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A Truly Green Greenland in Human Time Arrests Mind

Perhaps nothing beats the Sahara for feelings of timelessness and unboundedness, but surely the worldâ''s icy deserts take second place in the metaphysical imagination. Itâ''s more than a little disconcerting to learn then, in the June 20 issue of Science magazine, that just 400,000 years agoâ''well into the era in which modern humans were evolvingâ''the southern reaches of Greenland were not just green but covered with vast spruce forests. A second article in the same issue discusses two very sudden warmings Greenland experienced 15 thousand and 11 thousand years ago, while a perspective piece addresses the implications of Greenlandâ''s climate changes for tomorrowâ''s world.

Nanotech Woes and the Oil Crisis as a Savior

With prices for a barrel of oil around $130 and Americans facing $4-a-gallon fuel prices at the pump, people are getting really worried. As well they should be. Here in Spain, a truckersâ'' strike to protest the rising price of diesel over the last six months resulted in gas stations without fuel and grocery stores with empty shelves within just 3 short days.

But not to worry, technology will fix all this, right? The optimist in me says, â''maybe a little.â'' And the pessimist in me says, â''It wonâ''t be nearly enough.â''

With this thinking as a backdrop, I came across a recent editorial piece from Allan Shalleck at Nanotech-Now "Near Term Nanotech Profits from Fuel and Transportation". The article basically laments how after years of investment (and I might add, hype) nanotechnology companies are still not producing the kind of profits that would make most businessmen, and in particular Wall Street types, take notice.

Shalleck urges that companies involved in nanotech should really be focusing their efforts in the energy and transportation sectors. If they do, Shalleck reasons, they will be raking in the profits.

Sounds reasonable enough. But the biggest story over the last few years in nano-enabled fuel additives that improve efficiency: Oxonicaâ''s Enviroxâ'¢, has turned into a legal battle with Neuftec over IP issues, and looks to be causing Oxonicaâ'¿well letâ''s call it difficulties.

If Enviroxâ'¢ is an example of how easy it is to come up with a nano-enabled fuel additive and have people knocking down your door to give you money, then we should expect it to be a bumpy road getting these solutions to market.

I also came across this recent announcement from Industrial Nanotech Inc. that claims its Chinese distributor has begun working with a major Asian automotive manufacturer to trial the company's patented NanoBoostâ'¢ automotive parts coating for heat control and increased fuel efficiency.

Ah yes, â''the trialâ''. I guess you have to see if the stuff actually works. This distills what has really been ailing nanotechâ''s economics: a lack of patience.

But on the positive side, nanotech doesnâ''t need to worry about being on technology push side of the equation anymore. There is certainly market pull now. Whether it will be able to show economic results fast enough to satisfy Wall Street types almost seems inconsequential in the face of whether it will be able to meet the market demand for fuel savings.

Study: Surfing the Web on Company Time Is a Good Thing

If you're reading this item instead of pressing your nose to the old grindstone at work, relax. You're hardly alone. In fact, your boss is probably doing it, too. According to a new study, not only is "cyberslacking" not wasting time, it's actually productive over the long run.

As explained in this article from the Associated Press, using the Internet for personal reasons can help workers balance job and life responsibilities. And everyone on up the totem pole in the workplace seems to be engaging in the practice on the sly, from entry-level employees to senior managers.

The study, based on a phone survey of 1024 people during the summer of 2006, was published in this month's issue of the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior. In their paper, "On cyberslacking: Workplace status and personal Internet use at work," authors R. K. Garrett and J. N. Danziger reveal that, despite the efforts of some firms to monitor personal Web and e-mail use during business hours, employees have grown accustomed to these outlets as part of their routine. They even benefit the employer: with lingering personal matters resolved, workers are more likely to be able to concentrate on their job assignments, which suggests they should be more productive.

One of the study's principals, R. Kelly Garrett of Ohio State University, told the AP: "It's appropriate to just avoid the knee-jerk response that all personal Internet use is detrimental."

