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Navy Retreats From Astronaut Program After 50 Years

In a sign of cautiousness in uncertain times, the U.S. Navy has ordered most of its officers to refrain from volunteering for the nation's astronaut training program.

According to a report in The New York Times, the Navy has advised its astronaut corps applicants from several specialties that they will no longer be considered for nomination to the elite space-flight school.

The move comes, ironically, as the U.S. celebrates the 50th anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

It also marks a retreat from an historic embrace of the American space exploration program that began with the Navy's participation in the Mercury Seven project, begun 49 years ago, in which three of the first astronauts, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Alan Shepard, were naval officers.

Shepard was America's first astronaut to fly into space, in 1961.

In the Times article, Navy officials said the reason for the new restriction lies in a desire by the service to ensure that its mission critical officers are retained in traditional combat roles during time of war.

Vice Admiral J. C. Harvey Jr. last month wrote a memo saying that applications for Navy nominations to the space program from 10 specialties would not be accepted "due to critical inventory shortfalls and/or priority global war on terrorism skill set requirements," according to the Times. The specialties specifically mentioned include special forces, combat engineers, and academics, among others. Navy aviators, however, are not among the specialties affected.

Over the past 15 years, the Navy has nominated as many as 211 and as few as 105 candidates per year for consideration by NASA, though groups from earlier years numbered as low as 34. This year, the service allowed 5 applications to be submitted originally, but that number was expanded to 50 after reconsideration by Adm. Wright.

William M. Shepherd (Capt. USN-Ret.), who served as the first commander aboard the International Space Station, told the Times he was concerned whether the decision marked a shift in America's attitude toward space travel.

"This is the first tick of the needle," he noted. "Our commitment to doing this might be changing. This is important beyond the Navy, beyond NASA."

Officials from the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps told the Times their services were not restricting astronaut training applications.

It may be only a small course correction by the Navy (for the best of reasons), but it definitely has the outward appearance of a sea change for a military branch that has long taken pride in the helmsmanship of its officers voyaging to the ocean of space.

Out of Africa: IBM sees opportunity

IBM is getting serious about sub-Saharan Africa -- both as a consumer and producer of high-end computing.

For the past year, Mark Dean, an IBM Fellow and vice president of the company's venerable Almaden Research Center in San Jose, has traveled widely across the region, looking for new opportunities for the computer company. In the process, Dean brokered a donation of an IBM supercomputer to the Center for High Performance Computing in Cape Town and helped to launch a mentoring program that pairs IBM researchers with African university students.

Dean, who will give a public talk on new African opportunities in information technology on May 8 at Almaden, is helping to give sub-Saharan Africa a higher profile at IBM. In a recent op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News, he said that the cell phone is emerging as the central information device in the region.

In an interview, Dean told me he hopes IBM will double its number of employees in sub-Saharan Africa over the next three to five years. Today, the company employs about 2,000 people, mostly in South Africa, a traditional stronghold for IBM. Dean says gets about $2 billion in revenue from the region, with about half coming from South Africa.

IBM isn't only selling into Africa. Dean envisions African engineers and codewriters creating a new-generation of cell phone applications. While Dean thinks Africans need to raise their skill levels, IBM isn't waiting to give talented Africans a chance at creating products. The company recently opened a "software solutions lab" in South Africa to create products. IBM also wants to sell more back-end computer systems to support digital services offered over cell phones.

"We're taking baby steps," Dean says. But he's convinced that "IBM should invest more and develop our brand" in the region.

Smog Blog: Mega Mexico City in Tough Pollution Fight

Vacationing here in Mexicoâ''s Federal District, one of the worldâ''s biggest of megacities, you canâ''t ignore the bad air. Last year, in IEEE Spectrum magazineâ''s special issue about megacities, Erico Guizzo drew attention to the innovative way Sao Paulo has introduced special reserved bus lanes to make bus travel speedier and discourage private cars. In Mexico Cityâ''s Insurgentes, the main thoroughfare that traverses the city much as Broadway cuts diagonally all the way up Manhattan, lanes reserved for express buses also are to found.

Those dedicated bus lanes are just one of the many ways that Mexico City keeps a lid on inner-city traffic and automotive emissionsâ''this splendid city has an outstanding subway system that the French and which costs just 20 pesos to ride (two U.S. cents) and ubiquitous minibuses (including the lovely new Volksbus built by VW). But in a sprawling metropolitan area of close to 20 million people, at a high altitude where the air is thin to begin with and catalytic converters work poorly, and where so many antiquated cars and trucks belch putrid fumes, curtailing air pollution is an uphill battle.

