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NYC Regional FIRST Robotics Competition Starts Tomorrow

This weekend the NYC regional FIRST robotics competition pits 64 high schools against each other to see whose robot plays soccer better.

The pre-game started today. High school students from the NYC area, plus one team from Great Britain and one from Brazil, finally unpacked the robots they built over six weeks in January and February. After weeks of anticipation they started tinkering again and dove into practice rounds for this weekend’s competition. The Javits Center in Manhattan was abuzz with teams making last minute adjustments and fixes, trading team buttons, parading mascots around, and most importantly, testing their bots on the field of battle.

That battlefield looked more like a soccer field for the game called “Breakaway,” where robots are supposed to roll or kick balls into a goal while climbing over or under obstacles in the field [see our January commentary for more on FIRST and this year’s challenge].

Vinod Lala, science teacher and mentor for the Mary Louis Academy’s rookie robot team, said it’s already apparent that the game will be tough – about 60 percent of the practice rounds were scoreless, 0-0, he said. And while robots get extra points for hanging off of posts placed in the center of the field, most robots aren’t going for it.

With some exceptions, of course. The Iron Maidens, a veteran all-girls team from the Bronx High School of Science, neatly steered their robot to a central post, where it reached a long arm up, latched on, and lifted itself off the ground.

The FIRST competition challenges students to make engineering design decisions from the get-go, many of which became apparent on the playing field: some robots will squeeze under obstacles, while others are built to roll over them. Some teams were even planning to add additional parts to their robots at the last minute, like a "kicker" to try to score goals.



The competition starts tomorrow and goes through the weekend, with seeding rounds Saturday and Sunday mornings, then qualifying and final rounds in the afternoon. Top scoring teams will travel to the global championships at the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta, in April.

FIRST Lego and Tech challenges, for younger students, will also take place at Javits this weekend. The events are free and open to the public.

Cashers

In the early hours of November 8, 2008, a young man in John Lennon shades and a black fedora slipped his card into an ATM machine in Chicago.The seemingly banal scene played out at 2100 ATMs in 280 other cities around the world from Atlanta to Moscow. 

But these were no ordinary withdrawals.  They were part of what a U.S. attorney now calls “perhaps the most sophisticated and organized computer fraud attack ever conducted."  In November, four Eastern European twentysomething hackers were busted in coordinating the elaborate ATM heist, which netted them $9.4 million in just 12 hours.  After hacking into the Atlanta-based RBS WorldPay, part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, they made bogus debit cards – which were used during the spree.  So-called “cashers” got hired to make the withdrawals in exchange for a 30 to 50 percent cut.  A mastermind nicknamed Hacker 3 coordinated the cashers, who did all their dirty work with just 44 fake cards.

ATM heists are growing.  Recently, three crooks died after stealing an ATM case in a small town in Holland.  The ATM’s anti-theft device exploded, spraying the cash with dye – the thieves died when their car wiped out on the run.  In August, a fake ATM machine got set up at the casino hosting the annual DefCon hackers conference, and skimmed the card info from unsuspecting geeks.  Old ATM machines – complete with card numbers – are being bought and sold on Craigslist for under $1000.  I’ve been following the ATM  heist for months and waiting for the indictments – now that they’ve hit, a portal into a new kind of battle is emerging:  how ATMs get stolen/hacked, and how banks are fighting against them.

Entrepreneurs Wanted, Or Why You Should Start a Company During This Global Economic Downturn

So you had an amazing idea for a tech start-up that would change the world like Google, Microsoft, and Intel did. But in the blink of an eye, the global economy came crashing down on your dreams. You may be tempted to retract back into your cubicle, never to let your idea see the light of day. But think again. If history is any guide, the best time for entrepreneurship may be when the economy is at its worst.

General Motors was founded by entrepreneur William Durant during the Panic of 1907, while aerospace giant United Technologies emerged during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Biotech titans Amgen and Genentech were founded during the soaring oil prices and economic malaise of the mid-1970s. Cisco, Starbucks, and Home Depot became multi-billion-dollar enterprises despite the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s. And Google rose from the ashes of the dot-com conflagration.

