Happy Space Year

News and commentaries, Technology

Happy holidays and all that but let’s talk rockets, shall we? More specifically, let’s talk SpaceX’s historic vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL)* of Falcon 9 on Sunday, December 21. The questions and comments have centered largely around who really is first to do VTVL (Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing) – Bezos’ Blue Origin or Musk’s SpaceX.

Blue Origin 

When I first heard of Blue Origin’s launch and landing, I didn’t even bother to check out the video because I thought SpaceX’s Grasshopper have done that already. I’m actually wrong, Grasshopper did eight successful VTVLs but the maximum height it reached was 744 m (2,440 ft) before it was retired.

So, For the category of VTVL rocket to reach space and successfully land, then yes, Blue Origin is the first of its kind. But when Jeff Bezos tweeted:

A lot of people, including me, was incredulous. What club? Because SpaceX right now is on a league all its own.

Space vs. orbit
First of all, where does “space” begin?

Earth's atmosphere

Conventionally, the Kármán line at 100 km (62 mi) above sea level is used to define the beginning of outer space. And Blue Origin did breach space, reaching an altitude of 100.5 km before descending back to Earth.

But putting something into orbit is an entirely different kind of animal. First of all, the rocket does not just shoot straight up, it goes up and then goes sideways really, really fast after reaching a certain altitude. XKCD has done a great explainer on space vs. orbit here.

SpaceX Falcon 9 vs. Blue Origin’s Shepherd

  • Speed – In order to for a rocket to go into orbit and to stay there, it has to reach horizontal speed of ~8 km/s. The International Space Station hovers above Earth at 330-410 km and it goes around the world every 90 minutes at a  speed of 27,000 km/h or 7.5 km/s. SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage (the booster and the one landed) reached a max speed of around ~5,900 km/h while the second stage (the one that put the payload into orbit) reached a max speed of ~25,990 km/h**. Blue Origin reached a maximum speed of ~3,700 km/h.
  • Fuel – Obviously, in order to achieve those speeds, the engines would need a LOT of fuel. In the case of SpaceX Falcon 9, the first stage booster not only need enough fuel to shoot the rocket into space, it needed enough fuel to reorient to come back down to earth, slowdown from its crazy speed, and maneuver to land in an upright position.
  • Size and weight – SpaceX Falcon 9, at 70 m high, not only had to shoot the rocket into space and go into orbit, it had to carry a payload (or cargo) into space, in this case 11 satellites for ORBCOMM. Blue Origin’s New Shepard had no payload at all.

Space race is heating up
Now that we have that cleared up, it is great to see private companies focusing on space. Competition will yield the best technologies and the best practices and also prod the incumbents into action. And that is already happening.

An omnibus spending bill passed by Congress this month appropriates ~$55M and instructs NASA to develop a “prototype deep space habitation module” no later than 2018. It also requires NASA to submit a status report to Congress within 180 days of the bill’s enactment which could be early 2016.

Furthermore, SpaceX’s accomplishment could push Russia to reassess the costs of their own projects in order to maintain market share. The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space and Security, uses Russian-built engines for most of its rockets. On December 23, 2015, the ULA announced that it had ordered 20 RD-180 engines to power up to 20 launches of the Atlas V rocket.

So, here’s to a wonderful 2016 and to hopefully more space exploration. And let me leave you with this: 

* VTVL is a term used for a form of takeoff for rockets, not to be confused with VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) for aircraft – helicopters, fixed wing aircraft like the Harrier.
**Speed taken from SpaceX launch video

The “great man myth” of Elon Musk and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

I came across this article at the MIT Technology Review on the “great man myth” around Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk. It argues that the idea of an individual driving history fails to acknowledge other contributors – in this case, public sector support, timing. Even though I agree that public sector investment can be underestimated at times, I found myself frowning at the article’s overall thesis.

To put it another way, do we really think that if Jobs and Musk had never come along, there would have been no smartphone revolution, no surge of interest in electric vehicles? (MIT Technology Review)

It is precisely the ability of some individuals to harness disparate elements: available technology, human and financial resources that drive the success of certain innovations. Some of those people fade into the background and still build successful companies. And then there are a few who transcend the company that they build and drive a whole industry and shine a light on that industry to people who may not even have understood it to begin with. This is what we have with Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.

I suppose I am a proponent of the “great man” myth. I used to watch basketball because of Michael Jordan; rooted for the Yankees because of Derek Jeter and understood golf because of Tiger Woods. My first MP3 player was the iPod and my first smartphone was the iPhone because I believed in the story that Steve Jobs was telling me – that it was beautiful and that I needed it (even at a time when apps were hardly present and network data was slow).

