Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
New York’s landmark Waldorf Astoria hotel is scheduled to close in spring 2017 so owner Anbang Insurance Group Co. can begin converting most of the more than 1,400 rooms to luxury condominiums, said a person with knowledge of the plans.
The luxury hotel, managed by Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., is set to reopen as many as three years later, with about 300 to 500 hotel rooms remaining, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the plans aren’t public.
“We are currently developing conceptual plans and will share additional details once those plans are finalized,” Anbang, based in Beijing, said in an e-mailed statement. The scope and details of the renovation, as well as the exact timing and duration of the hotel’s closure, haven’t been decided, the company said.
News of the planned spring closing was reported earlier Sunday by the Wall Street Journal. Hilton referred questions to Anbang.
Anbang bought the Waldorf Astoria, an Art Deco icon on Park Avenue, in February 2015 for $1.95 billion, a record price for a U.S. hotel, and has said it plans to convert most of the property to luxury condos.
Posted by CAMACOL at 8:45 AM
Monday, June 27, 2016
Zume, a new startup in Mountain View, is trying to make a more profitable pizza through robotics
In the back kitchen of Mountain View's newest pizzeria, Marta works tirelessly, spreading marinara sauce on uncooked pies. She doesn’t complain, takes no breaks, and has never needed a sick day. She works for free.
Marta is one of two robots working at Zume Pizza, a secretive food delivery startup trying to make a more profitable pizza through machines. It's also created special delivery trucks that will finish cooking pizzas during the journey to hungry customers if approved by the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health. Right now Zume is only feeding people in Mountain View, California, but it has ambitions to dominate the $9.7 billion pizza delivery industry.
"We are going to be the Amazon of food," said Zume's co-founder and executive chairman, Alex Garden. Garden, 41, is the former president of Zynga Studios. Before that, he was a general manager of Microsoft's Xbox Live. Garden launched Zume in stealth mode last June, when he began quietly recruiting engineers under a pseudonym and building his patented trucks in an unmarked Mountain View garage. In September, he brought on Julia Collins, a 37-year-old restaurant veteran. She became chief executive officer and a co-founder. Collins was previously the vice president and CEO of Harlem Jazz Enterprises, the holding company for Minton's, a historic Harlem eatery.
In October, Zume began working closely with Swiss robot maker, ABB, and a global crew of mechanical, electrical and software engineers. In April, the startup sold its first cyborg-constructed pie to an unsuspecting customer in Mountain View.
Alex Garden, co-founder and executive chairman of Zume
People familiar with Zume's fundraising discussions said that Google Ventures as well as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers are considering Series A bids. In May, Yahoo Inc. founder Jerry Yang was seen touring the pizzeria with his crew of investors from AME Cloud Ventures. Garden said he didn't want to talk about fundraising, "But I can tell you the venture community is validating our idea."
Two minutes from Google's main campus, Zume's headquarters sits in an unmarked concrete building that looks like an auto repair shop. The 8,000 square foot interior is divided into a large kitchen, where the robots are; and an office space, where twelve engineers, designers and product managers work. The building also has a machine and fabrication workshop.
Inside Zume's kitchen, protective glass boxes separate the robots from humans. Marta hangs from the ceiling of her cage like a giant spider, her spindly robot arms converging, ladle-like, to douse a pie with sauce in under two seconds. "We created her to spread your sauce perfectly, but not too perfectly, so the pizza still looks like an artisan product," Garden said.
Fully sauced, the pie travels on a conveyer belt to human employees who add cheese and toppings. The decorated pies are then scooped off the belt by a 5-foot tall grey automaton, Bruno, who places each in an 850-degree oven. For now, the pizzas are fully cooked and delivered to customers in branded Fiats painted with slogans, including: "You want a piece of this?" and "Not part of the sharing economy."
In August, Zume wants to start cooking its pizzas in the startup's patented delivery trucks. Each truck has 56 ovens that can be turned on and off remotely. Garden can barely contain his excitement for what comes next: "The robots will load all these individual ovens with different menu items.
