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India to Negroponte: Drop Dead

Nick Negroponte must be beside himself. For the visionary behind the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, the hits just keep on coming. The single best bait-and-switch publicity ploy of the year was used to drive another nail in OLPCâ''s coffin. On 29 July, an Indian education minister announced that researchers at two of the countryâ''s leading technology schools were at work on a $10 laptop. TEN DOLLARS!! Of course, 10 bucks for a computer is a pipe dream, and the ministry issued a correction putting the anticipated price at, you guessed it, $100. But what a way to make a splash! Now everyone will be keeping an eye on Bangalore to see if India can do what the brightest minds contributing to the OLPC couldnâ''t: hold the line on that iconic price.

The announcement put an exclamation point on what had to be the most dyspepsia-inducing two-year period of Negroponteâ''s life. Back in 2006, Indiaâ''s Education Secretary, Sudeep Banerjee, characterized OLPCâ''s XO laptop as â''pedagogically suspectâ''â''a succinct way of saying that there was no certainty of a return on the nearly $200 million it would have to lay out in order to procure a shipment of the machines. After all, said Banerjee, â''We need classrooms and teachers [for the elementary school children targeted by OLPC] more urgently than fancy tools.â'' No arguing that.

Negroponte had to have gone from sipping to chugging antacid as he watched: the price of his brainchild creep up to $188 from the $100 figure that had become part of OLPCâ''s branding; Intel leave the OLPC governing group after the chipmaker refused to quit work on its in-house $100 laptop, the Classmate; delays in the XO laptopâ''s rollout and complaints regarding its durability when the computer finally appeared; and the defections of high-level contributors, some of whom cast aspersions on the effort. And now this: one of the largest markets for his product has not only declared the machine computer-non-grata, but now insists that whatever he can do, they can do better.

Pass the Pepto.

Out of Africa: solar-powered transmitters gain traction

Could mobile-phone transmitters drive the first widespread commercial use of solar-power in Africa?

A number of companies are betting on that -- and whether they succeed will say a lot about the long-term chances that solar-energy can deliver real benefits to large numbers of Africans.

Generally, solar-energy has proved too expensive for African homes and too difficult for African electricity companies -- beset by many operational handicaps -- to master. Mobile-phone companies, which in Africa are prospering, are better positioned to embrace alternative energy sources, and mobile-phone base stations are a good candidate because, in rural Africa, grid power often is unavailable.

A Swedish-Indian company named VNL, VNL, plans to introduce solar-powered base stations aimed at the African marketing, working through various suppliers of telecom equipment.

VNL's big engineering claim: an easy-to-build radio tower that consumes no more electricity than required for an ordinary light bulb.

Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent have separately installed about 400 solar-powered base stations in African countries including Senegal and Uganda.

VNL's base station will cost $3,500 and require 100 watts to run, about the same as a light bulb. By contrast, the GSM stations most widely used today can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. The most energy-efficient models require around 600 watts; others may need several thousand watts.

Critical support for these innovations is starting to come from Africa's leading mobile-phone providers, notably Celtel, MTN and Vodaphone, who together control a majority of the sub-Saharan telephone market.

Dara Torres Goes a Long Way for a Short Race

After four years, it's on again. The Summer Olympic Games are back.

The spectacular Opening Ceremony in Beijing is over (see video below), and the competition begins tomorrow. The next three weeks will see over 300 events contested. So now it's time to focus on athletic excellence.

As we alluded to a couple of days ago (see Olympic Tech in China), there will be instances where technology will come to the aid of the athletes in small ways that could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

For example, take the case of Dara Torres, who at 41 is trying to become the eldest gold medalist in the history of the Games' swimming competition. Torres first won a gold for the United States at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as a member of the women's 400-meter freestyle relay team when she was just 17. Since then, she has won three more gold and four other medals. In Beijing, she will be gunning for gold in her fifth appearance in the quadrennial Games in the short 50-meter freestyle events.

At the recent U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Torres set an American record in the individual 50-meter freestyle with a time of 24.25 seconds (see video below).

How has Torres managed to make it so far? In a word: training. She is reported to have one of the most intensive training regimens among any of the athletes to make it to this year's Olympics. In an article last year in The New York Times (see Torres Is Getting Older, but Swimming Faster), we learn about the extraordinary lengths she goes to in order to keep her body in tip-top shape.

One of the key elements in her rigorous exercise routine is a technique called resistance stretching, which Torres refers to as her "secret weapon." In resistance stretching, athletes seek to gain greater strength and flexibility by getting their muscles to contract and elongate simultaneously.

Strictly speaking, this isn't an instance of technology coming to the aid of an Olympic competitor, but it does speak to the role that new developments in biofeedback are playing in the increasingly technical world of athletics.

Bush EPA Punches Texas Cow Punchers on Ethanol Mandate

As widely reported in today's newspapers, Aug. 8, the Environmental Protection Agency has rejected a request from the Texas governor to reduce the amount of ethanol required to enter the nation's fuel supply. Under law, 9 billion gallons of renewable fuel are to be sold in the United States this year, but if such goals are found to be causing severe economic hardships, EPA is authorized to waive requirements. Texas cattle ranchers argue that their feed prices have soared because of crop diversion to ethanol production.

