Maybe the White House Drone Was Just Checking Out the Garden

The Secret Service has had a rough time over the past year, with fence jumpers and intruders infiltrating White House grounds. This morning, things got a little dicier when an unmanned drone landed on the White House lawn. The commercially-available quadcopter dropped in at about 3:00 a.m., and the Secret Service is investigating its origins. It certainly raises a host of security issues, particularly as the technology is readily available at many toy and hobby shops across the country.

But, while the experts wonder whether it was a mistake, or a stunt, a prank, or something more worrisome, I wonder whether it was simply an exercise in agricultural technology.

It is no secret that the First Lady has championed healthful foods, and has even planted a “kitchen garden” at the White House. And who wouldn’t want to learn from an expert?

This month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued permits for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for agricultural use. Drones enable users to monitor vast reaches of cropland to check the effectiveness of fertilizer or irrigation, and can be useful to monitor distant cattle. In addition to visual monitoring, drones could be outfitted to supplement herbicide applications. And, thermal sensors can send data about animal temperatures to the home office, enabling owners to discover a sick animal. Or, to find escaped cattle.

On a day when Washington headlines are about an impending snow event (yes, the three inches expected here are getting more airtime than the actual blizzard expected up the coast and into New England), the White House drone was only a sidebar. But, maybe that is because it really was nothing to worry about – just a neighbor trying to spy on another neighbor’s garden.

The Pope on Tech, and Bill Belichick Is No Football Scientist

Sort of unrelated, random topics today.

First, even the Pope acknowledges that we, as a society, are far too attached to our smartphones and other Internet-enabled devices. In his annual message for the Catholic Church’s World Day of Communication, Pope Francis stated: “The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information.”

I first started thinking about this issue a year and a half ago when I read about a man pulling out a gun on a San Francisco Muni train, waiving it around, and attracting no reaction from his fellow passengers. Video footage from the train shows that all of the passengers around this man were so engrossed by their devices that they never looked up. Not one person noticed him and his gun. Of course, this is not exactly the same thing that the Pope was talking about, but it shows how focused people can get on their devices, to the exclusion of other important things. Read more

Is Social Media Stressing You Out?

For better or worse, technology in general and social media in particular are here to stay. They play an important role in the day-to-day life of many people, one that will likely never be relinquished (unless and until something newer and better comes along to take their place.)

While there’s no question that social media has changed our lives, does it tend to contribute to, or lessen, the overall levels of stress that we face on a daily basis?

That is precisely the question that Pew Research Internet Project set out to answer in its latest study, “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” For the study, Pew surveyed 1,801 adults, and calculated for each a score on the “Perceived Stress Scale,” a measure of the extent to which they believe their life is “overloaded, unpredictable and uncontrollable.”

Pew found that frequent Internet and social media users do not have higher stress levels than non-users. In fact, for some applications—namely, Twitter, email and cellphone picture sharing—users reported reduced levels of stress.

However, Pew also identified a secondary source of stress among survey respondents. Social media users who become aware of stressful events in the lives of others find themselves feeling more stressed.  Pew dubbed this phenomenon “the cost of caring.”

The Pew survey found that, overall, women tend to report more stress than men—women averaged 10.5 out of 30 on the Perceived Stress Scale, versus 9.8 for men. However, those women who use social media report less stress than those who do not. Women tend to be more aware of stressful events in the lives of their closest friends and family, and hence are more vulnerable to the cost of caring than are men.

Is Cheap Gas the Death of Electric Vehicles? (And Specs on the Tesla ‘Gigafactory’)

I told myself that I was done with Tesla/electric vehicle articles for a few months. But, the significant drop in gas prices got me thinking: what does the future hold for electric vehicles in light of oil dropping from about $115 to $50 a barrel?

This article concludes that while sales of electric vehicles may take a hit for a quarter, or maybe two, electric vehicles are here to stay. If you dig into the article, and this one here, you can see that the answer to the question of whether oil prices dropping will kill electric cars is not a simple question, and it goes beyond the answer that oil prices are cyclical and will rise again soon, so electric car makers need not worry.