Then the truck will circle the neighborhood. At precisely 3 minutes and 15 seconds before arriving at the customer's location, the cloud commands the oven to turn on and--" Garden made the symbol of a large explosion emanating from his brain-- "BOOM, the customer gets a fresh, out-the-oven pizza delivered to their door."
Nobody has ever done this before, he said. The Santa Clara County Health Department is reviewing Zume's mobile food permit application now, and the startup's truck plan depends on its approval. Although laws vary from state to state, traditional food trucks generally aren't allowed to cook food while in motion.
Garden is confident it won't be long before he's competing with the major pizza chains. "Just imagine Domino's without the labor component," said Garden. "You can start to see how incredibly profitable that can be."
Yum! Brands Inc.'s Pizza Hut and Domino's have been experimenting with robots, too. Last month, Pizza Hut Asia partnered with Mastercard and Softbank to develop a robotic cashier, named Pepper, which uses artificial intelligence to interact with customers. The company plans to deploy Pepper in selected outlets across Asia by the end of the year, said Chaiti Sen, a Mastercard spokeswoman. In April, Domino's Australia began testing an "autonomous delivery vehicle," named Dru. The 3-foot, four-wheeled machine--it looks like a photocopier on wheels-- can make deliveries up to 6 miles, said a company spokeswoman.
Analysts were quick to raise skepticism about Zume's grand plans, especially considering that Papa Johns, Domino's and Pizza Hut account for 58 percent of the U.S. pizza delivery market. "It's a very difficult industry," said Michael Halen, a Bloomberg Intelligence research analyst focused on global restaurant chains. John Glass, an analyst for Morgan Stanley, said that a lack of recognition will make it hard for Zume to compete with bigger names. "The big brands are gaining an incremental market share at the expense of smaller chains and independents," he said.
For now, Zume is focusing on winning over locals. Adam Martyn, who works at Stanford University, said he treats himself to the Lucky Bueno every two weeks. That's a spicy pie with roasted garlic, Calabrian chili and soppressata for $18. "The robots are cool, but I order because it tastes good," Martyn said.
Posted by CAMACOL at 7:45 AM
Monday, June 20, 2016
We're nearing the end of Microsoft's unprecedented free upgrade offer for Windows 10. The offer officially expires July 29, 2016, on the one-year anniversary of the operating system's initial release. But what happens then? [Updated]
Microsoft's ambitious plan to get Windows 10 running on a billion devices within the next few years depends to a large extent on the success of its free upgrade offer.
When the company first announced the terms of that offer in May 2015, it literally included an asterisk and fine print. Those terms have changed slightly over the intervening months, but one element has remained constant: The offer is good for one year after the availability of Windows 10.
Here's the actual wording of the offer, as it appears today:
Get the best Windows experience. Ever.
Ready for Windows 10? Qualified Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 devices can upgrade for free. Offer ends July 29, 2016.
The text that appears in the fine print at the bottom of that page has changed slightly over the past year. Here's how it now reads (emphasis added):
The fine print on the Windows 10 upgrade offer, as of June 2016.
Here's the tl;dr version if you don't want to keep reading:
1. The free upgrade offer ends on July 29 and will not be extended.
2. Any upgrades completed before that date will be valid for as long as the device lasts.
3. There is a possibility that Microsoft will introduce some new upgrade offers after July 29, but don't count on it.
In fact, Microsoft's real goal with this upgrade offer isn't just to get its installed Windows 10 base to a billion. The long-term goal is to help close the books on Windows 7 in an orderly fashion before its extended support commitment ends on January 14, 2020.
Some of those Windows 7 PCs will simply be retired, of course. But what about those that are only a few years old and have more than four years of usable life ahead of them? For Microsoft executives, the prospect that hundreds of millions of PCs will still be running Windows 7 on New Year's Day 2020 has to bring back unpleasant flashbacks of Windows XP's messy end.
After nearly a year, Microsoft says a total of 300 million devices are running Windows 10. Many of those, perhaps one-third or more, represent new PCs. Another big chunk represents newer devices originally sold with Windows 8 or 8.1, Windows 10 has succeeded in cutting the share of devices running those versions nearly in half over the past year, and the share of PCs running Windows 8.1 should be in the low single digits by the end of 2017.
