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Monthly Archives: August 2017

Crazy transport systems that didn’t go the distance

Aérotrain

All the comfort and speed of a magnetic levitation train, but without the technical complexity and expense – that was the aim of Aérotrain, a hovertrain developed in France from 1965. Five prototypes were built. This stylish Aérotrain 02 engine carried a crew of two and was powered by turbojets. A later version, the I-80 HV, established the world speed record for air cushion vehicles on land when it reached 430.4 kilometres per hour in March 1974. American company Rohr Industries was so impressed that it licensed some of the technology in the hopes of making one of its own.

If Aérotrain had so much going for it, what went wrong? First, there was the death of its lead engineer Jean Bertin. Lack of funding was another problem. And the final nail in the coffin came when the French government decided to adopt the TGV for its high-speed rail network. Aérotrain was abandoned in 1977.

Transit elevated bus

China’s “straddling bus” is the latest in a long and glorious line of failed mass transport. Conceived in 2000, and roatested last year, the Transit Elevated Bus came to the end of the line this July amid allegations of financial shenanigans. Not surprisingly, this bizarre prototype attracted considerable attention when it made its maiden voyage in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. China badly needs green transport solutions, and a huge, electric powered, traffic-jam-skipping bus has obvious appeal.

  Ithacus

It seemed like a good idea back in 1966 when the cold war was hot. To reduce the need for overseas US army bases, why not build an intercontinental rocket capable of carrying a battalion of 1200 soldiers? Ithacus Senior was conceived as a 6400-tonne behemoth, standing 64 metres tall and powered by eight hydrogen drop tanks. Aeroengineer Phillip Bono saw it as a practical application for his orbital launch vehicle ROMBUS (Reusable Orbital Module, Booster, and Utility Shuttle). Its rocket-powered vertical take-off and landing would provide a rapid-strike capability for “rocket commandos”. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for a start, flying Ithacus home would be impossible without a custom-built launch pad. A convoluted solution was dreamed up. It entailed flying the rocket in short, low-powered hops to the coast, transporting it onto a barge and sailing it back to the US

Gyro monorail

On 10 November 1909, Irish inventor Louis Brennan gave the first public demonstration of his gyro monorail in the grounds of his house in Gillingham, Kent, UK. The track was designed to show off the cornering ability of a vehicle balanced by two vertical gyroscopes mounted side-by-side and spinning in opposite directions. Although he had filed his first monorail patent in 1903, Brennan was rushed into this unveiling when German philanthropist August Scheri announced he would soon be showing off his rival gyro monorail at the Berlin Zoological Gardens.

Brennan’s proper public debut came the following year at the Japan-British Exhibition in London. There, a monorail car carrying 50 people at a time traversed a circular track at over 30 kilometres per hour. Winston Churchill was among the passengers and expressed his enthusiasm.

Moving sidewalk

The first moving walkway was unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1890. Invented by engineer Max Schmidt, it consisted of three concentric rings, the first stationary, the second moving at 4 kilometres per hour and the third at 8 km/h, allowing walkers to adjust to the slower speed before moving to the faster one. It proved a huge success at subsequent expositions in Berlin and Paris, where in 1900 the trottoir roulant (pictured) circled the fair in a 3-kilometre loop. Nearly 7 million visitors hopped on. A few even brought folding chairs.

Persuaded by this success, officials in New York proposed several high-profile moving walkway schemes for the city including one over Brooklyn Bridge and another running down Broadway. None materialised, perhaps because they were scuppered by established transport providers. It would be half a century before moving walkways started to appear in sprawling airports and railway stations.

The entertainment giant vowed to bring “Star Wars”

Last month, Disney said that it would build two Netflix-style services to address structural challenges to its vast television businesses — namely that more consumers, particularly younger ones, are foregoing pricey cable subscriptions. At the time, Disney said one streaming service would focus on sports programming from ESPN and the other would offer movies and television shows, but did not divulge much beyond that.

On Thursday, Mr. Iger said that the company’s Hollywood-oriented service would be introduced in “late 2019” and would include all new-release movies made by Walt Disney Studios, which includes Disney’s core film factory as well as Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. That means the “Star Wars” and Marvel movies will eventually leave Netflix, which has been paying Disney handsomely for streaming rights.

