Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Energy Consumption Labels Coming Soon to a TV Near You

You've seen them on refrigerators, you've carefully peeled them off washing machines. And now they're coming to a TV near you--they being EnergyGuide labels. This means shoppers can compare energy consumption--which can vary greatly between TVs, even those with the same technology and screen size, as easily as they compare price. (One model of 42-inch Philips LCD, for example, sucks up $40.35 worth of electricity in a year, according to CNET, a 42-inch LG LCD will use just $20.66 worth of electricity in that same year.) The U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced the new rule today, it goes into effect on 10 May 2011. 

The Most Dangerous Site Online?

Visitors to the LimeWire file-sharing site found this message today:   “This is an official notice that LimeWire is under a court-ordered injunction to stop distributing and supporting its file-sharing software. Downloading or sharing copyrighted content without authorization is illegal.”

As someone who has been watching, and writing about, LimeWire for nearly a decade, (including this story in May 2007 for Spectrum) this moment is a long time coming.  And while the fight will still continue, it perhaps marks the end of what might be called the Peer-to-Peer Decade.

For LimeWire, that decade began with its unlikely founder, Mark Gorton.  Gorton defies the stereotype of the version 1.0 Napster punk.  With an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Yale, a master’s from Stanford, and an MBA from Harvard, Gorton built an empire, and a name, by coding the solutions that make them tick.  Tower Research Capitol, his financial services company on Wall Street, is among the small but elite firms that employee quantitative analysts (sometimes called “quants”) who code black box software that automatically exploits ripples in the market, and makes trades. Instead of recruiting from business schools, Gorton recruited his Wall Street whiz kids from unlikely places: physics, math, and engineering departments.

But despite his Wall Street fashion success, Gorton’s inner nerd caught up with him during the Napster craze of late 2000.  Gorton used his quant-made cash to fund his most ambitious mission, as he once told me, “building open source tools to help improve the functioning of democracy.”   One such tool was the file-sharing network, Gnutella.  Unlike Napster, Gnutella was part of the open source community:  idealistic programmers around the world who distributed their code for others to tweak and improve.  Problem was, Gnutella was also something of a mess.  “It was pretty poorly organized,” Gorton said.  So he set about cleaning it up.

The result was LimeWire, an easy-to-use free download that achieved the considerable feat of taming Gnutella for a newbie crowd.  The software soon resided on nearly 10 million computers worldwide.  While Napster crashed and burned, LimeWire avoided being sued.  Hilary Rosen, then president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, warned in 2001 that just because Gorton hadn’t received a call from the RIAA, didn’t mean he shouldn’t be worried.  “No one should take comfort in that they haven’t been sued yet,” she told me. 

For Gorton, however, this was all becoming rather moot.  A swarm of coders online quickly churned out their own spin-offs of LimeWire, just in case anything should happen.  “If the recording industry sues me,” Gorton told me, “I can fire all my programmers, stop development, and the network will keep running.” 

Not anymore, it seems.  But I don’t expect Gorton to back down so easily.  After the Recording Industry Association of America sued Gorton for facilitating copyright infringement a few years ago, Gorton countersued back.  He then launched an iTunes style music store that users LimeWire as its engine.  Gorton also created the Open Source Planning Project, a non-profit that develops free software tools for community groups.  One of these projects is Transportation Alternatives, a grassroots effort in New York to produce livable streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

Each of Gorton’s efforts relies on what might be called nerd-sourcing, tapping braniacs for out-of-the-box solutions.  But the code that drives Gorton is more personal.   By creating the right tools, he believes, it’s possible to not only build a business, but a stronger world. 

Electronics Companies Receive Darts and Laurels from Greenpeace

Philips and HP are bringing good things to the environment, according to Greenpeace’s latest Guide to Greener Electronics. The organization praises Philips for releasing the first television free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), both chemicals that persist in the environment after disposal and cause health problems. HP, Acer, Wipro, and HCL have also phased these substances out of several lines of computers, and HP has introduced its first PVC-free printer. Meanwhile, Nokia and Sony Ericsson remain at the top of the class, in first and second place respectively, for producing the most hazard-free products.

