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Double Amputee Oscar Pistorius Can Try for Olympics

The decision last week to allow the South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius to try out for the Olympics, widely reported around the world on May 16 and 17, ends a four-year dispute about whether his artificial legs might actually give him and others like him an unfair advantage. Ironically, advances in prosthetics engineering had been so impressive, a runner born without legs might do better using artificial legs than a full-bodied athlete. At that time, the Paris-based freelancer Marlowe Hood gave a probing account of the situation and the complex issues it raised in Spectrum Onlineâ''a discussion that's still worth revisiting.

Here's how Marlowe reacted to the recent news, taking a quick break from reporting in Burma on cyclone recovery efforts. â''When I saw double-amputee Oscar Pistorius burn up the track at the Athens Paralympics four years ago, I was so amazed I had to remember to breathe. As he crossed the finish line of the 200 meter dash with a new world record, the possibility hit me like a hammer: what if this 17-year old boy could one day run fast enough to line up against the world's top sprinter in the Olympics? That day, it seems, has come.â''

Photovoltaic Moore's Law Will Make Solar Competitive by 2015

UPDATE: Due to the great discussion generated here, the author has written a follow-up post. Read Is Photovoltaic Moore Law Really on Track?

Photovoltaic specialists met last week, May 12-16, in San Diego under the auspices of the IEEE Electron Devices Society, for their 33rd annual meeting. For the first time the meeting included a two-day breakout session, â''The PV Accelerator Forum,â'' devoted to exploring how photovoltaics can be kick-started to achieve an earlier commercial breakthrough. There were some substantial surprises.

If youâ''d asked a solar expert ten or fifteen years ago what the game plan was for photovoltaics, the gist would have been this: develop silicon cells, relying on scraps and techniques from the semiconductor industry, without expectation of a commercial breakthrough; then turn to second-generation thin-film materials like CIGS and cad-tel, which would be much cheaper and more fit for mass production. By early this decade, however, it seemed clear that PV was not shaping up as planned. The second generation materials were not materializing on schedule, and the cost of solar electricity was still nowhere near competitive. Particularly disconcerting was the 2002 decision of British Petroleum, which was billing itself as the worldâ''s biggest solar company (among other things), to terminate U.S. production of cad-tel and amorphous silicon cells, as reported in the January 2003 issue of Spectrum magazine.

Now there are some new twists and turnsâ''essentially, three very positive developments that would not have been generally anticipated a decade ago. First, silicon-based solar technology has decoupled from the semiconductor industry and is achieving steady cost reductions, so that those following PV discern a kind of Mooreâ''s law at work. In 2005, production of silicon for solar cells already surpassed production of silicon for semiconductors.

Second, the industry has become so confident in that evolutionary path, policymakers and planners have started to set dates when they expect PV-generated electricity to be competitive with the major sources of electricity sold on the grid now. And third, while the incremental path promises a commercial breakthrough within ten years, itâ''s suddenly looking like second generation technology may be arriving after allâ''in which case wide commercialization of PV could occur much sooner.

In recent years, global PV production has been increasing at a rate of 50 percent per year, so that accumulated global capacity doubles about every 18 months. The PV Mooreâ''s law states that with every doubling of capacity, PV costs come down by 20 percent. In 2004, installing PV cost about $7 per watt, compared to $1/W for wind, which at that time was beginning to stand on its own feet commercially, Last, year, as recently noted in this blog, average global solar costs had come down to between $4 and $5 per watt, right in line with the PV Mooreâ''s law. Extrapolate those gains out six or seven years, and PV costs will be below $2/W, making photovolatics competitive with 2004 wind.

Remember, wind electricity generally is generated in large farms, so that its price has to be competitive with electricity generated from other sourcesâ''thatâ''s the wholesale electricity cost that accounts for only about half of total electricity costs in a typical customerâ''s bill. But solar, being distributed, competes with the retail priceâ''if the PV generating cost is comparable to the total delivered cost of electricity, which can be as high as 20 cents per kilowatthour in the United States and upwards of 30 cents in Japan, thatâ''s good enough.

Planners and regulator are starting to believe in the PV Mooreâ''s law. The European Unionâ''s PV Tech Platform has set the year 2015 for achieving â''grid parityâ''â''the point where solar electricity can be sold competitively into the grid. As early as 2010, solar electricity prices in extreme southern Europe might go as low as 17 or 18 cents/kWh. California also expects to see grid parity within a decade, and Southern California Edison has a program to put subsidized PV roofs on large commercial buildings, predicated on the goal of obtaining PV capacity at a cost of $3.50/W within five years.

