by Lance Somoza

General

General


Ben Evans: Asking the wrong questions ➔

Fascinating article from Ben Evans on his grandfather’s predictions, along with our tendency to make predictions about the wrong things. Here’s a few excerpts:

In 1946, by which time he’d become a notable writer of science fiction, he published a story called ‘A Logic named Joe’, which described a global computer network with servers and terminals, that starts giving people the information that it thinks they ought to know as opposed to waiting for them to search for it - the Singularity, if you like, or maybe just Alexa. He also, as I recall, predicted reality TV somewhere.

Tim Berners-Lee, who?

You can see this tendency to ask the wrong questions, or questions based on the wrong framework, in this TeleGeography report from 1990. It was clear that the world was changing, and that the telephone network would see new uses. But if you’re asking about new uses for the ‘telephone network’, that of itself probably gets you to the wrong place (again, click to zoom).

The report he references illustrates how we can make the wrong predictions.

So, a pretty common theme of discussion in tech now is to ask what comes ‘after’ mobile, now that it is moving from the creation to deployment phase and the smartphone platform wars etc are over. There are a bunch of exciting things going on, certainly, from machine learning to AR and VR to electric and autonomous cars. What content will work in VR? Who will be best placed to make AR glasses? Will EV batteries be a competitive advantage, or end up, like LCD screens, as a low-margin commodity? Who will have enough of the right kind of driving data for autonomy? But every time I think about these, I try to think what questions I’m not asking. I still want a glider though.

Very astute points, especially about the questions we’re not asking ourselves (emphasis mine). I think we’re starting to see some of the post-mobile world come to fruition with a focus on the home, AR, and everything else Ben mentions, but we’re just barely on the precipice.


Feature Request: smart assistant adaptive volume and stringed requests for smart home devices

We’re gradually increasing our reliance on smart assistants, but they are far from perfect. Going hand-in-hand with them is the next mainstream computing input method: voice. Sure, voice control has been around for a while, but we’re turning the corner on it being used in extremely meaningful ways throughout the course of our daily lives.

As a big proponent of voice input and smart assistants, here’s a couple improvements that would be a next step in the right direction when it comes to improving the interaction experience.

Adaptive Volume

Picture this: your little one just fell asleep, and you go to turn on the nightlight in the room with your Amazon Echo like you always do. It goes a little something like this.

You: Alexa, turn on the nightlight — oh shit…
Alexa at full volume: OKAY!!!

Now you have to coerce your little one back to sleep. This can apply to using Siri on the iPhone or iPad, too. Sometimes I want to set the Good Night scene using Siri on my phone, but Siri’s volume is set differently from the system volume, so I’d rather not chance what it was last set to.

Ideal Solution

These assistants need to find a way to adapt their volume for the situation, based on multiple factors. If it’s late at night and quiet, it’s probably safe to say I don’t want to hear any feedback at all from Alexa, Siri, or the like. Maybe at a volume level of 3-4, but definitely nothing louder.

Conversely, if there’s a lot of noise in the room, bump that volume up so I can hear the response. All of these devices have multiple microphones built in, so it’s just a matter of software.

In short: don’t take my manual volume change as law if it doesn’t make sense for the situation. This is an instance where a computer should be allowed to decide something for us.

Alternate Solution

Give us a volume request modifier. Two examples:

You: Alexa, quietly turn on the nightlight.
Alexa changes to low volume: “Okay.”
Alexa then reverts back to original volume.

Or

You: Alexa, loudly, what time is it in New York?
Alexa changes to full volume: “THE TIME IN NEW YORK IS 11AM!!!”
Alexa then reverts back to original volume.

Stringed Requests for Smart Home Commands

Pretty straightforward. Let us string at least two commands together for controlling smart home devices. Perhaps I want to selectively control two devices at a time with Siri that aren’t part of a scene I’ve already configured. For example:

Hey Siri, turn off the foyer and living room lights.

Or

Hey Siri, unlock the door and turn on the porch light.

This would be a huge step in improving the manual control experience of smart home devices, instead of one singular command at a time.


Verizon admits to throttling LTE data for video ➔

Jon Brodkin for Ars Technica:

Verizon Wireless customers this week noticed that Netflix’s speed test tool appears to be capped at 10Mbps, raising fears that the carrier is throttling video streaming on its mobile network.

When contacted by Ars this morning, Verizon acknowledged using a new video optimization system but said it is part of a temporary test and that it did not affect the actual quality of video. The video optimization appears to apply both to unlimited and limited mobile plans.

But some YouTube users are reporting degraded video, saying that using a VPN service can bypass the Verizon throttling. The Federal Communications Commission generally allows mobile carriers to limit video quality as long as the limitations are imposed equally across different video services despite net neutrality rules that outlaw throttling. The net neutrality rules have exceptions for network management.

“We’ve been doing network testing over the past few days to optimize the performance of video applications on our network,” a Verizon spokesperson told Ars. “The testing should be completed shortly. The customer video experience was not affected.”

I’m sorry, but what the fuck?

I’m not saying carriers shouldn’t be allowed to conduct tests on their own network, but Verizon did this in the most shady way possible. No notice was provided to customers who are paying for an expected level of service, and it was only discovered due to some clever sleuthing.

Verizon is in clear favor of removing Net Neutrality regulations, so I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised at their latest bullshit.


