Nerval's Lobster writes: In a move that seemed to surprise exactly nobody in the tech world, BlackBerry announced that it would consider selling itself to the highest bidder. Now that BlackBerry’s announced that a company sale is on the table—not a shocker to anyone even vaguely aware of its fortunes over the past few years—it’s worth considering who would snatch it off the market, and why. How about a Chinese company like Huawei or Lenovo? Or maybe Dell or Hewlett-Packard would be willing to shell out the cash for BlackBerry's portfolio and still-significant customer base. Or maybe even a firm like Cisco, more interested in BlackBerry's patents and backend infrastructure than its phones. What company do you think would be best suited to acquire the struggling smartphone maker?
Nerval's Lobster writes: BlackBerry is considering whether to sell itself off to the highest bidder. The company’s Board of Directors has announced the founding of a Special Committee to explore so-called “strategic alternatives to enhance value and increase scale,” which apparently includes “possible joint ventures, strategic partnerships or alliances, a sale of the Company or other possible transactions.” BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins added that, while the committee did its work, the company would continue to its recent overhead-reduction strategy. Prem Watsa, chairman and CEO of Fairfax Financial—BlackBerry’s largest shareholder—announced that he would resign from the company’s board in order to avoid a potential conflict of interest. News that BlackBerry is considering a potential sale should surprise nobody. Faced with fierce competition from Google and Apple, the company’s market-share has tumbled over the past several quarters. In a desperate bid to regain its former prominence in the mobile-device industry, BlackBerry developed and released BlackBerry 10, a next-generation operating system meant to compete toe-to-toe against Google Android and Apple iOS—despite a massive ad campaign, however, early sales of BlackBerry 10 devices have proven somewhat underwhelming.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Government whistleblower Edward Snowden has some choice things to say about the recent controversy surrounding Lavabit. In a statement to The Guardian, he applauded Lavabit’s decision to shut down in response to a government lawsuit while condemning the tech titans’ refusal to do more to lock down users’ data. “America cannot succeed as a country where individuals like Mr. Levison have to relocate their businesses abroad to be successful," he wrote. "Employees and leaders at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and the rest of our internet titans must ask themselves why they aren’t fighting for our interests the same way small businesses are. The defense they have offered to this point is that they were compelled by laws they do not agree with, but one day of downtime for the coalition of their services could achieve what a hundred Lavabits could not.” The question now is whether individuals and businesses will stop using cloud-based services they view as vulnerable to surveillance by third parties such as the NSA and FBI. If that becomes the case, it could seriously affect the business models of Google, Microsoft, and other IT firms that have wholeheartedly embraced the cloud in recent years. It also remains to be seen whether more encrypted-services companies follow in Lavabit’s footsteps and shut down.
Nerval's Lobster writes: In a new interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Bill Gates discussed his Foundation’s work to eradicate polio and malaria, while suggesting that vaccine programs and similar initiatives to fight disease and poverty will ultimately do much more for the world than technology projects devoted to connecting everybody to the Internet. While Gates professes his belief in the so-called digital revolution, he doesn’t think projects such as Google’s Internet blimps (designed to transmit WiFi signals over hundreds of miles, bringing Internet to underserved areas in the process) will do the third world nearly as much as good as basic healthcare. “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that [Internet] balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” he said. “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” Gates then sharpened his attack on the search-engine giant: “Google started out saying they were going to do a broad set of things. They hired Larry Brilliant, and they got fantastic publicity. And then they shut it all down.” Google focusing on its core mission is fine, he added, “but the actors who just do their core thing are not going to uplift the poor.” The Microsoft co-founder also has no intention of following Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other tech entrepreneurs into the realm of space exploration. “I guess it’s fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air,” he said. “But it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: Big Blue has announced the development of what it calls a “software ecosystem” for next-generation silicon chips, inspired by the architecture of the human cortex. In theory, this ecosystem will result in technology that mirrors the brain’s perceptive and cognitive functions. “Dramatically different from traditional software, IBM’s new programming model breaks the mold of sequential operation underlying today’s von Neumann architectures and computers,” read IBM’s statement on the matter. “It is instead tailored for a new class of distributed, highly interconnected, asynchronous, parallel, large-scale cognitive computing architectures.” As part of the project, IBM researchers have developed several pieces of software, including a digital neuron model that can process information in a “brain-like” way, and which supports a “wide range of deterministic and stochastic neural computations, codes, and behaviors.” A network of these synthetic neurons could sense, remember, and act upon environmental data. The company’s long-term goal is to create a chip system comprised of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, one that needs to consume only a little bit of electricity. Such a system could ingest a massive amount of raw information and analyze it at blazing speed—all while leveraging a widely dispersed network of technologically advanced sensors to draw in multiple varieties of data. IBM argues that “traditional” computers simply can’t meet the world's rising computational demands—at least not in the same way as the human brain, which is capable of absorbing and interpreting enormous amounts of information while burning relatively little power and occupying a skull-sized amount of space.