Garret said the study was still preliminary, and that he and Danziger (of the University of California at Irvine) were not trying at present to go much further than gauging the types of employees who use the Internet for personal reasons. Still, he speculated, additional research into the matter could suggest alternatives to enterprise administrators as to how they could improve their policies on personal activities online, to the benefit of both employer and employee alike.

Now, that's something we could all appreciate at work, without looking over our shoulders.

(Speaking of surfing the Web, Garrett might want to surf on over to the AP story mentioned in this column at The New York Times, Study shatters myths on personal Net use at work, where his name, R. Kelly Garrett, is hyperlinked to the paper's archive of R. Kelly articles. Ouch! Well, at least he's topical.)

Beware of Those Green Jobs and Tax Claims

Today, June 18, General Electric issued a report claiming that U.S. subsidies for wind energy are more than repaid by added tax revenues accruing to the Federal government. Yesterday, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, with backing from a collection of politicians and dignitaries, unveiled an analogous study arguing that many thousands of new jobs will be created if the country embarks on a new round of nuclear power plant construction. In an economy beset by outsourcing, rising unemployment, and straitened tax bases, these are enticing prospectsâ''and like any siren sounds, they should be treated warily at best.

GE, which has almost $2.5 billion invested in wind farms, says that in 2007, such farms produced a net benefit to the U.S. Treasury of $250 million, taking into account tax revenues from the farms themselves, vendors, and workers. CASE says that if the United States proceeds with construction of the 30 reactors currently under consideration, 12,000 to 21,000 new jobs would be added: each new reactor under construction could require as many a 4,000 workers at peak periods, and each operating reactor would provide 400-700 â''high-payingâ'' jobs.

Nobody denies that promotion of green energy projects can bring many benefits, including enhancement of the countryâ''s global competitiveness in emerging markets. But claims about how many jobs or how much net tax revenue such projects will generate are completely without merit unless energy projects are compared to each other.

The country needs more energy, and especially more clean energy, and somehow it will get it. Itâ''s interesting to ask how many jobs and how much revenue will be created, along all the alternative paths for generating the extra needed energy. But treating any one path in isolation from the others is essentially meaningless.

NASA's Spacesuits of the Future Are in the Works

Look for astronauts to soon be sporting a bold new look.

The U.S. space agency has commissioned the creation of a line of new spacesuits for its upcoming Constellation Program. NASA announced last week that it is bestowing a US $184 million contract to Oceaneering International Inc. of Houston, Tex., to develop a pair of next-generation protective gear for its travelers to the Moon and beyond.

According to NASA, one of the Constellation suits will primarily meet the needs of astronauts for extravehicular activities while traveling in space and the other will be used for surface activities on the Moon. Collectively, they will be called the Constellation Space Suit System.

"The award of the spacesuit contract completes the spaceflight hardware requirements for the Constellation Program's first human flight in 2015," said Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.

NASA stated that it will need suits for as many as four astronauts on Moon voyages and as many as six space-station travelers at a time. During early, short-duration lunar missions, the Constellation suits will only need to hold up to a week's worth of surface work. Later missions, though, will require them to be rugged enough to operate for months.

The cost-plus-award-fee spacesuit contract includes a basic performance period from June 2008 to September 2014, NASA noted. Oceaneering International and its subcontractors will design, develop, test, and evaluate the suits; they will then be responsible for manufacturing, assembling, and overseeing the first flight of the suit components. The subcontractors include: Air-Lock Inc. of Milford, Conn.; David Clark Co. of Worcester, Mass.; Cimarron Software Services Inc. of Houston; Harris Corporation of Palm Bay, Fla.; Honeywell International Inc. of Glendale, Ariz.; Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz.; and United Space Alliance of Houston.

"I am excited about the new partnership between NASA and Oceaneering," said Glenn Lutz, JSC project manager for spacesuit systems. "Now it is time for our spacesuit team to begin the journey together that ultimately will put new sets of boot prints on the Moon."

In a statement on its Web site, Mark Gittleman, vice president and general manager of Oceaneering Space Systems said: "We have a world-class team of companies and individuals who are all committed to NASA.... We have been working together with NASA for some time and are fully prepared to meet all of the requirements for the program."

