View From the Valley iconView From the Valley

Photograph of the Light L16 Camera, showing off it's 16 individual modules.

Light Camera Founder Explains Delays, Software Bugs, and Slow Data Transfer

Light, the company that aims to revolutionize photography by digitally combining the output of dozens of small, low-cost camera modules with plastic lenses to create professional-quality images, started filling pre-orders last July, after about a year of delays.

Reviews, to date, have been less than enthusiastic, dinging the device on its low light performance, slow transfer rates, focusing issues, and spotty resolution with artifacts. The company promises, however, that these problems are solvable—and will be fixed quickly.

I checked in with Light founder and CTO Rajiv Laroia for the details. (For more on the camera’s development, read this article that Laroia wrote for IEEE Spectrum in October 2016.)

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How to boost women in tech? Bring in powerful women from other fields, says tech historian

The Numbers of Women in Tech Rise and Fall, But Sexual Harassment is Ever Present

Reports of sexual harassment continue to rock the tech industry and the world beyond. In a recent survey of startup founders, 78 percent of female founders said they’ve been sexually harassed or know someone else who has.

But sexual harassment is nothing new; even in the early days of computing, when women made up the vast majority of computer programmers and operators, harassment was a problem, reports historian Marie Hicks.

Hicks, author of Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, pointed out the tech sector’s sorry history to an audience at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

“Whenever women are talking about their experience, sooner or later, it comes up,” she said.

During the development of the secret Colossus computer, the world’s first programmable electronic digital computer, in the 1940s, she said, the women operating the machine worked really long shifts in a hot machine room. “A couple of the women are cooling off outside the machine room one night, and one of their fellow workers, a ‘gentleman,’ comes by and says, ‘If you want to cool off, why don’t you take off your tops.’”

In another iconic episode, Hicks reported, Dame Stephanie Shirley started her own software company after her efforts to advance in an established computer company were stymied by the men above her. Her company, Freelance Programmers, hired virtually all women, and business boomed.

“At one point, she was bidding for a government job,” Hicks says, “and a high-level British minister pinched her bottom, as she put it, in the middle of her pitch.”

It’s all a matter of power, Hicks pointed out—and women have never had their share of it. Women dominated computer programming in its early days because the field wasn’t seen as a career, just a something someone could do without a lot of training and would do for only a short period of time. Computer jobs had no room for advancement, so having women “retire” in their 20s was not seen as a bad thing. And since women, of course, could never supervise men, Hicks said, women who were good at computing ended up training the men who ended up as their managers.

But when it became clear that computers—and computer work—were important, women were suddenly pushed out of the field.

“As the gender labor flip was occurring, a whole lot of talent was being shown the door,” Hicks said. “The young men being trained to do [computing] a lot of times don’t like it and don’t stay long—and why should they? They have career prospects in other areas, why go into the nascent field?”

The British computing industry, both governmental and private sector, hemorrhaged talent, she says—and essentially lost its lead in tech because of it.

This history, Hicks says, yields lessons for today.

First of all, she said, it debunks the “fiction we have today,” which says, that “if you get the skills you need—you learn to code—you will make it through the STEM pipeline.” History shows that it just isn’t true. “It’s not about the skills, it’s about who’s doing the work. The work gets valued in different ways depending on who is doing it.” That’s why, Hicks pointed out, today software developers have a higher status and pay than people who do quality assurance and testing—jobs that require similar skills but “because of who usually does these jobs are valued differently in a way that is disproportionate to the content of the work.”

“This isn’t a STEM problem or a computing problem,” Hicks says. “It is a broad social problem.”

And the fix for it doesn’t involve a better pipeline, she says, but changing things at the top. We have an opportunity to do that now, she says, because “tech is becoming more diffuse; the higher you go, the fewer tech skills you need.

“What can be done is to get high level women in other fields to make lateral moves into tech. Though they will be few in number, they won’t be starting at the bottom; they will be coming in at a level where they will have enough influence to change something.”

Up next for historian Hicks: a prehistory of algorithmic bias. She is trying to figure out when the various forms of discrimination that exist in computers today first got baked into the technology.

