Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Follow IEEE Spectrum on Twitter

Well, better late than never. Follow IEEE Spectrum on Twitter for updates from the Web site and reports from the field, like the sweet tweets from senior editor Tekla Perry as she ogles new goodies at Tech Crunch 50 this week.

FDA Holds Public Hearings on Nanotechnology

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to take on the daunting task of figuring out how the size of a material (versus its chemical composition) affects its toxicity.

In keeping with the theme of pithy little size innuendos like â''size mattersâ'', this is a big nut to crack. A lot of work, research, development of new tools, creating of new measurement standards, and lots of money and time will be required to sort it out.

But instead of â''letâ''s roll up our sleeves and get to workâ'' we get â''letâ''s have a public meeting.â''

There must be some real or imagined benefit to engaging in this kind of public theater, but I imagine whatever it is it will not likely bring us any closer to determining how the size of particles imparts its level of toxicity.

The assumption behind these types of meetings is to foster an environment of openness and transparency with the general public.

But I canâ''t help but think that TNTLog has it about right when it laments about public acceptance of technologies whether â''any kind of education, or even twenty years in a Soviet Gulag would change such entrenched views?â''

Are Network Analysis Techniques Successful in Iraq?

In his new book, The War Within, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward claims that breakthrough techniques used to "locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups" helped turn the tide against insurgents in Iraq last year. In an interview last night on CBS's 60 Minutes, Woodward shies away from disclosing any details about these techniques--1:32 in--for fear of compromising special operations. But he likens the "special capability" to the introduction of the tank and the airplane in combat:

In September 2006, I wrote about new network analysis capabilities being developed for the intelligence community in an article entitled "Modeling Terrorists." In it I highlighted the work of several groups:

[Prof. Barry] Silvermanâ''s group [at the University of Pennsylvania] focuses on individual agents, but other modelers take a more organizational approach, simulating large-scale social networks on supercomputers and churning out trillions of bytes of data. Models built by Edward MacKerrow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Charles Macal at Argonne National Laboratory, Alok R. Chaturvedi at Purdue University, Desmond Saunders-Newton at BAE Systems, and Kathleen Carley at Carnegie Mellon University use thousands or millions of relatively simple agents to examine how networks form and mutate, how individuals communicate, and who leads and who follows. Carleyâ''s programs, which process real data, stand out for their ability to help analysts imagine how a terrorist network might adaptâ''or notâ''after its leader is killed or captured.

Such work, concentrated in the United States and sustained by tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in funding by various intelligence organizations, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, points to a new era in training and intelligence analysis. The experts developing these systems are reticent about exactly how their programs are being used. But outside observers say it is a good bet that software designed to identify the critical people in a terrorist organization will be usedâ''if it hasnâ''t been alreadyâ''to draw up lists that prioritize which people should be killed or captured so as to do maximum damage to the organization.

There is, of course, no way to know whether Woodward was referring to these kind of social simulations and network analysis techniques. But the recent decrease in violence in Iraq coupled with Woodward's assertions suggest that if nothing else, U.S. intelligence has some new, very accurate arrows in its quiver. And at the very least, these sorts of research projects have contributed to a better understanding of how networks such as Al Qaeda in Iraq function.

Although it is virtually impossible for people outside the military and intelligence communities to assess the real impact of social network analysis tools on counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq, we know that they are being used there as part of the effort to break up networks that build and deploy IEDs, as Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette points out in his current article in Spectrum, "Countering IEDs":

Attacking the network boils down in part to analyzing social networks, collecting and analyzing intelligence, and persistently surveilling places. It has been a difficult challenge, depending as it has on wildly incongruous data, tips, and reports from surveillance systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and from local people suspicious of activity in their neighborhoods. â''Itâ''s a challenging new frontier,â'' says [Colonel Barry L.] Shoop. â''Combining an ­understanding of the psychology and sociology of terrorist networks with probabilistic modeling, complexity theory, forensic science, pattern recognition, and data mining to predict human behavior is new.â''

These techniques are so new that it's a good bet that targeted networks haven't figured out ways to counter them. Yet.