To be clear, it’s still ugly out there. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study, first-round venture investments are a third of what they were two years ago. But the world -- and the checkbooks of VCs such as my firm Lux Capital -- are still open to innovative ideas in several areas. A lot of science and technology breakthroughs come from big companies, but in this environment, corporate inertia and a reluctancy to try new technologies have slowed down their innovation engines. And that’s where you -- the entrepreneur -- come in.

Instead of incremental advances, from Lux’s vantage point, now is the time to develop revolutionary ideas to solve today’s most critical problems. Today’s entrepreneurs ought not focus on "trinkets" that promise to be slightly cheaper or a bit more efficient than the current state of the art -- the market may not be willing to pay for these benefits. Thinking big doesn’t mean expecting to get funded with a pie in the sky idea scribbled on the back of a paper napkin (despite all the VC lore you hear). For starters, you need to understand the market you're entering: Who your customer will be and how much they will be willing to spend on your product.

For example, Lux recently backed a start-up developing radios that transmit over 100 times faster at prices comparable to those that are in your laptops and cell phones today. The concept had many implications, like eliminating all those nasty cables to our TVs or moving hours of HD video between our gadgets in seconds rather than hours. We chose to invest in the company because, among other things, they were able to clearly describe their immediate customers (television manufacturers), end users (television viewers), displaced competition (A/V cable providers), product manufacturing partners (chip foundries), and key decision makers (electronics retailers). The company had a solid sense of the challenges that needed to be overcome and was able to make a compelling argument as to why customers, and investors, would pay for their technology.

So you understand the market -- but can you navigate your way through rough waters? What do you do if, say, your customers postpone adopting your cutting-edge technology?

For one thing, make sure you’re armed with answers. Another start-up in Lux's portfolio started off expecting to produce fully-integrated MEMS and CMOS timing chips that don't require bulky, power-hungry quartz crystals. However, as the economy headed downhill, the already-conservative market was reluctant to entirely abandon quartz devices -- which have been in use since the era of vacuum tubes! In response, the company chose to enter the market with an early-entry product (without the MEMS) as an evolutionary step towards the fully-integrated solution. In the meantime, it partnered with a leading semiconductor firm to get the CMOS and MEMS technology ported to a world-class foundry. It now expects to introduce a variety of fully-integrated timing and sensing products in the near future.

The start-ups mentioned above are just two I'm familiar with (disclosure: Lux Capital and I personally have financial ties to these companies). VC firms have plenty of other successful stories to tell -- and, of course, many unsuccessful tales as well. With these examples, I'm trying to illustrate how entrepreneurs and management teams succeed by having laser focus on customers and flexibility to adapt to a changing environment. For first-time entrepreneurs, the lessons are the same.

Now get out of your cubicle and get started on that business plan.

PS: I'll be writing occasionally in this space about entrepreneurship and venture capital. Write me with questions: shahin.farshchi@luxcapital.com

Shahin Farshchi is a senior associate at Lux Capital. Based in California, he focuses on investments in semiconductor and energy technologies. He is an IEEE Member and holds a PhD degree in electrical engineering from UCLA.

Homebrewed Nukes

I've been doing research into school science projects, and came across this interesting item, billed as "The Ultimate Science Fair Project" - homebrewed nuclear reactors.

It's not as off the wall as it seems, and brings to mind the forgotten story of gamer Cameron Sneed.  Twenty-two-year-old  Sneed lived with his parents in Rockwall, Texas, a small town east of Dallas. He’s an auto school dropout, but he was also a resourceful geek who loves to make things. While working as a coder at a local telecom, Sneed got the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.:  Shadow of Chernobyl. He couldn’t afford a new PC to play the shooter, which was set in the post-meltdown hellscape of the infamous nuclear power plant. So Sneed tweaked his old graphics card and cooling device to keep it from overheating.