Also available on Disney’s entertainment service will be older films from its vaunted library, which includes more than 400 titles.

 Mr. Iger said Disney is also working on five original, live-action, Disney-branded movies that will be delivered exclusively through the service. Additionally, it will offer a handful of original Disney-branded shows, several original TV movies, recent seasons of Disney Channel hits and 7,000 episodes of older shows.

“A very, very rich treasure trove” is how Mr. Iger described the offerings. He declined to say how much subscriptions would cost.

The ESPN service will arrive sooner — “sometime this spring,” Mr. Iger said — and include, as previously disclosed, thousands of events not currently shown on ESPN, including hockey, baseball, tennis, college sports. But Mr. Iger said that Disney is hoping to provide a different buying model, at least eventually. Rather than charging one price for subscriptions, Disney’s sports service may allow users granular control over what they pay to watch — “a season, a league, maybe a conference,” Mr. Iger said.

“Think about iTunes,” he hinted.

Disney also used the investor conference to set earnings expectations for its 2017 fiscal year, which will conclude in a few weeks. Mr. Iger said that earnings per share would be “roughly in line” with results for 2016, when it had per-share profit of $5.72. Higher costs related to a new N.B.A. programming deal and the lack of a major “Star Wars” movie will contribute to Disney’s flat 2017 results. Mr. Iger also said that Disney will feel some financial effects from Hurricane Irma, which has disrupted Disney Cruise itineraries.

Maker of Angry Birds Game

Rovio, the Finnish gaming company behind the popular Angry Birds franchise, said on Friday that its chief executive, Mikael Hed, would step down by the end of the year as the company struggles financially.

Rovio has struggled recently after quickly rising to prominence in 2009 when Angry Birds became a global phenomenon. The company has failed to respond to more recent trends in gaming, and the announcement highlighted once again the precarious situation of many mobile gaming companies, whose fortunes often rely on a single franchise or technology.

Gaming companies are often dependent on a sole blockbuster franchise like Clash of Clans, a game produced by the Finnish company Supercell. Others, including Zynga, also have faced difficulties in reducing their reliance on social networks like Facebook, which were instrumental in promoting the games when they were first introduced.

But people’s online habits change quickly — and franchises like Angry Birds can lose their popularity as quickly as they gained it. Analysts question whether Rovio and its rivals have the staying power to meet people’s fast-changing interests. And creating a second big hit has often proved elusive.

“Most of these companies have been unable to replicate their past successes,” said Paul Jackson, a gaming analyst at the research technology company Ovum in London. “Mobile games are very transient. There’s no guarantee that people will play new games when they’re released.”

Mr. Hed co-founded Rovio with his cousin Niklas Hed in 2003. The company is majority-owned by Mikael Hed’s father, Kaj Hed, who remains chairman of the company, which is private.

Mr. Hed will be replaced as Rovio chief executive by Pekka Rantala, who is not a member of the family. Mr. Rantala, the company’s chief commercial officer, previously spent 14 years working at the Finnish telecommunications giant Nokia.

Mr. Hed has been nominated to the company’s board, and will also become chairman of the company’s animation and movie business, which the company has expanded into in the last few years.

“It has been an amazing ride,” said Mr. Hed, who has typically worn a bright red Angry Birds hoodie during his public appearances. “In the coming months, I will be very happy to pass the hoodie to Pekka Rantala, who will take Rovio to the next level.”

Angry Birds was one of the first games made for smartphones and tablets to take off in a major way, as millions of people paid $1 to download onto their mobile devices. The various versions of the game and its characters — including plump colorful birds that knock over structures — became a cultural symbol from San Francisco to Shanghai.

But while Angry Birds expanded into all sorts of merchandise and other entertainment forms, including apparel and movies, other game makers started to find financial riches in a different way.

Companies like King Digital Entertainment, the maker of the Candy Crush franchise, discovered millions of players and financial success with so-called freemium games, which let users play free but require the purchase of upgrades to gain access to premium content.

Rovio is a relative newcomer to freemium, introducing its first freemium game last year. The company said this year that its net profit for 2013 fell by more than 50 percent, to $37 million, compared with the previous year

The company introduced its freemium game, Angry Birds Go, last year, but has diversified into movies, animation and theme parks to reduce its reliance on online gaming.