But Greenpeace isn’t happy with the entire electronics industry. The organization slapped Toshiba, LGE, Dell, and Lenovo for failing to stay on track in meeting their commitments to making their products greener. Toshiba got a second penalty point for misleading its customers, and Microsoft got slapped for actually backtracking on its commitments. The full Greenpeace Guide is here.

Update: China and Rare Earth Minerals

In January, IEEE Spectrum's Willie Jones asked a question:  What if China, which mines more than 95 percent of the world's supply of electronics-essential rare earth minerals stopped selling? Given Chinese media reports from earlier this week that the country may reduce export quotas of these minerals by up to 30 percent next year, many others are asking that same question. 

As Bloomberg Businessweek reports, China's Commerce Ministry responded to media in a statement that said the country will “continue to supply rare earth to the world," but must reduce exports for environmental and economic reasons.

Japan, which buys some 56 percent of China's rare earth minerals, is already feeling the pinch, Reuters reports. A reduction in cerium, essential for making flat-panel televisions and hard-drives, has sent manufacturers there into a scramble as they have noticed a 16-fold increase in the price of the mineral over the past decade. 

Of course we could all get the elements somewhere else, given that "rare" is a misnomer. Cerium, for example, is actually the 25th most abundant element of the 78 common elements in the earth's crust, according to the USGS. A better name for the 17 rare earth minerals might be "hard-to-extract safely minerals." As Global Post describes:

The ore typically contains radioactive elements, like thorium, radium and even uranium in the case of the Chinese mine. Moreover, the ore needs to be boiled in acid literally thousands of times. This renders the waste stream dangerous. . . The massive Inner Mongolia mine, on the banks of the Yellow River, is said to be an enormous toxic wound on the earth, but environmental standards in the Middle Kingdom remain lax. 

Some, such as George Leopold at EE Times suggest that the United States should devise new, safer ways to mine and process rare earth elements here. Molycorp Minerals, in Greenwood, Colo., the owner of the largest U.S. repository of rare earth metals, which stopped operating in 1992 when prices dropped, might be one place to start. Leopold also says we might encourage consumer electronics recycling programs as in Japan. 

Another alternative might be redesigning electronics so they don't need these minerals. Dexter Johnson addressed using nanoscale materials for this exact purpose in a Nanoclast blog post in June.

Image: Cerium, Materialscientist/Wikimedia Commons

Magic Rocks

This week comes news of a breakthrough in nanocrystal research.  Scientists at the United State's Energy Argonne National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution of Washington report finally being able to watch nanocrystals grow into form. "We have not been able to see how different conditions affect the particles," said Wenge Yang of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory, "much less understand how we can tweak the conditions to get a desired effect."

"Nanocrystal growth is the foundation of nanotechnology," said lead researcher Yugang Sun, "Understanding it will allow scientists to more precisely tailor new and fascinating nanoparticle properties."  As the so-called "foundation of nanotechnology," nanocrystals have fascinating prospects, as I learned from an engineer working in the field in Princeton.  Nanocrystals are in your socks, your Armani suit.  They're making his way into your cosmetics, your credit cards, your smart car.   And if you have lung cancer, he could be inside her chest too.

Entrepreneurial physicists are making and selling nanocrystals: programmable particles that are infiltrating our everyday lives.   Once a security measure of the Department of Treasury, nanocrystals are now going wide and transforming our lives. Grown from patent-protected mixtures of rare-earth elements – with names like Ytturbium, Prometheum, and Neodymium – these crystals measure as small as one nanometer.  Together they create something extraordinary, light.  Each mixture of elements produces a unique optical signature that can be detected with an infrared sensor.  With infinite combinations possible, there are countless types of light that can be produced – different colors, sizes, wavelengths.  And this is where the burgeoning applications come in. 

