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Electric Power Plant Explosion Reveals History's Biggest Lesson

Who was it that said, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”? Proof of their wisdom came on 7 February, three days after the U.S. Chemical Safety Board held a public hearing to present its initial findings regarding the cause of the natural gas explosion that rocked a ConAgra Food plant in Garner, N.C., the previous June. (The ConAgra plant is the world’s sole producer of Slim Jim, the beef jerky snack with the dimensions of two or three cigarettes put together end to end.)

Just after 11 a.m., a huge explosion and fire were set off at the Kleen Power Plant in Middletown, Conn., when workers there attempted to purge a natural gas pipeline by venting the inert gases used to test whether there are any leaks in the system. Where did they vent the gas? Indoors. The last stage of the test involves flushing out the inert gases with natural gas. Workers apparently relied on their senses of smell to tell them when the inert gas had been fully expelled. The thinking was that the same additive that allows you to smell the gas emitted from your stovetop when there is no flame to consume it would be a good enough indicator that the purging was complete. But it’s now apparent that well before the smell of gas told the workers to shut off the gas or shut the release valve, it had built up to an explosive concentration and was set off by an as yet undetermined ignition source.

The five people who were killed and the 12 others who were injured by the blast and subsequent blaze at the Kleen Power Plant needn’t have suffered those fates. At the Chemical Safety Board hearing in Raleigh, N.C., a few days earlier, experts highlighted several lapses in judgement that together set the stage for the ConAgra explosion that killed three people, injured 71 others, and caused a worldwide Slim Jim shortage. They were basically the same lapses that would doom the workers at the Connecticut power plant.

First of all, the experts noted, natural gas should be vented outdoors, where there is less of a possibility that it might collect and explode. Why it took an august panel of the keenest minds to figure that one out remains a mystery.

The board also recommended that fire safety personnel be present whenever flammable gas lines are being vented and that everyone participating in the procedure is trained in how to do the job properly. Having people on site who know what they’re doing? What a novel idea!

Another important suggestion was that widely available electronic sensors similar to the carbon monoxide detectors in residences be used during this type of operation. What’s known but often overlooked is that relying on the chemical added to gas to make us able to sniff it out is a deadly gamble. Our olfactory sense is set up to respond to changes. After you’ve been in a room with a scent for a while, your brain basically relegates it to the background, a phenomenon known as odor fade. Bottom line: lives were lost and millions of dollars of damage was done for want of a US $40 gadget that anyone can buy on

Though blowing a hole through the side of a billion-dollar electric power plant is nothing to sneeze at, the Middletown explosion didn’t have as great an immediate impact on commerce as the Great Slim Jim Famine of 2009. The Kleen Energy plant, whose construction was said to be 95 percent complete, was being built as part of a decade-long effort to improve southwest Connecticut’s access to electric power. That region—where peak energy demand grew 27 percent between 1999 and 2004—had few local generating facilities and was served by an overmatched patchwork of 115 kilovolt transmission lines. Those lines were the area’s only links to the ISO-New England power pool that had 345-kilovolt cables covering the rest of the state, plus Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

When the power plant was approved by the Connecticut Siting Council, it was envisioned as an additional power source that would feed the two 345 kV lines stretching deep into the state’s southwest corner that were also on the drawing board. It would, its backers argued, prevent repeats of the multiple summer days when municipalities such as New Haven, Norwalk, and Stamford suffered brownouts (wherein a reduction of voltage dims the lights) and rolling blackouts (where power is interrupted for a brief period to keep the system from completely crashing).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Kleen Energy plant’s completion. The global economic downturn that began in 2008 upset power marketers’ projections about demand growth. With businesses going under, others scaling back production, and fewer people moving to the area as the boom went bust, peak demand moved back from the brink. The generating facility was suddenly no longer sorely needed as of yesterday. It could wait well beyond tomorrow.

“Any delay in bringing the Kleen Power facility online will have absolutely no effect on our ability to supply electric power to our customers, nor will it affect the price they pay for electricity,” says Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power, southwestern Connecticut’s main utility. “We have a capacity contract [with Kleen Energy’s operators] ensuring that the power would be there if needed, but we’ve already purchased all the power we’ll need for 2010 and most of what we’ll need to meet demand in 2011.”

