Europe's Most Innovative Universities – 2018

For the third year running KU Leuven tops Reuters ranking of Europe’s most innovative universities, a list that identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries. A Dutch-speaking school based in Belgium’s Flanders region KU Leuven was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V and continually produces a high volume of influential inventions. Patents filed by KU scientists are frequently cited by other researchers in academia and in private industry. That’s one of the key criteria in Reuters’ ranking, which was compiled in partnership with Clarivate Analytics, and is based on proprietary data and analysis of patent filings and research paper citations.

1. The library of the university KU Leuven “Katholieke Universiteit Leuven” is pictured in Leuven, Belgium, June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Overall, the most elite ranks of Europe’s Most Innovative Universities have held steady from last year, with the UK’s Imperial College London (#2) and University of Cambridge (#3) holding onto their top spots for the third straight year. Other leading institutions simply traded a few spaces, like the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (#4, up one), University of Erlangen Nuremberg (#5, up one), and the Technical University of Munich (#6, down two). The remainder of the universities in the top 10 moved up from the teens: The University of Manchester (#7, up nine), University of Munich (#8, up four), Technical University of Denmark (#9, up five), and ETH Zurich (#10, up one).

But even though the usual suspects continue to dominate Europe’s Most Innovative Universities, political uncertainty may be causing a big swing in where innovation happens. The trend is most clear if you consider the sum of changes in rank for each country’s institutions: The 23 German universities on this year’s list cumulatively rose 23 spots, more than any other country. Switzerland was second, with five universities up a total of 8 spots. And in contrast, the list’s 21 UK-based universities dropped a cumulative 35 spots.

2. Students walk out of a faculty building of Imperial College London, Britain, May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

Why is this shift occurring? The United Kingdom’s “Brexit” from the European Union is almost a year away, but Europe’s scientific community may already be leaving the UK in favor of research institutions on the continent. A February 2018 study published by the UK-based Centre for Global Higher Education reports that many German academics view Brexit as an “advantage,” and hope to use it to attract UK researchers to German universities; in turn, UK academics report that their own postdocs aren’t seeking positions in the UK and are looking at the EU or United States instead. And as Brexit actually unfolds, it could get worse: A November 2017 study performed by the School of International Futures for the UK’s Royal Society describes a possible post-secession United Kingdom where universities compete for a shrinking pool of skilled workers, projects that used to receive EU funding wither, researchers receive fewer invites to join consortia and attend conferences, and overseas collaboration is limited. Similarly, EU-based businesses that fund research at universities may prefer to keep their investments within the region in order to avoid the tax and regulatory headaches of working with post-Brexit UK institutions.

The government of Germany has also established itself as notably pro-science, increasing federal research budgets and encouraging growth in emerging industries such as renewable energy. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel actually holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry, and worked as a research scientist before she entered politics.) According to a 2017 analysis published in the science journal “Nature,” researchers are “flocking to the country,” in part due to the country’s €4.6-billion “Excellence Initiative,” which has helped to attract at least 4,000 foreign scientists to Germany since 2005. And in 2016, the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG), the country’s main funding agency, allocated a record €2.9 billion in grants, posting a success rate for individual grant proposals higher than comparable UK rates.

Slideshow (8 Images)

This year’s university ranking also shows how smaller countries can have an outsized presence in the world of innovation. Belgium has seven schools on the list, but with a population of only 11 million people, it can boast more top 100 innovative universities per capita than any other country in Europe. On the same per capita basis, the second most innovative country on the list is Switzerland, followed by Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Ireland. And some large countries underperform despite bigger populations and economies. Russia is Europe’s most populous country and boasts the region’s fifth largest economy, yet none of its universities count among the top 100.

To compile the ranking of Europe’s most innovative universities, Clarivate Analytics (formerly the Intellectual Property & Science business of Thomson Reuters) began by identifying more than 600 global organizations that published the most articles in academic journals, including educational institutions, nonprofit charities, and government-funded institutions. That list was reduced to institutions that filed at least 50 patents with the World Intellectual Property Organization in the period between 2011 and 2016. Then they evaluated each candidate on 10 different metrics, focusing on academic papers (which indicate basic research) and patent filings (which point to an institution’s ability to apply research and commercialize its discoveries). Finally, they trimmed the list so that it only included European universities, and then ranked them based on their performance.

