told the distributors that those bastards are stealing our games, and then the distributors would run off and grab the games. We would rag at our distributors’ meetings about [Kee] stealing our games—and stealing our employees no less.”

“I knew that I couldn’t keep it a secret forever,” Bushnell said. “So I started rumor that they had stolen a bunch of stuff and we were suing. Then I put it out that we had settled. Then I said we settled for some shares. Then eventually I said a lot of their shares, then I said we decided to buy the rest of the shares and merge companies.”

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Apple's new iPhone 7 Plus boasts two cameras to do zoom and background blur

The Two-Camera iPhone 7 Plus Is Just the Beginning of the Camera Count Competition

At today’s Apple launch event,  senior vice president Phil Schiller explained two gee-whiz features of Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus—a zoom that doesn’t sacrifice picture quality up to a factor of two, and an ability to create a depth of field effect in which foreground images are clear while the background is blurred. Both of these features are basic requirements for serious photographers. The secret to incorporating them into a small mobile device is stitching together the images captured by multiple camera modules with different focal lengths.

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Screen shots of Spotify's Discover Weekly recommender system on a computer, a phone, and a tablet

The Little Hack That Could: The Story of Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” Recommendation Engine

“Empower bottom-up innovation and amazing things will happen.” That’s what Spotify software engineer Edward Newett says. He was responsible for one of those amazing things: a way to help Spotify users discover new music called Discover Weekly. This tool launched about a year ago; it now has 40 million users and is helping to build the careers of new artists.

Newett joined Spotify in 2013, initially working on a team developing a web page with personalized information, news about artists, album releases, and local concerts, along with a recommender system that offered suggestions of albums a user might find appealing. The recommendation feature, Newett recalled, seemed like a good idea, but wasn’t heavily used. “My hunch was that navigating to this page and looking at albums was too much work,” he said, speaking at the third annual @Scale conference held in San Jose last week. @Scale brings together engineers who build or maintain systems designed for vast numbers of users, including engineers from companies like Google, Airbnb, Dropbox, Netflix, and others.

Newett thought he could come up with a better way, and in 2014 convinced a colleague to help him hack together a prototype of a tool they called Discover Weekly. Discover Weekly would give users a personalized playlist of music they’d never listened to, designed to fit their musical tastes.

To come up with the individualized lists, the two scrounged together a variety of machine learning tools used in other parts of the Spotify system. Their system looks at what the user is already listening to, and then find connections between those songs and artists and other songs and artists, crawling through user activity logs, playlists of other users, general news from around the web, and spectragrams of audio. It then filters the recommendations to eliminate music the user has already heard, and sends the individualized playlist to the user. To make it clear that this playlist was personalized, they decided to illustrate each with an image of the user, pulled from Facebook. And they determined that they would refresh the lists weekly, on Monday mornings.

To test Discover Weekly in early 2015, the two engineers quietly pushed their new tool out to the Spotify accounts of all company employees. “Everyone freaked out in a good way,” Newett said, saying things like “‘It’s as if my secret music twin put it together.’”

“We were feeling good, but we hadn’t tested it on [typical] users, so we then rolled it out to one percent of the user base,” he recalls, and again, he recalls, the reaction was awesome.

Then came the mid-2015 rollout to the the rest of Spotify’s customers, some 100 million active users around the world. “We had to refresh 100 million playlists every Sunday night, with about a terabyte of new data.”

Discover Weekly quickly became a habit for people, Newett reports, giving them something to look forward to on Monday mornings. Then, a few months after the mid-2015 launch, he says, the team had its “first production incident—it didn’t update.” Some users “went into blind rage or existential crisis.”

For Newett, that reaction validated the tool’s popularity.

Since then, the team moved the system from its own servers to Google’s Cloud Bigtable, and now runs its recommendation algorithms several days ahead of time, rather than trying to crunch through recommendations for its entire user base on Sunday for Monday release.

“This wasn’t a big company initiative,” Newett says, “just a team of passionate engineers who went about solving a problem we saw with the technology we had.”

Facebook's Vice President of Engineering Jay Parikh addresses the engineers attending the third annual @Scale conference

Facebook Engineers Crash Data Centers in Real-World Stress Test

“It’s easier to take a data center down than to put it back together,” says Facebook vice president of engineering Jay Parikh. But the company’s software engineers are getting better at the putting-it-back-together part, thanks to a series of regular stress tests conducted on Facebook’s operational network by the company’s disaster special weapons and tactics, or SWAT, team. Parikh described the effort, dubbed “Project Storm,” to the audience of invited engineers at the third annual @Scale conference held in San Jose this week. @Scale brings together engineers who build or maintain systems designed for vast numbers of users, including companies like Google, Airbnb, Dropbox, Spotify, Netflix, and others.

Facebook’s Project Storm originated in the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Parikh reported. The superstorm threatened two of Facebook’s data centers, each carrying tens of terabits of traffic. Both got through Sandy unscathed, Parikh said, but watching the storm’s progress led the engineering team to consider what exactly would be the impact on Facebook’s global services if the company did indeed suddenly lose a data center or an entire region. The company assembled a SWAT team comprising the leaders of the various Facebook technology groups, who, in turn, marshaled the entire engineering workforce to figure out the answers.

