After years of development and delays, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is ready to launch into orbit. It’s the first commercially built and operated crewed spacecraft ever to do so, and represents in many ways the public-private partnership that could define the future of spaceflight.
Launch is set for just before midnight Pacific time — 2:49 Eastern time in Cape Canaveral, from where the Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon capsule will take off. It’s using Launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, which previously hosted Apollo missions and more recently SpaceX’s momentous Falcon Heavy launch. Feel free to relive that moment with us, while you’re here:
The capsule has been the work of many years and billions of dollars: an adaptation of the company’s Dragon capsule, but with much of its cargo space converted to a spacious crew compartment. It can seat seven if necessary, but given the actual needs of the International Space Station, it is more likely to carry two or three people and a load of supplies.
Of course it had to meet extremely stringent safety requirements, with an emergency escape system, redundant thrusters and parachutes, newly designed spacesuits, more intuitive and modern control methods and so on.
Crew Dragon interior, with “Ripley”
It’s a huge technological jump over the Russian Soyuz capsule that has been the only method to get humans to space for the last eight years, since the Shuttle program was grounded for good. But one thing Dragon doesn’t have is the Soyuz’s exemplary flight record. The latter may look like an aircraft cockpit shrunk down to induce claustrophobia, but it has proven itself over and over for decades. The shock produced by a recent aborted launch and the quickness with which the Soyuz resumed service are testament to the confidence it has engendered in its users.
But for a number of reasons the U.S. can’t stay beholden to Russia for access to space, and at any rate the commercial spaceflight companies were going to send people up there anyway. So NASA dedicated a major portion of its budget to funding a new crew capsule, pitting SpaceX and Boeing against one another.
SpaceX has had the best of Boeing for the most part, progressing through numerous tests and milestones, not exactly quickly, but with fewer delays than its competitor. Test flights originally scheduled for 2016 are only just now beginning to take place. Boeing’s Starliner doesn’t have a launch date yet, but it’s expected to be this summer.
Tonight’s test (“Demo-1”) is the first time the Crew Dragon will fly to space; suborbital flights and landing tests have already taken place, but this is a dry run of the real thing. Well, not completely dry: the capsule is carrying 400 pounds of supplies to the station and will return with some science experiments on board.
After launch, it should take about 11 minutes for the capsule to detach from the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket. It docks about 27 hours later, early Sunday morning, and the crew will be able to get at the goodies just in time for brunch, if for some reason they’re operating on East Coast time.
SpaceX will be live streaming the launch as usual starting shortly before takeoff; you can watch it right here:
The market for Chromebooks is generally growing this year despite recent pandemic-related slowdowns, and it looks like more PC vendors are interested in releasing Chrome OS devices. The next in line may be LG.
On October 18, a filing was listed with the Bluetooth SIG, the special interest group that awards Bluetooth certifications, for an “LG Chromebook.” The listing, spotted by Chrome Unboxed, doesn’t give us much further information. The device’s model number is “11TC50Q,” and the machine should have some version of Bluetooth 5.
Without any official word from LG, we can’t be sure that the product exists. But since the company went through the effort of getting Bluetooth certification from Bluetooth SIG, an LG-branded Chromebook is far from a pipe dream. Plus, it would make sense for LG to release a Chromebook.
LG has its hands in many pots, from kitchen appliances to high-end TVs, audio solutions, and even solar panels. LG’s current PC lineup is centered on its Gram series of ultralight laptops. Since Chromebooks employ low-power parts, heat can be more manageable, allowing for thin and fanless designs. This also makes them a good option for travel.
As noted by Chrome Unboxed, LG made a Chrome OS-based all-in-one PC, aka a Chromebase, in 2014 but couldn’t compete with Windows and macOS rivals.
If LG does release a Chromebook, it will be interesting to see if it gets LG’s Gram branding. Currently, all of LG’s Gram laptops are thin-and-lights with Intel chips. The brand also makes a couple of AMD Ryzen-powered clamshells with LG Ultra PC branding. An LG Gram Chromebook would imply Intel chips.
Alternatively, LG could end the idea of its Gram laptops needing to be part of the Intel Evo certification program for ultrabooks and let the Chromebook stand on the names of LG and Chromebook alone—or even launch a new brand just for Chrome OS devices. LG’s AMD PCs start at an MSRP of $800, while the cheapest Gram-branded PC starts at $1,000.