Of course, the relative ranking of any university does not provide a complete picture of whether its researchers are doing important, innovative work. Since the ranking measures innovation on an institutional level, it may overlook particularly innovative departments or programs: a university might rank low for overall innovation but still operate one of the world’s most innovative oncology research centers, for instance. And it’s important to remember that whether a university ranks at the top or the bottom of the list, it’s still within the top 100 on the continent: All of these universities produce original research, create useful technology and stimulate the global economy.

To see the full methodology, click here.

(Editing by Arlyn Gajilan and Alessandra Rafferty)

Reuters Top 100: Europe's Most Innovative Universities – 2018

For the third year running KU Leuven tops Reuters ranking of Europe’s most innovative universities, a list that identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries. A Dutch-speaking school based in Belgium’s Flanders region KU Leuven was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V and continually produces a high volume of influential inventions. Patents filed by KU scientists are frequently cited by other researchers in academia and in private industry. That’s one of the key criteria in Reuters’ ranking, which was compiled in partnership with Clarivate Analytics, and is based on proprietary data and analysis of patent filings and research paper citations.

1. The library of the university KU Leuven “Katholieke Universiteit Leuven” is pictured in Leuven, Belgium, June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Overall, the most elite ranks of Europe’s Most Innovative Universities have held steady from last year, with the UK’s Imperial College London (#2) and University of Cambridge (#3) holding onto their top spots for the third straight year. Other leading institutions simply traded a few spaces, like the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (#4, up one), University of Erlangen Nuremberg (#5, up one), and the Technical University of Munich (#6, down two). The remainder of the universities in the top 10 moved up from the teens: The University of Manchester (#7, up nine), University of Munich (#8, up four), Technical University of Denmark (#9, up five), and ETH Zurich (#10, up one).

But even though the usual suspects continue to dominate Europe’s Most Innovative Universities, political uncertainty may be causing a big swing in where innovation happens. The trend is most clear if you consider the sum of changes in rank for each country’s institutions: The 23 German universities on this year’s list cumulatively rose 23 spots, more than any other country. Switzerland was second, with five universities up a total of 8 spots. And in contrast, the list’s 21 UK-based universities dropped a cumulative 35 spots.

2. Students walk out of a faculty building of Imperial College London, Britain, May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

Why is this shift occurring? The United Kingdom’s “Brexit” from the European Union is almost a year away, but Europe’s scientific community may already be leaving the UK in favor of research institutions on the continent. A February 2018 study published by the UK-based Centre for Global Higher Education reports that many German academics view Brexit as an “advantage,” and hope to use it to attract UK researchers to German universities; in turn, UK academics report that their own postdocs aren’t seeking positions in the UK and are looking at the EU or United States instead. And as Brexit actually unfolds, it could get worse: A November 2017 study performed by the School of International Futures for the UK’s Royal Society describes a possible post-secession United Kingdom where universities compete for a shrinking pool of skilled workers, projects that used to receive EU funding wither, researchers receive fewer invites to join consortia and attend conferences, and overseas collaboration is limited. Similarly, EU-based businesses that fund research at universities may prefer to keep their investments within the region in order to avoid the tax and regulatory headaches of working with post-Brexit UK institutions.

The government of Germany has also established itself as notably pro-science, increasing federal research budgets and encouraging growth in emerging industries such as renewable energy. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel actually holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry, and worked as a research scientist before she entered politics.) According to a 2017 analysis published in the science journal “Nature,” researchers are “flocking to the country,” in part due to the country’s €4.6-billion “Excellence Initiative,” which has helped to attract at least 4,000 foreign scientists to Germany since 2005. And in 2016, the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG), the country’s main funding agency, allocated a record €2.9 billion in grants, posting a success rate for individual grant proposals higher than comparable UK rates.

Slideshow (8 Images)

This year’s university ranking also shows how smaller countries can have an outsized presence in the world of innovation. Belgium has seven schools on the list, but with a population of only 11 million people, it can boast more top 100 innovative universities per capita than any other country in Europe. On the same per capita basis, the second most innovative country on the list is Switzerland, followed by Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Ireland. And some large countries underperform despite bigger populations and economies. Russia is Europe’s most populous country and boasts the region’s fifth largest economy, yet none of its universities count among the top 100.

