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Amazon now lets you talk to Alexa without saying ‘Hey Alexa’ EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.


Amazon is today giving Alexa perhaps its most useful update since its inception: You can now speak to the assistant without saying “Hey Alexa” for every single command. The feature, called Follow-Up Mode, simply allows Alexa to listen for another command for five seconds after your last request. That should make asking Alexa to perform several actions a lot less repetitive, although you still can’t use multiple commands in one sentence like you can with Google Assistant. You can also end the conversation by saying ‘thank you,’ adding a dose of friendliness. Or you can just say ‘stop’ if you’re…

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Weeks after its launch, ‘Humanity Star’ satellite shines in West Coast skies at last

Humanity Star viewing
Rocket Lab’s map provides a sampling of the viewing opportunities for the Humanity Star satellite. (Humanity Star Graphic)

It’s been a month and a half since Rocket Lab sent a sparkly satellite called Humanity Star into orbit, but we’re just now getting into prime time for seeing it from the western United States.

Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere made of carbon fiber and covered with 65 reflective panels, designed specifically to twinkle in dark skies as all those panels reflect sunlight before dawn and after dusk.

The 39-inch-wide (meter-wide) satellite was sent into a nearly pole-to-pole orbit from New Zealand aboard Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron launch vehicle in January, along with three small Earth observation satellites.

Sighting conditions depend on where the satellite is during the optimal times for viewing. During the day, of course, the satellite’s reflections are lost in the sun’s glare. During the depths of night, the satellite isn’t at the right angle to reflect sunlight.

It took until early March for Humanity Star to get into the optimal orbital phase for West Coast sightings. Between now and March 27, there should be at least one sighting opportunity every day over Seattle. Another string of sightings is due to begin on May 7.

Humanity Star’s website tracks where the satellite is at any given time, and you can enter your location to find out the next time it’ll be over your locale.

The best way to plan your sighting is to plug your coordinates into Heavens-Above.com, a website that tracks not only Rocket Lab’s satellite, but the International Space Station and other sky objects as well. If you do it right, you’ll get a minute-by-minute map tracing the sparkle in the night sky.

Tonight it’s visible over Seattle for about five minutes, starting at 7:15 p.m. PT. Saturday night’s viewing opportunity runs from 7:32 to 7:38 p.m. PT.

Seattle viewing conditions for March 10
This chart from Heavens Above tracks Humanity Star’s position minute by minute on Saturday, March 10, as seen from Seattle. To get times and tracks for your locale, plug your coordinates into Heavens-Above.com. Click on the image for a larger version.

Humanity Star should rank as one of the brightest night-sky objects, which rubs some astronomers the wrong way. Rocket Lab didn’t mean to cause a nuisance. Instead, CEO Peter Beck said he intended the highly reflective object to spark reflection on Earth as well.

“My hope is that all those looking up at it will look past it to the vast expanse of the universe and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important for humanity,” he said in a post-launch news release.

If you’re one of those who’s bugged by the potential for light pollution or orbital debris, this too shall pass. The composition, size and altitude of Humanity Star is such that it should descend to a fiery atmospheric re-entry and burn up completely within eight months or so.

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Tickets going at lightspeed for concert featuring original Star Wars film and Seattle Symphony music

Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert
(Seattle Symphony Image)

It seems like there is a new Star Wars movie, or a spinoff Star Wars movie, in theaters every six months lately. But the chance to see the sci-fi franchise’s iconic 1977 original, “A New Hope,” in tandem with a live musical performance by the Seattle Symphony, sparked a ticket-buying frenzy on Friday.

The event at Benaroya Hall in Seattle will feature the Symphony performing the classic score by John Williams as the movie plays on a giant screen in the concert hall. Performances are scheduled for July 13, 14 and 15.

Tickets went on sale starting at 11 a.m. on Friday and the nostalgic pull of Star Wars was immediately evident. A web line notice greeted those trying to purchase tickets and when GeekWire dropped in, the wait time was around 10 minutes, with hundreds of other fans in front of us.

“We’re in the middle of a major on-sale and experiencing higher than normal web traffic and wait time to purchase tickets or make donations,” the notification read. “If you’re here to purchase tickets for Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert, please remain in queue for your turn.”

