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Featured News

How Close Are we to Self-Driving Cars ?

Self-Driving CarsThe race to develop autonomous vehicles has been a rocky one. While many car manufacturers and tech companies work furiously to lead the way, testing continues to expose how far we still have to go before these machines could become commonplace. In some ways, the public is confused over what “self-driving” cars can do; and in other ways, car manufacturers are not necessarily clear on how to market them.

Take Mercedes-Benz, for example. The luxury car manufacturer recently released a summer magazine ad which described a “self-driving car from a very self-driven company.” Later, the Daimler AG luxury automobile company featured an ad showing a prototype vehicle with passengers facing each other before then cutting to a current vehicle that had a limited automatic steering function. The ad inquired, “is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?”

Unfortunately, E-class sedan featured in these ads was not a self-driving car. Instead, it was a vehicle which featured a similar, earlier version of this technology known as Drive Pilot. This feature can initiate a lane change with automatic turn signal activation; it can also warn of potential collisions and automatically brake if the driver does not engage in time.

Ok. Confusion aside, is the world, in fact, ready for a truly autonomous vehicle?

Well, it appears that Mercedes-Benz may be trying to answer this question another. The German automaker has also recently let it be known they have plans to build autonomous cars that are not necessarily for transportation, but can act more like smart assistants.

According to Daimler board of director’s chairman, Dr. Dieter Zetsche, “We’ve already begun testing community-based parking in Stuttgart together with our partners at Bosch [and] it works using car sensors that can find empty spaces along a road and then share the information with the Mercedes back-end database. That information,” he says, “is then shared with other Mercedes cars.”

The hope, he alludes, is that the new feature will remember certain aspects of operations and then, for example, be able to determine better navigation destinations and even allot work hours, set up meeting calls and remind about appointments.

Dr. Zetsche goes on to say that while everyone is talking about “digitalization and connected cars, software alone will not be able to take you from A to B. it is the total package,” he continues, “that will take you from A to B.”

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Featured News

Is Twitter For Sale, and Will Google Buy It?

twitterShares of mobile app Twitter surged on Friday after sources close to the issue noted that the ailing social media said the ailing social media company is moving closer to being sold.

These sources indicated that the company has, in fact, received expressions of interest from a handful of technology and/or media companies—some of which quite notable—and may soon receive a formal bid for a final sale.

Sure enough, potential suitors include the likes of the powerful Google and Salesforce.com entities, as well as a few other technology companies.

Specifically Twitter shares shot up in excess of 21 percent on Friday, despite the fact that it is not necessarily easy, right now, to determine the eventual value of the potential deal. However, some sources imply that the sale could be for around $26 per share, which is roughly $3.50 higher than the value at the close of the day, on Friday. Still, there are other reports that put the total bid range at a value between $18 billion and $30 billion.

Of course, the board of directors at Twitter are likely in desire of such a deal, as the app has been struggling to regain headway lost in the quickly saturating and highly volatile social media market. Still, even with this motivation, there has been no assurances that any deal, at all, could materialize; though one intimate source said that momentum is increasing and a deal could be reached by the end of the year.

Indeed, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is looking for a way to stabilize revenue. The company has, unfortunately, lost $3.2 billion over the last ten years. Even though Twitter’s revenue in the second quarter of this year increased by 20 percent—to $602 million—it is the smallest period of income the company has ever reported.

As such, S&P Global Market Intelligence equity analyst Scott Kessler comments, “We think such an acquisition could make sense. However, we could see some company leaders and shareholders perhaps wanting a price/valuation seen by would-be suitors as unrealistic.”
And these “would-be suitors” are believed to be interested not only in media company’s presence but also, and perhaps more importantly, the data that Twitter actually generates where it sits within the social media landscape.

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Business News

World Trade Organization Reports Massive Global Trade Rate Slowdown

world-trade-organizationThis week, the Geneva-based World Trade Organization drastically cut its forecast over trade growth this year by roughly one third to mark the lowest growth rate since 2009. This was a time when the global economy was riddled with a recession and a near financial crisis.

Updating its most recent forecast, on Tuesday, the world’s leading trade agency remarked that the growing anti-globalization sentiment could continue to obstruct growth. And if policymakers respond in a “misguided” manner, it could get much worse, and at an alarming rate.