A look at California may hold the answer. I say “may” because this is a complicated question that I am attempting to boil down to a short article. In short, California has introduced what the author in the second link above calls a “shock absorber” into the electric car market. The state has mandated that a certain percentage of cars sold in the state must be electric powered, and car makers have to obtain a specific number of zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) credits per year. They can obtain these credits by selling the required number of vehicles or by purchasing excess credits from automakers that have exceeded the minimum requirement. Credit prices are higher when a manufacturer has to buy them from another manufacturer as opposed to getting them for selling electric vehicles. Carmakers get less credits for partial zero-emission vehicles, like the Chevy Volt, which runs on gas once the electric charge runs out. This system gives manufacturers the incentive to either drop prices to sell more electric cars, or push forward toward technological improvements that reduce costs. Read more

Measuring the Impact of Technology on Online Workers—and Their Bosses

Despite the constant development of new apps and tools for use by online workers, a recent survey shows that their most important tool is an old workhorse: email.

According to Pew Research Internet Project’s recently-released “Technology’s Impact on Workers,” 61% of those workers surveyed identified email as “very important” to doing their job. The Internet was next, at 54%, followed by landline phone (35%), cell or smartphone (24%), and social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn (4%).

Pew surveyed 1,066 adult Internet users in September 2014. Of that group, 535 adults employed full- or part-time served as the basis of this study.

While many employers worry that the Internet can be a distraction in the workplace, the survey results don’t bear that out. Only 7% of online working adults admitted their productivity has declined due to the Internet, email and cell phones, while 46% say they feel more productive.

The study showed bosses are changing the way they deal with the Internet, as well. Forty-six percent of survey respondents say that their employer blocks access to certain websites. The same percentage indicated that their employer has implemented rules about what employees can say or post online, double the percentage who did so when Pew first conducted its survey in 2006.

Policymakers at CES

(Las Vegas) — Last week, David Hoover, vice president of legislative affairs for NTCA, attended CES 2015 and used the opportunity to network with key policymakers. Here are a few snippets from his photo journal:

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Above: David Redl, Chief Counsel for Communications and Technology on the majority staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, spoke about the need to address USF and interconnection issues in a Telecom Act update.  Other speakers on the “Telecommunications Act in an All-IP World” included Staci Pies (Senior Policy Counsel at Google), Christopher Yoo (John Chestnut Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania), and Craig Silliman (EVP for Public Policy and General Counsel, Verizon).

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Above: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro discuss net neutrality rules during a conversation at CES.  “Clearly, we’re going to come out with what I hope will be the gold standard,” said Wheeler. “And if Congress wants to come in and then say, ‘Well, we want to make sure that this approach doesn’t get screwed up by some crazy chairman that comes in,’” then those are “legitimate issues,” said the Chairman. Read more

A Valuation of Twenty Time Earnings, and Other Notable Facts

Wireless towers owned by rural carriers are currently worth up to 20 times EBITA (earnings before interest, taxes and amortization). This number, plus the fact that towers can generate revenue from leasing space as well as providing them with fiber feeds, can make tower building an interesting proposition even for those rural carriers that are not in the wireless space. This valuable insight was gained by attendees at the NTCA-RWA Wireless Symposium and Wi-Expo, co-located again this year with the Consumer Electronics Show (International CES) in Las Vegas last week.

Before the session on towers wrapped up the Symposium, attendees also heard from NetAmerica about managing change in a rapidly evolving market, and from Ericsson on the next generation of wireless services. Other sessions the first morning covered unlicensed spectrum, 600 MHz auctions, and wireless roaming, as well as a very poignant and personal discussion from TJ Kennedy, acting executive director of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) on the need to ensure rural consumer’s access to emergency services, and how rural carriers can help accomplish that mission. Sessions covering topics such as new regulations, changing carrier culture, leveraging the Internet of Things, pricing bundles, real-world retail experiences and technological issues involving small cells, macro sites and distributed antenna systems rounded out the day. Read more

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