Notes #6: Head Start

  • Amazon Alexa killed it at CES 2017. Expect it to take over your car, fridge, and life soon. There were a few Google Assistant announcements, but it’s clear Amazon’s lead in the voice game is paying off. Read this article if you don’t believe me.
  • Singularity Hub put together a great quick read: 10 Tech Trends That Made the World Better in 2016
  • Norway is starting to switch off analog FM radio. Premature much?
  • Chinese drone maker DJI just acquired a majority stake in the famous but struggling camera company Hasselblad. Clearly we’re going to get better cameras on drones, but perhaps DJI will also give Fuji and Sony a run for their money in the mirrorless game.
  • Indiegogo to launch equity crowdfunding this year.
  • I added book notes for Elon Musk’s biography.

Notes #5: Accident Avoided

Cuba’s Internet is More Powerful Than You’d Think

Officially, the internet in Cuba is useless. But a team of data traffickers use USB sticks and hard drives to transport music, movies, and software between Miami and Havana. They get access to content just a few days after it is released in the US. It’s all quite an impressive workaround.

Tesla Autopilot Predicts Crash Seconds Before It Happens

If you’re not convinced of a driverless future yet, watch this Tesla avoid a multicar collision in the Netherlands.

Redesigning the Traffic Light

Speaking of safer traffic, what if traffic lights in the US included countdown timers? These are already present in some other places in the world.

Voice Recognition in an Elevator in Scotland

Voice recognition is improving by leaps and bounds, but maybe an elevator in Scotland isn’t the best place for it yet.

Casio DG-20: It Came From the Future

My friend Max Goldberg (of Five Five Collective) made this stunning video about a synth-guitar from the 80s.

Echo Dot was Amazon’s 2016 Best-Seller

Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home
Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home

The Echo and Echo Dot were the best-selling products on Amazon this year, and the Dot was the top-selling item during the holiday season. The demand was so high that the company had trouble keeping stock. With millions of Alexa-powered devices now in people’s homes, it’s inevitable that this technology will shape our lives in a big way very soon.

83% of US Primary Household Shoppers Used Amazon This Year

A WSJ article pointed out that 17% of US primary households never shop on Amazon, but I think the big news is that 83% did use the site this year.

Notes #4: World Domination

Not Your Average Russian Hacker

Elon and Mark, meet Vlad and Dmitry. I this Bloomberg documentary, we visit the practically desolate Silicon Valley of Siberia and then head to Moscow to meet the CEOs of Prisma and mail.ru. We ponder the implications of an app that can find anyone’s social media profile based on a photo and learn how one company is fighting cybercrime with its own breed of hackers.

Amazon Go Will Dominate Physical Retail

AWS powers a significant portion of the internet. As one of Amazon’s most profitable divisions, it has become the platform for nearly anything online. In a way, Amazon has put a tax the internet. It’s early, but Amazon Go is positioned to become the platform for physical stores of the future. Find out how in this brief video.

Mark Zuckerberg has AI

Mark Zuckerberg built his own smart home powered by natural language processing and image recognition. A bit I found insightful: “In general, I’ve found we use these more open-ended requests more frequently than more specific asks. No commercial products I know of do this today, and this seems like a big opportunity.” How natural will your conversation with Alexa be in the future?

Simian Mobile Disco & Bicep – Sacrifice

This upbeat electronic track has been the background music to some serious heads-down sessions this week.

Site Update

Added The Intelligent Investor to my Book Notes.

Notes #3: China

Inside the World’s Craziest Gadget Market

The electronics industry is centering itself around one city in China: Shenzhen. In just about 30 years, it transformed from small fishing villages to a city of 7 million. It could turn a megacity even more quickly. A great documentary on the subject is Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of Hardware.

How China is Changing Your Internet

Despite a user base less than half of Facebook, WeChat is the true Swiss Army Knife of mobile apps. Will it win us over in the West, or will concerns over data privacy halt its expansion?

Amazon Completes First Drone Delivery

It seems like a small first step, but the sky is no longer the limit. Commenter Jerrod P asks “So basically this works if you live on a farm and not like apt 13b?” I don’t think this is meant to be an urban delivery solution in the near term, but rather enhance fast shipping outside city centers. Who knows, though? Amazon has a habit of surprising.

Good Reads

“Artificial intelligence is not about building a mind; it’s about the improvement of tools to solve problems.” Google Translate recently improved by leaps and bounds thanks to a tiny AI skunkworks. Other technologies are poised to get the same treatment in the near future.

Audi releases a car with vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. Right now will tell you how many seconds until a light changes and the speed limit. It’s a step toward autonomous driving, but given the ubiquity of Google Maps and smartphones, could this information also be generated with aggregate data and predictions?

Notes #2: We are in the Future

Legal Shoplifting

Amazon’s newest AI offering is a grocery store with no lines. Just grab and go, and you’ll be charged automatically. The question becomes: just how smart does one need to be to shoplift in the future?

The Ta’u of Solar

Tesla and SolarCity have installed a solar microgrid on the island of Ta’u in American Samoa. Solar arrays and battery storage replace not-so-green diesel generators to supply nearly 100% of the island’s electricity. It would have been nice if they didn’t clear-cut the area, but still, this is undoubtedly a net positive.

Google Speaks Your Language

Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home
Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home

Now developers can write their own apps for Google Assistant. It’s currently limited to just a few devices like Google Home, but this will no doubt expand. It looks like the voice intents are more free-form than Alexa, although I haven’t dug into the API yet.

In the Spirit

One of my favorite light shows is Mike Ziemkowski’s Lights on Display. This year is no exception.

Notes #1: Walking and Talking

Inspiration

Tokyo Reverse

Shanghai Forever

Voice AI: It’s on

Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home
Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home

Move over, Siri. Amazon and Google are killing it with developments around voice and AI. Your digital assistant is about to get much more powerful.