More specifically, the WTO has adjusted its April prediction for global trade from 2.8 percent down to 1.7 percent; that’s a pretty big jump.

Accordingly, WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo “The dramatic slowing of trade growth is serious and should serve as a wake-up call. It is particularly concerning in the context of growing anti-globalization sentiment.”

It could be entirely possible that the downgrade in growth rate is largely the result of an unexpectedly sharp drop in merchandise trade volumes through the first fiscal quarter. Of course, lower economic growth and trade in developing countries—like Brazil and China—and a deceleration in North American imports could also be at the core of this sharp decline.

Most importantly, though, if the WTO’s forecast is, in fact, accurate, it will be the first time in 15 years that global trade grows at a slower rate than the global economy. The WTO expects, in fact, the global economy to grow at a rate of 2.2 percent.
The WTO Director-General goes on to say, “We need to make sure that this does not translate into misguided policies that could make the situation much worse – not only from the perspective of trade, but also for job creation and economic growth and development, which are so closely linked to an open trading system.”
In addition to reducing this 2016 forecast, the WTO also cut its projections for next year: down from 3.6 percent to a range of 1.8 to 3.1 percent. As such, the agency now warns of several risks—like the effect of the British vote to leave the EU and growing anti-trade rhetoric around the world—that could further destabilize the growth rate.

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Featured News

Pandora Reimagines Business with new Pandora Plus Service to Compete with Spotify, Apple Music

pandoraWhen internet radio application Pandora first hit the scene, it was revolutionary. In a time when the music industry was in a major state of flux—and neither consumers nor executives knew what to expect from the future—a change was, in fact, in order.

Pandora was one answer to the file-sharing debacle that crippled the industry for several years. This service let users access thousands of songs for very little money, through a streaming internet service. And this model is prominently in use today by the likes of Apple iTunes, Spotify, and, of course, Pandora.

But Pandora’s service is not free. It is roughly $5 a month and while Spotify’s service is $10, they do have a free tier that is extremely competitive with Pandora. The free tier, of course, gives users access to the same library of music, but limits some of the features and launches the occasional audio ad.

Still, it is a free service.

So Pandora is launching a new product—Pandora Plus—to provide something more competitive; it will be $10 a month. Indeed, Pandora’s Tim Westergren comments that you simply cannot compete with [perpetually] free music; it is such a simple model that getting around is actually harder than it might seem. Still, he goes on to say, you have to solve the “simplicity riddle.”

As such, Pandora Plus features a new skip and replay features that provide users wih more skipping options and the ability to replay songs they like—the latter, of course, not exactly native to the original Pandora app. Nonpaying customers will see a new rewind icon in the lower left corner of the app that lets you start over the song you are currently listening to or go back to any song in your history. Similarly, Pandora currently only allows six song skips per hour, but now you can get more skips by watching an ad.

Paying members will have access to unlimited skips but also a new offline mode. This mode lets you access some music—from your most active stations—when you are not connected to the internet (like, say, on a plane or if you simply travel between networks and have trouble connecting).

Time will tell, of course, how well this model will compete with the likes of Apple Music and the industry leader, Spotify. Currently, Pandora One has 4 million subscribers so they do have a bit of catching up if they want to reach Spotify’s 40 million-strong user base.

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Featured News

Tech Data Corp Announces $2.6 Billion Purchase of Avnet Inc IT Solutions Group

Hi-Tech Data Center

This week, Tech Data Corp has made it known its plans to buy Avnet Inc’s technology solutions unit. The reported $2.6 billion dollar deal should help the company gain a foothold in the growing Asia market in addition to creating a “premier global IT distributor,” according to Tech Data Chief Executive Bob Dutkowsky. The deal actually includes $2.4 billion in cash as well as an approximate $194 million in Tech Data stock.

He says, “As a result of the enhanced value proposition created through this transaction, Tech Data will be even better positioned to capture opportunities in next-generation technologies, deliver differentiated value to our customers and vendor partners, support career development for our employees, and generate strong return for our shareholders.”

Dutkowski also notes, “[We] have competed with and admired Avnet Technology Solutions for many years. We are thrilled to start this journey together and are confident that our customers, vendor partners, employees, and shareholders will appreciate and benefit from the value that we will bring to the market.”