Court to Inventors: Pay Those Fees or Else

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On 10 June 2008, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) affirmed a lower court decision that denied Corliss Orville â''Cobâ'' Burandtâ''s request to reinstate his patent on variable valve timing technology, which had expired due to unpaid maintenance fees. Barring either an appeal for a hearing in front of all 12 CAFC judges or an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, this decision effectively ends Burandtâ''s quest to regain control of his patents. Had he won, he might have been able to compel automakers like Toyota and Honda, which use variable valve timing technology in their hybrid car engines, to pay him royalty fees on his invention. Now heâ''s left wondering what might have been had he been able to fight for control of his patents from his former partner and patent assignee IRI Holdings before the company let them devolve into the public domain.

Working pro bono, Burandtâ''s legal team, led by Scott F. Yarnell, along with Donna M. Praiss, Elizabeth M. Wieckowski and Eugene C. Rzudcidlo all of Hunton & Williams LLP as well as patent attorney and IEEE member George Macdonald, argued that the United States Patent and Trademark Office and its director, Jon W. Dudas, acted capriciously in denying Burandt's petition to reinstate his patent.

The argument rested in part on Burandtâ''s extraordinary circumstances (detailed in my Spectrum article Down and Out in Ham Lake and in a radio segment for NPR's Living on Earth), which his lawyers said prevented him as the equitable title-holder from paying the maintenance fees. The three-judge CAFC panel sided with the USPTO and held that that Burandt could not be granted an opportunity to pay the maintenance fees past due on patents that the legal owner of the patent, IRI Holdings of Minneapolis, had intentionally allowed to expire. The court held, â''Here, IRI, as the legal title holder of the patent, was the party responsible for paying the maintenance fee. The record demonstrated that IRI failed to exercise reasonable care in ensuring that the maintenance fee would be paid in a timely manner. Indeed, the record was devoid of any evidence suggesting that IRI took any steps to make timely payment of the maintenance fee. Rather, the record indicated that IRI allowed the â''406 patent to expire, as it had deliberately allowed three others of Burandtâ''s patents to expire. As such, under the guidance set forth in Ray (Ray v. Lehman, 55 F.3d 606 (Fed. Cir. 1995)], we find no clear error of judgment or any abuse of discretion with regard to the Directorâ''s conclusion that unavoidable delay was not shown.â''

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I talked with Macdonald last week by phone. He was going to huddle with the Hunton & Williams team and Burandt to determine whether or not to proceed down the final open legal avenues. Macdonald read about Burandtâ''s plight in Spectrum and took on his case, paid overdue fees himself, and hooked Burandt up with Hunton & Williams, a firm famous for representing NTP against RIM in a case where NTP prevailed to the tune of $612.5 million.

While Burandt wants to fight on until the bitter end, neither CAFC or the Supremes seem likely to take on the case. Then again, stranger things have happenedâ''like a company that owned the basic technology behind todayâ''s booming hybrid car market just letting the patents expire, losing itself and potentially its inventor, Burandt, tens of millions of dollars.

A Way Out of U.S. Nuclear Waste Impasse?

The issue of Science magazine published today, June 13, contains an important commentary about how the intractable nuclear waste problem might be solved. Isaac J. Winograd and Eugene H. Roseboom Jr, retired senior scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, suggest creating the proposed repository for high-level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain in stages, starting with a pilot facility. Their views have some weight inasmuch as they take creditâ''or blame?â''for having conducted the studies that led to the selection of the hugely contested Nevada site in the first place.

