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Mars Satellite Spies Signs of Ancient Lakebed on Red Planet

Mars may have been a nice place to visit once, but that was a long, long time ago.



Researchers at the University of Colorado (CU) at Boulder studying recent images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are reporting that they've found the remnants of a primordial lake on the Red Planet. Calling the satellite photos "the first definitive evidence of shorelines on Mars," the CU-Boulder team, led by Research Associate Gaetano Di Achille, said in a

prepared statement

that the lake would have contained water more than 3 billion years ago.



The researchers said the lake would have measured 80 square miles in circumference and have had a depth of 1500 feet, making it roughly the size of Lake Champlain in North America. They also observed that the ancient lake would have been an integral part of a broad delta, suggesting the presence of a large river.



Evidence for their conclusions, which will be published in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters, came from a powerful camera aboard the MRO called the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE. Their analysis of the HiRISE images in question suggested to them that they were looking at a a 30-mile-long canyon, which opened up into a valley, depositing sediment that formed a large delta in what planetary scientists now call the Shalbatana Vallis.



"This is the first unambiguous evidence of shorelines on the surface of Mars," said Di Achille. "The identification of the shorelines and accompanying geological evidence allows us to calculate the size and volume of the lake, which appears to have formed about 3.4 billion years ago."



The age estimate runs at odds with standard theories of the timeline for the development of Mars, which hold that the planet's surface water would have dissipated much earlier.  



Di Achille said the newly discovered lakebed and delta would be a prime target for a future landing mission to Mars in search of evidence of past life.



"On Earth, deltas and lakes are excellent collectors and preservers of signs of past life," said Di Achille. "If life ever arose on Mars, deltas may be the key to unlocking Mars' biological past."



[For more on the prospects of exploring the Red Planet in the future, please see IEEE Spectrum's

Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

in this month's issue.]


Ineptly Censoring the Chinese Internet - Yet Again

Heavy-handed filtering of pornography and political speech, security holes, and accusations of theft of intellectual property - if that sounds to you like the Chinese Internet of 2005 you're exactly right.

But according to news reports, it also describes the Chinese Internet of 2009. Back in 2005, as part of our special issue on China, we reported on how China's nationwide filtering of pornography and political speech worked. That system relied on filters residing within the country's central servers and routers. This year, China is adding a twist - requiring that filtering software come on every new PC sold. Originally, computers would have had to actually run the software; after a huge national and international outcry, the government has backed down, as has been reported in The Gardian and by the AP

The software, written by a military contractor, closes some loopholes in the central filtering approach that were apparent even in 2005, such as the use of proxies to redirect users from blocked sites to unblocked sites that contain the same censored content. But Green Dam, as the software is named, is apparently problematic in every other possible way. For example, according to the Guardian, the pornography image-blocking

is designed to identify suspicious densities of skin colour. To demonstrate the supposed effectiveness of this method, the bid document contrasts pictures of blow jobs and babies.... [But the] Southern Weekend newspaper has mocked the software for blocking Garfield cartoons but allowing dark-skinned porn.

Problems with Green Dam first came to light in an analysis by three researchers in the University of Michigan's Computer Science and Engineering Division, Scott Wolchok, Randy Yao, and J. Alex Halderman. Their chief finding involved the security problems:

We have discovered remotely-exploitable vulnerabilities in Green Dam, the censorship software reportedly mandated by the Chinese government. Any web site a Green Dam user visits can take control of the PC.

According to a number of reports, the Chinese government has reportedly ordered the developer to issue a patch. China Daily quotes the developer as sheepishly saying, “We are specialists in producing Internet filtering software rather than security."

Yet there's also the question of how much of the software the developer developed. Solid Oak Software, has claimed that Green Dam includes code swiped from its censorship program CYBERsitter, and the U.S. company has, according to PC Magazine, “sent 'cease and desist' letters to both Dell and Hewlett-Packard” asking them to stop distributing Green Dam.

If, as is now being widely reported, the software is compulsory only in that it be present on all PCs, not that it be installed and operating, then Green Dam won't be the nightmare it might have been. It certainly wasn't the first heavy-handed assault on the massive freedoms brought to the Chinese people by PC and Internet technologies.

Nor is China the only country to employ blacklists and filters. Last week my colleague Bob Charette pointed out that ”the Australian government has also embarked on a program to filter (or 'boil the ocean' as some have called it) the Internet.” And my 2005 article noted that even the United States is hardly free of crude and heavy-handed Internet content filtering. As long as there are governments and powerful channels of communication, the two will be at loggerheads.

