Computing's power problem - Axios
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Computing's power problem

Credit: Carnegie Mellon Electrical and Computer Engineering

An intermittent, energy-harvesting computer system on a tiny "chipsat" satellite, designed for the KickSat-2 satellite launch mission. It is about 1" square and 4mm thick when deployed.

When it comes to computing, much of the focus is on getting more powerful computations out of ever-smaller chips (think of your cell phone) but it isn't always about intense calculations. There is a different issue: power. If we want to deploy sensors in the corners of the world or the crannies of our lives, the chips need a continuous source of stable power or the software basically breaks. Brandon Lucia at Carnegie Mellon University is trying to solve this in hopes that low-cost, low-power computer chips can be used with less risk of failure.

"This isn't about high intensity computing. It is about not having a battery," Lucia says. He is developing a programming language and computer systems to be included in the world's smallest satellite, expected to launch next year.

The battery problem: Computing can be a tradeoff between the computation to be made and the energy that it requires. Batteries weigh too much and tethering the chips to power sources limits where they can go. Instead, tiny solar panels can harvest energy from the environment but the power they provide isn't consistent.

The software problem: Software typically runs in sequence — from step 1 to 2 to 3 and so on. When the power cuts, a program will start at step 1 again or another intermediate checkpoint step. Too many restarts like that can cause inconsistencies in the program, mess up data in the computer's memory, and stop the program. Currently, expert programmers custom build - over months - software that operates under these conditions but even then there is no safety net when a program fails.

Lucia is addressing this in two ways:

  1. He created a new programming language and software system that retains the data in the memory, allows a program to pick up where it left off, and keeps trying to execute the task until completion.
  2. By combining that system with a hardware platform that buffers energy, the chip's computations can work with intermittent power. "We're creating useful systems out of those flaky components by changing the way hardware and software communicate," he says.

Testing: The system has been field tested on the university's campus with an application that collects compass and gyroscope data. But a big test will come next year when a chip satellite (chipsat) employing their design is scheduled to launch into space. Zachary Manchester, who created the KickSat mission to launch chipsats into low Earth orbit in the name of democratizing space exploration, says:

"What I like about Brandon's work is the combination of low-cost off-the-shelf hardware and clever software to make robust systems that can work in harsh environments. Right now, a lot of the computing hardware used onboard spacecraft is essentially custom built to survive in space. That makes it way too expensive to use in small low-cost satellites."

More applications: Lucia says the terrestrial applications of these low-power, 1-in. square, 4mm thick chips are just as exciting:

  • Maintenance: Lucia's team is working on a system designed to be used on a pipe to monitor its temperature by placing sensors along its length. "If you have 40,000 devices sensing and providing data, you can't go switch the batteries all the time," he points out.
  • Energy conservation: Imagine an indoor occupancy detection system consisting of sensors on a board that are placed throughout a building so the HVAC system can be aware of how many people are in the room and adjust the temperature accordingly. Running power to them wouldn't be ideal nor would switching batteries on 42 stories of sensors.
  • Medicine: People have proposed ingestible robots but a key advance would be to get batteries away from the body, Lucia says.
  • Reactive science missions: Lucia and Brett Streetmen from Draper both envision using chipsats to monitor wildfires, volcanic eruptions, or wildlife movement in remote areas. Streetmen says they could be launched into space and deployed to study these events.
What about space: Chipsats can conceivably be blasted in droves into deep space or through Europa's icy atmosphere to study whether there is life there. Lucia hopes to create a robust system for these harsh conditions. "It enables a radically different spacecraft design," Streetman says.

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Trump gets personal with new attacks on Morning Joe hosts

AP

President Trump's Twitter attacks got personal Thursday morning when he went after Morning Joe hosts and engaged couple Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski — his old friends:

"I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joespeaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came... to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!"

