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All the Processing, Half the Power

Last August, IEEE Spectrum ran a feature article by researchers from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and ARM Holdings in Cambridge, England, who reported their work aimed at marshaling all of a microprocessor’s abilities, leaving hardly any reserve. They discussed sophisticated fault-monitoring techniques that allow chips to operate close to the point at which performance-harming timing errors start to crop up. Computer makers, they said, would soon be able to skirt the razor’s edge of chip reliability by correcting for the occasional error while overclocking a chip to boost processing speed or while running it on much less power in order to gain more energy efficiency.

On 9 February, the Michigan-ARM team stepped forward with a game-changing announcement. The researchers presented a paper at the International Solid State circuits conference (ISScc) reporting that they used fault monitoring and a group of complementary energy-saving techniques--such as shutting off the clock signal in the regions of the chip that aren’t crunching numbers--to maintain the performance and reliability of a 1-GHz chip running on 52 percent less power than it’s rated for. 

Solar Tech in Africa

I've been following some interesting developments in green tech, using solar power, in Africa.   First to Mali.  This West African nation is famous for its extreme poverty and brutally hot Saharan plains near Timbuktu.  But a small group of volunteer geeks made it famous for something else:  green radio.  

Based in the capital city of Bamako, IESC Geekcorps, a sort of Peace Corps for techies, is building 11 solar-powered radio stations in northern Mali.   The goal is to use solar energy to build specific equipment able to use low-power.  Their solution is ingeniously scrappy, and effective.  The team built a 150 watt transmitter from scratch, powered by just six batteries and six solar panels.  With a 40 foot mast, the transmitter can broadcast as much as 30 miles, and it’s rugged enough to set up in even the most hostile desert conditions.  The Geekcorps Mali is also applying its start-up chops to building a rural computer center, powered by just one solar battery and solar panel and using a measly 20 watts.   By choosing the equipment and focalizing on an adapted technology they used less energy than other commercial solutions.

In Ghana, the green lantern isn’t a superhero, it’s an innovative way to bring environment-friendly lighting to the neediest of people.  With roughly 40% of the population off a power grid, many residents have had to rely on high-polluting and relatively high-cost kerosene lamps for light.  But the country has become a shining example of a craft solution:   inexpensive photovoltaic lamps. 

A small engineering company in Accra called Deng Limited has been expertly training dealers and technicians to install systems around the region.  The small lamps are easily assembled using tiny modules that store up electricity using sunlight, and last for as long as three years.  More than 6000 solar lanterns are now in use, and the company runs a training center to help keep up the action.   Their work scored them an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy, presented by Al Gore.   Some in Ghana – as well as surrounding areas such as Kenya and Rwanda – are going further by distributing kits with which residents can build their own solar lighting.  A group called the Solar Panel Project provides the essentials – including the light emitting diode, the circuit board, and chips – and the residents use household vessels, from coffee cans to plastic bottles, to house the parts. 

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Chew On This! A Hearing Aid For Your Mouth.

A company in California is developing a hearing aid that will attach to the upper molars and transmit sound through a patient's jaw.

The SoundBite, as it's called, has two components. The first, a small microphone sitting in the ear canal, records vibrations that it relays to a transmitter resting on back of the ear. These two pieces are attached by a small transparent wire. The second part of the device clamps onto the back of the top row of teeth like an acrylic mold. A receiver detects signals from the transmitter behind the ear and converts them into vibrations strong enough to carry through the teeth and jaw, but weak enough that the wearer can't consciously feel them.

In a healthy person, air vibrations travel down the inner ear and create patterned disturbances in air pressure that in turn disturb the fluid of the cochlea. Little hair-like cells (called...hair cells) respond to the fluctuations as a spectrum, which the brain then sorts and deciphers as the audible frequencies of sound. The process is one of the most elegant in the body and utilizes the smallest bones in our body. (Take a look!) Tiny, tiny structures convert air vibrations, to fluctuations in air pressure, to wave patterns in fluid, to electrical impulses.

