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Give Us Ten Minutes and Will Give You the Nano World

Anyone who has lived in New York City and tuned into the local AM radio news has probably heard the 1010 WINSâ'' slogan, â''Give us 10 minutes and will give you the world.â''

Since I am an ex-New York resident, that phrase occurred to me as I watched Andrew Maynardâ''s distillation of years of nanotech presentations into one 10-minute-long video. Only in this case, you might say he is giving us the â''nano worldâ''.

The video probably does a better job of sorting out the benefits and risks of nanotech than the ponderous grandstanding of last yearâ''s PBS special â''Power of Small: Nanotechnologyâ''.

I am not damning with faint praise here, although at the beginning I was a bit worried with another nanotechnology definition. His illustrative analogies are strong and clarifying, and he comes to the crux of many issues surrounding nanotech that I think will be helpful for many in getting a better understanding of nanotechnology.

However, it is in the direction that we must go when we are that crossroads moment that left me a bit wanting. Maynard comes to the conclusion that nanotechnology has the potential for accomplishing many beneficial results for man: clean drinking water, better medicine to combat disease, renewable energy, etc. But he admonishes, â''We need to get it right.â''

Well, I am sure everyone agrees that it is better to get it right, then, say, get it wrong. But how are we supposed to know if we are getting it right?

I understand that the video is just a â''primerâ'', but perhaps in 30 seconds he could add some suggestion(s) on how to get it right without ensuring that nanotechnology's development is stopped dead in its tracks.

There Will be an Obama CTO

During Barack Obamaâ''s candidacy, his understanding of and commitment to technology attracted many technology professionals. Groups like Tech for Obama rallied around him, emphasizing that his comfort with his Mac laptop and his attachment to his Blackberry would be assets to a president, and that his knowledge of technology's importance in addressing the world's problems would help make him a strong leader. Obama made these supporters even happier when he promised to appoint the first U.S. CTO, a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the country to focus on technical and science issues, much like a corporate CTO.

Obama described the CTO as someone who will "ensure the safety of our networks and lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."

Now that he is in office, proponents of this idea are chomping at the bit to find out exactly when the CTO will be announced, who it will be, and what specific responsibilities that person will have. In talking with White House spokespeople yesterday, IEEE Spectrum confirmed that the plan as outlined during the campaign has not changed and will be carried out.

Many names have been mentioned as possibly on the short list for the position, representing top technologists from coast to coast, from Google's Eric Schmidt to Washington D.C. CTO Vivek Kundra. But these are only rumors; it could be days, weeks or months before Obama officially announces his choice. But the United States will, in this administration, get its first CTO.

â''Sarah Granger

Google, NASA Blow Money on Singularity University

You've gotta love the sheer chuzpah of it. In the middle what may well turn out to be the worst economic crisis the world has ever faced comes word that Google and NASA are planning to bankroll and house Ray Kurzweil's Singularity University at NASA's Ames Research Center, not far from the Googleplex. Peter Diamandis, vice-chancellor of Kurzweil's Clown College and current CEO of the X-Prize was quoted by the Financial Times as saying, "We are anchoring the university in what is the lab today, with an understanding of what's in the realm of possibility in the future. The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea."

We're right with you, Peter, at least the crazy part, as much of the coverage in our special report on the Singularity, Rapture of the Geeks, makes clear. As Diamandis says, anything is in the realm of possibility in the future. I might give birth to a litter of kittens when I'm 80. The sun might explode tomorrow. Rod Blagojevich might get a decent hair cut. And Ray Kurzweil might help usher in a beneficent Singularity, one where the machines that are smarter than we can ever even conceive of treat us, as Vernor Vinge once told me, like pets. And that's the good scenario: The machines turn the tables and go all Tamagotchi on us.

Hey, why not? We're already throwing what will wind up being trillions of dollars at an economic mess in part facilitated by financial risk algorithms, the crazy uncles of our future Machine Overlords. What's a few more million dollars, plus a few more good human minds sucked into the thrall of Mr. Kurzweil and his obsessive quest to deny Death its due? But while they're at it, I'm wondering if Messrs. Page and Diamandis might throw me some cash, too. I've got this really cool idea about how we can harness the energy of a few well-engineered Bacon Explosions.