Hot Chips: Autonomous cars with a lead foot, and the incredulous Hulk

Stanley.JPG

PHOTO CREDIT: STANFORD UNIVERSITY

The Hot Chips conference is the hands-down favorite of the chip design crowd. The atmosphere is more relaxed, the media presence is less intense, and in general the mood is more congenial than at the heavy hitters like IEDM and ISSCC.

They had good coffee, so everyone congregated on patios between sessions and lingered in the California sunshine. One engineer bore a stunning resemblance to Late Elvis, but turned out to be much more reticent than his lookalike. To encourage the masses back into the auditorium, an ethereal elderly man with flowing white hair, tucked into a slightly-too-large brown suit and formal white shirt, stalked about ringing a shrill bell. I found out later that the wrangler was A Very Big Deal (he was the founder of the Hot Chips conference).

The best parts of the conference, and the parts that best reflected the comparative intimacy of this event, were the keynotes and the Monday night panel that looked back on 20 years of â''missed predictions.â''

The first keynote was about Stanley, Stanford's autonomous VW Touareg that won DARPA's first Grand Challenge to the tune of US $2 million. Head researcher Sebastian Thrun presented an overview of what it took to get from concept to completion, along with clips that often looked like outtakes from America's Funniest Home Videos.

The vehicles â''learnedâ'' to drive themselves based on human tutelage. Thrun described the process: a graduate student would drive the car, the car would record his speed and movements, and later reference them when left to its own autonomous devices. But Thrun said that after several such tutorials, the car had become overly timid.

â''Then I drove it, â'' said Thrun, â''and, as a German, the car became 20 percent faster.â''

hulk.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: ANDREW BECRAFT

The second keynote, delivered by SunPower founder Richard Swanson, was when things really got interesting.

SunPower has been developing and evolving their photovoltaics for solar power systems since the late 1980s. Swanson recounted the tough times they faced back when solar was laughed out of the room, and had a bit of a gloat at the idea that in 2008, fossil fuels are expensive enough to make solar cells worth it. Now the company has funding, government subsidies, and lots of investors.

Swansonâ''s first mistake was a back-of-his-palm ad hoc calculation of how much electricity a solar farm could generate over ten years. â''If you installed one megawatt a day in photovoltaics,â'' he said, â''youâ''d have 360 MW at the end of the year, which is 3.6 gigawatts in 10 yearsâ''thatâ''s a nuclear power plant right there! Itâ''s the amount of power a nuclear power plant would generateâ''except if you ordered it today, youâ''d have it in 15 years.â''

Swanson had worked himself into a froth. â''We could supply the entire country by 2040 at reasonable growth rates.â'' A side benefit, he said, would be an 80 percent CO2 reduction by 2050.

The question and answer session that followed was run of the mill (â''What are your dominant failure modes,â'' etc.) until one engineer walked up to the mic, and promptly and thoroughly Hulked out.

His shoulders bulged, his shirt ripped, and his toes tore through his shoes.* â''Sunpower able to do this purely because of government subsidies!â'' he roared. â''Absurd to say you can do something as good as nuke plant! Self-righteousness of keynote speech and play fast and loose with facts make HULK SMAAASH AAARGH!!â''

Swanson disagreed, putting the annual capacity of solar at 30 percent, where nuclear plants are at 80 percent.

â''Nuke plants at 92 percent!!!â'' The Hulk bellowed and tossed several surprised engineers at the stage. â''To say 3 GW absurd!â''

Swanson protested meekly but agreed to downgrade his projections from one power plant to one half of a power plant.

--

*Disclaimer: I exaggerate somewhat. Having returned to his normal size, the engineer later told me that he thought the projections were off-base, and that his main argument with the talk was that it sounded like a marketing presentation rather than a technical overview.