NCAR Climate Risk Program Takes Hit, and NCAR Too

The New York Times has reported the shut-down of the Center for Capacity Building, a small NCAR team that has been assessing potential impacts of climate change on poor countries, attracting wide global notice. The program, led by Michael Glantz, evidently was ended for budgetary reasons, as the National Center for Atmospheric Research has had to tighten its belt. NCAR, in Boulder, Colo., is one of the five or six leading climate modeling centers in the world. Over the last five years, a source told the Times, the center has lost 110 jobs.

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a former NCAR staff member who writes a widely followed contrarian climate blog, decried the loss of the climate-impact program. â''Knowledge related to the societal dimensions of global environmental problems is fundamental to efforts to arrive at practical and effective solutions,â'' Dr. Pielke said. â''If anything, we need to expand attention in these areas.â''

To track reactions to the situation, stay abreast of Andrew Revkinâ''s blog.

Out of Africa: cheap motorcyles transforming lives of farmers

One lasting impression from my July visit to Ken Sakwa, a champion farmer in rural eastern Uganda: how Ken's new Chinese-made motorcycle is transforming his ability to expand his commercial farming activities.

A lot of attention is being given to how China and India are bringing big technologies to Africa: hydroelectricity, solar technologies, computing, mobile-phone infrastructure. No question, these are important. But virtually unnoticed is how less expensive motorocycles are making personal transportation affordable to people who only recently dreamed of owning a bicycle.

Sakwa is a farmer I have been getting to know for the past few years in East Africa. He grows maize, green beans, cotton and a bit of peanuts. As farm prices have risen, he's become more interested in buying and selling crops grown by his neighbors. The motorcycle is a critical "enabling" technology, permitting him to travel over dirt roads easily and cheaply.

Sakwa this spring bought a motorcycle made by the Chinese company Dayun. Five years ago, European companies dominated the African market for motorbikes. But prices were high and repairs relatively costly.

The Chinese have transformed the motorcycle market -- in both East and West Africa -- with less expensive motorcycles and cheaper parts. True, the bikes are less powerful. But at least now Sakwa can afford one.

The influx of Chinese bikes seems likely to grow.

What happened a decade ago in Asia surely will happen in Africa: motorbikes as a "ubiquitous" form of transport.

Off at the Crack of the Gun

The countdown is down to one day to the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

There's news today, though, about a countdown of a different sort to be held at the Games, the one that goes "on your marks, get set, go." In track events, as everyone knows, "go" is replaced by the sound of the starter's pistol firing. Now comes a report that says that runners closer to the starter get a better chance of winning than competitors who are poised in lanes farther away. It's a small advantage, but in sprints the margin of victory can be measured in hundredths of a second.

A report from the online site LiveScience tells us that there is a bias built into the traditional lane assignment system used in track meets. Competitors are assigned lanes to run in by the luck of the draw. Until now, most athletes and meet organizers figured that the placement of the runners was arbitrary, conveying no advantage to anyone in particular. A scientific investigation has proven them wrong, though.

Researchers at the University of Alberta first studied the reaction times of sprinters in two races at the 2004 Athens Olympics and found that runners in Lane 1, closest to the pistol, got out of the blocks in 160 milliseconds (ms), while their competitors in the further lanes averaged a response time of 175 ms overall. Then they took the study to the next level. They held their own mini-meet, recruiting four trained sprinters and 12 untrained runners to participate in takeoffs from starting blocks modified to measure horizontal force.

As a variable, the scientists varied the loudness of the starter's pistol from 80 decibels (db) to 120 db. The result was surprising: The louder the gunshot, the faster the reaction time from the sprinters.

"In sprint events, where hundredths of a second can make the difference between a gold medal and a silver, minimizing reaction time can be the key to an athlete's success," said the university's Alex Brown. "We suggest that procedures presently used to start the Olympic sprint events give runners closer to the starter the advantage of hearing the 'go' signal louder; consequently, they react sooner than their competitors."

So it looks like science has found a flaw in a time-honored method of trying to give all competitors sprinting for a gold medal a fair chance.

This is one instance in which it's better to be closer to a gun going off than farther away.

Olympic Tech in China

Let the Games begin!

The torch has made it to Beijing, the world's elite athletes have assembled, and the opening ceremonies are now just two days away. Soon gold medals in some 300 events will be up for grabs.

At the Summer Olympic Games, the challenge for the athletes will be to embody the creed "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" through their superb physical and mental abilities. Still, there are going to be a few cases where technology will offer a helping hand. We'll take a look at such cases in a special blog during the Games over the coming weeks.

To jump right into the pool, let's discuss one of the most dramatic instances of athletic tech appearing in Beijing: a swimsuit engineered with space exploration in mind. According to a report from NASA, the U.S. swim team will be outfitted with suits made of an advanced material tested in one of the space agency's laboratories.