But what about Windows 7? As measured by the U.S. Government's Digital Analytics Program, the percentage of Windows PCs running that version has dropped significantly in the past year, going from 71.1 percent in the first quarter of 2015, before the release of Windows 10, to less than 60 percent at the end of May 2016.
That's still a lot of Windows 7 PCs, and there's not much evidence that even the carrot of a free upgrade will be enough to move more than another few percent as the deadline approaches.
Which explains why the offer won't be extended. In early May 2016, the company made it official. If you want to upgrade a PC from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 after July 29, you'll have to pay for the privilege.
There's plenty of precedent for this, based on past behavior. For Windows 7 and 8, Microsoft offered significant introductory discounts and then ended them on schedule after a few months, with no extensions.
Financially, this decision is unlikely to have much of an impact. Retail upgrades have historically represented a microscopic share of Microsoft's revenue (see the chart in this article), and most customers who might have been willing to pay for an upgrade will have taken advantage of the free offer by the time the Anniversary Update rolls around.
Asking existing Windows 7 users to pay $99 or more after they've spent a year avoiding the free upgrade seems like a surefire way to guarantee that they never upgrade. That significantly increases the risk of an XP-style mess come 2020.
On the other hand, the free upgrade offer never really applied to large businesses that run Windows Enterprise editions. For those customers who also have purchased Software Assurance for those volume licenses, the Windows 10 upgrade offer is, if not free, at least already paid for. The decision of whether and when to upgrade is driven by business needs, not by the cost of an upgrade license.
In the new "Windows as a Service" model, Microsoft says it plans to deliver two or three new releases each year. The Anniversary Update is the first release in the Redstone update series, and it's scheduled to arrive at more or less the same time that the original upgrade offer ends. Another Redstone feature update is scheduled to arrive in the first half of 2017.
In the last few weeks before July 29, Microsoft will no doubt brag a bit about the success of the upgrade offer so far and encourage holdouts to upgrade. (Remember, the point of the deadline is to add urgency.)
And, of course, the end of this upgrade offer doesn't eliminate the possibility of a new offer. If not free, then perhaps a discounted in-place upgrade. But an extension of the current offer is not going to happen.
One important date to watch is October 31, 2016. That's when OEM sales of new PCs with Windows 7 Professional officially end. That means more than three years in which the population of Windows 7 PCs will presumably shrink as old PCs die and are replaced by newer models running Windows 10 (or aren't replaced at all).
Anyone who has taken Microsoft up on its free Windows 10 upgrade offer before the expiration date has a "digital entitlement" tied to that hardware. That upgrade doesn't expire.
A few logistical questions remain unanswered. For example, you can currently use a product key for Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 to activate the corresponding edition of Windows 10. Come July 30, Microsoft's activation servers should stop accepting those keys. But we won't know until that day comes.
As of that anniversary, Microsoft also says it plans to begin uninstalling its controversial Get Windows 10 software. But there are no plans to remove the Windows 10 download page, which is useful for anyone who needs the Windows 10 bits to do a recovery or a clean install on a machine that already has a Windows 10 license. But will the Upgrade Now button still work without requiring payment upfront?
It would be nice if Microsoft would publish details about how this transition will work, but after watching the company's communications over the past year, I'm not betting on that.
Posted by CAMACOL at 6:31 AM
Friday, June 17, 2016
How to Raise the Retirement Age for People Who Want to Work
Work can be tiring, all right. But how is it that people considered too old to sit at a desk are young enough to play 18 holes of golf?
These days, a lot of Americans are retiring while they still have years of good health in front of them. Given the increasing financial strain on Social Security and Medicare, some economists and politicians are contemplating putting a toe on the third rail of American politics: They're asking whether the robust good health of so many senior citizens justifies further raising the eligibility ages for the programs.
The best evidence in favor: A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper summarized here shows that most Americans are healthy enough to work longer than they actually do. The chart below shows the share of men who are working at various ages (blue bars) and, within those demographics, the share who are healthy enough to work but aren't (red bars). The baseline is men age 51-54, otherwise known as preretirement. The economists look at the health of those men and what share of them is working and compare them with men at older ages. The study, by Courtney Coile of Wellesley College, Kevin Milligan of the University of British Columbia, and David Wise of Harvard University, finds that health declines slowly with age, but work declines rapidly.