Nerval's Lobster writes: The microelectronic sensors and mechanical systems built into smartphone cameras and other tiny electronic devices may soon evolve into microscopic, custom-printed versions designed as bionic body parts rather than smartphone components. Engineering researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a micro-printing process that can build microscopic microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) onto a flexible, non-toxic organic polymer designed for implantation in the human body. Current-generation MEMS are typically found in the accelerometers in smartphones, or the tiny actuator motors that focus cell-phone camera lenses. Most are made from substrates based on silicon, and built using techniques common to semiconductor fabrication. The new process, as described in the journal Microelectronic Engineering, relies on an organic polymer that is hundreds of times more flexible than conventional materials used for similar purposes. That flexibility not only makes the units easier to fit into the oddly shaped parts of a human body, it allows them to be made more sensitive to motion and energy-efficient. That alone would give a boost to the miniaturization of electronics, but the stretch and flex of the new materials could also serve as more comfortable and efficient replacements for current prosthetics that sense stimuli from an amputee’s nervous system to power a prosthetic arm, for example, or operate a synthetic bladder.
Nerval's Lobster writes: In the new movie “Elysium,” Earth a century and a half from now is an overtaxed slum, low on niceties like clean water and riddled with crime and sickness. The ultra-rich have abandoned terra firma in favor of Elysium, an orbital space station where the champagne flows freely and the medical care is the best possible. Mark Uhran, former director of the International Space Station Division at NASA headquarters, talked with Slashdot about what it would take (and how much it would cost) to actually build a space station like that for civilians. It turns out NASA did a report way back in 1975 describing what it would take to build a Stanford torus space station like the one in the movie: rotation for artificial gravity, a separate shield for radiation and debris, the ability to mine materials from astroids or possibly the moon, and $190.8 billion in 1975 dollars (the equivalent of $828.11 billion today). Looks like the ultra-rich are stuck on Earth for the time being.
Nerval's Lobster writes: In a new Gizmodo column, Andreas Goeldi calls it the “frosted glass” effect: when a prominent tech company’s latest upgrade to its flagship operating system features frosted-glass highlights as its primary innovation, you know that company is facing a period of severe stagnation. That’s what happened to Microsoft around the time of Windows Vista, Goeldi wrote, and Apple’s going down the same road with iOS 7. In light of what he views as Apple’s sclerosis, it wasn’t difficult for him to abandon his iPhone in favor of a Google Android ecosystem. But is Apple really becoming the next Microsoft? In short: no. Apple seems to recognize everything that seemed to elude Microsoft’s corporate thinking six years ago: namely, that even the most successful companies need to keep breaking into new categories, and keep innovating, if they want to stay ahead of hungry rivals. Rumors have persisted for quite some time that Apple is prepping big pushes into wearable electronics and televisions, both of which could prove lucrative strategies if executed correctly. Goeldi faults iOS 7 for its frosted-glass effects, which he compares to those of Vista; but similar graphical elements aside, it’s unlikely that iOS 7 will run into the same complaints over hardware requirements, compatibility, security, and so much more that greeted Vista upon its release. In fact, iOS 7 isn’t even finished.