Five years ago, before Guizzo graced IEEE Spectrum with his presence, he wrote an article for a competitor publication (that we naturally prefer not to name) about how Luisa T. Molina and her husband the Nobelist Mario Molina had organized a program at MIT and Harvard to study air pollution in major urban areas worldwide; they have done closely related work in a joint program in La Jolla. Erico described how the Molinas had vans equipped with state-of-art monitors drive around Mexico City to test air and identify mobile and point sources of pollution.

That article came vividly to mind two days ago as I drove back into the city with my wife and son from Teotihuacan, the spectacular 2000-year-old complex of pyramids and temples northwest of the Federal District. We had the bad luck to get caught in a highway bottleneck, where a superhighway was being extended. For close to an hour and a halfâ''resulting finally in a little burst of road rage on my part, a minor moving violation, the threat of a ticket, and the usual bribe paid to a well-organized group of extortionist traffic copsâ''we sat nearly motionless behind decades-old trucks belching black diesel smoke.

With some feeling of chagrin we thought and talked about how when the superhighway was completed, there would be fewer trucks sitting motionless spewing pollutantsâ''but there also would be all the more trucks and cars speeding along the new highway into and out of the city.

That night we were blessed with a gigantic thunderstorm, and when we woke the next morning, the sky over Mexicoâ''s downtown was miraculously clear blue. I took my son up to the top of the television tower, to catch a rare glimpse of the two sacred volcanoes that loom over the city, almost always invisibly.

Astonishingly and yet not so astonishingly, when we got to the top of the tower, everything right under us in the inner city was beautifully clear. But all around there was a doughnut of pollution so dense, we not could see through or over it to Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl (Popo and Ixta). In the inner city with its fabulous subway system, adorable VW minibuses, and dedicated express bus lanes, the air was almost pristine. But all around, where the city is sprawling cancerously in every direction, the air was perhaps worse than ever.

Out of Africa: largest hydro-electric project in history

My son Liam, who is a high school junior in Berkeley, California, volunteers every Tuesday afternoon in the offices of the International Rivers, the world's leading advocacy group on the perils and economic problems associated with large dams. IR's chief, Patrick McCully, is one among the most knowledgeable people on the planet on the subject -- so tuned into trends in dams and hydro-electricity that my nickname for Paddy is "Doctor Dam."

I count McCully as a close friend, and I even share many of his environmental forebodings about large dams -- and especially his considered view that many dams don't make economic sense. But I am not anti-dam, or even categorically opposed to dams. I even think that some hydro-electric projects, so long as they generate economic benefits, ought to proceed even if they adversely impact the surrounding environment.

I'm especially sensitive about criticisms of planned dams and associated hydro-electric projects in sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty and high energy costs are serious obstacles to democratic development. Dams and hydro-electricity are greatly needed in Africa -- of all shapes and sizes.

I have elsewhere written with sympathy about small hydro-electric projects -- micro-, pico- and mini-dams that generate electricity from almost any amount of flowing water. I am hardly a bigot about size. I'm even suspicious of especially large infrastructure projects, of any kind in Africa, because they are more likely to fall prey to mismanagement and corruption.

I got to thinking about all this when I read the news about efforts to push forward the controversial Inga dam project in the central African country of Congo. Inga, in all its permuations, calls for a vast expansion of two existing dams on the Congo River, the world's second largest. The estimated cost of the full project -- which would generate twice as much electricity as China's Three Gorges complex, today the world's largest -- is upwards of $80 billion. The cost alone gives many pause, and not the least because large foreign investments in Congo -- among the least stable countries in the world, with a history of extreme corruption -- are exceedingly rare. And actually there are no examples of substantial foreign investments in the country outside of the mining industry.

Yet demand for electricity is no high, relative to supply, in Africa that even the astronomical price-tag on Inga does not frighten its advocates. The "grand" Inga expansion would not provide power for the people of Congo alone but for a half-dozen surrounding countries. Even countries far away, such as Nigeria and South Africa, might use the electricity, according to the project's advocates, who claim the full-blown expansion would double the total electricity generated in Africa.

Last week, the pro-Inga forces met in London. Little was settled at the meeting, but the visible enthusiasm for the project -- at a time of strong economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa and wrenching electricity shortages in many of the region's most important countries -- gave the impression that, if hardly a done deal, the Inga expansion was a live possibility.

That alarms McCully and his staff at IR. The organization's Africa field director, Terri Hathaway, declared that the project "would be a magnet for corruption" and ultimately an economic "white elephant."

I am not so sure that Inga is a grand delusion. For the forseeable future, however, there are many more practical and beneficial African hydro schemes. Talk of Inga is irresponsible and should cease, pending some clear watershed in the Congo's own stability. The country is riven by civil wars, badly governed and fatally wounded by its own sprawling geography. Supporters of Inga should be forced to shelve any financing maneuverings until the Congo sorts out politically and socially. Today, the country is essentially a fiction, propped up by the armed forces of the United Nations and the money of foreign donors.

