Forecast calls for tech

old_man_winterDespite the polar vortex descending on us, activity on the technology front continues to heat up, as new and sundry narratives unfold.

As we slip-slide across the tech landscape, stories emerge of: a tech company gone stir creepy; another surprising way our government is spying on its citizens; and, coincidentally, tacit Congressional approval of said spying; a chip maker’s fashion play in wearables and a race for third-party Apple Watch apps; and finally, new initiatives toward a petroleum-free energy future.

These stories and more in this week’s post. We do the legwork, so you don’t have to.

Uber creepy

Disrupt the entire taxi industry by creating an online service that brings together willing drivers with people who need a ride. Package it up with a phone app and make it super-convenient. Clever idea, right? What could possibly go wrong?uber_logo_shattering

Quite a bit, it seems.

An Uber driver was charged with hitting a passenger with a hammer.

An Uber passenger said her driver terrorized her by driving her 20 miles out of the way to a dark, abandoned parking lot before eventually bringing her home.

Now, an Uber senior executive suggested the company would hire investigators to dig up dirt on journalists who have criticized the company. In particular, the executive, Emil Michael, suggested they could reveal details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

Companies go bust for all manner of reasons, but sheer creepiness is a new one on me.

Planes (not trains) and fake cell towers

You see an airplane in the sky at 1000 feet and you think it’s just some aviation junky out for a few thrills. Maybe not.

plane_transmitA report from the Wall Street Journal this week revealed that the Department of Justice is using small planes as fake cell towers to capture mobile phone conversations in the course of criminal investigations.

The planes are reportedly equipped with devices called “dirt boxes” that pose as cell towers. Mobile phones normally will connect to the strongest signal nearby, and the dirt boxes are said to generate quite powerful signals.

Although the intent is to collect data from suspected criminals’ mobile phones, the operation is no doubt capturing data from thousands of innocent bystanders in the process.

Chalk up yet another blow to our privacy here in these United States.

Onward NSA

And speaking of the United States, despite all the Sturm und Drang about threats to our rights to privacy, it seems Congress is perfectly content to enable the NSA to continue slurping up our online histories and cellphone calls.CongressionalSeal_NSA

On Nov. 18, the Senate failed to enact the so-called USA Freedom Act. The bill, a version of which was passed by the House of Representatives in May, failed to get the required 60 votes, losing by a 58-42 margin.

The Freedom Act was sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and supported by a bipartisan group of senators including Republicans Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and Democrats Ed Markey and Cory Booker.

Admittedly, it’s a slippery slope when you restrict a government agency from gathering the intelligence it needs to protect the country. On the other hand, people much smarter than I am work at the NSA. Can’t they figure out a way to gather intelligence without the wholesale gathering of citizens private conversations?

Fashion gold…or MICA?

A lot of tech companies have been flogging their wearable technology, the most mainstream of which have been in the form of fitness bands and smart watches.

MICANothing has really lit the world on fire as yet. The Apple Watch, which is targeted for release next year, shows promise, and has already ignited a trend in wearable technology as fashion accessory.

Now joining the party is Intel Corp. in partnership with Opening Ceremony, offering a wearable accessory designed for women.

Named MICA, which stands for My Intelligent Communications Accessory, the bracelet-like device will offer text messaging, Google and Facebook notifications, appointment reminders, and local business recommendations delivered through an AT&T wireless data service.

With the caveat that my fashion sense is stunted, the bracelets are pretty nice looking. For the woman who wants to travel light but still remain connected, these just might do the trick.

Most people already have a smartphone for the connectivity aspect. Will anyone really want to pay for yet another monthly cellular service? Time will tell.

Watch this space

Speaking of wearable technology, the tech world and Apple aficionados alike continue to await the Apple Watch. We know it’s coming in 2015 sometime, but that’s about it.Apple_Watch

Apple this week announced its Watch Software Developers Kit (SDK) and invited third-party developers to climb aboard the Apple Watch ecosystem.

Apparently, if things go as planned, the Apple Watch could enter the market with an industry-leading list of available applications

The SDK, according to The Verge, indicates a multitude of ways that software apps can interact with the device, including…

  1. Short Look
  2. Long Look
  3. Glances
  4. Notification actions
  5. Vertical swipes
  6. Horizontal swipes
  7. Edge swipes
  8. Taps
  9. “Taptic Engine” haptic feedback
  10. Siri
  11. Force Touch
  12. Digital Crown scrolling
  13. Digital Crown button
  14. Single-click the side button to open Friends app
  15. Double-click the side button to use Apple Pay by waving watch at NFC reader

Now, probably, no one application will interact with the Apple Watch in all these ways. But the sheer number of interaction methods suggests this could be one very powerful device.

Gas. Hybrid. Now hydrogen?

Seems like only a few years ago that the prospect of hydrogen as an alternative automotive fuel source was remote at best. The technology was impractical and would require a nationwide network of hydrogen refueling stations.

In addition, there were solid gains in hybrid and pure electric (battery-powered) options that were practical and gaining increasing support among consumers. Toyota’s Prius was perhaps the most prominent example.

2016_Toyota_Fuel_Cell_Vehicle_001Well, apparently Toyota was not content to rest on its laurels and is planning to begin selling its emissions-free Mirai beginning next month. Initial sales will be in Japan only, and will reach the U.S. sometime in 2015.

The issue of a paucity of hydrogen refueling stations still exists, but the promise of a fuel that is dramatically less expensive and more plentiful than petroleum, and whose only by-product is water vapor is huge. The new Toyotas are garnering praise from a variety of reviewers who’ve had a chance to test drive the vehicle.

Right now, I’m driving a Camry hybrid, which is a great car and very economical. But I’m excited about the new Mirai. Good on you, Toyota.

Tiny batteries, big promise

Usually, breakthroughs in one technology or another happen as a result of researchers exploring an entirely unexpected or counter-intuitive path.nanopores

One such example is happening at the University of Maryland, where researchers have made discoveries around a concept known as nanopores, which might be the beginnings of some quantum leaps in battery technology.

A nanopore is a tiny hole in a ceramic sheet that holds an electrolyte that carries an electrical charge between nanotube electrodes at either end. Nanopores are so tiny that millions of them could theoretically be put in a battery the size of a postage stamp. Put a bunch of these batteries into an electric car, for example, and you have enough energy on a single charge to power the car at significantly greater distances than current technology allows.

In addition, the batteries can be fully recharged in 12 minutes. Hot stuff, indeed.

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