When Bridging the Credibility Gap in Nanotech, You Should Have a Credible Argument

In an attempt to put a new twist on the environmental, health and safety (EHS) debate swirling around nanotech, a new report from the Investor Environmental Health Network "Bridging the Credibility Gap" argues that companies using nanomaterials may be defrauding investors by not disclosing the risks associated with nanomaterials.

I certainly understand the instinct for kicking someone when their down, and there is no doubt the prospects for just about every nanotech company is in a slump, but does have to be done with such a fallacious argument.

In a nutshell, the report seems to think companies are dissimulating their use of "asbestos-like" nanomaterials and that current SEC regulations contain eight (only eight?) loopholes that allows this kind of fraud from omission to take place.

The press release for the report doesn't even try to make a distinction between carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials, instead it only discusses "nanomaterials" as though they all seem to simulate the effects of asbestos. Then after essentially making the connection between nanomaterials and asbestos seem almost airtight and beyond doubt, it lists off a a number of products containing nanomaterials "sunscren, cosmetics, food, clothing, sporting goods and packaging" that do not--with the exception of sporting goods--contain carbon nanotubes.

Lawyers do love to make it seem their services are indispensable even if they have to hype the threat a teensy bit. I managed to get through only the first minute of this 13-minute interview before I was compelled to blog on it. So, if by the end the author of the report acknowledges that  "the main evidence that finds a similarity in the behavior between asbestos and some nanoparticles (namely, multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs)) rests upon research of Ken Donaldson at Edinburg University, which did not really address the issues of dose and exposure," then let me know.

 

 

A High Tech Version of The Dog Ate My Homework

The high-tech version of the dog-ate-my-homework is the corrupted file, which is now available for a small fee. A online retailer, corrupted-files.com, is offering corrupted files for sale, the theory being, that people like teachers—and technology magazine editors—who are expecting a manuscript on deadline, might not actually attempt to open that file until days later. And if they receive a corrupted file with the right title, they'll never know that it wasn't the real file to begin with, buying the writer days of procrastination. And then, of course, the writer might be able to bargain for a few more days to troubleshoot the problem.

At $3.95 a file, it makes a lot more business sense than pets.com ever did.

PS to Spectrum authors: don't try this at home.

The Shrinking Nanotechnology Blog Universe

When IEEE Spectrum was about to launch its new and improved website, they asked the blog contributors to list some of the external blogs they read so links could be provided.

Among those that I provided were Howard Lovy's Nanobot and the Blog@Nanovic both of which have officially signed off as active blogs after I suggested we provide links to them. Even the latest entry in Richard Jones' Soft Machines blog, which I have linked to as well, seems to indicate that posts might be few and far between in the near future.

Other blogs that I used to frequent on the subject of nanotechnology have long since stopped posting or have been transformed into something else entirely, such as the evolution of the NY Times Bits blog under Barnaby Feder  which covered nanotechnology to what it is today, another computer lifestyle blog.

With this ever-dwindling number of blogs on the subject of nanotechnology, the idea was beginning to dawn on me that maybe this all signified something about the field of nanotechnology in general. I am not sure what the significance or meaning might be. Maybe it only indicates that each blog had to shut down due to completely different circumstances and pressures.

Nonetheless I was struck by the way Howard Lovy gave his adieu: "I am proud of the way this blog became a voice for those who believed government and business was taking nanotech in the wrong direction."

Without taking too much of a leap, I believe the "wrong direction" Mr. Lovy is referring to is what some saw as the marginalization of molecular manufactuirng (MNT) proposed by Eric Drexler and instead moved towards material science on the nanoscale.

If that was indeed Mr. Lovy's raison d'etre for his blog, he can take comfort in the knowledge that Eric Drexler has just been quoted as saying "Real nanotechnology is getting closer" and Drexler himself has picked up the baton of bringing MNT into the mainstream with his own website.

Still, while nanotechnology continues to go through a rather awkward period, it would be good to have as many voices as possible informing its development.

 

Eve Online Game Player Embezzles Virtual Money, Creates Real Trouble

eve online

A financial scandal has hit the universe of Eve Online, a sci-fi computer game, according to a report in BrekingViews. Created by Icelandic company CCP Games, Eve has more than 300,000 subscribers worldwide and is what gamers call a massively multiplayer online game, or MMOG. Players spend their time exploring solar systems and blasting away opponents in starship battles. (To understand what the game is all about, see the profile of Eve's software development director, Erlendur Thorsteinsson, that I wrote for our Dream Jobs report.)

Like other MMOGs, Eve has a virtual currency so players can buy and sell stuff -- weapons, ship modules, and so forth. What's remarkable about Eve is that players are also able to create new ventures and businesses. Players with an entrepreneurial streak can start companies, generate revenue, issue stock, even launch an IPO. In fact, Eve has one of the most complex universes ever seen in a MMOG. One in-game industry that flourished, not surprisingly, was banking. Eve's banks operate just like real ones, holding deposits from customers and lending money for a fee. Eve's largest is called EBank, and it had operated well until ... a top banker decided to run away with the money.

