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.Tel Me What I'm Missing

I'm bewildered by all the buzz surrounding the Internetâ''s new â''.telâ'' top-level domain. This new entity, sponsored by London-based Telnic, is intended to be a global repository of contact information for individuals and businesses. The twist here is that this information will be encoded into DNS (Domain Name System) records, allowing it to be distributed to the 12 million or so name servers around the world. When folks look me upâ''perhaps as BewilderedDave.telâ''the DNS will not direct them to a Website, as it typically does. Rather, they will access my contact information directly from the records that are returned by whatever name servers their computers are using to look up IP addresses.

That much is clear. Itâ''s also apparent from the news coverage and the descriptions on Telnicâ''s Website that the company has put mechanisms in place for those with .tel domains to control access to their contact information, should they not wish all of it to be publicly available. Whatâ''s confusing is why this service would prove all that helpful to either individuals or to businesses.

Consider the scenario Telnic uses to explain how an individual using a .tel domain can guard his or her privacy. In the companyâ''s illustrative example, Alice (alice.tel) meets someone named Gary. (Bob is occupied in another role.) She informs Gary about her .tel address and gives him the URL for a login page at a Website run by Telnic. He then uses Telnicâ''s Website to create a â''friend request message,â'' which gets transmitted to Alice. She receives the message, reading within it a short greeting from Gary reminding her that this â''friendingâ'' request comes from the guy she just met at the local pub. Alice then puts the wheels in motion to allow Gary to obtain access to parts of her contact information that she doesnâ''t share with the general public.

Obviously, Gary didnâ''t impress Alice enough when they first met. If he had, she surely would have just given him her phone number then and there, instead of asking him to jump through hoops.

Telnicâ''s description explains in detail how the friending scheme worksâ''how encrypted contact information is put into a subdomain of alice.tel using Garyâ''s public encryption key so only he can read it. Telnic further explains that if Alice has a falling out with Gary, â''she simply stops publishing private contact dataâ'' at that subdomain. Telnicâ''s explanation is silent, however, on what to do about the fact that Gary may still retain Aliceâ''s phone number, written perhaps in a small black book.

I suppose Alice could change her phone number, cutting off Gary without irritating too many of her other friends because theyâ''ll be using the always-up-to-date alice.tel to reach her from their Internet-enabled mobile phones. But how about Aliceâ''s grandmother?

To me, the friending mechanism seems too cumbersome, and the actions needed to cut someone off are too drastic. I am also skeptical about how useful it might be for reaching businesses, although they will in general publish contact information thatâ''s always freely available to the general public.

The problem is that I wonâ''t know the .tel domain name of the business I want to reach. How can I figure out the .tel name for, say, the new pizza joint that just opened down the street? Even if I remember that the name of the place is Joeâ''s Pizza, using joespizza.tel is more likely to return information about a restaurant in Los Angeles than the one in my home town. So Iâ''d be more inclined to Google Joeâ''s Pizza, using as much information as I have about it to find its Website, where I can look up its contact information easily enough.

Perhaps Iâ''m just too mired in late-20th-century thinking to see the value of the new service. Somebody please tell me what Iâ''m missing.

Nanosystems Author Launches His Own Blog

Some of those who read Eric Drexlerâ''s books like Nanosystems or Engines of Creation were so inspired by his vision of molecular manufacturing they started websites and blogs promoting many of his ideas.

Now we can get the up-to-date thoughts of Drexler on a broad range of subjects concerning science and technology on his new blog Metamodern.

It will be interesting to see if Drexler and his disciples see eye-to-eye on a number of subjects.

It reminds me of a scene from Martin Scorseseâ''s The Last Temptation of Christ, when Jesus gets the opportunity to confront Paul and argue that he did not die on the cross and was not resurrected. To which Paul replies: "I donâ''t care whether you are Jesus or not. The resurrected Jesus will save the world and thatâ''s all that matters.... I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed."

As recently as last year, Drexler seemed to be opening up the possibility that the avenue towards atomically precise manufacturing may not necessarily be through self-replicating assemblers (nanobots).

Despite this nanobots have seemingly taken on an unavoidable consequence in the publicâ''s image of nanotechnology. It seems to have become what they need and what they believe when it comes to the subject of nanotechnology. Then again science is not quite like religion, itâ''s a little more difficult to create the truth.

The Armor of the Future is Armani

The soldier is modeling the 2030 Future Soldier Concept at the ASC 2008 exhibition hall, which runs from about 10:00 am until 6:30 pm. Showing off his Star Wars attire, he's all good posture and game face, but when I run into him in the elevator at the end of the day, he looks like he wants to unzip his own skin. I assume it's because the faux armor is heavy. "No," he says miserably. "The fabric is really itchy." But the next morning he's back, and you would never know he's remotely uncomfortable. That Army training is formidable.