To compile the ranking of Europe’s most innovative universities, Clarivate Analytics (formerly the Intellectual Property & Science business of Thomson Reuters) began by identifying more than 600 global organizations that published the most articles in academic journals, including educational institutions, nonprofit charities, and government-funded institutions. That list was reduced to institutions that filed at least 50 patents with the World Intellectual Property Organization in the period between 2011 and 2016. Then they evaluated each candidate on 10 different metrics, focusing on academic papers (which indicate basic research) and patent filings (which point to an institution’s ability to apply research and commercialize its discoveries). Finally, they trimmed the list so that it only included European universities, and then ranked them based on their performance.

Of course, the relative ranking of any university does not provide a complete picture of whether its researchers are doing important, innovative work. Since the ranking measures innovation on an institutional level, it may overlook particularly innovative departments or programs: a university might rank low for overall innovation but still operate one of the world’s most innovative oncology research centers, for instance. And it’s important to remember that whether a university ranks at the top or the bottom of the list, it’s still within the top 100 on the continent: All of these universities produce original research, create useful technology and stimulate the global economy.

To see the full methodology, click here.

(Editing by Arlyn Gajilan and Alessandra Rafferty)

Flying taxi start-up hires designer behind modern Mini, Fiat 500

LONDON (Reuters) – Lilium, a German start-up with Silicon Valley-scale ambitions to put electric “flying taxis” in the air next decade, has hired Frank Stephenson, the designer behind iconic car brands including the modern Mini, Fiat 500 and McLaren P1.

FILE PHOTO: The McLaren P1 car is pictured during the second media day of the 83rd Geneva Car Show at the Palexpo Arena in Geneva March 6, 2013. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

Lilium is developing a lightweight aircraft powered by 36 electric jet engines mounted on its wings. It aims to travel at speeds of up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour, with a range of 300 km on a single charge, the firm has said.

Founded in 2015 by four Munich Technical University students, the Bavarian firm has set out plans to demonstrate a fully functional vertical take-off electric jet by next year, with plans to begin online booking of commuter flights by 2025.

It is one of a number of companies, from Chinese automaker Geely to U.S. ride-sharing firm Uber, looking to tap advances in drone technology, high-performance materials and automated driving to turn aerial driving – long a staple of science fiction movies like “Blade Runner” – into reality.

Stephenson, 58, who holds American and British citizenship, will join the aviation start-up in May. He lives west of London and will commute weekly to Lilium’s offices outside of Munich. His job is to design a plane on the outside and a car inside.

Famous for a string of hits at BMW, Mini, Ferrari, Maserati, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and McLaren, Stephenson will lead all aspects of Lilium design, including the interior and exterior of its jets, the service’s landing pads and even its departure lounges.

FILE PHOTO: McLaren Design Director Frank Stephenson attends the opening of the McLaren Brussels showroom in Brussels, Belgium, August 25, 2011. REUTERS/Sebastien Pirlet/File Photo

“With Lilium, we don’t have to base the jet on anything that has been done before,” Stephenson told Reuters in an interview.

“What’s so incredibly exciting about this is we’re not talking about modifying a car to take to the skies, and we are not talking about modifying a helicopter to work in a better way.”

Stephenson recalled working at Ferrari a dozen years ago and thinking it was the greatest job a grown-up kid could ever want. But the limits of working at such a storied carmaker dawned on him: “I always had to make a car that looked like a Ferrari”.

His move to McLaren, where he worked from 2008 until 2017, freed him to design a new look and design language from scratch: “That was as good as it gets for a designer,” he said.

Slideshow (6 Images)

Lilium is developing a five-seat flying electric vehicle for commuters after tests in 2017 of a two-seat jet capable of a mid-air transition from hover mode, like drones, into wing-borne flight, like conventional aircraft. (reut.rs/2JgUowk)

Combining these two features is what separates Lilium from rival start-ups working on so-called flying cars or taxis that rely on drone or helicopter-like technologies, such as German rival Volocopter or European aerospace giant Airbus.

“If the competitors come out there with their hovercraft or drones or whatever type of vehicles, they’ll have their own distinctive look,” Stephenson said.

“Let the other guys do whatever they want. The last thing I want to do is anything that has been done before.”

The jet, with power consumption per kilometer comparable to an electric car, could offer passenger flights at prices taxis now charge but at speeds five times faster, Lilium has said.

Nonetheless, flying cars face many hurdles, including convincing regulators and the public that their products can be used safely. Governments are still grappling with regulations for drones and driverless cars.

