November 13, 2014

10 Years later, another First for mankind: Touchdown #Philae #Rosetta @TheEconomist

Incredible what we are capable of doing!!


SPACE exploration is a serious scientific business. But ever since the beginning of the Space Age in the 1950s, it has been accompanied by a hefty dose of glitz and PR. Two years ago, Earthlings watched with bated breath as a one-tonne, nuclear-powered, laser-armed robot rover fizzed through the Martian atmosphere, before being deposited gently on the surface by a rocket-powered “skycrane”. The distance between Mars and Earth meant that the mission’s controllers had to wait seven agonising minutes to find out whether the rover had survived the journey. Their fingernail biting was broadcast live by NASA. When news arrived of a successful landing, they whooped, hugged and lit cigars.
Now, it is the turn of the European Space Agency (ESA) to put on a show. In August, after ten years blazing a circuitous trail through the solar system, including three fly-bys of Earth, one of Mars, two trips through the asteroid belt and a two-and-a-half year hibernation in the chilly void beyond Jupiter, its spacecraft, Rosetta, caught up with a 4km-wide comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It will spend a year in orbit around this, hitching a ride as it plunges towards the sun.
And Rosetta is not alone. At 08.35 GMT on November 12th, the craft launched Philae, a boxy lander the size of a washing machine, which then began a careful, nerve-jangling descent towards the comet’s surface. Seven and a half hours later, Philae reported that it was down—but perhaps not safely.
Philae’s landing marks the first time people—or, rather, their robotic representatives—have made a soft landing on an astronomical body other than a planet or a moon. It raises the number of bodies on which a landing has been accomplished to five (the others are Earth’s Moon, Venus, Mars and Titan, a satellite of Saturn).
Engineers are reasonably comfortable with sending probes to big targets like planets and moons, which have useful features like an atmosphere to slow their descent, and gravity strong enough to ensure that once a probe reaches the surface, it stays there. Comets have neither, and that makes things difficult. Philae was nudged gently away from Rosetta at a speed of about 80 centimetres a second, and left to drift towards the comet under the influence of that object’s feeble gravity.
Ensuring the probe landed on the relatively smooth area of the comet chosen by ESA’s scientists was tricky. Philae had no ability to control its descent, which meant that everything depended on the accuracy of Rosetta’s initial shove. In the event, the probe landed almost exactly on target.
Once it reached the surface, though, things went less smoothly. The comet’s gravity is so low that even a slight bounce could have sent the probe careering back into space. A pair of harpoons, designed to anchor it in place, failed to fire. Philae’s mission controllers do not know why. In the absence of the harpoons, they think the lander’s flexible legs managed to absorb most of the impact energy, but not enough to prevent a small bounce.
Philae, in other words, may have landed twice. Even without the harpoons, a system of screws in the base of its legs may offer it some purchase. But it was unclear whether these had been deployed, and therefore (as The Economist went to press) how securely—or otherwise—the probe was attached to the comet. ESA would say only that the mission was a “success”, and that plenty of science data had been collected already. 
That is good, for the mission is more than just an exercise in risky deep-space engineering. It is designed to drill into the comet, taking samples of its crust and attempting to work out exactly what it is made of. Is it, for instance, mostly rock and ice with a few pockets of gas, or is it a loose pile of rubble held together by gravity?
Dusty old history
Researchers are interested in comets because they are space-going fossils—the builder’s rubble left over from the solar system’s construction 4.6 billion years ago. That means they should contain information about how the solar system came together. One theory, for instance, holds that cometary impacts seeded the newly formed Earth with much of its water. Another suggests that comets are the source of the carbon-based molecules that were the building blocks of the first life. Instruments aboard Rosetta and Philae should be able to address those questions. After ten years, the nail-biting engineering is over, and it is time for the science to begin.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece suggested that Philae's landing had been exactly as planned. It later emerged that a pair of stabilising harpoons had not been fired into the comet by the lander. Accordingly, the text has been amended and a rather triumphant exclamation point from the headline removed.

