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Illustration of phones with scenarios from natural disasters.

Coding for Catastrophe: Contest Seeks Apps to Mitigate Effects of Natural Disasters

The United Nations’ Human Rights Office, the American Red Cross, the David Clark Cause, and IBM today announced Call for Code, a contest seeking applications that address natural disasters—aiding either prevention, response, or recovery.  The disasters of 2017—fires, floods, earthquakes, and storms—stretched the capacity of traditional response methods, and sparked the United Nations to look for innovative ways to improve the situation, a press release from IBM indicated.

The contest’s application window opens 18 June; the last day for submissions is 31 August. Every entrant will, during the contest period, receive access to a number of IBM’s technologies, including its Cloud, Blockchain, Watson, PowerAI, and Z mainframe platforms. The winner of the Call for Code Global Prize, to be announced in October, will receive US $200,000, and two semifinalists will receive $25,000 each.

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Photograph of The Boring Company's flamethrower with a flame coming out of the tip.

Flamethrowers? Cyborg Dragons? Elon Musk’s Side Hustle is Anything but Boring

Electric cars, space rockets...and flamethrowers? Elon Musk’s big ventures, Tesla and SpaceX, are recognized worldwide. Both companies started out with what seemed, at the time, a crazy idea. But now they are big companies, with little room for crazy.

Crazy, it seems, is where Musk’s Boring Company comes in. Musk started it in 2016 when, frustrated with Los Angeles traffic, he proposed an underground network of tunnels, starting with one to speed his commute to his offices at SpaceX. The Boring Company’s initial plan was to send individual cars (not subway trains) through the tunnels on high-speed electric sleds. In March, he pivoted, shifting the company’s focus to pedestrians and cyclists. He tweeted: “Will still transport cars, but only after all personalized mass transit needs are met. It’s a matter of courtesy & fairness. If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.”

A network of underground tunnels for individual transportation isn’t science fiction. The Boring Company has already obtained permits to dig in Los Angeles and Maryland, and is a finalist in the bidding to build a system that will whisk passengers between downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport in 20 minutes or less. (Boring’s final proposal for this project is due 18 May.) And Musk has said via Twitter that he could vastly reduce the costs of building a new Transbay tunnel between San Francisco and the East Bay.

But the Boring Company is much more than a transit company. It’s become Musk’s personal playground—one he’s funded to the tune of more than $100 million. And it’s already had a few products on the market.

Like hats. A limited edition Boring Co. hat went on sale last year and sold 50,000 at $20 a hat. Selling hats might seem silly—but that’s a million dollars in revenue. And remember, there was once a time when Tesla was nothing but hats.

Then came the personal flamethrower. Who knows why, but the Boring Company this year racked up sales of 20,000 flamethrowers at US $500 each, along with what the company called “overpriced fire extinguishers.” (You know all the cool geeks will have them at Burning Man this year.)

And just last month, Musk started talking about building cyborg dragons. Nobody knows exactly what this means, but it does seem like a natural evolution from the flamethrower.

A more practical project on Boring’s drawing board is the LEGO-like building kit. Digging tunnels means a lot of waste rock to dispose of; Musk envisions that rock cut into standard blocks and sold ready for assembly.

By the way, the Boring Company is hiring. According to the company’s website, its current openings include software, electrical, mechanical, industrial automation, and reliability engineers. No details are available, but you have to believe that whatever you will be working on won’t be boring.

As I’m watching Musk toss ideas into his Boring blender, I’m reminded of another rather creative entrepreneur, Nolan Bushnell of Atari fame. In 1981, Bushnell opened up Catalyst Technologies in Sunnyvale. Officially, Catalyst was a startup incubator—but most of the ideas being incubated came out of Bushnell’s own imaginings and the funding mostly came out of his own pocket. In other words, it was a lot more like Boring than what comes to mind when we think of an incubator today. Catalyst’s projects included a car navigation system, personal robots, and interactive television before almost anybody thought any of this was possible. “I read science fiction, and I wanted to live there,” Bushnell told Fast Company last year. Sound like Musk, much?