So some noteworthy things have happened on the way to this yearâ''s PV accelerator forum. But what was getting the most buzz in the technical conference, which attracted a record number of attendees from around the world, was next-generation PV. Sessions dedicated to next-generation materials like cooper indium diselenide and cadmium telluride were packed to the gills, with people craning their heads in from the hallways to catch snatches of talks. One company is particular has been growing like gangbusters in the last couple of years, with a rather simple CdTe module that it claims to be producing at a cost of barely over $1/W.

If those claims hold, this may beâ''hold your breathâ''the breakthrough everybodyâ''s been waiting for.

Energy Efficiency Is the Best Policy, Says ASCEE Report

Because of largely invisible and under-appreciated gains in energy efficiency throughout the economy, U.S energy consumption per dollar output is about half today what it was in 1970, according to a new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The report might be dismissed as special pleading, but its finding are generally consistent with a major U.S. climate technology report, which found that efficiency improvements and conservation offer by far the best near-term prospects for cutting energy use and greehouse gas emissions, as IEEE Spectrum noted two years ago.

Consistent with the Bush administrationâ''s climate task force findings, the ASCEE report says that the United States could reduce its energy consumption by 25-30 percent over the next two or three decades, by aggressively exploiting opportunities for improved efficiency. Taking a close look at the most recent data on investments in energy efficiency, ASCEE determined that buildings accounted for by far the greatest share of new investment in 2004, nearly 60 percent. Transportation was a distant second, at 11 percent.

No wonder the â''energy efficiency utilityâ''â''the utility that in effect generates â''negawattsâ'' (watts saved) by encouraging its customers to use energy more efficientlyâ''has become the latest buzzword in the electric power world.

Out of Africa: a Hacker writes his final code

Guido1.jpg

One of my favorite Africans died the other day in Nairobi. Guido Sohne was a brilliant, if unheralded, software programmer who worked for Microsoft in Kenya. He was found dead in his living room. People discovered him when he didnâ''t turn up for work. Guido was 35 years old.

He was best known as a tireless and passionate advocate for open-source software in Africa. His decision to join Microsoft last year represented a decisive turn for him technically, an attempt to build a bridge between proprietary and open approaches to codewriting. He had long endured the privations of working solo as a programmer in Africa. The new job brought him a measure of stability -- and recognition -- he long had missed.

Guido and I go back some years; he was a close companion when I lived in Accra in 2003. Guido was witty and sharp and always ready to debate arcane points, either about technology or development. We spent many hours together and, when my teenage son visited Accra for a summer, Guido tutored him on computer games that bewildered me but that he found easy to explain. Any techies who visited Accra were sure to meet Guido. He was tall and handsome and spoke with a sense of authority and confidence that was unusual in an African city. When Ethan Zuckerman met Guido in 2004, he was immediately impressed and noted that, while a critic of Microsoft at the time, Guido shrewly realized that piracy of Microsoft programs was actually helping to entrench the company in Africa.

Guido's sudden death remains a mystery at this point. Maybe he was felled by a heart attack. Foul play seems to be ruled out. His life was unfinished; he never created, for instance, a landmark program or piece of writing about the creation of new technologies in Africa. But for the scores of African hackers in Accra and elsewhere around the continent, he was a role model, always raising the bar, insistently asking others to do better. He will be missed.

Your Face Here: The instant virtual you could soon be everywhere you look

Face-Animation.jpgThe last time I had my head turned into a virtual me, it took hours. The results were impressive. Weird, but impressive. Have a look.

So when I heard about a company getting ready to launch a technology that promised to create a virtual me instantly, without a long makeup session, multiple takes, and extended processing time, I thought it was worth taking a look. Potentially, I could collect virtual meâ''s. Not sure what Iâ''d do with them, but Iâ''ve got all sorts of things sitting on my computer Iâ''m not entirely sure what to do with.

Unfortunately, while X-iD, based in Redwood Shores, Calif., and Singapore, could show me other virtual people, it wasnâ''t quite ready to live demo and create a virtual me on the spot; Iâ''ll have to wait until June 15 for that. This week, X-iD was introducing a face recognition system for personal computer security (you smile at your webcam

instead of typing in a password when you boot up your computer). The 3-D head comes later.

Both products stem from the companyâ''s face recognition software, used for several years in building security. The software reconstructs a 3-D image of a face from a mug shot and simple identification of key points, like the eyes, sides of the face, and the ears. In building security applications, X-iD uses the 3-D image to recognize a person entering the building even if his head is turned or tilted. It recently occurred to company principals that not only are these image files really cool, they could have consumer applications.