The pattern is the same for women. Poor health, in other words, isn't what's pushing most people into retirement. (The authors don't take sides in the argument over raising the retirement age.)
A recent working paper concluded that years of healthy life expectancy after age 65 increased by 1.8 years between 1992 and 2008, according to David Cutler of Harvard University and three other authors. That's a big increase in a short period of time.
Senior citizens are already working more now than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, as my colleague Ben Steverman recently wrote. Alicia Munnell of Boston College's Carrol School of Management has some theories about why, among them the gradual increase in the normal retirement age, which is 66 now and rising to 67; the shift from pensions to 401(k)s, which lack incentives to retire at particular ages; and of course the improving health of older workers and the reduction in jobs requiring physical labor. As Steverman pointed out, workers age 65 and up are at a record in absolute numbers, and in percentage terms they're at the highest level since the early 1960s, before Medicare eased the financial burdens of old age.
The story doesn't end there, though. The problem with raising the normal retirement age is that it would hit the less-educated far more than the well-educated. Another chart derived from the research by Coile and company shows that men with limited education are far less likely to be working at 70-74 than college graduates of the same age (blue bars). The big red bars do show that many more of them could work given their health, but still not as much as college grads could work.
More than three-quarters of older workers with less than a high school diploma have physically difficult jobs, while less than one-quarter of older workers with advanced degrees have similarly taxing positions, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Economic & Policy Research. Less-educated workers who plan to work past 65 generally do so because they have to, not because they want to. My Bloomberg colleague Suzanne Woolley recently reported on a survey by the consulting firm Willis Towers Watson that found that employees who expected to work longer were "less healthy, more stressed, and more likely to feel stuck in their jobs than those who expect to retire earlier."
Is there a way to take advantage of the work capacity of older Americans without harming the less-educated, who are more likely to have physically difficult jobs and less likely to have the skills employers want? "It’s reasonable to be concerned about the people who may not be able to work longer," said Coile.
Unfortunately, there's no way to raise the retirement age that's problem-free. One idea is to raise the normal retirement age to, say, 70, but make it easier for older people to go on disability. Right now, qualifying for Social Security disability insurance is an arduous process that consumes the time and money of both applicants and the government. It would be hard to speed up the evaluation process without making a lot of wrong determinations.
A streamlined alternative would be to base the normal retirement age on a worker's occupation—raising it higher for deskbound jobs. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility & Reform proposed something along those lines in 2010 (pdf, page 50), not mentioning occupation as a criterion but "considering relevant factors such as the physical demands of labor." That could lead to a lot of gamesmanship, however, as people lobby to have their occupations declared onerous. That's what happened when Greece tried it: As of 2010, the New York Times reported, the early-retirement provision covered "radio and television presenters, who are thought to be at risk from the bacteria on their microphones, and musicians playing wind instruments, who must contend with gastric reflux as they puff and blow."
One problem with today's Social Security disability insurance is that it's all or nothing. You either can work or you can't, as far as the system is concerned. Some economists have suggested moving to something more like that used by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which rates disabilities on a severity scale of 10 percent to 100 percent, or completely disabled. A sliding scale would seem suitable for an aging workforce, since getting old is one long process of sliding downhill in terms of ability to work.
As this last chart shows, there's room for most people to work longer than they do now, if that's what the economy and the Social Security system need. The chart shows that the share of people working above the traditional retirement age, while higher than in recent decades, remains lower in percentage terms than it was in the 1940s and 1950s.
Keep in mind that life expectancy for 65-year-old men and women is longer now. It was about 14 years in 1950 vs. 19 years in 2010, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The idea of a multi-decade period of leisure at the end of one's life is very much a modern invention, and a costly one for the economy. That's why finding ways to keep more people working longer—in an equitable way—is a priority.