A bone conductive hearing aid, such as the SoundBite, essentially does the same thing, but sends the information through different material. Vibrations ultimately arrive at the cochlea and cause waves patterns in the inner ear, but they get there through surrounding bone (the ear is essentially encased in bone). They are an alternative hearing aid most useful to patients who have ear deformities or infections restricting them from wearing a conventional device.

One of the main problems with bone conductive hearing aids has been keeping them anchored to the bone. The latest approach to doing this has been to surgically implant the hearing aid into the bone surrounding the ear.

SoundBite seems to be an attempt to circumvent the need for surgery, and indeed devises a reversible solution. But there are a lot of other problems that I imagine surfacing when we invite technology into our mouths. Images show that the device hides almost completely in the back of your mouth. So, great. That solves some cosmetic concerns. But what about eating? What about talking? What about keeping it clean? What about talking to, and hearing, your dentist while you're getting a root canal?

Also, people already report poorer sound quality with bone conductive hearing aids than with air conductive ones. Will the quality further deteriorate when the vibrations are coming all the way from the teeth and jaw bone?

As always, clinical trials will be the only way to find out, and the company, Sonitus Medical, is just beginning with that.

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Is Apple's iEmpire in Danger as Google's Chrome OS Tablet Prepares to Face the iPad?

It may be easy to get lost in the hype about the iPad, but many other companies have prototype tablet PCs in the works, and this year CES was a crawling with them. Unlike the unveiling of the iPod when the rest of the tech industry was caught by surprise, mobile computing companies were ready with their own challengers to the iPad. So will Apple and the iPad rule, or is it time for someone else become the pusher of our tech fix?

In 2001 Apple released the iPod, making it a revolutionary year in consumer electronics . Apple began to turn things around, embracing design, making tech cool and, most importantly of all, making relatively complicated computer technology available to the masses.

Now, it appears that 2010 might be the year of Google. The company's support of open source software might become Apple's undoing, and the concept photos and video of a Chromium powered tablet PC look to make it a challenger to the iPad.

Anything you can do, we can do better.

Google’s market strategy has been almost the exact opposite of Apple’s.

Apple has been an authoritarian voice, trying to control every aspect of their products and the related technology. A proprietary operating system, the final word on iPhone apps (Does anyone understand the approval process?), it’s exclusive deal with AT&T in the U.S., a combative stance against consumers who want to take control of their own devices—the list goes on and on.

The iPhone case is even sealed to prevent consumers from changing their own dead batteries. It costs $85.95 to have Apple replace it for you.

Instead of treating the tech community with suspicion, Google embraced the collective experience of professionals and enthusiasts all over the world. The Android mobile operating system and the Chrome OS are open source projects with code available and free for anyone who wants to play with, modify and improve it.

As long as Google continues to support open source, they have my vote.

Google also decided to eschew Apple’s strategy of exclusive deals with phone companies and device makers. Android is now found on 32 devices in the market and 15 that are forthcoming. (I’m sure these are lowball figures, too. They come from the Wikipedia List of Android Devices).

Ultimately it is Google’s willingness to work with so many different companies and the consumer’s ability choose a variety of mobile devices that will end Apple's domination. They should be used to it. In the computing market Mac OS X had a 5.11 percent market share in December 2009.

Who knows? The Google Chrome OS may even challenge Windows in time.

Apple’s model of “we know better than our customers” didn’t work in personal computing, and it won’t work for long in mobile technology either.

Champions of design.

The one thing that Apple really has going for it is design. There is no doubt that before Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1998, tech was UGLY!

Power Mac 5500 from 1997 and Twentieth Anniversary Mac from 1997:

 

 

 

 iMac from 1998 and choice of colors: 

        Color Options

 

Even after Apple began to make things that consumers wanted to possess--wanted to be seen with--to enjoy just for aesthetic reasons, the rest of the industry failed to get it.