Hence the computer log-on, available now for $19 or free for a one-month trial. And on June 15, X-iD will launch a social network (I wish they had called it something else, but everybody wants to play in the social network game these days) in which you can create your own virtual face and stick it onto an avatar or into a greeting card. The application is currently called FaceTheater, soon to be renamed Tycoona. (You actually donâ''t have to use your own face, anything with basic eyes, mouth, nose will workâ''the sphinx, your dog, Mona Lisa.) Eventually, the company hopes video game companies will use the technology to put you (or your friends or enemies) into video games to make them a little more personal.

Who Will Resurrect the Electric Car?

Two years ago, the controversial documentary film â''Who Killed the Electric Car?â'' caused quite a stir, with its claims that GM went out of its way to discredit and destroy the electric car it had developed, the EV1, preferring to keep its customers hooked on the gasoline engine. At the time, the director of Sonyâ''s electric car post-mortem, Chris Paine, hoped to follow it up with a documentary that heâ''d call, â''Who Saved the Electric Car?â'' Evidently he gave up for lack of plausible protagonists. Perhaps itâ''s time for him to take another look.

The auto industry turnaround wizard Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault, is promising to be the person who will breathe life back into the idea of an all-electric, zero-emissions car. Reporting on Nissanâ''s recent performance the week of May 12, Ghosn said that Nissan would introduce an electric car in the United States and Japan in 2010 and market it worldwide in 2012. Nissanâ''s strategic partner Renault announced earlier this year that it will produce electric cars for sale in Israel and Denmark. But Nissan would be the first to market an electric car globally, and the company is eying a whole range of electric vehicles, from city cars to small vans.

It seems to be Ghosnâ''s intention to leapfrog the Chevrolet Volt, the electric car that GM plans to introduce in 2010. GM bills the Volt as a true electric car and not a hybrid, because its electric motor will always turn its wheels. But critics contend itâ''s still a kind of hybrid, inasmuch as a backup gasoline engine will recharge its lithium ion batteries for ranges greater than 60 kilometers. Just recently, GM got much more specific about the Volt design, as described in Spectrum, but the issue of whether the car deserves to be called a true EV lingers.

Ghosn puts a formidable name and reputation behind the behind the old vision of a pure, zero-emissions EV. After taking the reins at Nissan, he engineered an instantaneous rescue, making himâ''a French citizen born in Brazil and raised in Lebanonâ''a national hero in Japan. In 2006, the year after he became CEO of Renault as well, Kirk Kirkorian tried to concoct a GM-Nissan-Renault alliance, with Ghosn at the helm.

Ghosn enunciated his electric vision this week in the context of disappointing financial results. Nissanâ''s profits, though better than those at Fiat, Peugeot, VW or BMW, were deemed disappointing. And the companyâ''s most recent three year plan, for the first time since Ghosn took over, did not meet targets. Europeâ''s financial press put more emphasis on those developments than on Ghosnâ''s plans to resuscitate the EV.

Still, Ghosnâ''s bold announcements make the quest for the EV a two-way contest, at least, and is sure to reinvigorate debate about what went wrong the last time around and whether things could go better now. â''Who Killed the Electric Car?â'' made a good case that California air regulators had caved to industry pressure, seduced by the fantasy that hydrogen cars would provide a better path to zero emissions. But the film was weaker on technology, failing to fully acknowledge that car battery improvements had fallen short of expectations. Maybe itâ''s time for director Paine to dust off his plans for â''Who Saved?,â'' taking recent advances in lithium ion batteries and supercapacitors into account.

The road to hell: you know what it's paved with.

I said in my last update that a lot of the IEEE Homeland Security conference attendees were acting like they were at an ACLU convention: that was behind the scenes. The scenes themselves were the stuff of an ACLUerâ''s worst nightmares. I call to your attention the panel on air traffic safety (this was the same one that included the naked pictures). One presenterâ''s talk was titled, optimistically, "A new concept of airport security screening." Now, granted, I went in expecting a lot, so I was set up to be underwhelmed.

But the underwhelmage was simply egregious. An Analogic Corp. presenter itemized the offenses of current security screening practices very well: you have to remove your laptop, your cell phone, your shoes, and your 3-1-1s (yes, the allowed amount of liquids in a baggy has been converted into jargon); you have to wait in line at a metal detector; and you have to wait while someone whisks a wand over the surface area of your body.