Lilium has raised more than $101 million in early-stage funding from backers including an arm of China’s Tencent and Atomico and Obvious Ventures, the venture firms, respectively, of the co-founders of Skype and Twitter. (reut.rs/2K8MeaP)

Reporting by Eric Auchard; Editing by Mark Potter

?How to upgrade to Ubuntu Linux 18.04

Video: Learn how to install Linux Mint

Soon, Ubuntu 18.04, aka the Bionic Beaver, and Canonical‘s next long-term support version of its popular Linux distribution will be out. That means it’s about time to consider how to upgrade to the latest and greatest Ubuntu Linux.

First, keep in mind that this Ubuntu will not look or feel like the last few versions. That’s because Ubuntu is moving back to GNOME for its default desktop from Unity. The difference isn’t that big, but if you’re already comfortable with what you’re running, you may want to wait a while before switching over.

Eager to make the move? Well, before starting, you should backup your existing Ubuntu desktop. There are many ways to backup Ubuntu. My favorites for complete system backups are Ubuntu’s default Déjà Dup and CloneZilla. Whichever method you use, you should also check the restore to make certain your backup is good.

Read also: Windows 10: Microsoft to boost Linux app security with Windows Defender firewall | How to install Linux Mint on your Windows PC | Google Fuchsia is not Linux: So, what is it and who will use it? | How to run the native Ubuntu desktop on Windows 10

Ubuntu 18.04 GNOME interface

Ubuntu 18.04’s default interface has changed from Unity to GNOME.

(Image: SJVN)

Next, if you want to do this from the GUI, take the following steps:

  • Open the “Software & Updates” setting in System Settings.
  • Select the third tab, called “Updates.”
  • Set the “Notify me of a new Ubuntu version” dropdown menu to “For any new version.”
  • Press Alt+F2 and type in “update-manager -cd” (without the quotes) into the command box.
  • Update Manager should open up and tell you: New distribution release ‘18.04’ is available.
    • If not, you can also use “/usr/lib/ubuntu-release-upgrader/check-new-release-gtk”.
  • Click Upgrade and follow the on-screen instructions.

That’s really all there is to it.

If you’d rather use a shell, you start with the commands:

$ sudo apt update

$ sudo apt upgrade

This makes sure your Ubuntu is up to date. Next, follow this up with:

$ sudo apt dist-upgrade

This handles changing software dependencies with new versions of packages.

I then follow this up with:

$ sudo apt-get autoremove

This removes dependencies from uninstalled applications. You can do the same thing from the GUI desktop with the utility application Bleachbit. After that, it’s time to get things ready for the big upgrade with:

$ sudo apt install update-manager-core

Finally:

$ sudo do-release-upgrade

This will start upgrading your system to 18.04. Along the way, Ubuntu will ask you several questions about how to handle the upgrade.

If you just can’t wait for the final release, you can already move up to the beta by using this command:

$ sudo do-release-upgrade -d

The entire update from Ubuntu 16.04 to 18.04 consists of 1GB of data. So, you’ll want to do this either when you have a lot of time or a fast internet connection.

I was able to upgrade my systems, which had been running 17.10 and 16.04, during my lunch hour. In short, upgrading Ubuntu shouldn’t take you long at all.

Related stories

Facebook Accused of Ignoring Government Warnings Before Mob Violence in Sri Lanka

Angry mobs of Buddhists in Sri Lanka last month attacked minority Muslims, burning mosques and killing at least one. Those riots appear to have been triggered in part by false stories spread on Facebook and WhatsApp. And despite efforts by governments and nonprofits to alert them to the mounting risk, Facebook is accused of doing next to nothing to remove clear incitements to violence in the weeks leading up to the attacks.

The sequence of events in Sri Lanka is detailed in a bruising new report by the New York Times, which threatens to undermine Facebook’s longstanding claim to be a force for good in the world. At their heart were allegations of a plot by Muslim Sri Lankans to sterilize the country’s Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority, supported by a false story on Facebook saying that police had seized 23,000 sterilization pills from a Muslim pharmacist in the town of Ampara.

In an episode eerily reminiscent of reactions to the Hillary Clinton Pizzagate conspiracy theory, those stories led a mob of Buddhists to storm a Muslim-owned restaurant in the town of Ampara, falsely claiming its food was laced with drugs. The exchange exploded into beatings, rioting, and mosque-burning. Video of those events was also uploaded to Facebook, feeding further violence and the death of a 27-year-old aspiring journalist.