Read the article on The Economist website here: Cometary science: Touchdown | The Economist

September 30, 2014

Peter Thiel on #Europe's #tech #entrepreneurs & regulators

Europe is a "slacker with low expectations", held back by the poor work ethic of its people

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel rounds on European tech entrepreneurs and regulators

Murad Ahmed and Sally Davies,

Europe is a "slacker with low expectations", held back by
the poor work ethic of its people and run by politicians that strangle
technological progress with regulations that are a "cure worse than the

That is the scathing assessment of Peter Thiel,
co-founder of PayPal, the first venture capitalist to back Facebook and
one of Silicon Valley's most celebrated investors.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of Palantir.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Peter Thiel, co-founder of Palantir.
"If you're a slacker with low expectations, those
low expectations are likely to be met," he said. "I don't think optimism
always works. There is a form of pessimism, such as in China where
people work really hard because they are scared that they will be old
while they are still poor.

in China motivates hard work. Pessimism in Europe has a more
demotivating effect. When you're pessimistic and unmotivated, it has as
self-fulfilling character." Mr Thiel has a reputation for forthright views. In Zero to One, a new book,
he writes that tech start-ups should aspire to become monopolies
because the rapidly shifting nature of the sector ensures they "don't
typically last for ever" and that "disruption", a Silicon Valley
obsession, is a "self-congratulatory buzzword".

  Mr Thiel, a libertarian, also attacked EU regulators and policy makers, which have sought to rein in the likes of Google, Uber and Facebook, where he is a board member, with regulatory probes related to antitrust and privacy.

"Google obviously has a monopoly in search," he said. "There are all
sorts of questions about whether it is abusing that monopoly or not. But
I distrust the power of the EU regulators to make things better. I
think the [technology industry] is dynamic enough that the Google
monopoly will not last for ever. In practice, anything [the EU does] to
micromanage the Google product will produce a cure that's worse than the

He does have encouraging words to say about London,
which he said straddles continental Europe and the US in attitude and
has overtaken Berlin as the best and "most logical place" to build
technology businesses. "People just work harder here ," he said. "They
just work less hard in Berlin."

Mr Thiel, who has rarely
invested outside of the US, has invested in two start-ups based in the
UK capital: TransferWise, a money transfer business, and Deepmind, an
artificial intelligence group bought by Google for £400 million last

The city's strength is in start-ups that combine financial
services and technology. "London is a financial hub, and unlike New
York, it's not a financial hub where people hate finance," he said.

"There's much more of a self-hating character to New York than there is
to London. This matters, because if you start a tech company in New
York, you will do something very far from finance. Whereas in London, it
would be perfectly respectable to do something with finance and

But he is critical of Rocket Internet, the German
ecommerce venture capitalist, which announced the pricing for an initial
public offering, targeting a midpoint market capitalisation of €6.2bn,
last week. The €1.5bn IPO was fully subscribed within hours of orders
being taken, leading the group to bring forward the flotation.

"I would not invest in Rocket . . . I would not take a venture capital
firm public, because so much of the value comes from the people who have
started the companies, and its hard to separate the human capital from
the operational component," he said.

He added that Rocket's
companies, which often involve imitating successful business models from
the US and exporting them to new markets, are "much more plays on
globalisation than on technology . . . and I believe technology is more
important than globalisation".

See the article online here: PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel rounds on European tech entrepreneurs and regulators

May 26, 2014

European #VentureCapital: Innovation by fiat #EIF @TheEconomist

Nearly 40% of all the funds pumped into European VC last year came from state-backed sources, up from just 14% in 2007 (see chart). The EIF alone ploughed €600m ($800m) into VC funds last year, out of a Europe-wide total of €4 billion. 

