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With 4 Short Words, Amazon Just Revealed the Brutal Truth About Its Decision to Cancel HQ2 in New York. (So Many People Don't Want to Admit This)
February 19, 2019 6:00 am|Comments (0)

It’s not a plan really, not a hidden secret message. It’s more of an expression of emotion. Maybe a realization of necessity.

In fact, while the text Amazon posted on its blog on February 14 runs 363 words, the most important part of this crucial passage is just four words long. But those four words speak volumes.

It starts with a dig at “state and local politicians” in New York, and a statement about how many New Yorkers supposedly supported the deal. Then, we get to the crucial part:

We are disappointed to have reached this conclusion–we love New York, its incomparable dynamism, people, and culture–and particularly the community of Long Island City, where we have gotten to know so many optimistic, forward-leaning community leaders, small business owners, and residents. 

There are currently over 5,000 Amazon employees in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island, and we plan to continue growing these teams.

Those four crucial words? “We love New York.”

They’re not included by accident. In fact, I’ll bet this statement probably went through more writing, editing and rewriting than anything in Amazon’s history.

But the passage is crucial. It’s a recognition that even in a post-HQ2 world Amazon, still depends big time on New York. That’s why I think the company is at pains to reassure everyone that it isn’t going to try to just reopen the HQ2 search and do this elsewhere.

The brutal truth is: New York City is special.

I know people don’t like to admit this. I know that there are many trying to make political points, attacking union leaders and politicians who they say are to blame for Amazon running away.

But there is no other place truly like New York City, and Amazon isn’t really going to run — not completely. It’s not just chest-thumping; it comes down at least partly to sheer numbers. Here are three of them:

  • By far, New York is the largest city in America, with 8.6 million people–almost as big as the second, third, and fourth largest cities combined.
  • By far, it’s the largest metropolitan area: more than 20 million people. If it were its own state, it would be about as big as Florida — but much more densely packed.
  • By far, it has the largest GDP of any metro area, at at $ 1.7 trillion. That’s nearly 9 percent of the entire country.

Was it ever possible that Amazon would direct a personal insult at the largest and most important market in the country, by jilting it for say, Nashville? 

No offense to Nashville, the so-called runner-up. It’s a really great city too, but numbers don’t lie: it’s tiny compared to New York.

Remember, they just proved it at Amazon, too.

After staging a 14-month beauty contest, playing off more than 200 cities against each other, and keeping the terms secret so that none of them could know what they needed to do in order to win, the result was almost comically predictable:

Amazing n couldn’t do better than New York and an area right outside Washington, D.C. 

You know what I think’s going to happen now? Amazon is going to redistribute those 25,000 jobs around a lot of different places. (Remember, it was only planning to create 700 jobs this year, and wouldn’t hit the full number until 2028 at least.)

Now, New York will still get the largest share, only without having to give an average of $ 120,000 per job in tax breaks to get them.

And, it will make up the rest and still more–because Amazon just did the legwork for every other company in America.

Especially if the state and city can come up with anything even approaching a small percentage of the deal they were willing to give Amazon, and offer it to a wide array of smaller employers,  think things look pretty rosy.

No matter your size, and as long as you don’t try to squeeze completely one-sided terms out of the deal, if you want to attract amazing workers and expand in one of the greatest cities in the world, Amazon just proved where you should go. 

Amazon loves New York. And a lot of other people do too. 

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German Regulators Just Outlawed Facebook's Whole Ad Business
February 8, 2019 12:50 am|Comments (0)

Facebook’s massively lucrative advertising model relies on tracking its one billion users—as well as the billions on WhatsApp and Instagram—across the web and smartphone apps, collecting data on which sites and apps they visit, where they shop, what they like, and combining all that information into comprehensive user profiles. Facebook has maintained that collecting all this data allows the company to serve ads that are more relevant to users’ interests. Privacy advocates have argued that the company isn’t transparent enough about what data it has and what it does with it. As a result, most people don’t understand the massive trade-off they are making with their information when they sign up for the “free” site.