A notice Friday morning on the Seattle Symphony website warning Star Wars fans that there would be a little wait to purchase tickets. (SeattleSymphony. org screen grab)

A Symphony rep told GeekWire that they sold about 1,800 tickets within two hours, ranging in price from $50 to $180. The queue eventually slowed down before 1 p.m. and there are still lots of tickets left.

The rep said the response was similar to a recent announcement for a concert featuring Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Ciara and Russell Wilson which sold out by the end of the day. That benefit event for youth access to the arts takes place on May 10.

Symphony conductor Lawrence Loh will lead the Star Wars concert.

Williams is known for scoring all eight of the Star Wars saga films. He has won five Academy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, and 22 Grammy Awards. In 2005, the American Film Institute selected Williams’ score to “A New Hope” as the greatest American film score of all time. The soundtrack to Star Wars also was preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

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Return of the JEDI: Why the cloud industry is closely eyeing a big Pentagon cloud contract

The Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. (DoD Photo)

The Department of Defense is planning to have a cloud bake-off this year, soliciting proposals from the tech industry to build a next-generation cloud infrastructure project that would bring the nation’s sprawling defense operation into the modern age of information technology. After months of whispers and speculation, DoD officials provided a little more color this week on the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project.

A decision won’t be made for several months. But in the interim, here’s what you need to know.

What does the Pentagon want to do?

After a visit to the West Coast last year, which included a stop at Amazon and other prominent tech companies, Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered DoD officials to prepare a plan to modernize the department’s tech infrastructure. This week, the Pentagon posted a draft of the proposal, which seeks a single vendor to provide cloud infrastructure and platform services to the military.

The services will cover both classified and non-classified operations. The Department of Defense is the largest employer in the U.S., with 1.3 million active duty service members and 742,000 civilians, and while it obviously has specific needs central to its military mission it also needs to run internal applications for payroll and project management like any other big modern organization.

James Mattis and Jeff Bezos
Defense Secretary James Mattis chats with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos during a Seattle visit. (Jeff Bezos via Twitter)

What spurred this decision to upgrade?

From the DoD’s draft Statement of Objectives:

The Department of Defense (Department)’s lack of a coordinated enterprise-level approach to cloud infrastructure makes it virtually impossible for our warfighters and leaders to make critical data-driven decisions at “mission-speed”, negatively affecting outcomes. In the absence of modern services, warfighters and leaders are forced to choose between foregoing capabilities or slogging through a lengthy acquisition, rollout, and provisioning process. A fragmented and largely on-premise computing and storage solution forces the warfighter into tedious data and application management processes, compromising their ability to rapidly access, manipulate, and analyze data at the home front and tactical edge. Most importantly, current environments are not optimized to support large, cross domain analysis using advanced capabilities such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to meet current and future warfighting needs and requirements.

Separate branches of the military and intelligence communities have been cutting their own cloud deals for years, especially after former President Obama introduced a cloud-first IT policy, but this push is designed to treat the DoD as one organization with one IT strategy.

How much money are we talking about here?

Billions. The contact is what’s known as an “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity” contract, which means there is no real upper limit on what the Pentagon is willing to spend to modernize its IT infrastructure or how long the actual contract might last. The winner of the contract could lock up the Department of Defense’s business for a decade.

How is this different from other big cloud contracts?

Working with the federal government is both a lucrative and frustrating experience. Much has been done to improve the process by which government agencies select outside tech contractors, but it’s still a laborious process compared to the pace at which salespeople from Amazon Web Services and other cloud giants pitch and win business from the private sector.

An Army cybersecurity unit in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Steve Stover)

Wednesday’s release of the draft proposal was merely the starting point of what will be a six-month process (at best) in order to pick a cloud vendor to meet the DoD’s requirements. Actual proposals aren’t due until the end of May, and the DoD doesn’t expect to select a winner until September.

Why does the DoD want to use a single cloud vendor?

That is a good question. Despite the fact that the big trend in cloud computing deployments these days are hybrid cloud and multicloud strategies, the DoD wants to put all its eggs in one basket. This is puzzling to the tech industry, for both technical and competitive reasons, but the DoD told reporters this week that it feels a single vendor will make its operating environment far less complex.

This is also a little surprising because a lot of government IT work doesn’t go directly to the big vendors, such as AWS or Microsoft, but through smaller resellers that make decisions about which cloud vendors to use on the government’s behalf. That’s what Rean Cloud thought it had been asked to do following the award of a $950 million contract earlier this year, but the value of that contract was significantly reduced this week after other cloud vendors complained about Rean’s close ties with AWS.