Posted by CAMACOL at 6:55 AM
Monday, June 13, 2016
To reach the Venus Project Research Center, a utopian compound created by a 100-year-old futurist, drive through vast stretches of fields, orchards, and dirt roads in south-central Florida. There's little cell phone service and no signs of other humans on the way to a white gate. A sandy path flanked by lush tropical trees leads to a cluster of white dome-like structures. Inside one sits Jacque Fresco, hunched on a couch within his own model of an ideal society.
Fresco, now hard of hearing, gave me a nod when I visited in March. "Thank you for driving all this way," said Roxanne Meadows, 67, a former portrait artist and Fresco's longtime girlfriend and collaborator. A dozen people had turned out that day to see the secluded 21-acre property, including Venus Project devotees from as far away as Australia.
Fresco says rounded structures are more efficient and better protected against natural disasters.
Fresco's 100th birthday bash, held days earlier at a convention center in Fort Myers, drew more than 600 fans. For them, these rounded retro structures in the wilds of Florida are a hint of what could be: a master plan for a City of the Future without money, a place where all needs are met by technology. That city, Fresco says, will be run not by politicians but by a central computer that will distribute resources as needed. It's a vision he's been working on for most of his life. “A machine doesn’t have emotions,” Fresco likes to say. “It’s not susceptible to corruption.” Social engineering and favorable living circumstances will ensure that people act responsibly toward one another.
He has produced more than 5,500 technical sketches in the past 40 years
A Brooklyn native born in 1916, Fresco embodies a certain breed of irrepressible, self-taught inventors and futurists, the sort of free-spirited visionaries from the 20th century who have largely been subsumed today by the world-making ambitions of Silicon Valley tech culture. Fresco's backstory includes all the requisite (and difficult to verify) tales of a imaginative life. Fed up with the status quo and worried about the future, he says he dropped out of school at age 13 and hitchhiked across America before taking a temporary job drafting designs for an aircraft company. What followed has been a lifetime of dreaming up novel technologies and infrastructure, including oval-shaped driverless cars, floating cities, and mass-produced extruded dwellings.
Many are on display at the Venus Project Research Center in Venus, Fla.
On the property in Venus, Fla.—his utopian master project adopted the name of the town—two domes contain workshops filled with hundreds of models and renderings. There are disc-shaped aircrafts and a channel-digger designed to help filter off the ocean’s rising sea levels into uninhabited deserts. Two more domes house a rotating cast of international Venus Project volunteers, who help spread Fresco's ideas worldwide.
The compound itself is intended to show what the outskirts of a city built in the image of the Venus Project might look like. "We didn't build what we wanted to build, we built what we could afford to build," says Meadows, who gives tours of the grounds. The couple, who met 40 years ago when Meadows came to hear Fresco talk, purchased the property in 1979. It had previously been a tomato farm. They planted hundreds of trees, dredged the land, and began building examples of mass-produceable housing.
This guest bedroom, inside one dome, showcases several futuristic renderings.
"We labored in obscurity for a long time," says Meadows. Everything was financed with money they scraped together doing various odd jobs, such as freelancing as model builders for architecture firms and medical equipment companies.
Today, Meadows says, people come to tour the compound every Saturday, paying $200 per family for a tour, as well as books and videos. Even those visitors who question Fresco's ideas regarding social engineering seem to find inspiration in his technological dreams. "Companies like Google are actually working on building smart cities—it's happening," said one person on the tour. "And this is an interesting framework through which to look at some of the problems."
Workshops at the research center are filled with Fresco's models
As for Fresco, he remains convinced his computer-governed city can become reality. "We already have the technology to do it," he says, speaking with the group after the tour. What’s lacking, as he sees it, is the will. Once modern life gets truly hard, Fresco believes there will be a revolution that will clear the way for the Venus Project to be built. “There will be a lot of people getting shot, including me,” he says wryly. “I’m surprised I haven’t been shot already.”
By 6:30 p.m., the 100-year-old visionary is starting to fade. It’s been a long birthday week. “Thanks so much for coming,” he tells us. “Now I’m gonna hit the sack.”
The 21-acre property was previously a tomato farm.
Posted by CAMACOL at 6:47 AM
Friday, June 10, 2016
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