Nanotech Labeling in Canada Moves Ahead

Nanotechnology watchdogs have been clamoring for â''nanotechâ'' labeling of any product that contains nanomaterials for years now, and Canada has fulfilled their wish.

Based on the labeling logic of Canada, itâ''s a little curious that any product with nylon in it doesnâ''t say, â''Sulfuric acid helped make thisâ'' or when you buy your next laptop â''Hereâ''s a list of all the poisonous materials used to make your computer.â''

But I guess the ship has sailed on those materials, or at least the companies that make them have been in profitability long enough to pay for the kind of lobbying that would squelch that kind of thing.

What the field of nanotech is left with is a few struggling companies and a whole lot of government-funded research that possesses few avenues for reaching commercialization. The only thing resembling an industry in the whole mess is the bureaucracy that is just biting at the bit to start making rules and regulations.

One could argue that those concerned about the toxicity of nanomaterials whether integrated into other materials, or free floating, may be jumping the gun somewhat in promoting the idea of the dangers of nanotech when the research remains far from conclusive.

But not me, I say go ahead and jump to any conclusion you like.

However, if your aim is to be at the head of some government regulatory body that oversees nanotech you may want to let nanotech actually get into a few commercial products (for breathtaking lists of nanotechnology products see here or here) before you decide to torpedo the possibility of those nano-enabled products of ever existing. Just sayinâ''.

Trade Group: Slump in Chip Sector Accelerates

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) said today that the market for its member's products continued to slide downward at the end of 2008.

The trade group announced that sales of semiconductor products, such as microprocessors, plunged to US $17.4 billion in December from $20.9 billion in November, a drop of 16.6 percent. Moreover, the December 2008 number declined by 22 percent from sales results in December 2007, of $22.3 billion, the SIA reported in a prepared statement.

Chip sales for all of 2008 came in at $248.6 billion compared with $255.6 billion in 2007, a decrease of 2.8 percent overall.

The head of the industry organization blamed the slump on the global recession.

"Weakening demand for the major drivers of semiconductor sales -- including automotive products, personal computers, cell phones, and corporate information technology products â''- resulted in a sharp drop in industry sales that affected nearly all product lines," said SIA President George Scalise.

He noted that sales of electronic products held up "reasonably well" over the first nine months of 2008 but fell sharply as turmoil in the global financial industry unfolded.

Scalise said that the steepest revenue declines were in the memory sector "where price pressure more than offset significant growth in total bit shipments."

"The industry is currently facing an unprecedented period of uncertainty," Scalise concluded. "A resumption of sales growth will depend in part on the effectiveness of various measures now under consideration by the Federal government to restore consumer confidence, improve liquidity, and stimulate economic growth."

The Downside of Electronic Medical Records

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Part of President Barack Obamaâ''s plan to improve the U.S. health care system is to move every doctorâ''s office and hospital to electronic medical records. Most of the time, I think that will be a very good thing. This week, not so much. Because not even a state-of-the-art specialized highly secure record keeping system works all the time.

I live in Silicon Valley, and get my health care through a very large and modern group medical practice. It seems like weâ''ve had electronic medical records forever, though, thinking back, I have vague memories of the computers coming in, the conversion, and a period of extra-long office visits as the doctors struggled to input their orders correctly. Thereâ''s lots to like about electronic medical records; prescriptions are sent directly to pharmacies, so instead of dropping off a written prescription and coming back later to pick it up I only have to make one trip. I can make appointments online. I can look up test results and check when Iâ''m due for my next mammogram online. And, at least for my youngest child, I can print out a vaccination record myself whenever I need it instead of calling the office and asking for a printout (and sometimes being charged for the service).

Not that there arenâ''t some things about the electronic medical system that bug me. That prescription transmittal? There appears to be no way of telling the system not to send a prescription to the pharmacy whenever the doctor updates it, so when I have an annual checkup I can either choose not to update my allergy prescriptions (which means a phone call to the doctor a few months later when I need the medication), or go for the update and end up buying a new supply of allergy medication, whether I need it or not. And Iâ''m currently shut out of two of my three childrenâ''s medical records; once a kid turns 13, their parent is not allowed to access an electronic medical record. However, the kid himself isnâ''t allowed in until heâ''s 18. A catch-22 that means Iâ''m back to making appointments, asking for vaccination records, and checking test results over the phone or in person.

