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Fire-Spotting Satellite Designed to Help Snuff Out Wildfires

A fire-spotting satellite looking down on the Western United States could help firefighters stamp out small brushfires before they become deadly blazes that destroy hundreds of homes and can cost the U.S. government between US $1 billion and $2 billion each year in suppression costs alone. Such technology also aims to reduce the number of tragedies such as Yarnell, Arizona fire that killed a group of 19 firefighters this summer.

The FUEGO (Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit) satellite might pay for itself within just one firefighting season despite costing an estimated several hundred million dollars, said Carl Pennypacker, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley and scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in a press release. Pennypacker recalled the deadly 1991 Oakland fire that destroyed more than 3000 homes in Berkeley and Oakland, killed 25 people, and resulted in $1.5 billion in economic damage.

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Hospital To Use Microfluid Prototype For Diagnosing Tumors

Chemist Emmanuel Delamarche held a thin slice of human thyroid tissue on a glass slide between his fingers. The tissue poses a mystery: does it contain a tumor or not? Delamarche, who works at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, turned the slide around in his hand as he explained that the normal method of diagnosing a tumor involves splashing a chemical reagent, some of which are expensive, onto the uneven surface of the tissue and watching for it to react with disease markers. A pathologist "looks at them under a microscope, and he's using his expertise, his judgment, and looks at what chemical he used, what type of color he can see and what part and he has to come up with a diagnosis," Delamarche says, "he has a very, very hard job, OK?"

IBM is already good at precise application of materials to flat surfaces such as computer chips. Human tissue, sliced thin enough, turns out to receptive to the company's bag of tricks too. Delamarche, turning to one of three machines on lab benches, explained that a few years ago his team began trying to deliver reagents with more precision. University Hospital Zurich will be testing the results over the next few months.

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Demo Fall, or Dave Eggers’ The Circle?

“Sharing needs to happen without thinking, we believe that thinking is overrated,” said Sachin Dev Duggal, cofounder of Shoto, a San Francisco company introducing a mobile sharing app at DemoFall 2013, held last week in Santa Clara, Calif.

“In a world where everything is connected, there is no downtime, we are always working,” said Erick Schonfeld, executive producer of the Demo conference.

“Not having to talk to people is huge,” said Josh Elman, a venture capitalist with Greylock partners and one of the judges of Demo, touting the convenience of some mobile apps over real-world interaction.

I hadn’t been at DemoFall for more than an hour, and I was feeling an odd sense of déjà vu—not that I’d seen these speakers before, but that I’d read their words—in excerpts from the hot Silicon Valley novel, The Circle. And this was a little disturbing.

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Google Uses Minecraft to Teach Quantum Physics Rules

Google thinks it can get kids hooked on the wacky world of quantum physics early on by using the popular game Minecraft. The Internet giant has unveiled a game mod designed to help millions of Minecraft players become familiar with the strangeness of quantum physics rules that appear to defy reality.

The new game mod, called qCraft, allows Minecraft players to mess around with quantum rules such as superposition, entanglement, and observational dependency. These tricks would allow players to create quantum teleporters, make entangled Minecraft blocks that can both be affected simultaneously by changing the properties of just one block, and build castle drawbridges that vanish when seen from different perspectives.

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How Wetware Can Help Hardware Makers Beat Moore's Law, Save Energy

Humans may not use all of the brain's computing capacity, but they do use most of the cranium for computing, according to biophysicist Bruno Michel at IBM's Zurich research laboratory. Co-located cortices and capillaries keep our neurons powered and cooled with minimal fuss. Yet today's computers dedicate around 60 percent of their volume to getting electricity in and heat out compared to perhaps 1 percent in a human brain, Michel estimates. Last week in Zurich, he told journalists about IBM's long-term plan to help computers achieve human-like space- and energy efficiency. The tool: a kind of electronic blood.

Liquid cooling has been on the market since Cray tried it on for size in 1985. The technique hit consumer computers in the 1990s, though it remains a custom, quirky, or high-end option. During the era of Moore's Law, the easiest way to bring down the price of computing has been to fit more transistors on a chip. But a lesser-known limit lurked in the background: Rent's Rule, which noted a logarithmic relationship between the number of logic units in a computer and the number of communications gates between them. In other words, packing in more logic requires packing in a lot more communication. More communication means a need for more energy in and more heat out.

Michel describes that as the bottleneck for supercomputing: "In the future we are worried about the energy bill and not about the purchase cost of a computer. So we want to squeeze as much as we can out of a watt or joule and not out of a silicon chip." he says.

Today's computer chips get their electric current from tiny copper wires and dissipate heat into surrounding air that bulky and energy-hungry air conditioners must whisk away. The need for continuous air flow means chip designers have stuck to a more or less flat design. Water's much higher heat-carrying capacity make it possible to shunt heat away from chip components that are much, much closer together. The upshot: they could be stacked on top of one another in a three-dimensional arrangement much like the brain's. That would give the chip shorter communication distances, too, further reducing the amount of heat generated.