An LG Chromebook would bring Google’s OS pretty close to ubiquity among all major US PC brands, though Razer, MSI, and Microsoft don’t sell Chromebooks.
Facebook’s senior executives interfered to allow US politicians and celebrities to post whatever they wanted on its social network despite pleas from employees to stop, leaked internal documents suggest.
Employees claim in the documents that while Facebook has long insisted that it is politically neutral, it allowed rightwing figures to break rules designed to curb misinformation and harmful content, after being stung by accusations of bias from conservatives.
In September 2020, just ahead of the US presidential election, the author of an internal memo wrote that “director-level employees” had “written internally that they would prefer to formally exclude political considerations from the decision-making process.”
The author called for the company’s leadership to create a “firewall” around its content moderation teams to stop this from happening and to make sure Facebook did not keep up or take down posts because of external political and media pressure.
In another internal note, dated December 2020, an employee claimed that Facebook’s public policy team blocked decisions to take down posts “when they see that they could harm powerful political actors.”
“In multiple cases the final judgment about whether a prominent post violates a certain written policy are made by senior executives, sometimes Mark Zuckerberg,” the author added, referring to Facebook’s chief executive. Parts of the note were previously reported by BuzzFeed.
In a further example from 2019, Zuckerberg was alleged to have been personally involved in a decision to allow a video that made the false claim that abortion is “never medically necessary.”
The post, which had been taken down by a moderator, was reinstated following complaints by Republican politicians, the document said.
The documents, part of a wider cache dubbed the Facebook Papers, were disclosed to US regulators and provided to Congress in redacted form by the legal counsel of whistleblower Frances Haugen. A consortium of news organisations, including the Financial Times, has obtained the redacted versions received by Congress.
Facebook declined to respond to queries about the outcome of any discussions about separating its content team from the policy and communications teams.
Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said: “At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false. Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie. The truth is we’ve invested $13bn and have over 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”
Staff told to aim for ‘“unimpeachable neutrality”
A former Facebook executive told the FT that Zuckerberg had long told staff to aim for what he called “unimpeachable neutrality.”
This was important particularly around US political groups, employees were told, because the company did not want to be accused of breaking campaign rules by giving a donation in kind.
But three other former employees said they had observed how Facebook applied its own rules in an inconsistent and haphazard way, with special treatment for celebrities.
One former integrity team employee said: “For the people running Facebook, it seems like they care much more about not appearing biased than actually not being biased. Often their efforts at the former make the latter worse.”
This week Apple introduced a set of new MacBook Pro laptops. During the prerecorded launch event, Apple’s engineers and executives made it clear that the MVPs in these new products are the chips that power them: the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. With 34 billion and 57 billion transistors, respectively, they are the engines powering the new Mac devices’ super hi-res displays, providing blazing speed, and extending battery life. The laptops represent the apotheosis of a 14-year strategy that has transformed the company—literally under the hood of its products—in a massive effort to design and build its own chips. Apple is now methodically replacing microprocessors it buys from vendors like Intel and Samsung with its own, which are optimized for the needs of Apple users. The effort has been stunningly successful. Apple was once a company defined by design. Design is still critical at Apple, but I now consider it a silicon company.
A couple days after the keynote, I had a rare on-the-record conversation about Apple silicon with senior worldwide marketing VP Greg Joswiak (aka “Joz”), senior hardware engineering VP John Ternus, and senior hardware technology VP Johny Srouji. I had been asking Apple to put me in touch with Srouji for years. His title only hints at his status as the chip czar at Apple. Though he’s begun to appear on camera at recent Apple events, he generally avoids the spotlight. An Israeli-born engineer who previously worked at Intel and IBM, Srouji joined Apple in 2008, specifically to fulfill a mandate from Steve Jobs, who felt that the chips in the original iPhone couldn’t meet his demands. Srouji’s mission was to lead Apple in making its own silicon. The effort has been so well executed that I believe Srouji is secretly succeeding Jony Ive as the pivotal creative wizard whipping up the secret sauce in Apple’s offerings.
