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IBM pulls out of Blue Brain collaboration

UPDATE posted 1-22-2009

Today, a tersely worded note arrived in my inbox from an IBM spokesperson, who said, "IBM Research completed the first phase of the BlueBrain project and we are not involved with the second phase."

This was something of a surprise, given the hype surrounding the future of the Blue Brain collaboration, and the extensive roadmap that had Henry Markram, the project's director, building ever bigger and more complex models on ever more capable Blue Gene upgrades. The final goal was the full-scale, near-biological simulation of a human brain.

The 22.8 Tflop IBM Blue Gene/L currently humming away in the basement of Switzerlandâ''s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne houses 10 000 neurons of a virtual ratâ''s neocortical column, a microcircuit that is in reality about the size of a fine pen tip. Markram told me that the next phase of Blue Brain would involve ganging these neocortical columns together in either a visual cortex or a somatosensory cortex. For that, he said, he would need more computer than the current, 8092-processor machine was capable of.

He also mentioned that IBM would be sending him a new machine in January 2009.

As recently as mid-December, the project was still on as far as IBM's PR people were concerned. "The Blue Brain project is a comprehensive attempt to understand brain function and dysfunction through detailed simulations," an IBM public relations minister told me proudly in an email likely lifted from a press release. "Analogous in scope to the Genome Project, the Blue Brain will provide a huge leap in our understanding of brain function and dysfunction and help us explore solutions to intractable problems in mental health and neurological disease."

It would be tempting to blame this on the recession, but IBM just hopped on board the DARPA train to spearhead the SyNAPSE project, which is computational neuroscience-- a different ball of wax from Blue Brain. Here's a detailed explanation of the differences.

If anyone has any insights into what happened there at Big Blue, please email me.

CES 2009: Casio's latest little Exilim cameras win some and lose some (but hey, that's Vegas)

IMG_2624.JPGToday at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Casio brought new features into two sets of Exilim point and shoot cameras. First, the high speed photo feature I so admired in its professional cameras last year is now built into the Exilim FC-100 and FC-10 as part of its High Speed line of products (between $300 and $400 retail). These cameras can shoot in bursts of 30 still frames per second, or take video at 1000 frames per second. That means that users can sort through images for the perfect shot, or run action sequences in extreme slow motion.

Kazuo Kashio, company founder and CEO, called this a new way of taking photos, a benchmark for the next generation of cameras. Itâ''s clear to see how such a capability will make everyday picture taking easier and better; I only have to think of how many times I made my kids jump off of a pile of sand on the beach last summer as I attempted to catch them mid-air before abandoning the effort. With Casioâ''s burst mode, I would have gotten the picture I wanted on the first shot.

These cameras also use the high-speed burst mode and some image processing to eliminate blur from shaky hand-held shots and enhance nighttime images, something that would also improve my photo taking dramatically.

Casio didnâ''t stop there, though it probably should have. It introduced a second line of consumer point and shoot cameras, the Dynamic Photo line, with a feature the company calls Moving Image Composite; I think of it more as the Forrest Gump Effect, or Instant Blue Screen.

The idea: take a short video of someone, donâ''t worry about the background. Then swap out the background for a different one, real or virtual. The process, as demonstrated, has several steps: take the video, ask the subject to step aside, take still picture of the background, take a photo of a different background, and combine the two. In the demo, Kashio put a person giving a gift on a birthday background, inserted children into their own artwork, and put a little girl on the moon. Kashio was genuinely enthusiastic about this capability, and demonstrated it extensively, but I just wasnâ''t sold.

It was clever, and seemed to work well, but itâ''s an odd feature for a point and shoot camera, as odd as the color swap feature on my current Canon cameraâ''I can change all the blues in an image to orange instantly as I shoot it, but Iâ''m about as likely to want to do that as I am to want a photo of my kids on the moon.