On Thursday, Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, the country’s antitrust regulator, ruled that Facebook was exploiting consumers by requiring them to agree to this kind of data collection in order to have an account, and has prohibited the practice going forward.

“Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook user accounts,” FCO president Andreas Mundt said in a statement announcing the decision.

“We disagree with their conclusions and intend to appeal so that people in Germany continue to benefit fully from all our services,” Facebook wrote in a blog post responding to the ruling. The company has one month to appeal. If it fails, Facebook would have to change how it processes data internally for German users, and could only combine the data into a single profile for a Facebook account with that user’s explicit consent.

“This is significant,” says Lina Khan, an antitrust expert affiliated with Columbia Law School and the think tank Open Markets. She notes that authorities haven’t done a good job of articulating why privacy is an antitrust issue. Here, the German regulator makes it clear. “The FCO’s theory is that Facebook’s dominance is what allows it to impose on users contractual terms that require them to allow Facebook to track them all over,” Khan says. “When there is a lack of competition, users accepting terms of service are often not truly consenting. The consent is a fiction.”

According to the FCO, Facebook had 32 million monthly active users in Germany at the end of last year, amounting to a market share of more than 80 percent. The regulator argues this dominance gives it jurisdiction to oversee the company’s data collection practices.

“As a dominant company Facebook is subject to special obligations under competition law. In the operation of its business model the company must take into account that Facebook users practically cannot switch to other social networks,” said Mundt. “The only choice the user has is either to accept the comprehensive combination of data or to refrain from using the social network. In such a difficult situation the user’s choice cannot be referred to as voluntary consent.”

The FCO further argues that Facebook used its vast data collection to build up its market dominance, creating a feedback loop wherein people have no choice but to use the site and allow it to track them, which makes the site even more dominant and entrenches its privacy violations.

“The Bundeskartellamt [FCO] underestimates the fierce competition we face in Germany, misinterprets our compliance with GDPR and undermines the mechanisms European law provides for ensuring consistent data protection standards across the EU,” Facebook wrote in response to the ruling. They cite Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube as direct competitors, hoping to illustrate that there isn’t lack of competition, and therefore the FCO has no standing to apply rules based on Facebook’s dominance. “Popularity,” they write, “is not dominance.”

The FCO disagreed, explaining that Snapchat, YouTube, and Twitter serve totally different functions from Facebook, and therefore can’t be seen as viable alternatives to the service.

Antitrust regulators used to consider data and privacy outside their purview. The old philosophy held that antitrust was concerned with price, and if a product was free then consumers couldn’t be harmed, says Maurice Stucke, antitrust expert and law professor at the University of Tennessee. “What we’re seeing now is those myths are being largely discredited.”

The most remarkable part of the ruling is the way it makes clear that privacy and competition are inextricably intertwined. “On the one hand there is a service provided to users free of charge. On the other hand, the attractiveness and value of the advertising spaces increase with the amount and detail of user data,” Mundt said. “It is therefore precisely in the area of data collection and data use where Facebook, as a dominant company, must comply with the rules and laws applicable in Germany and Europe.”

“This is the first instance where [regulators] are saying that because [a company has] such market power that consent is not freely given,” says Stucke.

The FCO ruling explains that the harm to users from Facebook’s data collection is not in cost but in “loss of control.” “They are no longer able to control how their personal data are used. They cannot perceive which data from which sources are combined for which purposes with data from Facebook accounts and used e.g. for creating user profiles,” the FAQ on the ruling reads. That combining of data gives it a “significance the user cannot foresee.”

That fact is underscored by people’s ignorance of Facebook data practices. Roughly 74 percent of American Facebook users surveyed recently by the Pew Charitable Trusts did not know that Facebook maintained profiles about their interests. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said they weren’t comfortable with the practice.

But Facebook says that tracking people makes the services safer and better, and that the FCO misses how much the company has done in order to comply with the General Data Protection regulation passed by the European Union in 2018.

