NASA Langley pursuing electric 'personal air vehicles'

in science on (#H8PJ)
While companies look to deliver packages in a matter of minutes using drone technology, NASA engineers are exploring ways to bring similar "on-demand mobility" to people. In less than a decade, small commuter airlines could be flying electric planes. And as aircraft design and battery technology progress to extend even greater ease of use to the public, the sky would literally become the limit.

A key technology that NASA and its commercial partners are developing to help drive the future toward such personal air vehicles, as well as vastly improve general-aviation aircraft and commercial delivery services, is called "distributed electric propulsion." It's a rapidly evolving technology that Moore says is the biggest shift in aerospace technology since the invention of the turbine engine. By using battery-powered motors to turn compact propellers distributed along an aircraft's wing, he said, a plane becomes easier to handle, lighter, less noisy and more environmentally friendly. Demonstrator tests are showing as much as a 500 percent reduction in the energy needed to perform a high-speed cruise. It can also perform better in a tricky vertical take-off or landing.

CEO pay getting more ire from shareholders

in legal on (#H711)
story imageAs stocks of Silicon Valley companies soar and revenues are growing, institutional shareholders are typically reluctant to rock the boat by questioning a company's managers. But some grumpy investors have been sending messages of frugality to maturing tech companies such as Oracle, and Yahoo, whose executives rake in record-setting compensation packages each year. Their high pay is inviting emerging dissent.

Now required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, "say on pay" measures offer shareholders a chance to be heard in a non-binding vote for or against executive compensation plans. In June, nearly half of Salesforce shareholders thumbed their noses at Benioff's compensation in such a vote. At Yahoo, the board members who recommended Mayer's pay package were quietly hit with a minority protest vote. A McKesson investor and warehouse worker Glenn Gray spoke up at the annual shareholder meeting two years ago, in order to contrast the lavish executive pay at the giant pharmaceutical distributor, with his own low wages and benefits. Shareholders applauded his three-minute speech. He also got fired. But "the poster child for bad compensation" McKesson CEO John Hammergren's annual pay package has declined steadily in recent years.

"Generally, CEO pay is not going down, so activism has not had a tangible effect on overall pay in that respect," said Dan Marcec of Equilar. At the same time, "we're seeing a lot of people get more involved and be more scrutinizing," and boards are responding to demands for prudence by cutting some perks and better justifying others, he said. While there have been steps toward reform, the "level of pay far outstrips what is justified, even by the best performance" at many companies, said Laura Campos.

Will ATSC 3.0 make your TV useless after 2017?

in hardware on (#GQFM)
story imageConsumer Reports is sounding the early warning alarm that if the FCC adopts the upcoming ATSC 3.0 standard, expected to be completed in 2017, current TVs will go dark. ATSC 3.0 will be a completely new standard and incompatible with current broadcast systems. It is supported by a broad coalition of influential corporations, who are likely to aggressively push for adoption of the standard. Improvements include 4k/Ultra HD video, immersive audio, single frequency network technology, IP-based content, and much greater reception tolerance (eg. mobile, tunnels, etc.). Also, emergency alerts will including a digital wakeup bit that will power up your TV automatically and inform you of critical information, with maps, graphics, video, and text.

Today, there simply isn't enough TV spectrum available for broadcasters to simulcast both ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 signals, and no sign of willingness from Congress to subsidize the purchases of converter boxes, as was the case in the digital cut-over back in 2009. While there are actually more people using over-the-air TV than before the switchover, the "incentive auctions" and "repack" indicate much less interest in maintaining our OTA infrastructure, and more interest in auctioning it off to cellular phone companies for billions of dollars. From a peak of 486 MHz of TV bandwidth before 1983, the upcoming repack could reduce that to 210 MHz or less.

Will ATSC 1.0 be replaced after less than 20 years on the air (compared with the 70 year run of NTSC-M), or will ATSC 3.0 be a dead-end that goes nowhere, despite its influential supporters?

Return of the flip phone

in mobile on (#GF7K)
Flip phones were all the rage in the 1990s - they were the ultimate fashion accessory. And despite being overtaken by smartphones the world over, the flip phone paradoxically remains very popular in technology-obsessed Japan. Flip-phone shipments rose 5.7 percent in 2014, while smartphone shipments fell 5.3 percent, down for a second year. The handsets have been dubbed 'Galapagos' phones because they have evolved to meet unique Japanese standards and tastes. This may also be attributable to users in Japan paying some of the highest smartphone fees among developed nations, while flip-phone rates are among the lowest. Many Japanese, accustomed to years of deflation, are content with old-style flip-phones offering voice calling, email and basic Internet services. Also, Japanese electronics companies Panasonic Corp and NEC Corp have pulled out of the consumer smartphone business, unable to compete with Apple and Samsung, but they still make flip-phones, competing in a crowded competitive market.

