Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Amazon Fires Engineers Responsible for the Fire Phone


Amazon has fired dozens of employees at Lab126, the secretive hardware development center in silicon valley.   The vast majority of them were from the engineering division that worked on the first Amazon branded smartphone, the Fire Phone. This was the first time in the companies 11 year history that  key employees were let go from Lab126.

According to the Wall Street Journal “The company also has scaled back or halted some of Lab126's more ambitious projects—including a large-screen tablet—and reorganized the division, combining two hardware units there into one, people familiar with the matter said.”

It does not look like their will be a second generation Fire Phone, as many engineers months ago were told. It looks like all future phone plans are shelved.  This may be a good thing, because it really looks like Amazon is branching off into two many directions and none of the products are really that good.

The last calendar year  Amazon developed a small cult following in the form of the Echo. They also released various models of the Dash shipping button, Fire TV, Fire TV Stick,  not to mention 4 new tablets and two e-readers.

Lab126 and Amazon have dozens of secretive things in development including a smart stylus internally called Nitro, which translates a users' scribblings into digital shopping lists; a device dubbed Shimmer for projecting images on walls and other surfaces; and a tablet code-named Project Cairo, with a 14-inch screen.

I have heard that most employees who work on prototype projects at Lab126 want to make cool tech, but CEO Jeff Bezos wants to sell things at cost and turn them into gateways to buy more things from Amazon. This is causing some friction and many employees such as Jon McCormack, the chief technology officer are jumping ship to other companies.

Barnes and Noble Bookstores at War with the Homeless


Many Barnes and Noble bookstores in the US are starting to remove couches and comfy seating in order to combat the homeless problem. Apparently the bookstore chain has policies in place that make it problematic to deny patrons access to the bookstore itself, so many locations are removing couches so homeless people will pick another location to sleep for hours at a time.

This story has been confirmed by the USA Today, where a journalist spoke with staff at their favorite B&N bookstore. The employees – albeit not overtly — said Barnes & Noble chose to get rid of its big, cozy chairs to prevent the homeless from loitering in its stores. While they never used the term "homeless," the employees instead referred to these loiterers as "undesirables," or even "smelly people."

Not only are B&N bookstores all over the country removing reasons for homeless people to chill, but libraries are dealing with the exact same issue. Libraries are considered public spaces that are kept in business because of public funding. This prevents the libraries from acting as a gatekeeper or putting security in place to deny certain people entry. Unlike a bookstore, a library simply can’t remove chairs to solve the problem.

I think Barnes and Noble needs to augment their internal policies to give stores more flexibility to freedom to deny entry to people who do not buy books but use the store as a bathroom and a bedroom.  Sure this might ruffle a few feathers, but paying customers want chairs and couches to chill on while they are reading a book they intend to purchase. Screwing over legitimate patrons by removing couches to give homeless people the boot is doing nothing but punishing people with money to spend.

Walking Dead and Other Image Comics Arrive at Hoopla


If your library patrons are fans of the Walking Dead you might have another reason to deal with Hoopla. Image Comics and Hoopla have just come to terms on single issue and graphic novels. Starting today Libraries that have a contract with Hoopla will find hundreds of new comics available in their collection. Remember, with Hoopla you don’t pay a fee to host their content, Hoopla only gets paid if a patron checks out a title.

Kindle for Kids Bundle Not Getting Much Attention

About three months ago toward the end of May, Amazon started selling a new Kindle for Kids Bundle for $99. There’s nothing “new” about it really, but the idea is new as far as E Ink Kindles are concerned. The device itself is the exact same as the $79 Kindle that was released last October, […]

My 10 deserted island books: Cindy Orr

Recently Time Magazine has released a series of wonderful articles where they asked famous people their ten favorite books or the “ten books they’d take with them if they were marooned on a desert island.” We simply love this idea and wanted to share Team OverDrive’s deserted island reading selections. This first list comes from Cindy Orr, our Digital Collection Advisor.