But, in general, Iâ''ve been happy with electronic medical records. This week, however, the system went down. (A computer virus, a staff member told me.) And it wasnâ''t pretty.

On Tuesday, I went in with one sick kid, and was in for a long wait. When we finally got in to see the doctor, the reason for the wait was clear; the doctors had no charts, so had to at least review a basic medical history with the patients. Ordering a test took foreverâ''first, finding or creating a form, then, finding someone who remembered the code for the test, since there was no place to look it up.

The next day, I took a second sick kid to the lab for a blood test. The doctor had written out a paper order for the test, and I checked it carefully to make sure it was right and legible before handing it over to the folks at the lab. The lab technician read the paperwork and, by hand, copied the information, or so I thought, on labels for the tubes of blood (these labels are normally printed out automatically).

The next day, the electronic medical system was up and running again, so the good news was that the doctor could view the test results. The bad news was that it turned out the lab had run the wrong test and my daughter was in for a second round of blood drawing. She wasnâ''t pleased.

So yes, letâ''s move to electronic medical records, because, for the most part, they do make the process more efficient. But letâ''s not think that we can rely on them completely, throw out the paper, and forget how to do it the old-fashioned way.

Photo by J.Reed

Nano Ethics Goes to Washington

I have already expressed my resistance to the idea of nano ethics and my opinion really hasnâ''t wavered much despite some prior skeptics allowing for at least the consideration of the subject.

I am heartened, however, that others remain unbowed in their skepticism.

Personally, I still just canâ''t get passed the idea that part of government funding for nanotech is going to be spent on Think Tank studies on nanotechnology ethics. I just canâ''t get my head around it.

I have not read the recently released report, Nanotechnology: The Social and Ethical Issues, from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in its entirety, but the bits I have read just leaves me asking, â''Couldnâ''t you just replace the term â''nanotechnologyâ'' with â''semiconductorsâ''?â''

Why is it that nanotechnology always gets burdened with this stuff. Does the word itself somehow appeal to these ethicists?

But the more perplexing question for me is why these people who dedicate themselves to the subject of ethics donâ''t realize that it is somewhat unethical to always come to the same conclusion that their work â''needsâ'' to be funded by the taxpayer dime?

It's sort of like Dick Cheney leading the vice-president search team for Republican nominee, George W. Bush, only to conclude that he would be the best vice-president.

I don't know maybe that's not a question of ethics, but just bad manners. In either case, it doesn't look good.

The Boy who Twittered Wolf

I'm one of those people who is skeptical of Twitter. It seems so narcissistic. Who cares if you just woke up? I do not. I'm sorry.

So David Pogue's Twitter experiment was fun for me. If only for the occasional mean-spirited snicker.

Anyway, turns out Twitter is not a completely useless time drain!

Pogue demoed it at a Las Vegas conference by sending into the Twitterverse the following cry for help: "I need a cure for hiccups... RIGHT NOW! Help?"

The replies, of course, poured in. My favorite, by Chiron1: "I take large sips of bourbon. It doesn't stop the hiccups, but I stop caring!" (I'm also a sucker for silly, obvious humor, because I would have been one of the 20 or so who responded with "Boo!!")

What I didn't expect is that when Pogue told them the whole story, the Twitterverse got mad. "I feel used," groused one. "Not sure I appreciate being your guinea pig," grumbled another. The most ominous reply was Twittered by one briand: "might want to add "(demo)" to tweets like that. I was suspicious of the original. Don't play the community; they'll turn on you."

To be fair, not everyone's panties were in a wad. Tweeth thevideodog: "That's like the boy who hiccuped wolf...pretty soon when you really need a cure for something, like diarrhea, no one's gonna answer!"

Who knew anyone could be offended by the non-sanctioned re-purposing of their 140-character-max chatroom thoughts? It's not like they were being wiretapped by the NSA. A Twitterer has no expectation of privacy.