Court Orders that Nanomaterials Company Has to Pay Inventors their Royalties

In a decision last week that should hearten inventors around the world, the British High Courts have upheld Neuftec Limitedâ''s license rights against a claim by Oxonica Energy Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oxonica PLCâ''the UK-based nanomaterials company.

The case revolved around the Enviroxâ'¢ formulation, which is advertised as â''a fuel borne nanocatalyst for diesel engines which reduces fuel consumption with savings of 5-10% and reduces particulate emissions by up to 15%.â''

According to the news release relating the courtâ''s decision, problems began in October 2006 when Oxonica told Neuftec it had produced an 'alternative' to the patented Enviroxâ'¢ formulation and that Neuftec would therefore not be eligible for continued royalty payments.

When informed of this decision, Neuftec struck out on its own to market the product. As a result, Oxonica in February 2007 initiated legal proceedings against Neuftec initially to keep the company from competing with it and to claim that that sales of of the so-called 'Envirox 2' were not caught by the terms of the Neuftec licence and therefore should not trigger royalty payments by Oxonica. It later dropped the non-compete claim, but maintained its case against making royalty payments.

In a 40-page judgment, the judge ruled that "...royalties are payable in respect of any product, process or use falling within the scope of any claim of the PCT application as appended to the License Deed, and nothing else. Envirox 2 is a Licensed Product as defined, and attracts royalties accordingly. The claim fails and the counterclaim succeeds...".

There has been no word as of yet whether there will be appeal of the decision. In the meantime, this decision marks the end of one of the more intriguing legal cases to come out of the world of nanotechnology and IP disputes.

The result seems to indicate that efforts to develop an 'alternative' to patented product that you have a license agreement with and subsequently avoid royalty payments can be a tricky business.

In a striking coincidence, the Envirox product proved disappointing in testing by Petrol Ofisi, the Turkish national oil-and-gas company, after Oxonica had informed Neuftec that it had developed an alternative to the patented product

Why Raindrops Keep Falling . . . Or Do Not

Research published in the Sept. 5 issue of Science puts two of the biggest problems in climate modelingâ''the respective roles of clouds and aerosolsâ''in a new perspective. Of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the one that has the biggest overall effects is a natural one, water vapor. Yet the impacts of clouds on temperature are incredibly complicated and still quite poorly understood: depending on their height, density, and other factors, they can either trap radiation or reflect it back into space. Aerosolsâ''tiny particles or drops of liquid, suspended in a gasâ''also have big effects on climate, and those effects also are complicated and ambiguous; black carbon particles, for example, reflect radiation and dampen warming locally or regionally, and yet also dry out the land they blanket, aggravating droughts.

The article published today in Science reviews the scientific literature on the relationship between aerosols and rainfall and comes to a striking conclusion. The authors find that rainfall is greatest when aerosols levels are intermediate, not too big and not too small, but just right. Water precipitates out too fastâ''may we say too precipitously?â''from clouds in clean air with little aerosol content, so that the really big clouds that produce heavy rainfall never form. On the other hand, clouds in heavily polluted air get so warm that most water evaporates out of them before having the opportunity to form raindrops.

Coalition Forces Deliver Hydroelectric Turbine to Southern Afghanistan

In a high-stakes gamble, a combat force of multinational troops has delivered a 200 metric ton turbine to a hydroelectric facility in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The initiative posed security risks in its delivery phase and will provide many more in its installation and operations phases to come, according to informed sources.

To get the massive turbine from the city of Kandahar to the town of Kajaki in southern Afghanistan, a convoy under British command secretly moved 100 miles over rugged roads through some of the war-torn nation's most hostile territory. A report from the British Army on Wednesday states that the operation involved more than 2000 U.K. soldiers and an additional 2000 Afghan and NATO troops.