Illustration of a woman whose shadow is that of a superhero.

Invisibility Can Be a Superpower, T-shirts Matter, and More Insights From Women in Tech

Could a small group of women in tech tell me anything about what it’s like to be a woman in tech today? Earlier this month, IBM’s San Francisco team invited me to give it a try. They set me up on a dinner date with three women—one in her 20s, one in her 40s, and one in her 50s. The three hadn’t met before. We had no formal agenda, just a general plan to talk about their experiences. It was pretty bold of the company to suggest that the experiences of three women could coalesce into anything meaningful—but I think it did.

Here’s who I met and what I learned.

The women:

  • From the Baby Boomer generation, Angie Krackeler, who goes by the lengthy title of worldwide developer and startup technical enablement advocate. Basically, Krackeler says, she helps startups use IBM technology. Krackeler has an M.S. in electrical engineering, and started her IBM career 30 years ago as a chip designer.
  • Representing Gen X, Erin McKean, a developer advocate. McKean’s role, she says, is “everything API,” including one of her favorite parts of her job, building demos for developers. Prior to joining IBM, McKean spent 20 years as a dictionary editor (she has an M.A. in linguistics), and took a number of coding classes along the way. McKean says the step from dictionaries to computers was a small one: “A dictionary is a database on paper, and JavaScript is a lot easier to learn than German.”
  • And from the millennials, Anamita Guha, a product manager for IBM Watson developer labs and AR/VR labs. Guha’s job involves creating tools for developers that help them use Watson. She came to IBM a year ago after, she says, hopping through a number of intense tech startups. Her B.A. degree is in cognitive science, and she started and sold her first tech company while still in college.

My takeaways:

Invisibility can be a superpower

Women in tech often talk about being overlooked or ignored. At events, they are regularly assumed to part of the support staff instead of members of the tech team. Some describe it as feeling invisible in an industry dominated by “tech bros.” But invisibility, it seems, can be a superpower.

Says McKean: “Invisibility is fantastic. People say things in front of you when they shouldn’t. I’ve been in a coffee shop a number of times, and seen two dudes sitting at the other table look around, thinking, ‘Oooh, we are going to have our strategy discussion now.’ They see me and are like, ‘Oh, that middle-aged mom doesn’t care about our venture strategy.’ And I’m like, ‘Wrong, dude.’ This was particularly interesting when I was raising venture money myself.”

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2 phones with people and a heart and Facebook icon on them to indicate dating through Facebook.

Zuckerberg Wants to Make Facebook About Dating

In the movie The Social Network, writer Aaron Sorkin suggested that Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook pretty much just to meet girls. Zuckerberg denied that at the time, saying that even from its tiny start at Harvard, Facebook’s goal was to improve the world. The truth is likely somewhere in between.

But after a year of struggling with Facebook’s privacy issues, security breaches, fake news, and political manipulation, the idea of using Facebook to meet girls is a lot more appealing to Zuckerberg than it has been in recent years. In today’s keynote speech at Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Zuckerberg talked about his continued efforts to reorient the social network away from passive consumption of news and videos and towards personal interactions, like groups, individual messages, and dating.

When he’s out and about, Zuckerberg said, couples will come up to him and say they met on Facebook, point to their kids, and thank him. “I’m really proud of that,” he says. (It’s got to be better than testifying in front of Congress).

And all this matchmaking has been happening, he says, without any particular features on Facebook that facilitate it. “Two hundred million people on Facebook list themselves as single, so clearly there’s something to do here,” he said.

Zuckerberg announced a new set of features designed to help people find dates, and the audience of developers responded with loud cheers and applause (though not quite as loud as the cheers reacting to the announcement that all attendees would receive a free Oculus Go).

Facebook’s dating tools, Zuckerberg said, will be “about building long term relationships, not just hookups.” They will keep people’s dating profiles private—and will screen suggestions to make sure they never suggest people you already connect with on Facebook. (Has the man never seen When Harry Met Sally?)

Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, explained in more detail. Facebook’s dating service will operate as a separate app, show first names only, and not share information with Facebook’s news feed. It will be event centric, that is, you indicate interest in going to event, and then check out possible matches who are also interested in attending the same event. This, said Cox, is something he thought would be the next app when he joined Facebook in 2005—it just took longer than he expected.

Photo of a keyboard with a Facebook thumbs down icon.

Been Whining About Facebook? How About YOU Build Something Better

Facebook is a mess, right? It doesn’t respect our privacy, it’s built to addict us, and it’s been taken over by misinformation—we’re all complaining about it, but the number of us who have dropped it is miniscule. That’s because there’s no real alternative unless we all jump to a new network, and that’s just impossible. Or is it?

Launch, the incubator run by Jason Calacanis’, is offering seed money—$100,000 to each of seven companies—to start the process of replacing Facebook via its OpenBook Challenge. Calacanis, writing in a blog post, says that the winning Facebook alternative will respect and protect consumers’ privacy, respect democracy and protect it from bad actors, respect and protect the truth by stopping the spread of misinformation, not try to manipulate people by using the tools of addiction, and protect freedom of speech while curbing abuse. That’s a heady set of goals, but yes, it sure would be great to have a social network that did all that—and let us connect with those who sat in front of us in high school calculus.

If you think you can do all that, you have until 15 June to submit an entry here. That entry could be in the form of a video tour of a proposed service, an actual product, or a minimally viable product. On 1 July, Launch will announce 20 finalists, then on 30 September, the incubator will invite seven startups and three alternates to join its incoming class. The top 7 will each receive $100,000 in return for six percent equity.

What will be the secret sauce to replacing Facebook? Nobody knows. Says Calacanis, “In order to beat Facebook, many believe the winning team will have to not only build a base functionality that is familiar to users looking to switch, but also provide new experiences that will make users passionate about the new product. Others believe it will be a completely new paradigm…. We think many different paths could lead to the promised land.”

Illustration of people moving through red and green arrows to denote hiring and firing.

Who’s Firing? (Qualcomm, GoPro, and IBM—Again) Who’s Hiring? (Facebook, Apple, Amazon)

In what has practically turned into an annual sign of spring, IBM rained layoff notices down on its tech workforce in late March and again in April. According to waves of anecdotal reports posted online at TheLayoff.com and Watching IBM, workers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands were hit starting March 29 with 90 days’ notice.

This time, it wasn’t just workers over 50 years old who were targeted (though the bulk of reports did seem to come from people in that age group); many in their 40s reported getting notices as well. And a few relatively new hires indicated that they, also, were hit by the April cuts; one has to wonder if this broader swing of the ax was in reaction to the ProPublica/Mother Jones report that past IBM layoffs overwhelmingly targeted older workers.

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Outside image of the Lumi Labs headquarters

Marissa Mayer’s New Startup Gets Lucky (a Lucky Building, That Is)

Just about everyone in Silicon Valley acknowledges that running a successful startup takes more than a great technology and the right people—it takes a little bit of luck.

And Marissa Mayer, former Yahoo CEO and Google employee number 20, doesn’t deny the power a little luck has had on her career. She once told me that she wouldn’t have landed the Google gig that sent her career trajectory shooting skyward without “a long-distance relationship and a really bad bowl of pasta” that kept her up late in her Stanford dorm room, randomly opening the recruiter emails she had previously decided to ignore.

When Mayer started that job at Google in 1999, the company had just moved into offices on the second floor of 165 University Avenue in Palo Alto, recently vacated by an outpost of Logitech. Google didn’t stay in that space for even a year, quickly outgrowing it. But Google’s tenancy at 165 University kicked off what became a string of successful renters, including PayPal, Danger, Milo (sold to eBay), and photobook startup Picaboo (still private) have since inhabited that space, a track record that has turned into the legend of the lucky office. “There’s a lot of good juju” in that space, Mayer told the New York Times in an article published this week.