The group began running a number of tests and fine-tuning mechanisms for shifting traffic should a data center drop from the network, Parikh reported. They created tools and checklists of tasks both manual and automated; and they set time standards for completing each task. We wanted, Parikh said, “to run like a pit stop at a race; to get everything fixed on the car in the shortest period of time, realizing, however, that this is like taking apart an aircraft carrier and putting it back together in a few hours, not just taking apart a toy that I got for Christmas.”

In 2014, Parikh decided Project Storm was ready for a real-world test: The team would take down an actual data center during a normal working day and see if they could orchestrate the traffic shift smoothly. 

Other Facebook leaders didn’t think he’d actually do it, Parikh recalls. “I was having coffee with a colleague just before the first drill. He said, ‘You’re not going to go through with it; you’ve done all the prep work, so you’re done, right?’ I told him, ‘There’s only one way to find out’” if it works.

That first takedown, which involved virtually the entire engineering team and a lot of people from the rest of the company, turned out to be a bit of a mess—at least from the inside. But users didn’t appear to notice. Parikh presented a chart tracking the traffic loads on various software systems—something that should have displayed smooth curves. “If you’re an engineer and see a graph like that, you’ve got bad data, your control system is not working right, or you have no idea what you’re doing.”

The Project Storm team forged ahead, continuing to hit Facebook’s networks with stress tests—although, Parikh recalls, there never seemed to be a good time to do them. “Something always ended up happening in the world or the company. One was during the World Cup final, another during a major product launch.” And the switchovers got smoother.

The live takedowns continue today, with the Project Storm team members coming up with crazier and crazier ambitions for just what to take offline, Parikh says. “You need to push yourself to an uncomfortable place to get better.”

$100,000 Prize If You Can Find This Secret Command in DOS

There have long been rumors that Microsoft copied CP/M to create MS-DOS for the IBM PC. Consultant Bob Zeidman in 2012 used forensic software tools to analyze the code for IEEE Spectrum and found no evidence of copying, as he reported in “Did Bill Gates Steal the Heart of DOS?”  Since he did that analysis, Microsoft donated previously unavailable source code for MS-DOS to the Computer History Museum. (Zeidman did his original analysis using QDOS.). And the museum also located and released a more complete version of the CP/M source code. Zeidman reran his analysis and presented the results 6 August at the Vintage Computer Festival West.

The conclusion? Still no sign of copying of source code. And no evidence to support a long-running rumor that there is a secret command in MS-DOS that can be called to print out a copyright notice in Gary Kildall’s name.

However, Zeidman did find that at least 22 system calls, the commands used to request an action, like sending text to a printer or reading from a hard disk, had the same function number and function. That, he says, might have meant that Kildall “might have had a copyright claim for the system calls that it could have litigated against Microsoft. On the other hand, there is a good chance Microsoft could have beaten such litigation by claiming it was a ‘fair use.’ ”

Meanwhile, Zeidman has had a lot of pushback since his original article was published, in part because it turned out he had an open consulting contract with Microsoft at the time. (He reports that it was an old and inactive contract and he has since severed all ties.) So he’s putting up $200,000 in prize money, $100,000 for anyone who can use “accepted forensic techniques” to prove the copying, and another $100,000 for anyone who can find that secret Kildall copyright function.

His full analysis of the code and supporting documents are here.

A Peek Inside Andy Rubin’s Playground

Playground Global, an effort to make it easier for Silicon Valley hardware startups to make their ideas real, came on the scene in 2015. A group of investors including Hewlett-Packard, Google, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, Seagate, and others—and led by Andy Rubin of Danger and Android fame—backed the effort with at least US $48 million. The mission: create a hardware “studio.” It’s something more than an incubator or an accelerator, in that it allows inventors to focus on their gadgets and takes away as many of the barriers to doing that as possible .

I got my first peek inside Playground’s spacious headquarters last week. And it sure seems to have everything a Silicon Valley engineer could want, and then some. The setup includes: two tricked out engineering labs, a prototype-building area with multiple 3-D printers, various cutters, a laser-sintering machine, a testing lab, an optical lab, lots and lots of bench space, and 50 engineers available to help the startups. (Though it has room for 30 startups, only about a dozen seemed to be in residence during my visit.)

Playground has the ambience of a Google or Facebook, not a shoestring startup. That means free gourmet meals, a well-stocked snack bar, and an espresso machine that requires a training session to operate, along with the most stylish “quiet room” space I’ve seen (think giant modernized London phone booths). And, of course, Playground has a playground, in addition to a slide—which is a pretty common way to get from the second floor to the first at tech companies these days—there’s also a swingset.

All this is spread out inside a former apricot cannery, a Palo Alto building that I must have passed thousands of times but never noticed. It’s tucked behind Fry’s Electronics, long a mecca for hardware engineers needing a random component immediately, if not sooner.


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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