The objective of the mission is to help repair a hydroelectric dam at Kajaki that had been damaged by decades of fighting in the region. The Kajaki power station was built in 1975 with funding from USAID, an American civilian aid agency. At its peak, the dam's three turbines had an output capacity of 53 megawatts (MW), delivering electricity to the 1.5 million inhabitants of the remote province, as well as serving as a water resource for irrigation in the agricultural basin. However, years of turmoil saw two of the turbines fail, reducing its capacity to 16 MW.

The British Army account said that its armored troops not only took part in the secret convoy but cleared the path ahead of enemy activity, engaging Taliban fighters close to its route.

"This is a significant military operation, which demonstrates that our strategy of delivering civil effect is making progress in southern Afghanistan," said Lt. Col David Reynolds, on behalf of the British task force in Helmand. "Ultimately, success in Afghanistan is about more than defeating the Taliban or the absence of fighting. It's also about creating jobs, security, and economic development."

Nevertheless, experts in the U.K. had deep reservations about proceeding with repair work on the dam and its associated electrical grid at this time. In an article yesterday from Britain's Manchester Guardian posted to a site affiliated with the Ministry of Defence (see Kajaki Turbine Worth the Effort?), defense experts wondered if the turbine installation, valued at US $100 million, will turn out as planned due to stiff opposition from insurgents in Helmand.

Engineers the Guardian spoke with said it will take months to properly install the turbine and get it fully operational, as well as years to repair the electrical lines running from it to the surrounding region. Even then, military experts told the newspaper, the dam and its grid will be subject to ongoing sabotage until the province is cleared of insurgent activity. Last year alone, at least 700 Taliban fighters crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan to reinforce insurgents attacking the Kajaki dam.

"The power lines coming out of Kajaki are going to be extremely vulnerable to attack," said Matthew Clements, an analyst at Jane's Defence. "The arrival of the extra turbine is a major blow to the Taliban, so they are going to be keen to make sure the project fails."

Only a single transmission line connects the Kajaki power plant to the capital of the province, Lashkar Gah, but NATO engineers plan to install $77 million worth of new transmission lines to connect villages in the rest of the province in the years ahead, according to the Guardian account.

"In Iraq we've seen that overhead power lines are extremely difficult to protect, and there's no point generating electricity if you can't distribute it," Paul Smyth, head of operational studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, told the U.K. newspaper.

It's a tough assignment to rebuild war-ravaged infrastructure in a setting where ground combat is taking place on a regular basis. Still, it's a sign that the allies of the Afghani government are trying to employ a two-pronged strategy in the unconventional war they find themselves in: armed suppression of enemy fighters and relief efforts for the civilian population at the same time.

We can only wish this latest example of the latter all the best of luck in its future progress.

[Editor's Note: For a detailed report on similar obstacles that coalition forces faced in rebuilding the power grid in Iraq, please see Re-engineering Iraq (2006) by IEEE Spectrum Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette.]

Startling Claims about China-Pakistan Nuclear Cooperation

An article by a former U.S. Air Force Secretary in this monthâ¿¿s Physics Today magazine says that China turned over the blueprints for its own first atomic bomb to Pakistan, started to provide Pakistan with nuclear weapons technology as early as 1982, and likely helped Pakistan conduct that countryâ¿¿s first nuclear weapons test at a Chinese test site. The article, by Thomas Reed, whose career started with nuclear weapons work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the early 1950s, is based largely on allegations by Danny Stillman. Stillman, as director of technical intelligence at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was given official tours of Chinese nuclear facilities two decades ago. The two of them Reed and Stillman, are authors of a book telling the whole story, Nuclear Express, to be published early next year by Zenith Press.

Their arresting claims are best treated with caution. The American Institute of Physics, publisher of Physics Today, raises the question in its press release about the article of why the Chinese would have given Stillman the red carpet treatment he describes. â¿¿Why should the Chinese escort a knowledgeable American official on what became a sort of nuclear Marco Polo tour analogous to the fabled journey by the Venetian merchant through the heart of 13th century China?â¿¿ asks Phil Schewe, AIPâ¿¿s chief physics information officer. Reed speculates that the Chinese wanted the West to be aware of their work, in which they took pride, and to treat them and their country with greater respect.