The example that got her started on this research, she told the Computer History Museum audience, came up during her work on Programmed Inequality. “I found some closed files that seemed to have something to do with transgender people and the government’s main pension computer,” she says. It took her years to get access to those files—and when she did, she discovered that they contained petitions from people who wanted to correct their gender on national insurance cards. Before the system was computerized, the British government generally accommodated those requests, Hicks said. But when the computer came in, the system was “specifically designed to no longer accommodate them, instead, to literally cause an error code to kick out of the processing chain any account of a ‘known transsexual.’”

Marie Hicks’ full discussion with David Brock, director of the Computer History Museum’s Center for Software History, is available here.

Illustration of a laptop computer with people in a network, representing candidates for tech jobs.

What Tech Skills are Hot (React, Cloud) or Not (Linux, Tableau)

It’s a good time to have experience in React, the JavaScript library used to create user interfaces, according to a study released this week by job search firm Meanwhile, a growing number of job seekers are touting their Linux skills, but employers are less interested. And Python’s status is, well, complicated, the Indeed study showed.

Indeed looked at the changes in search terms used by tech workers and by recruiters over the past two years, considering the October 2015 through September 2016 and October 2016 through September 2017 time periods. According to that analysis, React is up 313 percent year over year as a job seeker interest, and 229 percent as an employer interest. Cloud computing skills also appear to be blazingly hot, with interest in Amazon Web Services up 98 percent for job seekers and 40 percent for employers. Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform saw a 51-percent boost in searches by job seekers and a 62-percent jump for employers.

A few tech skills popular among job seekers did not do as well with employers. Interest in Tableau, Laravel, Golang, Unity, Django, and Linux all dropped on the employer side in 2017, according to search volume.

The study also showed an 18 percent drop in searches by employers for Python skills, but demand for Python experience isn’t cooling off that much. Daniel Culbertson, Indeed economist, pointed out in a blog post that, because Spark, up 14 percent among employer searches, and other technologies incorporate the language, “its importance as a skill is greater than its standing on its own indicates.”

Indeed’s analysis didn’t just limit itself to tech skills—Mandarin, the dominant language of China, showed a 49 percent increase in interest by job seekers, according to the study, but dropped 39 percent for employers.

The top 15, according to job-seeker interest, below:

Percent change in search volume, 2017 over 2016*

Search Term Job Seeker Employer
1. React 313 percent 229 percent
2. Amazon Web Services 98 percent 40 percent
3. Azure 51 percent 62 percent
4. Angular 50 percent 6 percent
5. Mandarin 49 percent -39 percent
6. Tableau 48 percent -40 percent
7. Laravel 43 percent -28 percent
8. Golang 39 perent -4 percent
9. Spark 39 percent 14 percent
10. Offensive Security Certified 37 percent 34 percent
11. Unity 36 percent -33 percent
12. Django 35 percent -18 percent
13. Linux 31 percent -27 percent
14. Python 29 percent -18 percent
15. R 28 percent 3 percent

*Terms are ranked by job seeker searches, then color coded by employer searches. A greater than 20 percent growth is green, 20 percent growth to 20 percent drop yellow, greater than 20 percent drop red

Correction made 11 December

Xerox Parc researchers arrive in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1977, where they would soon unveil their vision for the office of the future.

Behind the Scenes at Xerox Parc’s Futures Day—40 Years Ago

When we look back at history making tech demos, first on the list is typically Doug Engelbart’s 1968 “Mother of All Demos” that introduced windows, video conferencing, and the mouse.

Next on the list? How about Xerox Parc’s “Futures Day”?

Futures Day wasn’t widely recognized before last month, but thanks to a couple of 40-year-commememorations, it is claiming its place in history.

Futures Day took place in Boca Raton, Florida, on 10 November 1977. Three-hundred-plus Xerox executives and their wives had gathered for an annual meeting, and the Parc team had been invited to demo their work. They had a lot to show off—like the Alto networked desktop computers, laser printers, word processing software, email, circuit design tools. More than 100 Parc staff members worked on the demo, and nearly 50 went to Boca Raton to put on the show, recalled former Parc researcher Chuck Geschke. Geschke was there from 1972 to 1982, when he left to start Adobe Systems.