On the other side, Avnet reports its expect to see a gain of $3.75 to $4.75 per share from this deal. Just with the knowledge of this move, Avnet shares rose more than 8 percent in early morning trading—to reach $42.50—cancelling out much of its losses from earlier this year. Similarly, Tech Data shares rose 7.1 percent, to reach $74.25.

Tech Data is known industry wide as a distributor of technology products. This includes technology hardware and software, digital displays, mobile phones, networking equipment, and consumer electronics. Avnet has an operating group—Technology Solutions—which is a distributor of data center and information technology hardware, software, and suppliers. Of course, these make an excellent pair. Avent’s other unit, though, sells semiconductors, interconnect devices, and passive and electromechanical devices and other embedded products to manufacturers of electronic components.

In response to the deal, Tech Data has reported it will significantly add adjusted earnings per share, within the first year, once the deal closes. They also expect to achieve an annual cost savings upwards of $100 million within just the first two years. They detail that they should be able to accomplish this thanks mostly to technology platform efficiencies and through the reduction of duplicative functions and other corporate expenses.

Also, Tech Data has said they expect to realize approximately $200 million in tax benefits.

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Health News

Arthritis Drug Could Eventually Be Marketed to Treat Hair Loss

xeljanzA large part of the medical industry is drug research. Sure, doctors have to know how to diagnose and effectively treat disease, but much of the money that exchanges hands in this business has to do with pharmaceutical sales.

With that, though, those who research and develop treatments are constantly searching not only for the newest drugs that can address the most dire needs, but also looking for more ways to expand the viability of drugs they have. Sometimes they make these discoveries intentionally—by testing the drug in a variety of environments—and sometimes they make these discoveries completely by accident.

Regardless of how they figured it out, researchers are now saying that a drug which has been developed to treat rheumatoid arthritis may also have a positive effect on the autoimmune disease known as alopecia areata. Alopecia areata, of course, is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the hair follicles, resulting in baldness.

According to researchers, the arthritis drug tofacitinib citrate—under the brand name “Xeljanz”—has been shown to prevent the immune malfunction. Perhaps more importantly, lead researcher Dr. Brett King says that they have also identified the genes that may help predict how well a patient might respond to the treatment.

The Yale School of Medicine assistant professor goes on to say that they currently doubt the drug will work for the most common type of hair loss (male pattern baldness) because that is not caused by an autoimmune disorder. And whether or not the regrown hair will last—or how long a person may have to take the medication—is not yet known.

He comments, “It may be that if we can treat people for long enough the condition might go into remission, but we don’t know the answer to that.” Obviously, it is still too early to tell.

Still, as far as the study is concerned, King (and colleagues) note that patients were treated only with 5 mg of Xiljanz twice a day for the whole of three months. He says that over that period, more than half of the patients experienced some hair regrowth. Also, more than one-third recovered more than half of the hair they had lost on their heads.

Perhaps, the best news: King said the side effects were mild.

This could open a new avenue not only for the drug but also for drug research and development, as we continue to learn more about genomics and the treatment of auto-immune disease.

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Featured News

Is Elon Musk Doing Too Much Too Fast?

Elon MuskElon Musk is a visionary. He is an entrepreneur. He is a risk-taker. And this combination of characteristics can lead to great things. Also, this combination can lead to many obstacles.

Obviously, if you have been paying any kind of attention, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has had a rough time trying to develop reusable rockets for space exploration. The idea, of course, is to develop rockets that can be retrieved and reused instead of the format we have now, which are rockets that accompany the shuttle into space and then detach and fall back to Earth and burn up when entering the atmosphere again.

Reusable rockets will dramatically reduce the cost of space travel.

On Thursday, though, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded—yet again—which is now raising concern that, perhaps, Musk might not be properly equipped to manage this project.

Or that, perhaps, Musk may be spreading himself too thin.

You see, aside from SpaceX, Musk is also the founder of Tesla Motors. This a premium, premier luxury line of electric vehicles that have helped to make alternative transportation more attractive to consumers. But Tesla Motors is already working on the next phase of commuter transportation: self-driving cars (aka, “autonomous vehicles”).

As a matter of fact, on Wednesday—just one day before the most recent rocket explosion mishap—Musk announced that Tesla Motors was releasing major improvements to their Autopilot feature (a semi-autonomous driving system).

Of course, the Autopilot feature has not been perfected yet either. Last May, a Tesla Model S operating with the Autopilot feature collided with the underside of a big rig, in Florida, which not only sheared off the top of the car, but also killed the driver. Apparently, the car’s sensor system could not distinguish between the white side of the semi truck trailer and the overcast sky.