I used to be interested in space travel but more so now because of Musk’s SpaceX. And I don’t think I’m alone because in the end, the extraordinary stories of individuals resonate with us. We hardly get excited by, and in fact are suspicious of government and companies. Apple is riding high on the great man story of Steve Jobs (and on iPhones, of course) but most people would look at Google with suspicion. It’s not just about the power over information that the company holds but Sergey Brin and Larry Page have largely failed to humanize their company to the masses despite the exciting “moonshots” that Google takes. The co-founders don’t give too many interviews and when they do, they tend to talk a lot about their ideas and not themselves.

So, yes, if Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have not come along (or the idea of a Steve Jobs/Elon Musk) have not come along, I don’t think we would be as excited about smartphones and EVs.

Here are the most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Yahoo to pay $230M for shopping site Polyvore in bid to attract more users and advertisers
  2. Tesla confirms Model X deliveries to begin on September 30; stock price down with warnings of fewer car deliveries by 5,000 for the year
  3. Data storage company EMC is considering a buyout by own subsidiary, VMWare
  4. Healthcare tech: IBM acquires medical imaging company Merge Healthcare for $1B to add to its Watson Health Service; Tencent leads $90M round of investment for Indian healthcare information provider Practo
  5. Adidas acquires European mobile fitness company Runtastic for $239M

In retail:

  1. Earnings: Coach beats Q4 EPS expectations but sales are still declining; Michael Kors profit falls for the second-straight quarter at 7% decline blaming lack of new handbag styles
  2. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sells 1M Amazon shares valued at more than $500M as part of a divestment plan, still owns 18% of the company
  3. India’s e-commerce company Snapdeal raises $500M in fresh funding from Alibaba, Foxconn and Softbank; will invest $100M in R&D over the next three years
  4. Target launches Bluetooth beacons in 50 stores as part of pilot program to track customers in stores
  5. Neiman Marcus Group, Inc. files for IPO with fundraising target of $100M

#Spaceishard, civil forfeiture and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

One of the best things about Twitter is that you get instant access to breaking news and random posts. This was very apparent during SpaceX’ heartbreaking Falcon 9 mishap (don’t call it an explosion) when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a live update on the event via his Twitter account. Incidentally, it was Musk’s 44th birthday. Once again, we are reminded that space is hard and SpaceX success has been such that we are now starting to take that truth for granted. So, let’s not forget and as futurist David Brin said: “Let’s all offer a ‘hang in there’ encouragement to the folks at SpaceX.”

On another note, a random Twitter post caught my attention. Earlier this week, the TSA posted a photo of a passenger’s cash-filled luggage on Twitter. Even though there is nothing illegal about transporting large amounts of cash (except on international borders), and in fact, the passenger was not charged with any crime, authorities can still seize that cash under suspicion of illegal activity. And this is where I found out about civil forfeiture where the United States can literally charge inanimate objects with a crime (such as Unites States v. $124,700 in US currency), and consider that object guilty until proven innocent. In most cases, the owners of the seized property just let the case go instead of pursuing it. And in case, you were thinking as I did that it is limited to large amounts of money, you’re wrong. Further search found this great clip from John Oliver about Civil Forfeiture:

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail and have a Happy (and safe) Fourth of July:

In tech:

  1. Space: SpaceX Falcon 9 disintegrated 139 seconds after Sunday’s liftoff,  cause is still unknown; NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captures images of mysterious spots on Pluto’s equator
  2. PayPal to buy online money transfer company Xoom for $890M in all cash deal, acquisition expected to complete in Q4 2015
  3. Ridesharing: Singapore’s GrabTaxi raises over $200M; Two of France Uber execs are on trial after last week’s riots over UberPOP (a service separate from Uber and UberX where drivers are not required to have a taxi license), company suspends UberPOP to await September decision
  4. Reddit’s most popular pages in lockdown in protest over the firing of AMA moderator, Victoria Taylor
  5. Tesla announces global second quarter Model S delivery totals at 11,507; total first half of 2015 sales at 21,537 cars

In retail:

  1. Donna Karan steps down as Chief Designer for Donna Karan International, will remain in advisory role
  2. Puma sells Tretorn, an athletic footwear label, to Authentic Brands, owner of Juicy Couture and Frederick’s of Hollywood
  3. Whole Foods admits to overcharging customers for a variety of prepared foods in New York City
  4. Report finds Walmart misusing “Made in U.S.A.” label for products made elsewhere
  5. Amazon overs Prime Now, its one-hour delivery, on over 10,000 items to Prime subscribers in London

Artificial Intelligence and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

My thoughts have been a lot on artificial intelligence lately. It started when I read Elon Musk’s quick take on AI:

“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out…”

Musk is in fact, putting his money where his mouth is – recently donating $10M to Future of Life and Institute to help keep AI and robots of the future beneficial.