Flashback: When Joe and Mika broke the news of their engagement in a Vanity Fair interview last month, they revealed that Trump — over lunch with the couple, as well as Ivanka and Jared Kushner — offered to officiate their wedding, and recommended they hold the ceremony at Mar-a-Lago or the White House. Mika told Vanity Fair, "If it weren't Trump, it might be something to think about."

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Reports: Trump routinely confuses Medicaid and Medicare

Evan Vucci / AP

A Republican Senator told the New York Times on Tuesday that President Trump gave the impression that he "did not have a grasp of some basic elements of the Senate plan" and that he was "especially confused" by the idea of opponents calling the bill "a massive tax break for the wealthy." More aides described Trump as uninterested in the particulars of health care.

"There would be times when he would describe what was clearly Medicare...but say Medicaid, and when we pointed that out, he would say, 'That's what I said, Medicare and Medicaid."
  • When asked if Trump had an understanding of the important aspects of the House and Senate health care bills, a close aide laughed and replied, "not to my knowledge."
  • "The president understands winning," a different official said.
  • Aides don't point out Trump's misunderstandings, not wanting to make him feel or look "dumb."
  • On Trump's campaign promises about repealing and replacing Obamacare, a former campaign aide said, "It wasn't really a policy oriented campaign—policy wasn't on our radar. The sense was, say what wins and figure out the details later."
  • Just as his intelligence briefings have been cut short compared to those of Obama, an official told the Daily Beast, "It is fair to say the president takes [a] similar approach to health care... [It's] 'less is more.'"
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Even Nike can't resist the Amazon revolution

Michael Noble Jr / AP

Sportswear giant Nike announced an agreement earlier this month to sell its products directly through Amazon.com, despite resisting the online retailer's entreaties for more than a decade.

The Wall Street Journal reports the decision was made after third-party sellers offering Nike products began to proliferate on the site, loosening the firm's control over pricing and distribution. Nike can't stop third-party sellers from reselling lawfully-purchased product, and following the liquidation of bankrupt Sports Authority's inventory last year, the market was flooded with Nike product that could be resold at deep discounts. Nike therefore decided to strike a deal to sell its products on Amazon in exchange for its help in stopping unauthorized third-party sales.

Why it matters: When consumers want to buy any type of product, be it electronics or apparel, an increasing share think of Amazon first.

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Ex-Binary Capital employee sues for alleged harassment

Binary Capital website

A female former employee at Binary Capital alleges that the VC firm tried to silence her after she quit, including alleged threats to withhold her share of the profits from successful investments (i.e., carried interest), according to a lawsuit filed in San Mateo Superior Court on Thursday.

The details: The former employee, Ann Lai, says that Binary Capital's culture was sexist, including commentary about sexual encounters, women's bodies, and inappropriate behavior toward female staff. After she resigned in May 2016, Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck allegedly threatened her ability to find work if she disclosed anything about her time at the firm. She quickly lost out on multiple jobs because of the firm's statements about her and her performance.

Piling on: Lai's complaint comes a week after a report from The Information revealed that Caldbeck had been sexually harassing some female startup founders. Since then, it's also been revealed that apparel startup Stitch Fix requested in 2013 that Calbeck, at the time working for Lightspeed Venture Partners, be removed from its board after he harassed the startup's founder, though she was forced to signed a non-disparagement agreement about the situation. Over the last few days, both Caldbeck and his partner, Jonathan Teo have effectively resigned, and Binary is expected to be wound down.

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Mining by machine: Automation hits coal industry

Anupam Nath / AP

If you want to work in coal, forget using a shovel. As Bloomberg's Tim Loh writes: "Coal…executives are starting to search for workers who can crunch gigabytes of data or use a joystick to maneuver mining vehicles hundreds of miles away."

The coal industry's workforce composition is increasingly going to be skilled workers, and overall hiring is likely to dip. As Heath Lovell, a spokesman for coal producer Alliance Resource Partners LP, puts it: "Whether coal comes back or not is not necessarily directly related to jobs," since as tech makes the industry more efficient it will be able to produce the same amount with fewer employees.