At first, nanocrystals were used to fight counterfeiters  The Department of Treasury puts nanocrystals in cash for added security.  If you hold a $20 bill up to an infrared sensor, you’ll see faint streaks of blue and green light – impossible to duplicate. A major credit card company will be putting the crystals into credit cards next year.  Lycra puts nanocrystals in its clothing to detect knockoffs.  If you hold a sensor up to your socks right now, you’ll see the crystals glow.

But the magic rocks aren’t just for security anymore.  They can be used  to improve the efficiency of solar cells.  Researchers are using nanocrystals to illuminate and track lung cancer cells in patients (a key development, because tumors can now be tracked without cutting open a patient’s chest).  Cosmetics companies could create nanocrystal infused makeup that creates a pinkish glow when exposed to sunlight.  Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute developed an auto-guiding car that senses and follows a trail of nanocrystals on a white line on the road. 

Is this the dawn of the Rare Earth age?

The Battle Over Violent Games Continues

On November 2, the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about a controversial California ban on the sale of explicit games to minors.   Warren Spector, acclaimed designer of Deus Ex and the upcoming Epic Mickey, has taken up the cause saying that "This is a case of great significance to you and me -- to all people who play or create games and believe in the First Amendment."

On Monday, October 19, an advocacy group called the Video Game Voters Network will be holding a National Day of Action.  Here's more info.  

This battle isn't new.  It cuts to the misperception that video games are for kids.  This fight began, in many ways, back in early 90s, and the ruckus over Mortal Kombat. Compared to innocuous hits like SimCity 2000 (a city simulation from Will Wright) and Super Mario Brothers All-Stars (the winning collection of Nintendo’s erstwhile platform game), Mortal Kombat shocked the parents and politicians who believed that games – video or otherwise - were for kids.  The fact that the blood-soaked version of the game for the Sega Genesis was outselling the bloodless version of the game on the family friendly Nintendo Entertainment System three-to-one only made them more nervous.

The Mortal Kombat panic reached a sensational crescendo in the United States on December 9, 1993, when Senator Joseph Lieberman held the first federal hearings on the threat of violent video games to children.  While culture warriors in the U.S. had played out similar debates over comic books in the 1950s and rock and roll after that, the battle over violent games had an urgently contemporary ring.  Gamers were the new outlaws.

“Because they are active rather than passive, [video games] can do more than desensitize impressionable children to violence,” warned the president of the National Education Association at Lieberman’s hearings, “They actually encourage violence as the resolution of first resort by rewarding participants for killing one’s opponents in the most grisly ways imaginable.”

Of course, video games have never really been for kids in the first place.  They rose up to prominence in the college computer labs, where shaggy geeks coded their own games on huge mainframe PCs.  From there, the so-called “golden age” of home consoles like the Atari 2600 and arcade machines like Pac-Man lured a new generation of players into the fold.  By the early 90s, these legions of kids were now tinkering with their own PCs at home.  A burgeoning underground of edgy, even violent games like Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom had become a phenomenon among diehards. 

To ward off the threat of legislation as a result of the Lieberman hearings, the video game industry creating the Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group representing their interest (now know as the Entertainment Software Association).  They also launched the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to voluntarily assign ratings to their game. With Mortal Kombat panic still griping the world, the media fed the flames in the UK.  Video games were “dangerous, violent, insidious, and they can cause everything from stunted growth to piles,” as one journalist frothed, “It's not just your children that they want, it's you, your pocket money and all your available free time. They cost a fortune, they'll be outdated in 10 minutes anyway, and they're nothing but an incomprehensible fad designed to warp and destroy young minds.”

Now here we are 16 years later.   Warren Spector's email is copied below:

-------Forwarded Message-------
From: Warren Spector
Date: October 13, 2010
Subject: Games are art

Dear Friends,

Computer and video games are art, a form of artistic expression deserving of and, currently, protected by the First Amendment.