From the BreakingViews report:

Enter Ebank, this virtual universe’s online bank. Because players often do not have the interstellar credits — abbreviated to ISK, also the official abbreviation of the Icelandic kroner — they need to expand their fleets, an enterprising player created a bank that would accept deposits and lend to players who would pledge assets, like their spacecraft, as collateral. 

The bank was a success. According to its Web site (yes, it has one), Ebank accumulated about 8.9 trillion ISK in deposits in 13,000 accounts belonging to 6,000 users. That was far more than it was able to lend out — there were around 1 trillion ISK of loans. 

Somewhere along the way Ebank’s top executive, who went by the online handle Ricdic, apparently got greedy. According to CCP, he made off with deposits, which he then sold for real cash to gamers on a sort of black-market exchange separate from Eve.

How much was stolen? And how to recover the money? Those are the questions that other players who help run EBank are trying to answer. It's clear this is not a Ponzi scheme -- Ricdic is not the Madoff of Eve. The embezzled sum is just a fraction (the BreakingViews story says 10 percent) of the bank's total deposits. Still, the episode has already triggered a bank run. (EBank says its deposits amounted to 2.5 trillion ISK, not 8.9 trillion, adding that the bank run is over and that it is well capitalized.)

What's most puzzling about this banker-gone-thief episode is that it's not Eve's first. It's happened before in 2006, and again early this year. I wonder if the game creators at CCP might decide to take action by establishing a regulatory agency or perhaps a kind of deposit insurance like the FDIC in the United States. Or perhaps the creation of such regulatory and insurance entities will be left to players -- another in-game enterprise with great potential to flourish.

UPDATE: Dr. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, a CCP employee who is Eve's lead economist, acting as a kind of in-game central bank chief, tells us that EBank has to fix its own problem: "This is something that EBank will have to solve on its own since this is a player driven entity operated by players for other players."

Image: CCP Games/Eve Online

FCC Confirmation Hearing a Yawner

Today's confirmation hearing for the new chairman, Julius Genachowski, and the renomination of thoughtful Republican Rob McDowell was terribly short on drama. A number of advocacy groups had hoped to turn the hearing into a network neutrality showdown of sorts: they submitting a series of harsh questions for the nominees to members of the Committee, but nobody took the bait. Members were cordial and friendly, and the hearing was little more than a formality.

Members asked both nominees how they felt about net neutrality generally, and they both responded in fairly innocuous ways: Genachowski says he wants to preserve the Internet's ability to promote innovation small business creation, without any specifics, and McDowell says it's important to prevent anti-competitive behavior and not worry too much about "discrimination." Both said they prefer to spend Broadband Stimulus funds on un-served areas before under-served ones, the common sense priority.  The FCC's web site came in for a fair amount of criticism, fair enough as it was apparently designed by Kevin Werbach in the '90s and hasn't been upgraded since. Perhaps most significant, there was an endless stream of criticism for the last FCC chairman.
 

McDowell presented an interesting rundown on the state of broadband networks in America. While we've all heard that the US ranks somewhere between 12th and 18th in wireline broadband use, it's less well known that we're number one in wireless broadband and in wireless phone use in general. Part of this is cost-driven, as the per-minute rate for cell calls is less than it is in any other OECD country, and part is due to the greater adoption of smart phones in the US. When we look at the OECD rankings for wireless in general against and wireline broadband, they're practically mirror images of each other. The relationships of these rankings are intriguing.

The question of spectrum mapping and management played a large role in opening statements, but wasn't really followed-up in questions. But there wasn't any point in going into it right now.


The FCC's major work item for the next year is going to be the National Broadband Plan, and there's going to be plenty of lively debate when the FCC delivers its mockup to the Congress in February.

In the event that you're obsessive about these things, the hearing is archived on the C-Span web site, which has been updated this century.

Nanowires Could Improve Fuel Cells...Not Make them Commercially Viable

I read today  a report  on recent research out of the University of Rochester in which long, platinum nanowires were used as catalysts in fuel cells.

 

Now that it has been more or less firmly established that carbon nanotubes are not particularly useful for hydrogen storage, it's time for nanomaterials to get back to their roots when it comes to fuel cells and for work to continue in improving the catalysts.

 

That's all well and good, but do we have to accompany this research with statements that are simply not  true like "People have been working on developing fuel cells for decades. But the technology is still not being commercialized," says James C. M. Li, the lead researcher of the projected in the piece cited above.  The article even clarifies this idea by saying "...fuel cells, which have until now been used largely for such exotic purposes as powering spacecraft."