European venture capital

Innovation by fiat

Well-meaning governments are killing the continent’s startups with kindness

IN A suburban office on the road to Luxembourg airport, a small group of civil servants is busy picking the next generation of European venture capitalists. Every year, hundreds of would-be financiers set out their stalls at the European Investment Fund (EIF), a body financed by the European Union, hoping they will be given money to create the next Facebook.
Europe has never been able to muster nearly the same quantity or quality of venture capital (VC) as Silicon Valley. That is frustrating to its politicians, who see venture capitalists as job-creating innovation machines, and love them nearly as much as they loathe other financial types. But investors who put up such capital in other parts of the world, such as pension funds, banks and billionaires, are not especially eager to funnel money to startups battling to thrive in Europe’s often hostile business environment. By and large, the politicians’ solution has not been to make the environment friendlier to business, thus increasing entrepreneurs’ chances of luring private-sector backing. Instead, they have replaced the reticent financiers with state-funded bureaucrats.
Nearly 40% of all the funds pumped into European VC last year came from state-backed sources, up from just 14% in 2007 (see chart). The EIF alone ploughed €600m ($800m) into VC funds last year, out of a Europe-wide total of €4 billion. On top of this, nearly every country has its own pet programme to back chosen venture capitalists.
Despite taxpayers’ generosity, few think Europe’s VC industry has much chance of attracting American levels of capital from private investors, given its feeble record. Venture capital in Europe has delivered returns of just 2.1% a year since 1990, according to Thomson Reuters, making it perhaps the worst investment class outside Japan (American VC managed around 13%). The 2008 crash, which came just as investors were getting over the fortunes they lost in the internet bubble, sapped what little interest remained.
The public cash slushing around VC-land may in fact be repelling private money. Investors turn to VC hoping to attain vast riches by nurturing the next Google or WhatsApp; they are loth to invest alongside governments whose interests lie only partly in turning a profit. State money comes with strings attached, be it an encouragement for venture capitalists (or the companies they finance) to create jobs in particular countries or to focus on certain favoured sectors. This is anathema to private investors, who fear their money would be used to pursue political goals. “I understand why governments invest in venture capital, but they are spoiling it for the rest of us,” says an endowment-fund boss.
Several studies of public VC schemes have found that for every dollar the public sector puts in, the private sector pulls one out. The EIF says it worries about this, so it only matches funds that VC firms attract from private backers. “We are driven by a need and a wish to address market gaps,” says John Holloway, a high-up there.
Some think that the handouts from taxpayers are also impairing the quality of European venture capitalists’ investments. The EIF alone has sunk more than €3.8 billion into 260 venture funds, but provides no data on how its investments have fared. Ho-hum entrepreneurs whose firms only launch because of government backing (and dud firms that would have folded long ago without it) drive down average returns. Meanwhile, funds relying on private capital have to pay more to outbid government-backed rivals.
European funds have poor returns in part because they sell companies too early, missing out on bumper returns that come from placing longer-lasting bets. Government money spurs such conservatism: it is better for a fund to “bank” a good deal and guarantee access to later dollops of government cash than to roll the dice again. Such thinking horrifies private investors.
Several European startups have successfully launched initial public offerings recently, including, which makes an addictive game called Candy Crush Saga, and Criteo, an advertising-technology firm. But both had been backed by American as well as European money, and have listed their shares in America. They may soon be joined by Spotify, a trendy music service that has been European VC’s poster child. Many bright Europeans continue to flock to California before they even start their businesses.
It is not that Europe has no need for innovative startups and the jobs they bring—just the opposite. But entrepreneurs say there are better ways of boosting their chances than dollops of taxpayers’ cash. “We have labour laws designed for workers in large corporations, they don’t work for startups,” says Niklas Zennstrom, a founder of Skype who now runs an (EIF-backed) venture fund. Tax laws in several EU countries make it hard to pay staff with stock options, a standard carrot for American startups. Rules about procurement often favour established firms. More broadly, Europe’s staid business culture is too slow to forgive failure, in contrast to America where setbacks are celebrated as a necessary staging point to success.
Josh Lerner of Harvard Business School compares doling out public-sector cash, EIF-style, to serving a main dish before the table is set. Governments the world over have long backed innovation, for example through public funding of universities. Silicon Valley thrived in part due to bloated defence spending from the 1940s onwards. But that is altogether different from Europe’s approach of picking the firms that pick the winners. Better to make entrepreneurialism pay than to subsidise it.
European venture capital: Innovation by fiat | The Economist