Net Neutrality Day of Action ➔

Many websites are taking part in today’s Net Neutrality Day of Action campaign in an effort to make clear the need for retention of neutrality rules to Congress and the FCC.

If you don’t know about Net Neutrality, please read my explainer, ‘Net Neutrality and You’. The Internet is something everyone should care to protect, regardless of your political affiliation.

Head over to Battle for the Net (linked) and tell the government to butt out.


Walt Mossberg’s Exit Interview

Walt talks with Charlie Rose about his career and where he thinks technology is headed next. We’ll miss your journalistic voice, Walt. Do not go gentle into that good night!


U.S. denies visas for Afghanistan’s all-girl robotics team ➔

Amanda Erickson for The Washington Post:

For months, a team of six teenage girls has been scrambling to build a ball-sorting robot that will compete in an international competition. Other teams received their raw materials in March. But the box sent from America had been held up for months amid concerns about terrorism. So the young engineers improvised, building motorized machines from household materials.

I’m sure the hold up was a total coincidence.

To participate, the girls from the city of Herat in western Afghanistan needed permission to travel to the United States. So, after they convinced their parents to let them go, they made the 500-mile journey to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to apply for their visas. They did this twice, even though that location was targeted by a deadly truck bomb.

Their determination to compete is inspiring and really puts things into perspective. I’ve never had to worry about a deadly truck bomb in order to do something I’m passionate about.

FIRST Global president and former congressman Joe Sestak was disappointed by the news and frustrated that the “extraordinarily brave young women” won’t be able to travel to the United States and instead will have to watch their robot compete via Skype. Teams from Iraq, Iran and Sudan will be at the competition.

The State Department should be ashamed for singling out the Afghanistan team. It’s an injustice for these girls to sit this out. More par for the course…


Modern device repairability or: How I learned to stop worrying and love fixed components

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop was eviscerated (literally and figuratively) during the iFixit tear down. Of note, the Alcantara fabric that outlines the keyboard has no conceivable way to be removed without damaging the product and there are no screws that allow access to the innards. Their verdict was as follows:

The Surface Laptop is not a laptop. It’s a glue-filled monstrosity. There is nothing about it that is upgradable or long-lasting, and it literally can’t be opened without destroying it. (Show us the procedure, Microsoft, we’d love to be wrong.)

Harsh words, but it’s still a laptop, given its form factor. John Gruber pointed out the similarity to Apple products–namely the AirPods, saying:

Apple’s AirPods got a 0/10 from iFixit. That just goes to show how little correlation there is between iFixit’s concept of repairability and whether a product is good or not. I consider AirPods to be Apple’s best new product in years.

I think the argument here is that a product can perform well and have a great experience no matter how repairable it is. It could also be a piece of crap. In other words, repairability does not a good product make. I often view iFixit’s concerns about this topic to be a bit heavy-handed, but then I remember they are in the business of selling tools for that very purpose.

This does beg the question… in this day and age, with miniaturization and precision engineering, what is a reasonable expectation for repairability?


Walt Mossberg's last column: The Disappearing Computer ➔

Walt Mossberg, legendary tech columnist, has written his last article. Walt is The Godfather of personal technology columns, since his first in the Wall Street Journal in October of 1991. This last column describes what he sees coming in the next 10-20 years, and how amazing it’s going to be.

Walt will definitely be missed, but I’m sure we’ll still see him around now and then.


Despite public concerns, the FCC will begin repealing Net Neutrality regulations

Save the Internet

Credit: Joseph Gruber License

Yesterday, the FCC voted to begin rolling back Net Neutrality regulations that classified Internet Service Providers as common carriers (utilities) under Title II of the Telecommunications Act back in 2015.

This simply cannot stand for the good of all Americans, and it comes after thousand of comments were left on the FCC’s website against repealing the rules. In case you missed it, my Net Neutrality post goes into more details about the concept as a whole.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (a former Verizon lawyer, by the way) has frequently said “The Internet was not broken in 2015,” but he is completely missing the point. Net Neutrality exists to protect the internet, not fix anything that’s wrong with it. Read on to find out what’s next.


Tesla Reveals Solar Roof Pricing ➔

Tesla Solar Roof tiles

Tom Randall for Bloomberg:

Tesla will begin with production of two of the four styles it unveiled in October: a smooth glass and a textured glass tile. 1 Roofing a 2,000 square-foot home in New York state—with 40 percent coverage of active solar tiles and battery backup for night-time use—would cost about $50,000 after federal tax credits and generate $64,000 in energy over 30 years, according to Tesla’s website calculator.

If you haven’t heard about Tesla’s Solar Roof (and tiles), you really should check them out. They’re made with tempered glass and claimed to be three times stronger than standard roofing tiles. Tesla continues to be the Apple of the car/energy industry, with this blend of design and engineering.


Net Neutrality and You

Save the Internet

Credit: Joseph Gruber License

You’ve probably heard the term “Net Neutrality” before, but what is it, really? It’s a highly important topic that should be on everyone’s radar, because it affects us all. It should be a non-partisan issue, but President Trump has already repealed FCC privacy rules, in addition to the GOP passing legislation to allow the sale of private Internet data. Now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced plans to roll back regulations that classify Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as utilities. Read on for a breakdown of Net Neutrality and what we can do to fight for it.



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