Apple brought sexy back, and it worked.

Now its 2010 and other tech companies have finally gotten it. Striking design is just as important as cutting edge technology.

One of my favorite computer designs to come out in the last year was created by BMW DesignworksUSA for  Thermaltake. Here's a pic of the Thermaltake Level 10 Gaming Station:

 

Choice, personalization and open source.

The empire that Apple has been building since 1998 is being challenged. And while the comfortable citizens of that empire are clutching their iPhones and congratulating Steve Jobs on the iPad, the barbarians are raising their own mobile devices in defiance.

You can almost hear them shout: “By the power of Google, I have the POWER!”

[Photo Credits - Top Photo: dev.chromium.org; Power Mac 5500: Ben Boldt; TAM: www.allaboutapple.com, iMac: Flickr, Masashige MOTOE; iMac Colors Flickr, Masashige MOTOE; Thermaltake Case: BMW Group DesignworksUSA]

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NASA Engineers Bring the Internet to Astronauts

“Hello Twitterverse...”

With these words Astronaut TJ Creamer (@Astro_TJ on Twitter) sent the first live tweet from space on January 22 using the newly installed internet connection aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

It’s hard enough to set up a reliable wireless network at home on Earth, let alone space. I harbor a personal grudge against my two-foot-thick 19th century brick/plaster wifi-killing walls and don’t get me started with my router or my ISP. So how does NASA connect with the ISS 300 to 400 kilometers above the Earth travelling at nearly 28000 km/h?

In this case, engineers took advantage of the station’s existing communication link, which relies on the Ku radio band. The Ku band is the most common portion of the frequency spectrum used for satellite communication and is not reserved for restricted use. Among the companies that use the Ku band for commercial purposes are satellite internet providers and news networks broadcasting on satellite from remote locations.

A software modification was all that was needed to dedicate a portion of the existing communication network for personal internet use.

“The system will provide astronauts with direct private communications to enhance their quality of life during long-duration missions by helping to ease the isolation associated with life in a closed environment,” NASA stated in a press release announcing the upgrade. The internet connection should have little to no effect on the actual day to day maintenance of the station or its scientific mission.

Tweeting from space may be convenient, but some scientists are working on a much tougher space-based networking problem. Currently, satellites, probes, landers and other unmanned spacecraft each have a unique communication link with Earth. Vinton Cerf, one of the co-inventors of the TCP/IP internet protocol, has been working with NASA for over a decade on a robust protocol that could integrate different space based communication devices to work together like an Earth based system of routers, switches and clients.

Dubbed Disruption Tolerant Networking, or DTN, the protocol is designed to deal with the interference and unpredictability of interplanetary communication signals.

While there are no wifi blocking walls in space, these networks struggle with intermittent, unpredictable and easily degraded signals. Transmission scrambling solar storms, blackout periods when a spacecraft is on the far side of a planet and the enormous distances that signals must travel all add up to a large number of corrupted or lost data packets. On Earth we’d just query the source again and start the transmission over, but without reliable continuous connections this just isn’t feasible.

“You are going to be able to communicate from A to B at this data rate starting at 12:30 and ending at 3:30, and then you are not going to be able to communicate on that link anymore...until next Tuesday,” said Scott Burleigh, a software designer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an interview with IEEE Spectrum last July for an article on the particulars of DTN.

Overcoming these obstacles outside of Earth’s orbit are going to be the real space communications challenge.

It’s great that astronauts can tweet from space, update their Facebook accounts and browse a friend’s Flickr album, but this personal internet upgrade is not exactly a revolution in communication.

When we get a live tweet from one of the Martian Rovers though, I’ll be impressed.

[Top photo credit: NASA March 23, 2009]

Obama's Vision (and Budget) for NASA

Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator

President Obama’s FY 2011 budget request for NASA calls for the end of the beleaguered Constellation program, which was designed to return humans to the moon. Engineers have been developing Constellation for the past five years, but last summer’s review of human spaceflight plans called the program “unsustainable.”