That hasn't stopped states though from trying to restrict the rights of our medium's artists, storytellers, and technical innovators. On November 2, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of a California law that would restrict the sale of video games. This is a case of great significance to you and me -- to all people who play or create games and believe in the First Amendment.

Let's not beat around the bush -- if the Court's ruling goes against us, this law could lead to the future censorship of games, could irrevocably harm developers and would validate the absurd notion that video games are somehow a lesser form of creative expression.

We must act now. On October 19, I'm asking you to join me in urging all of your friends and co-workers, real-world or virtual, to stand up for video games by joining the Video Game Voters Network, an advocacy group fighting for their First Amendment protection.

Many people, including some of my personal heroes, like Stan Lee, have already encouraged us to take a stand. Now is the time for gamers to come together and spread the word through our social networks. Now is the time to ask every gamer we can reach to stand up with us and protect our First Amendment rights.

Here's the link:

On October 19, please tweet this:
Games=Free Speech. Stand w/ @VideoGameVoters on 11/2 as #SCOTUS decides future of games #GamersUnite

Post it on Facebook and on your blog. Talk about it in interviews, on podcasts and with your colleagues. Encourage everyone you can to do the same. It's time for all of us who are tired of games being treated unfairly to band together and let our collective voice be heard.

Thank you for considering this call to action.

-- Warren Spector

A Belt for Better Balance

Veterans with balance disorders will soon have the chance to try on an unusual fashion accessory: a vibrating belt. Using what's called vibrotactile feedback, the "balance belt" warns wearers with vibrating pulses when they are about to tip too far in any direction. This month, the Veterans Administration will begin a 4 to 6 week pilot study to test three of these belts.

A variety of research groups are now studying haptics technologies, which employ users' sense of touch, to help physical therapy patients. Some devices, such as this treadmill-like machine, actually push people into the required positions, in this case to build the muscle strength required for walking. Others are more subtle--like this theoretical device that could use small electrical currents, basically "noise" to the sensory system, to improve touch and also balance.

The balance belt falls somewhere in-between; it doesn't physically keep wearers from falling, but provides perceptible vibrating cues when the wearer seems liable to fall.

The belt's developer, Conrad Wall, a professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School, first imagined a balance vest. In early tests he had those with balance disorders stand on a platform while researchers "made life difficult for them." When the platform moved, the patients stumbled. But Wall says his vibrating vest changed that: "They put the device on and they didn't fall over anymore. It was pretty dramatic, actually." 

IEEE Spectrum described a much different balance vest in April. Instead of vibrations, pneumatic actuators inflate portions of that vest to warn wearers of an impending stumble. In that article, creators of the inflating vest argue that users might get used to and ignore vibrations--especially given long term feedback, as would be necessary for amputees, for example.

Wall imagines that his device will be worn temporarily, to help users train their muscles as part of physical therapy "homework" exercises, but he hasn't ruled out the possibility of giving the belts to patients with longer term balance problems.

The current version of the device comes from a collaboration with Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, MA, which helped him to turn a "cumbersome research device", a vest with 48 vibration points, called tactors, into a belt with 4 tactors, orchestrated with a microprocessor. He imagines that in the future, if this pilot test is successful, a mass-produced, single-user device might cost about $1,000. 