The game was good, full of radioactive mutants to kill. But the graphics were lacking, so Sneed created a “mod” to fix them. He uploaded his mod and promoted it on the site Ars Technica a gathering place for hackers and tinkerers. More than 50,000 people downloaded Sneed’s tweaked version of the game, and PC Gamer named it Mod of the Year. “I'm glowing with pride that this project came out of our own community,” effused one geek on the Ars Technica forum.   Sneed,  unemployed, basked in the glory for a while.  Then he decided to build something a little more ambitious: A nuclear reactor.  “The whole point of the project was to prove to myself that you can breed materials with little expense in your garage and do it relatively safely,” he said. 

He wasn’t the first.  In 1994, a 17-year-old misfit named David Hahn gained notoriety after a failed attempt to build a fast breed nuclear reactor in his parent’s backyard. Hahn, dubbed “The Radioactive Boy Scout,” can’t shake his hobby. He was  rearrested after stealing several smoke detectors, presumably to harvest their Americium-241.  Hahn’s mug shot shows a face dotted with lesions, which were caused by repeated exposure to radiation:.

But Sneed was determined not to become another David Hahn.  Unlike him, Sneed wouldn’t sneak around or steal; he’d build his reactor in public. Last November, he logged onto Ars Technica and posted: “I will document all experiments and injuries along with odd phenomenon such as opening the gates of hell.”  Sneed snagged some Americium-241, as well as some natural radioactive ore on eBay. He boasted of producing Plutonium-239, a component in nuke weapons. He later wrote, “I melted a large hunk of uranium out of one side of an ore chunk. I am concerned that background radiation level in my office and bedroom have almost doubled”   Meanwhile, posters in the Ars Technica forum begged Sneed to stop. “Do not ionize or vaporize uranium!” one geek wrote. “It's not the radiation that will kill you, it's the fucking heavy metal toxicity.”   Sneed ignored such warnings. “I am no David Hahn and am not as stupid,” he posted, “I HAVE built a functioning breeder Aluminum+Lead shield, but some radiation is escaping.  I’ll beef it up.”

He didn’t get the chance. Agents from the FBI and the Texas Department of State Health Services' Radiation Control Program showed up at his parent’s house. They’d been tipped off by someone on Ars Technica.   Because there were not dangerous radiation levels yet and since the materials were legally obtained, Sneed was not arrested. FBI spokesman Mark White admired Sneed’s handiwork, saying “if he had kept his experiment going, it probably wouldn't have blown up.”

Life Among the Internet Natives

My two youngest children—now 14 and 11—are Internet natives. They relate to the Internet in the way I relate to running water—when I need water, I turn on the sink; when they need information, they open a browser. (My oldest child, now 18, isn’t quite in the same space; he’s more like someone who emigrated as a child, he’s comfortable, he speaks the language, but he still has connections to the old country. He’s been known to go to the library to find information he needs, for example.)

Since I’m a relatively happy Internet immigrant, I mostly forget how different the Internet has made my children’s world from the one I grew up in, and continues to change it. But sometimes I’m struck by the ubiquity of the technology. And it doesn’t always happen in the highest tech environment.

This year my daughter competed as part of her high school’s mock trial team. Mock trial is a high school competition, with county, state, and national tournaments.  Students study a case, field defense and prosecution teams, and then try the case in front of a real judge and a jury made up of legal experts. When I watched my daughter’s team compete as part of the California Mock Trial Program, the courtroom was as traditional as it gets—an old courthouse, heavy oak furniture, the judge in his black robes.

The case itself, however, a murder trial in which a comedian is accused of killing someone who gave him a bad review on an online ratings site, turned on Internet technology. There were no witnesses, no DNA evidence. There was a little low-tech evidence, in the form of tire tracks, but these only put the defendant’s car at the scene, not the defendant.

Instead, they had an email and two tweets.  To me, the Internet immigrant, it seemed odd that both the defense and the prosecution were whipping out this information as evidence; to the Internet natives on the teams, however, it made perfect sense, for what they do on the Internet is as real as what they do in the real world.