Aside from the brutal violence itself, the most disturbing part of the Times report is the allegation that Facebook, which has no offices in Sri Lanka, ignored or deflected repeated attempts by government officials and nonprofit monitors to intervene in a growing storm of hatred. As early as October of 2017, Sri Lankan officials pleaded with Facebook to better police hate speech, hire more Sinhalese-speaking content screeners, and establish a direct point of contact with local authorities.

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Instead, Facebook insisted its content-flagging tool would be enough to alert the company to dangerous content. Members of a Sri Lankan group called the Center for Policy Alternatives did as recommended, repeatedly flagging posts including messages such as “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.” But “nearly every report,” according to the Times, was deemed to not violate Facebook’s standards. According to the Times, Facebook still has not filled around 25 positions for Sinhalese screeners that have been open since June.

The violence in Sri Lanka mirrors similar events in Myanmar, India, Mexico, and even the United States. They strike at the heart of Facebook’s utopian promise to connect people, showing that such connections can spread violent hatred as quickly as cute baby pictures.

Ethnic and religious resentments are not created by Facebook. But as the Times points out, Facebook’s core structure – including an algorithm that prioritizes content that gets the most engagement – may help foment outrage and tribalism. In nations with weak legal systems, citizens may be more likely to take justice into their own hands.

“The germs are ours,” as one Sri Lankan official told the Times, referring to the sectarian devisions in Sri Lanka, “but Facebook is the wind, you know?”

Australia competition regulator flags scrutiny of Uber Eats

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The head of Australia’s competition regulator said on Monday it will scrutinize contracts between Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] and restaurants that use its food delivery app Uber Eats.

FILE PHOTO – A bag of donuts destined for delivery via Uber Eats is rushed to a driver from a kitchen in Sydney August 12, 2016. Picture taken August 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Reed

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on Sunday several restaurateurs were disgruntled with contract terms they said left them, and not Uber, responsible for late deliveries despite being charged by Uber for the service.

“Certainly, we’ll have a look at it,” Rod Sims, head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, told ABC radio on Monday when asked about the report.

“We have three bits of the law we can deal with here. One is business to business – are they misleading the people they’re dealing with? Two is: Are they engaged in unconscionable conduct, putting all the conduct together? And thirdly are the terms with which they work unfair? So, there’s a lot to look at there,” he said.

FILE PHOTO – An Uber driver takes delivery of bags of donuts destined for a customer via Uber Eats in Sydney, August 12, 2016. Picture taken August 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Uber, which is backed by Japan’s SoftBank Group, said Uber Eats is merely a “marketplace that connects restaurants with delivery partners” and that its terms and conditions are “consistent with Australian law”.

“Restaurants aren’t locked in, just like delivery partners and eaters. Uber Eats is just one option. If a restaurant does not wish to use the app, they do not have to,” an Uber East spokeswoman said in a statement.

Uber, which is preparing for a potential initial public offering in 2019, lost $4.5 billion last year and is facing fierce competition at home in the United States as well as a regulatory crackdown in Europe where governments have been leery of the company’s impact on the traditional taxi industry.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Stephen Coates

A 15% Yield With A Discounted Buyout Backdoor

We went wandering down the back alleyways of MLP land this week and came across another very interesting buyout deal.

Southcross Energy Partners LP (SXE), a smaller midstream LP, is being acquired by American Midstream Partners LP (AMID). The deal is supposed to close in Q2 ’18, relatively soon. The buyout already has been approved by SXE’s common unitholders.

“Public unitholders of SXE will receive 0.160 AMID common units for each SXE common unit in a unit-for-unit merger, which is anticipated to have minimal, if any, tax recognition for such unitholders.” (Source: AMID site)

There’s currently a discount available for AMID via buying SXE units, which have a conversion factor of 6.25X into AMID units, post buyout.

At today’s price of $1.72 for SXE, this equals a $10.75 price for AMID, which is 7.33% discount:

This $10.75 discount current conversion price gives you a whopper of a yield, at 15.35%, and some upside potential. However, you won’t receive the upcoming distribution from AMID, unless the deal somehow gets closed by next Friday, 4/27/18, AMID’s next ex-dividend date.