Before you get too excited, I should mention that this is what the US Army plans to put on our soldiers around 2030. If you want to see it before that, you'll have to stick with your local Star Wars convention.

The material may not be carbon nanotube fiber with electronic-based ink circuits, but it is in fact Armani. Dutch Degay of the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachussetts says his group got it as part of a last run of Armani fabric because it was such a perfect visual match for the nanotube fiber and e-ink circuit material they wanted for their concept demonstration. When they first got the material, it was a lovely shade of cream. Then they heated it up to 140 degrees so that it could be dyed the tasteful brown shade you see above. "We totally ruined it," Dutch says, a little spitefully.

Star Wars-style hologram conferencing at the Army Science Conference

Picture2.JPEG

Help me, Obi Wan. You're my only hope.

Let's recap: the Election Night CNN hologram was not actually a hologram. It looked like a hologram to you and me, but to Wolf Blitzer it was just a big 2D screen. It was processed later, and repackaged for our viewing pleasure. But it was not a real hologram.

But here at ASC 2008 we have more authentic hologram technology. The only problem is, anyone who submits to the process ends up looking a bit like recurring Futurama character Richard Nixon's head in a bell jar

The Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California is responsible for this foray into actual 3D. It's not technically a hologram, as holograms are made with lasers and this technology uses mirrors to reflect lights, but it's functionally close enough. ITC's Andrew Young says that while this is a proof of concept, eventually it would be possible to do a full scale hologram, either full-size or table size.

They weren't very forthcoming about what military-specific application this would have. It's not quite as cut-and-dried as The BEAR.

Star Wars is everting one technology at a time.

Can Science Stand Up to Politics in the Nanotech and Food Debate?

Back in October there was a fair amount of uproar on the nano blogosphere about the role of nanotechnology in food. This hue and cry was in part informed by the politically charged, but scientifically challenged, screed that came from the Friends of the Earth back in March of this year Out of the laboratory and on to our plates: Nanotechnology in food and agriculture, which I discussed previously when it was originally released.

While Richard Jones over at his Soft Machines blog gave his typical reasoned and scientific, not to mention common sense, discussion of the issue, in the face of a politically astute group like the Friends of the Earth reason and science quickly get drowned out by hyperbole.

Perhaps the best way to deal with the situation is summed up over at TNTLog which suggests that maybe we should focus on the â''safetyâ'' aspect of food rather than the â''nanoâ'' aspect. This should serve as a memo to scientists when discussing this issue with the more politically agile. Sort of like Bill Clinton's campaign reminder: It's the economy, stupid!

Of course, the term â''nanotechnologyâ'' makes for a far more attractive boogey man than say â''encapsulationâ'' or â''food processingâ''. While the term â''processed foodâ'' has been thrown around like it was some disease for years, it hasnâ''t seemed to slow peopleâ''s desire to eat it.

So, when your first boogey man doesnâ''t seem to change peopleâ''s behavior, or alter government regulations on the food industry, trot out a new one: nanotechnology.

For those who would like to get a handle on the safety of food and nanotechnology, I direct you to this webcast of a lecture given by Frans Kampers who runs the BioNT labs at Wageningen University in central Holland.

There are few people who have dedicated themselves more to the subject of nanotechnology and food than Dr. Kampers, and this lecture gives you a pretty good idea of what the purpose of nanotechnology in food is all about, and how safe or dangerous it may be.

A Winner After All?

Last year about this time, as Spectrum's editors were putting the finishing touches on the annual Winners & Losers special report, we were collectively scratching our heads over whether a package of high-speed wireless networking chips designed to transfer video signals between home entertainment devices was a winning idea or a loser. Sure, getting rid of wires is indisputably a good thing. But would Si-Beam, a startup created by professors at the University of California at Berkeley, be able to solve a tremendous engineering problemâ''reliably routing data from, say, a cable box to a TV set at 4 gigabits per second over the millimeter wave frequency band which requires near-perfect alignment of antennasâ''using cheap components that would have a negligible effect on the cost of plasma screen TV or a home videogame console?

We took the bold stance ofâ'¿letting our readers decide in our online You Tell Us feature. Fast forward a year, and the picture is a little clearer. Consumer electronics giants Panasonic and Samsung are investing in Si-Beam, and the WirelessHD consortium that is working to improve and promote its technology now includes other big hitters such as Sony and Intel. These companies probably wouldnâ''t bet on Si-Beamâ''s data transfer technique as the future of wireless home networking if they didnâ''t have it on good authority that the company will get a commercial version of its chipset ready to send and receive high-definition movies and â''Gilliganâ''s Islandâ'' reruns some time in 2009. Itâ''s got the look of a winner.