Her objection to all this? Not what I was expecting: it takes up too much airport personnel, hence money.

Her solution shaved 10 TSA personnel off a shift by multiplying the invasiveness by 10.

Step 1: Do extensive background checks on everyone who is traveling. (Do they do this already? I got all itchy with paranoia sitting there in the dark audience.) Step 2: Feed background checks on all passengers into a database that tells you the likelihood of a specific passengerâ''s desire to blow the plane to smithereens. Step 3: Passengers can now breeze through a metal detector that expects them to be carrying a laptop and a cell phone. Since "most passengers are low risk," the Analogic rep said, you're saving time by reducing false alarms. A last minute ticket would put you on higher alert mode. Last-minute business traveler? No problem! Your frequent flier status will cancel out your "last-minute ticket" alert.

Someone piped up from the audience: "So if I forget my laptop, does that mean I'm a security risk?"

Snark aside, someone posed a good question: What happens if one passenger needs help? Now, instead of occupying 10 percent of available personnel, that person's by-no-means-unreasonable needs have 33 percent of the personnel tied up, presumably creating an even bigger bottleneck. But staff has been reduced, and yes, money has been saved.

It's easy to see how the privacy invasion happens: once you invest in one technology, you start to see the loopholes. Every technology can be spoofed or cheated in countless ways. If plugging those holes is your main priority, a little something like taking naked pictures of passengers is going to seem irrelevant. This focus on one thin sliver of reality seems to plague engineers across the board (take, for example, the engineer at the Trinity test, the debut of the A-bomb into human history, the dawn of the nuclear age! "What were you thinking right before?" "I sure hope my detonator works!").

It wasnâ''t all bad: The one actually quite good idea that emerged from all this was her suggestion of a bin return system, like the kind you see at bowling alleys that brings your bowling ball back to you automatically. That would get rid of, she said, "the bin return personnel." Another eureka moment for me in the back: I never realized that these people are there specifically to return bins. I thought they had other duties, but intermittently turned their attention to the pileup of bins. I was wrong.

But that is seriously picayune compared to the promise of the title. I just can't countenance elevating the recycled bin return system to the status of "new concept in airport security.â''

The best question, though, was whether any of this had been simulated or modeled on a computer. The answer was a resounding no.

Analogic, indeed.

IEEE Homeland Security Conference redux

The annual IEEE homeland security conference, as one attendee tells me, is the opposite of most of the conferences she attends, which cover in great depth a wafer-thin section of one field. Here, huge amounts of information are crammed into 20-minute presentations that are often too tightly timed even for questions.

Iâ''ve learned some interesting things. The first: the cargo that piggybacks on commercial airplanes does not get screened for nuclear/biochemical contamination. The second: that cargo is way more important to the airline than I am: about 86,000 pieces of mail depart Boston's Logan airport each month. Their originators have paid the airline more dollars per weight than I have. If there are weight restrictions issues, I'll be leaving the plane before that cargo does. (I wonder if the inverse is also true in a crash landing?)

So what do engineers dealing with homeland security worry about? Air safety. Chemical and biological agent detection. The seemingly limitless risks of legacy software (and new software too). Emergency response. Pretty much what you'd expect.

But between the lines, there's a sense of frustration with two things: bureaucracy and technology. "Bureaucracy is forced on you when you're a government contractor," Chief DHS Technology Commercialization Officer Thomas Cellucci said at a business panel this morning. A hostile response to bureaucracy is never surprising, but technology? At an IEEE conference?

It turns out a lot of these guys consider technology solutions the last resort of the imbecile. They tell me in droves that if your idea or your enterprise doesn't work, slathering more layers of technology "solutions" on top is just going to make you really efficient at doing everything wrong. For example, at one panel, an American Science and Engineering, Inc. presenter discussed an x-ray backscatter technique for airline security checkpoints. You may have heard of it. The short version: with their technique, they can create photo-like images of screened passengers, minus clothing. American Science and Engineering has been making the news for this technology since 2000, and they actually won Privacy Internationalâ''s annual â''Big Brotherâ'' award for technology that most invades a personâ''s privacy.