The FCO’s ruling, however, directly addresses the GDPR, writing that under its principles Facebook has “no effective justification for collecting data from other company-owned services and Facebook Business Tools or for assigning these data to the Facebook user accounts.” (Facebook Business Tools are the Like and Share buttons that appear all over the internet, and which allow Facebook to track you on sites they don’t own.) In other words, in addition to being anticompetitive in its view, the FCO believes Facebook hasn’t proven that data collection and bundling is in the best interest of every consumer and that its sites couldn’t function without it.

If Facebook loses the appeal, then Germany will become a grand experiment in whether the surveillance economy is actually essential to the operation of social media. Other Europeans and Americans may demand they are given the same option. “This ruling is really an icebreaker. Icebreakers break through the ice in order to lead the path for other vessels to follow,” says Stucke.


More Great WIRED Stories

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American Airlines Just Admitted It Has a Massive Problem. It's Either Funny Or Tragic
February 4, 2019 12:02 am|Comments (0)

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

When I offer my occasionally skeptical thoughts about American Airlines, its customers cascade abuse upon my ignorance, my being and even my Twitter feed.

No, that’s a joke.

What actually happens is that I get messages from yet more American Airlines employees and customers telling me that things at the airline aren’t too perfect.

Of course, it’s often the whiners who choose to make most noise. 

For some time, though, American has made decision after decision that seems unhelpful to its customers.

The airline, though, has always insisted that its customer satisfaction scores were holding steadier than you would be doing, should you be standing in one of those bathrooms.

It’s a source, then, of considerable discomfort that the airline admitted it has a big problem. 

During its latest earnings call it admitted that customer satisfaction scores for the airline as a whole have now gone down.

Yes, passengers appear to be bothering to express a little displeasure even on the airline’s survey forms.

You might think that — as well as the tiny bathrooms — reducing legroom in First Class as well as Economy Class wouldn’t necessarily endear American to its customers.

You might even think that executives at American realize this.

However, as Skift reports, American’s president Robert Isom believes passengers are unhappy for a different reason.

He said no, no, they’re entirely happy with the actual product American offers: 

People are very pleased with what they’re getting in terms of service and in terms of the amenities and fleet and airports.

For Isom, though, passengers have just one itty-bitty issue:

They want a reliable airline. They want to be certain they get what they pay for.

You mean like with baggage fees?

Isom’s view rhymes perfectly with the opinions of the airline’s CEO, Doug Parker.

He recently insisted that by far the most important thing to customers is to get to their destination on time.

I fear he and Isom may not, for once, be correct.

But as it forced more and more of its planes into its so-called Project Oasis (seriously) cramped configuration and it flies more and more narrowbody planes stuffed with more and more seats over longer distances — yes, a narrowbody nightmare to Brazil! — passengers are going to notice.

American’s Flight Attendants regularly tell me they don’t feel the sort of motivation they’d like to, given what they see as management’s indifference to anything other than the lure of lucre.

Why, Isom himself declared last year that the airline won’t make anything better for passengers unless it can make a profit out of it.

At some point, your customers can see what you’re doing and decide they really don’t like it.

At some further point, they’re going to tell you.

It was a hauntingly pleasant experience, one that the airline is phasing out.

Is it really any wonder that its customers are now less satisfied?

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Elon Musk Sent an Email to Employees at 1:20 in the Morning, and It Just May Signal the End of Tesla
January 23, 2019 12:23 pm|Comments (0)

Have you ever gotten an email from your CEO at 1:00 in the morning?

And let’s just say the email…wasn’t pretty.

After highlighting Tesla’s numerous accomplishments over the past year, Musk got down and dirty, announcing another round of job cuts–this time reducing the number of full-time employees by about 7 percent.

The job cuts are necessary, Musk argues, to help the company meet the unique challenges it faces. Challenges like, “making our cars, batteries and solar products cost-competitive with fossil fuels,” products that Musk admits “are still too expensive for most people.”

Musk also acknowledges that since Tesla is competing “against massive, entrenched competitors…[employees] must work much harder than other manufacturers to survive.”

