Bill Gates: US Clean Energy R&D Funding is Woefully Inadequate

in environment on (#3PJ)
story imageSince retiring as CEO (in 2000), Chief Architect (2008), and Chairman of the Board (2013) of Microsoft, Bill Gates has devoted most of his professional life to the work of his philanthropic organization. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides grants to charities, scientists and others to fight disease and poverty, and to provide educational and technological assistance, mostly in the developing world. But Gates remains interested in science and technology of all kinds, and climate change and 'clean energy' in particular.

He has just blogged about the serious underfunding of clean energy research and development in the US - from both government and the private sector - and backed up his claim with four stunningly clear charts, based on publicly available data, showing the rapid rise of energy-related carbon emissions over the past 150 years; comparing US R&D expenditures on energy vs. other fields (e.g. defense, health care); and showing where the US stacks up against other countries (middle of the pack).

Gates advocates tripling US Government expenditures on long-term energy research, and increasing private sector research indirectly by expanding grants and streamlining regulations.

Blogger: Newspapers Can't Succeed By Repackaging Old Goods

in internet on (#3NP)
story imageThree months ago an internal strategy memo entitled The New York Times Innovation Report , detailing the challenges facing the NYT and its competitors in the digital age, appeared on the web; the leak was inevitable since the report was distributed to employees.

The report began with the statement 'The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges... producing great journalism is the hardest.'

But then came the counterpoint: 'At the same time, we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers... we haven't done enough to crack that code in the digital era.' It noted that in terms of digital traffic, the Times was falling behind both digital-focus journalism operations such as the Huffington Post and Vox Media (SB Nation, the Verge), as well as traditional competitors including the Washington Post (now owned by Amazon's Bezos) and the Wall Street Journal.

Media business blogger Thomas Baekdal has just posted his reaction to the report, challenging the assertion that the Times was 'winning at journalism' . While the individual stories appearing in the Times may meet high standards of reporting and editing, what if the problem was that readers didn't find the stories relevant to their lives?

Baekdal compares the Times and other newspapers to supermarkets like Wal-Mart, which market huge arrays of products, of which only a small percentage has relevance to any given shopper. While Baekdal acknowledges that Amazon and others have succeeded with supermarket models on the web, they generally do so by using search as entry points into targeted delivery ('Customers who browsed this item also were interested in...'). Another successful model is the community of interest model from social networking; people return each day to read or view a stream of content on topics, or from authors, that matter to them.

[2014-06-16 08:59UTC Minor formatting edits for readability.]

Anti-Troll Patent Reform Stalls in US Senate

in legal on (#3MP)
story imageIn 2011 the US Congress passed the "America Invents Act" , a so-called "patent reform" bill that seemed more like a wish list for companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Intellectual Ventures that file lots of patents and enforce them vigorously as part (or all) of their business model. That bill was signed into law by President Obama.

A follow-up bill oriented more towards what the rest of us might consider patent reform, aimed at protecting businesses from patent trolls and nuisance lawsuits was passed by the US House of Representatives last year by a vote of 325 to 91; it included provisions for requiring patent ownership to be more transparent, more specific language in infringement lawsuits, plaintiff liability for legal costs in unsuccessful lawsuits, delaying legal discovery during a lawsuit until the court has finished reviewing the claims, and allowing companies to protect end users against skip-level infringement lawsuits.

However, the counterpart bill in the Senate was postponed indefinitely on Wednesday by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, apparently because of infighting between the pro-reform faction (Internet companies including Google, Facebook, and Amazon; other tech companies such as Verizon; and retailers) and the go-slow faction (pharmaceutical companies, trial lawyers and universities). Here's the statement from the universities on the postponement.

[Ed note: there seems to be general consensus that patent reform is desperately necessary to correct a deeply flawed system. But if government is unable to do it, then what do we do?]

Bitcoin Explained in Five Minutes

in internet on (#3HB)
David Andolfatto, VP of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis offers a slide deck providing an easy-to-read overview of what Bitcoin is, how it works, and how it compares to old-fashioned currency [PDF] (from a central banker's perspective, remember) in terms of intrinsic value, security, and price stability. Andolfatto includes references to the Mt. Gox meltdown and to the recent IRS ruling that Bitcoin is property rather than currency; also, he's got jokes on the second slide (for the benefit of techies) and second-to-last slide (for the benefit of bankers). I think he's wrong about the size of the Bitcoin source code, though - he says it's 17 MB, but from a quick google search it doesn't look all that big .

[Ed. note: This is timely given how much Bitcoin, Dogecoin, and similar have been in the news recently. What does Pipedot think? Is cryptocurrency a passing fad, or the first chink in the armor of government regulated currencies?]

The Fallacies of Big Data

in internet on (#3H5)
It's been almost ten years since two Google engineers published a paper describing the architecture of Map Reduce , a framework for simplifying the development and deployment of algorithms that process terabytes or petabytes of data across a cluster of commodity servers. The Open Source community soon responded with Hadoop , a Map Reduce work-alike, and in the following years it seems that most large IT organizations, and many startups, have jumped on the bandwagon pitching the virtues of Big Data, Hadoop and/or NoSQL as a revolutionary set of techniques for capturing actionable trends and correlations from the firehose of real-time data (clickstream, Twitter feeds, Facebook likes, server logs, sensor and surveillance data, mobile call events, and of course, all the stuff the NSA looks at).