AMID pays in the usual MLP Feb/May/Aug/Nov cycle, so, as an SXE converted AMID unitholder, your first payout wouldn’t be until ~8/3/18. AMID’S management is targeting 1.1x distribution coverage post-buyout. Unitholders get a K-1 at tax time.

Transformation:

Deal highlights – Among many other positive attributes, AMID’s management sees this deal as being immediately accretive to AMID’s distributable cash flow.

(Source: AMID site)

This makes sense – SXE used to pay $.40/unit quarterly but eliminated its payout in February 2016. However, SXE generated $2.39/unit in DCF in 2017. Add this to AMID’s $1.75/unit generated in 2017, and it gives you $4.14/unit vs. AMID’s total distributions/unit of $1.65 in 2017.

These numbers won’t be exactly the same in 2018, but that big cushion certainly gives management a lot of leeway moving forward and makes us believe that AMID should be able to at least maintain its current $.4125 quarterly payout and ultimately increase it, if the market rewards the company’s transformation efforts and bids up AMID’s price/unit.

AMID’s management has been selling off non-core assets but has made a series of acquisitions in order to transform the company into a more stable cash flow model.

(Source: AMID site)

The downside to this is that, as with any ongoing divestiture and acquisition process, the company will experience negative growth for a certain period, as it loses the earnings of sold assets, before the new assets start contributing to earnings. This is what happened in 2017:

Valuations:

Take a look at SXE’s current valuations – they’re the lowest we’ve ever seen in the midstream space – a price/DCF of just .72, a price/book of .17, and a price/sales of just .13.

It’s easy to see why AMID management went after this deal:

Analysts’ Targets:

The other plus about buying SXE at ~$1.72 (which equals a post-buyout conversion discounted price of $10.75) is that your cost is under analysts’ lowest price target for AMID, of $11.00. AMID is currently 26.47% below analysts’ average price target of $14.67.

Risks:

Debt Leverage: AMID’s 2017 10K states that, as of 12/31/17, AMID’s total leverage ratio was 5.23X. However, we came up with a higher figure of 6.8X. One of the distinctions that management makes is not counting non-recourse debt in its presentations – they refer to “compliance leverage”:

(Source: AMID 2017 10-K)

We put together a table which compares our figures with AMID’s post-buyout projections. Management is targeting 4.5X debt leverage and $300M in EBITDA after the buyout, with a goal of reaching 3.5X within 18 months. This implies that they won’t be taking on more debt, and that EBITDA should ramp up to ~$385M within 18 months.

Summary:

We rate SXE a buy, based upon the current buyout discount price, its very low valuations, and the upcoming, post-buyout yield, which will be well-covered. An additional plus is that a veteran energy investing firm with deep pockets, Arclight Partners, owns a ~27% of AMID’s units.

(Source: NASDAQ)

(All images by Double Dividend Stocks, unless otherwise noted.)

Disclosure: I am/we are long SXE.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Cyber Saturday—How Facebook and GDPR Propelled an Underdog to Victory at RSA Conference

Happy Saturday, dear readers.

Earlier this year I noted that Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, would be a big topic of conversation at this year’s RSA Conference, the biggest hobnobbing affair in the cybersecurity industry. I could not have foreseen how scandal after data privacy scandal at Facebook would intensify the discussion.

At this year’s ever entertaining “innovation sandbox contest,” a startup competition and hallmark of the conference, a little-known, New York City-based concern called BigID capitalized on the zeitgeist. The company, which had just eight employees as recently as December (mostly engineers in Israel), pitched itself differently than the typical cybersecurity marketing spiel. There was nary a mention of “detection,” “defense,” or “artificial intelligence.”

“I’m with BigID and our big idea is that privacy matters,” said Dimitri Sirota, CEO and cofounder of the firm, taking the stage. He explained that his company’s technology indexes business’s private data, maps out the inter-relationships between databases, and helps identify what companies need to do to comply with data regulations in different parts of the world.

“Ours was understandable,” Sirota told me later on a call. “You didn’t have to have a PhD in computer science to get what we did. It was accessible to the audience and judges.”

Sirota’s clarity of thinking was apparent to me years ago, back when he was heading up the security business at CA Technologies. In 2014, he livened up a panel I moderated at an enterprise security summit. A couple years later, Sirota strolled into Fortune’s offices clad in a black leather jacket and told me his plan to build a business around data privacy and compliance. Looks like he had the right idea at exactly the right time.