At the same time, Tesla is also in a race to finish the development of a massive, $5-billion battery factory in the Nevada desert. The company is also looking to refit its auto assembly plant in Fremont, CA in order to get busy with production of their new Tesla 3 mid-market electric sedan, set for release by the end of 2017.

Elon Musk is ambitious, but with all these projects—and, more importantly, all these problems—one must wonder if, in fact, he is trying to do too much, too fast.

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News Technology

China Launches Operation of World’s Largest Radio Telescope, Join International Probe For Alien Intelligence

World's Largest Radio Telescope Under ConstructionChina has just released photos of its Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), located in the southwester Guizhou province’s remote Pingtang county, announcing to the world, the country’s plan to aid the global search for extraterrestrial life. And when the telescope was deployed, Sunday, China became the owner and operator of the largest radio telescope in the world.

Indeed, the machine is massive. FAST measures 500 meters in diameter and has been erected in a natural basin over five years (and the equivalent of $180 million), to surpass the size—nearly double—of the 300-meter Arecibo Observatory, in Puerto Rico. FAST has 4,450 panels and has been nicknamed “Tianyan”, which means “Eye of Heaven.” Construction was completed in July.

Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observatories’ associate researcher Qian Lei comments, “The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe.”

Qian Lei continues, “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar is approaching us.”

While the telescope and the project are massively impressive on their own, the initiative also shows just how committed Beijing is to propel China into competition/collaboration with other international space research. Such projects require great investments of time and money with very little promise of return other than knowledge and, perhaps, prestige.

“Astronomy is an ultimate expression of ‘pure’ science that has little immediate practical benefits,” explains Luis C. Ho, who is the director of the Peking University Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. “It is a luxury that only the most advanced economies enjoy.”

Of course, China is racing to catch up with the space exploration advancements of the West. For example, Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observations astrophysicist Zhang Chengmin notes, “China isn’t just an economic power; it is also becoming a scientific power.”

But this is more a noble effort than one of power, after all, astronomy has always depended upon international cooperation. For example, Douglas Bock—who is a senior astronomer for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (the firm which built the FAST receiver)—explains “Radio astronomy is a very international field. The science collaborations naturally lead to many deeper technical collaborations on instrumentation and new telescopes.”

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Health News

Alabama Medicaid Agency Finds the Means to Restore Payment Rates to Doctors

medicaidAlabama Governor Robert Bentley announced today that the Alabama Medicaid Agency will restore payments to doctors at the levels they were before the recent cuts went into effect, in August. Of course, these payments were reduced as a result of an $85 million shortfall in Medicaid’s budget for the new fiscal year, starting on October 1.

The reduction was estimated to be save the state $14.7 million.

Two weeks ago, however, the state Legislature passed a new bill that was able to close the 2017 budget gap and, more importantly, provide the additional funding to Medicaid that had originally been short, for the 2018 year. As such, Medicaid will now get another $120 million over a two year period, out of what has been estimated to be a $640 million bond issue now backed by money from a BP oil spill settlement.

Overall, the state will see a total bump of $49 million, which breaks down into that . $14.7 million savings—which actually covers more than 65 percent of Alabama State’s Medicaid Program, to match another $34.3 million, as described by the governor’s office.

Bentley and Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar said that restoring these payments to pre-Aug 1 levels will help doctors who accept Medicaid patients to cover the associated costs and, furthermore, protect access to care for these patients.

He goes on to say, “It will allow those providers to continue to pay their overhead and necessary expenses. Which is very important, because if they have to cut their staff, they will not be able to see Medicaid patients quite as quickly. Or they may not be able to see our Medicaid recipients, which would be quite detrimental.”

In addition, Alabama Academy of Pediatrics executive director Linda Lee comments,

“When you consider what the commercial market pays for services that are performed by pediatricians and family physicians, the Medicaid fee schedule before the bump didn’t come close to truly or adequately paying for those services.”

Finally, the governor notes Azar notes, “The payment bump gave pediatricians and I would assume other family physicians the confidence to move forward and provide the best care possible to those patients,” adding that without them, there are growing concerns that doctors in the state may not be able to take Medicaid patients, which has helped pediatricians to remain committing to accepting patients.