There are at least two ways of recounting the history that led to the current impasse. If you asked me, Iâ''d tell you that in 1989 Luther J. Carter, a respected former news writer for Science magazine, wrote a book for Resources for the Future in which he said essentially this: if weâ''re ever going to solve the nuclear waste problem, we have to just pick a site more or less arbitrarily, and thenâ''damn the torpedos!â''ram it through. What better location than the place where the United States had tested nuclear weapons all through the fifties, a place already thoroughly contaminated by radiation? (Thatâ''s a caricature of Carterâ''s views, to be sure, but I believe he put it pretty much like that to me personally, when I discussed the situation with him a few years later.) What Carter and RFF failed to take into account, in any event, is the degree to which Nevada opinion would rally in the interest of blocking a Yucca Mountain facility. As a result, Nevadaâ''s congressional delegation could be counted on to block creation of the repository at every opportunity, and any presidential candidate vying in a Nevada primary would be sorely tempted to pledge opposition to the project.

Winograd and Roseboom tell the story a little differently. More than a quarter century ago, they say, they proposed storing wastes â''in areas with deep water tables, specifically within the several-hundred-meter-thick unsaturated zones common to the arid and semi-arid Southwest USA.â'' That led directly to a focus on the Great Basin and, within it, to Yucca Mountain. Nonetheless, when Congress passed legislation in 1987 selecting the site for a repository, the bill immediately became known, as the authors say, as the â''screw Nevada act.â'' Technical study followed upon technical study, it soon becoming clear that scientists and engineers would never reach full agreement about long-term risks. Then came a virtual death knell on July 9, 2004, when the generally conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the integrity of the site would have to be guaranteed not just for 10,000 yearsâ''the standard up to the thenâ''but for as much as a million years.

The appeals court decision put nuclear waste strategy into a dead-end. To get out, Winograd and Roseboom argue, â''it behooves the earth science community . . . to inform the courts, the public, and legislators that . . . the fate of HLWs over times frames of hundreds of millennia is not knowable.â'' To win back public confidence, they suggest, build a succession of repositories at Yucca Mountain, evaluate them one at a time, retrieve wastes as necessary, and ultimately SOLVE THE PROBLEM.

The Beauty of Obsolete Electronics

By now, we're all painfully aware of how quickly technological innovation can turn a brag-worthy, state of the art machine into an anachronistic door stop. The quick pace of improvement certainly has its costs (Spectrum editor Sandra Upson has chronicled how electronic obsolescence chews up tax money and IEEE TV has a nice segment about the challenges of recycling "end of life devices"), but I continue to be impressed with what happens when you mix a little ingenuity with old technology. It's nice to see old machines we knew and love injected with new purpose. Take this video made by James Houston, for example. Who'd have thought that combining a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 8-bit PC, a HP Scanjet 3c scanner, an Epson LX-86 printer, and an array of ten hard drives could make for such a compelling reinterpretation of Radiohead's song Nude? (You probably want to skip ahead to about the 1:09 mark when the song actually starts).


Big Ideas (don't get any) from James Houston on Vimeo.

From James's description of the project:

Based on the lyric (and alternate title) "Big Ideas: Don't get any" I grouped together a collection of old redundant hardware, and placed them in a situation where they're trying their best to do something that they're not exactly designed to do, and not quite getting there.

It doesn't sound great, as it's not supposed to.

I really like the idea of old electronic devices struggling to learn new tricks. Of course, many old electrical components work just as they were designed to--I'm thinking of vacuum tubes in amplifiers or individual transistors in a digital clock. So what devices do you miss or remember fondly? If you have any ideas for DIY projects that re-purpose old technology, we'd love to hear about it.

And bonus points if together we can think up some way to make use of the computing power of the 426 000 cell phones Americans get rid of each day...

An eBay for offshoring healthcare

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Yesterday, I blogged about some of the great ideas presented at this weekâ''s Launch Silicon Valley. But one idea pitched gave me the shudders. Not that it wouldn't necessarily work as a business, but itâ''s got problems, and it says something about the nature of our countryâ''s health care system that itâ''s even being talked about.

The company, a Silicon Valley startup tagged PreviMed, is offering what company founder Atul Salgaonkar characterized as a sort of eBay for offshoring of health care. The company has picked a market segmentâ''necessary, but not urgent, medical procedures. It has started identifying internationally certified hospitals around the world that do such procedures. And it is looking to make deals with insurance companies and employers. The idea, as I understood it, is that a patient that needs a procedure, say, a knee operation, releases information about his case to Previmed, which posts it on a secure web site. Overseas medical institutions bid for the job, submitting treatment plans and prices. Someone (it wasnâ''t clear if that someone is the patient or the insurance company) selects a winning bid.