That will take years -- maybe even decades. In the meantime, hydro-electric enthusiasts in Africa have no shortage of other projects to fund. Let them explore, study, improve, fund and build those projects that ultimately prove worthy -- and forget Inga for now.

When Spectrum says it's a loser, it's a loser: Microsoft's SPOT watch

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Microsoft finally, officially, killed off its SPOT watch, a big, bulky, clunker of a device that could bring in bits of data (weather, sports scores) for you to read on its tiny screen. As long as you paid a subscription fee. We called it a loser when it was introduced back in 2004, but Microsoft doesn't give up easily. And now the three people that own them (that would be Bill, Steve, and...well, they must have sold at least one, no?) can auction them off on eBay...or does the Computer History Museum have an exhibit for dumbest smart products ever?

HAARP: not just death beams and mind control!

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PHOTO:Edward Kennedy/ U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

Nature magazine has what might be the first-ever definitive report on the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facility that the U.S. Department of Defense runs up near Gakona, Alaska.

HAARP has been a magnet for conspiracy theorists since the Pentagon started building it about 2 decades ago. Its purpose is to defend, by way of radio waves, against hypothetical killer electrons released by an even more hypothetical nuclear blast by, say, North Korea. Of course the researchers there mostly undertake much more reasonable experiments, but visions of nuclear armageddon helped fund the ionospheric research lab.

Part of the reason HAARP is shrouded in mystery is that the Naval Research Lab, one of the entities that runs the show, is an impenetrable fortress-- for years, all you could glean about the place was what the conspiracy theorists were telling you.

The reason for this silence, as usual, was secrecy for secrecy's sake, as is often the case with government. Apart from occasional press blitzes, NRL has refused for years to do interviews, answer questions, or do anything more than maybe toss a few insults at the few journalists who have dared to ask why there's a giant space heater sitting in Alaska.

The good news? The government is not trying to control your mind. The bad news? They made me type that.

DOE's Small Business Conference to Focus on Veterans

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced today that its upcoming Small Business Conference will emphasize opportunities for military veterans this year. Scheduled for 24-26 June at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio, Tex., the annual exposition is one of the federal government's biggest procurement forums on the calendar. DOE bills itself as the largest civilian contracting agency within the federal government, buying over $22 billion in goods and services a year from businesses large and small.

This year's conference will also stress the importance to finding environmentally responsible solutions to the needs of the energy department. Titled "Small Business, Big Ideas: Think Clean Energy," the ninth annual meeting will feature sessions on contracting opportunities, teaming, and small business research. It will also offer a special Matchmaking Forum in which government officials can meet one-on-one with entrepreneurs seeking assignments.

The last week of June this year has been declared Small Business Week by President George W. Bush. And the DOE said in a press release today it hopes to reach out to as many as 1500 businesses at the San Antonio event.

"The conference is a great opportunity for small businesses to learn more about doing business with DOE by talking to federal procurement officials and networking with our prime contractors from across the country," said Theresa Speake, director of DOE's Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.

"This is a tremendous marketing opportunity for any small business interested in working with DOE," she noted.

The special co-sponsor for the upcoming meeting is the Veterans Corp., a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and enhancing entrepreneurial business opportunities for veterans of the nation's armed forces. The DOE said today the spirit of this co-sponsorship supports Executive Order 13360 of 2004, where the President asked for greater federal contracting and sub-contracting opportunity for service-disabled veteran-owned businesses.

To register for the 2008 DOE Small Business Conference, please visit the website highlighted above or call 888-246-2460.

Remember, it's your tax dollars at work.

There Is No Such Thing As A Nanotechnology Industry, Even If Youâ¿¿re An Environmentalist

The Mercury News recently ran an editorial authored by Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), which had all sorts of interesting little ideas.

For one, it proposes that if todayâ''s environmental policies are not updated, nanotechnology will cause big problems for our health and the environment.

So, by that logic if the EPA figures out a way to determine the toxicity of a substance based on its size rather than its chemistry, then nanotechnology wonâ''t hurt us. But until that time, it will.

Why do these screeds always end up chasing their tails? Why isnâ''t it just sufficient to say, â''We donâ''t know as much as we should about the toxicity of nanoparticles, and we should be endeavoring to know more.â''? Why must legitimate concern be ratcheted up to â''11â'' on the volume and come out as an ideological rant?

Well, I decided I would visit the SVTCâ''s website to learn more, and I was immediately faced with this: â''On April 2nd, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) released a report exposing the potentially catastrophic impact on your health and environment of a nanotechnology industry that runs unchecked.â''

Where I work, the term â''nanotechnology industryâ'' always puts a smirk on our face, and a familiar refrain: â''There is not and never will be a â''nanotechnology industryâ''.â''

I know this will disappoint the activists out there who find it far more satisfying to rail against big, bad industry rather than an enabling technology. But maybe it will allay their fears somewhat. Probably not.