The new budget, announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Monday, would increase the space agency’s funding by US $6 billion over the next 5 years, with most of that allocated to accelerating the development of commercial space vehicles. The new plan designates Mars as the ultimate destination for human space explorers, with the moon and near-Earth asteroids as stepping-stones to get there.

Bolden acknowledged that the proposed budget is based on the Augustine committee’s report last summer, which proposed a “flexible path” of sending robots and humans to multiple destinations—the moon, near-Earth asteroids, moons of Mars, and eventually the red planet itself.

The chairman of the review committee, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, indicated that he was pleased that the budget addresses his committee’s concerns. “The President’s proposed program seems to match means to ends, and should therefore be executable,” he wrote in an online statement. Under the Constellation program, “the means [did] not match the ends,” he told IEEE Spectrum last month.

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and one of the ten members of the Augustine committee, also spoke briefly in support of the new plan, calling it “a significant vote of confidence in NASA and an exciting strategic shift that puts NASA on a sustainable path toward the future,” specifically by reallocating Constellation funds to develop new technologies for on-orbit refueling, automated rendezvous and docking, heavy-lift rockets, and robotic precursor missions, among other high-tech developments. This shift, Ride said, “brings NASA back to its roots as an engine of innovation” while ensuring that as we explore the solar system, “we’ll be doing it with new technology, and arm in arm with our commercial and international partners.”

The new funding in the budget is intended for commercial programs chosen on a competitive basis, rather than internal NASA programs. That money will “drive the beginning of a commercial crew industry,” Bolden said, and leave NASA able to do it’s old job of innovating ways to send humans “farther, faster, and more affordably” into space; specifically, beyond low Earth orbit.

To jump-start the fledgling commercial industry, NASA will award US $50 million from economic stimulus funds to commercial space pioneers—Blue Origin of Kent, WA, The Boeing Company of Houston, TX, Paragon Space Development Corporation of Tucson, AZ, Sierra Nevada Corporation of Louisville, CO, and United Launch Alliance of Centennial, CO—to develop initial concepts and technology demonstrations that will take human crews safely into orbit.

The budget further commits to extending the life of the International Space Station (ISS) until 2020 or beyond, past the 2015 de-orbit date that would have put an early end to a space lab that has been under construction for over a decade. And it grants the space shuttle program enough funding—$600 million in FY 2011—to ensure that the last five scheduled missions will fly, completing the construction of the ISS by the end of 2010.

While the Augustine report found that a human return to the moon would not be feasible before 2028 or 2030 based on Constellation’s progress and meager funding, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver predicts that humans will be rocketing to space on commercial launchers by as early as 2016, based on timelines from commercial bids.

Of course, not everyone will be thrilled with the president's plan. Congress will want to hang on to jobs in NASA centers across the country. Seven thousand jobs are already on the chopping block with the imminent end of the space shuttle program, according to Garver, and with Constellation’s demise, more will follow.

But Bolden stressed that the money invested in new science and technology programs, especially in the commercial sector, will open up jobs—as many as 5,000 nationwide, he said. Office of Technology Policy (OSTP) chief of staff Jim Kohlenberger added that money budgeted to invest in upgrading NASA centers like the launch facilities at Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, will also create more jobs.

When asked how the government would respond to taxpayers wondering why they spent 9 billion dollars on the cancelled program, OSTP's Kohlenberger said that “having put $9 billion into an unexecutable program isn’t an excuse to spend another $50 billion and still not have an executable program.”

NASA spokespeople remain confident that Constellation’s end won’t mean the end of spaceflight, human or otherwise. As NASA’s Garver stressed during the press conference, “We’re not cancelling our ambitions to explore space, we’re cancelling Constellation.” 

W00t W00t for Wetlands

February 2nd is World Wetlands Day, in case that slipped your mind. In honor of the day, I’m devoting this post to a neat wetlands project I learned about during my recent visit to the farming community of Griffith, Australia.