April 25, 2014

The #SuperHeroes #RealEstate edition Heroic Homes: 35 Hideouts You Wish Were Real

I guess I'd be happy with the Avengers Mansion on 5th Avenue in NYC...

Or the BatCave

Heroic Homes: 35 Hideouts You Wish Were Real


Check it out on The MasterTech Blog

April 24, 2014

#France: #Uber, #SnapCar And Others Won’t Be Able To Use #Geolocation @TechCrunch

They just don't get it!!! There's no way France will ever advance if they keep falling prey to all these stupid interest groups that have no other aim than to protect their little turfs. 

Uber, SnapCar And Others Won’t Be Able To Use Geolocation In France

Thomas Thévenoud had an impossible job — he was the French deputy in charge of finding an agreement between urban transportation startups and taxi unions in France. He just announced his report to those companies, and it will become a law in the coming weeks. But some of the 30 points are highly controversial. For example, Uber, Chauffeur-Privé, LeCab and others won’t be able to use your phone’s GPS in France.
“The report is quite explosive. He has locked the use of geolocation for the urban transportation companies and is proposing to allow it only for the taxis,” SnapCar co-founder Dave Ashton told me in a phone interview. “From a technical standpoint, it’s pretty incredible because we invented the use of geolocation for the drivers and clients. It’s completely ridiculous.”
Other points won’t please taxi drivers. “The taxi drivers will strike immediately. That’s certain,” Ashton said. In France, when you call a taxi, the driver starts the taxi meter immediately. Thévenoud wants to cap this amount, or even end it. When you call an Uber, your ride doesn’t start until you’re actually in the car.
Every taxi driver will also need to have a credit card machine. This will make it much more difficult for cab drivers to avoid paying taxes on their rides. When you order a cab to go to the airport, it will be a fixed price like in New York and many other cities.
Thévenoud wants taxi drivers to systematically use geolocation. In short, the French government is taking Uber’s innovation and giving it exclusively to taxi drivers. The government could also ban ride-sharing services, such as UberPOPHeetch and Djump.
Taxi drivers asked for much more aggressive rules against urban transportation companies. According to them, in order to protect taxis, LeCab, Uber and others should have to wait at least 30 minutes before letting a customer in the car, and a ride should cost at least $80 (€60). None of that is in Thévenoud’s report.
As a reminder, cab drivers have complained against urban transportation startups for months. They claim that allowing these new companies is unfair competition.
In December, the government announced and immediately passed the 15-minute law for Uber, Chauffeur-Privé and others. Drivers had to wait 15 minutes between the time a customer hailed them and they let them in the car. Most startups didn’t even try to comply with the rule, and it was recently suspended by the Conseil d’État. In other words, it was too harsh.
Yet, taxi driver unions said that they would regularly go on strike to protest that decision. That’s why Thévenoud was appointed to find a “fair and durable solution that will benefit everyone while taking into account the different needs in terms of urban transportation.”
In the meantime, the government has stopped issuing new driver licenses for urban transportation companies. These licenses should become more expensive in the near future as well. While today’s report is a first step, I don’t think it will end the conflict between taxi drivers and urban transportation companies anytime soon.
Photo credit: Maxime Bonzi under the CC BY 2.0 license

Uber, SnapCar And Others Won’t Be Able To Use Geolocation In France | TechCrunch

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