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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.

For How Long will the iPod be the benchmark for nano-enabled memory?

I was flipping through the last 30 years of digital media outlined in Spectrumâ''s Death of Digital Media when it occurred to me that a day may come when not every nano-enabled memory development will be measured against an iPod.

The latest development by researchers in Glasgow foretells of iPodâ''s that will be able to hold 300 million tunes. I have about 10,000 tunes on my iPod and probably listen to about half of them. My mind boggles at having that many songs and worse yet transferring them on to my iPod.

No, it seems unlikely that an iPod with that storage capacity would be of any use. But instead of concerning ourselves over how many songs a nano-enabled memory could store on an iPod over at TNTLog it is suggested that we may want to start asking, â''What could cheap mass storage enable?â''

Good question.

Public art in the digital era

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If you give an artist a digital camera, heâ''ll start taking pictures. Heâ''ll want GPS device, a digital compass, and a laser distance meter to code the pictures, a computer to analyze the pictures, and software that can run calculations on the billions of pixels. Heâ''ll want a building on which to display the pictures. And, eventually, heâ''ll come up with an answer to a question only an artist would ask: What color is Palo Alto?

This, in a nutshell, is a seven-year project that came to be called The Color of Palo Alto. It is public art in the digital age.

In 2001 the City of Palo Altoâ''s Public Arts Commission gave artist Samuel Yates $10,000 to photograph the cityâ''s 17,739 parcels. During 2005, he did so, riding an electric scooter charged at a makeshift solar garage. Since then, heâ''s been running calculations, determining the median, mode, and mean averages of the colors throughout the city. Throughout, thereâ''s been controversy about whether or not this project really qualifies as public art.

Meanwhile, with another $25,000 from the city and $40,000 from Hewlett-Packard, Yates has printed out a photograph of every house in the town and plastered the images IMG_1929.JPG

on city hall, in alphabetical order by street. Yates is also putting the images into the cityâ''s geographical information system; theyâ''ll be updated by the city whenever homeowners apply for building permits.

And what color is Palo Alto? Stay tuned; Yates will finish calculating the overall color of Palo Alto this month; in August heâ''ll reveal that information, along with the dominant hues of individual neighborhoods and streets. Yates expects these colors to be available at local paint stores.

Korean Astronaut Gets Scary Return to Earth

South Korea's first voyager into space got a rude awakening to the hazards of spaceflight Saturday, as the Soyuz capsule carrying her back to Earth descended much faster and rougher than planners had anticipated. Yi So-yeon, 29, who had flown to the International Space Station 10 days earlier as a guest of the Russian space agency, was subjected to severe gravitational forces when the vehicle went off course.

The Soyuz spacecraft, known as TMA-11, carried Yi and American astronaut Peggy Whitson, 48, and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko, 46, safely back to the surface of the Kazakhstan steppe, but it was a bumpy ride. For reasons currently unclear, the capsule's re-entry path followed a much steeper descent than astronautic engineers had programmed. Instead of a smooth approach to its landing zone, the Soyuz fell more like a cannon ball, in a so-called ballistic re-entry. This caused friction with the atmosphere to rattle the vehicle and surround it in flames.

Nonetheless, the space travelers survived the ordeal and were recovered by Russian authorities about 300 miles away from their rendezvous point, where they were whisked away to receive medical attention.

Even as of today, during a press conference at Russia's Star City spaceflight center, near Moscow, the three appeared to be still shaky, according to an account from the Associated Press.

Yi told the gathered media that she had been "really scared" by the unexpected re-entry.

"During descent I saw some kind of fire outside as we were going through the atmosphere," said Yi, a bioengineer who had won a contest to become Korea's first astronaut. "At first, I was really scared because it looked really, really hot and I thought we could burn."

Her panic subsided, though, when she observed that her veteran crewmates were calm and collected and that the temperature inside the spacecraft was unaffected by the heat outside.

So, she admitted, "I looked at the others, and I pretended to be okay."

(The BBC news service has a video excerpt of Yi's comments today here.)

Speaking on behalf of the Russians, Malenchenko said the cause of the malfunction was a technical unknown. "There was no action of the crew that led to this," he said. "Time will tell what went wrong."

A spokesperson for Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, noted that the trio had experienced gravitational forces up to 10 times those on Earth during the 3.5-hour descent. It was the second time in a row that a glitch of this kind had caused voyagers returning from the ISS to land off course in a Soyuz.

Meanwhile, the U.S. space agency chose to put a positive spin on the whole matter. In a brief account on its ISS Website, NASA emphasized that the TMA-11 crew was safe and sound, despite the flight's problems.

The Americans also noted with cooperative pride that the veterans on the Soyuz, a cosmonaut and an astronaut, had achieved some big milestones in the history of spaceflight. Whitson, who had commanded ISS Expedition 16, set a new record for an astronaut in space by completing 377 days in orbit. And Malenchenko, a Russian Air Force colonel, set a mark of 515 days in space over three long-duration missions, giving him the distinction of standing in fifth place among all humans to travel to the cosmos.

While the ongoing problems of the Soyuz capsules call for a major investigation into their re-entry systems, the mood among the world's two leading space agencies today seems to be more one of relief than anger that nothing worse occurred than a frightening fall from the heavens.

Especially, for one rookie space explorer.

[Editor's Note: Please see our previous entry New Space Station Crew Heads Into Orbit for additional info on the latest ISS expedition.]

Stephen Hawking looks ahead at space travel as NASA turns 50

Celebrity scientist Stephen Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, spoke of the future of space travel at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. today. It was billed as a 50th birthday present to NASA from Hawking. Lucy Hawking, a journalist and Hawking's daughter from his first marriage, spoke briefly as well.

Hawking argued that we should venture into space as a species. "There would be those who argue that it will be better to spend the money on climate change than on finding new planets," he said. Without discounting the need to spend money on researching global warming and climate change, he said he believed it was important to devote a fraction of a nation's R&D budget to space exploration.

To spread the human race into space should be our long term strategy, he said.

His daughter pointed out that fewer children are getting interested in science today in the US and UK. This has direct consequences for science and technology. "Space has the power to capture kids' imaginations," she said, arguing that images from NASA missions result in many youngsters becoming interested in science and technology.

Her father also mentioned NASA's contributions to the progress of science and technology a few times.

But the bigger question that Hawking addressed in his talk was, "Are we alone in the Universe?"

He went over the standard scientific arguments for the existence of life not only on Earth but elsewhere in the universe. He argued that there are a few scenarios possible. One that life was very rare, and had happened only on Earth. His own view was that, "Primitive life is very common. But intelligent life is very rare." [He joked that some thought this was the situation on Earth as well.]

He mentioned panspermia theory - the theory that life on Earth had been seeded by a meteor - and said that, while there was no evidence that it had happened that way on Earth, if it had, it would imply that life in the Solar System (or around other nearby stars) is DNA-based.

Hawking argued that we should have human colonies on the Moon and Mars.

He concluded by looking at the history of the human race. While we have been around for 200,000 years, in the last 10,000 years, we have made dramatic leaps in progress. If we survive for many more years, Hawking ventured, we "will boldly go where no one has gone before."

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