Srouji, of course, won’t cop to that. After all, the playbook for Apple executives is to expend their hyperbole on Macs, iPhones, and iPads, not themselves. “Apple builds the best silicon in the world,” he says. “But I always keep in mind that Apple is first and foremost a product company. If you’re a chip designer, this is heaven because you’re building silicon for a company that builds products.”
Srouji is clear on the advantages of rolling out your own chips, as opposed to buying from a vendor like Intel, which was summarily booted from MacBook Pros this week in favor of the M’s. “When you’re a merchant vendor, a company that delivers off-the-shelf components or silicon to many customers, you have to figure what is the least common denominator—what is it that everyone needs across many years?” he says. “We work as one team—the silicon, the hardware, the software, the industrial design, and other teams—to enable a certain vision. When you translate that to silicon, that gives us a very unique opportunity and freedom because now you’re designing something that is not only truly unique, but optimized for a certain product.” In the case of the MacBook Pro, he says, he sat with leaders like Ternus and Craig Federighi several years ago and envisioned what users would be able to get their hands on in 2021. It would all spring from the silicon. “We sit together, and say, ‘Okay, is it gated by physics? Or is it something we can go beyond?’ And then, if it’s not gated by physics and it’s a matter of time, we go figure out how to build it.”
Think about that—the only restraint Apple’s chipmakers concede to is the physical boundary of what’s possible.
Srouji explained how his journey at Apple has been one of conscious iteration, building on a strong foundation. A key element of the company’s strategy has been to integrate the functions that used to be distributed among many chips into a single entity—known as SOC, or system-on-a-chip. “I always fundamentally felt and believed that if you have the right architecture, then you have a chance to build the best chip,” he says. “So we started with the architecture that we believe would scale. And by scaling, we mean scaling to performance and features and the power envelope, whether it’s a watch or iPad or iMac. And then we started selectively figuring the technologies within the chip—we wanted to start owning them one by one. We started with the CPU first. And then we went into the graphics. Then we went into signal processing, display engine, etcetera. Year over year, we built our engineering muscle and wisdom and ability to deliver. And a few years later, when you do all this and you do it right, you find yourself with really good architecture and IP you own and a team behind you that is now capable of repeating that recipe.”
Ternus elaborates: “Traditionally, you’ve got one team at one company designing a chip, and they have their own set of priorities and optimizations. And then the product team and another company has to take that chip and make it work in their design. With these MacBook Pros, we started all the way at the beginning—the chip was being designed right when the system was being thought through. For instance, power delivery is important and challenging with these high-performance parts. By working together [early on], the team was able to come up with a solution. And the system team was actually able to influence the shape, aspect ratio, and orientation of the SOC so that it can best nest into the rest of the system components.” (Maybe this helped convince Apple to restore the missing ports that so many had longed for in the previous MacBook.)
Clearly these executives believe the new Macs represent a milestone in Apple’s strategy. But not its last. I suggest that a future milestone might be silicon customized to enable an augmented reality system, producing the graphics intensity, precision geolocation, and low power consumption that AR spectacles would require. Predictably, the VPs did not comment on that.
Before the conversation ends, I have to ask Joswiak about the now discontinued Touch Bar, the dynamic function-key feature that Apple launched with great fanfare five years ago but that never caught on. Not surprisingly, his postmortem spins it as a great gift to new users. “There’s no doubt that our Pro customers love that full-size, tactile feel of those function keys, and so that’s the decision we made. And we feel great about that,” he says. He points out that for lovers of the Touch Bar, whoever they may be, Apple is still selling the 13-inch—now obsolete—version of the MacBook Pro with the soft keys intact.
The tale of the Touch Bar reminds us that even the best silicon can’t guarantee designers will make the right choices. But as Srouji notes, when done right, it can unleash an infinite number of innovations that could not otherwise exist. Maybe the most telling indicator of Apple’s silicon success this week came not from the launch of the MacBook Pro, but in Google’s unveiling of the Pixel 6 phone. Google boasted that the phone’s key virtues sprang from a decision to follow the path Apple and Srouji forged 14 years ago in building the company’s own chip, the Tensor processor.
“Is this a case of ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?’” I ask the Apple team.
“You took my line!” says Joswiak. “Clearly, they think we’re doing something right.”
“If you were to give Google or some other company friendly advice on their silicon journey, what would it be?” I ask.