A note from Cindy: This was incredibly painful, and I'll change my mind tomorrow…


Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

My desert island would most likely not be anything like the Roanoke Valley in Virginia, but Annie Dillard's book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, would help me to slow down, think deep thoughts, and really see the nature around me while contemplating God, the universe, and everything else. Oh, and did I mention that the whole thing is written in beautiful, poetic language?


Dune by Frank Herbert

This is an epic story, and Herbert did an amazing job of world building, including inventing a language. Some would call it science fiction since it is set thousands of years in the future, but it's more than that. This book is even more relevant today than it was in 1965 when it was published, as several great powers are duking it out over which will gain control, and its many Middle Eastern references will resonate even more now.  You'll recognize some features that have become iconic in the science fiction world (like sandworms and sand people), but Herbert did it first.


The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

This book is a sobering account of the five mass extinctions that have occurred on Earth so far, and why the sixth extinction is looming if we don't do something about it. An amazing overview that puts global warming in a very scary perspective, and if I'm on a desert island, I'll probably want to know if the water is rising.


The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Gotta have a mystery, I thought. But why not one that is also a gothic novel, an adventure novel, a thriller, a historical novel, all woven together with folklore and a dash of horror, since it's about Dracula. Even better, one of the themes is the love of books—all of the characters, including Dracula, love books.


Stalin: Vol. I Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

I know this seems like an odd choice, but three of my four grandparents got out of Russia just in time in the early 1900s. Those in their villages who didn't leave ended up dead or in Siberia. We're just beginning to understand how horrible Stalin was, and this book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.


A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch

I would need a really long book or two on my island, and this one is definitely long. I read it as quickly as I could once, and realized that I needed to read it again someday and go much more slowly. Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of Christianity in only 1,016 pages.


Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry 

It's long, so that's good, but it's just an awesome story with characters who seem to live and breathe. If I were cheating, I'd add all the books in the series, but this one is the best. Yes, it's a western, but it's so much more than that. It will immerse you in the real life of the West in the 1870s.


He, She, and It by Marge Piercy

Terrible title, and you'll think the first chapter is a cliché, but this book was written in 1993, and a world run by multinational corporations wasn't a cliché back then. Marge Piercy is a literary writer who some people have said wrote the first cyberpunk novel. (Her reaction: "What is cyberpunk?") This book has so much going on that you could read it many times and not absorb it all. Deep and layered, it compares the creation of the Golem in 1600s Prague with the creation of an android in the near future about fifty years from now when hackers can kill you through cyberspace.


The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith

I'd need some fun reading on my island too, and The Sunbird is one of those books that stand out over my long career for the sheer number of unsolicited rave reviews from library patrons, so you know it's a winner. For nearly 2,000 years, a brilliant and unknown civilization has existed in Africa. Archaeology, mysticism, great plot and characters, and it's long too—perfect for the island.


A Room of One's by Virginia Woolf

This small book has been a favorite of mine for decades now. I love it not just for its message that women need a room of their own and money of their own in order to have a hope of being creative, but also because its structure is fabulous and it's even funny at times.


Cindy Orr is a Digital Collection Advisor with OverDrive

Buy the Sense HAT – as seen in space*!

*Not actually in space yet. Wait till December.

Today we have a new product launch: the Sense HAT is now available from the Swag Store, and through our partners RS Components and Premier Farnell/CPC. Here’s a video from Matt Timmons-Brown, freshly released from GCSE exam hell, to show you around.

The Sense HAT was originally developed around James Adams’ idea to make a cool toy-style board that showed off just how much you could do with your average modern MEMS gyroscope, 64 RGB LEDs and some Atmel microcontroller hackery.

Somewhere between prototype and production, it seems to have attracted extra features like a pressure sensor, a humidity/temperature sensor and a teeny joystick. It also seems to have been comandeered and made an integral part of the Astro Pi mission, which will see two Raspberry Pis, two Sense HATs and a lot of code written by UK schoolkids hosted on the International Space Station – I guess I’m to blame for that.