“Big data is almost like this atomic collider—smash all this data together to get value from it,” as Sirota put it on our recent call. “No one has been thinking of stewardship or custody or management of that information.”

Now everyone is thinking about it. With British officials raiding the offices of embattled political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, Mark Zuckerberg bending the knee before congress, and GDPR set to go into effect next month, no story holds greater sway in techland. It’s no surprise BigID took home the crown.

Dream big and have a great weekend.

Robert Hackett

@rhhackett

[email protected]

Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’sdaily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach Robert Hackett via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my about.me), PGP encrypted email (see public key on my Keybase.io), Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.

How to Build Custom Alexa Skills for the Amazon Echo

When Amazon first introduced developer tools that let people build stuff for Alexa, the company made a conscious decision to call these functions “skills” rather than apps. It was a subtle way of making Alexa seem capable, and also, suggesting to developers that building these skills would be a low lift. With just a “few lines of code,” Amazon promised, “you can build entirely new experiences designed around voice.”

Amazon says most Echo users in the US have tried these third-party skills at least once, but getting them to work can be tricky. Alexa’s voice skills often require super specific queries, and until Amazon started paying attention to the discovery process, taking the time to find new skills felt like a non-essential burden.

Now, Amazon has decided to make Alexa’s skills all about you: your dad jokes, your homework, your birthday. Yesterday the company rolled out a tool called Blueprints, which helps anyone—even non-coders—build custom skills for their Echos.

Amazon

Amazon

The announcement felt like a curious little leap in the world of virtual assistance. (Can you imagine Apple letting people program Siri to say whatever they want?) It also seemed like a gimmick, but a good one—one that could encourage more people to embrace skills.

The website for Blueprints lists 21 different skills, categorized by topics like “fun and games,” “home,” and “storytelling.” Annoyingly, the banner in the Alexa mobile app for Blueprints leads you to the mobile web, and at some point you’ll have to log into your Amazon account again. You also have to agree to Amazon’s terms for developers before you can make a new skill. Congrats! You’re a dev.

The Blueprints are not quite as customizable as you might think. Think of them more like Mad Libs for pre-existing Alexa narratives. Using the “family jokes” template, you can type in a joke like, “You know who would like a pet owl?” and then add the punchline, “Who?” You can also start a joke with “When I wake up” and teach Alexa to complete it with “Well you know I’m gonna be, I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you.” I’m not saying I did those things, because that would be incredibly corny. But you could.

You can also leave custom voice message for people, like an incoming houseguest or a pet sitter. But they’ll have to know the exact prompt to use in order to get that message. So you might end up texting your guest anyway, or leaving them a written note, and while you’re at it you might as well just mention that you’ve switched the cat’s food again or that the towels are in the third closet down the hall and at that point, why create a custom Blueprint for Alexa?

Still, I could see couples or families using this feature to leave private voice messages for each other. You can also program Alexa to pay you a personalized compliment.

There are a few restrictions: Alexa won’t swear. Try to program a custom response with profanity and the Blueprint will ask you to remove the offending word. (I tried twice.) The Blueprints also leave a lot of room for interpretation. You could, for example, create a question like “Who is the president?” and have Alexa respond that it’s Barack Obama. If you go back to asking Alexa a more generic question, one you haven’t personally programmed, like “Who is the leader of the US?”, Alexa will then correctly say Donald Trump.

And even after you’ve built these skills, you have to ask the questions verbatim. I built a Q&A asking whether the cat is hungry. (The answer is always yes.) By the time I processed that and other skills, I forgot the exact question I had written, and had to go back into my Blueprints to find the right terminology. Those verbal gymnastics can make it difficult to use the skills you’ve created.

But these personalized responses are by far the closest brush I’ve had with non-Amazon skills since I’ve been using Echo devices. Amazon says engagement with Alexa skills grew more than 50 percent from January 2017 to January 2018, and that there are more than 40,000 skills currently available. I have no reason to doubt this; this just hasn’t been the case for me.

I often use Alexa to access timers, music, and news; I’ve also used it to buy household goods, and at one point, to trigger my coffee maker. But I’ve never used Alexa to order a pizza, or to call an Uber—the third-party skills that are supposed to nudge voice into the future. Voice computing just hasn’t made sense when I’ve wanted to see the thing I’m ordering, or track the car as it’s pulling up to my house. But at the same time, I could see how adding custom-made, hyper-personal responses could drive even more of this kind of engagement with Alexa, especially since other smart home speakers don’t really do this.

