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January 07 2014

Four short links: 7 January 2014

  1. Pebble Gets App Store (ReadWrite Web) — as both Pebble and MetaWatch go after the high-end watch market. Wearables becoming more than a nerd novelty.
  2. Thinking About the Network as Filter (JP Rangaswami) — Constant re-openings of the same debate as people try and get a synchronous outcome out of an asynchronous tool without the agreements and conventions in place to do it. He says friends are your social filters. You no longer have to read every email. When you come back from vacation, whatever has passed in the stream unread can stay unread but most social tools are built as collectors, not as filters. Looking forward to the rest in his series.
  3. Open Auto AllianceThe OAA is a global alliance of technology and auto industry leaders committed to bringing the Android platform to cars starting in 2014. “KidGamesPack 7 requires access to your history, SMS, location, network connectivity, speed, weight, in-car audio, and ABS control systems. Install or Cancel?”
  4. Jacob Appelbaum’s CCC Talk — transcript of an excellent talk. One of the scariest parts about this is that for this system or these sets of systems to exist, we have been kept vulnerable. So it is the case that if the Chinese, if the Russians, if people here wish to build this system, there’s nothing that stops them. And in fact the NSA has in a literal sense retarded the process by which we would secure the internet because it establishes a hegemony of power, their power in secret to do these things.

May 09 2013

Where will software and hardware meet?

I’m a sucker for a good plant tour, and I had a really good one last week when Jim Stogdill and I visited K. Venkatesh Prasad at Ford Motor in Dearborn, Mich. I gave a seminar and we talked at length about Ford’s OpenXC program and its approach to building software platforms.

The highlight of the visit was seeing the scale of Ford’s operation, and particularly the scale of its research and development organization. Prasad’s building is a half-mile into Ford’s vast research and engineering campus. It’s an endless grid of wet labs like you’d see at a university: test tubes and robots all over the place; separate labs for adhesives, textiles, vibration dampening; machines for evaluating what’s in reach for different-sized people.

Prasad explained that much of the R&D that goes into a car is conducted at suppliers–Ford might ask its steel supplier to come up with a lighter, stronger alloy, for instance–but Ford is responsible for integrative research: figuring out how to, say, bond its foam insulation onto that new alloy.

In our more fevered moments, we on the software side of things tend to foresee every problem being reduced to a generic software problem, solvable with brute-force computing and standard machinery. In that interpretation, a theoretical Google car operating system–one that would drive the car and provide Web-based services to passengers–could commoditize the mechanical aspects of the automobile. If you’re not driving, you don’t care much about how the car handles; you just want a comfortable seat, functional air conditioning, and Web connectivity for entertainment. A panel in the dashboard becomes the only substantive point of interaction between a car and its owner, and if every car is running Google’s software in that panel, then there’s not much left to distinguish different makes and models.

When’s the last time you heard much of a debate on Dell laptops versus HP? As long it’s running the software you want, and meets minimum criteria for performance and physical quality, there’s not much to distinguish laptop makers for the vast majority of users. The exception, perhaps, is Apple, which consumers do distinguish from other laptop makers for both its high-quality hardware and its unique software.

That’s how I start to think after a few days in Mountain View. A trip to Detroit pushes me in the other direction: the mechanical aspects of cars are enormously complex. Even incremental changes take vast re-engineering efforts. Changing the shape of a door sill to make a car easier to get into means changing a car’s aesthetics, its frame, the sheet metal that gets stamped to make it, the wires and sensors embedded in it, and the assembly process that puts it together. Everything from structural integrity to user experience needs to be carefully checked before a thousand replicates start driving out of Ford’s plants every day.

So, when it comes to value added, where will the balance between software and machines emerge? Software companies and industrial firms might both try to shift the balance by controlling the interfaces between software and machines: if OpenXC can demonstrate that it’s a better way to interact with Ford cars than any other interface, Ford will retain an advantage.

As physical things get networked and instrumented, software can make up a larger proportion of their value. I’m not sure exactly where that balance will arise, but I have a hard time believing in complete commoditization of the machines beneath the software.

See our free research report on the industrial internet for an overview of the ways that software and machines are coming together.

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January 25 2013

The driverless-car liability question gets ahead of itself

Megan McArdle has taken on the question of how liability might work in the bold new world of driverless cars. Here’s her framing scenario:

Imagine a not-implausible situation: you are driving down a brisk road at 30 mph with a car heading towards you in the other lane at approximately the same speed. A large ball rolls out into the street, too close for you to brake. You, the human, knows that the ball is likely to be followed, in seconds, by a small child; you slam on the brakes (perhaps giving yourself whiplash) or swerve, at considerable risk of hitting the other car.

What should a self-driving car do?  More to the point, if you hit the kid, or the other car, who gets sued?