Though it may be easy to mock such a low-tech choice of phone, a recent trend observed by MailOnline has seen classic 1990s models by Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola commanding four-figure sums on eBay and other resale sites. While they may lack features, these retro phones are simple to use, have batteries that last the week and are practically indestructible compared to their smartphone equivalents. And now, LG has decided to join the party.

LG has launched a new model of flip phone, branded the "LG Gentle". Despite the 90s design, chunky physical buttons and 3MP camera, it comes with numerous modern features and the budget handset can perform many more tricks than flip phones from the 90s. The handset has a 3.2-inch colour touch screen and runs Android Lollipop 5.1, a modern 1.1GHz quad-core Snapdragon 2010 processor and 1GB of RAM, supports 4G LTE, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS... The phone has launched in Korea, but there is no news as to whether it will be rolled out elsewhere.

Windows 10 changes users’ default browser to Microsoft Edge

in microsoft on (#G568)
Over at Microsoft, they have a new browser called Edge that is part of Windows 10, and they’d really like everyone to use it. Edge replaces Internet Explorer, which has fallen from a peak of about 95% usage share during 2003 to as low as 13% today. The new version of Windows steamrolls over a user’s preferred application settings and makes Microsoft’s Edge browser the default. "[T]he design of the whole upgrade experience and the default settings APIs have been changed to make this less obvious and more difficult,” Mozilla CEO Beard explains in an open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Windows 10 is a free upgrade for current home users of Windows 7 or 8, which means that it’s sure to become popular.

Mozilla is not fond of this change. They have put together an education campaign to show users how to get Mozilla’s Firefox back as their default browser after they’ve already upgraded: it’s less than a minute long, but it has become a more complex multi-step process not everyone will be able to figure out. Microsoft hasn’t responded to Mozilla’s queries about the situation or why Windows installation overrides the user’s current preferences.

A new type of GM rice fights climate change, increases yields

in environment on (#FV4C)
story imageAfter three years of field trials in China, a group of international scientists led by Chuanxin Sun at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in collaboration with Chinese and American scientists, have developed a new type of genetically modified rice that could boost food sustainability while fighting climate change..

Rice paddies are one of the largest sources of atmospheric methane, which is thought to be responsible for one-fifth of the global warming effect. The new genetically-modified strain of Nipponbare rice – equipped with a gene taken from barley – emits as little as 1% of the methane. What’s more, the new rice produces significantly higher yield per plant. The reason: More carbon going into rice grains left less carbon to go elsewhere – which ultimately feed microbes that produce methane. Scientists have been working to develop rice with higher-nutrition, low-emissions traits for years, given that the crop that plays such a significant role in the diets of some 3 billion people.

While some experts hail the findings as an important breakthrough, it seems likely to add new fuel to the heated debate over genetically modified (GM) foods. “Right now, Chinese society is very sensitive” to concerns about GM food, Sun said. China, the world’s largest producer of rice, hasn’t allowed a single genetically modified rice variety into its fields. Assuming all further research goes well, the rice still might not be available for quite a while, given the regulatory processes involved.

Carmakers refuse to share usage data with Google, Apple

in google on (#FN6M)
story imageDespite the fact that drivers frequently use in-car apps from Google and Apple, several carmakers including Volkswagen and Ford are refusing to let the industry juggernauts access private customer information in exchange. If you thought that the companies were doing so out of concerns for their consumers, you’d be wrong. Automakers want to keep such information for their own purposes. This came to light when Reuters published a recent report highlighting the potential windfall that car manufacturers refusing to partake could be missing out on procuring, estimated to be around $40 billion.

The symbiotic relationship sees carmakers utilizing technology to improve the experience for drivers and passengers whilst tech companies are constantly seeking out new outlets for their gear. Technology has now become synonymous with many drivers’ experiences. Many cars now make use of Apple’s CarPlay service and Google’s Android Auto. The risks of not playing ball with big tech companies include losing out on a sustained and promising source of revenue. Car companies may attempt to do an end-run around Apple and Google by manufacturing their own in-car tech apps, but their past record with vehicle infotainment and navigation systems has been poor. Consumer Reports found "significant rates of complaints" and called them "distracting", “unintuitive and frustrating”.

