Tech Talk iconTech Talk

U.S. Car Manufacturers Retreat on Fuel Efficiency

Major auto makers supplying the U.S. market, having previously supported the governmentâ''s effort to boost average fleet efficiency to 31.6 mpg by 2015 from 25 mpg today, are now having serious misgivings, according to a report in todayâ''s Wall Street Journal. Ford and Toyota are among those that had expressed confidence in their ability to meet the new goal but now are complaining about the scale and pace of what the National Highway Safety Administration proposes. Toyota is quoted as saying that the implementing regs are â''substantially front-loadedâ'' and â''increase at a rate much greater than anticipatedâ'' by law.

It Takes a Substation

Itâ''s just a local story to be sure, but a New York Times article today does a nice job of describing what it take to build an electrical substation in a modern megacity. Conventionally substationsâ''the transformer and switching arrays where transmission voltage is stepped down for district distributionâ''are just surrounded behind barbed wire in what otherwise might be vacant lots, easily recognizable by their large ceramic insulators. But in New York Cityâ''s South Bronx, Con Edâ''s latest station is housed in a nice brick building with fake windows, which might easily be mistaken for a fancy condo. Built at a cost of $300 million, the substation has a number of green elements such a grated vaults that allow for natural circulation and placement of huge tanks containing insulating liquid in motes, to contain any leakage. Seamless 10-inch steel pipes, which are not something bought off the shelf, sheathe the cables that enough current â''to power a small Caribbean country.â''

Beware of the Solar Breakthrough

With everybody from venture capitalists to green-minded homeowners keen to see breakthroughs in solar energy, itâ''s getting harder all the time to separate the hype from the reality. Last weekâ''the last week of Julyâ''a team at MIT announced it had achieved a major advance that they claimed could make photovoltaic energy economically viable at last: a method of storing PV-generated electricity at night, by means of a new catalyst for separating oxygen from the hydrogen in water. The general idea is that the hydrogen gleaned from the water could be used to power fuel cells, so that none of the solar electricity would be wasted.

The most notable thing about this announcement is the fabulously extravagant and overheated language in which it was made. A write-up of the principal investigatorâ''s article, distributed by Science magazine to journalists, described the innovation as â''revolutionary,â'' â''a huge leap,â'' â''unprecedented,â'' and â''nirvana.â'' Only in the seventh paragraph of that release do we hear the investigator express confidence that â''this is going to work.â'' So it doesnâ''t exactly work yet? Or, to judge from an EE Times write-up, it probably works about as well as a well-established method for separating oxygen from hydrogen, but perhaps more cost-effectively.

To take another example, First Solar, a relatively young company based in Tempe, Arizona, has suddenly been getting a lot of attention with claims that it has figured out a way to make PV material at an installation cost of $1 per wattâ''though the global average for solar installations was in the range of $6 or $7 per watt last year. How plausible is that claim? Well, itâ''s hard to know, because as a feature article appearing in this monthâ''s IEEE Spectrum magazine points out, â''The company does not talk to reporters. Not at all.â''

That article was written by a freelancer and edited by a colleague, but I can attest to the accuracy of its singular point. A few months ago I (that is to say, a journalist) was asked at the last minute to moderate a session at a big PV meeting in San Diego, in which the CEO of First Solar was supposed to be one of the panelists. At the last moment he reneged. A month or so later it just so happened I was at a meeting near Tempe, so I called First Solar and asked if I could come over to take a look at their breakthrough technology. The answer, after a handful of phone messages and a couple of e-mails? No.

This week I was contacted by a small company that has been working with a national laboratory to develop an improved way of depositing PV on a variety of materials, so that, for example, solar cells can be incorporated right into a buildingâ''s shell. The company recently won an r&d award, prompting it to contact journalists. The chief technology officer of the company described the companyâ''s technology to me in careful detail, but he refused to make any claims about how much the process would ultimately cost or when exactly they would be able to introduce their first products. Now that got my attention.