The lawyer could go after you, with your piddling $250,000 liability policy and approximately 83 cents worth of equity in your home. Or he could go after the automaker, which has billions in cash, and the ultimate responsibility for whatever decision the car made. What do you think is going to happen?

The implication is that the problem of concentrated liability might make automakers reluctant to take the risk of introducing driverless cars.

I think McArdle is taking a bit too much of a leap here. Automakers are accustomed to having the deepest pockets within view of any accident scene. Liability questions raised by this new kind of intelligence will have to be worked out — maybe by forcing drivers to take on the liability for their cars’ performance via their insurance companies, and insurance companies in turn certifying types of technology that they’ll insure. By the time driverless cars become a reality they’ll probably be substantially safer than human drivers, so the insurance companies might be willing to accept the tradeoff and everyone will benefit.

(Incidentally, I’m told by people who have taken rides in Google’s car that the most unnerving part of it is that it drives like your driver’s ed teacher told you to — at exactly the speed limit, with full stops at stop signs and conservative behavior at yellow lights.)

But we’ll probably get the basic liability testing out of the way before a car like Google’s hits the road in large numbers. First will come a wave of machine vision-based driver-assist technologies like automatic cruise control on highways (similar to some kinds of technology that have been around for years). These features present liability issues similar to those in a fully driverless car — can an automaker’s driving judgment be faulted in an accident? — but in a somewhat less fraught context.

The interesting question to me is how the legal system might handle liability for software that effectively drives a car better than any human possibly could. In the kind of scenario that McArdle outlines, a human driver would take intuitive action to avoid an accident — action that will certainly be at least a little bit sub-optimal. Sophisticated driving software could do a much better job at taking the entire context of the situation into account, evaluating several maneuvers, and choosing the one that maximizes survival rates through a coldly rational model.

That doesn’t solve the problem of liability chasing deep pockets, of course, but that’s a problem with the legal system, not the premise of a driverless car. One benefit that carmakers might enjoy is that driverless cars could store black box-type recordings, with detailed data on the context in which every decision was made, in order to show in court that the car’s software acted as well as it possibly could have.

In that case, driverless cars might present a liability problem for anyone who doesn’t own one — a human driver who crashes into a driverless car will find it nearly impossible to show he’s not at fault.

This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

Reposted byRK RK

July 16 2011

Half a century at the forefront of British design

He's not a household name himself, but many of the products he has designed are

At his elegant home in Hampstead in north London – golden parquet floors, Eames lounge chair and ottoman, covetable rosewood sideboard by English designer Robert Heritage – Kenneth Grange, sleek in his black T-shirt, describes to me his latest work: the creation of a chair for the elderly for British manufacturer Hitch Mylius. "It's my first chair," he says, with almost boyish enthusiasm. (He is, though you'd never know it, 82.) "What's interesting is that it's almost a contradiction in modern furniture terms to attempt to make something that is overtly comfortable." He nods in the direction of the aforementioned Eames. "I mean, that's an absolute icon. But it's not comfortable, is it? You need a cushion. Modern furniture is almost always too low and getting off it is a bugger. It's really only designed to make the space look brilliant." Is his own chair comfortable? "Yes, it's bloody comfortable!"

Once you know who Kenneth Grange is – once you've learned a little about his remarkable 50-year career and your eye is in – you see his work everywhere: on streets and stations, in your kitchen, your cupboards and your desk drawer. If the tube had let me down this morning, I might even have travelled here in one of his designs (the London taxi cab, which he remodelled in 1997). Such visual omnipotence, though, is starkly at odds with his personality, which is not grand at all. Grange, modest to a fault, is apt to attribute even his greatest hits – the InterCity 125 train, for instance, which was introduced in 1976 and which is still going strong – to hard work and serendipity rather than his own genius.

The retrospective of his career that is shortly to be staged at the Design Museum is certainly pleasing, but he hopes, too, that it won't cause people to think that he is no longer working. "Because I am – surprise, surprise. Why would I stop? I mean, if a bloke can play the piano, you don't stop him playing it, do you?" It's his wife the unstoppable Grange feels sorry for. "It's a bugger living with a designer, you know. We keep sticking our noses in. She can't buy a tea towel without me having an opinion."

Grange, founding partner of renowned international design consultancy Pentagram, and visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, grew up in London's East End. His father was a policeman, his mother worked in a factory. The family home was, he says, "a good old-fashioned house, a bacon and eggs kind of house": plenty of brown, a three-piece suite, flowery curtains. "And I was rather a compliant little boy, too, so it was very much against character for me to put up my hand when they asked at school if anybody wanted to try for a scholarship to art school."