Intel Says Chip Sales Sank Dramatically in Q4

Intel Corp. advised today it expects that its fourth quarter 2008 sales will be down substantially below its recent forecasts. In a press release, the Santa Clara, Calif., microprocessor giant announced that its revenues for the last three months should come in at about US $8.2 billion, down 20 percent sequentially and down 23 percent year over year.

Previously, last November, Intel said it anticipated earning between $8.7 billion and $9.3 billion in sales in the fourth quarter. It added that its gross profit margins would also slip in the period to about 55 percent, down from a predicted 53 to 57 percent of revenue. The company cited increased weakness in end demand and inventory reductions by its customers in the global PC supply chain as the principal cause of the downturn.

Adding to its problems, Intel said that it will need to write down the costs of its 2006 investment in Clearwire Corp., a provider of the new WiMax wireless broadband technology. Intel will take a non-cash charge to fourth-quarter earnings of approximately $950 million. The company now expects the net gain or loss from equity investments and interest to be a loss of between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion versus a previous expectation of a loss of approximately $50 million.

The microprocessor leader also said it will pare spending on research and development and mergers and acquisitions in the period from $2.8 billion to $2.6 billion.

Intel will formally announce the results of its Q4 earnings on 15 January in a press conference.

CES 2009: LG's Watch Phone at CESâ¿¿Oooh, Aaahh

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LGâ''s Chief Technology Officer Woo Paik had a Steve Jobs moment today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas when, after rattling through a long list of new technologies coming to the television set (wireless HD, 3D, and reductions in motion blur among them), he took a breath, smiled, and brought out â''just one more thingâ''â''a sleek black watch thatâ''s a full-function mobile phone.

The crowd, until then fairly sluggish (it was just after 8 am), literally sat up in their seats, and oohâ''s and ahhâ''s rippled through the room. Digital cameras flashed as Paik pointed out the touch screen face and built-in blue-tooth and speakerphone, and then demonstrated its music player capabilities.

The bad newsâ''the LG watch phone is not available until the third quarter, and then only in Europe; this prototype operates on 3G networks only. LG did not anounce a price, indicating that phone pricing is up to the cell phone carriers.

Still, not a bad way to kick off CES.

2009 May See Reprioritization of Nanotech Concerns

The news cycle for nanotechnology in 2008 is pretty easy to sum up: environmental, health and safety concerns. Wiki projects, websites, blogs were created last year and all were strictly focused on combating the unknown, and largely unproven, dangers of nanotechnology.

But this year as a friend noted to me as the year turned, â''There will be far fewer hippies this year.â'' Unsure of exactly what he meant, he further explained that all those people who had the time and the luxury to concern themselves with the plight of the polar bear will find that much more of their energy will be occupied with their own survival. In other words, setting up think tanks and government-funded research projects to combat threats that donâ''t exist and may never exist will become a little harder to sell when people are facing foreclosure and unemployment.

So if saving the polar bear or defending our privacy from nanobots falls a little down the priority list of concerns for nanotech, what moves up?

Well, we have received our first real predictions for the state of nanotechnology in 2009: Nanotechnologies In 2009: Creative Destruction or Credit Crunch? authored by UK-based Tim Harper, CEO of Cientifica.

Apparently the white paper was inspired by Harperâ''s involvement in the World Economic Forumâ''s Summit on the Global Agenda in which challenges in particular areas are examined, which in this case was nanotechnology.

While toxicology issues remained an anchor of the discussions (this was still held in 2008), the effects of the economic crisis were already beginning to influence peopleâ''s thoughts.

As a result, Harper lists five issues that he sees as having a significant impact on nanotechnology in 2009:

â'¢ Technology Funding â'' expect to see things getting worse before they get better

â'¢ Purchases of Worthless Intellectual Property

â'¢ Academic Funding and Spinouts

â'¢ CleanTech

â'¢ Nanotechnology Applications

While some have found the â''thought-provokingâ'' bits to be those in which Harper has clearly put himself out on the line with predictions that can be referenced back upon, it is probably more in his urgings that the real meat of the piece can be found.