  • To get a sense of how successful the coal industry is going forward, look to production levels, not hiring. Remaining competitive, particularly with natural gas, likely means cutting labor.
  • The tech now: The machines that are likely to displace workers in the next 10 to 15 years include the longwall machine (which cuts coal in mile-long strips without many employees), joysticks to mine by remote control (with the help of videos, sensors, and positioning software), autonomous haul loaders, autonomous trucks, autonomous long-haul trains, semi-autonomous crushers and more. Read more, via the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
  • Likely Impacts: Accenture predicted in 2010 that employing autonomous tech in open pit mines would reduce employment by 75%. Miners, drivers, and maintainers will see more layoffs, per ComputerWorld. It is also likely that the introduction of automation will reduce fuel consumption and spending but also lost tax revenue, IISD claims.
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The iPhone went on sale 10 years ago today

Sergey Ponomarev / AP

The Economist: "No product in recent history has changed people's lives more. Without the iPhone, ride-hailing, photo-sharing, instant messaging and other essentials of modern life would be less widespread. Shorn of cumulative sales of 1.2bn devices and revenues of $1trn, Apple would not hold the crown of the world's largest listed company. Thousands of software developers would be poorer, too: the apps they have written for the smartphone make them more than $20bn annually."

  • The next decade: "[T]he era of stand-alone electronic devices, however slick, is coming to an end. They will increasingly become a vehicle for — and be subsidized by — services based on machine learning and other artificial-intelligence techniques. The quality of these offerings will in turn largely depend on how much data developers have access to... Although Apple's Siri was one of the first digital assistants, Google's and Amazon's offerings are now much smarter."
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The story behind Trump's Medicaid tweet

On Wednesday afternoon, President Trump tweeted a graph from his personal account showing Medicaid spending under the Republican Senate health bill.

There's a story behind that tweet: In the Oval Office on Wednesday, Marc Short, the White House Legislative Affairs director, showed Trump a piece of paper with the graph of Medicaid spending pointing up. Trump wanted to tweet it, according to a source told about the meeting.

Why it matters: The graph doesn't show the other side of the Medicaid changes: the fact that spending would go down compared to current law, which is how Senate Republicans get $772 billion in savings. That's the whole point of the new spending limits.

This is all part of a broader White House strategy: They want to change the way it's presented in the media to help sway some of the Senate Republican holdouts.

  • For the longest time, Republicans in all branches of government failed to frame the argument over Medicaid in terms of the Medicaid dollars going up. Some in the administration had concluded it was an argument they couldn't win. But a number of officials saw they were getting killed every day in the press, with reports of the billions being cut out of Medicaid. Some officials wanted to aggressively reframe the argument as a growth in spending — and a slowing of the growth rate under Obamacare rather than a raw "cut."
  • Even at this late stage, the White House believes it's crucial to change the media narrative. A number of officials believe that some crucial senators are more heavily swayed by media coverage than they are by the substance of the cuts to the Medicaid spending under the Affordable Care Act.

HHS Secretary Tom Price has been making this argument, and tweeted a similar graph of Medicaid spending on Tuesday:

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Stop going to the White House press briefings

With all the legitimate gripes reporters have with this White House, perhaps the least worthy of your (or their) time and attention is the WWE-style smackdown over briefings. Every day, the White House hides or dodges. Every day, reporters protest and whine.

Here's an idea: Quit going.