Cool. But not that cool. IBM's SuperMUC cools its chips with water at 45 degrees Celsius. You wouldn't want to spill any on your hand, but it's still cool enough to bring down a computer chip's temperature. Michel says that the hot water from a water-cooled 10-megawatt data center could heat 700 homes via district heating, which is common in Europe. IBM set up a first working example of a heat-recycling liquid-cooled supercomputer, called Aquasar, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH). If it works on a larger scale, it would save energy in two places: less energy would be needed to cool the computer in the first place, and some of the energy spent could be reused to heat homes.

Getting electricity in via a liquid is more complicated. Patrick Ruch, a colleague of Michel's at IBM in Zurich, and others are examining vanadium as a potential electrolyte for a redox flow battery. This is a concept used more often for storing energy from variable power sources such as solar panels or wind power, due to its low cost and scalability. But it has a low energy density compared to some other batteries. Ruch, who began the project this year, has his work cut out for him. He says, "the goal is to be able to provide a substantial amount of the power that the microprocessor needs by this electrochemical solution."

Photo: IBM Research

Elon Musk Plans to Make His 007 Submarine Car Real

Most car collectors would relish the chance to buy the submarine car prop from a 1970s James Bond film and keep it for their eyes only. But mere ownership is not enough for Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, who wants to make the Hollywood sci-fi dream into a real working vehicle.

The submarine car prop is a car only in name with fins, propellers and no wheels. It represented the working submarine version of several prop vehicles used to depict the Lotus Esprit that served as 007's transforming ride from the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me—a fantastical vision that inspired Musk to secretly buy the vehicle for US $967,120 at auction in September. Musk has now revealed his plans to upgrade his purchase in an attempt to make a vehicle capable of driving on roads as well as traveling underwater, according to USA Today.

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Deep-Sea Internet Could Send Tsunami Warnings to Smartphones

Electrical Engineering Graduate Students Hovannes Kulhandjian and Zahed Hossain conduct a wireless network field test aboard University of Buffalo professor Tommaso Melodia’s floating WINES Research Lab [photo, above].

Ocean sensors designed to detect tsunamis, spot drug-running submarines and monitor pollution could soon transmit their warnings to mobile devices through a deep-sea version of the Internet. The U.S. National Science Foundation is backing an effort to make a shared standard for wireless underwater communication that can link far-flung networks of existing ocean sensors.

The U.S. Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) already have huge networks of ocean sensors that use sound waves rather than radio waves for effective underwater communication. A shared standard for such undersea wireless networks could make way for the transmission of data across existing and future networks to anyone carrying a laptop, tablet or smartphone—allowing both scientists and ordinary people to see warnings and updated information in real-time.

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NSA's Data Center Electrical Problems Aren't That Shocking

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that arc-fault failures—electrical problems that exceed the protective capabilities of circuit breakers and cause metal to melt and go flying—are delaying completion of the NSA’s controversial new Utah data-storage center. The article reported that 10 such meltdowns over the past 13 months had led to disputes about the adequacy of the electric control systems, and suggested that designers and builders of the new data center may have cut corners.

A report from the design and construction team on exactly what is going on at the NSA Utah data center is pending; meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers has also been investigating, and has indicated that the causes of most of the failures remain a mystery.

So we’ll have to wait a bit for more details. But the NSA’s problems raise questions that extend beyond the Utah center or the NSA itself. We’re putting more and more of our data in the cloud daily, driving the construction of bigger and bigger data centers. Should we expect more data center fires in the future, or is the NSA situation unique?

For some answers, I turned to Dennis Symanski, a senior project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), whose research focuses on energy use in data centers.

First, I wanted to make sure I really understood the arc-fault problem. Symanski explained:

"A circuit breaker tries to open up, but the amperage is higher than it can handle, so when the contacts open it doesn’t break the circuit. Instead, you have an arc that is moving around between the contacts; it has huge magnetic forces to it, and it can’t be easily extinguished. You end up with molten metal flying around which is extremely dangerous."

Then I needed to understand just how complex a data center’s power design can be. Symanski walked me through a typical setup:

"You’ve got normal utility power coming into the back of the building, say, at whatever the distribution voltage is—it could be 23 kV, it could be 12 kV. That power hopefully is coming from two independent substations, so if there is a problem with one substation you can continue to feed power from the other substation. That power goes into a transformer that steps the power down to 3-phase 480 volts. Normally you also have a couple of diesel generators for backup power, in case all the utility goes away. That all ties in to metal clad switch gear; this is where the circuit breakers are located; it is metal clad so that if there is an arc fault somewhere it is contained.