First, the email—the defendant sent a personal message to the critic through the online website, “YellUp” (perhaps a loosely disguised “Yelp), giving him a last chance to remove the review, and threatening, if he doesn’t, “to do more than ruin [his] livelihood”. The detective (my daughter) has discovered this during a search; up for pretrial debate--was that search was legal? The detective had a warrant to search the defendant’s car, house, and computer, and all records or information on purchases, no matter where stored. She viewed the browser history, then clicked through into the Yell-Up site to find the message. The pretrial arguments centered on whether or not this was admissible under the search warrant, since YellUp is not a shopping site, or whether only data on the computer itself should have been searched, and not data in the cloud.

Then, there was a twitter message, also introduced by the prosecution. The defendant tweets, "I'm going to kill tonight and shut up the critics once and for all." The defense didn’t argue that tweets should be inadmissible as evidence, but instead brought forward witnesses who explain that “kill” is a term used by comedians to describe putting on a great show.

The prosecution wasn't the only team pulling evidence out of the Internet. The defense brought out a tweet as an alibi, arguing that the defendant couldn’t have murdered the victim at the time in question because he had tweeted from a computer, not a phone, around the same time.

My daughter’s team was knocked out at the county level, having won a few and lost a few. But other teenagers around the country will continue for the next few months to argue a murder case based on Internet evidence. And they won’t realize at all that they really are living in a new world.

John Carmack's Lifetime Achievement

This week, news comes that one of the most influential programmers in the videogame industry, John Carmack, will be receiving a lifetime achievement award at next month's Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. Carmack joins luminaries including Will Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto.  Carmack is known for popularizing the first person shooter genre with innovative games such as Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, and Quake.  I spent months interviewing him for my first book, Masters of Doom, and was always impressed by his commitment to his craft - and his dedication to sharing his knowledge (and code) with others. In honor of his honor, here's an unpublished excerpt from my Masters of Doom interviews (this one took place in 2000) in which Carmack tells me why he enjoys programming. 

JOHN CARMACK:  It is one of those things where it really has this wonderful sense of rightness.  There’s something about working on the programming where you’re able to create things out of thin air.  It's so flexible and such a creative medium. You’ve got these almost limitless possibilities.  If you could think about it and figure out the right puzzle piece way of fitting it together, then you could then make it happen. [I enjoy this] sense of being in this self-contained world where you don’t need a machine shop full of tools or you don't need to order supplies from different places. You've got your computer and your basic development tools and you can just sit down there and it’s up to you.  It’s not anybody else’s fault if it doesn’t work.  It’s all you.  And I guess that’s part of the thing.  I’ve never been a team player, I don’t like team activities or anything like that.  That’s probably a good chunk of it.  You don’t have to rely on anybody else when you’re working on the programming stuff. It’s very cut and dried. If it follows the logical progression of the rules established, it will work.  Everything makes sense.  Even when tracing out the hardest, most awful bug and it’s kind of random and it doesn’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason, you can always come back the bedrock of this:  it does make sense, you just don’t understand it yet.  It's great when you find something that seems so horribly random and you find out that you really understand it.  That does happen in all forms of engineering, but it’s just so much more fluid and rapid in computers.  Comparing against some of the people that I deal with in the auto racing stuff or rocketry stuff, they still have the same types of things when they finally understand why something didn’t work right,  But the difference between that and the computer stuff is it may take so much longer, the tests are so much cruder, you can’t repeat the things and in the end you may have burned and broken various other things or had to wait  weeks for new parts to get in.  But with a computer, you can just work at it until you can’t work anymore.  Eventually, it is always possible to get it.  There is hardly any time when you can say 'this is not possible to find.Computers are deterministic things.  At some point you can go in and start emulating the entire machine, cycle by cycle, and find out exactly what’s happening.  That’s probably the big thing:  in the end it all makes perfect sense and it’s accessible sense.  It’s not like some form of high energy physics or something where you spend a decade of your career preparing for that one big blast of the particle accelerator - and then work for five more years analyzing this stuff.  You can find the truth in programming on a much more rapid scale.