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A photo of Charles Trimble from the mid to late 90’s

Charles Trimble Bet His Company on GPS—and Won

Next month, Brad Parkinson receives the IEEE Medal of Honor for his work bringing GPS navigation from concept to reality. Parkinson told me in January that he’d always wanted a cheap, consumer version of the technology—though he never imagined just how cheap and ubiquitous it would become.

Writing a profile of Parkinson sent me down a trail of my own—into my memory banks, to recall the others who made GPS something we can take for granted today. In addition to Parkinson, there’s Ivan Getting, whose vision set the stage for GPS today—the full text of my 1991 article on Getting is here. And there’s Charles Trimble, who shared Parkinson’s vision of consumer applications for GPS. His company, Trimble Inc., introduced its first GPS product in 1984, a system designed for off-shore oil drilling platforms. In 1994, the company brought out its first GPS receiver that fit on a PC card. The full text of that profile is below.

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Professor Ivan Getting working in his laboratory.

For GPS, Also Thank Ivan Getting; He Got “the Damn Thing Funded”

In 1991, I sat down with Ivan Getting, then age 79 and retired but still serving on the boards of directors of several companies. The U.S. satellite navigation system, now referred to as GPS, then more commonly called Navstar, wasn’t complete, but covered most of the world and had proved essential to the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf War. We thought Spectrum’s readers would want  to know more about how Getting came to play such a big role in making Navstar.

I had no idea at the time just how much GPS would come to mean personally, to me and just about everyone. Getting had some good stories to tell, so I was interested, but GPS hadn’t changed my life—at least, not yet.

Getting was the first satellite navigation pioneer to tell me his story, but not the last. The next year I interviewed Charles Trimble, founder of Trimble navigation and one of the first to bet his company on the commercial possibilities of satellite navigation; the full text of that profile is here. (In just that short year, we’d stopped calling the technology Navstar, it was now and going forward GPS.)

This year, I met with a third key figure in the history of satellite navigation, Brad Parkinson, who, as an Air Force colonel, took Getting’s vision of satellite navigation and ran the program that got that system spec’d out and launched (literally). Next month, Parkinson will receive the 2018 IEEE Medal of Honor for his work.

This time I knew how much of a difference GPS made to the world and to me, so was more than a little excited. On the way to meet Parkinson, I also thought about what I’d perhaps lost—once in a while in that pre-GPS past, wrong turns led to even better destinations than those originally targeted. But the net gain has been a huge, even though my children will never know how to read a Thomas guide or a AAA Triptik.

What follows below is my 1991 article profiling Ivan Getting. It covers the development of Navstar, along with an early project in Getting’s career which evolved into the “Scudbuster” used in the Gulf War, other technical projects, and the origins of the Aerospace Corp.

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Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Martin Starr, Thomas Middleditch in a scene from Season 5 of Silicon Valley

Where is HBO Silicon Valley’s Real Pied Piper? Look in Ayr, Scotland

Pied Piper, the fictional startup of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” began as a data compression company. Producers during its first few seasons consulted with researchers at Stanford who specialize in compression algorithms—first, Tsachy Weissman and Vinith Misra, and later Dmitri Pavlichin—to put a real-world spin on discussions about its technology and the whiteboards explaining it. Weissman developed a new compression metric, the Weissman Score, for the show; real-world researchers even started using it. And Misra wrote a technical paper, published online, explaining a fictional (and R-rated) improvement to the compression algorithm.

But like so many startups, Pied Piper eventually pivoted to a different business model—and a new technology. Last season, Richard Hendriks and his team changed their focus to decentralizing the Internet, that is, creating what the show explained as a peer-to-peer network of websites “with no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying.”

This wasn’t a unique idea, though it hadn’t gotten a huge amount of notice outside of segments of the tech industry. In 2015, Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, published a white paper making a case for a Decentralized Web, and in 2016 the Internet Archive held the first Decentralized Web Summit. Meanwhile, several real-world startups were working on developing the technology, including Anonymouse and MaidSafe. (While HBO Silicon Valley refers to a decentralized Internet, what the show describes is generally what the rest of the tech world calls a decentralized web.)

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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.
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Tekla Perry
Palo Alto, Calif.
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