Is Twitter really that much of an intimate experience? As a Twitter-luddite, I am curious and have no perspective on the issue myself. So tell me. Meanwhile, for a roundup of unlikely hiccup cures, you can read Pogue's blog, which also contains every possible variation on "the boy who twittered wolf."

DTV Transition: Date Uncertain

digtv120-thumb.gifThe analog shutdown â''date certainâ'' of 17 February is now date uncertain. Earlier this week the Senate passed a bill to delay the transition to 12 June; meanwhile, the House voted against a similar bill under special rules that required a two-thirds majority to pass. The House bill is likely to come up again next week under different voting rules.

The case for 12 June: more of the coupons that subsidize digital converters have been requested than are available, evidence that analog TV viewers need more time to get ready and the government will possibly need more money to help them. The case for 17 February: any delay will just confuse consumers more, will cost television and other companies and the government a lot of money, and might not make the transition any smoother.

I think Iâ''ve seen this show before. Itâ''s a rerun from 2005, when the House and Senate established the date certain in the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act as part of a budget reconciliation bill. Lobbying for the date certain included an industry coalition representing wireless, computer, telecom, semiconductor, software, and manufacturing companies and industry associations. They argued that only a date-certain would let companies move forward to develop new wireless technologies for the spectrum that was due to be vacated. Also lobbying hard for a date certain were public safety agencies. Since 11 Septemberâ''s attacks and the communications difficulties experienced by rescuers inside the World Trade Center, such groups are eager to get their hands on the big, clean chunk of high-quality bandwidth due to be dedicated to emergency services after analog shutdown. The cable television industry, of course, also supported a hard date.

On the other side, Congressmen expressed concerns about low-income folks, the elderly, and Hispanic viewers, demographic groups that represent the vast majority of people who rely on over-the-air broadcasts for television, and discussed at length they could be converted to digital with little cost or trouble. The solution that got the date certain bill passed was the converter program which, for the most part, handled the cost, but didnâ''t address the trouble part of the equation. And the subsidy program did not include any money for new antennas, because the FCC assured Congress at the time that current antennas would function just fine with digital receivers.

So now weâ''re back to date uncertain. Some corporations are sweatingâ''it costs broadcasting companies big bucks to run two transmitters, for one. Some of the companies that bought the spectrum real estate wonâ''t be affected muchâ''Verizon, for example, wasnâ''t going to start testing its next-generation wireless network on the new bandwidth until the second half of the year. But others have made big investments to be ready to move into their new homes on 18 February, like Qualcomm, who has its MediaFlo video service ready to go, spent the money to build the infrastructure, but now, potentially, will see a delay before it can start selling the service to subscribers.

And my mother, who now has to struggle with multiple confusing remotes to watch 60 Minutes on her little 15-inch TV, is going to be angry that I made her go through conversion when she didnâ''t really have to.

For more of Spectrum's coverage of the digital transition, see Special Report: The Day Analog TV Dies.

Fable Teaches Lessons, But Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?

Boeing Co. today announced that it will up its layoffs to 10 000 unfortunate employees. The bad news came hard on the heels of downsizing announcements in recent days from all over the tech sector.

And no company has been spared from the toll of the financial downturn, even among the greatest. Sprint: 8000. Microsoft: 5000. IBM: 4000. Texas Instruments: 3400. And so on, and so on.

The mass layoffs have cast a pall over the engineering community worldwide, no doubt. Still, those who do have jobs must continue to work and be productive, even with the sword of further cuts looming over them.

Into such a worrisome environment comes an instructive fable that the editors at IEEE Spectrum thought deserved attention.

In the online pages of Datamation, contributor Eric Spiegel, a veteran software developer, tells a tale of office politics run amok in an IT department facing layoffs.

The article, Do Nice Engineers Finish Last in Tough Times?, relates the story of three mid-level managers working at a server farm who have to cut staff by 50 percent due to the economy.

Stuart, a systems manager, is the "nice guy" in Spiegel's script. He believes in doing the right thing by others, for his team and his firm. Doug is his counterpart in security. He's the "not so nice guy," who thinks of himself first and others only when it suits his purposes. Then there's the director of IT, Kelly, who must decide who stays on and who goes.