NEW CHIP PUTS PROJECTORS IN FLIP PHONES

At the Mobile World Congress that took place from 15–18 February in Barcelona, Texas Instruments announced the commercial launch of a chip that will allow even the thinnest flip-style cellular handsets to feature miniature projectors. These so-called pico projectors can create 640-by-360-pixel images as big as 50 inches diagonal. TI's latest digital light processor, or DLP, chip exploits the company's MEMS technology, whereby millions of tiny moveable mirrors reflect red, green, and blue light from LEDs onto a wall or curtain.

The chips will also start appearing in digital cameras this year, which means no more crowding around someone's SLR to see the shots he or she just took.

Earlier-generation chips using TI’s digital light-processor technology are already making their way into larger handsets and freestanding projectors. The freestanding units, which are the size of a deck of playing cards, let people travel with all they need for business presentations or can be used as add-ons to media players, gaming consoles, and laptop computers.

For more on what's out there and what's to come, take a look at an IEEE Spectrum video podcast featuring palm-size projectors put through their paces.

 

 

A Three Axis Gyroscope with Just One Sensor

Smart phones that don’t know where they are or where they’re going are seeming less smart by the minute. [That point is made in the February IEEE Spectrum news article, “A Compass in Every Smart Phone.”] Besides GPS, phones phones with electronic compass functions need accelerometers and, increasingly, digital gyroscopes.

 “Cellphone companies continually demand smaller size, less power, and lower cost,” says Jay Esfandyari, MEMS product marketing manager at STMicroelectronics. But there have been some important limits.

Heretofore in gyroscopes, movement about the three axes was measured by three separate sensing structures—one for pitch, one for yaw, and another for roll.  At most, two would be combined on a single die. The best you could do was, say, a 3-by-5-by-1-mm yaw sensor matched up with a 4-by-5-by-1-mm sensor that would detect pitch and roll. But now ST has managed to make a 4-by-4-by-1-millimeter MEMS gyroscope whose single sensing structure tracks all three angular motions. “The aim now,” says Esfandyari, “is to eventually shrink them down to 3 mm square, which is the average footprint of accelerometers inside smart phones.

The gyroscope comes preset with one of three sensitivity levels, which allow the device to trade speed for resolution. For gaming, it can capture movement as quick as 2000 degrees per second, but can only distinguish movements larger than 70 mllidegrees. The version for user interfaces—say a wand or a wearable mouse, which track smaller, more controlled shifts such as pointing and clicking on a computer screen—can pick up movements as fast as 500 degrees per second. It can distinguish movements of 18 millidegrees or more. The most sensitive version, which only picks up 250 degrees per second can sense the slightest movements, anything greater than 9 millidegrees.

The gyroscope also represents a high water mark in terms of energy consumption, according to ST. The new 3-axis device draws 6 milliamps; two years ago, ST’s single-axis gyroscopes drew 9 mA. The device gets more done with less energy because it operates in what’s called flip mode. The mechanical structure of the device is always on, but the sensing structure is off when a gadget’s direction-finding function is not in use. When the gyroscope is needed, the sensing structure can be flipped on and made ready to record movement readings in less than 40 milliseconds. ST aims to reduce the lag to roughly 15 ms within the next year or so. Esfandyari says this haste in turning the sensing structure on and off is critical because in applications such as dead reckoning, missing the initial movements will make it almost certain that every subsequent reading will be in error. 

 

The Social Panopticon And You

Over the past couple of weeks, Google has gotten repeated bloody noses from tech journalists over the Buzz debacle. Before Buzz, Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy was backed up by a lot of carefully thought-out and well-executed applications. By comparison, Buzz was so uncharacteristically tone-deaf that people went from 0 to "conspiracy theory" in 60 seconds. Personally, I think Buzz was an honest mistake from a company that skews young, and young people are notorious for being laissez faire about privacy concerns.