All of this hard work is worth it, Musk says, to support the “mission of accelerating the advent of sustainable transport and energy, which is important for all life on Earth.”

It’s hard not to be inspired by this message. 

Everyone–including the world’s major car manufacturers–knows the continued use of fossil fuels is not sustainable. And no one can deny that those companies probably wouldn’t be as vested in clean energy as they currently are, if it wasn’t for Tesla leading the charge.

But while I’m a fan of much of Musk’s philosophy, it’s the next part of the memo that worries me:

“There are many companies that can offer a better work-life balance, because they are larger and more mature or in industries that are not so voraciously competitive. Attempting to build affordable clean energy products at scale necessarily requires extreme effort and relentless creativity, but succeeding in our mission is essential to ensure that the future is good, so we must do everything we can to advance the cause.”

“We must do everything we can to advance the cause.”

Musk’s personal goal to save the planet may be admirable, but what he’s implying here is not. 

Treating people like people

We generally think of emotional intelligence as a positive quality, one that can help you manage conflict or establish deeper relationships. But in my book, EQ Applied, I describe how one could also use their knowledge and understanding of emotions to motivate or even manipulate others with the sole intent of strategically achieving a goal.

Once that goal is reached, or when individuals are no longer helpful to pursuit of the goal, they are discarded with little or no concern for their well-being.

While it’s likely that Musk truly believes his own rhetoric, what he’s trying to achieve–namely, getting people to buy into the mission of “saving the world” by working themselves to the bone–simply isn’t sustainable. 

And it’s hurting Tesla employees in the process.

In contrast, the most effective mission-driven organizations encourage balance and taking care of one’s self. They realize that anything other than that is foolish and will hurt the cause in the end, in the form of damaged workers and, subsequently, damaged culture. 

Yes, the best organizations use their messaging to inspire their people and reach them on an emotional level. But they do so while keeping their individual needs in mind.

The best organizations encourage their people to get enough sleep, by not sending emails at 1:00 in the morning.

The best organizations encourage their people to take time off, by providing an adequate vacation policy–and encouraging company leaders to set the right example by not working on their own vacations.

The best organizations set a pace their people can maintain indefinitely. Because they realize that long-term success is brought about, not necessarily by those who are the fastest or who work the longest days, but by those who are steady and reliable.

By keeping the big picture in view, and treating their employees as real people–as opposed to disposable commodities–the best organizations inspire company loyalty.

The sooner Musk faces this reality, the greater Tesla’s chances of truly changing the world.

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McDonald's Just Quietly Introduced Something That's Shocking Its Customers. It's Going to Shock Competitors, Too
January 6, 2019 12:01 pm|Comments (0)

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Tastes are changing, which means McDonald’s has to turn its vast tanker of frozen meat and fatty morsels in a new direction.

And almost a year ago, the chain announced that it’s creeping toward making Happy Meals healthier.

Now, though, there’s a new, quite astounding step.

I can already see parents delighting in the notion that their advertising-vulnerable kids can now eat a burger with no meat in it.

Sadly, not quite.

Instead, the chain is releasing the Happy Meal, featuring a wrap.

The wrap is a red pesto goujon tortilla wrap. Yes, it includes shredded lettuce. But, perhaps the greatest glory for McDonald’s traditionalists is that it’s still garnished with one of the world’s great food groups — tomato ketchup. 

This whole(some) thing is a mere 209 calories and has been approved by the Vegetarian Society.

What’s not to love? 

It seems that not everyone is moved by McDonald’s wrapping itself in an eco-friendly future.

Noted bulbously extreme bloviator Piers Morgan was appalled. On Twitter, he screeched

Oh FFS. It’s supposed to be a HAPPY meal.

Oddly, McDonald’s chose to reply. Morgan, you see, had also railed against bakery Greggs introducing a vegan sausage roll. Morgan called the bakery “PC-ravaged clowns.” 

Astutely, Greggs replied: 

Oh hello, Piers, We’ve been expecting you.