Who's Afraid of Systemd?

in linux on (#FGW5)
Now that systemd is uneventfully running the latest releases of major distributions like Debian, Fedora, and Ubuntu, you might imagine that opposition to it is melting away -- but you'd be wrong. Instead, the rumors are as common as ever. Devuan, the anti-systemd fork of Debian, is still trudging towards a release while making the same arguments as ever. Devuan's home page asks: Have you tried to opt-out of the systemd change in Debian and stay with sysvinit? You will quickly notice that "Debian offers no choice." Yet a search quickly unearths instructions for making an install image without systemd and for removing systemd from your system.

Nor does the claim that systemd violates the Unix design principles stand up under scrutiny. Systemd is actually a general name for a series of related, similarly structured commands. From this perspective, systemd conforms to the principle of one program doing a single function in much the same way as the Linux kernel or a command line shell does. It is a suite of programs, not a single monolithic one. Systemd may not be ideal, but systems continue to boot and function the way they are supposed to.

In fact, not only are the most common anti-systemd arguments easily discounted, but they are surrounded by a vagueness that raises suspicions. Wild claims are made without any attempt at substantiation. The result is an air of secrecy and danger that, however appealing and reminiscent of freedom-fighting that it might be, does nothing to justify the anti-systemd rhetoric or make it plausible. Devuan's mailing list mostly shows the same dozen or so posters, and has raised only 7934 Euros. Supporters sound as though they are doing more fear-mongering than constructive effort.

Natural gas surpasses coal as top source of electricity in US

in environment on (#F84J)
story imageFor the first time ever, natural gas trumped coal as the top source of electric power generation in the U.S. In April, roughly 31 percent of electric power generation came from natural gas, whereas coal accounted for 30 percent. It's a dramatic difference from April 2010, when coal accounted for 44 percent of the mix and natural gas just 22 percent. In last 18 months, 17 gigawatt hours of coal-fired capacity has been retired completely, much of it already replaced by gas generation. "It could be the beginning of the end for the current fleet of coal plants."

As domestic demand at power plants has been falling, global demand for U.S. coal exports also continues to sag. On Monday Chinese customs data showed coal imports in China plunged 33.7 percent in June versus a year earlier. China is the largest consumer of the commodity in the world. U.S. coal exports have been in free fall for years as countries like Australia and Indonesia have provided supply to China more inexpensively. The stronger dollar is also making American supply pricier abroad.

Coal prices have continued to crater. This is particularly true of coal mined in the eastern U.S. Since their 2011 peak, prices have nearly halved. But the ripple effects extend beyond coal stocks. Coal, a historically high-margin business for railroads, accounted for nearly 19 percent of revenue for the Class I railroads in the U.S. in 2014. Of the 1.8 billion tons of freight transported via rail in 2014, 39 percent was coal.

Microsoft admits failure in Nokia acquisition

in microsoft on (#EXQ5)
story imageWhen Microsoft announced its deal to acquire Nokia’s mobile phone business, Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive at the time, boasted that the deal was a “bold step into the future.” But on Wednesday, Microsoft’s current chief executive, Satya Nadella, sought to leave that deal in the past. He announced a broad rethinking of the company’s phone strategy, a change that includes cutting up to 7,800 jobs, mostly from the phone business, and writing off nearly all of the value of its Nokia acquisition. The move is a clear acknowledgment that the deal was a multibillion-dollar strategic blunder by Mr. Ballmer, who had envisioned it as a way to make Microsoft more competitive in the mobile market.

While Microsoft will not stop making smartphones, Mr. Nadella said on Wednesday that it would no longer focus on the growth of that business. Microsoft has continued to lose market share in smartphones since acquiring Nokia’s handset business. The company has failed to turn the Windows Phone operating system, which runs on its handsets, into a vibrant alternative to the two leading mobile platforms, iOS from Apple and Android from Google.

This has been “a big blow” for Finland's economy. The "death curve" of their electronics industry as Nokia faltered and fell to just 2-3 per cent of the global smartphone market, along with falling global demand for paper products and EU sanctions on neighboring Russia, have entrenched the Scandinavian country in a three-year recession. Meanwhile, Nokia has confirmed rumors that it intends to reenter the smartphone market. Nokia certainly won’t be recouping the massive investment required to start manufacturing smartphones again, instead they would design the products and earn the royalties, but everything else would be up to whomever they partner with.