Once there, though – he enrolled at Willesden School of Art at the age of 14 – life was made simple by the fact that one could either study fine art or commercial art, end of story. "I chose commercial art; we were taught to do things like hand-drawn lettering. Design, though, was not a word we knew." So how did he get interested? Who informed his taste? "Well, I got lucky," he says. "I did my national service – I worked as a technical illustrator – and then I did a series of jobs working as an assistant to architects. And all my taste, all my ideology, came from them."

It was an exciting period to be young and a designer. Postwar Britain might have been austere, but it was optimistic, too. Things needed to be rebuilt and rethought. "It was a buoyant time, and that's the truth," says Grange. "The manufacturers had come back from the war to rebuild their firms and they needed help to do this. So the Council of Industrial Design [now the Design Council] was established by the Labour government as a kind of broking service. Manufacturers would come to them and the council would supply them with the names of designers. The council was very classy, it was run by people of substance. The top echelons were all servicemen. They'd had a tough time, they knew all about loyalties and ethics and they were scrupulously fair. But I also think I was probably the cheapest and quickest designer on their list."

The first commission he landed via this route (in 1958) was a parking meter for Venner. "I took [the project] on my honeymoon. It was the very first parking meter in Britain. Westminster Council had gone to America and contracted a company there to produce its meters, but when they showed them to the council, which had to approve all street furniture, they didn't like it. So they were stuck! They needed me to make it look pretty."

Soon after, he landed two rather heftier clients. First, there was Kenwood, for whom he restyled the Kenwood Chef in just three days. Then there was Kodak. "I couldn't yet make a living from product design, so I was working doing the displays for the Kodak pavilion at the World Trade Fair. I was arranging the products on the stand and someone overheard me say, 'It's a shame these are so ugly; I could make this really good if they weren't.' The next day, the phone rang. It was the head of development at Kodak, and he said, 'I understand you're going to design a camera for us.' It was thrilling, but I was scared, too, because I didn't know cameras. But again, there was an element of luck involved. I just happened to be in the right place at the moment when Kodak decided to start selling cameras for profit. Up until this point, their cameras were sold at a loss in order to shift film."

In 1959, Grange designed the Kodak 44A, in 1968, the Instamatic, and in 1972 the Pocket Instamatic, the first in a new generation of portable cameras. These were good years. He drove an E-Type Jaguar, and hung out on the King's Road.

His subsequent successes included irons for Morphy Richards, pens for Parker, the Adshel bus shelters of 1993, the "rural post box" for the Royal Mail in 1996… the list is long and varied. It is, however, the InterCity 125 of which he remains most proud. "Because it's big, and I use it almost weekly, to come up from my place in Devon," he says. "I was only supposed to redesign the paintwork. But, for my amusement, I decided to have a go at the shape, too. I did work on the aerodynamics, testing it in wind tunnels with the help of an engineer I was employing. I showed it to them with some trepidation. It was a bloody nerve, to be honest. If I'd been on the British Rail board, I'd have told me to piss off. But they weren't difficult to persuade in the end because the argument was sound: the design made the train more efficient."

So what about design in Britain in 2011? Are things more or less beautiful-looking? "Well, there's a lot of it [design] about, to be honest, and it's utterly disposable, most of it. You can go to a factory in China where they make toasters for every company you can possibly think of, and they will show you 20 new designs you can take away that morning, and you will leave with four for your own company, and you will return in a year for another four. It's an awful thing to say, but the poorer we are [as a nation], the more chance there is of us being more disciplined about what we buy.

"I'd like people to pay much more and keep things for ever. These things [he points to my digital tape recorder] are little miracles and it's a travesty of morality to throw them away. It offends me. As for the look of things, well, Apple is enjoying a reputation as the maker of the sleekest things. But they're a bit up their own arse, to be honest. Their things are overdesigned. I've got a Mac mini upstairs and every morning I try and fail to find the button on the back."

Is there anything Grange wishes he had designed? What makes him envious? "Well, the Scandinavians still take some beating. I've got a lamp called the Artichoke [by Poul Henningsen] and it's bloody brilliant." As for a piece of design he would like to own, he "wouldn't mind" an Aston Martin.

"Probably one of the later ones. They're as good a piece of motor styling as you can get, a piece of sculpture, really. That's why the place for them is indoors. It's amusing to go fast, but it's not important. The look is the thing. Actually, I used to know a wonderful, cranky pair of artists and they had a Morris Minor they loved and it was in their living room." Really? He laughs. "Yes, really. They had to take the house apart to get it in, but that's where they kept it, I promise you."

Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern is at the Design Museum, London SE1 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 12 2011

MG6: part Audi, part Korean hire car

The 'new' MG is a car doing its best to be the very model of a modern Sino-British sports saloon

Let's be clear. This is not an MG that many, if any of us, will recognise. The "new" MG6 is a rebadged Roewe 550, a British-engineered car that made its debut at the 2008 Beijing Motor Show. Although styled by a British designer – Tony Williams-Kenny, formerly with the Japanese car maker, Mitsubishi – the Roewe is manufactured by SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation), the state-owned Chinese company that took over the Nanjing Automobile (Group) Corporation that bought out MG Rover in 2005.