NASA's Phoenix Lander Confirms Water on Mars

The answer to an age-old question has finally been revealed. The managers of the Phoenix Mars Lander said yesterday that their experimental equipment had detected water on the surface of the Red Planet.

According to a news report from NASA, tools onboard the Phoenix were able to scoop a sample of Martian surface material and then heat it in a mini-oven. An instrument then detected the presence of liquid water in the mixture.

"We have water," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). "We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."

The U.S. space agency said the positive results so far from the Phoenix have prompted administrators to extend the spacecraft's mission through the end of September, adding five more weeks to its experimental activities.

"Phoenix is healthy and the projections for solar power look good, so we want to take full advantage of having this resource in one of the most interesting locations on Mars," said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The next big issue NASA hopes to answer will be much trickier than the unmistakable presence of water in Martian soil: Whether water was ever able to sustain substances that could have led to life on the planet.

"Mars is giving us some surprises," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "We're excited because surprises are where discoveries come from."

U.S. Air Regulation Reversals Are Costly for Industry

The dramatic reversals in U.S. air regulation, reported and discussed two weeks ago, are proving nettlesome not just for environmentalists and for some of the parties that had challenged rules in court, but for the energy industry generally. John Dizard reports this week in Londonâ''s Financial Times that utilities had spent upwards of $75 billion for SO2 and NOx retrofits to meet the rules that now have been overturned. Dizard quotes a source at the Washington law firm Bracewell & Giuliani saying that just the lost value of SO2 emissions allowances could come to $15-20 billion. PPL, a Pittsburgh utility, has announced losses associated with defunct NOx allowances could come to almost $100 million.

NASA turns 50 today

On July 29, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. The agency started operations on Oct 1 of that year, almost a year after the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 stunned the world.

In its 50 years of existence, NASA has accomplished many milestones, but probably the most important is that it has expanded our horizons. The many pictures from the lunar missions, the Voyager expeditions and the Hubble Space Telescope have forever changed our view of the cosmos. In particular, one picture stands out: the Earth as a frail blue dot photographed in the darkness over the lunar desert.

To celebrate its anniversary, NASA has just launched a historical image archive that will enthrall space buffs:

http://nasaimages.org/

The BBC has also created a page devoted to NASA's 50th anniversary that has footage of President John F. Kennedy's pledge to reach the moon and Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7523700.stm

Randy Pausch, Inspirational Computer Scientist (1960-2008)

The lecturer who urged his students to go out and achieve their childhood dreams has succumbed to a disease he fought against in the public spotlight. Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University died on Friday, 25 July, of pancreatic cancer. He was 47.

Pausch was diagnosed with the disease in August 2006. A year later, he was told the cancer had spread. Coincidentally, he had already accepted an invitation to speak at Carnegie Mellon in a format called The Last Lecture, in which invitees are asked to ruminate about what they would tell others if they knew they had one last chance to impart some final wisdom. Pausch went ahead with his presentation, despite the fact that his doctors had estimated that he had only a few more months to live.

PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA

THE LAST LECTURER: IEEE Member Randy Pausch brought a love of life and learning to the students he mentored, helping them to achieve their dreams.

On 18 September 2007, Pausch delivered a speech entitled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" before a packed lecture hall on the Pittsburgh campus. As he approached the podium, he was given a standing ovation from the hundreds in attendance. The word was out regarding his health.

In his talk that day, Pausch urged his listeners to work vigorously to overcome the obstacles life presents, to help others achieve their goals, and to seize the moment, because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think."

As fate would have, the presentation was videotaped and, thanks to the global reach of the Internet, it went viral, reaching millions.

Pausch was approached by a publisher to expand his remarks into a book. The result was The Last Lecture, which became an overnight success (and is currently No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller Advice List). That led to appearances on American TV talk shows, from "Good Morning America" to "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

With this whirlwind of attention from the media, Pausch found himself drafted into a position as unofficial spokesperson for persons with pancreatic cancer, appearing in public service announcements. In March of this year, he testified before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, advocating for increased government funding for cancer research.