The idea raised a lot of questions about unreasonable search and seizure, with the definition of unreasonable shifting daily with more warnings about terrorists. I can't put it any better than the ACLU put it in a 2002 report:

â''Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies such as evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, penile implants, catheter tubes, and the size of their breasts or genitals as a prerequisite to boarding a plane.â''

Would you enjoy having a picture of your naked rear end uploaded to some humor or porn site (I leave it to the reader as an exercise to determine which would be worse)? To address these concerns, American Science and Engineering, Inc. *promises* to have the operators somewhere far away, and they *pinky swear* to have only same-sex people looking at your x-ray backscatter centerfold. The presenter dismissed privacy concerns thusly: â''If these images excite you, you have more problems than I can help you with.â''

But after the panel ended, I was relieved to hear two engineers dismiss the entire enterprise. â''Terahertz imaging does the same thing better without the privacy concerns,â'' said one young engineer in a snappy suit. Others expressed doubt that x-ray backscatter was still relevant.

However, itâ''s worth noting that the company just got a contract for the Beijing Olympics. So, if youâ''re going, pack your lead bathing suit.

There are more questions and comments about such topics floating around here than I would have expected. The issues the attendees are discussing outside of the panels makes it seem more like an ACLU conference than IEEE. Frankly, Iâ''m pretty happy about that.

The Babbage Engine: More family fun Silicon Valley style

Ahh sunny California, where weekends are for beach picnics and hikes among the redwoods and rides on cable cars fighting crowds to see strange mechanical and electronic contraptions in operation. The first weekend in May I packed my kids into the car and headed off to the Maker Faire in San Mateo, where, after an hour sitting in traffic behind other geek families, we repeatedly watched a life-sized recreation of the game of Mousetrap go through its paces. Last weekend the big draw was the opening of the Babbage Exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, where the five-ton 8000-part Difference Engine cranks through polynomial calculations.

Charles Babbage designed the Difference Engine, a.k.a. the Babbage Engine, in the 1800s, but never successfully built a version that worked. The working Engine displayed at the Computer History Machine is the second full-size working Difference Engine built (small models and virtual versions also exist); the first, completed in 2002, is on display at the Science Museum, London. Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft and now CEO of Intellectual Ventures, commissioned the project.

In a world in which computers are getting smaller and smaller, with little electrons whizzing around invisibly, thereâ''s something satisfying about seeing technology thatâ''s

gigantic and obvious: the bowling ball of the Mousetrap game lumber down its track (photo below), the numbered wheels of the Babbage Machine turn with satisfying precision (see video above).

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The Babbage Machine will be on display for a year, and then it will become part of Myhrvoldâ''s private collection.

Microsoft Brings the Cosmos to Your Desktop

We are all stargazers. Anyone who has ever looked up at the sky at night has been fascinated by the beauty of the cosmos. Some go on to transfer that fascination into a passion for astronomy, either as an avocation or a profession. Astronomers have developed powerful tools to peer deeper than ever into the vast distances of the universe. These have been networked to provide the scientific community with the latest discoveries from telescopes around the planet, even in orbit. Now, the images they have recorded are available for stargazing on your personal computer.

A team from Microsoft Research has launched a portal, still in beta, on the Internet called the WorldWide Telescope (WWT), where amateurs and professionals alike can take part in a social networking environment dedicated to exploring the heavens virtually.

Users of the WWT (Windows only) can take guided tours of the universe led by professionals from some of the most advanced observatories in the world. Contributors can add multimedia slideshows to the WWT in much the same way they create PowerPoint presentations.

The technology used to build the WWT is based on Microsoft's Visual Experience Engine, which lets users pan and zoom through images. The company says that the WWT blends terabytes of images, data, and stories from multiple sources over the Web into an immersive experience.

"Users can see the X-ray view of the sky, zoom into bright radiation clouds, and then cross-fade into the visible light view and discover the cloud remnants of a supernova explosion from a thousand years ago," said Roy Gould, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in yesterday's announcement. "I believe this new creation from Microsoft will have a profound impact on the way we view the universe."

The Microsoft Research team believes the WWT should serve as a model educational resource for students, fostering a lifelong interest in astronomy and science in general.

"Our hope is that it will inspire young people to explore astronomy and science, and help researchers in their quest to better understand the universe," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates noted.

Microsoft Research is dedicating the WWT project to the memory of Jim Gray, a former IBM and Microsoft computer scientist who won the prestigious Turing Award in 1988 for his work in database and transaction processing. He was a team leader on Microsoft's Virtual Earth platform, which enables users to create geospatial mapping applications. A boat Gray was sailing disappeared at sea 12 months ago and has never been found.

Microsoft said it is releasing the WWT freely to the science and education communities as a tribute to Gray with the hope that it will inspire and empower kids of all ages to explore and understand the universe in an unprecedented way.

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