Nanotech as an area of technology commercialization finds itself in a strange spot. We are over seven years into huge government and private funding of nanotech so that we can now begin to see the fruits of all that investment. Technologies are ready to be commercialized, hard-fought profits can finally be won, but in many cases the financial pipeline will get turned off just as it was all about to pay off.

For those with the resources and the fortitude in these perilous times, Harper believes that 2009 could make fortunes while others may not survive the year.

In any case, claims by poorly informed environmentalists of a â''nanotech industryâ'' blinded by a â''gold rushâ'' will hopefully find their place in the greater scheme of thingsâ''down on the priority pole.

Cracks in Molecular Nanotechnology Orthodoxy Starting to Form

As I suggested might become the case last month, we are now beginning to see that the ideas of Eric Drexler in his Metamodern blog are not quite matching up with those of the proponents of molecular manufacturing.

Drexler presents some of his concerns and doubts about diamondoid mechanosynthesis (DMS), which has been most vigorously pursued by Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle.

This has started a bit of debate between the two parties, which can be chronicled over at The Next Big Future blog. In it we get parsing of words like DMS is not a â''necessary first stepâ'' for molecular manufacturing but a â''highly desirable first stepâ''.

Drexler seems to indicate that not only is DMS not a necessary first step but not a highly desirable first step either. Instead pointing to aqueous synthesis at room temperature as an attractive area of research.

This leads again to the debate over the â''Wetâ'' or â''Dryâ'' approach to advanced nanotech. While this debate constitutes a red herring according to some of the comments to Drexlerâ''s blog entry, itâ''s hard to know how you graduate to automated exponential manufacturing if you donâ''t have any basic building blocks.

In any event, the vacuum surrounding molecular manufacturing research appears to have been relieved. Perhaps this will lead to more experiments and progress.

No Surprise: Semi Sector Slumps Badly at 2008 Close

As you might expect, the global economic downturn has hit the semiconductor industry badly, particularly as the past year dragged to a close.

According to the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), semiconductor sales plummeted in November 2008 nearly 10 percent from comparable sales a year earlier. In a press release yesterday, the SIA reported that manufacturers sold US $20.8 billion worth of units, as opposed to $23.1 billion for the same 2007 period. The November sales were also down from October sales by 7.2 percent, indicating that the decline was accelerating.

The SIA reported that sales in the Americas fell 19.5 percent while in Europe sales dropped 13.9 percent. However, the Asia Pacific region had the smallest decline, -6.2 percent in sales.

"The worldwide economic crisis is having an impact on demand for semiconductors, but to a lesser degree than some other major industry sectors. We expect the industry will remain the second largest exporter in the U.S. for 2008," SIA President George Scalise noted.

"Not all segments of the industry are being affected equally by the downturn. The memory market which has been under severe price pressure throughout the year has seen sales decline significantly while many other product sectors have year-to-date sales above 2007 levels," Scalise added.

The SIA said the industry trade group -- whose members include Intel, Texas Instruments, and Advanced Micro Devices -- was moving quickly to prompt U.S. legislators to pass measures aimed at stimulating investment in the sector as part of the incoming administration's economic incentive plan.

That too should come as no surprise.

Will a New President Shake Up the U.S. Space Program?

NASA is facing a sea change in its mission of human spaceflight, moving from an orbital science orientation to a course of longitudinal exploration of the near solar system. The new strategy poses enormous challenges to the management of the U.S. space agency to rethink the way it marshals its resources.

Under the Bush administration, NASA has been tasked with beginning the transition from operating a fleet of shuttles to finish building the International Space Station (ISS) to developing a new generation of conventional launch platforms to send crews to the Moon and, eventually, Mars.

With the Obama presidency approaching, experts in the field are questioning how much of the new program will be embraced by the science advisors coming to a White House confronted with a compromised economy and different political realities.

A feature article in The New York Times today covers the many issues involved in the complex future of the space agency.