For its part, McDonald’s offered: 

Like our pals at the sausage roll place, we’ve been expecting you. Don’t worry Piers, you can still get McNuggets in your Happy Meal!

There’s no news that this “progressive” Happy Meal is coming to the U.S. 

It seems clear, though, that competitors will worry that McDonald’s is suddenly making itself acceptable to the audience of the concerned.

I leave (almost) the last words to McDonald’s.

After all, the most important thing here is that kids actually like its greener happiness. So yes, there’s a toy involved too:

We’ve teamed up with Pokemon to bring you a little bit of fun in every box. Plus, you can now choose a Fruit Bag instead of Fries.

Yes, a Pokemon toy and a Fruit Bag instead of Fries.

What more could a child of tomorrow want?

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Delta Air Lines Just Got Some Incredibly Good News. (and Just In the Nick of Time)
January 5, 2019 12:01 pm|Comments (0)

If one raises checked bag fees, almost all the rest quickly follow suit. If one squeezes more passengers into basic economy, then most of the rest do as well.

Often, the only way an airline can stand out is to do the single, basic thing that they’re paid to do–but be better at it than competing airlines do. In other words, get you from point A to point B, safely and on time.

Thank God, the safety part of the equation has been near-perfect in the United States recently, with the single exception of a Southwest Airlines passenger who died in an in-flight incident last year. 

That leaves only the race to be on time. It’s why American Airlines treats on-time departures as the number-1 metric by which employees are judged.

And it’s why Delta Air Lines must be absolutely thrilled with the news that the airline got this week. That’s because Flight Global released its list of the most on-time airlines in the world.

And for the second year in a row, Delta is number-1 on the list. It’s the only U.S. airline ever to earn the distinction, which is based on a year’s worth of analysis of 124,000 flights every day.

If a flight arrives within 15 minutes of its scheduled arrival time, it’s considered on-time according to Flight Global. By that standard, Delta gets an 89 percent on-time arrival rate.

Here’s the full list of 10:

  1. Delta
  2. Qatar Airways
  3. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
  4. ANA
  5. Aeroflot
  6. Alitalia
  7. Emirates
  8. United Airlines
  9. American Airlines
  10. SAS

Not everything is rosy for Delta. If you’re an investor, you might be a little concerned about the financials Delta released this week, which dropped its stock and led to questions about the airline industry as a whole.

But if you’re a passenger, or if you’re an airline trying to improve this one metric because you think it’s one of the main remaining differences between you and many of your rivals, it’s welcome news indeed. 

Published on: Jan 5, 2019

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Want to Work From Home in 2019? Starting Today, You Can Get Paid $10,000 Extra to Do It. (There's Just 1 Catch)
January 1, 2019 6:00 am|Comments (0)

Perhaps you’ve been thinking that 2019 is the year that you’ll finally do it: You’ll take control of your destiny and do what’s required so that you can work from home.

Of course, it’s not as if most people who work for someone else can just flick a switch and suddenly have the right to work from home. They have to negotiate with their employers, make their case, and act.

But, if you’ve been on the fence about doing it, one U.S. state might have just the impetus you need to make the jump: $ 10,000 for up to 1,000 people who can show that they work from home for an out-of-state company.

I wrote about this when the Vermont government first approved the program, but now it’s finally here: One of the requirements is that you have to move to Vermont after January 1, 2019, since the government didn’t want to pay people who were already going to live there and work from home anyway.

But that day is finally here today (assuming you’re reading this on the day it was published): New Year’s Day, 2019).

Beyond that, the restrictions seem pretty easy to comply with, assuming you truly and legitimately are working remotely from an out of state company. You have to:

  • be a full-time employee of a business “with its domicile or primary place of business” outside Vermont
  • perform “the majority of…employment duties remotely from a home office or a co-working space located in the state”
  • demonstrate qualifying expenses

In theory, the payment is supposed to reimburse you for the cost of moving to the Green Mountain State (you’ll have to learn that nickname if you’re going to live there). And note that you can actually work from a co-working space, not only out of your house.