So who is the front-runner for the contract?

Like many things in Washington, that depends on who you ask.

It’s impossible to imagine that AWS and Microsoft won’t be on the short list when it comes time to make a decision. That’s not just because they are market share and technology leaders in this world, but they also have significant experience designing cloud products for government agencies with sensitive requirements around information security.

Google has less experience at the federal government level, but meets several basic security requirements and just this week signed a deal with the U.S. military to use its artificial intelligence expertise for analyzing images captured by military drones. Depending on how that experience goes, it could be a boost for Google’s prospects for the overall cloud contract if the generals like what they see from the AI work.

Navy technicians install servers on a guided-missile cruiser. (U.S. Navy Photo / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Karolina A. Martinez)

Then there are the cloud also-rans. I think it’s safe to assume that Alibaba won’t be given the opportunity to provide cloud services to the Pentagon, leaving IBM and Oracle as hopeful outsiders looking in.

If the Pentagon was interested in working with multiple vendors, it’s not unreasonable that IBM and Oracle could compete for pieces of that business. But neither company has the breadth or depth of cloud experience to provide all of the services needed by the Pentagon; Gartner ranked them quite low in the “ability to execute” category in its evaluation of the cloud industry last year.

As perhaps the only tech company enthusiastic about one of the most corrupt pay-to-play U.S. governments in recent memory, Oracle is no doubt working the refs inside the Trump administration as proposals trickle in. After he was fired from the National Security Council last year, Ezra Cohen-Watnick landed softly, taking a lobbying job with Oracle’s D.C. operation. And just this year, it has donated large sums of money to President Trump’s defenders and co-CEO Safra Catz is reportedly on the short list of candidates to replace National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

If the Pentagon chooses Oracle as its sole provider of infrastructure and platform cloud services from among a field of far more experienced and capable cloud vendors, taxpayers should demand an automatic review of every vendor decision the Pentagon has made under this administration.

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MIT and Commonwealth startup add a new twist to the commercial fusion race

SPARC fusion experiment
An artist’s conception shows the proposed SPARC tokamak experiment. Using high-field magnets built with high-temperature superconductors, this experiment could be the first controlled fusion plasma to produce net energy output. (MIT PSFC Illustration / Ken Filar)

A new entrant in the race to commercialize fusion energy, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, aims to capitalize on superconductor technology from MIT and $50 million from the Italian energy company Eni.

The collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Commonwealth Fusion, an MIT spinout based in Cambridge, Mass., came to light today after years of work behind the scenes.

“This is an important historical moment: Advances in superconducting magnets have put fusion energy potentially within reach, offering the prospect of a safe, carbon-free energy future,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a news release.

Commonwealth Fusion CEO Robert Mumgaard said his company plans to crack the controlled-fusion puzzle “by leveraging the science that’s already developed, collaborating with the right partners and tackling the problems step by step.”

The venture’s stated goal is to demonstrate the viability of commercial fusion power plants within 15 years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been raised by other commercial fusion ventures, including California-based TAE Technologies, Kirkland, Wash.-based Helion Energy and Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion. Each of those three companies have billionaire investors — Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, respectively.

There’s also an multibillion-dollar fusion research effort known as ITER, which is building an experimental reactor in France with support from 35 nations, including the United States.

The researchers behind those efforts have suggested they could see net energy gain from a controlled fusion reaction within 10 to 15 years. However, the field of fusion research is littered with failed predictions.

Read more: Commercial fusion ventures learn lessons about engineering and expectations

Nuclear fusion is the reaction that powers the sun and other stars, principally by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium under extreme temperature and pressure. A small amount of mass is converted directly into energy in the process, in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation.

Achieving sustainable fusion in commercial reactors could open up an era of relatively cheap, relatively clean, limitless power.

Commonwealth is counting on recent advances in high-temperature superconductors to give its approach an edge. It plans to use a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide, or YBCO, in containment magnets that should open the way for more efficient, smaller-scale, lower-cost fusion reactors.

Over the next three years, Commonwealth plans to devote $30 million to supporting MIT research into the development of YBCO-based magnets for an experimental reactor known as SPARC. The reactor would make use of the tried-and-true, doughnut-shaped tokamak design for its plasma chamber.