 

But does that explain why they would imply they directly helped Pakistan test nuclear weapons and say they started to share sensitive nuclear technology with Pakistan decades ago? To the extent they did such thingsâ¿¿and thereâ¿¿s been no doubt for a long time that to some extent they didâ¿¿they have helped create a mega-problem for the West that is not making the West feel grateful.

 

Even if the most arresting allegations of the Reed-Stillman article and book turn out to not hold water, the secondary allegations are still absorbing. The various statements about China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation actually are tacked onto the article only at the very end. The bulk of the article describes visits to various highly sensitive facilities in detail, evoking a weirdness that often reminded this reader of passages in Don DeLilloâ¿¿s Underworld.

 

Stillman was impressed by the sophistication of the instrumentation the Chinese were using for nuclear test diagnostics, which he says â¿¿were every bit as good as those used in American nuclear tests.â¿¿ But he found an alarming absence of automated controls on Chinese nuclear weapons in the early 1990s; the Chinese basically were relying on human guards deemed loyal and trustworthy.

Kolbert Casts Cold Eye on Candidates Climate Credentials

The New Yorkerâ''s Elizabeth Kolbert, author of an acclaimed magazine series and book about climate change, takes a wary look at the two U.S. presidential candidates in the latest issue of OnEarth, a quarterly published by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Though both McCain and Obama have sponsored legislation to curb carbon, â''both [also] have supported laws whose goals are directly at odds with cutting emissions,â'' Kolbert observes. Obama, for example, has favored incentives for corn ethanol, despite evidence that it is about as bad or worse than oil. Last year he sponsored legislation to support conversion of coal to liquids, â''about the worst possible move the country could make,â'' as Kolbert puts it.

Obama has since amended his position on the issue to say he only supports coal-to-liquids if the technology emits at least 20 percent less carbon over its lifecycle as competing conventional fuels. About the best that can be said about thatâ''Iâ''d addâ''is that the otherwise brilliantly well informed Obama seems to have been not so well informed about an issue he claims to care a lot about.

As for McCain, his outspoken support for offshore oil drilling is hardly consistent with the notion that we should use less oil so as to emit less carbon, Kolbert points out. And with benefit of additional experience we may add: why, if the cares so much about climate, would he pick a vice presidential candidate who considers the jury still to be out on the science, ignoring the effects of global warming all around her?

As Thomas Friedman noted in The New York Times, McCain had stood apart from President Bush by opposing drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and by advocating action on climate. But now, as the Sierra Clubâ''s Carl Pope says, he has picked a running mate whoâ''s dismissive of alternative energy. â''While the northern edge of her state literally falls into the rising Arctic Ocean, Sarah Palin says, â''The jury is still out on global warming.â'' â''

Shortcuts at U.S. Nuclear Fuel Facility?

The Chemical Engineer, a magazine published by Britainâ''s Institution of Chemical Engineers, is reporting allegations that safety standards are being neglected in the design of a nuclear fuel fabrication facility being built in South Carolina. The $4 billion plant, near Aiken, will produce so-called mixed-oxide fuel, consisting of uranium and plutonium recovered from spent nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons. Dan Tedder, an emeritus professor of chemical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told The Chemical Engineer that basic process design information was incomplete, with serious implications for safety.

Tedder, who served last year as an independent technical reviewer on the project for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, predicted that safety problems will manifest themselves when the plant is operational. â''The documentation provided in the license application is very superficialâ'' and â''isnâ''t consistent with reasonable and generally accepted good engineering practice,â'' Tedder told The Chemical Engineer.

The NRC has dismissed Tedderâ''s accusations as unfounded but has barred access to documents in dispute, on security grounds.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Load More