 

I think what they must be getting at is that portable fuel cells have not developed into much of a commercial market because quite to the contrary I can point them into the direction of entire database of installed, stationary fuel cells around the globe.

 

It's time for a bit of honest talk. Various nanomaterials have demonstrated themselves at being pretty effective catalysts for fuel cells for some time now. It's not that new. But improving the catalysts is not the stumbling block for the wider commercial adoption of portable fuel cells for either your automobile or your laptop. In the former, the cost of producing hydrogen to supply the fuel cells remains prohibitively expensive and there is no infrastructure for a distribution network. In the latter, try to imagine getting past airline security with a half litre of methanol attached to the back of the laptop.

 

Yes, platinum is expensive and drives the cost of fuel cell pretty high, but in the list of obstacles facing the wider adoption of portable fuel cells, I would not put this at the top.

What Will the Data Center of the Future Look Like?

The New York Times Magazine has an article on data centers -- the massive (though invisible to most users) computing infrastructure that runs our web searches, email, blogs, tweets. The article does a good job describing the architecture of current mega data centers and the challenges in building them. But what I missed in the story is: Where do we go from here. What will the data center of the future look like?

Spectrum tried to offer an answer to this very question early this year. In the February '09 article "Tech Titans Building Boom," by UC Berkeley professor Randy H. Katz, we presented an illustration (below) of what a 1 million server data center might look like. That vision -- a roofless facility with hundreds of server-packed shipping containers -- was based in part on Microsoft's Generation 4 data center design. But I'm still wondering: Is that the future of the cloud? A parking lot crammed with steel boxes?

True, there's been some innovation, including an underground data center in Sweden and Google's patented servers-on-a-barge idea. But I guess I was hoping for some real breakthrough in data center design -- a real departure in how these facilities are built and operate. Just to throw out an idea, what about a data center based on AS/RS (Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems)? Picture servers piled vertically into high enclosures with robotic arms that attach power/cooling/network connections and replace defective parts.

Have a wild vision for the data center of the future? Let us know. If it's good we might even run it in the magazine.  

million server data center

The Million-Server Data Center. See a larger version here.

Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

The Digital TV switch was good for me

The Digital TV switch this weekend went smoothly in my San Francisco Bay Area home, more smoothly than I had anticipated. Admittedly, I spent lots of time, effort, and money getting ready for it—besides the converter boxes, I needed a new antenna, and my husband had to go up on the roof and replace our antenna twice before we got it right. Yeah, I lost one TV in the house—no antenna hookup for that third TV, and just too far from the transmitters to pick up a digital signal on rabbit ears.

But in spite of my pre-transition experience that foreshadowed problems with the analog shutdown—a dearth of English language stations and no American Idol viewing next season—we now have most of the channels we had before, plus a few extra, including a sports channel that has made it more difficult to pry certain family members off the couch.

The difference? Most stations in the San Francisco Bay Area changed their digital channels this weekend, in most cases to a much lower UHF or even to a VHF frequency. My understanding is that these new frequencies are somewhat less subject to attenuation, and the difference seems to be enough to put me inside instead of outside the reception footprint. So it looks like analog shutdown, after all, isn’t going to mean a monthly cable television bill in my mailbox.

The San Francisco Bay Area transition reportedly went forward with few hitches. According to a memo from Valari Staab of KGO television, KGO was able to resolve 80 percent of people’s problems receiving its signal on the phone, but acknowledges that, because it is being allowed to operate with more power than others assigned to Channel 6 or 7, the high-VHF frequencies, and broadcasting from its old analog antenna positioned at the top of Sutro Tower, it is having less issues than its brethren around the country. I may lose KGO for a while after mid-July, when it moves daytime broadcasts to an auxiliary antenna while crews are working to put new digital antennas for other stations up high on the tower. That work is expected to be complete in October. Staab also reported that local Best Buys have been running low on antennas.

In the rest of the country, reports, so far, are that things went smoothly. The FCC received nearly 800,000 calls this weekend; Chicago took an early lead as the spot with the most trouble. Volunteers around the country, from firefighters to members of Best Buy’s Geek Squad were standing by to help people hook up their converters. I just tried to explain to my mother, long distance, how to rescan for channels. I was unsuccessful; I gave her the Best Buy hotline, though I doubt she’ll take advantage of it. Fortunately, two channels in her area didn’t switch frequencies, so she’ll have something to watch until my next visit.

It may be some time, if ever, before we really know how many folks around the country were unable to make the transition, who either had to start paying for cable or satellite or adapt to a life without TV, because they are in DTV dead zones.

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