Radio Telescopes Spy Black Hole's Powerful Beams

Scientists have long thought that black holes spew excited jets of particles at light speed as part of the process of absorbing matter the giant bodies attract gravitationally. They've formed theories as to how this expulsion occurs. The best known predicts a scenario in which the high-power jets are accelerated by tightly twisted magnetic fields close to the black hole's event horizon. This was what should happen if advanced astrophysical mathematics were correct. Still, they had no direct evidence the theory matched reality. That may have now changed.

Astronomers at the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a networked collection of large radio telescopes stretching from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii, said today that they had detected data from a black hole that confirmed the leading theory is accurate.

In an account on the finding from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (please see Radio Telescope Reveals Secrets of Massive Black Hole), the leader of a team that made the discovery said they recorded an "unprecedented view of the inner portion of one of these jets and gained information that's very important to understanding how these tremendous particle accelerators work."

The radio-astronomy team was led by Alan Marscher of Boston University. It trained the telescopes from 10 observatories at a galaxy called BL Lacertae (BL Lac), some 950 million light-years from Earth. BL Lac is a blazar, the most energetic type of black-hole-powered galactic core. The data they received confirmed that near the center of BL Lac, where magnetic fields are twisted by the gravitational pull and rotation of the black hole, material moving outward in this close-in acceleration region follows a corkscrew-shaped path inside the bundle of affected magnetic fields.

"That behavior is exactly what we saw," Marscher said in the statement.

"We have gotten the clearest look yet at the innermost portion of the jet, where the particles actually are accelerated, and everything we see supports the idea that twisted, coiled magnetic fields are propelling the material outward," he noted. "This is a major advance in our understanding of a remarkable process that occurs throughout the universe."

Full results of the VLBA research team's efforts can be found in today's issue of the journal Nature.

Managing Multiple Scales for Nanotechnology Research

One of the problems nanotechnology has faced is that it brings back together disparate scientific disciplines that over the last century had been growing increasingly apart. It was becoming difficult with the high-level of specialization for a physicist to talk to biologist and for the biologist to speak to a chemist, and have them all understand one another.

Now, with nanotechnology they are all thrown back into the same cauldron of science and they need to define terms. This definition issue is no more acute than in the area of length and time scales. It was all fine and good when crystalline materials and biological materials were separate, but now with trend towards hybrid systems itâ''s time to get this sorted.

In a meeting I moderated some time ago with a mix of biologists, chemists and physicists an agreed upon length scale that would keep everyone happy in performing nanotechnology research was an instrument capable of 4 or 5 orders of magnitude, ranging from .1nm to 10 microns. Electron microscopy seemed to be the most likely candidate to fill the role with its ability to bridge multiple scales.

The physicists were pretty happy, but the biologists were still forlorn. It was difficult to see how with current techniques and instruments a living cell could be examined on a nanoscale without cryofreezing it. The only source of information on the atomic scale (beween a nanometer and an angstrom) for examining biological specimens, the biologists lamented, was from crystallography.

You get some information through crystallography when combined with other techniques such as activity analysis, cutting and pasting, etc., the biologists conceded. But the truth is that itâ''s still an ice cubeâ''not exactly representative of the living system you want to analyze.

Computer modelingâ''s role in bridging the gap has its limitations as well. Modeling has its scaling problems as well. Itâ''s pretty accurate under 1000 atoms, but beyond that it all gets a bit compromised and begins to look more like a 2-D image rather than a 3-D one.

To overcome this an area that is being pursued is a combination of precise modeling with empirical modeling. This method has proven itself to be pretty accurate for purely organic systems in germanium, resulting in the capability of accurate models for systems of 100,000 atoms or more.

All of this preamble brings me to recent developments at Argonne National Laboratory where scientists have employed high-intensity X-rays to observe the motions of biological and organic molecules in solution. When combined with their modeling, which heretofore they had no way of checking to see if they were accurate, they have been able to make movies of a DNA molecule in motion within a solution.

I will have to check in with the biologists to see if they are heartened by this breakthrough.

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Ode to the Pulsar P2 LED Watch

Watch%20front.jpg My refurbished Pulsar P2 "Astronaut" LED watch came in the mail today, an early Xmas gift to myself that I've been anticipating for more than ten years. That's about how long it's been since my dad gave me his old watch and I've been looking for someone to fix it ever since. A recent fascination with the new crop of LED watches coming out of Japan led me to pull the old P2 out of the bottom drawer of my dresser a couple of weeks ago and renew my search for a repair person …

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