Buzz is a symptom. The disease is the social media panopticon. Since Jeremy Bentham posited it as the ideal architecture for guarding inmates, the panopticon has been a popular stand-in for the all-seeing eye of the state (just Google “UK and panopticon” to see this dead horse beaten into fine dust). But the rolling media freakouts about Facebook picture tagging have illustrated that the bogeyman isn’t the government. It’s us watching us. We are the panopticon, man! Soylent green is people!

I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, friends would try to spook me with tales of Carnivore or Total Information Awareness, and my response was essentially, “make my day, punks!” Visions of airless basements filled my head, hapless poindexters drowning under unceasing floods of information overload.

I am dismayed to say, however, that the confluence of three developments has changed my mind completely.

1. Every single person on this earth has a camera phone and a blog
2. Facial recognition software and real time search are very close to eliminating the anonymizing effect of the data glut
3. Your employer is starting to wonder what you do when you’re not at work

I am now looking for a milliner who specializes in aluminum.

1. If you see something, say something

Back in January, some callow jerk started posting uncharitable photos of N-train commuters and their various offenses. Truly, it was little more than a tedious compendium of uninteresting irregularities: looking through a large purse while wearing a colorful scarf; putting on makeup; being overweight; being homeless. This was a mediocre data point in an exploding trend of cell phone camera auteurs posting their sartorial observations on their various blogs.

What made this story unique was that the N Train bit back: various Gothamist commenters, outraged by the attack on their privacy, did some basic detective work to broadcast his real name and likeness. There’s now even a special Twitter feed (Revenge of the N Train) whose goal is to catalog sightings of the guy.

It was all made possible by Google’s caching feature. When the Gothamist crowd started to hone in on his true identity, the N Train chronicler immediately jacked up all his Facebook privacy settings. Then he quickly erased some incriminating personal Tweets. No dice, buddy: the Gothamists posted an impressive array of screenshots of his cached personal Facebook page alongside older, pre-edited versions of his personal Twitter feed. “Now, if a potential employer Googles Pete Malachowsky, they'll find a Gothamist article talking about how creepy he is,” wrote commenter Hotcup gleefully in the article’s epilogue. “Serves his creepo a** right.”

On its own, this is a heartwarming tale of a city banding together and giving someone a taste of his own medicine. But now consider how difficult it will be for Malachowsky to clear his record. This excellent report from Cornell Information Technologies lays out the steps he would need to take to get the information removed from Google.

You must go through their policy process for removing information from their caching technology. Not only is that a lot of bureaucracy, but also you should know that while Google is the dominant search engine on the Internet today, it might not be tomorrow. Moreover, other search engines operate currently on the Internet and so it is not just Google whom you might have to contact in order to remove a page.

Now just imagine having to go through this if you haven't done anything to deserve it.

2. Can You See Me Now?

Consider also the development of video and image recognition software. Right now, governments and corporations are heavily funding face recognition software, governments for purposes of defeating terrorism, corporations for purposes of making awesome augmented reality apps. As with every technology ever, any great military capability will trickle down to the average person with a blog. Real-time search will pre-sort and catalog every single bit of piffle that hits the Internet--including that picture of you picking your nose on the N train.¿

A year ago, the launch of MOBVIS building image-recognition software proved that computers can now autonomously identify individual buildings. The sure-to-be-upcoming Google Face app will have your image sorted and catalogued the second it is created. So imagine you’ve had your picture snapped by five different people today, all populating their mediocre fame-whore blogs. The new generation of information aggregators will suck up those pictures, pre-sort them and slap your name before you can say “tinfoil hat.”

3.  "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion"

Recently, NPR sent out a missive to its journalists. The jist of it was this: Don't do anything off work hours that you wouldn't intentionally do to represent the company.

Your Facebook page, your blog entries and your tweets – even if you intend them to be personal messages to your friends or family – can be easily circulated beyond your intended audience. This content, therefore, represents you and NPR to the outside world as much as a radio story or story for NPR.org does.