“By putting the magnet development up front, we think that this gives you a really solid answer in three years,” said Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, “and gives you a great amount of confidence moving forward that you’re giving yourself the best possible chance of answering the key question, which is: Can you make net energy from a magnetically confined plasma?”

If the experiment proceeds as expected, SPARC should produce about 100 megawatts of pulsed power in the form of heat, demonstrating net energy gain. The insights gained from SPARC would be applied to the construction of a tokamak reactor that’s about twice as big and capable of generating 200 megawatts of electricity.

“Our strategy is to use conservative physics, based on decades of work at MIT and elsewhere,” said Martin Greenwald, the Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s deputy director. “If SPARC does achieve its expected performance, my sense is that’s sort of a Kitty Hawk moment for fusion.”

In addition to its $50 million investment in Commonwealth Fusion, Eni announced an agreement with the MIT Energy Initiative to fund research projects run out of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s Laboratory for Innovation in Fusion Technologies. That funding is expected to amount to $2 million.

In a statement, Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi said his company’s investment marked a “significant step toward the development of alternative energy sources with an ever-lower environmental impact.”

“It is a goal that we are increasingly determined to reach quickly,” he said.

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Quasi-dorms for adults gain popularity as an affordable option in booming cities

Starcity residents gather in one of the shared common spaces in a San Francisco building. (Starcity Photo)

Let’s play a game of “would you rather.” You can’t afford to rent an apartment in the booming city where you work. Would you rather sacrifice urban life, move to a cheaper suburb, and endure long commutes — or live in housing reminiscent of your college dorm?

Thousands of people are opting for the latter in fast-growing tech hubs.

Developers are creating a new option in cities with expensive housing markets, offering private bedrooms in shared living spaces, with amenities and group activities. The dorm comparisons are easy, but these buildings are actually upscale, regularly cleaned, and furnished with a stylish millennial aesthetic. Common CEO Brad Hargreaves shies away from the dorm analogy.

“I prefer retirement community for the young,” he joked.

But Jon Dishotsky, CEO of San Francisco-based Starcity, embraces the dorm comparison. “I’m actually generally OK with it as an analogy in the early days of our company because it truly is a new asset class,” he said. “It’s a new community. It’s a new way to live.”

A bedroom in Starcity’s residence in The Mission, a San Francisco neighborhood. (Starcity Photo).

Both Starcity and Common say their mission is to provide affordable housing for those who may not be lifted by the rising economic tide in thriving cities. They are banking on the theory that urbanites would rather be able to walk to work and access hot new restaurants than have their own kitchens. Starcity operates three buildings in San Francisco and has a waitlist of more than 9,000 for the nine projects planned for the future. Common has buildings in New York City, the Bay Area, Chicago, and Washington D.C.

“Co-living” is a novel approach to the housing affordability crisis that many cites — particularly those with thriving tech economies — are trying to solve. San Francisco’s median home value is $1.2 million. Seattle’s jumped $20,000 in one month to $777,000. For cities with rapid job growth in high-paying fields, this sticker shock is the new normal, with rents and home prices on a seemingly endless ascent.

One developer in the co-living market is already building in Seattle. WeLive — an extension of the WeWork co-working spaces that have become popular among startups — has a residence planned for Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. Unlike Common and Starcity, WeLive resembles a more traditional apartment building with robust amenities and optional group programming. Each unit in WeLive’s existing New York and D.C. buildings has its own bathroom and kitchenette. WeLive’s Seattle development is scheduled to open in 2020.

Common CEO Brad Hargreaves. (Common Photo)

Seattle is likely to see the arrival of more co-living residences, as the city continues to grapple with many of the same housing issues as San Francisco.

“These tech hubs have really grown in cities that have very restrictive zoning that make it difficult to build new housing,” Hargreaves said. “San Francisco is the perfect example of that. We have the conflation of tech bringing a lot of highly paid jobs and the lack of new housing coming to market [that] really does create that affordability crisis.”

Seattle also has widespread single-family zoning, which makes it harder for developers to add housing to keep pace with the city’s rapidly growing population.

Apart from providing a novel way to deal with the economic realities of urban living, the social elements of these communities are a draw. Group activities, like Wednesday wine nights and weekend excursions, help residents get to know each other, which is compelling to people just moving to a city.

Starcity CEO Jon Dishotsky. (Starcity Photo)

Transplants comprise 60 percent of Starcity residents, according to Dishotsky. The average age is 33 and less than 30 percent of residents work in the tech industry.