Confused? You will be when you see the MG6, a car doing its best to be the very model of a modern Sino-British sports saloon. Even then, the MG – assembled at Longbridge from body shells, engines and gearboxes shipped from the People's Republic – has something of the look of a new German Audi crossed with a Korean airport rental car. Only the time-honoured octagonal MG badge prominent on the car's nose and in the centre of its steering wheel suggests that this is, somehow, a distant relation of the quintissentially British cars once made at Abingdon and Longbridge. Perhaps, it doesn't matter. The original MG vanished a long time ago, although fans of the marque remain as die-hard as ever. Now spring is here, just look how many MGBs with their crisp Anglo-Italian styling (a bit of Frua, a lot of Don Hayter) and distinctive hollow exhaust note are out on the roads. The rebadged SAIC Roewe 550 with its global looks and hard, drab interior does at least offer engineering jobs in the West Midlands and there will be many there who will back the car to the hilt.

The MG6 brochure says: "In every detail you'll find a fond nod to MG's glory days – Le Mans, Goodwood, land speed records and true British sporting endeavour." You won't, yet if the car succeeds, might worthy successors to fondly remembered sporting machines from Abingdon be on the cards? Who knows, but as the old Chinese proverb says, you must persevere to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The new MG: made in China, fine-tuned in Birmingham

After 16 years, the MG is about to hit the road again – thanks to the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation

The automotive offspring of an Anglo-Chinese collaboration will roll off the production line in Birmingham on Wednesday to show the world its sporty snout, aggressive grille and a familiar octagonal badge into which two famous letters have been squeezed.

The MG6 fastback, which was designed and engineered in Britain but built mainly in China, is the first all-new MG to be launched in 16 years.

It is also the 21st-century incarnation of an 87-year-old marque that was once a byword for all that was nippy, open-topped and carefree about British sports cars.

Little wonder then that the company has opted for a little glitz to mark the day when full production of its cars resumes.

"It will come through a showcase arch with a bit of fanfare," said the company's PR manager, Doug Wallace.

Production of the car at MG Birmingham – a factory on the former Longbridge site – would not have been possible were it not for the company's Chinese owners, the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC).

Six years ago, MG Rover Group went into administration and MG was bought by China's oldest carmaker, NAC. Two years later, NAC merged with SAIC and the MG marque was once again reborn.

Despite the ownership, and the fact that it is three-quarters built in China before being shipped over and finished off by the 40 or so manufacturing workers in Birmingham, Wallace insists the five-door hardtop is a true MG.

"All of the design work for the car, all the styling and all of the actual engineering design work is done here, and all the engineering development and proving of the car is done by that team on site here at MG Birmingham," he said.

"The driving dynamics of the car are [also] overtly MG: it's very sporty going through quick corners and bends and we think that's a particular thing that sets us apart."

But those fantasising about the whoosh of wind through their hair as they tear down country lanes might want to rein in the romance: the MG6 is looking to take on the likes of the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra.

Lest there be any doubt that the MG6 is not exactly a sporty coupe, Wallace added: "A lot of people compare it to the Skoda Octavia and the Vauxhall Insignia, for the body shape."

To others, though, the new car is about a lot more than the reinvention of a beloved brand.

This week is the sixth anniversary of the closure of the once-great Longbridge plant, with the loss of 6,500 MG Rover jobs.

The Labour MP Richard Burden, whose Birmingham Northfield constituency includes Longbridge, describes the MG6 as a milestone and, hopefully, a glimpse of real recovery.

"We're never going to see Rover's return of 20,000 people engaged in mass car production, but what you're seeing here is not just a new model rolling off the tracks at Longbridge but also a new model that was designed and developed at Longbridge," he said.

"Britain now excels in performance engineering and in automotive-related environmental technologies … [and] Longbridge can be a centre for that."

All the talk of corporate and regional revival, however, will prove premature if the marque fails to hit the mark this time around.

According to Richard Ladds, editor of the MG Owners' Club magazine, Enjoying MG, the new car is "very good, very capable, very competent … it's not a BMW but it's not a low-rent car either".

Nor is he bothered about where the car is mainly built.

"It's a bit like an Apple computer: I think, 'Oh that's a lovely Apple computer', I don't think, 'Oh it's built in China'."

The main thing, said Ladds, is that the old Morris Garages badge is once again on the bonnet of a new car.

"There's a somewhat strange brand loyalty and it's nice to be able to say yes, we can go and buy a new MG," he said. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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