'Kelly gathered her team of managers and asked them to rate their employees and then she would work with them to determine who would be laid off. What she didnâ''t tell them was that she was rating her direct reports because managers would be on the chopping block as well.'

You can guess what happens next. Doug meets secretly with Kelly and tells her: "Really, Stuart is too nice and isnâ''t capable of making the tough decisions that will be necessary for us to survive this downturn. I will be ruthless and make you look really, really good, Kelly." So Kelly fires Stuart.

Ratting out his co-worker gets the ruthless guy what he wants, and the company gets the results it wanted, regardless of morality.

Spiegel concludes by asking, "So what would you have done in Kellyâ''s shoes?"

Good question. Will the firm be better off with aggressive types such as Doug or loyal types such as Stuart?

It makes for a robust discussion thread for Datamation, and there are plenty of comments following Spiegel's article. You should read them for yourself and chime in with your own opinions (which is the whole point).

Back in the real world, though, there is no right or wrong answer to the dilemma Spiegel concocts over the long haul. It's an age-old classic of management studies and plays out everyday in the trenches of the corporate world to various resolutions (see Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox in the movie "Wall Street" for a slightly less fictional take on the paradox).

The kicker in the question, however, lies in the words "in tough times."

While Spiegel's fable may be naïve, I believe his motives for presenting it are sincere (although highly biased to appeal to the Stuart's of the technosphere). So the question he asks in his headline, whether "nice engineers finish last in tough times," deserves a hearing, in my opinion, and I might as well cough up a brief response of my own to it here.

First, under full disclosure, I'm not an engineer or a developer, just a writer who covers the tech beat. Moreover, I've worked for the publisher that put Spiegel's piece on the Web, which would be JupiterOnlineMedia. In fact, I used to work for its predecessor, internet.com, and before that worked for EarthWeb (which acquired Datamation a decade ago and positioned the publication as its IT Management vessel). And to complicate things further, EarthWeb itself started out as a software firm. So while I was writing for the company's online presence, I was surrounded by developers who were creating some of the first Internet applications of the Nineties, such as interactive chat and peer-to-peer file sharing. Whew.

So I've actually seen the office politics described in Spiegel's article. And in my experience, I've got to admit that "nice" engineers actually do finish last in tough times.

It's a matter of human nature. When conditions turn bad, managers get nervous. Their fear tends to lead them to favor aggressive, short-term solutions. And aggressive types tend to be attracted to likeminded individuals.

Yet most people who have heard the famous quote "nice guys finish last" think it means that good people are always doomed to lose. It doesn't. The quote refers to the thinking of the old Brooklyn Dodgers' manager, Leo Durocher, who uttered something like it in 1946. In an interview, Durocher commented on his cross-town rivals, the old New York Giants, by saying: "Take a look at them. They're all nice guys, but they'll finish last." They did.

Durocher had put together a Brooklyn lineup of cold-blooded ballplayers back home after the war years, men who reflected his own demeanor, which could be summed up nicely by another of his trenchant quotes, "Ruthless tactics succeed more than kindness."

That team finished first in the National League the next year. They then lost the World Series to the New York Yankees, another bitter rival. But Durocher was not there. He had been suspended by the commissioner of baseball for off-field gambling. The following year, the Dodgers fired him and he joined the Giants as their skipper.

He then led the "nice guys" to a pair of historic first-place finishes. Durocher had come to discover that his famous line had limited relevance over time.

So "tough times" may bring out the worst in us, as anxiety leads to panic. In that regard, the IT boss in Spiegel's story, Kelly, is probably no different than the rest of us, flawed to some degree. But she certainly was not acting in the best interests of her company in the long run.

Postscript:

A colleague here at Spectrum Online has sent me a note pointing out a certain measure of implicit sexism in Spiegel's article: Stuart is a nice guy. Doug is a bad boy. Kelly must choose between them. She picks the bad boy. Therefore, as one commenter wrote in the discussion thread, "Kelly=Clueless Bimbo." My colleague, who happens to be a woman, wrote for attribution off the record that this particular comment was a "distillation of the story to its essence." She's got a point there.

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