That last point seems like a good idea if you’re going to move to a new state; many of us meet people through work, but you’d otherwise literally be working alone and from  home. It turns out there are at least 19 co-working spaces in Vermont, spread around a state of only 625,000 people. 

That last number — the population of only 625,000 — mostly explains why the state is doing this to begin with.

That, combined with the fact that the population is aging, and that the tax base is dwindling. (There’s a similar program now for people who want to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, by the way).

So what can you expect if you move to Vermont? In short: a relatively exercise-conscious, healthy living state with a high intelligence and a quaint New England standoffishness, apparently. Over the past year we’ve seen that it’s:

Oh, and it’s cold in the winter–but beautiful almost all year round.

If you’re thinking about it, I’d recommend visiting now or in February, so you’ll see if you’re really the kind of person who can thrive in that climate. 

Then check out the fine print — including being aware of just how many people wind up qualifying — and get ready to apply.

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I Just Flew Cross-Country With American Airlines. I May Never Get Over It
December 15, 2018 12:01 pm|Comments (0)

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

I admit it’s been a year.

I’d avoided the airline a little on my travels, but it was time to try again.

Gingerly, then, I booked an Economy Class ticket from San Francisco to Miami and then paid another $ 90 for an exit row seat.

Because, well, it’s a relatively long flight and, for some odd reason, the airline claimed it was flying a Boeing 767.

Airlines are mostly sending these old beasts to the Arizona pastures — or, perhaps, to marginal billionaires who build tasteless castles in Arizona pastures. 

These planes, though, used to offer something so lacking in the latest models: air.

They’re wide-bodied, so you can at least fool yourself into believing there’s more space.

I used to go out of my way to fly American to New York when they flew 767’s there.

Things have changed. Now you are the sardine and the airline is the can-I-make-a-bigger-profit.

Would this be a strange throwback to a forgotten time? 

Waiting For Godot-ful Disaster.

Flying involves worrying. Before you do the actual flying, that is.

When it comes to American, one of the primary concerns is whether the flight will be delayed more or less than Brexit.

Yet, as the day and the hour approached, no message from American that the plane was out of action, I’d be reseated on a narrowbody bus and driven to Miami.

I arrived at San Francisco airport. The luggage tag machines were working, The man at the bag drop even smiled and made a joke about my name. (If you don’t make a joke about my name, what is wrong with you?) 

Still, I wasn’t comfortable. This thing was going to go wrong. It was just a question of how, how badly and when.

The departure board didn’t twitch. It was as if it had smoked a decent brand of THC pot.

Boarding was announced on time. People didn’t even crowd the gate area to distraction. This bordered on the haunting. 

Who, though, would I have sitting next to me? That can make a flight enjoyable or dip it into unbearable.

My seatmate was on his phone. He ran a tech company. He needed one of his employees to know just how much he sympathized with her problem.

His drippingly unctuous tone told me that he was unlikely to do anything about it.

I sat down in my window seat and the first shock hit me. 

Waiting For Bad News To Bear.

Yes, the tray tables were as yellow as a smoker’s teeth. The seats, too, looked like they’d supported a thousand passengers and ten thousand hurried cleanings too many.

As I lounged tentatively, an announcement from the cabin crew.

Here it was, the bad news. It had to be bad news:

Welcome on board, ladies and gentlemen. This is NOT a full flight, so you should have plenty of room to store your bags and stretch out.

My mouth opened, my jaw seized up and my eyebrows began to vibrate.

I can’t remember the last time I heard such an announcement.

So many times I’ve been on flights that were patently not full, yet the cabin crew announced this was a full flight and please think about checking your carry-ons, before we confiscate them and sell them on eBay.

Yet here was American Airlines being honest?

Suddenly, we were pushing back. The tech type next to me was still bleating into his phone.

No one came to admonish him. I tried to give him a sly glare. 

He finally got off the call and began to furiously type into his phone. Perhaps these were his self-help notes, I’ve no idea. 

And then we were in the air.

Wait, we were on time? It seemed like it. 