And in contrast to rivals, which typically charge players less than $3 for in-game purchases, Angry Bird’s first freemium offering included upgrades that cost as much as $60 each to allow online characters to get to later stages of the game.

In a sign of how much Rovio has changed since the original Angry Birds game was released, the company now generates nearly half its revenue from licensing the Angry Birds brand for consumer products like candy dispensers and lunchboxes, according to the company’s latest annual financial report.

Cracks also are starting to show in other mobile gaming companies, many of which have been valued at billions of dollars through lucrative initial public offerings. Investors worry that mobile gaming companies may not be built to sustain momentum once one of their games becomes a major hit because of the fleeting nature of the public’s preferences.

Some gamers and regulators also are starting to question whether companies are misleading customers by not adequately disclosing the cost of the extras, while other consumers are walking away from existing mobile games in search for new titles

Apps Your Children Are Using

Video-Messaging Apps

Video apps like Marco Polo, House Party and FireChat are the new chat rooms (which in turn were the new party lines, but never mind).

Marco Polo, which has been downloaded at least 10 million times on the Google Play Store, touts itself as a video “walkie-talkie.” You make a video and send it. In response your friend makes a video. All the videos live in a queue; you add a video when it’s convenient.

Marco Polo is a closed messaging platform, but friends can invite their friends. Which means, in theory, your kid can talk to strangers through the app’s messaging system. Another potential issue: The videos are easily deleted. So if your teenager was sexually harassed or bullied through Marco Polo, chances are the user will delete the video and you won’t have proof.

Anonymous Apps

Anonymous apps have been developed for people interested in a faceless and nameless documentation of their lives (as opposed to a selfie), drawing in children who learned from earlier generations about the consequences of an offensive online footprint. (For example, Harvard University withdrewadmission offers to 10 incoming freshmen in June because of obscene Facebook posts.)

There are a number of anonymous apps on the market — After School, Sarahah, SayAt.Me, Monkey and Ask.Fm are some of the most popular — all of them promising the same feature: Spill intimate feelings about yourself or, on the flip side, spread rumors and attack friends, without any trace of who said what.

SayAt.Me has been under scrutiny since the death of George Hessay, 15, from East Yorkshire, England, who committed suicide in May after reportedly receiving bullying messages on the app.

The company deletes abusive content if reported, Hanna Talving, its chief executive, wrote in an email. “We also protect our site users from negative content by flagging it to them before they see it.”

Ephemeral Apps

Many adults have heard of Snapchat and Instagram Stories, but what about Live.ly, a rising live-streaming app with a large teenage audience? All three work like a disappearing magic act. You send photos, texts and videos, and poof.

Chances are, your teenager is using Snapchat: 75 percent of teens use the app, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey in April. In late June, Snapchat introduced Snap Map, a mapping feature that will share your location with a charming “Actionmoji” every single time you open the app. (Set it to Ghost Mode to turn this function off.)

Instagram Impostor Accounts

In early May, Dawn Dunscombe, who lives in a small New Jersey suburb, learned that an Instagram account with the handle “I Have A Crush.1” was devised to impersonate her 10-year-old daughter.

Ms. Dunscombe’s daughter does not have an Instagram account. Yet the fake account was filled with posts, including claims that her daughter had a crush on a boy in her class. It wasn’t the outed crush that upset Ms. Dunscombe — the tormenting song that someone is “Sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” is playground standard — it was that the fake account was created in her daughter’s name so easily and with the purpose of damaging her young daughter’s reputation.

Profanities and rudeness littered the account, which is what gave it away. “A classmate told my daughter, ‘I knew it couldn’t be you because you don’t curse and you don’t talk rude like that to people,’” Ms. Dunscombe said.

By the time Ms. Dunscombe tracked down the account, it had been shut down. The school investigated. No one confessed. Ms. Dunscombe contacted Instagram multiple times and got a generic message. The situation was handled. Account closed.

Management Strategies

Getting rid of an app is like playing whack-a-mole — particularly because many young people maintain multiple accounts with varying levels of secrecy.

“This arena in social media that we’re working in changes so quickly,” said Robert Appleton, the New York State Internet Crimes Against Children task force commander. “The kids don’t want the parents to discover what they’re using, so every time a new app comes out, they’re switching.”

And behavior, not apps that enable it, is the problem, said Elizabeth Englander a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.