“The entire market cows and caters to luxury and high-end so I feel very concerned about the long-term viability of a region like San Francisco Bay Area or Seattle if these underlying things that make it special — like the restaurants and the bars and the art galleries and the nightlife — all those things don’t have employees to work there,” Dishotsky said. “Those are the things that make places like San Francisco and Seattle great. I think that there needs to be more consideration for the vast majority of folks who are in this middle-income demographic.”

For somewhere between $1,400-$2,200, a Starcity resident gets a fully furnished private room, internet, bi-weekly cleaning, utilities, and a shared kitchen. Bathrooms are either shared or private, depending on how much a resident pays. That price tag doesn’t scream affordability but Dishotsky says it’s easier for a bartender or artist to wrap her head around than paying $2,420 per month, the median rent for a one-bedroom in San Francisco.

With $17 million in venture funding, Starcity plans to expand to additional cities. The company doesn’t have immediate plans for Seattle “but definitely in the future,” Dishotsky said.

Common operates under a slightly different model. Residents can rent a private room in a fully furnished, three- to six-bedroom shared apartment. Similar amenities and group activities to Starcity come with the package. Hargreaves says Common bedrooms rent for about 20 to 30 percent less than a studio in the same neighborhood. In the Bay Area’s West Oakland, rooms average $1,450 per month. Common is opening about one building each month and eyeing additional cities.

“We’re going to start with a lot of the expensive, difficult coastal markets but I think our goals are a lot bigger than that,” Hargreaves said.

A shared kitchen in Common’s ‘Minna’ building in the Bay Area. (Common Photo)

Dorm or not, this type of housing is one of the ways that life is evolving in booming cities.

“We’re all coming to terms with the fact that the white picket fence, that the suburban dream with a grass lawn and a golden retriever, that’s not necessarily what people’s American dream is anymore,” Dishotsky said. “What the overwhelming majority of people are telling us is, ‘we want access to experiences and we want access to opportunity and we want to be close to where the action is.’ That’s what is more of a dream to people.”

This story was updated to correct the number of Starcity buildings in operation.

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The Week In Rear View, March 9 Edition

Try as you might, you just cannot keep these Jews out of the news!

Pick your Cohn adventure: “But why do you have to go,?” said Kellyanne, tears in her eyes. “You’ve done so much to help our small town.” Gary adjusted the brim of his hat and spat, and then took one last look at the White House before he mounted his horse. “I’ve got to move on now,” he whispered. “A man’s got to have principles.” With that, Cowboy Gary Cohn rode off into the sunset.

Continue reading “The Week In Rear View, March 9 Edition” at…

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Today on Jewcy: A new book of Jewish short horror stories unsettles and amuses.

Maxwell Bauman is not running out of imagination. When he’s not creating some magical construction out of Lego, he writes outrageous, Jewish-inspired horror stories. Six of these stories have made it into his first published collection, titled The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook (Clash Books, 2017).

Click here to read the full post on Jewcy.

Continue reading “Today on Jewcy: A new book of Jewish short horror stories unsettles and amuses.” at…

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In Israel, Italian Voters Still Love Berlusconi, But a Lot Less

It’s no secret: The Italian population in Israel and Silvio Berlusconi have been involved in a love affair for decades.

On March 4, when the Italian people went to the polls to cast their vote in the latest parliamentary elections, the majority of voters in Israel chose Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, which included the anti-immigrant, conservative League. But numbers show that the support for the tycoon has become more tepid than in past elections, possibly due to a questionable alliance with the far-right.

Continue reading “In Israel, Italian Voters Still Love Berlusconi, But a Lot Less” at…

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Macron Vows To Fight Anti-Semitism, Addresses Céline Controversy

French president Emmanuel Macron has once again declared his commitment to combatting anti-Semitism in his country. This time, it was at the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, or CRIF. At the outset of the address, French media reported that Anti-Semitic violence increased 26 percent last year in France and criminal damage to Jewish places of worship and burials increased 22 percent.

“We have understood, with horror, that anti-Semitism is still alive,” Macron said. “And on this issue our response must be unforgiving. France would not be itself if Jewish citizens had to leave because they were afraid,” he said.

Continue reading “Macron Vows To Fight Anti-Semitism, Addresses Céline Controversy” at…

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