Geschke spoke with historian Leslie Berlin in front of a packed house of current Parc staff members, alumni, and interested outsiders gathered on the Parc campus Thursday evening.

The researchers went to Hollywood for help on building a set, with four mock cubicles. They then dragged 20 Alto computers and six laser printers to Boca Raton, leasing space on two DC-10s to get it all there, Geschke reported.

And they really were making it all up as they went along.

“We knew about SRI and the amazing demo,” he said, but the Parc team hadn’t actually seen it.  “We didn’t have a road map; Steve Jobs wasn’t around yet to show us what to do on the stage.”

First they had to fix the Altos. “Personal computers weren’t as reliable in those days, when you move them things move inside them,” Geschke said.

That wasn’t unexpected. But what they hadn’t foreseen was the heat problem in steamy Florida.

The air conditioning in hotel was designed for a social event, not for all this hardware generating all this heat, Geschke recalled, and, as all the gear started running, the temperature inside quickly climbed to 100 degrees. The Altos weren’t going to survive that, said Geschke. Then, he recalled, John Ellenby, who was running the demo effort, remembered that when planes were sitting by the gate at the Fort Lauderdale airport, refrigeration trucks drove up and pumped cool air through a hose.

So, said Geschke, “We called the airport in Ft Lauderdale and sweet talked them into lending us a truck.”

That was only part of the battle, he recalled. Because the airport trucks just operated on the tarmac, they didn’t have license plates. The researchers were nothing if not problem solvers—this was the team that, when told by Xerox management that they weren’t authorized to purchase a PDP-10 mainframe computer, built one themselves.

“We called the state police,” Geschke said, and arranged a police escort to the hotel.

Getting the cold air from the truck into the demo room posed another challenge. “We found a window we were able to pull out,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was a tree in front of it. We got an ax and cut down the tree—you gotta do what you gotta do. We didn’t tell the hotel.”

It was an odd time to be at a meeting of Xerox executives, Berlin pointed out. The executives were spending their days and nights in coddled luxury. They were “flown first class, driven in luxury cars, wined and dined every night, and their wives had fashion shows. Henry Kissinger the featured speaker, at a fancy event with live orchestras and champagne.”

During the days of meetings, however, the Xerox executives preached doom and gloom, as Japanese copier companies were encroaching on Xerox’s business and Xerox’s stock had dropped dramatically on the day the event opened.

The Parc researchers were held out as the hope for a better future, but the executives didn’t exactly embrace their vision.

After a couple of hours of demos, the executives were directed to hands-on demos at exhibit booths. “Their body language was clear,” Geschke said, as they marched through with arms crossed in the classic defensive posture, some expressing surprise to see men typing so well.

“The wives, though, thought it was great,” he said.

And looking back across the decades at Futures Day, it turns out the wives were right.

Doug Brotz does a live demonstration on the restored Xerox Alto.

The Xerox Alto Struts Its Stuff on Its 40th Birthday

The Xerox Alto, widely recognized as the first modern personal computer, pioneered just about every basic concept we are familiar with in computers today. These include windows, bit-mapped computer displays, the whole idea of WYSIWIG interfaces, the cut/paste/copy tools in word processing programs, and pop-up menus. Most of this vision of the “office of the future” was first unveiled at a meeting of Xerox executives held on 10 Nov 1977, which was 40 years ago last week.

To celebrate that birthday, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., brought together some of Parc researchers who worked on the Alto on Friday. They put it through its paces in a series of live demos. These demos used an Alto that had been restored to working order over the past eight months. (Though Doug Brotz, now a fellow at Adobe systems, noted that today’s Alto emulator for Mac computers runs some five times as fast as an actual Alto.) The demo event is now available for streaming on Facebook.

The biggest takeaway? Very little has changed in the everyday software—the email clients, word processing programs, and circuit design and graphics editing tools—that we use on our personal computers; the Alto team bestowed upon the machine a host of good ideas that have yet to be bested.