Previmed, like eBay, gets a percentage of the total fees paid. The insurance company saves a lot of money. The patient, potentially saves some money, I guess, perhaps having to make a lower copay, or paying lower insurance rates by agreeing to the system.

But then, what, the patient is sitting on a plane, traveling alone to a foreign hospital? Iâ''m assuming the package covers the patientâ''s travel expenses, but what about the family and friends that would normally support someone undergoing a medical procedure? Somehow, I think those travel expenses arenâ''t covered.

The customer for this service, Salgaonkar made clear, is the insurance companies. And I guess thatâ''s why it creeps me out. I remember at one point struggling to find an in-network OB that I felt comfortable with, annoyed with my insurance companies for limiting my choices. But this boggles the mind. I sat listening to the presentation, imagining my insurance company saying, no problem, go ahead and have that surgery, hereâ''s your plane ticket.

I donâ''t think so.

Photo credit: picsfrmbkk

Thirty startups in high tech show-and-tell at Launch Silicon Valley 08

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Thirty tech startups, selected from a field of 266, took the stage at Launch Silicon Valley Tuesday afternoon. Held at Microsoftâ''s Mountain View conference center, the event is the flagship conference of the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs.

The stars of the afternoon, by popular vote, were Dayak, Loadstar Sensors, Triggit, Sensear, uTest, and Dial2Do. Dayak makes an online tool that matches employers looking to fill jobs with recruiters able to find candidates; employers post for free, setting the fee that theyâ''re willing to pay recruiters for a successful hire. Loadstar Sensors builds compact capacitive load sensors for automotive, aerospace, medical device, and industrial applications, and is currently developing a 2mm by 2.5mm pressure sensor. Triggit is an ad management technology to help web publishers embed advertising into their sites. Sensear is speech-enhancing technologyâ''more on that in a bit. uTest is a web-based platform for software testing that lets testing be distributed to people around the world. And Dial2Do is a phone service that uses voice recognition to let users send emails, text message, and create reminders.

My picks were a little different. (I admit that I didnâ''t see the presentations of all the

selected winners; presentations went on simultaneously in two separate venues, I zipped back and forth but couldnâ''t catch them all.) I completely agreed that Sensear stood out from the crowd. This sp1.jpg

technology out of Australia uses microphone arrays and digital signal processing techniques to sort out speech from noise in very noisy environments, the kind of places in which ear protection is required, or at least a very good idea. It doesnâ''t completely eliminate background noise, so you can tell if youâ''re about to be hit by a car, for example, but cuts it down, and then amplifies the speech. Besides industrial applications, Justin Miller, CEO sees the earplugs (about $300 to $550, depending on whether or not they talk to Bluetooth cell phones) used in the military, by bartenders, and, eventually, by all of us baby boomers who went to too many rock concerts.

Another type of earpiece caught my attention as well. Silicon Valley company Kleer demonstrated a proprietary wireless Kleerbuds.jpgtechnology for transmitting audio, to wireless earbuds, headphones, or remote speakers. Given how tangled I tend to get in my iPod headphone cord when exercising, this definitely looks like a winner, and the company has already licensed the technology to consumer products manufacturers.

I also was impressed by Ion Applications, a Florida company making handheld ion detection devices that can be used for explosives 600_SUBJECT_SCREENING-1.jpgscreening in airports, drug detection, even air quality monitoring in semiconductor clean rooms; in its current configuration, it resembles a handheld hair dryer. Alexander Lowe, vice president of sales and marketing, said that devices with comparable sensitivity today are hugeâ''think of the large portals that screen for explosives at airports. He envisions airport screeners walking up and down the lines of passengers scanning for explosive residue, a method that would enable every passenger to be screened without slowing down the boarding process.

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