Highlights from the 26th Army Science Conference

Defense contractors like theme parks. At least that's what I surmise from the fact that DARPATech was next door to Disneyland and Army Science, a four-day extravaganza at the towering Orlando Marriott, is in spitting distance of Disneyworld.

As usual, the best stuff is at the exhibition hall. Meet the BEAR.

This is what happens when you have a hotbed of MIT engineering graduates in a recession. The BEAR is a search and rescue robot for injured soldiers. They made it cute so it wouldn't look like the Terminator is coming to get you

It can get into many different poses- bend its knees backward for example, it can balance and drive around on its "tip toes" to better place a soldier on an operating table.

At the exhibit he was lifting a 70-pound sand bag like it was a styrofoam cup, but he's been engineered to lift 520 pounds. That should be enough for a soldier and his pack. 

Micro Aerial Vehicles Get 15 Seconds of Fame on "Saturday Night Live"

If you were watching "Saturday Night Live" last week, you would have seen a spoof news item on the show's Weekend Update segment focusing on work for the U.S. military to create a new generation of miniature flying vehicles.

"It's been confirmed that the government is developing tiny, insect-like robots which would be used to spy on enemies and possibly attack them," announced SNL's Seth Myers. "So, sorry for ever doubting you, Gary Busey."

The joke was lame, but the news was exciting, especially for the intelligence community.

Suppose you're a potential terrorist in the future. You attend a meeting of your fellow fanatics at a safe house. So you talk freely, because you're absolutely sure that nothing but a fly on the wall could overhear your conversation. Then you're overheard, by a thing that looks like a fly on the wall. That's what you have to look forward to, spies that look like flies.

The thing that looks like a fly will be a micro aerial vehicle (MAV), a tiny version of the autonomous flying devices heard about so much in the war on terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan. The full-size unmanned aerial vehicles are capable of firing missiles at targets in remote regions where conventional delivery platforms are impractical.

The MAVs envisioned for the future will use their size to upset the potential actions of enemies. A recent report from the Associated Press outlines the status of research on the small robots.

"If we could get inside the buildings and inside the rooms where their activities are unfolding, we would be able to get the kind of intelligence we need to shut them down," Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., told the AP.

Here at IEEE Spectrum, we hardly needed SNL or the AP to deliver the news about MAVs. We've known about them for years. For example, Associate Editor Sandra Upson filed this video report on the tiny flying vehicles.

And we have filed full background reports on the technology here and here.

We don't know what Gary Busey has to do with any of this, but we do know an interesting technology story when we see one.

Working on the Nanoscale Could Slow the Shrinking of Transistors

Back in May of this year, I commented on this blog about Sally Adeeâ''s article here on Spectrum about â''The Mysterious Memristorâ''. It was a thrilling read about how R. Stanley Williams and his team of researchers at Hewlett Packard had demonstrated the existence of a postulated but never found â''fourth elementâ'' of fundamental electronic components.

Now on Spectrumâ''s website and available in the December issue of the magazine, Stanley Williams himself relates how he and his team found the missing memristor.

While I imagine Williams would probably object to this analogy, to me this article reads like getting the first-hand account from Einstein on how he came up with the Theory of Relativityâ''not years later, but within the same year.

Itâ''s moments such as these that make laymen, such as myself, so interested and excited by science.

One of the promises that the memristor makes possible is combining a number of transistors into one memristor. With fewer transistors on the chip, the need to make the transistors smaller to fit on the chip decreases.

This leaves us with the appealing paradox that our ability to work on smaller and smaller scales may make us able to keep things bigger. There is far greater potential available to us through the memristor as the article shows, but I kind of liked the symmetry of that paradox.

Nanotech Innovation for the Automobile...Just not those made in Detroit

While last week I offered little hope that Detroitâ''s Big Three automakers could turn around their poor business sensibilities through nanotech or any other technological innovation, I do believe that nanotech will make it possible for other, letâ''s say more foresighted, automakers to improve their profits, and maybe even their revenues.

I came across this year-old video below from the CNET website that describes how Nanostellar is improving catalytic converters for diesel engines to the point where automakers could save $30 per vehicle by eliminating the need to use expensive platinum.

Letâ''s see, multiply the number of cars produced by $30â'¿and well, itâ''s a significant number.

I thought the telling line in the interview with Pankaj Dhingra, the CEO of Nanostellar, was when he says the automaker with whom they are in discussion to adopt their technology is a European one.

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