“My kids wouldn’t find anything impressive” about that evening’s demos, said John Shoch, now a general partner at Alloy Ventures. Every feature, he pointed out, would be familiar to them from software today. Shoch was a member of the Xerox Parc research staff, and later served as president of Xerox’s Office Systems Division.

But, it turns out, the Alto had feature or two that got left behind when Steve Jobs and others were grabbing at all of its bits and pieces and turning them into mass market computers. The one that got probably the biggest gasp—a “wait, I want that” reaction from the crowd attending the demos live—was a feature called “Replay” that was part of the Alto’s word processing system.

During the demo of the Bravo word processing program, Tom Malloy, retired now but most recently senior vice president and chief software architect at Adobe Systems, made a (perhaps staged) mistake that ended up deleting most of the document. Like today’s word processing programs, Bravo had an undo feature that would have allowed him to recover had he not performed any actions after the delete. Unfortunately, he had (an annoyance I run into far too often).

But Bravo wasn’t limited to “undo.” It had another way of handling mistakes: You could “replay” all your previous edits (in something that looked somewhat like a high-speed video) and simply stop wherever you wanted.

I want that.

A less obvious, but also useful feature, Shoch pointed out, was the Alto’s ability to rebuild its directories from information stored with the documents, even if the directories themselves were irreversibly damaged.

Of course, at any reunion of tech pioneers, stories are told. I’ve been covering the history of the Alto since the early 1980s [PDF], so I thought I’d heard most of them. But not all, it turns out. While history has focused on the developers, there was another side to it all—that of the users.

Once the researchers got laser printing working, the lure of using these tools for personal business was irresistible. “The researchers—and their spouses­—were doing PTA reports, personal correspondence, doctoral theses,” said Charles Simonyi, who oversaw the development of Word and other Microsoft Office applications and is now back at Microsoft after its acquisition of his startup, Intentional Software.

And a few of those documents weren’t just PTA reports and letters to Mom. The original business plan for the Macintosh computer was written at Parc on an Alto and printed using Parc’s Dover laser printer, Shoch reported. As was the screenplay for the movie Tron.

This broad range of users pushed the envelope in another way. Says Brotz, who worked on Laurel, the Alto’s email client software: “Email prior to Laurel was confined to hard-core computer people, who just wanted to use email to get their work done.” Things got weird, however, when the user community broadened, he reported. “We found a number of sociological phenomena we hadn’t seen before,” he said, leading to the second manual written for the software. That edition included a chapter on email etiquette—just one more way the researchers at Parc were pioneers.

Danah Boyd (left), Roger McNamee, Marc Rotenberg, and Stratford Sherman, speaking to attendees of Techonomy17, discuss the weaponization of social networks.

Tech Leaders Dismayed by Weaponization of Social Media

The tech industry can’t hide from the information war, particularly when its own creations are being weaponized.

That was the consensus of a panel at the Techonomy17 conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., last week. The group assembled to discuss the meaning of authority in a networked, artificially intelligent world. The panelists quickly zoomed in on the manipulation of Facebook, Google, and other sites by Russians during the U.S. presidential election. They, as well as several other speakers at the conference, painted a dark picture of our current online world for at least the immediate future; they concluded that preventing such manipulation is not going to be easy.

“I spent my whole life working in civil liberties, and I didn’t see this coming,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Democratic institutions, the rule of law...are up for grabs. Anything can happen.”

“We always knew we were going into an information war next,” said Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft and founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, “and that we would never know immediately that that is what it is. Now we can’t tell what reality is.”

The tech companies should have seen this coming, panelists maintained.

Said Roger McNamee, co-founder and managing director of venture capital firm Elevation Partners: “These companies began with a goal of connecting the world. But once they put a business model in place that depended on advertising, they had to put in techniques that depended on creating addiction. Then when the smart phone came along, it created an opportunity to create a level of brain hacking that had never previously been seen.”

Speaker after speaker marveled that, at the previous year’s Techonomy conference, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg told the attendees “the idea that fake news, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.”