My Blueprints test was brief, and yet it was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had so far with a virtual personal assistant at home. That’s probably because it enabled the “personal” part of that whole equation. The home bots may someday be our overlords, but at least we can program them to say ridiculous things in the meantime.

Hey, Alexa

DNC Lawsuit Against Russia Reveals New Details About 2016 Hack

The Democratic National Committee Friday filed a lawsuit against a broad slate of people and entities allegedly responsible for the 2016 hack of its email, phone calls, and more. But while the suit claims involvement from a host of headliners—Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Donald Trump, Jr., and Russia among them—its immediate importance lies in the previously unreported timeline it lays out.

While a rough outline of the DNC hack that rocked the 2016 election had previously been established, the 66-page lawsuit, first reported by The Washington Post gives exact dates for the first time. It also asserts coordination among a web of characters affiliated with the Trump campaign, Russia’s GRU intelligence service, and WikiLeaks.

“No one is above the law,” the suit begins. “In the run-up to the 2016 election, Russia mounted a brazen attack on American Democracy.”

The details of when and how that attack occurred, though, are more clear than ever—and may indicate that Russia’s plan to interfere in the US election predated its DNC intrusion.

According to the DNC lawsuit, Russian intelligence group Cozy Bear—the GRU-affiliated hacker group, also known as APT29—infiltrated the DNC network as far back as July 27, 2015, nearly a year before the leaks of the pilfered material began. The suit says that a second Russian group—Fancy Bear, the outfit that has recently tormented the International Olympic Committee as well—hacked the DNC’s systems on April 18, 2016. The DNC wouldn’t notice the presence of either until April 28, 2016, at which point it called in security firm CrowdStrike to help analyze and mitigate the damage.

The remedy was costly. The suit details the necessary fixes; the DNC had to “decommission more than 140 servers, remove and reinstall all software, including the operating systems, for more than 180 computers, and rebuild least 11 servers.” Between repairing and replacing equipment and hiring experts to manage the fallout, the bill came out to over a million dollars.

By then, of course, the worst damage had already been done. The DNC had been devastatingly compromised. The Russians had gained access not only to email systems but also to backup servers, VOIP calls, and chats. They were prepared to make off with “several gigabytes of data,” the suit says, a little over a week before the DNC even knew they were there.

The timeline from there has been a matter of public record. On June 14, the DNC first disclosed the hack. The following day, a persona going by Guccifer 2.0—only recently confirmed to be a Russian intelligence agent—claimed responsibility, leaking a 237-page opposition research report on Donald Trump in the process.

The leaks continued steadily from there, as the suit details. Guccifer 2.0 struck again on June 27, June 30, and July 6. On July 22, WikiLeaks took the wheel, releasing nearly 20,000 internal DNC emails. The following day, according to the suit, multiple DNC employees received an email that said: “I hope your children get raped and murdered. I hope your family knows nothing but suffering, torture, and death.”

The rest of the suit rehashes the connections that have played out in the press over the last several months, alleging Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and a host of Russians as ingredients in a collusive soup. But for close observers of Russia’s hacking efforts against the US in 2015 and beyond, it’s the timeline that provides the most valuable information.

That’s in part because of how it aligns with two incidents not mentioned in the suit. Many of the early leaks appeared on a site called DCLeaks, which went live in June 2016 but was registered on April 19, which the suit confirms was a day after Fancy Bear broke into the DNC. But the same group that registered DCLeaks had attempted but failed to register ElectionLeaks.com on April 12, nearly a week before the Fancy Bear hack.

The timeline strongly implies that Russia’s aim was to disrupt the election from the start, rather than a reconnaissance mission that rapidly escalated.

“They had already carried out the Podesta intrusion in March, and carried out a pretty large scale attempt to target the campaigns,” says John Hultquist, director of threat intelligence at security firm FireEye, referring to the emails of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which were ultimately leaked a month before the 2016 election. That, combined with registering ElectionLeaks before the Fancy Bear break-in, “suggests they had this plan prior to even compromising the organization.”

It’s unclear how likely the DNC lawsuit is to succeed, especially in its efforts to hold Russia accountable in a US court. But its revelations shed light on one of the most impactful hacks of recent memory—and maybe the intentions of the country behind it.

Russian Hacks