Astro Pi sense HAT LED

The board forms the basis for many of the experiment sequences that will be run on the ISS – many of the schools competition winners’ entries made good use of the HAT’s sensors to gather their experimental data. The LED matrix also provides a feedback mechanism and interactivity for Major Tim Peake when he’s tasked with deploying the Astro-Pi board on the ISS (he’ll be setting it up on-orbit to run the experiment sequences). One of the winning entries – Reaction Games – programmed a whole suite of joypad-operated games played via the LED matrix. Snake is hilarious on an 8×8 screen.

The board itself has a suite of sensors, a “D-pad” style 5-button joystick and an 8×8 RGB LED matrix driven by a combination of an LED driver chip and an Atmel AVR microcontroller – an ATTiny88.

For the terminally curious, here are the schematics of the board.

The Sense HAT and its Pi tucked snugly in the Astro Pi flight case

The Sense HAT and its Pi tucked snugly into the Astro Pi flight case

Here’s the hardware run-down:

Sensing elements:

Pressure / Temperature
ST Micro LPS25H
– 24-bit pressure measurement resolution (260hPa to 1260hPa)
– 16-bit temperature measurement resolution (0-125°C)

Humidity / Temperature
ST Micro HTS221
– 16-bit humidity measurement resolution (0-100% relative humidity)
– 16-bit temperature measurement resolution (0-60°C)

Acceleration/Gyroscope/Magnetic field
ST Micro LSM9DS1
– 9 degrees of freedom (X, Y, Z independent axes for all sensors)
– ±16 g acceleration measurement range
– ±16 gauss magnetometer measurement range
– ±2000 dps (degrees per second) gyroscope measurement range
Each of these measurement channels has 16 bits of resolution.

All of these sensors have features for periodic sampling of sensor values – complete with internal FIFO storage. The LPS25H and HTS221 have maximum sample rates of 25 per second, the LSM9DS1 has a maximum sample rate of 952Hz – we are already imagining the birth of a million Pi-controlled stunt quadcopters.

LED Matrix
The LED matrix is driven by a combination of a constant-current LED driver and an Atmel ATTiny88 running a custom firmware that delivers an 8×8 display with 15-bit resolution RGB colour. If you want to get into the gory details, the AVR firmware is available on Github.

The Atmel is responsible for sampling the joystick. We didn’t have enough pins left on the Atmel to dedicate the five that we needed to sample the joystick axes independently, so they’ve been spliced into the LED matrix row selects. The joystick gets updated at approximately 80Hz, which is the scan rate of the LED matrix.

All of the sensors (and the base firmware for the Atmel) are accessible from the Pi over I2C. As a fun bonus mode, the SPI peripheral on the Atmel has been hooked up to the Pi’s SPI interface – you can reprogram your HAT in the field! We use this method to get the firmware into the Atmel during production test – and we leave it unprotected so you can substitute the stock firmware to get it to do whatever you want. Seriously. First person to turn this sensor HAT into a quadcopter controller HAT wins a cookie from me.

If you’re not assembly-language inclined, you can always use the HAT’s sensors from our shipped Python library – standard function calls return sensor values, give you joystick key events and allow you to display things on the LED matrix. The Sense API is available through the Raspbian APT repositories.

To access the magic, simply enter:

sudo apt-get update  sudo apt-get install sense-hat  sudo pip-3.2 install pillow  

into a terminal window. Note you will have to reboot for the Sense HAT to be recognised.

The API is well-documented (and tested extensively by schoolchildren as part of Astro-Pi) – get reading here.

The LED matrix appears as a Linux framebuffer device – for fun you can compare the results of

cat /dev/urandom > /dev/fb0  


cat /dev/urandom > /dev/fb1

to fill either your attached monitor or the LED matrix with random noise. The joypad appears as a standard input device – the “keys” map to Up/Down/Left/Right and Enter.

The baseline price (excluding spacers and screws, and local taxes) is $30. You’ll be able to buy from all the usual suspects – the Swag Store (which is bundling spacers and screws for free), RS Components/Allied, Premier Farnell/Newark and all their subsidiaries have stock today. Secondary suppliers may take a couple of days to get their hands on stock.

So, what are you waiting for? Get sensor hacking!

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