“I believe Mark was sincere when he said that,” McNamee said. (Now that the extensive use of Facebook by Russians intent on manipulating the election has come to light, just what Facebook execs knew and when they knew it has come under scrutiny, most recently in Senate judiciary subcommittee hearings.)

Panelists—and others I spoke to at the conference—seemed shocked by how cheap and easy it turned out to be to weaponize social networks.

“The first $100,000 spent on Facebook [by the Russians] reached as many people as voted in the election,” Stratford Sherman, co-founder of Accompli, pointed out.

McNamee explained that all the ads had to do was get people to join groups, by playing on their emotions—mostly fear and anger. Once they were into the groups, they could be targeted for free.

“We hardened our financial institutions against hacking,” McNamee said, “but it never occurred to us that the minds of our voters could be hacked; they turned our tools against us.”

While the industry leaders can make the case that they didn’t see this coming, they can no longer pretend it hasn’t happened—or deny that they have to do everything they can to fix it, the speakers indicated.

“This is an ‘Oh crap!’ moment for tech companies,” said Microsoft’s Boyd.

But what, exactly, can be done? Nobody is really sure what will work, but speakers at the Techonomy conference had a few ideas.

J. Galen Buckwalter, best known as the brains behind eHarmony’s patented algorithm for matching singles profiles on its dating site, suggested that AI could potentially revamp social media “into an antidote for authoritarian thinking.”

However, Boyd expressed concern that AI could be subverted as well. She noted that groups of social media hackers that use the dark web to share tools and strategies have started to address AI. Among the thought experiments they’re now toying with is how to affect “core data sources to mess with the natural language processing systems.”

In response, she argued, developers need “to think about technical antibodies.”

For starters, she argued, companies need to get back to testing things. “Social media obliterated the idea that we should have to test,” she said. Instead, the social media companies “would throw things out into the wild, see how people would mess with them, and hope we could work fixes back in. That won’t work going forward.”

The social networks like Facebook, Google, and Twitter also need to embrace transparency, speakers agreed.

“We need to defend the rights of individuals to speak online as they would offline,” said Rotenberg, but “when a company sells advertising it should be more transparent, and it should be regulated.”

The tech community, he continued “has to get away from the idea of self-regulation. Every technology—the train, the car—required regulation. The current model [of self-regulation] is collapsing.”

Andrew Anagnost, the new CEO of Autodesk, spoke at a later session, and agreed with their assessment. “We have two Silicon Valley companies [Google and Facebook]—they aren’t tech companies, they are media companies; we are not their customers, we are their product. And they aren’t even regulated to the point that television was regulated when we were all calling it the idiot tube.”

It’s also time to start deprogramming the people who were targeted by Russian propaganda, McNamee said. “The only way to reprogram the Russian thing is for Facebook to send a message to everyone who was manipulated, stating that they were manipulated and showing them every item that touched them that came from the Russians.”

“We have passed the fail-safe point,” McNamee said. “I don’t think we can get back to the Silicon Valley that I loved. At this point we just have to save America.”

Illustration with a blue background, showing a car key and a keyless entry clicker, where one button has been replaced with a symbol indicating an accelerometer.

How Adding Accelerometers to Keys Will Thwart Car Thieves

During last week’s MEMS and Sensors Executive Congress in San Jose, Calif., designers, researchers, and industry representatives argued for putting MEMS devices, like accelerometers and microphones, and a wide variety of other sensors in just about everything. We heard about an electric snowboard with traction control, voice-controlled garbage cans, and accelerometers placed on the nose to listen for speech in noisy environments.

But sometimes the simplest example is the most memorable. In this case, that was a MEMS accelerometer—like the one in your step-counter—that thwarts car thieves.

Lars Reger, chief technology officer for NXP’s automotive division, said that passive keyless entry (PKE) systems can be made more secure with an inexpensive accelerometer. PKE systems unlock a car—and allow it to start with a button push—by recognizing when the “key” is close to the car, either right next to it or inside of it. This is convenient for drivers, who don’t have to remove the key from a pocket or purse. But PKEs are ridiculously easy to hack—at least when a car is sitting in a driveway and the owner is at home.