Barren Box Swamp is a 3200-hectare site about 20 kilometers northwest of town. In its natural state, it was what’s known as an ephemeral wetland: it flooded with water after rainfalls and dried out completely during dry periods. Around about the late 1950s, the local irrigation authority permanently flooded it, creating a lake to store about 80,000 megaliters of water that would then feed into the irrigation system. In the process, the natural wetlands were destroyed.

But the lake was shallow—2 to 3 meters at its deepest—and much water was lost through evaporation. So Murrumbidgee Irrigation decided to split the site into 3 smaller areas, or cells. Two of the cells are still used to store water for irrigation, but because they’re deeper and more compact, there’s less evaporation loss. The third cell, which covers half the site, is being gradually restored to its ephemerally swampy state. The move saved the company about 20,000 megaliters of water, and the sale of that water paid for the construction of the 10 kilometers of levee banks that now divide the site. “Environmentally, it’s quite significant, and it’s left us with infrastructure that’s far better than what we previously had,” says Brett Tucker, the managing director of Murrumbidgee Irrigation.

Barren Box isn’t open to the public, but I got to visit the site with the company’s executive manager for the environment, Rob Kelly. “This project clearly demonstrates that you can have both environmental outcomes and irrigation outcomes—there was no tradeoff required,” Kelly told me.

It’s a beautiful spot. Along one stretch of water, I spotted black swans and cormorants and grebes and pelicans and ducks and ibises; Kelly says dozens of bird species now call the swamp home. A little further on, wallabees and emus bounded through the tall grass. I felt like I’d stepped into a nature documentary. (The photo of sunbathing pelicans was taken at Barren Box by local nature photographer David Kleinert.)

It took years of careful negotiation with the community to get the project approved, Kelly says, but the effort was well worth it. “When we first embarked on this, a lot of people told us, ‘It’ll never work.’ We simply took the attitude, that’s not an excuse not to try,” Kelly says. “And look what you can achieve.”

NASA Announces New Budget

NASA administrator Charles Bolden spoke about the space agency's new budget at a press conference at 12:30. Looks like returning to the Moon in the near future is being dropped - this is what the Augustine panel recommended. Not unexpected, but will disappoint many.

The budget is focusing on robotic missions and Earth and climate science. The International Space Station is going to get some money.

The Constellation program is being canceled. Future of human expolaration is unclear - no timelines were given. No funding line for solid rocket motors beyond 2010, it seems.

However, Bolden spoke about "in-orbit fuel depots" and how to "reduce aircraft fuel needs" as areas that the agency will focus on.

The budget is being billed as "more sustainable." Obama is expanding funding by $6 billion.

Realizing that the cancelation of manned spaceflights to the Moon will be perceived as killing a source of inspiration to young and old, Bolden spent quite a bit of time reassuring reporters that it was otherwise.

He said NASA was "absolutely committed to inspiring young people."

Saving Water, Burning Watts

 

For nearly a century, farmers in Griffith, New South Wales, have relied on an irrigation system that covers some 2600 square kilometers. The company that runs that network is Murrumbidgee Irrigation. Water flows from the Murrumbidgee River into two large storage dams and from there into a network of open, concrete-lined channels. It’s a gravity-fed system, which means that the water flows ever downhill, so there’s no need to pump it from place to place. When I drove around the Griffith countryside, my eyes were continually drawn to the channels—lovely avenues of water in an otherwise dry landscape.

But those channels lose water through evaporation and leaks, and the company fights a constant battle to maintain the channels. Recently, it decided to replace the channels that now feed about 12000 hectares of farmland with pumping stations and high-pressure pipelines. The result, says Murrumbidgee Irrigation managing director Brett Tucker, will be greater water savings but a hefty electricity bill: up to AUD$2.5 million (US$2.2 million) per year. The added costs will be passed along to the customers, Tucker says, which means they may end up paying more for the electricity to deliver the water than for the water itself. “Energy isn’t getting any cheaper,” he says. “Our customers are worried.”