I realized that I have very little understanding of AI other than thinking of Google Now and Siri as “dumb” AI’s and the Terminator as an inflated view of AI’s future capabilities. I’ve been meaning to read more on it and from Elon Musk’s tweet, found this article on AI concise, easy to read and informative.

What we do know is that humans’ utter dominance on this Earth suggests a clear rule: with intelligence comes power. Which means an ASI*, when we create it, will be the most powerful being in the history of life on Earth, and all living things, including humans, will be entirely at its whim—and this might happen in the next few decades. 

It’s a long read but if you also find yourself wondering about AI, it’s definitely worth it. The article ends with:

…if an ASI comes to being, there is now an omnipotent God on Earth—and the all-important question for us is:

Will it be a nice God?

I, for one, look forward to their next post.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Earnings: Apple reports largest profit of any public company in history; Google Q4 revenues continue to disappoint as desktop ad business slows down; Amazon beats analysts’ EPS expectations for the first time in six quarters, reports earnings of $0.45/share for Q4
  2. Android-based smartphone shipments in 2014 pass the 1 billion mark, accounting for 81% of the global market
  3. IBM joins food manufacturing giant, Mars in founding Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain, using genomics to better understand food safety 
  4. Formerly Kickstarter-backed Android-console manufacturer, Ouya gets $10M investment from Alibaba
  5. Tesla Model S P85D (which I talked about in the past here) is getting a software update that will improve 0-60 MPH acceleration by a tenth of a second making that “Insane” mode even more insane

In Retail:

  1. Alibaba Group’s Ant Financial Services launches Sesame Credit, a credit scoring service that uses data from Alibaba’s e-commerce sites
  2. Earnings: Coach report Q2 earnings of $0.66/share in line with forecasts but revenues continue to drop; Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) missed quarterly earnings forecasts as expansion plans continue
  3. New research shows Amazon Prime members spend $1500/year, more than twice spent by non-Prime shoppers
  4. Rebekka Bay exits Gap as company eliminates Creative Director role
  5. Closings: Gap shutters Piperlime website, store and brand; Kate Spade to close Kate Spade Saturday and Jack Spade stores to focus on flagship brand; Jones New York to close stores and discontinue wholesale business

*Artificial Superintelligence defined as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.”

Elon Musk does AMA and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

This week, Elon Musk, CEO/CTO of SpaceX among other things, participated in Reddit’s famous AMA (Ask Me Anything). As expected, there’s a lot of starstruck comments and it is worth reading simply for those. Elon’s best responses include sharing a YouTube link of a cat in a shark suit riding a Roomba after being asked about AI safety. Apparently, he also has time to play video games, Kerbal Space Program in particular. He can probably do so because he only sleeps 6 hours a night. He also considers showering as one daily habit that has the largest positive impact in his life. Dude has a sense of humor. But the greatest gem in this AMA is this:

I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

This is a guy after all who educated himself about rocket science in order to launch SpaceX – a company which now owns a $1.6B commercial resupply contract for NASA. In fact, this weekend is SpaceX’s next launch attempt – its fifth cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. You can watch a live webcast here starting at 4:47 AM ET tomorrow, January 10.

While we’re talking about Elon Musk, I had the most wonderful privilege of riding the Tesla Model S P85D last weekend. It IS an impressive car and I have a smile on my face right now thinking about it. So, get this: the acceleration can be adjusted between “Sport” and “Insane.” This being a test drive, of course we had to try “Insane.” I could imagine a bunch of engineers talking among themselves, “So, how do we call this feature again?” “Insane. Just. Insane.” And it certainly was. Think, the kind of force that would slam your head into the headrest like a rollercoaster going up fast if you were not ready. The car next to us did not know what just happened. Amazing.

With that, I give you this week’s roundup of relevant news in tech and retail.

In tech:

  1. In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris, the target, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo vows to publish 1M copies next Wednesday, gets $300K funding from Google, et. al.
  2. Facebook acquires voice recognition company Wit.ai and video compression startup QuickFire; terms of both deals were not disclosed
  3. Uber launches Uber Cargo in Hong Kong, further hints at Uber’s ambitions in logistics services
  4. Apple reports 50% increase in app store sales in 2014
  5. Google Capital invests in Indian real-estate platform CommonFloor and leads $160M round of funding for Glassdoor Inc.

In retail:

  1. Coach Inc. buys women’s luxury footwear company Stuart Weitzman in a deal valued at up to $574M; see my take here
  2. Clothing and gift chain C. Wonder, the brainchild of billionaire Chris Burch (former partner of Tory Burch)  will close all its stores
  3. Credit Suisse downgrades Michael Kors to “neutral” from “outperform”, citing concerns on level of promotions in upscale department stores
  4. J.C. Penney and Macy’s announce the closing of more than 50 department stores nationwide
  5. Fast Retailing reports 64% jump in profit with higher-than-expected sales at Uniqlo