The hack, demoed by Swiss researchers in 2011 and still being used by car thieves around the world today, works because most people toss car keys in a basket or on a counter fairly close to their front door—close enough that a thief with a radio outside can pick up signals from the key. An accomplice with another radio stands near the front door of the car to pick up signals from the key and transmit those signals to the car. The system, concluding that the key is nearby, unlocks the car.

Earlier this year, researchers pulled off the hack with US $22 worth of gear in a demo at a security conference reported in Wired. The team suggested that changing the timing of the calls and responses from the car and key could address the problem. In the meantime, PKE key holders were advised to keep their car keys in their refrigerators, whose metal exteriors would block the key’s signals.

NXP has another solution (and, of course, the company is bringing it to market soon, which is why representatives are willing to talk about it). Business development manager Marc Osajda told me that NXP had initially been working on a mechanical switch to turn the radio in the PKE key on and off. Then, after the company merged with Freescale Semiconductor in 2015, engineers at Freescale made the case for using a MEMS device instead, arguing that its lower power consumption made it a good fit for a gadget with an expected battery life of a year or more.  

Enter the accelerometer. The 50-cent component works on the assumption that if your PKE key has been sitting in one place for a while, you aren’t going anywhere, so it can turn off its radio and the microcontroller that was listening to the car’s radio; it will turn back on as soon as you pick it up. Osajda said that instead of reducing battery life, putting an accelerometer in the PKE key ends up extending battery life, because the accelerometer uses far less power than the parts it is allowing the key to turn off.

It wasn’t all that simple, of course, Osajda says, mostly because car keys take a lot more abuse than wrist wearables. He pointed out that people frequently drop their keys (sometimes even out of second story windows onto concrete) or toss them into washing machines (not a surprise for keys designed to stay in your pocket).

NXP’s MEMS switch is going into production within the next few weeks, Osajda said, and will be incorporated into PKE keys from a variety of manufacturers during 2018.

In the meantime, keep your eye out for familiar MEMS and other sensors turning up in unfamiliar places. This trend is only beginning.

A black-and-white photo shows Hewlett Packard founders William Hewlett and David Packard in a factory.

Loss of Hewlett-Packard Archive a Wake-Up Call for Computer Historians

Some 100 boxes of correspondence, speeches, and other documents created by William Hewlett and David Packard as they built the company considered to be the grandfather of what we think of as Silicon Valley were burned to ash by the recent Sonoma County fires.  

The collection, stored in a modular building on the Santa Rosa campus of Keysight Technologies, was considered to be the heart of the Hewlett-Packard historical archives. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which first reported the destruction on 29 October, indicated that this collection had been valued at $2 million in 2005, part of a total archive worth $3.3 million at the time. The company papers dated from 1937 to 1995, included, says Karen Lewis, the archivist who first assembled the collections in the mid-2000s, “records that reveal company strategy and its evolution from the beginning of the electronics industry.” Historians were shocked to learn that it had landed in such a vulnerable location.

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ARM CEO Simon Segars on a stage in front of a background indicating the internet of things

ARM CEO: Tech Industry Must Build an Immune System to Prevent a Cybercrime Pandemic

Tech security today is bad, and as people bring more and more connected tech gadgets into their homes, the risks are increasing dramatically. That’s why it is time for the tech industry to step up and take responsibility for protecting the devices they make, and the people that use them.

This was the message delivered by ARM CEO Simon Segars to ARM developers attending the annual ARM TechCon in Santa Clara, Calif., this week.

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A photo illustration shows a big sign that says JOBS in all caps and flashing lights.

Who’s Hiring? (Amazon, McDonald’s, Lyft) Who’s Firing? (Cisco, Tesla, HPE)

Tech jobs boom, bust, and move. In recent months, according to a sampling of tech expansions and contractions that made the news, it’s boom times for autonomous vehicles, bust times for networking hardware, and more than a few moving vans just might be heading toward Santa Cruz, Calif., or the Midwest. Here’s a look at hiring plans and layoff announcements that made the news between 1 July and 15 October 2017.

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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
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