ISO-New England notes that surplus capacity is available—and not just in Connecticut. “Generating facilities across the country—especially coal-fired ones in the Midwest—are being idled because of insufficient demand,” says Erin O’Brien, a spokesperson for the power pool. O’Brien notes that the demand growth in southwestern Connecticut prior to 2008 would have made the Kleen Power plant’s use as a base load facility a foregone conclusion. Now? “It will run regularly or at intervals, depending on market and system reliability needs,” says O’Brien.

All the more reason why the loss of life on that Sunday morning—where the likely proximate cause was cut corners—was so tragic.


Photo: Douglas Healey/Getty Images

Toyota's Troubles Put EMI Back Into The Spotlight

It’s the floor mats. No, it’s sticky pedals. It’s definitely not the electronics.

That’s what Toyota says about the sudden acceleration problem that led to the recent raft of recalls. But some drivers, newspaper reporters, and engineering professors have their doubts, indicating that interference from electronic devices, built into the car, carried into the car, and even outside the car could be causing the problem.

Toyota has said it proved its point by having an outside firm test the electronics on various car models. The firm reportedly fooled around with engine power and various controls within the car seeing if some odd combination created a surge, but could not generate the problem; Toyota’s press releases about the test didn’t say a word about EMI.

Ahhh, does this bring back memories. Back in the ‘90s, a growing reliance of new aircraft on electronic controls was on a collision course with a growing tendency of passengers to bring multiple personal electronic devices on board. A theoretical potential for interference certainly existed—that’s why air passengers are asked to turn off all electronic devices during takeoff and landing, for those are the most unforgiving parts of the journey. And lots of folks thought—and still think—this restriction is silly.

I reported on this with my colleague Linda Geppert back in 1996, for the article “Do Portable Electronics Endanger Flight,” (IEEE Spectrum, September, 1996). And our conclusion was that yes, electronic devices can cause trouble.

However, that trouble is hard to create on cue. The culprit devices perhaps had to be a little out of spec, generating just a little more RF interference than it should—maybe one that slipped out of the factory that way, or one you dropped and thought had escaped damage. (In personal experience, my husband once had to take a new laptop back because turning it on took out the picture on the TV in the next room.) The position of the device mattered—move it around in the plane and the effect would come and go.

Here’s an example of one report we pulled from a database kept by NASA’s aviation safety reporting system, quoted from the article:

In March, 1993, a large passenger aircraft was at cruise altitude just outside the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when the No. 1 compass suddenly precessed 10 degrees to the right. The first flight attendant was asked to check whether any passengers were operating electronic devices. She said that a passenger in seat X had just turned on his laptop computer.

The report continues, “I asked that the passenger turn off his laptop computer for a period of 10 minutes, which he did. I then asked that the passenger turn on his computer once again. The No. 1 compass immediately precessed 8 degrees to the right. The computer was then turned off for a 30-minute period during which the No. 1 compass operation was verified as normal.”

So yes, RF emissions from electronic devices can cause weird things to happen. Is it happening in the Toyota case? Toyota says no. And, to date, no real evidence says otherwise.

But if I were Toyota, I sure would be checking it out. Because it does look suspicious.

Which brings me to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The Woz has been complaining that his Prius occasionally surges randomly when it’s supposed to be holding steady under cruise control. My first reaction when I heard this was that he was setting up good story to give to the next cop who tickets him for speeding.

And then I remembered: the Woz is a gadget frea'. He inevitably is carrying multiple smart phones (never just one) and countless other consumer electronic gadgets. His friends love to surprise him with gizmos they’ve picked up in other countries that are not yet available in the U.S. And whenever I run into him he immediately shows me his current favorite gadget.  There is no way he turns off all these devices every time he gets in his car. He’s a walking RF fog.

So here’s a suggestion for Toyota. Forget those expensive outside research firms testing your electronics. Line up about a hundred cars, hook up everything electronic that you can measure, and then just let Woz walk by. If his presence has absolutely no effect, then I’ll believe that it’s a “mechanical problem.”

The Latest Barbie is a Computer Engineer

Barbie is now a computer engineer. This represents Barbie’s 126th career change. It’s a late-in-life choice; Barbie is nearly 51.  It took her a while, perhaps, to get her degree—in 1992, a talking Barbie said “math class is tough.” Computer engineer beat out surgeon, environmentalist, and architect in an online poll, coming in second only to news anchor among girls, but with enough support from adults that Mattel went ahead with both dolls.