A World of His Making

Pausch was born in Baltimore on 23 October 1960. His family moved to Columbia, Md., when he was a boy. It was an omen, of sorts, for the young man, as the town was the first fully pre-planned community in the United States, emphasizing educational resources upfront as a premium in its urban design.

Pausch received his bachelor's degree in computer science from Brown University, in Providence, R.I., in 1982. He earned his Ph.D. in the same field from Carnegie Mellon in 1988. While pursuing his doctorate, he worked briefly in Silicon Valley for Adobe Systems and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Nonetheless, he decided that education was his true calling, so he took a teaching position at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he worked from 1988 to 1997, specializing in virtual reality systems and human-computer interaction.

As he told the audience in his Last Lecture speech, Pausch pursued his personal dreams by working for a time for Walt Disney Imagineering and game maker Electronic Arts in California while on sabbaticals.

In 1997, Pausch accepted a position as an Associate Professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon, where he co-founded the university's Entertainment Technology Center. His course Building Virtual Worlds soon became a favorite among computer science students, as well as other undergraduates. To help novices understand the basics of using software to design virtual simulations, he invented the Alice programming environment, an intuitive Java-based 3D scripting tool, which Pausch got Electronic Arts to sponsor as an open-source project on behalf of Carnegie Mellon.

An IEEE member, Pausch received many honors for his work during his short life, including the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator award, a Lilly Foundation Teaching Fellowship, and the Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). He published extensively in technical journals, especially those of the ACM and IEEE. He also co-authored the textbook for the language he created, Learning to Program with Alice (Prentice Hall, New York, 2005), along with several other books on software.

Still, it will be his final book, The Last Lecture (Hyperion, New York, 2008), for which he will be most remembered. Its popularity (currently ranked by Amazon as its No. 2 bestseller) will ensure his place among the ranks of writers who have popularized science.

In May 2008, Pausch was named by Time magazine as one of the "World's Top-100 Most Influential People."

After his Last Lecture presentation last September, a spokesperson for Electronic Arts said the company will honor Pausch by creating a memorial scholarship for women, in recognition of Pausch's support of women in computer science and engineering. And Carnegie Mellon has set up an honorary fund in his memory.

Pausch passed away at his home in Chesapeake, Va., last Friday surrounded by his wife Jai and their three children: Dylan, 6, Logan, 4, and Chloe, 2.

Tonight at 10pm EST, the ABC network will present a special documentary on his life appropriately entitled The Last Lecture: A Celebration of Life.

It will undoubtedly include a reference to a line he delivered in his famous presentation: "We can't change the cards we're dealt, just how we play the hand."

Girls as Good as Boys in Math but Lack Interest in Engineering

Contrary to cultural mythology, there are no differences between young men and women when it comes to mastering mathematics. That's the conclusion of a major new study looking at the performance of grade-school students by gender on standardized math tests.

The results of the study, published this week in the journal Science, found that girls now score just as well as boys in the exams. The study (Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance) reviewed the annual test results mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. With the cooperation of ten states, the researchers were able to compare the performance of more than 7 million children.

Yet, societal influences still prevail to conspire against young women in pursuing careers in technology dominated fields further reporting shows. And that remains unsettling to educators. Despite the news that young women in high school show the same aptitude for the basics of science and technology, they are not following these career paths at the college level in great numbers. This fact has been known for decades, and has not changed as the test scores at lower levels have improved.

In a report last Friday from the Associated Press, we learn that women now earn 48 percent of undergraduate college degrees in math, but that they still lag far behind in physics and engineering. Education researchers the AP spoke with think this discrepancy may be due to faults still built in to the grade-school math teaching agenda.