  • Even if the spokespeople were fully looped in, appeared on camera, and shot straight, what would you miss by blowing it off? There are transcripts and this thing called Twitter, where the rare newsy nugget will quickly appear.
  • Truth is, with cable and the internet, the briefings were pretty useless, even pre-Trump. Government officials are paid to make little news, and spin the best take they can. It's low-grade propaganda at best, and full-blown B.S. at worst.
  • You're wasting time in your day you'll never get back. For a White House reporter who doesn't work in the building, it can take a good chunk of the workday to get to the briefing, sit through it, then complain about it afterward.
  • Work plugged-in sources instead. It's not as if this White House is a watertight ship: Aides are remarkably candid about the hour-by-hour intrigue, infighting and strategizing.
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No one came out of yesterday's Senate GOP meeting sounding hopeful

David J. Phillip / AP

Senate Republicans spent a whole lot of time talking about the health care bill yesterday, but not a whole lot of time reaching any deals. That makes it harder to see how they could get an agreement by Friday on a revised bill.

It didn't help when Sen. Ted Cruz said he wants to let insurers sell plans that don't have any protections for pre-existing conditions — as long as they also sell plans with that offer those protections and follow the Affordable Care Act's other insurance rules.

Reaction to Cruz's comment:

  • One Senate GOP aide told Caitlin Owens that many of the Republican senators were "surprised and pissed" because most Republican senators had already agreed not to touch the ACA's pre-existing condition protections.
  • Another aide summed up: "No matter how narrowly-proposed, wading into pre-ex is not just a 'No,' it's a 'Hell No' for the vast majority of the Senate GOP."
  • A Cruz spokesman, however, said the senator has been talking for weeks about the idea, which is part of a proposal to give consumers a choice between health plans that meet all of the ACA rules and plans that don't. He's been handing out a card that includes that pitch.

No one came out of yesterday's Senate GOP meeting sounding hopeful.

  • Sen. Susan Collins: "It's very difficult...I'm concerned about a number of aspects, such as coverage, Medicaid cuts, impact on premiums."
  • Sen. Shelley Moore Capito: "I'd like to see a [Medicaid] growth rate that matches the projected growth, or at least is close to projected growth." She also wants $45 billion in opioid treatment money over 10 years.
  • Sen. Rob Portman: "I'd rather see us stick to the [Medicaid] growth rates that were worked out by the House."
  • Sen. Rand Paul: Any tradeoff that gives more money to moderates and more deregulation to conservatives "sounds to me like a Washington deal...I'm not going to go for that."

Most of the optimism is coming from the White House. Here's how an administration source summed up the mood to Jonathan Swan last night: "I think we're going to pass this. I really think they'll bribe off the moderates with Opioid money and then actually move policy to shore up Mike Lee and Ted Cruz."

This is how it's going: Even Sen. John McCain, who hasn't been one of the most vocal holdouts, says he's not ready to vote for the bill. Since he's from Arizona, which expanded Medicaid, he wants to offer three Medicaid amendments that he's worked out with Gov. Doug Ducey.

"That has a lot to do with whether I support the bill or not," McCain told reporters as he stepped into an elevator. When asked what the amendments were, he motioned to the elevator operator to hit the button: "Basement!"

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Staples being bought for $6.9 billion

Mark Lennihan / AP

Private equity firm Sycamore Partners has agreed to acquire office retailer Staples for $6.9 billion, or $10.25 per share. The move comes around one year after federal regulators prevented Staples from acquiring rival Office Depot, which soon was followed by Staples naming Shira Goodman as its new CEO. Goodman is expected to remain in place after the buyout is completed later this year.

Price talk: The $10.25 per share is higher than Staples has traded for most of the past two years, but well below its late 2014 high of $17.98 per share.

What to know: Staples is known for its bricks-and-mortar stores, but that's not necessarily where Sycamore's interest lies. Per Reuters: "Sycamore will be organizing Staples along three lines: its stronger delivery business, its weaker retail business and its business in Canada, two sources familiar with the deal said. This structure will give Sycamore the option to shed Staples' retail business in the future." Also don't be shocked if Sycamore at some point tries to revive the Staples-Office Depot merger concept, particularly now that a new Administration is in place.

Data: Money.net; Chart: Axios Visuals