Computer Engineer Barbie could be popular with the Barbie set (which these days skews towards kindergartners and preschoolers; it seems to get younger every year), if only for her accessories. She’s got glasses (Mattel missed a bet, though; the hip geeks might be more likely to wear lens-less 3-D glasses rather than the pink ones Barbie sports), a Bluetooth earpiece, a t-shirt printed with binary code, a smart phone, and a laptop. 

I’d like to say today’s introduction of Computer Engineer Barbie honors National Engineers Week which kicks off Sunday, but more likely it was timed to coincide with Toy Fair, also opening this weekend.


Iron Man

After Dan Whaley sold his travel website for $750 million in 2000, he spent his time and money exploring the world. He biked solo across the U.S.  He lived with Tibetan refugees in Nepal.   He drove from California to Argentina.  Now he's on a new mission that combines his passions: saving the world…by geo-engineering it.

Whaley's start-up, Climos, is spearheading a program to remove CO2 from the atmosphere through a process called Ocean Iron Fertilization. The idea is to add iron to iron-limited parts of the ocean in order to facilitate the growth of phytoplankton, which absorbs CO2.  Climos already has the backing of heavy-hitter venture capitalists and scientists from the National Science Foundation to Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal. Some say it's bad - if not crazy - science.  A Greenpeace ocean specialist calls the plan "dangerous and irresponsible." Others say it must be taken seriously. 

Whaley is the guy at the center of all this, and oceanography is in his genes.  His chief science officer at Climos is his mother, Dr. Margaret Leinen, formerly the assistant Director for Geosciences at the National Science Foundation.   A autodidactic computer programmer, Whaley coded one of the first software systems to detect reversals of the earth's magnetic pole in cryogenically cooled deep-sea sediment samples for the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography. He has also participated in two NSF-funded Joint Global Ocean Flux Study cruises in the Equatorial Pacific where he helped run a piston-coring apparatus to obtain seafloor samples along the Tahiti-Hawaii transect.

Based in San Francisco, Whaley’s now traveling the world meeting with scientists and regulators to pave the way for ocean fertilization.  But the road is already littered with the one other start-up that went down this path.   A couple months before Climos launched, an ocean-seeding start-up called Planktos suspended its project citing “a highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders [that] has provoked widespread opposition to plankton restoration in the environmental world.”  While Planktos failed to raise funds, Whaley has already secured $3.5 million.  His success comes in no small part to his family’s background, his Silicon Valley contacts, and his persuasive skills.  “It’s about science first, but it’s also about perception, and people have to really trust that you’re trying to do this in the right way,” he says. “Part of how they think about science has to do with how they feel about the way you’re going about things.”   The first project is aimed for the southern oceans, mostly likely near Argentina, Brazil, or Australia.

Topsy's Twitter Search Now Finds Photos and Text

Like several start-up search engines that offer third party Twitter search, Topsy used to find just the web links shared via Twitter, rather than returning actual content from tweets.

That changed yesterday with Topsy's launch of several new features that offer photo search and regular tweet content search.

From TechCrunch:

Before now, if you ran a search for “Google Buzz”, the site would return links to articles and videos about the new service. Now, it will also surface tweets from influential Twitter users, even if they don’t include a link. That’s important for breaking news when a story may not have already been covered by a publication, or when there’s a tweet that’s important in and of itself (say, Bill Gates’ first tweet). 

The new features will also allow photo search based on the text of tweets that contain photo links, and will let users see what's trending in web links, photos, and tweet content.

Topsy's algorithms rank the relevance of tweets and filter out less influential ones, according to TechCrunch:

The links are ranked by the number of times they’ve been retweeted, and also by the influence of the people who have tweeted them; the site actually keeps track of the number of retweets each user typically gets to establish their overall reputation.

That's a technique that major search engines are still trying to perfect as they roll out real-time search features.

Read IEEE Spectrum's report on the progress with real-time search.

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. 


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 ( 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.


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:; Power Mac 5500: Ben Boldt; TAM:, iMac: Flickr, Masashige MOTOE; iMac Colors Flickr, Masashige MOTOE; Thermaltake Case: BMW Group DesignworksUSA]


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]


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