Nerval's Lobster writes: The U.S. Navy expects to save $20 million per year on its global logistics and transportation budget, thanks to technology that has been saving business travelers billions since 1996. The Navy is testing a system that consolidates information about freight and personnel travel schedules into a single database—the better to give individual decision-makers a choice of the quickest, cheapest options available using “an Expedia-like” search capability, according to the Office of Naval Research, which developed the application. All that being said, the Transportation Exploitation Tool (TET) is a little more sophisticated than online-travel sites such as Expedia or Travelocity were in 1996: The system consolidates travel schedules and capacity reports for both military and civilian carriers to give logistics planners a choice of open spaces in ships, planes, trucks, trains or other means of travel, along with information about cost, estimated time of arrival and recommendations of the most efficient route. Previously, logistics planners trying to get an engine part to a Navy ship stranded in a foreign port, for example, might spend hours or days looking through separate databases to find a ship or plane able to carry the part that could deliver it within a limited window of time. “This system is truly revolutionary,” Bob Smith, program manager at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), wrote in a statement announcing the system. “TET uses advances in technology to provide outstanding optimization of available flights and ship routes, saving our logisticians enormous amounts of time—and that can literally mean saving lives.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: Researchers in Japan and Germany have carried out what’s being described as the largest neuronal network simulation to date. That simulation leveraged open-source NEST software running on K computer, a Fujitsu-manufactured supercomputer based at the RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science (AICS) in Japan. K computer ranked fourth on the most recent Top500 list, a ranking of the world’s fastest supercomputers; the platform, armed with 705,024 cores, is capable of 10,510 teraflops of performance (as measured via the Linpack benchmark; in theory, the system could push that to 11,280.4 teraflops). In conjunction with a research team at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at Jülich, K computer simulated a neuronal network of 1.73 billion nerve cells connected by 10.4 trillion synapses. That sounds like a whole lot of nerve cells and synapses, but in fact it’s only 1 percent of the neuronal network in the brain. “If peta-scale computers like the K computer are capable of representing 1 percent of the network of a human brain today,” team leader Markus Diesmann wrote in a statement, “then we know that simulating the whole brain at the level of the individual nerve cell and its synapses will be possible with exa-scale computers hopefully available within the next decade.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: They may not all support what the NSA will do with its giant new datacenter in Bluffdale, but Utah officials do seem to agree on the value of having a world-class, $1.5 billion datacenter built in their territory. In general, they’re for it, and are proving that by changing a law that would have added about $2.4 million in taxes to the datacenter’s power bill—an addition that was an unpleasant surprise to NSA officials when they heard about it in May. A bill signed into law April 1 imposed a tax of up to 6 percent on electricity from Rocky Mountain Power, a requirement the NSA protested in an email to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert April 26. State tax agencies swear they informed the NSA about the impact of the law when it was still under debate; NSA officials denied knowing anything about it and complained that it would make Utah a less attractive site for the datacenter, which was only three to four months from completion at the time.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Developer and editor Jeff Cogswell asks: When it comes to implementing a CouchDB installation, do you roll your own, or go with a service that provides a hosted version of the database? He takes a look at some of the technologies present in CouchDB that can greatly influence that decision. His conclusion? Like all things, it's a little complicated. "If you’re going to be self-hosting—unless you’re working on a really small system—don’t use the basic CouchDB for anything," he writes. "If you want scalability, either go with Couchbase or BigCouch, or wait until Cloudant’s BigCouch merger into CouchDB is officially available." But going with a host also creates its own things to watch for, including potential issues with replication and eventual consistency.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Just in time for hurricane season, the National Weather Service has finished upgrading the supercomputers it uses to track and model super-storms. “These improvements are just the beginning and build on our previous success. They lay the foundation for further computing enhancements and more accurate forecast models that are within reach,” National Weather Service director Louis W. Uccellini wrote in a statement. The National Weather Service’s “Tide” supercomputer—along with its “Gyre” backup—are capable of operating at a combined 213 teraflops. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which runs the Service, has asked for funding that would increase that supercomputing power even more, to 1,950 teraflops. The National Weather Service uses that hardware for projects such as the Hurricane Weather Research and Forecasting (HWRF) model, a complex bit of forecasting that allows the organization to more accurately predict storms’ intensity and movement. The HWRF can leverage real-time data taken from Doppler radar installed in the NOAA’s P3 hurricane hunter aircraft.