Tim Harford of the Financial Times points out that this methodology is subject to various types of sampling bias , even in cases where the more enthusiastic proponents claim to be 'observing the entire population, not just a statistical sample'. First, data collected from social media or smart phone apps is heavily biased by the user profile of those technologies, whch is disproportionately young, affluent, and urban or suburban. Harford mentions the famous case of the Literary Digest, a well-established magazine that forecasted a landslide victory for Alf Landon in the 1936 US Presidential election, based on a massive poll of one out of five eligible voters - whose contact information was pulled from telephone subscriber lists (Landon lost the election to Franklin Roosevelt, who carried all but two of the 48 states; Literary Digest ceased publication soon afterwards).

Second, people adjust their behavior over time with respects to various topics in the news. The sudden increases in flu-related searches that made Google Flu Trends look very prescient five winters ago, turned into a debacle when Google used similar data to warn of a severe flu outbreak four years later; but the flu season turned out to be average when the curated data from the CDC finally came in.

What about the famous anecdote about Target finding out that a teenage customer was pregnant before her dad did? Maybe so, says a researcher quoted in Harford's article, but there's an issue with false positives. The world likely didn't hear about other Target customers who got pregnancy-related marketing materials they wouldn't have any use for.

Bill Krause looks back on 35 years of networking revolution

in hardware on (#3H3)
story imageThere's a generation of now mostly-retired folks who had the fortune of living through the amazing technological changes that saw the world go digital, the Internet go mainstream, and networking become the conversation not of niche technical specialists but teenagers with smartphones. Bill Krause is one of them. He was a sales engineer in 1967, mentored by none other than Bill Hewlett of Hewlett Packard. Along the way in his interesting career, he saw the rise of Ethernet, became the CEO of 3COM, and rubbed shoulders with giants. Now, in a fascinating interview, Bill Krause tells the story of those magnificent decades : the age of 40 pound calculators, his $100 billion mistake, and the early days of the computer revolution.

Like this nugget, for example, about the beginning of 3COM:
No sooner had I started at the company when I get a call from this guy in Seattle. It was Bill Gates. He and Paul Allen were our first customers... Our second customer was a young guy in Cupertino by the name of Steve Jobs. And our third customer was [Sun Microsystems cofounder] Andy Bechtolsheim.
Or this one: 3Com introduced Ethernet Thinnet (CATV-style) cabling, which moved the transceiver electronics onto a PC adapter board to make Ethernet practical for an office. You'd think Steve Jobs would be impressed by the demo, but instead, Krause say Jobs told him and Bob Metcalfe, "Who's the brain-dead a****** that came up with this s***? This is dreck, this is crap. You want to make it easy to install, just plug it into the telephone jack for cryin' out loud."

This Bill Krause interview is just a starting point: if you're hungry for more, there's more on the history of Xerox PARC, 3Com and the PC networking industry at the History of Computer Communications site.

Tesla's Lithium-Ion batteries causing a ruckus in the USA and China

in science on (#3GV)
story imageLithium Ion batteries are a big deal: they are used in smartphones, laptops, and many other electronic gadgets, as well has electric and hybrid vehicles. But they're a bigger deal when hybrid vehicle producer Tesla gets involved. The sheer size of electric vehicle batteries makes Tesla potentially one of the largest consumers of the world's natural graphite production; some analysts estimate that the opening of the Tesla gigafactory will double the world's demand for graphite.

But that graphite might soon be in short supply. Bloomberg recently reported that the material commonly used for the anode of those batteries - graphite - will soon be in short supply because of environmental issues. Graphite mining and processing has produced substantial air and water pollution in China, leading authorities to close dozens of mines and processing plants in Shandong province. (China currently produces the vast majority of the world's supply of natural graphite; other countries, including Australia and Canada, could potentially ramp up to take up a portion of the slack).

But building Li-Ion batteries for Tesla is causing the politicians to sit up and take notice. At present, four southwestern American states vie to be selected as the site of Tesla Motor's announced 'Gigafactory' , a 1000-acre factory for lithium-ion batteries projected to cost $5 billion and support 6500 local jobs.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk quickly tweeted that the Bloomberg story was 'beyond ridiculous' and promised to post an environmental impact blog. After a week, the proposed statement has still not been posted.

IBM Scrambles To Stay In XaaS Race

in internet on (#3GF)
story imageCEO Ginny Rometty is finishing off another round of divesting commodity product lines, along with associated headcount, as IBM tries to remain in the forefront of high-margin IT product and service businesses. At or near the top of Rometty's forward agenda is cloud computing, starting with the expansion of the SoftLayer business IBM bought last year.

Some investors like the story. But, as the folks at (a very underrated news site focusing on IBM and its competitors) point out, cloud computing might not turn into the sort of high margin business IBM is accustomed to, even with the enticement of Big Data analytics that IBM and others have been pushing.

Meanwhile, in contrast with generations past, many of the biggest consumers of IT are also among the biggest and innovative producers of platform technology: Google, Amazon, Facebook.