The first of these centers around NASA's current plan to ground its shuttles in 2010 and employ the services of the Russian space agency to continue servicing the ISS with its Soyuz spacecraft until 2015, when the new U.S. rockets are ready to fly.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said he supported the new rocket program, known as Project Constellation, but was critical of the proposed shuttle grounding over strictly financial reasons. In effect, he was endorsing a parallel track for both programs, despite the burgeoning costs. But conditions have changed dramatically in the months since the now President-elect spoke those words, and harsher realities may cause him to reconsider his position.

The second major issue concerns the management of the space agency itself. The Times article notes that longstanding complaints about a climate of inflexibility in the administration of NASA programs has never been fully addressed, let alone overcome.

The article states:

Some inside the development program have complained that it is run with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude that stifles dissent and innovation. Jeffrey Finckenor, an engineer who left NASA this year, sent a goodbye letter to colleagues that expressed his frustrations with the program. "At the highest levels of the agency, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality," he wrote, "followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate."

That damning criticism echoes voices heard five years ago after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry and a commission studying the disaster concluded that NASA's management philosophy contributed to a chain of events responsible for the failure.

The combination of unchanged intransigence and differences of opinion in direction could lead to quick changes in the space agency's leadership at the hands of a new administration in Washington.

NASA's current boss, Michael D. Griffin, who favors grounding the shuttles, is under contract through 20 January, Inauguration Day, when he will need a new presidential appointment to continue steering the agency.

Articles such as the one in today's Times do not bode well for his future prospects in that regard.

Presidents have historically tended to make up their own minds about which direction to pursue when it comes to the crucial matter of space exploration.

[Update 31 December 2008: In a bit of a controversial move, the wife of NASA Chief Administrator Michael D. Griffin posted e-mail to friends and family on Christmas Eve asking them to sign an online petition requesting President-elect Barack Obama "to consider keeping Mike Griffin on as NASA Administrator," according to a report today from the Associated Press. The online petition was started by former astronaut Scott "Doc" Horowitz of Park City, Utah, who is also a former NASA associate administrator. The AP article states that Mr. Griffin had no prior knowledge of the petition drive.]

Are You Ready for Some 3-D Football?

Hey, that halfback looks like he's coming right at me!

When the topic of 3-D pictures arises, most of us think about cheap cardboard glasses with red and blue plastic lenses allowing us to unevenly watch even cheaper monster movies (and then trying to regain normal vision afterward). Over the years, 3-D projects have come and gone like a vampire that refuses to finally die, even after the stake has been driven through its heart by the public, critics, and technologists alike. Still, some engineers working in the entertainment industry have steadfastly maintained that the big breakthrough in 3-D technology is just around the corner, one that could usher in an era in which consumers will adopt a new way of looking at the world on the screen.

Now, it appears the monster is back and looking for revenge. As reported in an article in the Boston Globe today, the latest incarnation of 3-D is being sponsored by no less an entertainment behemoth than the National Collegiate Athletic Association (or NCAA).

For the biggest football game on the NCAA calendar, the BCS National Championship Game in Miami (between the University of Florida and the University of Oklahoma) on 8 January, Fox Sports will beam a special version of its broadcast to a number of selected movie theaters across the United States using a new implementation of 3-D imaging technology.

The equipment to be employed by Fox Sports for the college championship game will be supplied by a small firm called 3ality Digital Systems, which specifically focuses on using its state-of-the-art 3-D digital image technology to capture live events such as concerts and sports matches. According to the Burbank, Calif., firm, their equipment ranges from robotic motion-control systems to image processing electronics to specially made polarized eyeglasses.

"3-D is going to change the way we experience media," Steve Schklair, chief executive of 3ality Digital, told the Boston Globe. "We've shown it to former NFL players and they say, 'I've been on hundreds of football fields, and this is like standing on the field'."

That's a claim we've heard many times in the past. It may be true, but rightly or wrongly 3-D still has a lot of historical baggage attached to it that will make the road today's firms such as 3ality need to climb a steep one.

It may be a thrill to see a great football game as if you were on the field participating. Still, there's a reason they insist that fans stay in the grandstand.