Known as the Speedo LZR Racer, the high-tech suits for both the men's and women's squads were developed by Warnaco Group Inc., of New York City. The secret to their advanced design lies in the material the firm's researchers settled on with feedback from NASA engineers. Warnaco's Speedo division calls the fabric FastSkin, which it developed by testing dozens of materials for surface smoothness.

The technical key to improving the performance times of swimmers (beyond enhancing training regimens) is cutting the drag the athletes create as they move through the water. So Speedo approached the space agency for a paid research project in one of NASA's low-speed wind tunnels. The tests took place at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The winning material was the one that showed the least resistance to the flow of air moving over it, or the least drag. Because air and water have similar dynamics in motion, the Speedo researchers concluded that the new fabric selected to be FastSkin would offer swimmers the best chance to lower their times.

PHOTO: NASA/Kathy Barnstorff

And have they ever. At the U.S. Olympic trials, world records fell like dominoes. The Americans wearing the new swimsuits have topped 48 of 50 world records since the LZR Racer debuted in February.

The leader of the men's squad, Michael Phelps (pictured center above), has his sights set on winning eight gold medals in Beijing (see this Reuters report), which would eclipse the record set by fellow countryman Mark Spitz in the water at the Munich Games in 1972. Phelps won six gold medals four years ago in Athens. Should he win just four more events this year, he would become the all-time top medalist in all Olympic sports, surpassing the nine victories posted by legends Larissa Latynina, Carl Lewis, and Paavo Nurmi.

The Speedo LZR Racer could be just the thing to give him a physical and mental edge to pull off his ambitions. He was recently quoted as saying of the outfit, "When I hit the water, I feel like a rocket."

Back at NASA's Langley facility, someone who works on rockets and the components they carry into space will be following the performances of the U.S. team with particular interest. Aerospace engineer Steve Wilkinson, who admits to knowing very little about swimming (but a lot about laminar and turbulent boundary layer physics) said he will be wondering as he watches the swim meet whether the champions are wearing the material he tested in his lab.

"I'm also going to be paying very close attention to the time," Wilkinson added.

Future Combat Systems: Not just cute little robots and flying trashcans

"Please, just don't call it cute," pleads one of the Fort Bliss soldiers, watching my face get all mushy as I gaze into the thermal cameras and laser range finders of the little surveillance robot. Earlier, I watched it rear up like a dog and peek over the ledge of a window to assure the combat team behind it that no surprises waited inside the building.

sugv-close-small.jpg

SUGV (small unmanned ground vehicle) and I stare into each others' eyes.

The morning's live combat exercise was available to anyone with the intestinal fortitude to get up at 0400 and make the jaw-rattling drive out to the Texas desert. There, soldiers tested the latest and greatest in military acronym technology--SUGV, UUGS and TUGS, UAS and B-kits--the major cornerstones of Future Combat Systems.

Future Combat Systems, the army's modernization program, touts itself as a seamless integration of soldier and "peripherals," where the soldier is the central processing unit but instead of being limited to his own god-given sensors--eyes, ears and so on--he has at his command a networked array of additional sensors. Now he can see around corners. Before soldiers go into a building they send SUGV, the small unmanned ground vehicle. The UAS (a hovering "eye in the sky" they've lovingly nicknamed the Flying Trashcan) provides early warning, among other things, for mortar attacks or IEDs.

UAS.JPEG

The UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) is for obvious reasons also known as the flying trashcan.

Media coverage of FCS has focused on the implications the adoption of video game technology: an Ender's Game-like dystopian future military in which young boy soldiers impersonally pick off enemies with Xbox controllers. The part about the Xbox controllers is right, but the rest deserves subtler interpretation.

FCS is not just about showering soldiers with cool technology, but making sure the technology actually helps. This should be good news for anyone tired of the old Donald Rumsfeld military paradigm, according to which you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. That thinking also extends to the tools you go to war with, like recent generations of the PackBot which according to people familiar with the situation have been a nightmare for soldiers; among other things, their non-xbox controllers have been difficult to use, and the batteries don't work. Soldiers need real-time response when their technology hurts more than it helps.

The military is often accused of being "always prepared to fight the last war." Part of the reason is the stovepiping of intelligence. The troops on the ground understand first what's happening--whether some military vehicle is getting blown to shreds by IEDs and should no longer be used, or whether some piece of equipment is performing really well. But until recently, that information could not be absorbed by the people in charge in real time.

FCS, according to its proponents, is as much a technology initiative as an attempt to redefine how the army gathers information about itself. Now, when a soldier says that the controls on a SUGV are useless, within a couple of weeks the army rolls out a much more intuitive Xbox controller. Or, in the case of the flying trashcan, the camera didn't tilt adequately. A few weeks after a soldier made that observation, the UAS was outfitted with a Gimbel camera that swivels omnidirectionally.

To that end, the army has created an entire brigade of beta testers at Fort Bliss. The Future Combat Systems Evaluation Brigade Combat Team was plucked from all over the world to serve for two years as army's tech guinea pigs. Not the worst job in the world.

sugv-soldiers-small.jpg

Soldiers in the FCS Evaluation Brigade Combat Team use the SUGV during a cordon-and-search exercise.

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