Image: Draper Laboratory

Soyuz damaged during delivery

Earlier this month our frequent space contributor, James Oberg, told us about the imminent launch of a redesigned "all digital" Soyuz, and why it's so important to the future of the International Space Station. He mentioned that a back up, old-model Soyuz was going to launch next, to give engineers time to assess how the digital ship did and fix any problems. But it seems that old Soyuz has hit a snag. Oberg writes:

The next-in-line Russian manned Soyuz spacecraft that was involved in a transportation incident last week will need extensive inspection and repair, Russia's space agency chief Anatoliy Perminov has admitted. This came after several days of official claims that only the shipping container had been affected by the railway accident in Kazakhstan as the vehicle was en route from its Moscow-area manufacturing site.
The three module spacecraft took a serious shock under circumstances that remain unclear. Perminov, however, says that "the train engineer was not careful enough." Vitaliy Lopota, director of the Energiya Rocket and Space Corporation that builds the spacecraft, said that "I think the condition of the railway line is to blame."
The 7 metric ton vehicle is suspended inside its canister at three points, and one of the fasteners failed, dropping the vehicle several centimeters to the floor, where it was able to roll back and forth slightly for much of the remainder of the trip. This was reportedly enough to damage the heat shield attachments and displace its axis 2 mm off the nominal centerline. A protective cover over the main engine was also found to be deformed.
Preliminary estimates are that it will take about two weeks of work to make repairs, although some of that could be accomplished in parallel with standard launch  procedures. This effort possibly will include the replacement of the crew module with the one intended for a launch in March. Both TMA-20 and that vehicle, TMA-21, are old model Soyuzes, not the new "digital" upgrade.
The launch can slip up to ten days (from December 13 to 23) without impacting the very tight International Space Station traffic manifest. This was possible because by good luck another scheduled Russian launch—a robot supply ship originally slated for 27 December —had already  slipped  to 28 January  because its supplies of food and rocket propellant were not so urgently required.

The Social Network's Science Fiction

The new movie, the Social Network, is a great human drama for all the right reasons.  There’s friendship.  There’s betrayal.  There’s plenty of greed.  And I had a lot of fun watching it.

But there’s not a lot of engineering in the big screen version of the Facebook story.  In fact, the movie seems kind of hostile toward engineers.  Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s young and intrepid creator, is portrayed as a geek who starts his path to dot com glory after getting dumped by a girl. The rest of the movie proceeds as essentially a giant Revenge of the Nerd thriller.  In the final scene (and this isn’t much of a spoiler) we’re left watching Zuckerberg alone in his empire as he “friends” the girl who broke his heart.  It's Rosebud for Generation Net. 

If it were true it would be a lot more compelling.  Back in 2005 and 2006, shortly after the film is set, I interviewed Zuckerberg on several occasions, and he wasn't much like the guy on-screen.  In addition to actually having a girlfriend, a fact left conveniently out of the film, he had a lot of thoughtful things to say about the world he was creating online.  He spoke fondly of eliminating the need to give someone your phone number; just have them Facebook you instead.  He also talked about how he was trying to create a new way of communicating online, something lightweight – even featherweight – that connected people in a more elegant manner than MySpace.  He shared one of the essential qualities I’ve found in just about every programmer I’ve ever interviewed – an earnest ambition to build something incredibly cool. 

The fact that the Real Mark bears little resemblance to Movie Mark shouldn’t come as a surprise.  As a friend of mine who’s an engineer observed, who wants to watch big screengrabs of PERL script?   But why reduce Zuckerberg to such a cornball stereotype – the scorned, borderline Autistic, nerd devoid of emotion who only wants to be part of the cool crowd?  The movie posters have the tagline:  Punk.  Genius.  Billionaire.  They left out one word.  Cliché.  Most engineers I know could care less about being in the cool crowd, which is what makes them compelling in the first place.

The Movie Mark is merely a projection of what the old media generation fears about the new world online.  (It’s telling that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin brags about how little time he has spent on Facebook).  The filmmakers seems to think that their man can only be sympathetic if, deep down, he just wants to be part of their club. Movie Mark is like some corny pencil-necked Dr. Doom, ignored by girls and bullies, only to come back as a super-villian who wants to reclaim the world...he'll show them!  It’s a lot trickier, and weirder, I suppose, to fashion Zuckerberg as an innovator and not a reactionary.  But, oh well.  Filmmakers can take artistic license if they want, and so be it.  But at least they could have come up with something more original.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More