In looking at their own data, the authors of the Science article, led by Janet S. Hyde, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, noticed that in most states they reviewed, and at most grade levels, there weren't any questions that involved complex problem solving, an ability needed to succeed in high levels of science and engineering.

The AP report notes that the U.S. Department of Education recently convened a panel that called for changes in state tests to emphasize the importance of critical thinking in problem solving.

At IEEE Spectrum, we've been following this issue for years (for example, please see Getting Women Into Engineering Still Frustrates from last year). In 2005, we covered an important initiative aimed squarely at getting young women and girls excited about pursuing careers in engineering. As one of our contributors wrote then: "[T]he Extraordinary Women Engineers Project ... is being driven by a nationwide coalition of professional engineering societies, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, the IEEE, and the National Academy of Engineering, as well as universities and technology companies." (For more, please see A League of Extraordinary Women by Prachi Patel-Predd.)

And as recently as couple of days ago, Editor-in-Chief Susan Hassler, blogged about a session she attended at the recent Brainstorm Tech meeting in Half Moon Bay, Calif., sponsored by Fortune magazine, in which a past-president of the IEEE called on technology leaders to rededicate their efforts to attracting more young people into engineering by making them aware of "how engineers can make the world a better place."

Hassler's blog entry, Leah Jamieson Talks About Reinventing the Engineer, describes Jamieson, the Dean of Engineering at Purdue University, as challenging educators to move "away from the discipline-by-discipline approach and toward integrated experiences that allow students to appreciate how they'll be able to apply what they're learning."

After all, it's fine to inculcate facts and formulas into the sensitive minds of young men and women; but it's even better to help them understand how things work and what can be done to make those things work better by presenting context in a stimulating manner and welcoming students to learn by doing. Encouraging young people to try and fail and then try again, without social bias, is an approach to education that must become fundamental at all levels. This lesson applies to both genders, but we must show our girls and young women that we really mean to follow it.

Should We Discount Discounting in Climate Policy?

Discounting of future costs and benefits is used ubiquitously in evaluation of both private investments and public projects. Though highly technical in practice, the technique would seem (at least a first glance) to be based in a simple, commonplace, and almost undeniable empirical observation. Given a choice between being handed a hundred dollars today and hundred dollars a year or two from now, wouldnâ''t you rather just take the hundred right now? After all, even if you donâ''t have any immediate use for the money, you can always invest it, so that after a year to two it will be worth at historic rates of return $110 or even $120.

But when applied to very long time frames and large complicated situations with many unknowns or hard-to-knows, the subject of discounting tends to trip up and befuddle the greatest minds. Take climate policy, where the proper approach to discounting has become immensely controversial. In a recent New York Review of Books article, Freeman Dyson approvingly discusses recent work by Yale economist William Nordhaus while criticizing Sir Nicholas Stern, lead author of the British governmentâ''s monumental 2007 review of climate policy.

Rather inexplicably, Dyson says incorrectly that Stern â''rejects the idea of discounting future costs and benefits when they are compared with present costs and benefits.â'' Actually Stern stands accused not of that but of employing an excessively low discount rate, so that future benefits accruing from costly efforts to prevent climate damage appear bigger in present-day terms than they really should. (The higher the discount rateâ''the closer it gets to the normal long-term rate of return expected on investmentsâ''the smaller future benefits will be relative to current expenditures.)

In another recent article on this thorny subject, Oxford University ethicist John Broome correctly juxtaposes Sternâ''s preferred 1.4 percent discount rate with Nordhausâ''s 6 percent, nicely graphing the implications. But having done that, Broome seems to provide a philosophically incomplete account of discounting, and takes the reader into a thicket of ethical complications and conundrums where weâ''d really prefer to have a path cleared.