After a few minutes, it was the pilot’s turn to make an announcement: 

There’s normally a lot of planes lining up for takeoff, but when we got to the runway, there was no one there. So we took off. Looks like we’ll be in Miami at least 30 minutes early.

This was beginning to feel like a parallel universe. I had descended into some weird time warp. Had I inadvertently inhaled some of that THC?

Now It Was Going To Be Ruined.

Oh, but then my seat-mate began to eat lunch. A vigorous eater of a carry-on salad, he was. And goodness did his elbow jab into my ribs with every jerk of his plastic knife.

Did he say sorry?

Did I mention he was a tech type?

This is where it would all go wrong. I felt sure that, once he’d finished his lunch, out would come the laptop and in would go his elbow to my ribs for the rest of the flight.

I was mostly right. His MacBook came out. What was surreal is that, unlike most self-important men I’ve sat next to on planes, his elbows stayed in.

Not once in the next several hours did he jab me again. It was almost as if, having satisfied an employee with platitudes and his hunger with a salad, he became fully sentient.

Meanwhile, the cabin service was efficient, if not effusive. Just like the biscotti-type things they handed out.

The Flight Attendants performed their duties and then disappeared.

I leaned into my slightly dreary Canadian detective novel — I refuse to work on planes, save in an emergency — stretched my legs right out and wallowed in a peculiar calm.

American Airlines Really Let Me Down.

We didn’t have to divert to Albuquerque because of an engine problem. 

My seatmate had excellent noise-canceling headphones, the sort that truly are silent. 

A baby trying crying a couple of times and then realized that so much attention-seeking just wasn’t going to work.

The whole thing was eerily tolerable, verging on the pleasant. It was like a blind date that involved easy conversation and even a kiss at the end.

We were at the gate almost an hour ahead of schedule. 

This was as close to perfect as I could have conceived.

Even my bag came out quickly, which anyone who’s ever flown into Miami knows is a bizarre event.

I walked away, talking to myself. I try to do it quietly.

I only had one thought: American Airlines, you really let me down. I could find nothing to complain about, because it felt like flying from a few years ago.

The pilots couldn’t even muster any turbulence.

How lovely it is when nothing goes wrong with a flight. And how relatively rare that seems to be these days, especially if you’re flying in the back. 

When the airline, the staff and the passengers all conspire to make it a pleasant experience, flying can be genuinely relaxing. 

If only these three could conspire to make it happen more often. 

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A Famous TV Show Just Showed a Different Side of Amazon's Jeff Bezos. It Wasn't Pretty
December 9, 2018 12:01 pm|Comments (0)

I have a feeling it’s happening more often.

As Amazon begins to place a large footprint on every part of America, some people are wondering if that’s entirely a good thing.

Last week, I wrote about a very clever filmmaker who changed the music on Amazon’s latest ad and made the company seem like an alien invader, there to gobble all before it.

Now it’s becoming a trend.

Was he portrayed as an innovative tech genius, bringing joy to all the people of the world?

Not quite.

Instead, here was a man who communicated through a twisted telepathy and spoke in the robotic tones of someone who’d really rather like to immolate you, as soon as you serve no further purpose to him.

He knows how to hit you where it truly hurts.

If you don’t do what he says, he threatens to, gasp, take away your Amazon Prime status.

And who can live without that? 

You might think that anyone who achieves power is likely to face a certain level of ridicule.

What’s different with Amazon is that too may stories are now emerging in which the company appears entirely without heart.

You might imagine there’s little Amazon can do about that.

Growth, after all, is the only characteristic America respects in companies. 

You have to get bigger and bigger until you burst, rather like the average American diner.

Yet Amazon executives are surely concerned that a company claiming to put consumers at its core may become a little more unpopular with those very consumers.

Some might wonder whether, instead of this being Amazon’s prime time, it’s actually the beginning of the end.