Cool Stuff

Spinzall

The first centrifuge for the kitchen and bar. Clarify juices, make herb oils, concentrate purees, and more. By Dave Arnold, host of the excellent podcast Cooking Issues, founder of the Museum of Food and Drink, and author of Liquid Intelligence.

AWS Snowmobile

AWS Snowmobile
AWS Snowmobile. Image: Amazon

Have billions of gigabytes you need to move to the cloud? Can’t wait decades (literally) to upload it all? Amazon’s got your back. They’ll bring a truck to your datacenter, copy your exabytes, and dump the data on their own servers.

What Autopilot Sees

Don’t believe self-driving cars are the future? Watch this video of Tesla’s Autopilot in action. The panes on the right side highlight objects identified by the vehicle’s sensors.

Statistically Significant

Lighting Energy Use in 2035. Source: DOE
Lighting Energy Use in 2035. Source: DOE

According to the Department of Energy, U.S. lighting energy use will be 75% lower in 2035 than it would have been if LEDs were not popularized.

Blog Updates

35mm in Hong Kong

Fall in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Alexa, Repeat This

Hong Kong Guide

Alexa, Repeat This

I wrote a simple Skill for Amazon Alexa. You can use it on devices like the Echo Dot.

When you ask Alexa to repeat a phrase, she will read it back to you in her own voice.

User: “Alexa, ask Repeat This to say ‘you get nothing, you lose, good day sir'”
Alexa: “you get nothing, you lose, good day sir”

Because of the way the Skill is written, you cannot publish or access it on the Skills Store. You need to run your own instance on AWS Lambda. I have provided code on GitHub.

Perhaps you can fork this code to develop something more useful. I know I am.

Fall in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

I was lucky enough to receive a DJI Mavic Pro drone soon after the release. The timing was perfect because my friends and I were able to capture fiery fall colors against the Philadelphia skyline.

DJI only shipped one battery even though I ordered three (the other two came later), so the flight time was capped at 20 minutes. Dan Leung, Max Goldberg (both of Five Five Collective), and I got a few minutes each at the controls. Thanks to Max for the editing.

35mm in Hong Kong

I recently visited Hong Kong and two cities in China. Certainly inspired by DigitalRev TV, I knew going into it that Hong Kong in particular is a street photographer’s dream. This trip was going to be a great chance to hone my photography skills.

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I only brought one messenger bag for the whole two weeks. Weight and size were major considerations for all items.

My weapon of choice was a Fujifilm X100. A used eBay purchase from a few months prior, I hadn’t gotten super comfortable with it. Scratches and all, it was an elegant but slightly intimidating machine.

Fujifilm X100. Image: heipei
Fujifilm X100. Image: heipei

The most notable feature of this compact camera is its fixed 23mm f/2 prime lens. Because the camera has a slightly smaller sensor than film, the lens is the equivalent of the 35mm focal length on a full-frame camera.

The X100 was the first X-Series camera Fuji released, and it started a revolution in the photography world. Direct, manual controls on the top of the camera harken back to an earlier age of photography. The fixed lens does not zoom and cannot be removed, but the upside is a wider maximum aperture. The camera is extremely quiet and relatively discrete.

The viewfinder on the X100 and successors is unique in the digital camera world. It works almost exactly like a rangefinder camera, with a frame drawn around the composition inside a wider window to the world. At any time, one can switch from the optical viewfinder to an electronic one, which only shows the composition. The electronic viewfinder pops up after every exposure, no matter the mode, to review the shot.

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Reviews of this camera, which was released in 2011, laud the concept but point out the camera’s numerous flaws. Users found the accuracy of autofocus especially infuriating. Manual focusing aides on the camera are lacking. Later X-series models would improve on image quality, speed, and focusing (both manual and autofocus). Let’s put it this way: the tool has personality.

I was used to the 35mm (roughly 50mm full-frame equivalent) prime lens on my Nikon D7000, a much larger DSLR from the same era. The 50mm focal length is a little tighter and less personal than 35mm. You can stand farther away from your subject, ideal for the timid photographer. Conversely, it is harder to get wider shots on the street with the 50mm focal length.

So, why in the world would a slow camera with no zoom be a great travel choice? Constraints, as well as the opportunity to become intimate with a flawed, yet very powerful tool in an unfamiliar focal length.

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On the first day in Hong Kong, I learned that autofocus works well only about half the time with the optical viewfinder. Despite the focus point changing from red to green soon after a half-press of the shutter, half of the shots I reviewed that night were not in focus. The preview shown in the electronic viewfinder is not large, bright, or high-resolution enough to scrutinize focus, and I did not think to review the shots on the larger display on the camera back.

After realizing the focusing issue, I started using the electronic viewfinder exclusively. Although this move doesn’t take advantage of one of this camera’s most unique features, the hope was I that I would not have to reject so many shots. The move paid off, as about 90% of the shots were now in focus.

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Initially, I found the 35mm focal length uncomfortable. It was great for capturing the immensely varied and colorful backgrounds of Hong Kong, but I was just too far away from many subjects. I desired images with those colorful backdrops but my subjects taking center stage in the foreground. These are the shots that tell a good story, and I would have to get much closer to achieve them.

As I got used to the wider lens, I found the experience liberating. A 50 might make it a little easier to capture people without getting too close, but a 35 allows you to take a wider variety of photos: buildings, cars, urban landscapes, and of course, people. I’m still working with the 35, and I know it’s going to be a long time before I’m truly proficient and comfortable getting that close to people. But I’ll keep practicing.

Anyway, enjoy a selection of photos from the trip on this page, and the full gallery over here. Some portraits taken with the X100 are here.

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