According to an authoritative treatment, the idea of discounting goes back two hundred years, to economists writing soon after Adam Smith. As it was elaborated in the following century and a half, mainly by economists in a noted â''Austrian school,â'' it came to have two main components: â''time preferenceâ'' (that is, our predisposition to take our pleasure now and put off pain), and diminishing marginal utility (since weâ''ll be richer in the future, added goods will have lesser proportional value). In 1937, the young Paul Samuelsonâ''the economist who grounded the whole field in advanced mathematics, turning it into a quantitative scienceâ''published a paper in which he gathered the aspects of choosing between present and future values into one rather simple formula, which carried the day. Though Samuelson had reservations about his procedure, which our source says further research would validate, his modus operandi was so simple and elegant it was irresistible, so that it became the standard for almost all cost-benefit analysis.

Broome, writing in the June issue of Scientific American, for some reason leaves pure time preference out of his account of discountingâ''perhaps he reasons that personal feelings about present and future happiness have no philosophic standing? Instead he focuses strictly on issues of marginal utility, arguing in essence that the well-being of future generations should not be highly discounted relative to our well-being. That attitude is consistent with Sternâ''s but leads, Broome himself concedes in a sidebar, to some bizarre considerations:

â''If humanity become extinct or the human population collapses [as a result of climate change], vast number of people who would otherwise have existed will not in fact exist. The absence of so much potential humanity seems an overwhelmingly bad thing. But that is puzzling. If nonexistence is a harm, it is a harm suffered by nobody, since there is nobody who does not exist.â''

Do we really need to go there? Perhaps not. Last year, in a respectful but critical review of the Stern report, Harvard economist Martin L. Weitzman suggested that some of its key conclusionsâ''its calls for rather aggressive and expensive actions to constrain greenhouse gas emissions nowâ''could be better justified in terms of an insurance argument rather than the usual Samuelsonian analysis in which all projected costs and benefits are calculated to reveal an optimal consumption path.

Now, in an even more technical followup paper, Weitzman argues (if Iâ''m following him correctly) that in situations involving very improbable but distinctly possible catastrophes, standard cost-benefit analysis is crippled not only by disagreements about discounting but also deep uncertainties in the assessment of consequences as such. That is, if we canâ''t really know how much damage could result from atmospheric greenhouse concentrations being (say) more than twice what they were before the industrial revolution began, how can we even begin to assess the net present value of that damage?

Weitzmanâ''s work appears to be a mathematical elaboration of arguments put forth several years ago by the conservative Chicago jurist Richard Posner, who argued (1) that it would be worth taking expensive action to reduce the probability of even a very improbable catastrophe, if the catastrophe is big and bad enough; and (2) that uncertainties about the catastropheâ''s likelihood and effects, rather than undermining the case for action, support it. That is, the higher the probability that climate change might be less severe than generally expected, by symmetrical statistical reasoning, the higher the probability it might also be even worse.

Leah Jamieson Talks About Reinventing the Engneer

hd-brainstormTech-lg.gif

Leah Jamieson, past IEEE president and Dean of Engineering at Purdue University, addressed the plenary session at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech meeting in Half Moon Bay, California on Wednesday.

brainstorm.leah2.jpg

Her call to action was three-fold---attract, educate, manage---and included:

The challenge for all of us: Changing the perception of engineering and other technology professions. Making sure that young people understand how engineers can make the world a better place.

The challenge for educators: Changing the way engineering and other technology disciplines are taught. Moving away from the discipline by discipline approach and toward integrated experiences that allow students to appreciate how they'll be able to apply what they're learning.

The challenge for industry: Changing entry level positions. Making theses jobs stimulating and rewarding so newly minted engineers don't flee to other industries.

Professor Jamieson knows whereof she speaks. She is co-founder and past director of the Engineering Projects in Community Service---EPICS---program. Under that program, teams of undergraduates earn academic credit for multi-year, multidisciplinary projects that solve engineering- and technology-based problems for community service and education organizations. She and EPICS colleagues Edward J. Coyle and William C. Oakes were awarded the U.S. National Academy of Engineering's 2005 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education. She's also received the NSF Director's Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars, been inducted into Purdue's Book of Great Teachers, and been named Indiana Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

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