Broadcast DTV Lives Up to Hype

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With all the teeth gnashing, hair pulling and garment rending over the switchover from analog to digital TV (T minus 49 days and counting), the big picture tends to get lost in the kerfuffle: broadcast digital TV looks way better than analog. I discovered this a couple of weeks ago when I helped my parents make the transition, a story that joined all the others as part of Spectrum's special countdown coverage The Day Analog TV Dies (good riddance).

When I was down in Louisville for Thanksgiving, my dad asked me to help him switch his 20-year-old Sony TV from analog to digital. We went to RadioShack with his discount card for a converter box, but the card had expired the day before. Why bother expiring these cards before the switchover date? I answered my own question a couple of weeks later when I went back home to tend to some family matters (can you say â''economic stimulus for the consumer electronics industry?â'').

The TV in my parentsâ'' house holds the same special place that it does in a lot of homes that havenâ''t hitched a ride on the Info Highwayâ''itâ''s the fireplace, the gathering spot, the focus of the living room and of leisure time. So when I arrived at the old homestead ahead of the the replacement discount card, I knew it was important to do whatever it took to help my parents make the switch.

I rifled through the Sunday paper, looking at ads for LCD TVs. Sure, I could have gone out and paid full price for the converter box, but the countdown to Hannukah had also commenced and I put that $60 converter box expenditure into my own twisted gift-giving calculations. Their old TV was small, 19 inches, so bargain hunting was easy. There is a Circuit City (on life support, like all Circuit Cities) near their place, so I drove over to browse the pre-Xmas, post-Chapter 11 bargains. I found one almost immediately: a 22-inch Zenith. It was a floor model, on sale as is for about 60 percent off--$150. I didnâ''t hesitate. The picture (piped in through the storeâ''s cable feed) was at least as good as the Toshibas surrounding it and certainly better than the old Sony.

I bought the TV and a universal remote (the TV was sold as is, as in someone had lost the remote) and went back to my parentâ''s house. They were thrilled with their early Hanukkah gift. But when we turned it on, we got nothing but static. Duh. This TV needed an external DTV antenna. So I went back to the local RadioShack and bought a $35 amplified VHF/UHF/FM indoor antenna.

Set up was a little funky, considering that the $10 universal remote couldnâ''t control the Zenithâ''s menu. I had to navigate the setup using the buttons on top of the set. I attached the antenna to the TV, plugged it in and turned it on. I made the TV run through an auto tuning routine. On the first pass, it picked up four channels; my parentâ''s old TV could pick up eight. That didnâ''t seem right, so I ran the auto tune routine again, 12 channels this time. One channel, WAVE 3, had three channels associated with it instead of just oneâ''a crystal clear HD channel for its regular broadcast, and two other channels, including a 24-hour weather channel and a music channel, which had been discontinued (already? I guess the programming experiments will continue like this for years to come). Still, certain channels that had come through clearly on the old set were totally staticky in that digital, pixilated jigsaw mess of picture many DTV converts will become accustomed to in the next few weeks. So I ran the auto tune routine again. And again. Finally, after some maneuvering of the antenna to put the rabbit ears in the optimum position, we had 27 channels, all of them amazingly clear.

I was shocked. The picture was at least as good as the one I got at home with an HD cable box hooked up to my Olevia monitor (no, it doesnâ''t have a tuner and two years ago, opting for the tunerless monitor saved me about $500). My parents had never seen a picture so clear. And so, while I have been watching HDTV for a while now, I was fascinated, like a child with a new Xmas, I mean Hanukkah, toy. These signals were coming through the air? For free? And many of the channels had added new channelsâ''all of them in beautiful HD color. For less than $200, my parents not only had their first new TV in 20 years, they had 27 HD-quality channels. Hanukkah Joe did good this year.

So far the only complaint is the slow motion pixilated picture break up that happens for reasons unknown. You can be watching a show, when suddenly the picture breaks down into small boxes that slide around the screen. Could it be the â''bargainâ'' TV gone haywire? Could it be simple signal interference? Maybe someone here has some ideasâ'¿.

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