The power from the substations and the diesel generators all goes into an uninterruptible power supply that converts the AC to DC and stores reserve power in batteries and then converts it back to AC again. The AC power is stepped down, typically to 208 volts in the U.S., then it goes into the power supplies in back of servers and storage arrays. These power supplies convert it to 380 volt DC. From there, it is converted within the server or storage array to all the different voltages you need, like 12 volts DC for fan, 5 volts for disk drives, 3.3 volts for memory."

An arc fault typically occurs inside the metal clad switch gear, where the power levels are the highest. But, Symanski says, it can happen downstream, if equipment designed for too low a current is installed, though that is less likely.

Why haven’t we heard much about arc faults in data centers before? The typical data center at a company, government office, or educational institution is using older, proven, designs, and dealing with far less power, says Symanski.

But companies like Google, Amazon, and, lately, the NSA, are entering uncharted waters in terms of data center design. Symanski explains:

"These new data centers are trying to push the envelope as far as efficiency and space. The electrical load of the computers is going up; some of these have hundreds of thousands of servers, some of these servers have six power cords going into them or some have massive supercomputers drawing 10 megawatts each. They are using huge amounts of power."

The NSA data center, for example, continuously uses 65 megawatts, according to the Wall Street Journal. A more typical large data center today uses about 20 megawatts. The data centers of the dot-com era used 1 or 2 megawatts.

When you’re pushing the envelope, startup problems, even as many as the NSA has, aren’t unheard of, Symanski says.

"In the startup phase, when you start energizing things, you typically find problems, unless this is the 14th identical facility you’ve designed and built using the exact equipment from the same manufacturer. Hopefully you can fix them, and it’s a one-time fix; sometimes you have recurring problems.  I can’t tell you whether any number is higher than expected.

You design these things with a little bit of margin involved in everything, but sometimes your calculations are a little off. And you are more apt to be a little off if you are designing something that is truly unique and bigger and more dense than ever before. That’s what makes engineering tough."

Symanski would like to get data center designers to think about using less power, which would both benefit the environment and improve reliability.

"All of these new data centers are doing a quite good job with cooling efficiency. But they need to do a better job of having electronic equipment—the servers, the storage arrays, the networking gear—be more efficient as well. To do so, they can take some of the already known technology from battery operated smart phones and smart tablets and start incorporating that into data centers."

Another way to improve data center efficiency and reliability, Symanski suggests, is setting up the entire data center computing facility to run on a DC network.

"With a 380-volt DC setup you have less equipment, you don’t need some of the conversion steps that require additional electronic devices that do fail, and you’ll have less losses, so you are running a more efficient and reliable system."

Teeny Tiny Pacemaker Fits Inside the Heart

A tiny pacemaker that doesn't need wires to stimulate the heart has been approved for sale in the European Union. It's the world's first wireless pacemaker to hit the market. This device, which is about the size and shape of a AAA battery, is designed to be inserted into the heart in a non-invasive procedure that would take about a half-hour. 

The device was developed by a secretive California startup called Nanostim, which was just acquired by the biomedical device company St. Jude Medical. The company will have to do more clinical trials before the device can be submitted for approval to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Today's pacemakers are already pretty small—about the size of three poker chips stacked up—but to insert one a surgeon has to cut open a patient to install the device near the heart, and then connect the wires, called leads, to provide electrical stimulation to the heart muscle. Those leads are often the source of the problem when pacemakers fail. The tiny wires can fracture or move as the heart beats continuously, and St. Jude has had several pacemakers recalled as a result of faulty leads.

The Nanostim device is put in place via a steerable catheter that's inserted into the femoral artery. The tiny pacemaker is attached to the inside of a heart chamber, where it can directly stimulate the muscle. The animation below (no audio) demonstrates the insertion procedure. 

St. Jude says the pacemaker's battery should last for 9 to 13 years, and says that the pacemaker can be removed and replaced in a similar procedure to the insertion. 

The market for such a device is large: More than 4 million people worldwide now have a pacemaker or a similar device to manage their cardiac rhythms, and 700 000 new patients receive such devices each year. 

Image and animation: St. Jude Medical

Top Websites Secretly Track Your Device Fingerprint

Websites that really want to track you without permission have a way. A new report shows a surprising number of top Internet websites using so-called "device fingerprints" to secretly track visitors—a method that avoids legal limits on the use of cookies and also ignores the Do Not Track HTTP header.

The new report suggests that such secret tracking of Web users is more widespread than previous studies had found, according to researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium and New York University (NYU). Researchers counted 95 of the top 10 000 websites using device fingerprinting targeted at the Flash browser plugin used to play animations, videos, and sound files. They also found 404 of the top 1 million websites used device fingerprinting targeted at the JavaScript programming language used in web applications. Such fingerprinting can identify users on mobile phones and other devices that may not use Flash.

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