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Learn to Fly Sikorsky's New Helicopter in Just 45 Minutes
November 2, 2018 12:00 am|Comments (0)

With the possible exception of Tom Cruise, learning to fly a helicopter demands months of classroom, simulator, and in-air training. The controls feature all the logic of Bop It: Twist one hand, move the other to the left. Push one foot, then the other. Watch the instruments, but don’t forget to look at the horizon. I once spent a full day working with Airbus’ top instructors, and by the end couldn’t even keep the chopper in level flight. I was nowhere near pulling off a low hover, a move that looks simple but requires extraordinary coordination and concentration.

But last month, a group from the US Army, including one person who’d never even been in a helicopter, flew a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter up and over a small watching crowd in Fort Eustis, Virginia, hovered over an adjoining field, dropped down, adjusted their position to dodge another vehicle, then safely landed. And they did it all after as little as 45 minutes of training.

“It’s pretty neat to see the transformation from ‘I have no idea what this system does’ to ‘I can now control this system,’” says Sikorsky helicopter pilot Mark Ward, who put the newbies through their minimalist training. “This is not to say that they’re combat-ready, hardened, ready to go. But it is a testament to the ease with which they can now adapt to a nonlogical control system like a helicopter,” he says.

It’s not like these people are aeronautical savants (no offense) or leather-clad Carrie-Anne Mosses. But computers are key, as given away by the retro blocky graphic on the chopper: “Matrix Technology.” This, as you may have guessed, is no ordinary helicopter. It’s controlled by a hand-held tablet that lets wannabe pilots fly about using familiar gestures and movements, like they would to play a game or fly a quadcopter drone.

Matrix Technology is the name of Sikorsky’s program for rotorcraft that minimize, or even eliminate, the role of the human pilot. It’s part Darpa’s Alias program (that’s the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System). Just as some automakers are approaching self-driving cars with gradually more capable driver assistance tech, the idea here is that making a chopper easier to fly is a step toward letting a computer take control.

The human on board controls the flight using a tablet and a couple of joystick-like controllers called interceptors. “It allows the onboard crew members to rapidly communicate their intent to the autonomy system, which kind of becomes like a co-pilot,” says Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky’s autonomy program.

DARPA

Instead of learning the steps of the complicated throttle and pedal dance, the human onboard controls the flight using a tablet and a couple of joystick-like controllers called interceptors. The tablet is used for inputting mission changes, like changing the destination. The interceptors are for more immediate inputs, like a push to the right or a quick climb. But unlike in conventional flight, adjusting any of these controls leads to an input into the computer controlling the flight, requesting a change, rather than a direct movement of a flight control surface. This is fully fly-by-wire, under the control of an algorithm.

“It allows the onboard crew members to rapidly communicate their intent to the autonomy system, which kind of becomes like a copilot,” says Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky’s autonomy program. The human gives orders, the computer executes them.

Although Sikorsky put the humans in the helicopter for this demo, the system could work just as efficiently as a kind of remote control, says Cherepinsky, with the human on the ground below holding the tablet, or in a remote center, dialing in and supervising. Those applications could be useful for first responders like firefighters, who could direct aircraft over forest blazes from a safe distance.

For the military, automating more aspects of flight could help make missions safer. “Really, we want the pilot’s eyes and mind on the fight rather than holding an altitude,” says Graham Drozeski, the Darpa program manager for Alias. For Darpa, Sikorsky is now integrating its system into a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, for more mission-driven demonstrations next year.

In the civilian world, increased autonomy, and smarter helicopters in particular, could be a useful stepping stone on the way to fully autonomous air taxis, whisking commuters from building top to building top in Dallas and LA by 2023— if Uber has its way. At the same time, startups like SkyRyse are betting that helicopters with sensors and smarts will show that air trips can be cheaper, quicker to dispatch, and ultimately more useful than they are now. Even before they become fully autonomous, which could take years of technological and regulatory overhauls, they would lower the bar for human pilots.

Sikorsky’s system is all about augmenting the human, at least for now, Cherepinsky says. “We are all marching toward the holy grail of pushing one button on the screen saying ‘get me here,‘ point A to point B.”


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