Tucker believes the move to the pressurized pipelines is a good one, he says, but the tradeoffs also need to be looked at. In Australia, “the attitude has been to improve water efficiency at any cost,” says Tucker. “There’s been insufficient regard to the energy effects. You can’t treat water in isolation.”

Citrus grower Robert Sjollema is one of those whose farm will get the new pressurized water. Like a number of horticulturists in the area, he already has pumps and pipelines on his property to feed the drip irrigation system he installed about four years ago. Agricultural experts consider drip irrigation to be the most efficient type of irrigation because it feeds water and fertilizer directly to a plant’s roots. Sjollema isn’t entirely convinced by the water-saving argument; he knows citrus farms that still use flood irrigation and consume only a little more water per hectare than his—and they don’t have to pay for the electricity to pump the water around.

What drip irrigation does offer is greater automation: He can program exactly how much water he wants delivered for weeks in advance. That in turn cuts down on labor costs and has allowed him to supplement his farm income by working “in town.” “You don’t make much money growing citrus,” he notes.

For a fruit grower competing in a worldwide market, he says, globalization is actually a bigger concern for him than water. Australian navel oranges compete against navel oranges from Egypt, South Africa, and Chile, all of which have lower labor costs. Australian growers aren’t even guaranteed of selling to the domestic market, because the large supermarket chains here always look for the cheapest produce, regardless of origin. “If it’s cheaper outside of Australia, they’ll import it,” Sjollema says. “That’s the big cruel world.”

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The World's Most Influential Dude

In real life, Christopher Poole is just another anonymous 21-year-old trolling the East Village.  But when he sits at the computer in his small apartment, he becomes Moot – the most influential dude online. Moot is his nickname on 4chan.org, the controversial web community he created and owns.  A self-taught programmer and whiz kid who dropped out of high school due to chronic insomnia, he launched the free site in 2003 while living with his parents in the Hudson Valley.  He styled it after the so-called “image boards” in Japan, underground anime websites which let people anonymously post and comment on random pictures –cartoons, monster trucks, whatever.

Moot, who built his own computer at age 12 and grew up on Net, has an uncanny grasp on what appealed to him and the other early adopters online – the sick jokes, the absurdist humor.  Be warned:  4chan is decidedly NSFW, the freer the speech, the better.  People like to think that viral media (or a meme) is random, but it’s not.  The biggest fads online – from Lolcats to Rickrolling to, most recently, Advice Dog – begin with 4chan.

Moot cultivated 4chan into the hippest hangout online - sort of the CBGB of the Internet, and gained a following himself.  Just one comment by Moot on a message board elicits thousands of responses.  Today, with six million rabid members and 286 million posts, 4chan is the crucible of everything edgy and sticky on the Web.  But it's also the source of debate.  Last year, 4chan’s anonymous pranksters punked the Time 100 poll, successfully getting Moot elected to the top spot as “The World’s Most Influential Person.”  A few months ago, they got him to the top of the Victoria’s Secret best-body-online contest.  Bad eggs on the site have also been blamed for threatening to blow up football stadiums and hacking Sarah Palin's email.

4chan is also a highly challenging site to maintain.  Though Moot has been managing the site with 20 volunteer moderators, 4chan has grown pretty big and unwieldy from him to run from his apartment.  The community’s high-profile pranks are spawning a backlash, leaving Moot to defend against hacker attacks  –  and the occasionally FBI inquiry.  Despite his big role online, the real guy behind Moot remains largely unknown. But he's coming out in a big way in a couple weeks.  On February 11, he'll be speaking about "provocation" at the prestigious TED conference in Long Beach, California.  It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say, if you have the chance to go.  TED describes 4chan as "the web's most bewildering -- and influential -- subculture."  That's about right.

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