I'm not singling out NPR. Universities have instituted policies that spell out that certain activities, done off the premises and ostensibly outside the penumbra of the University’s authority, will get your butt kicked out of school. At the University of Arkansas, for example, athletes and Greek Life members must have their facebook profiles open to screening at all times. These preventive policies were put in place to allow organizations to police online activities much the way they police other behaviors (political protesting, sexual relationships, alcohol consumption, etc).

I’m not saying NPR shouldn’t try to inoculate itself against some of the truly bad PR that can result from employees gone wild. The law firm Norton Rose is probably still putting raw steak on the black eye it received from the Claire Swire incident almost a decade ago. The Carlyle Group was poorly represented by the young Lothario whom it relocated to S. Korea, and then promptly re-relocated to the unemployment line after his conquest-bragging emails reached top brass.

Beyond policing existing employees, it’s been much reported that companies are using social networking sites to vet their potential hires (prompting a phenomenally popular New York Times Facebook privacy how-to by Sarah Peretz). The Peretz article puts the number of companies using Facebook in particular at 30 percent. “In today's tough economy,” Peretz goes on to say, “the question of whether to post those embarrassing party pics could now cost you a paycheck in addition to a reputation. (Keep that in mind when tagging your friends' photos, too, won't you?)" Sure, but what happens when I can tag people who are not my friends and I don’t care about the consequences to their lives?

In conclusion, here's my nightmare scenario: After an especially rough day at Sparkle Motion Corp., I get on the N Train cradling a big bottle of Jim Beam. An officer of the law takes me downtown for public inebriation, and my perp walk is captured for posterity by a jerk with a camera phone and a blog. Even though his dumb blog has only three readers, Google Face identifies my sodden visage by name, and puts those pictures into the eternal damnation of Google Image search results. My employer, seized with a sudden itch to make sure its employees are representing Sparkle Motion as well as they possibly could be, finds the evidence of my malingering ways, and I get fired. In a terrible economy, my next job application is derailed by a simple Google Search.

Am I overreacting? Can someone please give me The Talk I used to give my paranoid friends?
 

 

A Canticle For DARPATech

I’ll never eat Pentagon m&ms again. A DARPA spokesperson has confirmed that there will be no more DARPATech, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s bi-annual (but occasionally annual, and at other times occurring only every three years) conference, at which the latest and greatest “mad science” technologies go prime time. A quick eulogy is in order.

DARPATech 2007 featured a particular bumper crop: Robot arms, unmanned autonomous robot Humvees, all-seeing blimps, an autonomous insect-like robot called "Little Dog," a robo-beast of burden called Big Dog, and a deputy director’s bikini-clad demonstration of a core-temperature regulating glove. There was even a bracing dose of reality.

Yes, DARPATech was probably a PR boondoggle meant to remind news outfits that the Defense Department isn’t just about killing people. But is that so wrong? Of all the Defense agencies, DARPA is probably the best-run. DARPA program managers have four-year contracts, and they never get the chance to become career bureaucrats. After their term is up, they are told to skedaddle no matter the status of their project. The agency is low on bureaucracy and high on ideas. And the ideas are life-changing.

However, the Obama administration is likely avoiding highly visible celebrations of war. That might be an unfair description of DARPATech, but how else would you characterize 3,000 defense contractors hanging out at a convention so elaborate and shiny that it makes a trip across the street to Disneyland (literally) seem boring?

Most likely, the biggest reason is money. When Danger Room blogged the 2007 convention, reporter Sharon Weinberger observed that the best kept secret at DARPAtech was "how much it costs."

According to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee at ScienceInsider, the FY2011 budget for DARPA is $2.9 billion. Though the agency lost $100 million from 2010, they shifted $200 million to basic research (bringing that amount to $2 billion). To get to that number, DARPA said that it had to chop some "low priority weapons development programs." Also: shiny conventions across the street from Disneyland.

The DARPA spokesperson told me that the agency has been pursuing “different arrangements.” In January, for example, they hosted the DARPA Industry Summit in Washington, DC “to discuss key globalization issues,” and he says that DARPA expects to hold similar meetings in the future.

Full disclosure: I am an unabashed DARPA fangirl. For me, this is very sad news indeed.

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